Tuesday, March 30, 2004


As I mentioned in a previous post, while I have no aesthetic interest in contemporary superhero comics, I do find myself fascinated by the "industry." In particular, the fact that the medium of comics is commercially dominated by a genre which is virtually nonexistent outside that genre is a mystery which intrigues me. Nor am I the only one intrigued by it, apparently: there's been a good deal of related discussion in the comics blogosphere in recent weeks. And so, via The Hurting, a column by Paul O'Brien on why fans of superhero comics generally don't read other genres of comics. Most of what O'Brien says I agree with. However, at one point he says that comics "do superheroes better, and more, than pretty much anyone else." "More," unquestionably; but better? This is a commonplace, of course, and forty years ago, or even twenty years ago, it may well have been true. But it's not true today, at least if we're speaking in terms of popular appeal. The essence of superheroes, the thing that gives them what appeal to the general public they have, is people in colorful costumes performing extraordinary feats. And movies today, with their sophisticated special effects and CG effects, can present such feats far more effectively than comics. (Some superhero fans may argue in reply that a fight scene drawn by an artist like Kirby actually has more impact than a fight acted out by live actors. In the first place, obviously, few if any of today's artists are of Kirby's caliber. But even if they were, it probably wouldn't make much difference. People made similar arguments about silent vs. sound movies, and radio drama vs. TV, and it didn't help: the majority will always go for the more literal medium.)

Hence the absence of "spill-over" from successful superhero movies to superhero comics. This has been blamed upon the fact that continuing superhero comic titles provide no jumping-in points for new readers, but I think this is only part of the reason. To the general public that watched the Spiderman or X-Men movies, the facts that the character was originally a comic and that comics are the "home" of superheroes are neither here nor there. They didn't go to those movies because they were interested in superheroes per se, or in those particular characters: they went because they wanted to see exciting action. And on that level comics are a poor second to movies.

This isn't to say that superhero comics don't offer anything that superhero movies don't. They do: they offer elaborate multi-hero universes, endless soap-operatic plotlines, and continuity stretching back decades, which movies can't match. But these features have no intrinsic link to superheroes: it's historical contingency which explains why superhero comics came to display these features, rather than, say, funny-animal comics. I'd go so far as to say that it is these features, rather than superheroes per se, which are the real attraction of superhero comics for their current readers. To back up this assertion, or even to make it plausible, would take another and longer post. But as a small piece of supporting evidence, I'll point to the persistent failure of comics like Batman Adventures, which are intended to be general reader-friendly, and so steer clear of these features, in the direct sales market.

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