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[GUEST POST] A. Lee Martinez: Superhero Comics Could Learn a Thing or Two from Superhero Films

It’s been eleven years since the first X-Men film came out. In that time, we’ve had Iron Man, Hellboy, Spider-Man, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, two Hulk movies, a re-launch of Batman, an attempted re-launch of Superman, Thor, Captain America, and (if I get my way) Squirrel Girl will probably get her own movie some day. Superhero movies are not a fad. They’re here to stay.

But I’m not here to write about the continuing trend of superhero flicks. Rather, I’m here to compare and contrast the modern day superhero comic to the modern day superhero film. Despite starting with the same basic premise, they are in entirely different places culturally. And I think it’s time to admit that superhero comics could learn a thing or two from superhero films. Superhero films are written with a wide-ranging audience in mind while superhero comics are so narrowly aimed, such a niche market, that they can only continue to become less relevant as time goes by.

Superhero movies are made for the casual viewer, the folks who want to go watch a fantasy film, who aren’t obsessive about continuity or shared reality. Even Marvel’s upcoming Avengers film, while having a fair bit of continuity and probably rewarding those who paid attention to the previous films with a few treats here and there, isn’t going to require you see any of them to enjoy it. Because if Hollywood is investing millions of dollars into a blockbuster film, you can bet they aren’t planning on deliberately making it unfriendly to new audiences.

Superhero comic books, on the other hand, seem to delight in this brand of continuity lockout. It’s almost become a mark of whether or not you’re a true fan if you can tell how many times Hitler was killed in the Marvel universe (ANSWER: a whole heck of a lot) or if you know that Superman dated a mermaid for a while. If you can’t tell me who is faster, Flash or Superman, or who is smarter, Mr. Terrific or Elongated Man, or the complex psychology of the Hulk’s transformations, or how Batman got the batcomputer into the batcave, then you tend to be dismissed as a dabbler, an often unwelcome visitor in the world of superheroes. You don’t belong here, and you will be treated with disdain. Not just by the fans, but even by the writers themselves.

And then there’s all the “mature content” found in most superhero comics. Whether it’d death, gore, or sex, most superheroes are so entrenched in it that it can be overwhelming. While the recent Captain America film was a mostly bloodless pulp adventure, in the comic universe, a recent Cap stand-in had his arm ripped off and a hole punched through him. In All-Star Batman and Robin, a comic that is supposed to represent the absolute best of the characters, Batman is an unshaven thug and his idea of “training” Robin is to lock him in the Batcave and have the Boy Wonder catch rats. A recent Spider-Man comic had the Lizard eat his own son. Even darker films like The Dark Knight and X-Men: First Class can’t compete with the gritty angst and ugly death of most superhero comic books.

The paradox is obvious. Superhero comics struggle to maintain an audience that is both insular and unfriendly and by doing so, they continue to shrink and become culturally less relevant. Meanwhile, superhero movies strive to embrace mainstream accessibility. And while movies could be a great tool for revitalizing the comics, it all goes out the window the second most people pick up a Thor comic and see a shower of blood and guts when Thor smites a frost giant or reads about yet another character being raped or killed for cheap drama and childish versions of maturity.

I don’t think that all superhero comics need to be mainstream, but it still seems like the gulf between the superhero comic and the superhero movie is far too wide most times. And until the comic book industry realizes the benefits to being a little bit more like the movies, it’s only going to get worse for the comic book heroes and their universes. It’s a cosmic threat more powerful than even Thanos himself because even Squirrel Girl can’t defeat this bad guy. And that’s saying something.

A. Lee Martinez is a writer you probably haven’t heard of but really should have. He is the author of Gil’s All Fright Diner, In the Company of Ogres, A Nameless Witch, The Automatic Detective, Too Many Curses, Monster, Divine Misfortune and Chasing the Moon. He credits comic books and Godzilla movies as his biggest influences, and thinks that every story is better with a dash of ninja.


