Our new series Film Strips, in which we explore the curious phenomenon of the comic book movie adaptation, kicks off with a look at the first ever adaptation of a superhero movie…
I’m not sure exactly when the first ever comics tie-in adaptation of a movie was actually published – but what’s certainly true is that the genre exploded in the wake of Marvel’s hugely-selling Star Wars comics – and although their sales popularity never hit that late ’70s peak again, publishers have generally been happy to churn them out ever since.
It wasn’t until 1983, however, that we first saw a comics adaptation of a film that was itself based on a comic book superhero. Having failed to put out adaptations of the first two Superman films (although they did issue a “Magazine Special” for each), DC published a full adaptation of Superman III in 1983.
The Superman III adaptation was written by bronze age DC stalwart Cary Bates, but perhaps more notably, featured art by the legendary Curt Swan. Swan handles the actors’ likenesses with varying degrees of success – his Robert Vaughn is excellent, but Annette O’Toole’s Lana Lang just looks like a generic Swan-drawn woman, and if you didn’t know Richard Pryor had played Gus Gorman in the film, the comic sure as heck wouldn’t teach you any different.
Perhaps the most curious bit of likeness use, however, is that of the film’s lead star. Swan actually gets a pretty good handle on Christopher Reeve’s features – but it’s particularly strange seeing someone whose take on Superman is arguably the most distinctive suddenly merge it with that of a different face. It’s admirable that he generally pulls it off, though, with only a few panels falling incongruously back into what you’d think of as the classic Swan Superman. There’s also amusement to be had in the fact that, while all other characters are styled after their movie counterparts, Marc McClure’s Jimmy Olsen is still given comics-style red hair.
As far as the storytelling style goes, Superman III is firmly in the realm of “Telling the plot of the film as if it had always been a comic of the time”. And in general, it succeeds pretty well at that – obviously certain elements of the plot are oversimplified or chopped out altogether, but it does have the feel of a late-Silver or early-Bronze Age adventure (complete with the opening splash page and the unusual decision to title the story something other than just “Superman III”). A fair amount of the dialogue is chopped up and/or simplified, but a good number of direct quotations still remain – and while several major set-pieces are missing or shortened (thankfully, in the case of the film’s ghastly “slapstick” opening), the classic junkyard fight is present and correct, and feels as suitably comic-book-ish as it did in the film.
In truth, it’s not an especially enthralling Superman comic, but it does have a good stab at turning the film into a passable imitation of one. Most of the flaws in the story are drawn from what is, in the first place, a pretty lacklustre script – although missing out the film’s Daily Planet-based coda means that Lana just flat out disappears from the comic halfway through (the excellent scene at her house, which features perhaps Reeve’s most subtly brilliant piece of acting in any of the films, is also sadly missing entirely).
Perhaps its greatest achievement, however, is in restoring into existence a newspaper headline that was produced for the movie, but never actually made it onscreen. One that hints at what would surely be the greatest Superman moment in history if only we’d got to see it…
“Tap Dancing Superman Causes Earthquake”. Yes please.