Everyone knows about the comic book origins of films like The Avengers and Man of Steel, but when it comes to movies like this weekend’s gritty, postapocalyptic adventure Snowpiercer, the book that inspired the film isn’t nearly as ubiquitous as the usual mainstream superhero fare.
Originally published in 1982, the French-language graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette took more than 30 years to be translated into English and published on this side of the ocean, but as anyone familiar with the tense dystopian tale can attest, it was worth the wait. In fact, it’s no surprise that the tense, sci-fi saga that unfolds on a train carrying the last remnants of human civilization after a global ice age managed to catch Hollywood’s attention, as foreign graphic novels have been gaining quite a bit of traction in the U.S. in recent years, with Japanese manga and various European comics often leading the way.
Still, it’s understandable if some readers aren’t exactly sure where to start dipping their toes in the waters of international comics – after all, there are a lot of countries out there, and a heck of a lot of comics being published.
With that in mind, I thought I’d put together a list of a few graphic novels originally published outside the U.S. that movie-minded comics fans might want to look out for. Some have been optioned by studios, some have already had movies made, and some, well… they’re included because they’re likely to resonate with cinephiles for one reason or another. One thing they all share, however, is that they’re all great stories that serve as proof that the brilliance of the comic book medium knows no borders.
The Killer by Matz (w) and Luc Jacamon (a)
This French comic chronicles the life of an unnamed assassin as he begins to question his career path (and sanity) during an assignment that turns out to be more complicated than he anticipated. Published in 1998 by the same Franco-Belgian publisher responsible for Le Transperceneige and the Adventures of Tintin, The Killer was named “Best Comic You Didn’t Read This Year” by Newsarama when it was translated into English in 2007 and released in the U.S., and was also nominated for an Eisner Award – the most prestigious award in the comics industry.
That same year, The Killer was optioned by Paramount Pictures with David Fincher attached to direct an adaptation of the series. There haven’t been any updates on the planned film since that initial announcement, but if it’s the sort of story that piques the interest of a filmmaker like Fincher, that should be enough reason to search for it.
Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba (w) and Takeshi Obata (a)
What would you do if you had a notebook that caused anyone whose name you write in it to die? That’s the question that’s explored in this Japanese manga series that sold more than 26.5 million books during its three-year run. The series tells the story of a teenage genius who comes into possession of the “Death Note” and the eccentric, equally brilliant detective tasked with bringing down this mysterious killer with godlike powers.
Anyone familiar with Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning 2006 film The Departed (or the 2002 thriller Infernal Affairs that it’s based on) will probably find some tonal similarities with Death Note, as both the film and the manga series focus on a pair of exceptionally smart characters on opposite sides of the law whose lives depend on discovering their counterpart’s identity before he does the same.
Death Note managed to capitalize on all of its success in print with a series of video games, an anime, and three live-action films – the first of which remained at the top of the Japanese box office for several weeks (you can watch the trailer below). It also prompted Warner Bros. to pick up the rights to an American adaptation of the story with Iron Man 3‘s Shane Black attached as director in 2011.
Cla$ $ war by Rob Williams (w), Trevor Hairsine (a) and Travel Foreman (a)
The U.K. has been a hotbed for great graphic novels for decades, and among the many great stories to be published there before making their way overseas is this 2002 series about a government-sponsored superhero who must contend with the terrible truth at the heart of his origin story.
After receiving much acclaim for its gritty, superhero-fueled exploration of how power is bought and sold on a global scale, the British series was finally collected in 2009 and shortly thereafter was optioned by Mandeville Films, the production company responsible for bringing the graphic novel The Surrogates to the screen. While there’s been no word on that adaptation, that shouldn’t stop you from checking out the collected edition of Cla$ $ war, which tells a fascinating story that rivals the best political thrillers… with superheroes.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec by Jacques Tardi (w/a)
Earlier this year, when I polled comic creators about their favorite films of 2013, Doctor Who artist Matthew Dow Smith named The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec his pick for the year’s best movie. This French series follows fiction-writing mystery lover Adèle Blanc-Sec as she investigates all manner of marvelous occurrences in early 20th century Paris and other locations, and has been published intermittently since 1976. It first made its way to the U.S. in 1990, and was adapted into a live-action film written and directed by Luc Besson in 2010.
While the film didn’t take nearly as long as the comic to make its way across the ocean, it took until October 2013 for it to arrive on DVD here in the U.S. Fans of Besson’s films will certainly want to check out both the film and the source material, given the filmmaker’s appreciation for it. Here’s the trailer for The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec:
Attack on Titan by Hajime Isayama (w/a)
One of the most successful Japanese manga series of all time, Attack on Titan is just about everywhere you look these days. From car commercials (see video below) to The New York Times best-seller list, this ongoing saga of a world where the remaining human civilization must fight to survive the ever-present threat of gigantic, man-eating, humanoid “titans” is swiftly approaching bona fide mainstream status.
The series has earned frequent, favorable comparisons to The Walking Dead with its bleak survival story that unfolds in a postapocalyptic world ravaged by terrible creatures. Having already spawned a critically praised anime, multiple video games, and a series of novels within a few years of its debut, a live-action Attack on Titan film was announced in 2012. According to the most recent update, shooting is expected to begin this summer on the film.
Cyclops by Matz (w)and Luc Jacamon (a)
Another story by the French duo responsible for The Killer, Cyclops tells the story of a reluctant soldier who becomes a star in the televised wars of the future that have become the chief form of entertainment in popular culture. As the main character struggles to reconcile his personal values with everything he must do once he dons his camera-equipped helmet and heads off to battle, the pressure increases and leads him to question his very humanity. It took four years for the graphic novel to make its way to the U.S., but during that time it caught the attention of Warner Bros., which snagged the rights to adapt it into a live-action film.
James Mangold (The Wolverine) was attached to direct the film in 2008, but there hasn’t been any update since that initial announcement. Still, this one is must-read material for anyone interested in a unique spin on the evolution of entertainment culture and “reality” programming – and anyone who’s simply interested in a compelling, well-written story, of course.
Question of the Week: What are some of your favorite foreign graphic novels?
Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, Newsarama, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He’s been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and his personal blog can be found at MindPollution.org. You can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.
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