Superheroes May Save The World, But They Can’t Save The Comic Book
The summer movie season has been reserved for loud and frenetic action flicks for a while, but in recent years this May-September stretch has been dominated by comic book superheroes. This weekend, millions of moviegoers will continue to enjoy the adventures of Batman, Spiderman and the Avengers at the multiplex, snacking on popcorn while superheroes in colorful costumes (except for Batman) take on the bad guys, all while looking fabulous and cracking wise with witty remarks (except for Batman.)
However, while men and women in suspiciously form-fitting outfits might be raking in millions in theaters, the medium that spawned them all—the colorful comic book—is in a pretty sorry state. These days, kids who want a good power fantasy are about a thousand times more likely to play a videogame than to reach for a comic book, meaning that superhero comics are increasingly being written for the adults who grew up reading them in the ’70s and ’80s rather than children. Major publishers Marvel and DC have made some tepid efforts to reach out to the next generation, but for the most part, it’s a medium kept afloat by an ever-shrinking pool of individuals who continue to buy comics more out of habit and nostalgia than much real enthusiasm for the product.
This may seem counterintuitive to many; how can comics be failing, when comic superheroes are getting all this media attention? Obviously, it’s not completely cut and dried. Successful films do point some new readers towards the comics, which publishers try to capitalize on with stunts like Marvel’s current “X-Men vs. Avengers” crossover, designed to siphon fans of the wildly successful Avengers film to the flagging X-Men franchise (and it pains me to say that, because I was an X-Men fan first.)
Actually, X-Men vs. Avengers is representative of a lot of what’s wrong with American comics these days. In order to draw in new readers, Marvel has created a context for both teams to basically have a knock down, drag-out fight for the entire summer. They are fighting over an entity called The Phoenix, a storyline that originated in the 1970s. Even when comics try to do something new, they rely on elements that only have real resonance to people who were reading comics 40 years ago.
On that note, notice how the franchises keep rebooting? Instead of being up to Spiderman 4 and Batman 12 (or what have you), Hollywood keeps retelling the original stories over and over again, because they know full well that’s all anyone really cares about. The Spiderman franchise is particularly notable in this regard for barely waiting for the previous trilogy to finish before rebooting itself. The fact of the matter is, the really compelling stories about these characters were told many decades ago; it’s simply not worth chronicling most of their more recent adventures on film. Typically, recently introduced characters and plots get about five minutes of lipservice in the movies, then they continue retelling the same stories that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (also known as Stanley Lieber and Jacob Kurtzberg) first told in 1964.
Don’t get me wrong, graphic storytelling isn’t going anywhere; we’ve been doing it since cave paintings, and human beings in general seem to be rather fond of it. Comics are still huge in Asia, and I’ve heard that there are great things going on in European comics that I would know about if I were sufficiently more cultured and didn’t waste so much time watching bad television. However, the American comic book— about 24 pages of pulp entertainnment, packaged in a glossy, often intentionally gaudy cover— is going the way of the dodo. This is sad for many reasons, but particularly sad for New Yorkers, since the comic book was invented here, mostly by the children of Jewish immigrants in Manhattan.
Seeing flashy summer movies is a fun break from reality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But for me personally, who once loved comic books and wanted to work in comics, these films are like a really glitzy funeral for an old friend.
Karen Gellender is editor of the Anton newspapers, the Syosset-Jericho Tribune and Plainview-Old Bethpage Herald.