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Comics to Animation: What's Coming Next?

Every network on TV seems to have a prime time cartoon these days. Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman explores some of the causative factors behind this rush to the evening tube.

Spider-Man Unlimited. © 1999 Fox Kids. TM & © 1999 Marvel Characters Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Comic books are a medium that serves as a creative nexus for some of the most imaginative writers and budding Picasso's around the globe. The beauty of comics is that they are not bound by the constraints of reality; they are the paramount of imagination. To this effect, comics share this trait with animation, where the wacky antics of a Bugs Bunny, per se, are as limitless as the mind's eye.

For decades, animation, television, and the big screen or a combination there of have been kissing cousins with comic books. Great cartoons such as Hanna-Barbara's Superfriends and the franchised Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came from comics. The success in the late '80s of the live-action Superman movies and the Batman features in the '90s proved that comic book heroes are capable of satisfying moviegoers and bringing in the dinero. While Supes and Bats are American icons, Spawn and Blade proved that lesser known comic characters can draw in crowds too. Consequently, the movie and television industries are finally willing and eager to use comics as a fishing pond for new ideas.

1999-2001 will see a new wave of comic-to-film adaptations, many of which will be animated. As an avid comic book fan, I looked through my stack of monthly comic titles, and realized, "Wait a minute, none of these comics are being adapted to film or animation." So I took a deep breath, called some people, and was mortified by just how many comic-to-animation adaptations are in the works.

© 1999 Fox Kids. All Rights Reserved.

The Saban/Fox Stronghold

By now, you have hopefully seen the new season of animated Spawn on HBO. Besides this show, there are three comic-based cartoons that will be airing nationally on FOX in Fall 1999: The Avengers, Spider-man Unlimited, and Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot.

The Avengers is based off the Marvel Comic created by Stan "the Man" Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963. FOX has ordered thirteen episodes in conjunction with Saban Entertainment and Marvel Studios. While the Avengers is renown for "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," the show will feature neither Captain America, Iron Man, nor Thor. Rather, the team will be lead by Ant-man and will consist of Vision, Hawkeye, Wasp, Tigra, Wonder Man, and the Scarlet Witch. The main villain will be Ultron. The show will be set in New York, 2025. In addition, the Avengers will sport unique costumes and tights, most of which will be adorned with tacky "A"s that are clearly toy-related. While the X-Men animated phenom of the early '90s and Spider-man were exciting to say the least, 1998's Silver Surfer was one of the worst cartoons I have ever had the misfortune of sitting through, not to mention review. The Avengers is Saban's first Marvel adaptation since the Silver Surfer, so I am expecting it to be another disappointment solely because it lacks the main stars, Captain America, etc., of the comic.

TM & © 1999 Adelaide Productions, Inc.

Speaking of Captain America, he was supposed to have had his own Saban-produced, animated series on FOX premiering in Fall 1998. Obviously, it never eventuated. The main reason was a crazy decision by FOX executives that it is bad for a Saturday morning children's cartoon to have Nazis as villains. This is just another example of the foolishness that has plagued comic-to-animation translations over the years. Nazis were real villains in World War II; Cap fought Nazis in WWII in the pages of his comic. Why shouldn't he fight them in a cartoon? Why should a cartoon deny historic atrocities?

Next up to air on FOX is Spider-man Unlimited. This spin-off series from the extraordinarily successful Spider-man cartoon has thirteen episodes scheduled and is also produced by Saban and Marvel. This will be the hands down hit of the Fall in terms of youth-oriented cartoons. The show takes everybody's favorite neighborhood spider-man and sends him to an alternate reality "where familiar things are never quite as they seem," as FOX Kids states. Spider-man also takes on a new costume, a near-carbon-copy of the one he wore in the pages of the Spider-man 2099 AD comic. Lastly, nearly the entire production crew has worked in the comic industry, so the scripting should be excellent.

Big Guy & Rusty the Boy Robot. TM & © 1999 Adelaide Productions, Inc.

To round out the FOX Kids newbies is Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot. It is based off the Dark Horse comic, created by Frank (Spawn) Miller and Geoff Darrow. Animated by Columbia TriStar's children's division, expect similar style animation to that found in Godzilla and Men in Black: The Series. Fox Kids states that "Big Guy, an electronic colossus designed by the military, is reluctantly teamed with Rusty, a boy robot with human emotions." FOX was so impressed by the first episodes produced that it increased Columbia's order to twenty-six episodes from thirteen. As Roland Poindexter, vice-president of programming at FOX Kids, told, "There really isn't a story in the comic book other than the notion there are two different protectors with different philosophies It has a Lethal Weapon/Rush Hour comedic feel with the two vastly different personalities." I expect this to be a good show, not great, but good.

