While the golden age of American comics have lit up the screen in this last decade, with visionary directors taking the basic elements of these iconic characters to their own conclusions, British comics have not garnered such attention. Nolan’s Batman, Raimi’s Spiderman and the Supermen of Donner and Singer have their own unique identity; the depth of the mythology of these superheroes allows numerous interpretations, and some of the most interesting re-imaginings of our own myths and legends have occurred on the screen as well as on the page.
It is arguable that only Dan Dare and Mega City One’s lawman Judge Dredd have the same global recognition as their transatlantic cousins, and while the Pilot of the Future has been relaunched and rejuvenated the oft promised movie has yet to surface and the mid 90s Dredd movie was a disappointment in the box office and the realm of the fans (Helmet! Come on!)
I do not claim to be an expert on UK comics, nor am I entirely serious in my list below, but hopefully this will allow the often overlooked UK comics industry to shoulder up to its US counterpart. After all, it’s Sunday and we can allow a little dalliance with the fantastic, can’t we?
So, here are my top 5 UK comic strip movies I’d like to see.
Dennis the Meance
I’d love to have seen the much missed Charlotte Coleman take on Minnie the Minx (Dennis’s partner in menace from The Beano), and I shall ignore the US version of Dennis the Menace (although it is hard to disagree with the perfect casting of Walter Matthau at his most grumpy, self parodic self), and instead hope for a scheming dynamo of mischief and menace from the kid who made red and black striped jumpers a symbol of fear long before Freddy first sharpened his clawfingers.
Dennis and his rabid and faithful hound Gnasher have long been favourites in the D.C. Thompson & Co. stable, and since they replaced the oddity of Biffo the Bear in 1951 the covers of The Beano have portrayed one moment of menace or another, and kids every where took Dennis to their hearts. It’s an incredibly simple premise.
If you could have behaved as you wanted to when you were a kid – you would have been Dennis. His unruly attitude and penchant for the more devious elements of bad behaviour made him an iconic figure in 70s and 80s Britain, and if you heard the satisfying slap of The Beano on the carpet in your hall every Saturday morning the chances are you loved him most of all.
Not only is the nostalgia factor a prime selling point here but as the UK comics industry has the benefit and curse of being a prime source of well known ‘properties’ to market we are facing a time when the it needs to branch out to survive.
I can’t imagine getting Duncan Jones to ‘Do a Dark Knight’ with Dennis, but keep it catapults, bullied softies and Gnasher biting people and you’ve got a hit.
The Bash Street Kids
I love Alan Bennett’s work and I have great respect for the man, but I feel he missed a trick when he came to pen his story of a group of school boys looking to gain University entrance in their last year. The History Boys could so easily have been The Bash Street Kids, all that was required with a hauling out of the subtle character play and unrequited, confused sexual longings and throw in a few more custard pies and Carry On humour and the mortar boards and canes would have been flying with the chalk dust of one of the most beloved comic strips from The Beano.
Ok, so maybe the world can live with both films, but I’d love to see a big screen outing for Plug, Fatty, Smiffy and co as they take their suffering Teacher (played by Hugh Grant) to task with stink bombs on the chair, school outings to the zoo resulting in a herd of escaping wild animals, and of course the celebrated playground scraps – it’s a British institution.
And while all of the Beano characters suffered from the modernisation of the late 80s and 90s that saw tracksuits, sunglasses and skateboards infiltrate the strips, let this be a throwback to the Son of Rambow days – when PC was a muffin shaped local bobby and cellphones were tin cans with a piece of string connecting them. This is not the updated OMG of St. Trinians, let the kids have bangers and mash fights and set fire to the teacher’s moustache. I’d pay to go and see it.
Roy of the Rovers
While Football has never translated with great success to the big screen it is the dramatic narratives of the game, and the players on and off the pitch that often makes a memorable film.
