In 1977, Marvel Comics launched Marvel Super Special (officially titled Marvel Comics Super Special for its first four issues). Long before graphic novels became routine, Marvel Super Special offered magazine-size graphic novellas, generally containing a 40-ish-page story. The series largely adapted movies, although early issues featured bands (such as Kiss and the Beatles), and some issues featured other stories, such as Conan tales.
It’s these largely forgotten adaptations that seem the most peculiar today. Marvel seems to have chosen movies that it thought would perform well with its readers, primarily science-fiction subjects, although with an almost equal amount of fantasy and a few other genres thrown in. Of course, when adapting a movie in time for its release, it’s rarely clear how successful that movie will be, let alone how well it will be remembered. Consequently, the list of movies adapted by Marvel Super Special is an odd mixture of movies that went on to be classics, movies that have achieved a kind of cult classic status, and movies might once have been a big deal but that basically disappeared into history.
In each of these cases, it’s bizarre to see a comic-book adaptation, although for different reasons. The more successful the movie was, the more one wonders why its studio would stoop to a comics adaptation, especially at a time when comics weren’t exactly cool. The less successful the movie was, the more one wonders why Marvel would bother adapting it, or why anyone thought it deserved adaptation.
Adding to this strangeness, Marvel often assigned top-notch talent to these adaptations. Some of these creators aren’t much remembered today, but some are considered legends. From today’s standpoint, this can produce odd effects. Legendary comics creators are paired with historic movies, yet produced adaptations that have been forgotten, and it’s amazing to discover these adaptations exist. (I have a passion for such material, including Jack Kirby’s adaptation and continuation of 2001: A Space Odyssey.) But it can be equally astounding to see a legendary comics creator take on the weird content of a forgotten genre movie. These pairings are inevitably fascinating, whether the results are actually good or not. And to be honest, they’re more often not.
The fact that these adaptations existed was also awesome. Sure, an awful lot of them weren’t great comics. But it was great to be able to buy a comic-book version of the newest, coolest movie, much in the same way that it was fun to buy magazine specials about those movies. In fact, the magazine dimensions of Marvel Super Special were clearly aimed at this market. Like those magazine specials, most Marvel comics adaptations also included text articles about the movie and its production process, with copious photos, at a time when you couldn’t exactly Google this stuff. Some of these issues were produced before videotapes became widespread, but even after you could watch a movie at home, these adaptations came out around the time of the movie and were the only way you could relive that experience until the home video release (which took longer in those days).
One of the first adaptations was Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, adapted in Marvel Comics Super Special #3 (1978) by venerated comics writer Archie Goodwin and legendary comics artists Walt Simonson and Klaus Janson.
Ever heard of the musical Xanadu? Marvel adapted it as Marvel Super Special #17 (Summer 1980), written by J.M. DeMatteis.
James Bond may be the longest-running English-language movie franchise, but he has had only sporadic success in comics. So it might surprise readers to learn that Marvel produced an adaptation of For Your Eyes Only in Marvel Super Special #19 (1981). The adaptation was written by Larry Hama and penciled by Howard Chaykin. Seriously. Marvel also adapted Octopussy in Marvel Super Special #26 (1983), written by Steve Moore with art by Paul Neary.
Remember the fantasy movie Dragonslayer? It was adapted in Marvel Super Special #20 (1981) by no less than writer Denny O’Neil and artists Marie Severin and John Tartalione.
Few science-fiction movies were released during the tenure of Marvel Super Special that would go on to be as highly regarded as Blade Runner. Based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep?, the movie is today studied as not only a corporate dystopia but as a philosophical work in its own right. Dick’s original novel has since been adapted as an unabridged, 24-issue comic series. But when Blade Runner was released, Marvel adapted it as Marvel Super Special #22 (Sept 1982), written by Archie Goodwin, with a cover by Jim Steranko. (I analyze this adaptation in more depth here.)
The Dark Crystal has gone on to become a cult classic. It got a comics adaptation too (in Marvel Super Special #24, 1982), which included 13 pages of photos and pre-production sketches.
Anyone remember the animated movie Rock & Rule? Marvel published an adaptation that consisted of stills from the movie (as Marvel Super Special #25, 1983), which also included articles about the film.
Remember The Last Starfighter? It seems like it’s largely been forgotten, but it seemed incredibly cool at the time, and Marvel adapted it in Marvel Super Special #31 (1984).
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!, which went on to become a cult classic, got an adaptation in Marvel Super Special #33 (1984), with Mark Texeira art.
The next issue, Marvel Super Special #34 (1984), adapted the motion picture Sheena, based on the jungle girl character (Sheena, Queen of the Jungle) who had originated in comics (not published by Marvel) in the 1930s. The movie was a bomb and has been forgotten, but Marvel couldn’t anticipate that when it gave the movie a comics adaptation. The issue demonstrates the wildly uneven nature of Marvel Super Special, when viewed in retrospect.
One of the most fascinating adaptations was of Dune, based on the David Lynch film, which in turn was based on Frank Herbert’s celebrated novel. A Dune comic is an interesting oddity in itself, but Marvel Super Special #36 (1984) — also serialized as a three-issue mini-series — was written by Ralph Macchio and entirely illustrated by the great Bill Sienkiewicz. Yes, if you’re a fan of the novel or of the notoriously stylish but semi-incomprehensible movie, there’s a comic-book version illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, who seems like a perfect fit for Lynch’s movie.
