Captain Marvel and the Origins Of Comics On Fim!
This week marks the long awaited release of Marvel Studio’s Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson, Gemma Chan, Samuel L. Jackson and Jude Law, Hollywood is adding another exciting “comic book film” to it’s history. Releases this year of Avengers: End Game, Shazam!, Dark Phoenix, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Men In Black International and The New Mutants, prove that the comic world is continuing to be a fertile breeding ground for the film industry.
With so many of Hollywood’s biggest hits coming from the world of comics, this might be a good time to look back at the first films made based on comics.
The first 2 motion picture based on a comic book character are often thought to be 1918’s Tarzan of the Apes and the 1920 United Artists film, The Mark of Zorro, which starred Douglas Fairbanks sr., in the title role, as the swashbuckling, debonair, masked hero, Zorro. Interestingly, neither Tarzan or Zorro started out as comic characters. Tarzan first came to life through a series of 25 novels by the prolific and enigmatic author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, with his first appearance in the 1912 novel, Tarzan of the Apes. Zorro began his adventurous life in a series of short stories by writer, Johnson McCulley, beginning with 1919’s The Curse of Capistrano. The success of the stories and then the films lead first to Tarzan of the Ape’s comic strip debut in 1929 and nearly 2 decades later, Zorro’s first appearance in comics, in a 1948 issue of Hit Comics.
To mark the actual first time that a film was made based solely on a comic, you have to go back to 1926’s Ella Cinders, a loosely based retelling of Cinderella, where, instead of hoping for the fairytale love of a prince, the main character, Ella Cinders, hopes for fame and fortune in the new fairytale world of Hollywood. The film was based on a daily comic strip, of the same name, created by William M. Conselman and Charles Plump. The comic ran in syndicated daily newspapers from 1925 to 1961. For its part, the film is considered a sort of document of Hollywood during the golden age of silent film and has been preserved and archived by UCLA and the Library of Congress.
To find the first filmed comic “superhero” there is only one place to turn, the original master of the Universe, Flash Gordon. The character of Flash Gordon was created, in 1934 by Alex Raymond, as a response to the comic strip success of Buck Rogers. Although Buck made his debut in 1929, a full 5 years prior to Flash, it was Flash Gordon who made it to motion pictures first, with the highly successful movie serial, Flash Gordon, in 1936. Due to its success, 2 sequels, Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), quickly followed. All three starred 1932 Olympic gold medal swimmer Lawrence “Buster” Crabbe, in the role as the dashing Flash Gordon. Interestingly, when Buck Rogers finally made his screen debut in 1939, its star was also Buster Crabbe, although he was billed as Larry Crabbe in the artwork of the time.
The comic world’s 2 biggest stars, Superman and Batman, made it to the silver screen during that same period with Superman first appearing on the big screen in a series of animated shorts, created by renown animations innovator and director, Max Fleischer. The Man of Steel’s first live action performance came in 1948’s Superman, a Columbia Pictures movie serial. A live action Batman beat his Metropolis rival to the big screen, by 5 years, with the 1943 serial, Batman. These two characters have made it to the big and little screen multiple times over the ensuing generations. Each iteration has found success. The campy 1966 Batman tv series was a ratings favorite for 3 seasons. 1978’s Superman. Starring Christopher Reeves and Gene Hackman, was one of the most successful films of the 1970’s, while 1989’s Batman, tarring Michael Keaton, was the highest grossing film of all time for a few years. All of that success lead to the Christopher Nolan trilogy of Dark Knight (Batman) films, which are highly considered to be the architype for all of today’s modern comic book films. With the amazing success and profitability of the comic book films, generations to come will be treated with the adventures of their favorite heroes, who they probably first met in the pages of a comic.