Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Films in Comic Books: Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus! The name itself brings to mind rousing adventure, thrilling action, sweeping romance and deep, deep chin clefts. Spartacus! The epic historical drama directed by Stanley Kubrick, master of 20th century cinema, written by Oscar-winner Dalton Trumbo, and starring a prestigious cast including Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis, and Tom Cruise! I just threw Tom Cruise in there to see if you were paying attention. Spartacus! The classic film whose cast have been nominated for all the major awards (including Kirk Douglas as People magazine's Sexiest Man of the Year 1961). Spartacus! Its climatic scene of hilarious mistaken identity in which everyone forgets their own name is justifiably one of the most iconic in cinema history. But I haven't seen it.

I have read the comic book, though.

From the 1950s through the '80s, if you wanted to relive the thrill and excitement of a major motion picture you'd seen, you couldn't pick up the VHS cassette or see it on pay-per-view: you had to buy the comic book adaption of the movie. And read it over, and over, and over again until the cover fell off and you thus rendered it valueless for resale. (Which is, after all, what you're supposed to do with comic books.) In the fifties and sixties the leading publisher of comic book movie adaptations was Dell, who in their Four Color and Movie Classics anthology series brought to the ten-cent comical book movies that were prestigious...

...films obscure...

and cinema downright infamous:

So here, enjoy this epic comic book of slaves within the world of the Roman Empire!

Panels from Asterix and the Laurel Wreath (1974), script by René Goscinny, art by Albert Uderzo

Whoops, I'm sorry. That's the wrong comic book about slaves in ancient Rome.

One benefit of the comic book over the film: it hops right into the action. There's no long overture, list of credits, or dramatic notice to switch off your cell phones. Dell Comics: relax and enjoy the show!

Panels from Four Color #1139 [Spartacus] (November 1960), comic book script by Gaylord Du Bois, pencils by John Buscema, inks by John Buscema and Mike Peppe

The film comic opens as slave Spartacus arrives at the estate of his new owner, his trademark chin cleft neatly disguised by a grizzled beard. That's what Kirk Douglas does to travel incognito, and he's sticking to that trick.

This is immediately followed by the famous movie scene in which every other slave cries out that he is Spartacus. No, no, wait, I've made another one of my silly mistakes...that happens much later. What really happens is that the slaves are put through the paces to see how well they can fight. Of such lengthy, oil-slicked scenes are eventually born American Gladiators.

Clad in his Star Trek-extra generic tunic, Spartacus meets and falls in love with sexy lady slave Varininusiausera, or something like that. It's love at first sight at the buffet. Spartacus is so enamored of Varanusia that he completely forgets to go back for a second-helping of all-you-can-eat beer-battered deep-fried Louisiana shrimp.

Hijinks ensue in this light-hearted, romantic comedy romp as Spartacus playfully steals Venusian's cart. Oh no, her cart! What is she going to sell 99¢ New York hot dogs in dirty warm water from now?

But it's not all fun 'n' games! (Only mostly.) During his all-out manly-and-sweaty Russell Crowe-style gladiator practice, Spartacus defeats the burly African warrior Draba.

After pulling a thorn out of Draba's paw showing kindness to Draba, Spartacus earns his respect and his mercy during an actual gladiatorial match to the death.

The stoic Draba is the only black man in the film. By the most strict of Hollywood rules, we all know what that means: Draba will be killed by the end of his second scene. Yep, right on schedule!

When his owners sell off Violetbeauregard, Spartacus has had enough. Suddenly, the slaves are revolting! Also, they are rebelling against their cruel masters. Now that's what the people of 1960 went to the movies for: hot cauldron-tippin' action!

Conclusively proven by this scene: extras should stick to the script and not attempt to ab-lib their fighting dialogue. "Yi-eee"? "Yarr-oww"? They may as well be yelling "We are Sparta(cus)!"

Victory! The slaves bust out of captivity! Also, they shout out the names of their favorite George Michael songs.

When Veritassolution and Spartacus are finally reunited, there's much rejoicing. (Yay!) He swears to her by his life and his blood that they shall never be parted again. Anyone placing any money on the status of their relationship by the end of the film then?

Because it's a major motion picture by a huge Hollywood studio in the 1960s, it's now time for the big musical number! The smash hit single "Home" was number one on the Pan Pipe Charts for over XXXII weeks! Spartacus, however, appears to have fallen asleep. Perhaps he's read the next few pages of the script.

