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updated: 8/3/2014 9:51 PM

Comic-book movies aren't all capes and aliens

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  • In this 1986 file photo, comic-book writer Harvey Pekar poses with a copy of "American Splendor" in his Cleveland Heights, Ohio, home. Pekar's comic was made into a 2003 film starring Paul Giamatti.

      In this 1986 file photo, comic-book writer Harvey Pekar poses with a copy of "American Splendor" in his Cleveland Heights, Ohio, home. Pekar's comic was made into a 2003 film starring Paul Giamatti.
    Associated Press

  • COURTESY OF DAN ELLIOTTTom Hanks and Tyler Hoechlin film a scene on the set of the movie "Road to Perdition" in Geneva in 2001. The film was based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins.

      COURTESY OF DAN ELLIOTTTom Hanks and Tyler Hoechlin film a scene on the set of the movie "Road to Perdition" in Geneva in 2001. The film was based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins.

  • With cameras rolling in March 2001, Tyler Hoechlin -- who now stars on MTV's "Teen Wolf" series -- makes his way down West Main Street in West Dundee, trailed by the "Road to Perdition" camera crew and flanked by lines of antique cars. Hoechlin plays the son of Tom Hanks' mob hitman character in the film, which was based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins.

      With cameras rolling in March 2001, Tyler Hoechlin -- who now stars on MTV's "Teen Wolf" series -- makes his way down West Main Street in West Dundee, trailed by the "Road to Perdition" camera crew and flanked by lines of antique cars. Hoechlin plays the son of Tom Hanks' mob hitman character in the film, which was based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins.
    Daily Herald file photo

  • Video: "Ghost World"

  • Video: "Howard the Duck"

 
 

The Marvel Studios juggernaut is taking a bit of a risk with Friday's release of "Guardians of the Galaxy," an astronomically budgeted adaptation of a comic book most of us had never heard of before we saw those trailers with a newly buff Chris Pratt, a green-skinned Zoe Saldana and a talking, gun-toting raccoon.

"Guardians" has the benefit of being the latest installment in an ambitious series of films that began in 2008 with an unstable, out-of-favor star playing a B-list superhero. Of course, six years later, Robert Downey Jr. is the biggest movie star on the planet and Iron Man is, amazingly, a bigger draw than Superman or Spider-Man.

Not all offbeat, lesser-known comics and graphic novels make for well-done or successful movies. Most of us would like to forget duds like "Cowboys & Aliens," "Jonah Hex" or "Barb Wire," though NBC is giving the Keanu Reeves disappointment "Constantine" another shot as a TV series this fall with Matt Ryan in the titular role.

Sometimes risks pay off, and sometimes you get "Howard the Duck." Here are some risky comic-book flicks worth a look:

"American Splendor" -- This serio-comic adaptation of Ohio oddball Harvey Pekar's examination of everyday life boasts strong performances by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis as Pekar and his wife, and proves that great comic-book movies don't need flowing capes and alien menaces. Pekar himself also appears in the film, a unique blend of dramatization and documentary from directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (HBO's "Cinema Verite") that gives us a rich character sketch without ink and paint. (Available digitally from iTunes, and on disc from Amazon and Netflix)

"Road to Perdition" -- Filmed in and around Aurora, Geneva, West Dundee and Barrington Hills, "Road to Perdition" is director Sam Mendes' ("Skyfall") 2002 adaptation of a Max Allan Collins graphic novel about a hitman for the Irish mob (Tom Hanks) who takes a dangerous business trip with an unexpected companion -- his young son (Tyler Hoechlin, who can now be seen on MTV's "Teen Wolf"). Playing against type, Hanks is wonderful in a film that also boasts the talents of Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Jason Leigh -- but the real star of the film is Thomas Newman's gorgeous, Celtic-infused score. The opening shots of Hoechlin riding his bike down a snow-covered West Dundee street are haunting. (Available digitally from Amazon, iTunes, Google Play and YouTube, and on disc from Amazon)

"Mystery Men" -- OK, so this overstuffed, overlong and overcranked adaptation of the "Flaming Carrot" comic series isn't a great movie. Heck, it might not even be a good one. But this 1999 not-so-superhero flop is jampacked with weird, wonderful characters brought to life by a cast of heavy-hitters and quirky favorites that includes Ben Stiller, Geoffrey Rush, William H. Macy, Paul "Pee-wee" Reubens, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, Eddie Izzard and Tom Waits. Yes, that Tom Waits. (Available digitally from Amazon, iTunes, vudu and YouTube, and on disc from Netflix)

"Ghost World" -- Long before she fought alongside Tony Stark and Captain America, Scarlett Johansson starred in the first of director Terry Zwigoff's two adaptations of comics by Chicago-born writer Daniel Clowes. Johansson and "American Beauty" co-star Thora Birch play disaffected youth who form an unlikely friendship with 40-ish record collector Steve Buscemi in this often uncomfortable but always entertaining slice of Americana released in 2001. Five years later, Zwigoff revisited Clowes' world in "Art School Confidential," featuring a turn by British actress Sophia Myles that should have made her a star but, sadly, did not; according to canistream.it, this second film is not currently commercially available. ("Ghost World" is available digitally from Amazon and iTunes, and on disc from Amazon and Netflix)

• Sean Stangland is a Daily Herald copy editor and a tireless consumer of pop culture. He doesn't recommend "Howard the Duck," but he thinks you might enjoy it with the right attitude and/or beverages. You can follow him on Twitter at @SeanStanglandDH.

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