Is it an accident that comics and superheroes “go together”? Or is there something about the genre that inherently just works with caped crusaders? Obviously, comics have been used to tell other types of stories, and movies and television now feature superheroes. But comics simply haven’t been as successful telling other types of stories (commercially, that is), and movies and television tend to adapt storylines from comics. What is it about this genre and that medium that suits them for one another? (And yes, feel free to reference the pirate comics in Watchmen if you’d like.)
To be honest, I think the only inherent thing about the superhero genre that makes it the best seller of the comic book medium is the fact that up until the late 1990s/early 2000s, the superhero genre could not be easily adapted for the big screen. Just think about the other types of stories that used to be put into comic books alongside superheroes. For the most part, they were romance comics and westerns. Both of those genres require very little effort to be adapted for TV shows or movies, and they appeal to much wider audiences (or at least, they did) compared to superhero stories. Superhero stories also require a much larger special effects budget to really do them justice (no pun intended). So overall, it is logical that a movie studio would shy away from what they might consider a niche, expensive production and instead go for the popular, cheaper production. Without movies and TV shows to watch, the fans of superhero stories just kept on buying comic books, whereas the romance/western crowd migrated to movies and TV.
I would guess that this is why the comic book industry changed to the way it is now, and that’s made especially clear in modern times. Now that the superhero genre is being successfully adapted to the big screen, all of these new superhero fans aren’t really helping the comic book industry. On the contrary, it’s becoming harder and harder to get new people into comic book shops now that the superhero genre is becoming more prevalent in other forms of media. So yeah, as much as I’d like to think that there’s something special that makes comics and superheroes like PB&J, the truth is that neither one really needs the other, and the past 80+ years of superhero comics have really just been something of a “happy accident”.
I’d call it a series of happy accidents, because early comics were far more diverse than comics up until recently. Note that most of these accidents only happened in the United States, too, with the rest of the world either abandoning comic books completely or having a far more diverse selection of titles where superheroes are a minority.
The most straightforward “accident,” of course, is the price of moving the characters to another medium weighed against the desire for fluid movement. That is, superheroes come with special effects, which have been expensive until very recently, but the difference between a comic book and a (cheaply made) cartoon is negligible.
Then, there was the Comics Code, which spent fifteen to twenty years limiting the industry to incorruptible law enforcement (i.e., superheroes) or the simplest children’s stories, like Disney’s books.
Market consolidation probably didn’t help diversity, either. As the economy shifted, the biggest companies in the industry happened to also be the companies with the strongest associations with superheroes (even eventually jointly trademarking “Super-Hero”), so those were the titles that got preserved over time, with institutional memory of the others fading.
But there’s also the detail that…nobody outside of comics really cared about superheroes. Other than the occasional short-lived Saturday-morning cartoon or TV series based on one of the biggest names, it’s Batman: The Animated Series that brought superhero stories to the mainstream, with Superman: The Movie mostly an aberration. That probably reinforced the division more than anything else.
Thanks for your substantial reply! Sounds like a grim forecast for the comics industry, though I love the medium itself. Superheroes are a great deal of fun, but they will never quite shed their silliness, as effective as they are as metaphors and action heroes. But the medium of comics has somehow managed to survive, and I imagine it still will. It’s an interesting compromise, though, between moving picture and pure text that is by no means obvious.
Great points. Thanks for the reply! Yeah, this question came into my head after seeing the 2019 DC Halloween title, “Secrets of Sinister House” or something like that—designed like one of those classic (pre-Comics Code?) horror comics, but with the Joker in the foreground and a vampiric-looking Batman. And I thought, “How weird that they’re aping this classic type of old comic, but to make it profitable, they have to use superheroes.”
So, do you think Hollywood needs the comics industry to make interesting superhero movies and shows, or is there enough material out there thanks to the 20th Century that even if the industry dried up completely, they could simply go on adapting stories pretty much forever? Or, for that matter, do good superhero movies need to be based on comics at all?
Well, I don’t think comics are particularly suited to any one genre. But I will say that the reason why superhero comics (and by extension fantasy and sci-fi comics) work well is because there’s no “production budget”, like there is in films, but you also don’t need to spend pages and pages describing any high-concept stuff you want to have in your story, like you would in a novel. An artist can draw whatever they want. There are no limits to what you can put on a page, and so you don’t need to worry about shoddy CGI or the cost of props or having to describe, say, a spaceship in detail so that the audience understands what it looks like.
Good point. Superheroes are so bizarre, though—surely there are lots of other visually dazzling concepts that would have needed tons of special effects, but were never comics.
I’d say the more I think about it, the more skeptical I’m getting about the idea that superhero movies are the result of getting complex enough technology to do special effects. Maybe I’m wrong. It’s not as though Batman has powers that 1990s special effects couldn’t render onto film. And the first superhero films of the 21st Century had rather cheesy special effects (X-Men, Spider-Man). But they did quite well.
I wonder if it was something a lot less inevitable, something like tone. X-Men, Spider-Man, and Iron Man (and the Dark Knight trilogy) managed to tell these absurd stories in a non-clumsy way, winking at some of the absurdity, but not transforming it all into a cartoon (like the Superman and Batman films had kind of done). In short, it seems like the directors took the material more seriously than before, and this is why these movies took off. Meanwhile, a generation that had grown up in Claremont and Miller were also ready to take it seriously. I bet if these stories had been written and directed in the same way in the ‘50’s, ‘70’s, or ‘90’s it would have had similar results, even without the enormous budgets and leaps in special effects technology.
I also wonder if this is why the DC films are occasionally not quite as good as (while often possessing more heart than) many of the Marvel films. The Marvel films know exactly what tone to strike to serve their (much more) character-based comics. But DC has legends, icons. They haven’t found the formula yet to serve all of them—what works for, say, Wonder Woman won’t work for Batman. Marvel does mortals, though, and you can do mortals with tongue firmly in cheek and still have them come off as real people. But how do you film gods?
Just a random thought (a bunch, really)—what do you think?
My instinct is that you don’t need the comic industry, because everybody knows what a superhero looks like, at this point. But, as long as there are people buying comics in some form, it’s more economical to experiment in comics and let the four quadrant characters “graduate” to other media. But that’s just for the big studios, who want that security blanket of having someone else do the innovating.
The non-comic idea is especially useful, if we can find a better way to market and distribute indie films, because this (YouTube) is what was possible ten years ago for a couple hundred dollars. I don’t know about anybody else, but this seems to show that you don’t necessarily need a big budget or a pre-existing franchise to produce something worthwhile.