Superheroes (and supervillains) are soaring off the comic-book page this summer. But the real stars may be the creators themselves.
In next weekend's potential blockbuster "Wanted," Morgan Freeman hands a gun to the film's reluctant antihero and orders him to shoot the wings -- and just the wings -- off a bunch of houseflies. Several slow-motion gunshots later, the bugs fall to the floor, wingless.
Preposterous? What do you expect from a movie that began life as a comic book? But when J.G. Jones, the original artist, saw the scene, he geeked out like one of those fanboys who fawn over him at comic conventions:
"I got a little excited, like: 'Hey wait, that's right out of the book -- I drew that!'"
Jones isn't the only one seeing his sketches come to life. This is arguably the biggest comic-book-movie summer ever. Iron Man and Hulk have already smashed the box office and Hellboy and Batman are back next month.
Comic artists are finding it easier than ever to turn their dreams into celluloid reality. A select few are being brought into the moviemaking process, while others can only watch from the sidelines, hoping Hollywood doesn't butcher their life's work.
"Comics have gone from being that red-headed stepchild to the idea factory," said Nick Post, owner of the Source comic shop in Falcon Heights.
"Wanted" was tailor-made for a big-budget action movie. Jones and writer Mark Millar created a story that looks like Quentin Tarantino on super steroids, focusing on a mild-mannered office drone who is ripped out of his mundane life by a group of supervillains and trained as the ultimate assassin. A movie deal came almost immediately after the first issue hit the shelves in 2003.
What Hollywood producers saw was a comic that already spoke their language: sweaty sex, raw dialogue, ultra violence and spectacular visuals, drawn like storyboards for a widescreen film. The characters even resembled real-life celebrities (Eminem, Halle Berry, Tommy Lee Jones).
Of course, the film went with different actors (James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie). The supervillains have become superassassins who actually serve society. But Jones, who had little involvement in the film, notes that "it has the bones of the original story" -- although the director ditched his meticulously designed costumes.
The director told Jones: "If there was an assassin walking down the street in a costume, everybody is going to say, 'Look, there's an assassin!'"
The filmmaker as fanboy
While Jones is new to the Hollywood game, renowned comic artist Mike Mignola is something of a veteran. His character Hellboy -- a sardonic, blood-red demon with a big right hand -- hits theaters again July 11 in "Hellboy II: The Golden Army."
It was director Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth") -- a big fan of the comic -- who pushed to get the first movie made in 2004.
"It never occurred to me in a billion years that somebody would make a film version of Hellboy," Mignola said. Now the oddball character is licensed for toys, a videogame and even a couple of Cartoon Network animated movies.
Del Toro hired Mignola as a consultant on the first film and they worked together to write the sequel. "I think there is still a part of him that wants me to be happy," Mignola said. "So he likes having me sit next to him on set and having me go, 'Oh, that looks great!'"
Many new comic writers seem to be tailoring their work for film, Mignola observed. He sees this flirtation with Hollywood only intensifying.
"Now you have comic-book publishers that pretty much exist as a development ground for film properties," he said. And comics are perfect source material, Mignola said, because "so much of the visual language is already created."
Even a self-published comic-book artist from Minneapolis can get in on the action. Sam Hiti was approached by a dozen movie producers at the 2004 San Diego comic convention, which he said has become a mini-Cannes Film Festival with studios previewing flicks such as "Iron Man" and producers searching for the next great property.
His buzz-worthy comic "Tiempos Finales," about a Chilean demon hunter, was soon optioned by Focus Features. Almost four years later, the studio is still working on the script. "Hollywood time is way different," he said. Still, the 33-year-old said he has confidence in the art-house studio, which has produced Oscar winners such as "Brokeback Mountain" and "Atonement."
If script rewrites go well this summer, he thinks the film could go into production in the fall. He's also heard that the film could be the studio's most expensive. "They're going to the bank for my idea," Hiti said. "So that's kind of cool."
Building the beast
If writing a comic book is a solitary endeavor, making a superhero movie is like building a skyscraper, said former Minnesota screenwriter Mark Frost, who co-wrote 2005's "Fantastic Four" and its 2007 sequel, "Rise of the Silver Surfer." Frost was a fan of the comics but knew that studio scrutiny would limit his creative latitude, since most superhero films cost at least $100 million.
"You're really just trying to serve as an architect to give them a set of blueprints that they can use to make the movie," he said.
For "Silver Surfer," he was asked to script visual scenes that could be used in marketing. The opening action sequence, which wound up in the film's trailer, has the Human Torch flying after the Silver Surfer in a lengthy chase that takes the characters from New York into the stratosphere. Frost said the action was written shot for shot.
"There's not a moment for improvisation once you're spending a million dollars a minute," he said.
Marvel Comics, perhaps the biggest name in the business, created its own film-production studio -- a setup that gives the publisher greater control over its properties as well as a bigger share of the potential profits. The May release "Iron Man" and last weekend's "The Incredible Hulk" were the first products of that effort.
While there were reports of battles between Marvel and "Hulk" star Edward Norton (who co-wrote the screenplay), the film's director, Louis Leterrier, said that the dispute was exaggerated and that he enjoyed working with Marvel.
"It's not like a regular studio that sells a comedy one week and a superhero movie the next," he said. "They just focus on superhero movies and they want to do it right."
To reboot the "Hulk" franchise, which stalled after Ang Lee's underwhelming 2003 film attempt, Leterrier went to the source: He embraced the comics, pinning specific panels up in his office that later would be replicated on screen. Leterrier specifically mined a 2004 story called "Hulk: Gray," by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. The duo told him that they loved the film, Leterrier said.
"For me, it was like your masters giving you the thumbs up," the director said.
While few comic-book writers have gotten the chance to adapt their own material, Leterrier said he'd love to work with one on a film: "They live and breathe these stories."
Taking the next step
One comics superstar, writer Brian K. Vaughan, is getting that chance. New Line Cinema asked him to draft screenplays for "Y: The Last Man," his sci-fi saga about one man living in a world of women, and "Ex Machina," a political thriller about a superhero turned mayor of New York City. He's also adapting "Runaways," a series he created for Marvel about a group of teenagers who discover that their parents are supervillains.
While he's up to his ears in movie deals and is also a writer on the TV series "Lost," he said: "I've never looked at comics as glorified screenplays."
That's not to say Vaughan wouldn't mind becoming a successful filmmaker. Frank Miller has shown that the transition is possible. Miller co-directed his noir title "Sin City" in 2005 and is writer/director of a film version of the 1940s comic strip "The Spirit," scheduled for release this Christmas.
"Frank Miller is definitely our patron saint," Vaughan said. "He really showed [the studios] that if you let the people who wrote these books be intimately involved with the creation of the movies, they're going to be successful."
While Vaughan and many of his peers have movies on their minds, he said they'll never leave comic books entirely. Jones can't even think about the "Wanted" movie -- he's busy finishing "Final Crisis," the biggest series of the summer for Marvel rival DC Comics. And after months on "Hellboy II," Mignola said he can't wait to get back to drawing.
So Hollywood's writers and directors don't have to worry about the geeks inheriting the Earth just yet.
"Comics will always be that girl that brought us to the dance," Vaughan said, "so we'll always love her best."
Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909