When you think about comic book movie adaptations, blockbuster films from Marvel and DC likely come to mind. After all, the two biggest names in the game have turned comics into massive movie franchises — pushing what was once niche print material into the mainstream.
But lesser-known comic books and graphic novels have also served as inspiration for memorable on-screen characters and plots. They may not have built entire cinematic universes across billion-dollar box office successes, but they’re no less entertaining.
Many even explore themes outside of the usual superhero storylines, or have become far more famous than their lesser-known printed source material.
So if you’re interested in graphic novel and comic book movie adaptations but are looking for something other than the men-in-tights kind, this list is for you.
A History of Violence (1997)
Movie: A History Of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
Written by John Wagner and illustrated by Vince Locke, A History of Violence was first published in 1997.
The graphic novel told the story of mild-mannered small town café owner Tom McKenna, whose long-hidden past as a mob hitman comes to light when he easily defends his store from a robbery and becomes an unexpected local hero. Soon, three men from the New York City mafia come knocking on his door, and his past begins to unravel.
Director David Cronenberg adapted the graphic novel into a film of the same name in 2005, marking his first collaboration with actor Viggo Mortensen. Though the first half of this comic book movie adaptation is mostly faithful to its source material, the latter half takes some creative liberties that ultimately pay off.
The film went on to amass plenty of nominations and accolades for its stars’ fantastic performances and the story’s compelling study on the nature of violence.
The Mask (1987-2000)
Movies: The Mask (Chuck Russell, 1994) and Son of the Mask (Lawrence Guterman, 2005)
Director Chuck Russel’s The Mask is very loosely based on a comic book series of the same name under Dark Horse Comics. The series was created by Doug Mahnke and John Arcudi alongside artists Mark Badger, Chris Warner, and Keith Williams.
The comic books introduced readers to a supernatural mask that gives its wearers unlimited powers, but at a cost: The people who wear it become insane. Stanley Ipkiss, the first person we meet who becomes The Mask, uses his powers to be a villain.
It’s hard to grasp just how dark and ultra-violent the source material was if you had only watched the comic book movie adaptation, though. Led by Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz, the film was a zany comedy that cemented its leads’ star status and was the most successful comic book film at that time. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for its 2005 sequel.
Tank Girl in Deadline (1988-2007)
Movie: Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995)
Before Lori Petty became Tank Girl in the 1995 cult classic, the character first debuted in the pages of a British post-punk comic magazine called Deadline, which featured a mix of comic strips and articles about alternative and indie music.
Tank Girl was created by writer Alan Martin and artist Jamie Hewlett, who went on to co-create the band Gorillaz. The eponymous anti-heroine inspired other pop culture icons, like Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and Mad Max: Fury Road.
Though the comic book movie adaptation debuted to mixed reviews and poor box office numbers, the character’s foul mouth and punk feminism has garnered a bit of a cult following. It’s also set to have a reboot under Robbie’s production company LuckyChap Entertainment.
Barbarella (1962-1978, 2017-)
Movie: Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968)
For fans of Roger Vadim’s cult favorite Barbarella, star Jane Fonda basically created the eponymous space sex kitten. But few know that Barbarella first graced the pages of V Magazine, a French publication, before appearing in a comic book movie adaptation.
Created by Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella was a sci-fi comic featuring an alluring space adventurer whose travels mostly featured sex. It’s not surprising that the comics were viewed as scandalous, and were often called the first erotic comic books, even though the USA’s Tijuana Bibles were published a few decades before. The character quickly became associated with the sexual revolution of the time.
The original comic book series ended in 1978, but it was relaunched in 2017, 2021, and 2022. Fans might also be treated to a remake of the comic book movie adaptation, this time with Sydney Sweeney as the lead actress and executive producer. If it makes it to the big screen, it’ll be the first remake to do so out of many attempts over the decades.
The Men in Black (1990-1997)
Movies: Men In Black (Barry Sonnenfield, 1997), Men In Black II (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2002), Men In Black 3 (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012), Men in Black: International (F. Gary Gray, 2019)
Like The Mask before it, Barry Sonnenfield’s Men in Black films took its source material’s basic premise and gave it a comedic makeover, this time featuring Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, and Vincent D’Onofrio.
The original comics, written by Lowell Cunningham and illustrated by Sandy Carruthers, were a lot darker.
In it, the international intelligence organization known simply as The Men in Black investigates paranormal activity on earth, covering not just alien life like the films do, but also zombies, werewolves, vampires, and demons, among others. Its notable members include Ecks, who turns rogue after discovering the darker side of the organization.
The movie trilogy cemented Will Smith’s status as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. It also introduced the idea of the comic book movie adaptation as a moneymaker before superheroes became regular big-screen attractions.
Movie: Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, 2008)
Though many of the moviegoers who saw Bekmambetov’s Wanted in the summer of 2008 came away with a fresh crush on Angelina Jolie and an admiration for James McAvoy, not too many knew that the material was based on Mark Millar’s breakout comic book series.
Illustrated by J. G. Jones, the original Wanted comic books introduced us to Wesley Gibson, who is a bit of a loser before being recruited into The Fraternity, a secret organization of supervillains who ruled the world. There, he learns that he is the heir to a notorious supervillain known only as The Killer, and develops a talent for violence himself.
The comic books feature a whole host of fascinating and sometimes wacky supervillains, including The Doll-Master (who specializes in toy-shaped weapons and robotics) and Johnny Two-dicks (who’s a slave to his own sentient penis that also happens to be a criminal mastermind).
The comic book movie adaptation tones all this down by changing The Fraternity into an organization for more regular gun-toting assassins. But, it more than makes up for it with its exciting action sequences.
