Comic-book blockbusters

The big comics-movie synergy of the moment is, of course, Iron Man — which boasts a pretty ass-kicking trailer, a star with bottomless charisma, and a director whose track record winds everywhere from storybook whimsy (Elf and Zathura) to Vegas sleaze (Swingers, which he wrote).

So let’s hold our breath on that one, trust that it has a better-than-average chance of satisfying, and look toward other collisions between the big screen and the paneled page. DC has its own blockbuster-hopeful in the can, The Dark Knight, which revolves around the arrival of Heath Ledger’s Joker. In an interview before his death, Ledger admitted to not knowing the comics well at all; the graphic novel he was given as homework by the film’s producers was The Killing Joke (DC), which is now being reissued to coincide with the film.

Now 20 years old, the story has entered the Batman canon, a short but piercing part of the mythology in which writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland were perfectly in sync. (And this comes from a reader who rarely cared much for the style of Bolland, better known for work on Judge Dredd.) Bringing some real pathos to a villain whose nature lends itself toward one-dimensionality, it shows how the Joker got his start and drives home the long-term connection between him and his eternal pursuer — who, I can say without giving anything away, actually shares a fleeting human connection with the grinning killer before the story is over.

Last year’s vampire flick 30 Days of Night continues to be a cash cow for the original comics’ publisher: The volume of new titles being devoted to creator Steve Niles’ setup can be off-putting for a newcomer. Of interest to me was Beyond Barrow (IDW), a three-issue miniseries recently released in graphic-novel form. I’d want the book, whatever its subject, because it marks an extremely rare comics effort by ’80s star illustrator Bill Sienkiewicz, who has been mostly MIA since the heyday of The New Mutants and the Daredevil spinoff Elektra. (He did, however, do a great funky cover for a RZA album.) Barrow will look familiar to fans of Sienkiewicz’s late work: Although they’re never quite as daring in terms of collage and unexpected intrusions, these densely painted pages are kinetic and expressively moody. Plenty of young artists have followed his lead over the years, but this taste is enough to make you wish he worked more often — happily, recent interviews promise more collaborations with Niles.

The latest American translation devoted to the work of the “Godfather of Manga,” Osamu Tezuka, called Dororo (Vertical), followed a strange route to the cinema: After being serialized in Japan in the late ’60s, it inspired an anime series; 30 years later, it was the source material for a PlayStation game called Blood Will Tell. Only then was its story, set in motion when a samurai sells his unborn son’s body parts to demons in exchange for power, deemed worthy of a movie — reportedly, the live-action version was a hit when released a year ago in Japan. The first of three volumes of Dororo arrives next week.

Finally, it isn’t often that filmmakers aspire to make comics rather than the other way around. But maybe there’s something about being a New Yorker contributor that inspired Steve Martin to team with longtime magazine cartoonist Roz Chast for a lark. The slim result, The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z! (Flying Dolphin Press) is a kids’ book that childless adults can buy with a straight face — consisting of one illustration and one couplet for each letter of the alphabet, many of which are so in love with language that they scream to be read aloud. “Bad Baby Babbleducks beat up his bed / With bashed-up bananas and old moldy bread” — tell me you wouldn’t rather fall asleep listening to that than struggle through another Pink Panther film.

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