10 Essential Non-Superhero Comic Book Movies That Are Great Cinema

As discussion continues over whether creators and filmmakers who work on comic book adaptations are guilty of contributing to destroying true cinema, and whether their pictures are even true cinema at all, instead of wading further directly into that debate, it’s perhaps easier to simply step back and look at examples of the best the medium’s adaptations have to offer. So giving everyone agency and taking them at their word, here are 10 essential non-superhero comic book movies proving comic book films are, in fact, great true cinema.

Comic books are a wonderful medium for storytelling, and all around the world this art form has consistently resulted in some of the best stories and characters ever invented in any medium. Tell adults in Japan that comics are just for children, or isn’t a serious art form, and you’ll be laughed at.

So when someone claims comic books or comic book culture is destructive and not serious storytelling or art, that it’s childish or greedy or any of the many insults hurled at the medium and those who work in it, they simply don’t know much about comics. If what they mean is superhero comics specifically, then they should say that clearly, although even then there are plenty of worthy examples to refute the claim.

But we don’t want to debate it, instead let’s just get to the heart of it by looking at some of the finest cinematic adaptations of comic books, and see if the accusations hold up. Let’s stop pointless accusations and counter-accusations, it’s all simplistic, hyperbolic, and disingenuous.

I’ll offer up movies that I think speak for themselves. You don’t have to agree with my selections, or with my premise. I simply ask that, if you think these aren’t true art or true cinema, and if you think these films contribute to destroying cinema, then say so directly and clearly. Explain what it is about the specific films that lacks true artistic value and contributes to killing cinema. You can add your comments below, I won’t argue with you. I’ll let the films and your assertions about their lack of merit stand on their own for others to weigh against one another and decide which holds up.

Now, how broadly should we define “comic book” and “graphic novel” in this context? We all know the most standard definitions of comic books, and that graphic novels can refer either to any comic (a broad application of the term) or to collected editions and/or longform versions of comic book storytelling.

What about a book that is entirely the drawing portion of comics? Without art at all, of course, a book of just text isn’t a comic. With just a few drawings, it is an illustrated novel perhaps. But what if it’s pages of individual panels and occasional splash-pages, artwork telling the entire story? Is a book like that a comic or graphic novel?

What about a book that’s 50-50, where words and images are equally important to convey the story? What if it’s slightly more visual and drawn than text-written? Is that a comic/graphic novel?

What if the author says it’s partly a graphic novel as well as a regular novel? Adapting a book like that has to be fairly considered within the larger discussion, surely, and an extension of precisely the cinematic culture that drives the adaptation of graphic novels and comic books. (If you already see where I’m going with this, congratulations, because I’m definitely going there.)

With this in mind, then, I’ll also note that adaptations come in both live-action and animated versions. Likewise, we could expand our discussion by considering not only theatrical movies but also miniseries and TV shows, but I’ll stick to feature films since that’s the specific context.

So here they are, in no particular order — 10 essential non-superhero comic book movies that are great cinema, and anyone who disagrees should definitely speak out and explain why. And don’t forget, if you like these films, then you should check out the equally amazing comics they’re based on.

Road to Perdition — An easy and obvious choice, this gangster tale is full of masterful performances and ambitious cinematic vision.

A History of Violence — Another easy choice, in another gangster tale with a fantastic cast in a contender for some career-best filmmaking.

Akira — The most well-known and influential anime of all time is a testament to the fact animation can achieve every bit as much life, character, and story as live action.

Sin City — This is perhaps the closest to a living, breathing comic as you’ll see. Page to screen adaptation has never been more precise.

V for Vendetta — A blunt satirical commentary on the rise of the modern national security state, from a comic written in the 1980s era of rising rightwing nationalism.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind — Another anime giving lie to the sad western notion that comics and animation can’t tell complex stories and be high art.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World — One of the most unique comic adaptations is a cult classic for good reason.

Oldboy — A brutal and shocking tale with many fans who don’t even know it’s adapted from a comic.

Hugo — Oops. Martin Scorsese’s spectacular, gorgeously adapted version of The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a beautiful love letter to Hollywood history.

American Splendor — An all-time great comic adaptation in any genre, superhero or otherwise, with Oscar-worthy filmmaking by everyone involved.

Honorable mention to Persepolis, Snowpiercer, Ghost World, 300, The Death of Stalin, and From Hell. I admit I cultivated the list to represent various types of adaptations and the ones average people might be most likely to have heard of, and which have generally been met with acclaim from critics and Hollywood itself.

If your head is still spinning a bit from the information that Hugo was adapted from a book that’s essentially a graphic novel, let me explain a bit further, since some people might try to argue technicalities to suggest The Invention of Hugo Cabret shouldn’t be eligible for this list…

In that book, the text is separate instead of included on the pages. It merges the visuals of comic books (including frames on the pages showing the progressing story visually, as well as full page art, and the style is all consistent with comic books and comic layouts) with the writing of literature. It’s a progression from a comic/graphic novel style using large amounts of text — description, narrative voiceover, and dialogue combined into the frames — to further simplify the layout and appearance of visuals and text. If this book is on a shelf beside graphic novels, nobody would complain or notice, and again I’d remind you the author acknowledges the book is novel, graphic novel, and much more all together in one thing.

Because comics can be more than one simplistic thing that conforms narrowly to the definitions allowing easier dismissal. Because comic culture is part of literary culture, and part of broader pop culture, and this is particularly true in parts of the world that don’t harbor the same mistaken biases against the medium and its adaptations as exist in the U.S.A. and certain other (mostly western) nations.

So I hope you check out some films on this list if you haven’t seen them yet, especially Hugo because Martin Scorsese made one of the most beautiful and emotionally compelling adaptations himself. Because when you have great filmmakers and storytellers working on any story in any medium, be it comics or film, or even films based on comics, they can and do create true art.

I’ll say once again that if you like these films, please also take time to read comics they’re based on. Hopefully, some of those who harbor biases against comics and comic book film adaptations will find those biases challenged and even overcome.

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