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Advertise on the Tentacle

July 22, 2008

Cartoons Capture Cinema

Roy Meachum

As readers know, Bob Miller has me on his Morning News Express (WFMD*930AM) to talk about films and plays. We chat every Friday shortly before nine, when his program ends. This is why I can be spotted hanging around movie theatres.


The experience this summer has left me astonished on a simple point: the proliferation of so many superheroes. I can understand the fundamentals:


Find projects already accepted in the mass market. Call in the animators' computers: Walt Disney's pens are way out of date. Promote the product (movies) to a fare-the-well. Then sit back and watch the cash pour in.


Batman as "The Dark Knight" is the freshest case in point. Anticipating a consumer rush, I toddled over to Westview Cinema early. Frankly I was surprised by the lack of lines 25 minutes before the midnight showing time. The ticket taker shot down illusions I might see the film alone.


The screen on my ticket (12) was no longer available. I was shuttled to another theatre (7). At the movie's end, I emerged into a flow of people (mostly teens) and asked a manager, the nearest young man wearing a tie: "How many screens were used (for the first post-midnight screening)?"


With an eye keeping careful track of the flood of humanity flowing by, he said "11." Understand the Westview Cinema boasts 16 screens; moreover, it planned to run the Batman all through the night and even after. Nobody I know can remember when a Frederick theatre screened any movie for a straight 24 hours, and still they came.


The same phenomenon happened all over the country; when Monday blossomed sunny and clear the "Dark Knight" distributors estimated $155 million. That's a record, as you must know. The first night alone the newest Batman cinematic episode set a new record: "The Dark Knight" raked in an estimated $18.5 million. The box office rewarded "Spiderman III's" $16.9 in the first 24 hours.


Nitpickers can argue about the tickets sold, leaving the money question up for grabs. We all know about inflation the past 12 months. And who cares?


With experience in these post-midnight openings – to fudge the distributors' release dates – I have sat through several early morning screenings when the lights came up on empty seats. And that was for showings when there was a single theatre booked!


The explanation we receive is the acclaimed appearance of Heath Ledger as The Joker. His sudden and freak death – from overdosing on prescription drugs – certainly contributed to the cash flow. But, then, so did Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Christian Bale as the hero himself. Opinion polls do not show Mr. Ledger was the runaway attraction.


The box office question revolves around the competition between "The Dark Knight" and "Spiderman III." Notice they are both characters from comic books but performed on the silver screen by human actors.


The first day this Batman set a record: over $66 million in 24 hours; "Spiderman III" set the mark last year: $48.9 million for the first day.


Several other boffo flicks fit into the same category. "Sin City," "Hell Boy," "Iron Man" and "Chronicles of Narnia" do not appear in your daily paper. They belong in the same category as "Shrek;" the book's author was William Steig, known as "the king of cartoons." They are comic books with larger pictures.


The characters Superman, Batman and Spiderman popped up in my childhood. They fed off the appetite created by weekly movie cartoons offered before features. We were all – children and adults – stunned by Walt Disney's animated "Snow White." In my neighborhood it was a glorified comic book, which stopped nobody from singing: "Heigh Ho! It's off to work we go" – after the film's seven dwarfs.


Disney's Ferdinand, "the bull with the delicate ego," drew us into theatres and attracted our Depression dollars through tie-ins. I recall a heavy rubber bull sitting on a bookshelf in the old house, on New Orleans' Jackson Avenue. The neighborhood cinema was the Granada, long since replaced by apartments.


Despite Debbie Reynolds and Carlton Carpenter singing and shouting "Movies are better than ever," they weren't. But comic books have continued growing. I have no idea how many. At one time, every kid on the corner knew when their personal superhero would appear on the drug store's rack; there were not so many.


Now special stores deal in comic books and their prices run sky-high compared to the nickels and dimes when they first appeared. My personal favorite was Classic Comics, which took the world's literature and capsulated the famous words while drawing panels to tell the story – and rather well! I remember especially Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities."


"The Green Hornet" became a radio show, so did "Little Orphan Annie" that transformed into a Broadway musical and hired my son and namesake, as stage manager. I once watched a recording of the Mutual Radio network's "The Shadow," which started out as pulp fiction in its own magazine, the forerunner to "Sin City" and "Iron Man."


When The Washington Post bought its morning rival, the Times-Herald – on St. Patrick's Day 1973 – the company took on the obligation of continuing their comics, which is why the Post prints three funny pages, as they're termed.


As America's daily publications dwindled in number, it seemed to me the survivors held on to the same cartoonists. In "Peanuts," Charlie Brown, Lucy and the beagle Snoopy chugged along in most papers even though creator Charles Schultz passed on. But the harsher fate may have befallen my childhood favorite, The Katzenjammer Kids. (By the way, the long word is German for "cats fight," usually used for a hangover.)


Of course, the funny papers rate high on my daily must-read list. With gross receipts running so high, Hollywood producers and writers are rushing to join in, I'm sure.


By the way, I've never understood folks who lift noses at the funny pages. They're missing a good thing.


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