Not currently needed on the sets of The Robe or Ben-Hur, the Romans attack back against Spartacus and his warrior band of Spartacuses. All-out battle action is ahead of us!

...and, then it ends pretty quickly when the slaves manage to hold off the Romans. Well, now you know the score: ninety-eight: slaves; eight-two: Bruté.

Spartacus rallies the troops, in this case, a commando squad of rare Red Smurfs from the Rhone Valley. All twenty-two of them are facing off against three entire Roman armies, a face-off that will lead to historical legend, classic military tactics, and the ultra-homo-erotic movie 300.

In the movies, lengthy and prolonged battle sequences generally last about half an hour (seemingly longer if the movie is Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace), utilize millions of dollars in special effects, matte paintings, and fighting extras, as well as giving you plenty of time to head for the lobby to get yourself a treat. In a comic book, you can fit the entire campaign of the Hundred Years War inside three panels. Even if the last panel does appear to take place in a pool filled with urine. (Ewwwwwwwwwwwww.)

All the time this has been going on, Spartacus and Vimzimfalabang have been apart from each other. Oh, and she had his baby. Wow, a lot really does happen between the panels of a comic book! And that's exactly how I learned how babies are made: inside panel gutters.

The uprising is crushed, as are the spirits of everyone who had ten sesterii on Spartacus to beat the point spread.

It's here that the most famous scene of this movie...nay, the most famous scene of any movie titled Spartacus occurs, in which the Roman Centurion plays the same ploy that every grade school teacher since has ineffectively put in play: squeal on the troublemaker or everybody stays after class and does detention.

In a sudden twist we find out that this guy is Keyser Söze! No, wait, I've got that wrong. This guy is Spartacus!

Turns out everybody in chains is Spartacus! Including Tony Curtis and red-haired President Reagan!

I'm a Spartacus! You're a Spartacus! He's a Spartacus! She's a Spartacus! Wouldn't you like to be a Spartacus too?

Even Tony Curtis is Spartacus! By an extension of logic, therefore, Tony Curtis's Flintstones doppleganger Stoney Curtis is therefore Rocktacus! (I thought you'd just like to know that.)

Say, who else could possibly be Spartacus? Why, it's...Spartacus! And he's tied up with the flimsiest chains ever. Where did they buy those, Party City? I'm guessing that the next scene involves Spartacus breaking free of his paperclip chains and shoving that brush-headed helmet down the centurion's throat. And then standing on top of his corpse and yelling "FOOD FIGHT!" And that, ladies and gentleman, is why, in addition to never being called up before the House Hearings on Un-American Activities, I shall never be mistaken for Dalton Trumbo.

Special guest star Julius Caesar...is played by a cardboard cutout. Well, just like the face of Jesus, you can't show Caesar in the movies. Because he's a vampire.

As Spartacus is led away to get some ice cream to his execution, his heart is lightened even in his final hour by discovering Veriliumius and his tiny son S.J. are now free. Follow their rollicking adventures in Spartacus II: Electric Boogaloo!

I'm sure you're sobbing just as hard as I am as Spartacus walks that Long Green Mile and recites the last verse of his terrible LiveJournal poetry. Hey Spartacus! It doesn't even rhyme!

Special comic book bonus!: pin-up page of Kirk Douglas (as Spartacus) and his homies!

And to this day, Spartacus has remained a popular hero in comic books!

Panels from "The Imaginarium of Milhouse van Houten" in Simpsons One-Shot Wonders: Bart Simpson's Pal Milhouse one-shot (May 2012), script by Pat McGreal, pencils by John Delaney, inks by Andrew Pepoy, colors by Nathan Hamill, letters by Karen Bates

For, all us comic book geeks, nerds, and weirdos...are we not all...Spartacus?!?*

Cover of Captain America: The Chosen #6 (March 2008), painting by Mitch Breitweiser

*No. No, we are not.


  1. While the art is by John (Conan the Barbarian) Buscema and Mike Peppe, there are a number of panels (and most of the last four pages of the story) altered by Jack Sparling.

  2. Good to know; thanks, Britt! There were no credits in the old Four Colors and the Grand Comics Database is a little sparse on some of these art credits. I appreciate the eagle-eye!

  3. What kind of whistle goes "Brreeep!"?!?

  4. One of the greatest things about comic books is that it is very hard for one to copy one's idea, where if one comes up with a superhero story, then that particular plot will be associated with them for the rest of their life. old marvel comics