Jottings on science, religion, technology, pop culture and faith from the Antipodes.

Comics, Pop Culture

Comic-based films (2) – The Spirit, Dick Tracy, and Modesty Blaise

Last time we did Greeks, gangsters and gargoyles. Today we turn to some pulp heroes of yesterday, namely The Spirit, Dick Tracy, and Modesty Blaise for a blast of nostalgia.

The Spirit (2008)

Director: Frank Miller
103 minutes

In this film, Frank Miller (see Comic-based films series) takes on Will Eisner‘s The Spirit. Eisner is one of the grandfathers of the comic medium, crafting A Contract with God and other Tenement Stories, arguably the first genuine graphic novel and opening the door to Miller and others like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons works such as The Dark Knight Returns, The Sandman, and Watchmen respectively. Here, the story centres around a hard-boiled dectective, Denny Colt (AKA The Spirit), and his quest to bring a villian to justice.

Miller’s work here is similar in many ways to 300 and the Sin City films. Muted colours apart from accents on significant characters, violence that almost becomes parody, and a sense of hommage to the pulp heroes of the 1940s. The film picks up elements from later writers of the character than Eisner – the supernatural longevity and ability to recover quickly from physical injury – and adds those into the mix. Overall, not the greatest of cinematic masterpieces and one that critics didn’t warm to at all.

There was a 1987 version of the film – which I haven’t seen – and in recent times the character has been rebooted in comics alongside other pulp heroes and mainstream comicbook characters.

Dick Tracy (1990)

Direction: Warren Beatty
105 minutes

I grew up hearing about Dick Tracy from my father, who as a boy had enjoyed the serialized stories of Dick Tracy, Tarzan, Dan Dare, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and who passed something of that on to me.

Here, in this film adaptation of the character who debuted in 1931 in Detroit Mirror, Warren Beattie (as director and star) put the detective through his paces. The cinematography reflected the colour palettes of the comics, the gadgets were there, and a string of A-List stars decked the show included Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Madonna.

The film was opened well, but failed to haul in the longterm revenue that Disney anticipated. Critics too were mostly favourable, though in some cases more character depth was asked for with the comicbook gimmick not quite pulling that off. Overall though, a film that rocked along with a healthy dose of nostalgia thrown in for good measure.

Various ties-ins were developed – such as video games, fast food promotions, and toys.

In the comics there were also cross-overs with characters like The Spirit, and a range of other films and TV shows.

My Name is Modesty (2004)

Director: Scott Spiegel
78 mins

Modesty Blaise was originally a British comic strip created by reated by author Peter O’Donnell and illustrator Jim Holdaway back in 1963. She was the action woman of her time – a shady criminal past, smart and sassy, with a wide range of skills and the ability to hold her own in a fight. She wasn’t above using her good looks and sex appeal to acheive her ends, though she was always the one to control that. The comics haven’t aged as well as others with racial and sexist stereotypes reflecting the times, as well as the readership.

In 2004, the film, My Name is Modesty, rebooted her origin be that of a Balkan orphan who was taught be a wandering father figure how to read, to fight, to speak a variety of languages, and the skills she was known for. The film is a series of flashbacks to her childhood and adolescence, leading to her current situation working in a small exclusive casino as the owner’s right-hand woman. The film is less action-oriented than might be expected, but manages to draw the viewer along with modest sets and lighting, combined with the exploration of who she is as she negotiates a hostage situation at the casino. Overall, a not unpleasant way to film in an hour and a half on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

As well as the newspaper serial strip, syndicated in newspapers around the world, she appeared in a number of films, novels and short stories. Through the 1980s Titan Books released a number of collections of the strips, as well as further collections between 2004-2010.