This year, the Marvel/Disney movie “Captain America: Civil War,” which opens Friday, takes the coveted spot of Superhero Movie That Kicks Off Blockbuster Season.
Which could also be known as A Good Time To Be Reminded That Superhero Comics Are Now Way Too Much Like Movies.
I am not going to complain about superhero movies as movies. I don’t care that once colorful costumes are forced to be muted and dark and tough-looking on human actors (“Batman v Superman,” the black leather X-Men). I don’t care that too many superhero movies rely on disaster-porn cliches (“Man of Steel,” “Avengers”) or that the Marvel Cinematic Universe/shared universe theory of storytelling turns movies into episodic entertainment rather than something that can stand on its own (even “Age of Ultron” director Joss Whedon has complained about this).
OK, maybe I care a little.
I’m here to complain about how superhero movies have not made superhero comics better.
If anything, since the first Spider-Man movie crossed the $300 million mark back in 2002, superhero comics have, on the whole, stagnated. One is reluctant to point to a direct causation, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck …
What was once a form that prided itself on being fast, cheap and out of control is now intellectual property worth millions, subject to the sort of five- and 10-year planning that would impress an aging Soviet. Title after title that Marvel (Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men) and DC (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) release reads as if it were pre-approved from the TV and movie side of things.
Superhero comics are not the kid-aimed, dream-logic wish fulfillment of the 1940s and ’50s. They’re not the attempts to appeal to teens of the ’60s and ’70s, full of angsty heroes and dense plots rocketing ever forward.
They’re not the grimmer and grittier comics of the 1980s, such as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen” or Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.” They’re not the urban fantasies of the 1990s such as Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” or Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s “Preacher.”
What once was a form that was gleefully lowbrow and willfully weird is now, as a friend elegantly put it, “just more middle-brow crap.”
“Civil War” is the third “Captain America” movie and the 13th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the fall, “Doctor Strange,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, will be the 14th.
At one point, “Civil War” was going to share the opening weekend spotlight with DC Comics/Warner Brothers’ “Batman v Superman,” but the latter was moved back to March, the better to have the market to themselves. This was probably wise in terms of box office, but for critics it was a bit like cinematic global warming.
Later this summer, Fox presents “X-Men: Apocalypse,” the ninth film in the X-Men franchise if you count the “Wolverine” movies and “Deadpool,” the $58 million movie that, thanks to its loose wit and clever execution, has grossed more than $760 million worldwide. That’s a far better return on investment than “Batman v Superman,” a $250 million film that has made just $851 million globally (yes, that “just” looks absurd out of context).
Warner’s “Suicide Squad,” a movie about Batman villains more or less, arrives in August.
Superhero movies are a global force; the market shows few signs of slowing down.
Unfortunately, as “Civil War” readies to no doubt rack up huge numbers, the average superhero comic reads like an illustrated screenplay, carefully constructed for maximum cross-platform revenue generation.
Go into your friendly neighborhood comic shop. May 7 is Free Comic Book Day, in fact — that’s good day to do it. Go early, as there will be lines, but there will also be fun activities at most of them.
A superhero comic book will probably cost between $2.99 and $4.99 and contain about 22 pages of story.
In 1986, the average superhero comic book cost 60 cents. In 1996, the average comic cost between $1.95 and $2.50.
According to the Consumer Price Index calculator, 60 cents in 1986 should have the buying power of about $1.30 now, though $2.50 in 1995 dollars is about $3.89 now, so it looks like inflation has calmed down a bit, right?
Well, that 2016 comic is likely part of a multi-issue storyline, difficult to parse by itself, part of a four- to eight-part story that will be collected in a comic-size “trade paperback” that will retail for about $15 to $20. Most of the time, it’s that paperback that is a complete story, not the individual issues as was the case in decades past.
Part of the reason comics from decades past might seem stilted to the modern reader is that each issue needed to be a potential point of entry — powers and relationships were often re-explained in every one.
As storylines have gotten longer or become, in comics parlance, “decompressed,” the vast majority of titles have begun to feel more and more like work that is easily adaptable to the big screen. Everything reads the same.
It is impossible to imagine this shift without the work of Brian Michael Bendis, who pens slow-moving stories heavily indebted to the chatty style of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin.
His writing on “Ultimate Spider-Man” (2000-2009) and “Avengers” (2004-2012) set the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe; the best elements of his series “Alias” (2001-2004) were turned into the Netflix series “Jessica Jones.” His pacing became the house style at Marvel, and he remains an influential creator.
At this point, most of the monthly genre comics I buy come from the independent Image Comics, where the creators own their work. Image is also good at providing value-added “back matter” after the main story — an essay, a solid letters page, some sort of supplementary material — that is in the single issue but not in the trade.
And Image is also home to Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead,” which is a weird little miracle in that it succeeds brilliantly as both a comic book and a TV show.
Image has struck gold by trusting creators and their visions — it is easily the most interesting publisher of genre comics around. And I like a number of them, mostly the stranger science-fiction books. But there’s no getting around the fact that even some of the ones I like feel like TV or movie pitches.
I can’t blame comic book creators for using their comics to show that they can break down a movie or TV script — that is where the money is.
And I’m not going to say that when a comic is optioned for big or small screen adaptation, it is an inherent failure as a comic.
But I might think it to myself now and then.
What I miss the most about superhero comics, what I want for all genre comics, really? I want what has become middle-brow to become bonkers low-brow again.
I want more insanity. I want genre comics to be filled with the unfilmable. I want scenarios that could not possibly work on the big screen. I want dense, lunatic stories that span centuries. I want stuff that works on the page better than it works on the screen, all the time.
Here are a few signs of life:
- Scott Snyder’s outstanding run on “Batman” (DC) is at the stranger end of the superhero spectrum. Batman wrestling a lion and fighting a giant flower-man among DayGlo backgrounds? Heck yes. Commissioner Gordon in a Bat-mecha? More please.
- Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan’s terrific space opera/family drama “Saga” (Image) is packed with images that would look absurd on the big screen, including robots with TVs for heads and a talking seal named Ghus. It has been rewarded with sales of about 50,000 per issue and trade paperback sales in the five-figures, terrific for an indie book in 2016. These two can make “Saga” for as long as they want. Also at Image, check out Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s “ODY-C,” essentially a gender-switched, sci-fi version of “The Odyssey” that looks like a psychedelic French comic from 1976 — which is awesome.
- Over at Marvel, “Ms. Marvel,” by G. Willow Wilson, concerns a Muslim teenage girl with superpowers, including hands and feet that grow incredibly large as the rest of her stays human-size. Hilarious on the page, silly on screen: perfect. I am also a huge fan of Tom King’s “Vision” for Marvel, which employs a third-person omniscient narration style that is so out of vogue it feels genuinely fresh.
But these are the exceptions, not the rule.
I love comics as much as or more than movies, TV, film, poetry or prose. I want comics to be the best comics they can be, for every possible reader or any age. And it is entirely possible that the evolution away from the single issue to the trade paperback is simply how things have played out. All art forms go through change over time, often as a direct result of financial pressures positive and negative. It happens. On the whole, comics as an art form are as healthy as they have ever been.
You may love comics that read like movies. You may feel that getting a movie out of your favorite character is the ultimate way that character should exist in the popular imagination. If so, go with Rao. You have quite literally dozens upon dozens of titles to choose from.
But if you find that sort of thing wanting, know that there are all kinds of comics that are 10 times as bonkers as anything you can see on screen, that go places that movies can’t hope to go. Like a recently deceased pop star once said, go crazy.