Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Comics: A Species in Evolution [by Robert Thompson]

Mention comic books in a conversation and most people will probably automatically think of superheroes such as Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men, Superman, or the Incredible Hulk just to name a few. And who could blame them? Comic books rose to popularity because of superheroes, have maintained their popularity for over half a century thanks to Marvel and DC Comics—two of the world’s largest comic book publishers, both of which specialize in superheroes—and are more popular than ever because of comic book movies with The Dark Knight and the three Spider-Man films representing four of the top 30 worldwide grossing movies of all time, and all released in the past decade. Heck, the reason I fell in love with comic books—and have continued reading comic books for over the past twenty years—was mainly because of superheroes. So I understand how easy it is to pigeonhole comic books as superhero fare.

But there’s much more to comic books than just superheroes. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, comedy, romance, Westerns, mystery, noir, licensed properties (Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Transformers, etc), comic books for adults, comic books for children, comic books for teenagers . . . no matter how rich or diverse your tastes may be, there’s something out there for everyone, and that’s not even counting the comic books produced by other countries like Japan’s incredibly popular manga-styled comics. Of course, before the whole comic book movie boom, it wasn’t quite as easy to find comic books that didn’t feature superheroes in them. For me, I never read a comic book outside of Marvel or DC until 1992 with the launch of Image Comics (Spawn, Shadowhawk, WildC.A.T.s, Youngblood). Even then, the comics produced by Image were just a different kind of superhero, but they planted a seed in me, and over the years my tastes have continued to blossom thanks to companies like Vertigo (Sandman, Preacher, Y: The Last Man, Transmetropolitan, Hellblazer), Dark Horse (Sin City, Hellboy, Conan), Wildstorm (Astro City, Danger Girl, Gen 13), Top Cow (Witchblade, The Darkness, Fathom), IDW Publishing (30 Days of Night), the now defunct CrossGen, Avatar Press (Freakangels, Gravel), Aspen Comics (Soulfire), Dabel Brothers (GRRM’s The Hedge Knight, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time), Virgin Comics (John Woo’s Seven Brothers)—now known as Liquid ComicsRadical (City of Dust, Hercules, Hotwire), and many others.

Nowadays, I rarely read superhero comics at all. In fact, if you were to enter my house you would see a collection dominated by such titles as The Sandman, Preacher, Locke & Key, Transmetropolitan, The Sword, Y: The Last Man, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower and The Stand, Sleeper, Elephantmen, George R. R. Martin’s The Hedge Knight, The Umbrella Academy, et cetera. Naturally, my change in tastes has a lot do with my own evolving interests, but there’s more to it than that and the biggest reason is that comic books in general have evolved. Just look at what’s happened in the world of comics over the past few years: Marvel was acquired by Disney for $4 Billion; Warner Bros. creates DC Entertainment; comic books go digital through iTunes, Sony’s PlayStation®Portable (PSP) and Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited; major book publishers—Del Rey Manga, Hachette Book Group’s Yen Press, Tor’s Seven Seas—are producing their own comic books and graphic novels; movie directors (John Woo, Guy Ritchie, Jonathan Mostow), actors/actresses (Nicolas Cage, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Rosario Dawson, Tyrese Gibson, Seth Green), screenwriters/producers (David S. Goyer, Marc Guggenheim, Damon Lindenlof), rock stars (My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, Rob Zombie, Gene Simmons) and bestselling authors (Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Joe Hill, Orson Scott Card, Laurell K. Hamilton) are writing and creating their own comic books while comic book writers and artists (Frank Miller, Brian K. Vaughn, Mark Millar, Alex Ross, Tim Sales, Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Joe Madureira) are contributing to film, television and gaming; all this and I haven’t even mentioned the countless comic book-adapted films and television shows that have been released or are currently in development.

So what does it all mean? Well, to be blunt, it means that comic books are relevant now. Sure, we comic book fans have had our moments over the years like when Watchmen was awarded the Hugo Award in 1988 or when “The Death of Superman” event was covered by national and international news, but for the most part comic books were never taken very seriously. Now? Now, comic books are used to promote the hottest movies, video games and television shows; can be read using the latest technology; and are attracting the biggest names in entertainment while making household names out of comic book creators. Heck, comic books are even being used to adapt classic literature (Dynamite Entertainment’s The Complete Dracula and The Complete Alice In Wonderland) and spotlight celebrities like the recently announced line of Fame “biographical comics” featuring such personalities as Lady Gaga, 50 Cent and Taylor Swift. In short, comic books are mainstream now and I for one could not be happier J

You see, in addition to reading speculative fiction and comic books, I also love to watch movies and television, listen to music, and play video games, all while trying to keep up with the latest technology. So I love the fact that Hollywood, comic book publishers, video game companies, book publishers, and digital media are all trying to work together. Is it a perfect marriage? No. Take for instance the way companies exploit brand names to push inferior products, or the fact that some people outside of the comic book biz just should not work with comic books and vice versa. But as a whole, I believe the positives far outweigh the negatives. For one, I think it’s incredibly cool when a favorite comic book character of mine, book, graphic novel or cartoon is adapted into a different format, be it film, television, animation, video games, comic books, or prose. I also love the idea of my favorite authors, screenplay writers, artists or comic book writers contributing their talents to a medium outside their area of expertise. I also think it’s smart for a franchise, both popular and newly established ones—Star Wars, Batman, Final Fantasy, Transformers, CSI, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Halo, Metal Gear Solid, God of War, Mass Effect, inFamous, Dante’s Inferno—to use different mediums to expand their mythology and fanbases. After all, some ideas just work better in a certain format. Plus, it’s a great way to get people who may only play video games, watch DVDs or browse the Internet, interested in a different form of entertainment like reading novels or comic books, and so on. Then there’s the whole diversity factor, with different mediums—comic books in particular—offering a wider selection of products than ever before.

The big question about all of this is: will it last? To be honest, I don’t have a clue. On the one hand, Hollywood, comic book publishers, video game companies, book publishers, and digital media could end up developing a synergistic relationship that will be successful for decades to come. Or, it could all fall apart. Personally, I’m rooting for the former, but we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. For now, I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the ride. After all, regardless of where your tastes may lie—movies, television, comic books, video games, prose, gagdets, et cetera—we’re entering a whole new age of entertainment, and I have a feeling that things are going to get interesting...

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