The Crow (1989-2018)
Movies: The Crow (Alex Proyas, 1994), The Crow: City of Angels (Tim Pope, 1996), The Crow: Salvation (Bharat Nalluri, 2000), and The Crow: Wicked Prayer (Lance Mungia, 2005)
One of the better-known comic books on this list, The Crow was created by James O’Barr in 1989 as a way to deal with the death of his fiancé.
Eerie, gothic, and suspenseful, it tells the story of Eric, who is brought back from the dead to avenge his own murder and that of his fiancé at the hands of a gang. Readers see him transform into the Crow, a supernatural entity that stalks and kills his own murderers.
The first comic book movie adaptation was released in 1994 despite a tragic accident. Its star, Brandon Lee, was fatally wounded on set. He had completed most of the scenes at that point, and so the producers turned to a stunt double, digital effects, and some script changes to complete the film. The movie went on to be a critical and commercial success.
A remake, featuring Bill Skarsgård and FKA Twigs, is currently in the works.
Ghost World (1993-1997)
Movie: Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
Despite the name, Ghost World is refreshingly free of the supernatural.
Instead, Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel told a coming-of-age story centered on two teenage best friends, Enid and Rebecca, who live in an unnamed American town. The comics are beloved for their sharp commentary on American culture, delivered in slice-of-life scenes of its disillusioned and witty protagonists, as well as their stark and striking art style.
The comic book movie adaptation, directed by Terry Zwigoff and starring Thora Birch as Enid and a young Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca, is as critically acclaimed as its source material. Though it departs from the comic books a little — two characters, for instance, were morphed into one to create Steve Buscemi’s Seymour — the movie remains faithful to the comics where it matters most: its witty, offbeat sense of humor and its unique visual style.
Both the film and the comic book series remain cult classics and are beloved by fans of indie films and alternative comics.
30 Days of Night (2002)
Movies: 30 Days Of Night (David Slade, 2007), 30 Days Of Night: Dark Days (Ben Ketai, 2010)
A bit of an antidote to Twilight’s Edward Cullen, 30 Days of Night is a three-part horror comic book series written by Steve Niles and illustrated by Ben Templesmith.
The story is set in Barrow, Alaska, a town so far north that the sun doesn’t rise for a full month come winter. Plunged into complete darkness, its residents are terrorized by a group of vampires who take advantage of the lack of sun to feed at will. The comic books were created from an unsuccessful film pitch, but their success eventually led to Sam Raimi and Senator International picking it up to be produced on the big screen.
Director David Slade (who, incidentally, went on to direct one of the Twilight sequels) was incredibly loyal to the source material. The comic book movie adaptation did make a few small changes, though, in the form of additional characters and a new vampire language.
It’s not the highest-rated film out there, but there’s definitely a lot to love for fans of vampire films.
Movies: Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaugn, 2015), Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Matthew Vaugn, 2017), The King’s Man (Matthew Vaugn, 2021)
Created by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a comic book series first published in 2012. The spy-themed thriller follows the adventures of a secret intelligence agency only known as the Kingsman, an organization mostly made of upper-class men, that suddenly recruits Eggsy, a young man from a troubled background.
Set in the same universe as Millar’s Wanted (see above), the comic books are beloved for their exciting action sequences and a unique sense of humor as they explore themes like power, class, and violence — all told in vivid, detailed visuals.
The Kingsman series inspired a 2014 comic book movie adaptation in Kingsman: The Secret Service. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, the movie was an unexpected delight, blending action, style, and subversive fun in its 129-minute runtime.
Now one of the most recognizable spy movie franchises, the first Kingsman movie went on to spawn two more: a sequel in 2017 and a prequel in 2021. These are set to be followed by a fourth film entitled Kingsman: The Blue Blood, which is still in the works.
Sin City (1991-2000)
Movie: Sin City (Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, 2005), Sin City: A Dame To Kill For (Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, 2014)
First published in 1991 and created by writer-artist Frank Miller, Sin City is a nihilistic, neo-noir graphic novel series set in the fictional Basin City in Western USA.
Nicknamed Sin City, the setting is home to violence and moral decay, all told in a stark black-and-white visual style that sets it apart. The characters, which include corrupt policemen, landowners, and politicians, as well as a group of self-governing prostitutes, are as complex as the plot’s twists and turns.
The main style and themes of the original material are carried over to the comic book movie adaptation, which isn’t surprising given that Miller co-directed both movies with Robert Rodriguez. Shot almost entirely in green screen, the cinematography is heavily stylized, with its bold contrasts, sharp lines, deep shadows, and selective use of color.
It even feels a bit like a comic book, using visual techniques like on-screen text. Rodriguez, explaining his faithfulness to the source material, has described the film as “less of an adaptation than a translation.”
The Fountain (2005)
Movie: The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)
Described as an “incredible journey of love and loss across the centuries,” The Fountain is a graphic novel written by Darren Aronofsky and illustrated by Kent Williams. Interestingly enough, the print material was actually inspired by a film of the same name whose production had been canceled in 2002.
Speaking of the canned movie, which would’ve cost $70 million to make and starred Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, Aronofsky shared, “I knew it was a hard film to make, and I said at least if Hollywood fucks me over at least I’ll make a comic book out of it.”
And that he did, and the result was a visually stunning and thought-provoking book exploring three interconnected storylines on the meaning of love and mortality.
Aronofsky also eventually got to make the film — which now qualifies as a comic book movie adaptation — albeit with a much smaller budget.
In the film, Hugh Jackman’s Tom becomes obsessed with the Tree of Life, believing it might help him save his terminally ill wife. In the 16th century, he’s a Spanish conquistador named Tomas, also in search of the Tree of Life in South America. Lastly, we meet him in the 26th century, this time as Tom the spaceman on a journey to a far-off nebula where he thinks he could find the Tree of Life.