Every bit as diverse as cinema, comics range from the crude to sophisticated, and filmmakers have drawn inspiration from across the medium to produce stuff very different to what you might expect from "a comic book movie". Here's a brief guide to some of the best.
Comics are a global phenomenon and, worldwide, are often taken a damn sight more seriously that than they are in English-speaking countries. Japanese manga, for instance, is a huge part of that country's cultural life.
Oldboy is based on a manga but was relocated to Korea by ace director Park Chan-Wook. As in the original, his film is about a man imprisoned for 15 years who decides upon release that wreaking bloody vengeance is preferable to sitting at home and watching the telly.
Location wasn't the only thing Park changed though; his film is far wilder, and far more perverse. (In a good way.)
A History of Violence
...and sticking with auteurs, here's a film directed by David Cronenberg. The graphic novel on which it was based, written by John “I created Judge Dredd” Wagner and illustrated by Vince “I had nothing to do with the creation of Judge Dredd” Locke, it's about a have-a-go hero who might not be all he claims to be.
Cronenberg kept all that but infused it with his own distinctive personality; much more than a straightforward crime flick, this is a movie about identity and maybe even genetics. That's the thing about auteurs, though: they can't help putting their stamp on stuff.
The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp
Not from a graphic novel, this; "Colonel Blimp" was a recurrent character in the work of political cartoonist David Low who used the reactionary old-timer to satirise national stupidity in the 1930s, a decade when there was no shortage of such stupidity to satirise.
When Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger turned Low's beached walrus into a film, though, they were much kinder. Their Blimp—played throughout his life by Roger Livesey—eventually accepts, as Low's Colonel never would, that old age must give way to youth. It was intended to be wartime propaganda but its kindness, its wisdom—its love—means it's far more than that.
Those who don't know much about comics often assume they must be boys stuff, all KAPOW! and WHAM! and all that. Anyone more familiar with comics knows how wrong that is.
Ghost World is a pretty good demonstration why. Sure, it's adapted from a book by a man (Daniel Clowes) and directed by another (Terry Zwigoff) but it concerns two teenage girls (played by Thora Birch and a baby-faced Scarlet Johansson), drifting through the suburbs and friendships. It's never patronising or even sentimental and the characters aren't always likeable. No actual ghosts, sadly, but you can't have everything.
Here's a double bill for you: two films both adapted from strips by Posy Simmonds, both of which began life in The Guardian, both of which were based on classic novels (Tamara Drewe rethinks Far From The Madding Crowd and Gemma Bovery—well, you can guess.) That would be similarity enough but when both star Gemma Arterton, you have to start wondering if there's some giant cosmic conspiracy involved... THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
The beauty of comics is that they can be anything: they lend themselves as readily to wild fantasy as they do to intimate realism. Phoebe Gloeckner's book is an example of the latter, a semi-autobiographical rendering of—well, again, the title does much of the work for you there.
It became a much-acclaimed film a couple of years ago, adapted and directed by Marielle Heller, one far removed from most rites-of-passage movies; there's an uncomfortable honesty about sex and relationships here from a perspective that too often goes unheard.
Would-be authors are often encouraged to "write about what you know". Graphic novelist Harvey Pekar took that more literally than most—his stories were all about the mundane life he lived as a bureaucrat in Cleveland, Ohio.
These gained a cult following, and eventually became this film, with Paul Giamatti playing the writer and the real Pekar offering asides and observations throughout. Pretty much the antithesis of Thor, then, but there's nothing wrong with that.
Blue Is the Warmest Colour
The French take their graphic novels more seriously than do the British: Julie Maroh's bande dessinée (Franco-Belgian comic) was garlanded with awards and honours. The film taken from it was not short of recognition either—it took top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Both tell a story of first love, that of a young woman for her older, more sophisticated girlfriend. Maroh's version was (semi)autobiographical while we can assume the film wasn't since it was directed by a man; that doesn't prevent it from being well-observed and insightful (especially on the fundamental asymmetry in their relationship) but it does mean that the sex scenes feel a little... extraneous, especially when they are famously eyebrow-raising (insert joke about different sorts of "graphic" here.)
The Death of Stalin
The final film on our list is the most recent. As directed by Armando Iannucci, it's the perfect continuation of his work as a small-screen satirist (The Thick of It; Veep). The targets have shifted—he's in Soviet-era Russia, here, following the unseemly jockeying for position that followed the demise of the titular dictator.
It's such a perfect fit of subject-to-director—once again, the real subject is power and corruption—you might think he made it up himself. But he didn't: as you will have guessed from its inclusion on this list, it comes from a graphic novel, a French one by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Typically, though, it's only now been published in this country to capitalise on the film: it seems we have some way to go before comics are properly recognised on their own merits.