Whenever a novel is adapted to celluloid, critics always take to vehement clucking.\nThey pick apart the adaptations, dwelling on the inconsistencies and how the film version lacks the spirit of the original. Whether the box office bomb "Bram Stoker's Dracula" or the critically acclaimed "Howard's End," someone is invariably up in arms, clamoring about the lack of faithfulness, the creative liberties taken.\nBut this is the age of the popcorn movie. Accustomed to the sound and fury of the summer blockbuster, moviegoers demand flash and bang for their buck.\nHollywood moguls are less likely to look to the canon of Western literature these days than they are to the tattered, ink-bled pages of comic books. After all, comic books would be the obvious choice. Beside a guaranteed lock on the adolescent demographic, they have a strong visual component, which lends itself well to the silver screen.\nAnd the so-called graphic novels have born much fruit at the box office in the recent past. "Men in Black" was a smash hit, and films like "Blade" and "Mystery Men" fared much better than anyone expected.\nOnly a few years earlier, the genre seemed moribund, seized by rigor mortis. Director Tim Burton had abandoned the "Batman" film franchise, which then churned out sequel after unsuccessful sequel, the budget of each more bloated than the last. No one anticipated a renaissance.\nBut things seem to have turned full circle. In July, Bryan Singer's "X-Men" proved to be the surprise of the summer. Despite its moodiness, it grossed about $56 million in its opening weekend. Despite its kitschy source of inspiration, the response from critics was, by and large, favorable. Most significantly, despite its departures from the comic version, loyal fans received it with open arms.\nRarely is such a feat achieved. \nDevotees of comic books are notoriously hard to please, inclined to groan whenever they hear of a studio's plans to option a particular title.\n"When I go to see such a movie, I always expect the worst," said Doug Wilds, a co-owner of Vintage Phoenix, 114 E. Sixth St. "It might be just morbid curiosity, but I always go in thinking to myself that hopefully it won't be that bad."\nNow that the 25th Century Five and Dime has gone out of business, Vintage Phoenix is the only game in town. A few customers silently stalk about the shelves in mid-afternoon, looking with furrowed brows for whatever title happens to suit their fancy. \nWilds sits serenely behind the glass counter, leafing through a trade journal.\nHe recalls particular movies that have gained varying degrees of notoriety in the subculture.\n"The worst that I know of is 'Steel,'" he said, referring a film starring Shaquille O'Neal as the DC hero. "I've never seen it, and I can't say I know many who did. But those brave enough really hated it. I still hear people coming in mocking it."\nBut "X-Men" changed the rules and challenged the conventional wisdom in Wilds' opinion.\nFilm critics either lauded the movie or panned it for the same reason ' it took itself seriously. In a dramatic innovation for the genre, Singer decided to eschew the sidelong irony that has come to characterize it.\n"It was very well done for a comic book movie," Wilds said. "It was well-written. And they never went overboard with the self-references. They're usually really campy."\nWilds said it contrasted favorably with "Captain America" and the 1970s Incredible Hulk television series.\n"It shows that it can be done," he said. "All you need is a really good writer. Well, good writing and a good story."\nThis school of thinking extends well beyond Wilds' Sixth Street shop.\nIn the wake of "X-Men," Sony announced it is now ratcheting up the scale of a forthcoming Spiderman film, a franchise of Marvel Comics, the industry's titan. In a play to increase commercial viability, the scheduled release date is being moved back from November 2001 to May 2002.\n"What it does for us, it's the first movie of the summer, it starts the whole business," executive producer Avi Arad said in a press release. "It also makes it a summer movie in Europe. We get out May 3, and I think we are going to have an incredible run. Christmas would have been good, but it's not summer."\nArad avowed the only flaw to be found in Singer's film was its relatively late release.\n"We decided that we are much better off with a movie in the summer, especially after 'X-Men,'" he said. "We'll be starting the summer like 'Gladiator.' I like summer movies." \nAnd like "X-Men," which starred Shakespearean-trained actors Ian MacKellan and Patrick Stewart, the Spiderman movie should boast actual talent. The movie is tentatively slated to star Toby Maguire as Peter Parker, Kate Hudson as love interest Mary Jane and John Malkovich as the Green Goblin. Sam Raimi, of "Evil Dead" and "A Simple Plan" fame, is already committed to direct. Arad is already enthused about which villains will appear in the sequels.\nAs originally intended, a sequel for "X-Men" is already in the works. Unlike Burton's "Batman," none of the characters are killed off, and narrative threads are deliberately left open. Singer plans on directing again, and most of the cast is contractually bound to return for another go at it. \nMarvel's rival DC also took heart from the success of "X-Men." It's revived plans to make a big budget action movie based on that American icon, Superman. It won't be as campy as the Christopher Reeves franchise, though it should be somewhat off-kilter with Nicholas Cage in the lead role and Kevin Smith possibly directing.\nWhile "X-Men" may have made studios more receptive to adaptations, it's largely still the same old ballgame of hit or miss. Dark Horse Comics has been in the movie business for years. It's been optioning out its franchises and producing the film versions since the early '90s. \n"We decided that we ought to branch out," said Shauna Irvin-Coore, a spokeswoman for Dark Horse. "It's making the most of our assets. The comic book is the most exciting medium today. With all of the creativity in comics, it's becoming fruitful for studios to explore one of the best content providers." \nMany of Dark Horse's movies ' like "Tank Girl," "Barbed Wire" and "Time Cop" ' have crashed and burned, leaving only skid marks and splotches of motor oil. But it's also had smash hits to its credit.\n"The Mask" garnered much fanfare, propelling its rubber-faced lead Jim Carrey into superstardom. For a while, he was the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, bringing in $30 million a film. And the offbeat "Mystery Men" ingratiated a good many critics and moviegoers alike.\nBut Irvin-Coore concedes that, unlike "X-Men," neither film has much in common with the source of inspiration.\n"'Mystery Men' is a great adaptation," she said. "It's not really like the comic, which is funnier and more grounded in real life. They put it in a bigger, Hollywood way. But it did well, and you can't argue with that."\n"X-Men" or not, Irvin-Coore said she foresees more comic book adaptation in the future. She said more film versions of popular comic books are now possible with advances in CGI, or computer-generated imagery.\n"With all of the special effects that people now expect, CGI allows us to make some characters look more credible on the screen," she said. "Yeah, Spawn may have just been a guy in a suit, but it was digitally enhanced.\n"Now that it's opened up, there's going to be more. It's a very rich field"