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Sunday, January 27, 2008

See You in the Funny Papers (originally published 5/02)

When movie directors get down to the business of laying out the specific shots they will use to tell their script's story, they often make use of a visual aid called a storyboard. It consists of a series of drawings intended to illustrate the camera angle of each shot, with relevant descriptions and dialogue written out underneath the corresponding drawings. In other words, the storyboard is in effect a comic strip version of the movie, drawn to serve as a kind of blueprint for the creative team that will put the director's vision on film.

With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that the funny papers have long been a source of inspiration for moviemakers. This year's release of "Spiderman" is the most recent of a long string of movie adaptations drawing on the rich tradition of action-adventure comic strips. Naturally, the producers of this new movie version of the web slinger's exploits were able to spice up their film with imaging technology that could scarcely have been imagined by filmmakers 50 years ago.

On the other hand, the old timers had an advantage of their own: they could adapt popular comic strips as serials rather than as feature films. These episodic "chapter plays" were a much better fit with the similarly episodic comic strips. Also, the typically lightweight story lines were relieved of the necessity of sustaining dramatic interest for the full length of a feature film. If you enjoy the action strips in the funny papers, look for these serial adaptations on home video.

"Tailspin Tommy" (1934). What you have to remember here is that we're flashing back to a time when Charles Lindbergh was a national hero, and all aviators were regarded as daredevil pioneers, much like astronauts were in the 1960s. It is perhaps appropriate, therefore, that this strip, the first to capitalize on the public's hero worship of pilots, was the first comic strip to be adapted as a movie serial. Its success guaranteed that Hollywood would be back to raid the funny papers again. Maurice Murphy plays the title role, defending Three Points Airline against the menace of Tiger Taggart through 12 high-flying chapters.

"Ace Drummond" (1936). This aviator strip had the distinct advantage of being drawn by Clayton Knight, an honest to goodness Royal Air Force aviator, and endorsed by Eddie Rickenbacker. It was supposedly loosely based on Rickenbacker's own exploits; in fact, the claim was that he wrote the story lines. The 13-chapter movie version stars John King as Drummond, who seems to have picked up the habit of singing as he flies in making the transition to the screen.

"Flash Gordon" (1936). Cashing in on the aviator craze and at the same time raising the ante, Alex Raymond's classic science fiction strip puts its aviator in a rocket ship bound for the planet Mongo, where Flash (Buster Crabbe) and his companion Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) face the evil of Ming the Merciless. Unlike most movie adaptations, this 13-chapter serial sticks rather closely to the story line of the original strip.

"Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc." (1941). Forget about Warren Beatty. The real movie incarnation of Chester Gould's rock-jawed detective is Ralph Byrd, who appeared in a series of four Dick Tracy serials. Of these, the first is not as good as the last three, which were co-directed by the renowned serial production team of John English and William Witney. In this 15-chapter finale of the series, Tracy tangles with a mysterious, invisible criminal known as "The Ghost."

"Terry and the Pirates" (1940). With its rich cast of characters and striking visual style, Milton Caniff's tales of Terry's adventures in the Orient may well be the best adventure strip ever. The 15-chapter serial version features William Tracy as Terry, Granville Owen as Pat Ryan, and Sheila Darcy as the Dragon Lady.

Now, before you go out looking for these serials, I should caution you about a couple of things. First, don't try to watch them straight through. They were never meant to be seen that way; the repetition will drive you nuts. One or two chapters at a time is plenty. Second, don't expect Spielberg megaproductions. These things were shot in days, not months, for less money than Spielberg spends on lunch. But remember, they also inspired Spielberg to make "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

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