12 Movies Based On Nonfiction Comic Books

Not all comic book movies are about superheroes or fantastical made-up stories.

comic book movies American Splendor

The summer movie season is still in full force, with a new superhero blockbuster (Fantastic Four) due in theaters on Friday. It’s also the first week of school for many kids in my neck of the woods, so while I’m looking forward to the release of the latest Marvel Comics adaptation, I thought I’d seek out some more educational comic books and any movies based on them and then share what I find with readers.

While there are plenty of nonfiction comics, whether strips or graphic novels, very few have been adapted for the screen. And what has been turned into a movie is strictly the memoir type of nonfiction comic books rather than the historical, biographical, and otherwise informational variety. Also, none of them are documentaries, but contrary to how we look, Nonfics is not strictly devoted to docs, but any nonfiction.

Here are six that I’m aware of followed by five that are supposed to be made in the future. Please let me know of any I’ve missed.

American Splendor (2003)

Based on both Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor (1976–2008) comic book series and Joyce Brabner’s graphic novel Our Cancer Year (1994), the married couple’s autobiographical works naturally blend together given that their lives were obviously intertwined. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini play with the form and concepts of adaptation in clever ways, making this one of the best comic book movies of all time, regardless of genre or classification.

Barefoot Gen (1976; 1977; 1980; 1983; 1987; 2007)

Taking up half of the titles on this list are the multiple adaptations and their sequels of Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen manga series (1973–1974), which is based on his experience of living through the atomic-bombing of Hiroshima as a boy. It could be argued that these books are not nonfiction because Nakazawa has changed the name of the main character, and that makes it more clearly just inspired by his own story rather than the genuinely true account. First came the live-action trilogy directed by Tengo Yamada, then two anime features, one of which Nakazawa produced and the other even more loosely based on his life, and finally 20 years later a two-part live-action TV movie aired in Japan. We’ll probably be seeing more versions in the future, too.

Blue Pills (2014)

Swiss author and artist Frederik Peeters met a girl, eventually got serious about her, and then learned she and her young son have HIV. He later turned the experience into an award-winning graphic novel, published in 2008. Last year, a TV movie directed by Jean-Philippe Amar aired on the European network Arte.

Ethel & Ernest (2016)

Raymond Briggs’ 1998 graphic novel about his parents’ lives was set for an animated feature to be broadcast on the BBC in 2016 [and was later released in the U.S. in 2018]. Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn voice the leads.

I Had a Black Dog (His Name Was Depression) (2010)

Maybe Matthew Johnstone’s I Had a Black Dog (2005) and its sequel, Living With a Black Dog (2008) are more classified as illustrated books — like a children’s book for adults — than graphic novels. They don’t use the comic book panel approach to storytelling, but I first learned of them from a list of recommended graphic novels so I can’t not see it fitting in. Anyway, they’re based on Johnstone’s experiences with depression, and the first one was turned into a live-action short, which you can watch below.

My Friend Dahmer (2017)

This adaptation, based on the graphic novel by John Backderf (a.k.a. Derf Backderf), landed on the Black List of the greatest unproduced scripts [in 2014]. It’s mostly memoir but has the historical/biographical appeal of also being about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, whom Backderf was friends with in high school. It was turned into a movie by the producers of the supernatural action film The Last Witch Hunter.

Persepolis (2007)

Marjane Satrapi, who is now a full-fledged filmmaker, made her co-directorial debut with Vincent Paronnaud adapting her own graphic-novel memoirs about coming of age in Iran and Austria around the time of the former’s 1979 revolution. Although it’s very much concentrated on her personal, autobiographical story, the books (published in 2000) and this Oscar-nominated animated adaptation (which surprisingly, thankfully, doesn’t just employ the same exact drawings or even style, lifted from the page) offer a good amount of historical context, too, making this possibly the closest to educational material.

We Are the Best! (2013)

Like Satrapi, Coco Moodysson came of age as a punk-rock rebel, and she covered that time of her life, during which she played in an amateur band with two other girls, in the 2008 graphic novel Never Goodnight. For this movie adaptation, her husband, Lukas Moodysson, changed her name to Bobo, which could make it seem loosely fictionalized. But it was actually because “it was really important for me to not think too much about her because then it would have felt incestuous.”

In the Works:

Barefoot Gen — There was an attempt a number of years ago to get another Barefoot Gen movie made, this one in Hollywood, but currently there don’t seem to be any official plans. Manga and anime adaptations could be a big trend in the future, though, albeit more with the action-oriented Akira and Ghost in the Shell variety.

Jar of Fools — The 1990s comic series by Jason Lutes is classified as nonfiction, though it’s a somewhat fictionalized story presumed to be based on the life of Harry Houdini. An independent film has been in the works for a few years.

Louis Riel — Chester Brown’s “comic-strip biography” of the titular Canadian figure would be more of an educational/historical movie than the rest of these adaptations, but unfortunately plans by Bruce McDonald to bring the work to the screen have been unsuccessful.

Pyongyang — Guy Delisle’s 2004 graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea is an account of the author’s time working in the titular capital. It was set to be made into a movie starring Steve Carell and directed by Gore Verbinski, but production was canceled following the Sony hacks related to The Interview. Maybe there will be a new attempt down the road.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.