The debate continues — original comic books or Hollywood film adaptions?
The relationship between comic books and Hollywood has been around for quite some time. It’s one of give and take. While comic books have been influencing the film industry since the 1920s, films have given comic books more exposure. Sounds simple, right? Comic books give Hollywood ideas, while Hollywood gets comic books more fans.
But when has any relationship ever been that easy?
Dave Markowski is the host of Superhero Speak — a podcast celebrating all things nerd culture, and he believes comic books and comic book films/TV shows should be judged separately rather than as one. “Before superhero movies became as big as they are now, comic book nerds would argue about how close things were to the source material all the time,” he says. “But there has to be realization that some of these characters have been around for nearly 80 years and you can’t tell all of a character’s history in a few two hour movies. But as long as you are true to the essence of the character, that’s all that really matters in the long run.”
“As long as you are true to the essence of the character, that’s all that really matters”
The first ever film adaption of a comic book was The Mark of Zorro (1920). You’d be forgiven for never having watched, or even heard of this silent film. But the Zorro franchise has been recreated for the big screen five times since the first film adaptation. All films proved successful, in particular the most recent two. The Mask of Zorro (1998) made a domestic total gross of $94,095,523, while the sequel, The Legend of Zorro (2005) made $46,464,023.
Although that’s a hefty amount of money, it’s nothing compared to the money more recent superhero films have been making. The top rating comic book film so far is Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), which made $623,357,910. Batman The Dark Knight (2008) is close behind in second place with $534,858,444.
Alex Brundige is a scholar who wrote his thesis on the rise of the superhero culture. “From films to television series to the original print medium, superheroes have gained a certain respectability, at least in terms of mass appeal, that their source texts sorely lacked only a few short years ago,” they explain.
It’s obvious what Hollywood is gaining from comic books: films with pre-made characters and stories that are already popular and clearly work on the big screen. But the question then becomes about whether comic books are gaining much from Hollywood, and ultimately whether fans are happy with the multitude of comic book film adaptions.
Brundige believes he knows when the comic book genre truly took over Hollywood. “The particular boom in comic book adaptations associated with the more recent franchises of Marvel and DC can be linked to the success of a few particular films in the late 2000s,” they claim. “Where Marvel’s Iron Man(2008) and The Incredible Hulk (2008) both represent encouraging returns for the studio’s planned convergence franchise including multiple series and characters, with the culmination being the unprecedented team-up movie The Avengers (2012), DC’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012) can also be seen as a turning point in the superhero genre.”
However, just because the films are proving popular at the box office, comic book fans are showing a more sceptical front with the way in which Hollywood is adapting these comic books for the big screen.
Megan Byrd is a former comic book shop employee and began the Comic Book Candy blog in 2009. She doesn’t believe Hollywood is capable of doing what comic books can do in terms of story-telling and character progression. “When it comes to comic properties, I’ll always prefer the source material,” she says. “Comics and graphic novels accomplish so much that film and television cannot capture. Actors and CGI are no replacement for the wide variety of art styles within comics, and the unique form of storytelling is much more personal than the shared experience of watching live action.”
“Comics and graphic novels accomplish so much that film and television cannot capture”
Christina Webb-Sfougaras is a cartoon and comic art graduate, and illustrates her own comics. She feels there has been some improvement in how close the film and TV adaptions stay to the original comic books, but it’s still not good enough. “The evolution of Peter Parker in Spider-Man has kept more true to the comics with each new film released,” she says. “But sometimes I feel that, in some films, the true essence of the characters is lost. A good example of this is The Avengers. I feel as though captain America in his own films has a defined character, but within Marvel’s The Avengers his characteristics are lost. Part of the issue I think is that fans have a certain untouchable perspective of their favourite comics and changing that can be quite uncomfortable for them.”
So with characters not translating to the big screen in a particularly positive way, and fans generally preferring the original comic books, the question of what comics gain from this partnership is still unanswered.
Markowski raises a point that could lead to some kind of answer. “Most people my age got introduced to a TV or movie version of a character before they read the books,” he says. “I was first introduced to Spider-Man through syndicated runs of the ’67 cartoon. But if I’m being totally honest there is a part of me that prefers the books. It has always felt as a more personal form of entertainment.”
“Most people my age got introduced to a TV or movie version of a character before they read the books”
Although he now prefers the books, he would never have been introduced to them if it wasn’t for the TV show, Spider-Man (1967) that he watched as a child.
Byrd was introduced to comic books in a similar way. “I myself read comics because of the Marvel cartoons and X-Men films I grew up watching! These properties raise interest in the source material,” she explains.
Pew Research Centre found that in 2015, only 63% of Americans had read a print book in the past year. This had dropped from 69% in 2014. From this data, it’s clear that the rate of reading hard copies of literature material is rapidly decreasing. If this is true, the comic book industry would be losing fans and readers by the year, and it wouldn’t take long to completely die out. Perhaps the films and TV shows are keeping comic books alive.
“When the films started emerging, it became very easy for people to access the stories and in turn become interested in the comics,” Webb-Sfougaras says. “Even I am a culprit for not reading comics until I hear about them via a TV series or film. iZombie is a series I heard about through Netflix and came to love, and only after that did I seek out the comic book. It’s a good way of advertising a comic book series.”
Advertising is the key word. If you told a small independent literature company that a Netflix series or Hollywood film was being created based on one of their stories, they’d take that kind of press in a heartbeat. So, yes, the movies and TV shows change the characters, they rush the stories, they arguably just aren’t as good as the comic books themselves.
But what they do instead, is gain the whole comic book industry new fans, new readers, new buyers, and essentially, keeps it alive. Especially while living in a world where young people are forever looking for a world they feel more accepted in to escape to. One that’s more fair and equal, and evil is almost always defeated. There will always be conflict between the two, especially from fans, but it’s a partnership that both parties gain too much from to ever break it up.