MICHAEL H. PRICE: Movies Is Comics and Comics Is Movies
I’ve gone into some detail elsewhere about how my Forgotten Horrors series of movie encyclopedias (1979 and onward) dovetails with my collaborative comic-book efforts with Timothy Truman and John K. Snyder III. More about all that as things develop at ComicMix. This new batch of Forgotten Horrors commentaries will have more to do with the overall relationship between movies and the comics and, off-and-on, with the self-contained appeal of motion pictures. I have yet to meet the comics enthusiast who lacks an appreciation of film.
Although it is especially plain nowadays that comics exert a significant bearing upon the moviemaking business – with fresh evidence in marquee-value outcroppings for the Spider-Man and TMNT franchises and 300 – the greater historical perspective finds the relationship to be quite the other way around.
It helps to remember a couple of things: Both movies and comics, pretty much as we know them today, began developing late in the 19th century. And an outmoded term for comics is movies; its popular usage as such dates from comparatively recent times. The notion of movies-on-paper took a decisive shape during the 1910s, when a newspaper illustrator named Ed Wheelan began spoofing the moving pictures (also known among the shirtsleeves audience as “moom pitchers” and “fillums”), with cinema-like visual grammar, in a loose-knit series for William Randolph Hearst’s New York American.
Christened Midget Movies in 1918, Wheelan’s series evolved from quick-sketch parodies of cinematic topics to sustained narratives, running for days at a stretch and combining melodramatic plot-and-character developments with cartoonish exaggerations. Wheelan’s move to the Adams Syndicate in 1921 prompted a change of title, to Minute Movies. (Don Markstein’s Web-based Toonopedia points out that the term is “mine-yute,” as in tiny, rather than “minnit,” as in a measure of time. No doubt an intended sense of connection with the Hearst trademark Midget Movies.) Chester Gould showed up in 1924 with a Wheelan takeoff called Fillum Fables – seven years before Gould’s more distinctive breakthrough with Dick Tracy.
The larger staying power of movies as a synonym for comics rests not with Ed Wheelan – although his newspaper concoction continued into 1935 then reappeared in various comic books of the 1940s – but rather with the provincial team of writer John Rosenfeld, Jr., and cartoonist Jack Patton. Their feature, Texas History Movies, began in 1926 in the Dallas News, which also provided Patton with an outlet for editorial-opinion ’toons and advertising art. Texas History Movies outlasted by a long stretch its original purpose, thanks in part to a hardcover collection of the 1927–28 academic term – Texas’ schoolteachers found the cartoons to be a practical, attention-grabbing tool – and, then, to a lengthy run of classroom paperbacks subsidized by Magnolia Petroleum (later, Mobil Oil and still later, Exxon/Mobil).
The persistence, uhm, persists in a version called New Texas History Movies, recently issued by the Texas State Historical Association. The thorough reworking (supplanting the Patton–Rosenfeld material, with its quaint ethnic caricatures and its narrower window of history) is among the final projects of Jack “Jaxon” Jackson (1941–2006). Jaxon is unusual among comics artists as both a seminal figure in the rebellious underground-comics scene of the 1960s and a writer–artist dedicated to a warts-and-all consideration of Texas’ turbulent history. He often traced his interest in cartooning to his discovery as a schoolboy of the Patton-Rosenfeld comics. Jack also claimed the films of Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa, by turns dreamlike and naturalistic, among influences upon his comic-book work.
But I digress. As usual. Probably the most self-evident historic link between the movie industry and the comic-book industry is the influence exerted by Roland West’s second filming of the Avery Hopwood–Mary Roberts Rinehart play, The Bat, upon a groundbreaking comic-book series, Batman. Bob Kane often acknowledged West’s 1930 production, The Bat Whispers (actually, a two-for-one remake, with wide-screen and conventional-screen versions shot separately) among key inspirations for Batman – not merely in terms of a nocturnal stalker, but also in the film’s angular design and sharply defined shadowplay.
And Batman, in turn – and its companion feature Superman, among other comics-hero examples – would prove in short order to exercise an influence upon the movies, beginning with the Superman cartoons of 1941–43 and The Batman, a 1943 cliffhanger serial. Such reciprocity between art-and-commerce forms will supply plenty to discuss as we move forward, here; in fields so rich in the cycles of tradition and innovation and stagnation, there always is a story for another day.
Writer of The Prowler and the forthcoming Fishhead, Michael H. Price claims a movies-and-comics pedigree via such second- and/or third- cousin kinships as Vincent Price (1911–93) and Mad magazine’s Roger Price (1918–90). MHP’s movie commentaries can be found at The Fort Worth Business Press and at SciFi And Horror.com.