In Japan, around 90% of animated shows are derived from a comic book source material. Yet, when you look at American animation, a very very small percentage are comic book adaptations. Most comic-based cartoons are part of the big two publishers — Marvel and DC — and aren’t adaptations of specific stories. The few examples of indie comics getting animated adaptations (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Generator Rex, etc.) still follow the “familiar characters, new scenarios” model that Marvel and DC shows use.
Hollywood has been turning to indie comics for movies for years now, with moderate to high success. So why has this trend yet to affect the animation industry? There’s a longer argument in that discussion, so instead of focusing on the “why not” let’s focus on the “what if.” Here are CBR’s 15 Indie Comics That Deserve Animated Adaptations.
15. JOE THE BARBARIAN
Written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Sean Murphy, “Joe the Barbarian” follows Joe, a young boy with Type 1 Diabetes who starts to hallucinate when his blood sugar drops. In this state, he enters a fantasy world filled with his action figures and other fantasy elements. Throughout his journey to defeat King Death, Joe is helped by his pet rat, now a barbarian warrior, his action figures and a fictional representation of the girl he likes at his new school. It is a story of adventure, friendship and family with fantasy elements akin to “Lord of the Rings” and “Alice in Wonderland.”
The story and aesthetic of “Joe the Barbarian” are a perfect fit for an animated adaptation, and would probably work best as a feature film. It is an action/adventure tale that is fun for adults and kids, the perfect premise for animated movies. The only main issue a potential film could run into is all the copyrighted toys and action figures featured in the book; they would either have to be changed or the production would have to pull a “Wreck-It-Ralph.” Either way, Joe’s adventure has all the elements for a successful animated film.
14. BLUE MONDAY
“Blue Monday” is a comic created by Chynna Clugston Flores and follows Bleu Finnegan, a blue-haired obscure-music-loving teenager and her group of borderline self-destructive friends during their high school years in the early ’90s as they cause mischief, pull pranks and struggle with hormones and dating. The comic is based heavily on Flores’ own high school years and many of the characters are based on her friends and family.
“Blue Monday” is a great contender for an adult animated sitcom; it’s got sexual humor, swearing and ’90s references galore, perfect for animated sitcom audiences, especially in the current market. Flores herself describes the book as “Archie on crack, with cursing and smokes,” which could easily draw in fans of MTV’s “Daria” or much newer cartoon fare. Unfortunately, MTV doesn’t really do cartoons anymore, but other adult animation-lead programs such as Adult Swim or Fox could easily turn “Blue Monday” into an animated series.
13. QUESTIONABLE CONTENT
Casual comic readers, and even indie comic lovers, might not be well-versed in the world of webcomics, but fans of slice-of-life stories should be reading “Questionable Content.” Created by Jeph Jaques, “Questionable Content” has been around since 2003 and follows the exploits of Marten Reed, an indie-music aficionado, his robot-computer Pintsize, best friend and roommate Faye, and an ever expanding cast of colorful and diverse supporting characters. “QC” takes place several years in the future where artificial intelligence, anthropomorphic computers, holograms and hi-tech space labs are commonplace. These elements take a back seat, however, and the webcomic focuses mainly on sitcom-esque stories like melodramatic romance, adult humor and workplace drama.
Similar to “Blue Monday,” “Questionable Content” could easily find a home in the hearts of “Daria” fans, though it may resonate more with lovers of the short-lived “Mission Hill.” Jaques’ art style, which has improved over the 10-plus years he’s worked on the comic, has an easily animatable aspect to it, and a potential animated series could pull off Flash animation without losing the comic’s style and flair.
12. OCTOPUS PIE
Though it hasn’t been around quite as long as “Questionable Content,” Meredith Gran’s “Octopus Pie” is another great slice-of-life webcomic worth following. The name is slightly misleading as the comic is not about a cephalopod bakery, but instead follows 20-somethings Everest “Eve” Ning and her stoner roommate Hanna Thompson through their misadventures in New York City. Gran’s art is simple but expressive, like if “Scott Pilgrim” met “Adventure Time,” and the storytelling takes the readers on a roller coaster of emotions, jumping around from hilarious and wacky to dramatic, depressing and oh-so relatable.
Gran herself has done a few animated adaptations; one was a trailer for the first volume, another was a Mariah Carey tribute, and the most recent was a bleak holiday special. Though simple, these snippets of animation work great as a proof of concept for an animated series. Perhaps an animated “Octopus Pie” show might have trouble finding an audience, but Gran’s art would clearly looks great in motion.
11. OLD CITY BLUES
Taking place in Greece, “Old City Blues” is about Solano, detective for the Special Police in New Athens, a city built on the ruins of the original. New Athens is terrorized by hi-tech criminals and corruption and it’s up to Solano and the mech police units to stop them. “Old City Blues” was written and drawn by Giannis Milonogiannis and currently has two volumes out under Archaia Entertainment.