Labyrinth, which went on to cult classic status, got adapted in Marvel Super Special #40, for which John Buscema did breakdowns.
And there were plenty others. The movie Krull got an adaptation in Marvel Super Special #28 (1983). So did the early episodes of Battlestar Galactica, which even got reproduced in tabloid size (an edition I discovered as a kid and thought was awesome). Jaws 2 got an adaptation, as did Annie and The Muppets Take Manhattan. Disaster movies were popular back then, and Meteor got an adaptation (with Frank Miller penciling the cover, no less). Even Santa Claus: The Movie got adapted.
Several adaptations had some earlier tie to Marvel Comics. Marvel had long published Conan when it adapted the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Conan the Barbarian as Marvel Super Special #21 (1982). Marvel went on to adapt the movie’s sequel, Conan the Destroyer, as Marvel Super Special #35 (Dec 1984), illustrated by John Buscema. The movie version of Red Sonja got adapted as Marvel Super Special #38 (1985).
Before trade paperbacks were remotely common, Marvel also used Marvel Super Special to reprint adaptations it had published elsewhere, using the magazine-size collected editions as a way of appealing to a broader audience who might not purchase comics. Thus, issue #15 (Dec 1979) reprinted the first three issues of Marvel’s Star Trek, which adapted Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Marvel’s ongoing series Star Wars adapted The Empire Strikes Back in issues #39-44, and all six issues were also published, all together, in Marvel Super Special #16 (Spring 1980). Not only was Marvel Super Special #16 magazine-size and published a month before the serialization, but it was also sold at some movie theaters in lieu of a souvenir book. (Thanks to Richard Bensam for this information.) For Return of the Jedi, Marvel published a four-issue adaptation as both a mini-series and as Marvel Super Special #27 (1983). Because the magazine-size Marvel Super Special wasn’t always sold where comics were, Marvel routinely serialized later adaptations either as comic-sized one-shots or two-issue mini-series.
Marvel didn’t have any deeper tie to Indiana Jones when it adapted Raiders of the Lost Ark as Marvel Super Special #18 (1981). Its star-studded list of creators is remarkable: written by Walt Simonson, the adaptation was illustrated by John Buscema and Klaus Janson, with a cover by Howard Chaykin. A year or so later, Marvel began the ongoing series The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones (#1, Jan 1983, to #34, Mar 1986). While this was running, Marvel adapted Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as Marvel Super Special #30 (1984). The adaptation was also serialized as a three-issue mini-series.
Marvel also had ties to 2001: A Space Odyssey, having produced an adaptation and a continuation in the 1970s. Since then, Arthur C. Clarke had produced a sequel novel, 2010, which went on to be adapted as a movie. Marvel adapted this movie as Marvel Super Special #37 (1984), written by J.M. DeMatteis, which was also serialized as a two-issue mini-series.
Similarly, the final issue of Marvel Super Special (#41, Nov 1986) adapted Howard the Duck, the movie based on the Marvel comic. The adaptation, which was also published as a three-issue mini-series, was written by Danny Fingeroth with art by Kyle Baker.
Despite the end of the series, Marvel didn’t give up on magazine-sized movie adaptations. Among its more memorable later efforts were magazine-sized adaptations of RoboCop (Nov 1987), RoboCop 2 (Aug 1990, also published as a prestige-format one-shot and a three-issue mini-series… which in turn led into a short-lived ongoing series), and Darkman (Sept 1990, also published as a three-issue mini-series).
Today, adaptations of movie have fallen out of fashion. Strangely, adaptations of comics and novels into TV and movies have never been more popular. Perhaps the reason isn’t a bias against adaptation but in favor of movies as a unique cinematic experience, which can’t be captured in prose or in comics. Of course, this shows a bias towards movies as the supreme medium; novels might be more intellectual, but no fictional industry is followed as closely as American cinema. There’s also a stereotype that comics adaptations of movies aren’t very good.
Several issues of Marvel Super Special fit that description. But others are perfectly fine, or even good in their own right. At their best, even the limitations of and the mistakes in these adaptations are fascinating, in part for what they reveal about the differences between the two media. At the very least, many of these adaptations are glorious, largely forgotten artifacts from a past era, in which Bill Sienkiewicz could illustrate Dune.
It’s worth considering how we’d react today to a series that adapted Inception and Interstellar, alongside the last Terminator movie, the rebooted RoboCop, the rebooted Star Trek movies, the rebooted Total Recall, and the Hobbit movies, all illustrated by a diverse array of artists including some of the best in the business.
So the next time you want to stump your friends at the comics store, ask them what series featured not only Star Wars but Star Trek, in the same series with Indiana Jones and James Bond. If they’re still stumped, blow their mind by saying the same series had Dune and Blade Runner and Jaws and the Muppets and Conan too. True, these universes and characters didn’t interact, but they were published under the same title, during the Golden Age of comics adaptations of movies, in which Blade Runner could mix with Sheena.