14 Comments on [GUEST POST] A. Lee Martinez: Superhero Comics Could Learn a Thing or Two from Superhero Films

  1. I felt strangely compelled to respond, probably because of the terrible costume on the new Superman. 

    I just wonder if you can explain why someone like me would love Marvel movies and (mostly) hate their comics, and love DC comics and (mostly) hate their movies?

  2. Good question.  I think it’s fairly obvious too.

    Marvel’s comics are dark and brooding and full of demanding continuity, where their films are usually accessible and fun.

    DC’s comics seem plaqued by the same problems as Marvel’s comics, but maybe you’re just more familiar and more enamored of their universe in that case.  But DC’s movies are certainly more dark and dull than their Marvel counterparts.  I don’t know why but it seems whenever a character from DC gets a movie, there’s a concentrated effort to make it “more mature”.  And I’m with you in that it rarely seems to work well.  I’m on record as not enjoying The Dark Knight, but at least that was Batman who has some noir sensibilities.  But Superman stories need giant robots and alien invasions.  They don’t need to be about real estate scams and absentee fatherism.

  3. Hmmm… and maybe it is the fact that DC characters are drawn with huge broad brushes, and have names to match. “Daredevil” doesn’t tell you what the character’s powers are, but “Power Girl” gives you a really good name. What the heck is a “Punisher”? I know without having any detailed knowledge what a “Lightning Lad” does.

    That, and DC does much more frequent relaunches?

  4. Love this phrase “childish versions of maturity”.

    I find myself generally more interested in the films than the comics these days, including in that the animated direct-to-DVD work that is going on  (and is brilliant).

  5. Oh, that’s funny… because DC has the best animated movies. Bad theatrical, good animated, good comics. Marvel animation is sort of crap, although that might have more to do with the volume. 

  6. Stephen Jack Cullen // August 4, 2011 at 8:04 pm //

    Clearly, you hardly read comics at all, or else just didn’t think anything through.

    While it certainly helps to know the continuity in Mavel (can’t speak for DC as I don’t read it very much) you don’t need to in order to understand what’s going on in a comic, unless you start reading in the middle or at the end of a story arc, but anybody who starts reading something on any volme over Vol. 1 probably doesn’t care about continuity.

    Being looked down on for not knowing the continuity has nothing to do with people who write the comics and everything to do with people who read them. Every social group picks up some reason for being cliquey and snobbish, comic fans have picked knowing your continuity. There’s absolutely nothing the writer’s can do about that.


    As for pretentions to maturity through overusing violence and sex, thankfully that’s not the norm, it’s usually the province of such hacks as Jeph Loeb and others of his sort. Though I will point out there’s a difference between the sexual and violent indulgences in a Jeph Loeb book where they’re just excessive and pointless and those in a Neil Gaiman book where they’re relevant and a part of the actual story.


    Also, the main reason comics are becoming less and less mainstream is because reading in general is becoming less mainstream.

  7. Chuck Wells // August 5, 2011 at 6:48 am //

    Brother, you are spot on with this contrast, but you’re never gonna win over the crowd of trolls who sit at the top of the food chain over at DC & Marvel by using logical arguments. I appreciate how you’ve summed up in a nutshell the huge disparity between modern comics, blockbuster movie translations and older comics stuff – at least – right up to the Bronze Age. Accessibility, indeed!

    Sadly, and I’m not going to name the writers and artists who receive the lions share of accolades these day, most current fans and pros alike have permanently done a disconnect with these simple ideas. Heck, just look at the first few comments that this editorial has elicited. A salmon would have an easier time swimming upstream, than debating fanboys.

  8. I’m not sure I buy your arguments. If superhero comics are as irrelevant as you argue they’ve become, then why are there three superhero movies released in the last few months? 

    I don’t think the content is what is leading to a decline or irrelevance. I agree with Stephen that the violence you see as the norm is really more of an exception and the transition from single issue episodes to story arcs of multiple issues (which are then collected as “graphic novels”). The real cause of decline is that people don’t read and the economy is bad.

