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Arts : Framed 

Small panels, meet big screens

I am delighted (and a little surprised, after feeling unmoved by the ads and trailers) to report that Superman Returns is a heck of a movie: A few casting quibbles and plotting questions aside, it hits exactly the notes I wanted, doing just what a movie has to do to make me care about Superman. (Who, let’s face it, can be a Superbore in the wrong hands.)

A boy and his dog: Fantagraphics’s newest Peanuts collection follows Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the gang from 1959 to 1960.

Everyone will be weighing this film against Richard Donner’s 1978 version, which is a real classic. But while that movie set the bar for the modern comic-book movie, it certainly wasn’t the first; there was even a time when movies were adapted from comics that weren’t about superheroes or gangsters.The growing number of reissue titles from Fantagraphics is practically a compendium of famous characters who have leapt off the newsprint and onto celluloid.

George Herriman transferred his Krazy Kat in the mid-teens; the stiff result (search for “krazy kat” to see a sample) can’t hope to compete with the anarchy of the print version. Now’s a good time for newcomers to sample the Krazy & Ignatz series: the last two volumes to hit stores contain the first strips rendering Herriman’s landscapes in color.

The Peanuts crew, of course, was popular in animated form. And while the early years of the strip bore little resemblance to those prime-time cartoons, the reprint series is catching up: In the latest volume, 1959 to 1960, we first see Lucy playing psychiatrist, and Linus begins his obsession with the Great Pumpkin.

On the live-action front, do people still know that Dennis the Menace was once a popular TV series? It used to be on all the time, but as far as I can tell, it’s currently without a broadcast home, even in the “We’ll-syndicate-anything” world of cable. It’s just as well. The show was funny enough, but the main reason to care about Dennis was Hank Ketcham’s art, which is beautifully reproduced in the new books.

But the adaptation game doesn’t go in only one direction. Around the time of Donner’s Superman, Star Wars scored a big hit with its translation from the big screen to an oversized comic and subsequent series. (That sort of thing is still done — there’s even a CSI title — but it’s a pretty limited niche of the comics universe today.) Here again, it had all happened before: As a new reprint proves, the Little Rascals of Our Gang inspired a 1940s color comic by none other than Pogo creator Walt Kelly.

Comics used to take their inspiration from literature as well as movies, but nobody’s rushing out to reprint the old Classics Illustrated tales of Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn. Instead, contemporary publishers have done their own versions: A decade or so ago, Bill Sienkiewicz put his twist on Melville’s tale, and a short-lived “Neon Lit” series put out a great David Mazzucchelli version of Paul Auster’s City of Glass. (A 2004 reprint of that one is easy to find.) More recently, Peter Kuper has illustrated Kafka in Give It Up! and Gary Panter has sent his punk icon Jimbo into the world of Dante in Jimbo’s Inferno, one of the strangest adaptations ever.

Things get even more twisted in the new title The Left Bank Gang, by the Norwegian cartoonist Jason. Here, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and company are portrayed as chainsmoking canines — who aren’t novelists, but cartoonists. Given the way Hollywood has been obsessed with comics lately, I’m hoping for a sequel set in Tinseltown. Maybe Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock can be graphic-novel-writing cats?

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More by John DeFore

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