Thursday, June 30, 2005


Comics and Cross-pollination

There's something strangely recursive about this. Tom De Haven, author of the Derby Dugan trilogy of comics inspired literary novels, does a sort of Kavalier and Clay take on Superman himself. Taken along with Jonathan Letham's first foray into four color comics with next year's Omega the Unknown, and Michael Chabon's ongoing The Adventures of the Escapist from Dark Horse comics, it would seem there's more cross-pollination between comics and "literature" than there may ever have been before.

Between comics and the worlds of television and film, too, there's quite a bit more back and forth than I can recall happening before. In the last few years folks like Joss Whedon, J.M. Straczynski, and Kevin Smith--all of whose work in tv and film shows the definite influence of comics--have turned their hands to writing comics, albeit with mixed results. And David Goyer, who started out as a screenwriter, then wrote comics for a while, and now primarily seems to write screenplays based on comics, is one of the key players responsible for the success of Batman Begins, arguably the best comics-inspired film to date. And there's Butch Hartman, who after the success of his kid's cartoon series The Fairly Odd-Parents, launched Danny Phantom, probably the purest example of the superhero genre on television ever that wasn't based on an already extant comic property. And there's that Pixar movie The Incredibles, which did okay at the box office, if I recall correctly. At the same time, it seems that comics, at least the American superhero-genre element of things, is becoming ever more insular, isolated, and niche.

(Grant Morrison has expressed an interesting theory about the hermetic reasons behind superhero movies based on comics. He argues, seemingly only half-jokingly, that the fictional genre of the superhero is in the process of becoming sentient. He points out that the superhero has its roots in the pulps of the thirties, and that when the writing was on the wall that the days of the pulps were numbered, the superhero jumped ship and migrated into the healthier medium of comics. In the last few decades, as the comic market has withered on the vine, the superhero has been in the process of migrating first to the television screen, and then to the silver screen. Eventually, Morrison says, superheroes will migrate from the movie screen into the real world, and that's what things really get interesting.

I've said for years that sooner or later superhero comics would go the way of epic poetry--there'll still be a few people creating them, a few people willing to buy them, and a bit of money to be made from selling them, but they won't impact the larger consciousness at all. And I think we may be getting there sooner rather than later. Comics properties are making the leap to television (Smallville, Justice League Unlimited, Teen Titans, The Batman, et cetera) and to film (Batman Begins, Fantastic Four, the Spider-man films and the forthcoming Superman Returns) with some success, both commercially and critically, but there hasn't appeared to have been an attendant increase in sales for the comic book incarnations of the same. There's a little money to be made in superhero comics, but primarily by selling more and more to the same dedicated core audience.

I suppose, put in those terms, that much the same thing has been happening to prose science fiction for some time now, hasn't it? Popular culture, in many ways, is science fiction these days, to the extent that it's hard to remember a Big Summer Blockbuster in recent years that wasn't science fiction. And yet, rare is the science fiction title that sells even a significant fraction of best seller numbers.

So it isn't that the majority of people aren't responding to the basic ideas in superhero comics, or in prose science fiction, since they happily gobble them up in other formats. But they don't seem to want to take them in print form. The explanation that people always seem to invoke in these sorts of discussions, at this point, is the old saw, people-just-don't-read-anymore. Maybe, and maybe not. But kids sure do, and it only takes a quick stroll through the young readers and teen sections of any book store to see that a lot of the fiction in those markets would comfortably fit within the genre-confines of either prose science fiction or superhero comics. So is there some hope for the future?

To return to the concept of cross-pollination that began this formless ramble, most of the really interesting stuff being done with the superhero genre these days, in comics, books, and film, is by creators who grew up on a steady diet of comics and who now, once established, are telling really great superhero stories in whatever medium comes to hand. The same is arguably true of science fiction, which has certainly seen something of a renaissance in television and film in the last few years. So if today's kids are getting a constant diet of superheroism, science fiction, and fantasy, through the media of print, film, television, and games, it could mean for some interesting stuff being created a few decades from now.

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