“Old City Blues” would be great as both a series and a feature film, as the storytelling would work well as it is or condensed slightly. The cyber-punk, neon-noire setting is reminiscent of “Blade Runner,” and fans could easily find something to like about the comic, especially if it were to be adapted into a more popular medium like animation. Animation is usually funded by toy sales, which is why most cartoons are geared towards kids; thus, a serious noir story like “Old City Blues” isn’t likely to be animated any time soon, though it definitely should be.
It’s almost surprising that Jim Zub’s “Wayward” is an American comic, since it is so deeply entrenched in Japanese culture and mythology. “Wayward” follows Rori Lane, a half-Irish, half-Japanese high schooler who moves from her father’s home in Ireland to her mother’s apartment in Tokyo. While struggling to find her place in her new home, Rori runs into a series of supernatural occurrences, which unlock her hidden abilities. Along the way, she meets a cat-god, a spirit-eater and several other allies who seek to wage war against the old gods of Japan.
“Wayward” has all the elements of a good supernatural anime, with a relatable “new kid in school” premise and fantastical Japanese mythology elements akin to “Noragami” and Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.” It’s almost a Japanese “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and would make for a great animated series. In fact, “Wayward” would be perfect as an anime, and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch, since Japan has made anime after several American properties like X-Men, The Avengers and “The Power Puff Girls.”
9. THE NAMELESS CITY
Another great Eastern-styled American comic is Faith Erin Hicks’ “The Nameless City,” a First Second book inspired by “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” “The Nameless City” is about Kaidu, a new arrival to the (ironically titular) Nameless City, referred to as such because of the many names given to it by each new country that conquers the walled community. Kai befriends Rat, a descendent of the native people of The Nameless City. At first the two are at odds, but soon find their shared love of the city is the only thing that will be able to save it.
Faith Erin Hicks’ series has currently released one out of three planned volumes and already the first part of the story is compelling, adventurous and full of great lessons. The art style has a unique look too, with with a lot of expression and movement behind it, a great combination when adapting to animation. With the success of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and its sequel series “The Legend of Korra,” The Nameless City could easily find its way onto kids’ networks as an animated series.
8. ROCKET GIRL
A somewhat short-lived series, “Rocket Girl,” created by Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder, is a time-traveling superhero cop narrative with some ’80s flare thrown into the mix. The Kickstarted series was about Dayoung Johansson, a teen police officer from an alternate future who goes back to the ’80s to investigate Quantum Mechanics, a research company wanted for crimes against time. The book is a lot of fun, presenting a young hero in a world of adults who claim to know more than her — something we can all relate to.
The art of “Rocket Girl” is clean and colorful, bright and full of action, making it a perfect candidate for an animated adaptation. “Rocket Girl” would work well as a film since the book only ran for eight issues, but a full-fledged series could also be a good way to continue Officer Johansson’s adventures in time, and could definitely resonate with a young audiences. Be it as a feature film or a series, “Rocket Girl” needs an animated adaptation.
7. PAPER GIRLS
Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s “Paper Girls” by Image comics was a hit from its first issue, presenting a throwback to classic Spielberg films before “Stranger Things” had even hit Netflix. “Paper Girls” is about exactly what the title implies, with some crazy elements thrown in. It follows four 12-year-old paper delivery girls who stumble onto a series of strange occurrences that take them on a high-concept Sci-Fi time traveling adventure. With the success of the aforementioned “Stranger Things,” it’s easy to see “Paper Girls” getting an adaptation, but live action isn’t the way to go.
“Paper Girls” has a lot of high-concepts, really out-there creatures, costumes and backgrounds that wouldn’t translate well to a live action series. The psychedelic, bio-organic designs of the creatures and villains could have a lot more creative wiggle room in animated format with too much being lost in translation. Vaughan has yet to have any of his works adapted into anything, with “Y: The Last Man” dipping in and out of development hell for years. Still, perhaps “Paper Girls” could work its way towards a cartoon series.
6. DEADLY CLASS
Marcus Lopez’s high school is just like any other; there are bullies, girls he has crushes on and grades to make. The only differences is that this school doesn’t prepare teens for “the real world,” it trains them to be top assassins. At King’s Dominion School, killing is an art form, and students are expected to learn every subtle detail to the deadly act. “Deadly Class,” an Image publication, was created and written by Rick Remender and is drawn by Wes Craig.
