The downside of big-screen comic book adaptations

It takes decades to build up a great superhero, but only one bad movie to tear him down. Andrew explores the downside of comic book adaptations…

Picture the scene: a high street book store. A man loiters near a bookshelf, scanning it for new strains of reading matter. He stoops down and starts flicking through the bottom shelf, his fingers brushing a Jeph Loeb title published by Marvel. Recoiling, he stands up and notices all three trade paperbacks of Paul Cornell’s run of Captain Britain. He picks up Hell Comes To Birmingham and flicks through it. Then his face creases into a mask of confusion, consternation and concern. He turns to his friend, holds the book aloft and says, “What the hell is Blade doing in a comic book?”

The Blade movies are more successful than the comics to the extent that even a fan can be unaware of the character’s origins.

What does a film adaptation mean for a comic? If you’re Ghost Rider or Fantastic Four, it might well mean a diminished reputation, and an assumption that the comic is only as good as its movie. It’s worrying that comic books might suffer from an assumption that a film is a badge of honour, something to aim for at the writing stage. They are, as Alan Moore pointed out, different mediums with all this entails in terms of content and audience. The potential problem is that moving pictures are more influential.

The hype surrounding Watchmen led to increased sales in comics as a whole, while the comic book entered best-seller lists for the year. Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim performed lesser but similar feats. Mark Millar’s comic Nemesis sold reasonably well, but with a film adaptation some way off, it has not yet become a new Kick-Ass.

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Millar’s wider appeal seems to require a film adaptation for expansion, if not consolidation. He’s a unique case, in that his writing has been deemed zeitgeisty enough to warrant any new script being considered for a film adaptation. Millar is the first, and possibly the last, writer to excel at multi-media creator-owned projects.

A good place for comparison, then, is the Class of 2001, the other Ultimate Universe prime movers: Brian Michael Bendis, Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison. Between them, they have managed one major film adaptation, Ellis’ Red in 2010. Considering their output, this is near miraculous, and shows a clear distinction between film and comic book audiences.

Before the film of Red, the comic was largely unavailable. When the film was released, the comic was not distributed properly until an indie comic shop owner contacted Ellis on Twitter asking why his order hadn’t turned up yet, precipitating author intervention. Combine this with the fact that Red was not a new or particularly well-known Ellis comic, and you only have a minor success.

As Red, Kick-Ass and Wanted show, creator-owned or standalone stories are a lot easier to exploit as film tie-ins for comic book stores. However, the big money is in superhero franchises, where it becomes harder to tie a single title to a movie that is often a combination of several different story arcs.

Take Iron Man. It’s basically half of the Extremis arc with a yet-to-be-collected Obadiah Stane plot filling the gap. If you’re a bookshop, you want to get hold of Extremis – maybe The Definitive Iron Man – except that Extremis is hard to find.

It keeps getting re-released on short print runs. Casual fans won’t know to look for it, and when a film is a very handy way of introducing a character in a continuity-free way, a book becomes a harder sell. For Iron Man 2, Marvel released Iron Man Versus Whiplash. It wasn’t by any means seminal, but it tied in nicely with the film and so made more commercial sense than trying to put forward any of the classics.

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If you are a comics fan, there are other problems. Extremis, as I said, is hard to get hold of. Red had distribution problems. Thor is partly based on a J Michael Straczynski run on the comic where volume one is currently unavailable.

Titan Books and Marvel are missing a fairly obvious trick here. But then Titan are the major distributor for comic books in the UK, and frequently run out of stock of various titles, sometimes taking years to mobilise another print run. Would you like to buy Preacher: Ancient History? Well, it’s a bit scarce at the moment. How about a new copy of Until The End Of The World? It’ll take a month if it’s not in stock, what with it being an American import and all.

I am willing to bet that this sort of thing would continue if Preacher were made into a film or TV series, because it would at best reach a similar level of popularity to The Walking Dead. Sales would improve, yes, but it’d still be hard to get hold of. To reach a level of popularity whereby you give the entire comic book industry a lift, you need a genuine phenomenon on your hands. A film is not enough; it is merely part of the buzz. What it takes to carry a casual fan or newbie through is that a certain comic book is so hot right now.

It becomes something that saturates popular culture for a period, the effects rippling through films, comics, news media and television. It’ll trend on Twitter, its memes and dialogue assimilated into popular culture. Someone will use the words, “I don’t normally like comics but…” on Newsnight Review. Only then will a film adaptation really change the comics industry, but it will do something as part of a larger event rather than a single piece of storytelling.

We’ve all had conversations involving the comics we’d like to see as moving pictures (Ministry Of Space directed by Duncan Jones, or nearly anything by 2000 AD) but writing this article has made me slightly wary. A film adaptation is in no way a clear path to success, and can even be harmful. For all the benefits that cinema brings to comic books, it skews things in its favour. There’s more money in films, and more demand, so cinema will look at comic books and cherry pick what they like, knowing there is at least some audience for it even if it means making a sloppy film that alienates casual fans.

Persepolis was successful on its own terms in comparison. It appealed to a smaller section of the movie-going audience, but nearly everyone who saw it loved it. If lesser comic book titles are treated as an area for niche filmmaking, rather than mini-blockbusters, then maybe this will remove the bad film stigma from some comics by limiting their potential audience. Marvel have announced plans along these lines, but these films have yet to hit cinemas, and it’s hard to see a plan this idealistic lasting when someone looks at a budget sheet unless it has immediate success.

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Daredevil isn’t Jennifer Garner, and it’s more than a cruddy Ben Affleck vehicle, but this isn’t the public perception of a 57-year-old comic. Until the gap is bridged, poor filmmaking will continue to determine and reinforce negative attitudes towards comics like Daredevil, rather than heighten the superiority of the comic book – and that’s bad news for the medium in general.