    I don’t know what you mean when you say All-Star Batman and Robin is supposed to showcase the best of the characters. Its Frank Miller, dark, gritty, violent, sexually explicit, etc. are all in his repetoire. Just read Sin City

  9. You’re honestly suggesting that comic books go more  Mainstream?  And since when are comic books becoming irrelevant.  Comics spawned these comic book movies.  Comics have a huge audience which grows daily.  You don’t have to be a supernerd to find a good comic to read.  And yes, some of the subject matter is gritty and ultra violent, but how many times can you punch a person in the face before they bleed?  Maybe, if the film industry did something revolutionary like creating original comic book based movies and spend less time rehashing origin stories, comics might make sense to more and more people…  This is a lousy article.  I completly disagree with this assessment.

  10. Michael O. // August 5, 2011 at 1:42 pm //

    Why is there a picture of All-Star Superman attached to this article?  It has none of the problems you complain of, and it is one of the best superhero comics of the past ten years.

    In any case, comics might be fixed by making them more mature, or more fun, or what have you, but what all that means is more attention to the artform and the writing, not one particular ideology like making them less dark or violent, even though I agree that it’s an indication of where the problems lie.

  11. There’s just too many freakin’ titles to keep track of, and too many continuity issues–that’s why I got tired of comics. They stopped being fun and it became a chore to follow them all, not to mention the cost.

  12. Steve Jones // August 6, 2011 at 8:56 am //

    A few thoughts:

    When Marvel & DC make comics do they a) target them at the people who been loyal to their product and are willing to splash their cash on comics or b) target some mythical audience who would supposedly buy the comics if only they were less violent, done in one or there were less continuity that gets in the way? Whenever these arguments come up, there’s always the suggestion that the wrong type of buy and read comics.

    Of course, Marvel & DC sell masses of comics outside the US and probably even more are downloaded so it’s not as if they don’t have fans.

    Anyway, it looks DC is the one in trouble to me with this stupid re-launch.


  13. Bill Willingham // August 6, 2011 at 7:30 pm //

    A good article, Mr. Martinez, terse and to the point. Thank you.

  14. This article slightly off base.  It’s not the darker comics blood, sex, or violence that turns people off, it’s not knowing what is going on in one series because they didn’t read a previous/current series.  I don’t want to have to read 4-5 different comics a month just to follow one or two of my favorite characters.  Non-hardcore comic fans don’t want crossovers happening on a monthly basis.

    This has nothing to do with being looked down on and everything to do with the fact that comics shouldn’t be work.  If I like Iron Man I don’t want to have to track him down in Dr. Strange one month, a special 10 issue combo issue with the X-Men over the next year, and Thor 3 months from now, just to know why he is currently doing something in an Iron Man special edition, which isn’t even part of the main Iron Man storyline.  I have better things to do.

    The cost of the current comics and access to these comics is the other the big issue.  When I was growing up every store that carried a few books had at least a single spinning column stand of comics.  There were hardly any pure comic stores.  Interestingly enough, this meant the comics were easily accessible.  Now, you almost have to go to a speciality store dealing strictly in comics to get them.  This creates more overhead and increases the cost of something that should be really cheap. 

    Plus, most people aren’t going into a comics store, as they are generally not very accessible to people who aren’t hardcore fans.

    The cost is also a big issue.  I recently purchased an iPad and downloaded an X-Force comic (I used to be a big X-Men fan) for free.  It wasn’t bad and it was beautiful, so I went back to the site to buy some more X-Force and maybe another series or two.  I ended up buying none, because the cheapest was $1.99 and some were $3.99.  I’m not paying $2-4 for something that takes me 10 minutes to read at most.  Not when there are currently plenty of decent novels on the Kindle for $4 and top of the line authors for $7.

    This is not a DC vs. Marvel problem.  It’s the above issues, which both companies have.  It’s not because of the names of the heroes.

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