The series takes the “exclusive academy” premise similar to Harry Potter and throws in assassins and ancient organizations, with some added elements of late ’80s punk and drug culture to boot. With the popularity of stories like Harry Potter, a “Deadly Class” series would find popularity amongst Hogwarts lovers and could even bleed (pardon the pun) over into ’80s punk enthusiasts. There’s been talk of the Russo brothers developing “Deadly Class” for TV, and hopefully they go the animated route if only to see Craig’s unique and beautiful art style in motion. However, finding a network to pick up an R-rated animated show about assassin teenagers would definitely be a struggle.
Made by Spanish creators and distributed in France, “Blacksad” is a detective-noir story that takes place in a world of anthropomorphic animals. Starring private detective John Blacksad, the comic actually predates “Zootopia” and deals with prejudice just as well as, if not better than, the Disney film. “Blacksad” was created by Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, and currently has three hardcovers out under Dark Horse Comics.
“Blacksad” lends itself incredibly well to animation, not just because of the Disney-esque style and the talking animals, but also because artist Juanjo Guarnido has actually worked for Disney animation, doing character work on “Tarzan.” The book has reportedly already been optioned for an animated feature, with a budget of $100 Million, but no updates on the status of a film have been released for a few years. The film version might be doomed to development hell, but lets hope “Blacksad” will get its time in the animation limelight.
Another Disney-esque story, “Fables,” was created by Bill Willingham and ended its 13-year run in 2015. “Fables” is about fairy-tail characters living in the real world in a section of New York called Fabletown. Over the course of its 150-issue run, the inhabitants of Fabletown go through a long series of trials and tribulations as they seek a way to take back their homelands.
Many of the characters in “Fables” are recognizable to readers of all ages, as they’re taken from public domains stories such as Snow White, Cinderella and Rapunzel. Perhaps it’s the modern association with these characters and Disney movies that makes Fables a great candidate for an animated adaptation. Fables has gone through several adaptation attempts, two of which resulted in blatant rip-offs like “Once Upon A Time” and “Grimm,” and a possible film has recently been announced. However, “Fables” is an epic tale told over a long period of time, and a feature film just doesn’t feel like the right fit; plus, money spent on live action CGI could be better spent animating the fairy-tale-based comic book into a long-running series.
Tyson Hesse’s “Diesel” currently has very little recognition despite possibly being the best all-ages adventure comic currently on the shelves. The book follows Dee Diesel, a teenage girl and resident of Peacetown, a city located on an airship. Dee isn’t good at much and doesn’t have much of a reason to be, since pretty soon she’ll be inheriting Peacetown from her now-missing adoptive father. Through a series of events, Peacetown is shot out of the air by a race of bird-people. Dee manages to survive and looks for a way to save her town and stop the bird people from declaring war on all of humanity.
Written and drawn by Hesse, Diesel is an incredibly fun story with an art style that is animated and expressive. Since only 8 issues of the story are out (and available in trade-paperback through Boom!) there is not a lot to work with, but a Diesel cartoon still has potential. “Diesel” has a lot of heart and evokes an adventurous feeling akin to “Avatar: The Last Airbender” with a steampunk aesthetic, a mix that could lend itself incredibly well to animation.
The wildly successful “Saga” is what would happen if “Romeo & Juliet” took place in a Star Wars-like world. The Image comic is about the adventures of Marko and Alana, two forbidden lovers from warring species, and their illicit daughter, Hazel — the only hybrid of her kind — as they run from bounty hunters and other dangers that come their way. “Saga” is written by Vaughan and drawn by the very talented Fiona Staples, whose unique art style and designs help bring the space-fantasy story to life.
Brian K. Vaughan has stated pretty clearly that he does not want “Saga” to be adapted in any way, that he wants the comic to stand on its own and speak for itself. That being said, it couldn’t hurt to imagine what a “Saga” animated series would be like, as the bright colors, unique creatures, and fast-passed action would look amazing in cartoon form.
Sometimes referred to as “superhero comics’ best kept secret,” “Invincible” is about the titular superhero Invincible and uses the teenage superhero narrative with a few twists thrown in. “Invincible,” created by Robert Kirkman, is about Mark Grayson, a normal high schooler who happens to be the son of the world’s greatest superhero, Omni-Man. When Mark finally inherits his dad’s powers, he becomes the superhero Invincible. The premise sounds simple, but Kirkman turns the superhero narrative on its head by adding unforeseen twists and turns, genre satire and all-out blood-spattering violence.
“Invincible” has a huge cast of characters and endless threads of side-stories that all interconnect to the main plot. Because of this, a live action film or TV series doesn’t seem to be the best option, especially since it would require a budget that even HBO couldn’t pull. An animated series, however, would be perfect for Invincible, not just because the action could be done a lot better, but also because superhero violence and cartoons have gone hand in hand for decades now. Kirkman has teased possible adaptations at panels, possibly even animated ones, but nothing has been confirmed.
Which indie comic book series would you like to see as a cartoon? Go get animated in the comments section!
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