Other TV Comics

The list above concludes those comic-to-animation shows that will appear in Fall 1999 with the exception of Archie's Weird Mysteries. Based off the American classic comic Archie, Archie and his pals, Jughead, Veronica, etc., will be featured in forty half-hour episodes. It is being developed by DIC Entertainment and will most likely go into syndication in the Fall; however, Archie comics have been sold to the Pax TV Network of family programming, so that may throw a wrench in the works.

Diabolik: Track of the Panther. TM & © Saban. Underlying property TM & © Astorina. All Rights Reserved.

One thing many do not realize is how great comic book followings are on the international market. For example, an excellent cartoon developed by Saban is Diabolik: Track of the Panther, based off the Italian blockbuster comic. In terms of volume sales, a Diabolik comic would outsell a Spawn one in an average month by about tenfold. Unfortunately, none of the networks in the US have picked up the show. The plot revolves around the protagonist, Diabolik, named after a panther that saved his life, and his quest to thwart his surrogate father, the crime lord King. Diabolik is trained from birth to be the perfect killer, and the show has a Batman meets James Bond overtone with loads of cool gadgets. Best of all, Saban animated the series in Manga style.

Going Long Form

In terms of the foreseeable future, there are several cool feature adaptations in pre-production. First of which is Ash. Based off the numerous comic book mini-series by fan-favorites Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, Ash will be animated by Dreamworks SKG and will be the first feature length project by the company after El Dorado: City of Gold. Ash features a firefighter, Ashley Quinn, who bonds with an alien symbiote and protects Manhattan from danger. The movie will be scripted by comic veterans Marv Wolfman and Len Wein; though Ed Khmara (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) wrote the original treatment. It should be awesome! Expect to see it in late 2000 or early 2001.

Another animated feature film, to be developed by FOX Animation, is based on Michael Turner's Fathom comic book. The same basic crew that worked on Anastasia will work on Fathom, though some of the animation may be done in Japan. Michael Turner is renown for his work on Witchblade and his annual Christmas Witchblade/Tomb Raider team-up comic. Fathom tells the story of swimmer, Aspen, who learns of an underwater race along with magical water powers of her own. My explanation of the comic does not do it justice. However, I am skeptical that the comic's plot could sustain a crowd for two hours; it depends on how much espionage Turner would script.

An Astro Boy feature is in the works from Columbia Motion Pictures. Based off the touchstone of all Japanimation, the movie will feature a combination of live-action, 2-D animation and CGI. It is tentatively scheduled for a Christmas 2000 release.

A lesser known comic, but very popular amongst RPG (role playing game) fans, is Warp Graphics' Elfquest. Its eponymous movie will be fully computer generated and is currently in production at the Paris-based studio Sceneries Europe. It will probably be pretty cheesy and I am doubtful that it will hit the big screen in the U.S.

After Wild Wild West, Will Smith has signed on to do The Mark based on a sci-fi comic by Rob Liefeld for Universal Pictures. Writers from The X-Files are redrafting the script. If this movie eventuates, it will be incredible. However, that is a big "if." The big link to the project is that Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett, works for Liefeld at his Awesome Comics' studio. Liefeld is known for creating comics such as Cable and Youngblood and for revitalizing Captain America two years ago. Liefeld is also pitching some other Awesome titles including Fighting American, Re:Gex, and Avengelyne all of which would be heavily cheesy if they get the green light as they are not as original and suitable for animation as The Mark.

Platinum Studios is developing a large number of comic book-based films. Courtesy of Platinum Studios.

The most auspicious news is the development of a Platinum Studios comic division in Connecticut. Platinum controls nearly all European comics and is headed by Scott Rosenberg, the man very much responsible for Men in Black (movie and TV series). Platinum's comic base is designed to find up and coming comics that would be suitable for movie adaptations -­ essentially the premise of this article -- so it is very exciting. They have also signed a deal with Miramax pictures for distribution. I am a bit skeptical as to the quality of these features, but time will tell.

While comics do offer the means to tap into a well of imagination, many of these adaptations are plain bad, i.e. Billy Zane in The Phantom or Shaquille O'Neal in Steel. But rest assured, some of these will wow you with some of the best animation or storytelling in the business. A prime example will be Monkey Bone (formerly Dark Town) with Henry Selick, the puppeteer and stop-motion animator/director from James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas. One can only hope executives will use their Spidersenses to hone in on the right blend.

Gerard Raiti, a Baltimore native, has been an avid comic book fan for twelve years and has reported on animation for various publications including