The Forgotten Comic Book Origins of 'Men in Black'

One year before 'Blade' supposedly kicked off our current glut of comic book movies there was this independent comic gobbled up by Marvel and transformed by Barry Sonnenfeld.

Men In Black
Sony Pictures Releasing

They are a rumor, recognizable only as deja vu and dismissed just as quickly. Men in Black destroyed the 4th of July box office in ‘97. Running away with the first place prize of $51 million, knocking Face/Off from its perch. The film reigned supreme for the entire month, and would eventually go on to claim Rick Baker his fifth Academy Award win for Best Makeup, as well as nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Original Score.

Men in Black epitomized the summer movie season as a joyous assault of visual effects and buddy-cop humor. In twisting the same government conspiracies and tabloid UFO accounts that fueled the more dour investigations of The X-Files, director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Ed Solomon concocted a perfect confection that could entice an audience seeking jokes or one hip to ’50s era sci-fi Easter eggs. The geek renaissance was on the cusp of erupting, and mainstream audiences were eager to adopt fringe entertainments as their own.

The film was an early bite from a comic book pie cooling on the windowsill. Loosely based on the Aircel Comics series written by Lowell Cunningham and illustrated by Sandy Carruthers, the original storyline focused on the secret government agency that policed various alien and supernatural threats to Earth. Not content with little green men, the comic book characters also battled mutants, werewolves, vampires, and zombies. Only six issues were published between 1990 and 1991 before Hollywood snatched up the concept. Aircel would eventually be purchased by Malibu Comics which in turn was consumed by Marvel Comics right before the release of the film. Once they got hold of the rights, Marvel pumped out multiple one-shots, but the series failed to reach the success of its cinematic counterpart.

Men In Black Based On The Marvel Comic

Rewatching the film today, Lowell Cunningham and Marvel Comics’ opening title credit smacks with a much more severe impact than it ever did in 1997. Obviously, the comic book company did not have the same cache in a pre-MCU world. Prior to Men in Black, their only significant “mainstream” achievements were an unmemorable Captain America serial from the ’40s, The Incredible Hulk television series, the Spider-Man show, a few other failed pilots, Howard the Duck, a loose affiliation with Red Sonja, a direct-to-video Punisher film, a direct-to-video Captain America film, and the aborted Roger Corman produced Fantastic Four atrocity. To think that the company would ever rise above a blip in the larger pop culture conversation seemed impossible, but the Men in Black adaptation was a huge step forward a year before Blade would properly kick things off.

The comic book was a far grimmer experience than the film, especially in those first two black-and-white iterations. In battling aliens and monsters, Agents Jay and Kay were much more inclined to throw a perp off a cliff and admire its splattery remains than peacefully neurolize onlookers. In the first issue, Jay is recruited into the organization by Kay after the two battle a demonic cult peddling a new super-drug that transforms the users into crazed savages. Imagine Zootopia without any societal commentary and a lot more sawed-off shotguns. At the end of the comic, Kay drags Jay’s brutalized, pulpy mess of a body to his car and practically kidnaps him into MiB.

Cunningham stuck around for the Marvel one-shots, but practically vanished after Men in Black garnered blockbuster status. In the early 2000s, he spent most of his time scripting Star Wars parody films like Crazy Watto and Darth Vader’s Psychic Hotline. He told The New York Times on the weekend of the film’s release, “Everybody has one big idea in their lives. This was my big idea.” In 2012, he published one more comic book series, Jack Ooze, the saga of a district attorney that sometimes dealt vigilante justice in a semi-liquid form. Uh. Gross. One big idea – that tracks.

Prosperity is more than an idea, right? As clever as the film rode the line between comedy and action, Men in Black succeeds beyond its concept because of our undeniable attraction to Will Smith. The actor was just starting his ascent from a successful musician and television star to a full-blown cinematic icon. He had previously proven his chops in Six Degrees of Separation and revealed how far his charisma could endow the action hero routine of Bad Boys and Independence Day. Men in Black was his final affirmation as a bonafide star; there was no shaking him after this.

As NYPD officer James Darrell Edwards III, Smith is our gateway character into the bizarre shenanigans of the MiB organization. After accidentally stumbling into the unseen world of alien/human cohabitation, James is recruited by Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K. Just as it demonstrated to be popular in several action cop comedies of the 80s, the Martin and Lewis buddy dynamic is applied to Smith and Jones to delightful effect. Few straight men are as rigid or painfully hilarious as Tommy Lee Jones. One can never get a bead on him.

Toss in a plethora of remarkable actors inside the human suits of mondo bizarro extraterrestrials, and Men In Black remains a must-see experience for genre hounds. Vincent D’Onofrio, Tony Shalhoub, Rip Torn, Jon Gries, Linda Fiorentino…and on and on and on. Each new creature offers an opportunity to marvel at the performance as well as the design. The film is as much Rick Baker’s candy store as anything else. Logic matters not; what looks cool is the only concern. In marveling at each alien monster, you’re also witnessing the palpable behind-the-scenes glee of the effects team at play. 

Twenty-two years after Men in Black commanded theaters, we’re still trying to exploit Lowell Cunningham’s one brilliant idea. The sequels have mostly squandered the concept with even the original actors failing to meet the enthusiasm of round one. Let’s hope the fresh blood of Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth can resuscitate the imagination, returning a little wonder to extraterrestrial life using our homeworld dump as their battleground/rest stop.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.