Alternate Cover: Comics and the media

Comics only used to make the papers in syndicated panel strips. But that's all changed...

Oi! Who let you in?

It’s fairly rare that big news in comics translates as big news in the “real” world. After all, comics are a niche industry at best, and while they spin out some utterly massive entertainment properties, the actual stories themselves are fairly inconsequential as far as non-comics readers are concerned.

It’s strange, then, that in the last couple of months, we’ve seen not one, but two fairly big comics-related stories crop up in the mainstream media. The first was the death of Batman – a widely misreported and misunderstood event, but however bad the coverage was, it did actually make the papers. The second and most recent is the appearance of Barack Obama in next week’s issue of Spider-Man.

Coverage of these events is part of growing evidence of a turning tide for comics as a medium. For decades, there was no reason to report on the events of comicbooks. Even when comics “grew up” in the 80s, coverage was sparse, and limited to “legitimate” indie titles and work by creators like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller – all geniuses in their own way, but (unfortunately) unrepresentative of the industry at large.

These days, though, it doesn’t take a huge amount to stir up public interest – Spider-Man’s new costume was the first story to really break through in a long time, followed a few months later by the character unmasking in Civil War #2. Slowly but steadily, media interest in comics is growing – even in the UK, Obama’s appearance in Spider-Man is worth noting, and not just because the incoming President is a Spider-Man fan himself, but because events like this are actually considered worth reporting on in their own right.

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Some of this is undoubtedly due to Marvel making deliberate inroads, courting media interest either by engaging directly with Daily Show host, Stephen Colbert, or peripherally, by getting writers like Stephen King involved in high-profile, non-superhero work. However, as much of it is because the comics medium is finally being recognised as a powerful force in entertainment, due to the success of numerous comic-based films, from Spider-Man to Persepolis.

For comics readers, this kind of acceptance can only be good news, taking us out of the fandom ghetto in much the same way Doctor Who and Star Wars fans have been promoted back into acceptable society. Finally, comics are getting the respect they deserve as a medium.

This year, though, we face perhaps the biggest litmus test yet of how comics are perceived by the mainstream. Even people who wouldn’t ordinarily touch a comic are aware of Watchmen, a series that was like a cultural atomic bomb being dropped in the world of comics. If the film isn’t as good as it needs to be, there’s a potential for it to set relations between “us” and “them” back years…

For now, though, we get to enjoy the feeling that the days of seeing that horrible headline, “Wam! Pow! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” headline might soon be over for good. And with a Spider-Man fan sitting on the US throne (haha, satire!) we might just be entering a new golden age of comic-geek acceptance. We can only hope…

James writes Alternate Cover every Monday at Den Of Geek. His previous column can be found here.

12 January 2009

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