Are comic book movies hurting the source material that inspired them? There’s no question that the landscape of comics has changed drastically since the Gold and Silver Ages, but how has the medium changed in recent years? Guest writer, Dead Man’s Party artist, Scott Barnett, takes on this idea in the latest Darby Pops Off.
Until next time,
Darby Pop’s esteemed publisher, Jeff Kline, and I were recently discussing an article he showed me about the relationship between comic books and comic book movies titled ‘How comic book movies are making comic books worse’ (http://www.pressherald.com/2016/05/22/how-comic-book-movies-are-making-comic-books-worse), writer Joe Gross contends that the movies are having a generally negative impact on their source material. Shocking reveal given the title, right? Mr. Gross feels there are important aspects of the comic books of yesteryear that have been weeded out of today’s books, resulting in a weaker or less enjoyable product.
“Superhero comics are not the kid–aimed, dream–logic wish fulfillment of the 1940s and ’50s. They’re not the attempts to appeal to teens of the ’60s and ’70s, full of angsty heroes and dense plots rocketing ever forward. They’re not the grimmer and grittier comics of the 1980s, such as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen” or Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.” They’re not the urban fantasies of the 1990s such as Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” or Garth Ennis’ and Steve Dillon’s “Preacher.”
I agree with Mr. Gross on this point, but it’s not the fault of the movies. The demographic that comic books appeal to today is, in fact, older. But, that’s because somewhere along the way, the readers of my generation became adults, got into the ‘biz,’ and decided to start writing for themselves, not for the next wave of kids. The ‘circle of life’ turned into a straight line, as it were. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m the co-creator of a mature book myself. I’m not saying we shouldn’t also have adults–only books; comic books are a great format for most genres and age-appropriateness – action/adventure, sci-fi, crime, superheroes, you name it. But, Spider-Man probably shouldn’t tell a story centered around killing his wife due to her continued exposure to his radioactive sperm (yes, that was an actual published tale, set in Spider-Man’s future). I believe Spidey should remain the domain of the all–ages crowd. You want to get some mature themes in Spider-Man? Then, make it so that those concepts fly right over the head of a child, while providing content said child could enjoy, as well.
Which leads me to another point Mr. Gross makes:
“Part of the reason comics from decades past might seem stilted to the modern reader is that each issue needed to be a potential point of entry – powers and relationships were often re–explained in every one. As storylines have gotten longer or become, in comics parlance, “decompressed,” the vast majority of titles have begun to feel more and more like work that is easily adaptable to the big screen.”
Here, he refers to the pacing of comic books, past and present. In the early days of the industry, writers were told to treat each comic book as, potentially, someone’s first issue. If you had a long storyline spanning multiple issues, you’d better make sure any issue could be picked up and enjoyed on its own. Stan Lee used to make sure that in every issue, he had each character referred to by their civilian name AND their superhero name at least once. He made sure every character used their superhuman abilities at least once per issue, as well. Each reader, even if he/she was new to the title, could immediately understand who these people were. Likewise, the story was handled the same way. At some point in each issue, the overall conflict was subtly referred to – the reader didn’t have to guess what was going on. Now, maybe those practices were eventually dropped when readers started getting older (and more media savvy); editors assuming adults could put the pieces together on their own. But, as someone who stopped collecting for a while and returned to the fold, I can tell you that I’ve had difficulties figuring out what was going on recently in titles I used to follow religiously. What has further confused the issue is that multiple titles are so intertwined with each other (and have been for a while now) that you need to follow several series simultaneously to understand the bigger picture, at least at the larger companies with their connected universes. (I’ll give you Two Big Guesses to whom I’m referring.) Mr. Gross didn’t mention this last point, but I believe it’s related.
Again, while I agree with his points, I don’t believe any of this is the fault of the movies. Comic books were evolving in content and presentation before the comic book films really started to take off around 2000 with the release of the first X–Men movie.
For those not familiar with the term ‘decompression,’ I’ve come to understand it as today’s writers lengthening storylines for effect (and possibly in service of being eventually collected into trade paperbacks), no longer having to worry about losing a reader due to the shorter attention span of children. That doesn’t mean decompression is wrong – there are many writers who make it work well, but there’s the contention that, sometimes, storylines are being needlessly stretched out. Personally, I think that should be judged on a case-by-case basis. And, again, has little or nothing to do with comic book films.
Lastly, Mr. Gross cites today’s comic books as trying to be too ‘high brow.’ But wanting comics to go back to being ‘low brow’ is a silly notion, since the demographic is older and more demanding now. And even when much of the audience was younger, the best writers knew how to layer their stories so they worked for young and old alike, as mentioned earlier. One of my favorite runs of all time was John Byrne’s stint on Fantastic Four in the early-to-mid ‘80s. I’ve enjoyed it on different levels depending upon whether I read it as a teenager or looked at those issues again when I was older. Walt Simonson’s Thor and Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Batman worked on different levels, too. Of course, it didn’t hurt that their art styles were about as dynamic as anything I’d ever seen, too, but I digress…
Trade paperback-length stories are how it’s done today, given the fact that many adults like the format more than individual issues. But, you can still appeal to multiple audiences simultaneously in a story that’s suitable to be collected in TPB format. And comics – other than those intended for the youngest readers – have always been serialized; that’s a huge part of their appeal.
In conclusion, I guess I’d have to say Mr. Gross is misplacing his blame. It ain’t the movies that have changed comics – it’s the folks makin’ the books! My hope is that the movies, given how successful they’ve been, are actually helping to raise the overall profile of the industry.
That said, I’d love to pay homage to the writers I grew up reading and take a property of my own, utilizing the same philosophy as Stan Lee, John Byrne, or Walt Simsonson,… where every issue is someone’s first, and all that…
…and then exploit the crap out of it and turn it into a movie!
About the Author
Scott Barnett is the artist and co-creator of Dead Man’s Party – the TPB-length story of a world class assassin forced to sic a deadly roster of his competitors on himself. You can read more about it at http://www.darbypop.com/titles/dead–mans–party/ or http://www.deadmansparty.org/. When not drawing hitmen killing each other, Scott enjoys chasing his 2-year old son around New Jersey with his wife.