Sean Bean’s When Saturday Comes and Bend It Like Beckham have their dramatic roots in the hope and euphoria of a young player getting their chance at (as Goal 2’s subtitle has it) Living the Dream, or the beautiful game is used as a backdrop to greater dramas – Escape to Victory (if you can buy Sly as a goalie) is a fantastic film, Green Street paints a depressing and vicious look at the hooligan culture forever orbiting the football fields, and the recent Damned United had a powerhouse of a character to base itself around in Michael Sheen’s Brian Clough.
Drama is inherent in football, as it is in most competitive sports. What makes a Roy of the Rovers movie less likely is the fact that Roy Race is so good, and his team Melchester Rovers are so competent on the field that only a long storyline (such as would be allowed in a week-by-week serial) could bring out the necessary twists and turns. A two hour movie would have to etablish so much in such a short time before taking us on the emotional journey.
Plus – Roy Race is a good guy. Scandal hit the comic strip in the late 70s and early 80s when soap opera inspired plotlines led to Race’s faithful puppy of a wife, Penny, leaving him (she came back – it was fine) or the more notorious Who Shot Roy Race (with its black edged cover) saga. Until he lost his foot in a helicopter crash in the 90s Roy Race could do no wrong, and that makes for a dull film.
Personally I’d like to see an all-star team from the comic strips accompanying the tales of Roy Race. I’d pay to see Ray Winstone as Johnny Dexter, John Goodman as Hot-shot Hamish and Ronnie Corbett as Mighty Mouse. There’s more than enough soap suds and sunset beach about Roy of the Rovers and maybe that’s the angle that would work?
Seeminlgy an obvious choice for a Sky Captain ascension to the silver screen is the square jaw of Dan Dare his galaxy crossing fight with the Mekon. Part Space Biggles, Part Captain UK, Dan Dare has everything you could need from a hero – looks, cunning, bravery, an enemy with a forehead the size of a bullock.
He has survived reinvention and enjoyed his renaissance in the 1980s and now in the 21st century, with Garth Ennis’s Dan Dare for Virgin comics and it is this version that is most likely to find a home on the big screen. Morally upright and with a fist that could take down a Treen army faster than you can say Ace Rimmer, Dare’s currency lies in taking the absolute division of good and evil and the range of evil schemes the Mekon undertakes to destroy Dare and the Earth.
With the thoroughly British attitude and its relatively uncomplicated characters I’m pretty sure we’ll see a Dan Dare film coming our way sooner rather than later.
Bit of a curio this one, it may have passed many people by, but for those who cared to look past the revitalised Dan Dare on the front cover of the relaunced Eagle comic in 1982, Doomlord was a comic strip dificult to forget.
Created by 2000AD luminaries Alan Grant and Judge Dredd creator John Wagner, Doomlord told the story of an alien race (the suitable ominous Doomlords of Nox) sending one of their charges to Earth, tasked with judging Mankind’s right to exist. Capable of draining the personalities and memories of their victims and then shape-shifting into them, Doomlord was able to walk the Earth as one of us, involving himself in society as a businessman, politician and scientist to gather his evidence. Several humans suspected his plans and tried, often in vain, to stop Doomlord’s work and usually ended up on the disintegration end of his energiser ring. The strip, in photonovel style, was unrelentingly bleak and the Doomlords themselves were nasty enough to spawn more than a few nightmares in innocent minds.
As a movie it’s underplayed slow burn of stealth and intrigue would more than likely be replaced with a V-like conspiracy narrative, emulating a They Live device of having a host of Doomlords walking the Earth, and, as it turned out in the comic strip, one of the Doomlords would fail to carry out the execution of mankind and champion the human race. There was a dallinace with an environmental message towards the end of the series which could work in its favour.
But I’d pay to see a shapeshifting, morally ambigious Doomlord disintegrating suspcious and nasty characters, while musing on the fate of the world. Think Hannibal Lecter as a T-1000 in 80s Midlands and you’ve got a winner on your hands.
So, that’s my take on British comics on the big screen, let me know yours.