This post is in response to Jason Iannone’s Cracked article “6 Specific Reasons Why Superhero Movies Ruined Comics.” In his post, Iannone builds a starting point for the greater discussion of how the mainstreaming of popular superheroes through film is impacting the medium where they were first created. He makes some interesting observations but ties too many of the systematic problems with the superhero genre in comics to the current success of superhero films.
#6 The Moviemakers Regularly Shit on the Comics
“Regularly” is an odd word choice. Iannone cites Bryan Singer, Josh Trank, David Goyer, and Zack Snyder. I don’t completely disagree on Trank, Snyder, and Goyer but I do need to defend Singer.
In the case of Singer, he references a statement from Hugh Jackman regarding a rule on the set of the very first X-Men film. You know, way back in 2000 when bringing a superhero film to the big screen was still a massive gamble. Since that first film the superhero movies Singer has directed or produced have moved closer-and-closer to the comics to the point of lifting storylines straight from the source material. Clearly Singer learned his lesson, but we should still hold a grudge against him for creating a filmset rule nearly two decades ago.
By saying “moviemakers regularly shit on comics” Iannone is broad brushing. He ignores many people who are part of the moviemaking process and have expressed at the least respectful regard for the source material: Avi Arad, Geoff Johns, the Russo Brothers, Guillermo del Toro, Kevin Feige, James Gunn, Josh Whedon, Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Sam Raimi, Ben Affleck, Ryan Reynolds, Tim Miller, and many more (although, that is a lot of dudes. I’m looking forward to adding some diversity to this list).
#5 Marvel is Sabotaging Marvel Characters (When They Don’t own the Film Rights)
I don’t have a problem with this one. We’re pretty much on the same page when it comes to how the rights issues with Marvel films have hindered some titles. Marvel has significantly reduced the role of the X-Men and Fantastic Four over the last five years. Dorkly has a better breakdown of what’s going on.
#4 The Original Writers and Creators Don’t Get Shit from the Films
I also don’t have a problem with this being used as a point. Any day we can remind readers about the issue of creator rights is a good day. However, creator rights are significantly more complicated than simply not getting “shit from the films.”
#3 The Films are Starting to Change the Comics
Iannone appears to be mostly upset that popular concepts from the films are creeping into long established canon. This isn’t a bad thing. The mainstreaming of superheroes is changing the medium of comics for the better. There’s long been a movement for more diversification in superhero comics but it hadn’t caught fire until that lack of diversity was put up on a big screen. If a film’s going to be successful it needs to cross multiple demographics. The success of superheroes in film and on television has helped force Marvel and DC to start looking at how they publish comics, which characters they promote, how those characters ar portrayed, and who they hire to play in the sandbox. Marvel’s currently doing a better job at making these adjustments but DC is showing some signs of hope in the Rebirth solicits.
Iannone makes his case on the back of Marvel introducing a black Nick Fury due to the popularity of Samuel L. Jackson in the film role. In the comic this character is Nick Fury’s son. Iannone claims Marvel retired “Old White Dude Fury” in 2012. Although his statement is puzzling because OWD Fury played a fairly substantial role in 2014’s crossover event “Original Sin.”
If comics are going to bring in more readers it makes sense to cater to what works in the films. If a Samuel L. Jackson version of Nick Fury into Earth-616 encourages people to pick up a comic book that strikes me as the opposite of ruining comics.
Iannone goes on to hold up Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men as proof that Marvel “de-colorized” the X-Men costumes to fall in line with the film. When the hardcover trade of Morrison’s run on New X-Men was published Marvel kindly included the “manifesto” Morrison wrote to guide his direction of these characters. Point seven of the manifesto is “get rid of the costumes.” Morrison writes “Let’s ditch the spandex for the new century and get our heroes into something that wouldn’t make you look like a prick if you wore it on the street.” He mentions the film costumes moving in the right direction but not being quite right: “I’d like to see some yellow in panelling or detailing on the costumes – if only to avoid the dull black leather of every film superhero – but it should be pop art dayglo yellow, the kind cyclists and bikers wear to be seen.”
Editor Mark Powers wrote in the margins, “back to basics, but with modern trappings. Yep.”
Morrison is known for understanding modern fashion trends and trying to be one step ahead of the next hot thing. No doubt he took some influence from the film but it was clear, both in the story and Frank Quitely’s designs, that he wished to take the X-Men in a new direction.
As for Hawkeye, I don’t see how the purple Robin Hood costume would have fit with the Matt Fraction and David Aja vision of a powerless hero surrounded by supers. This wasn’t the story of Hawkeye. It was the story of Hawkguy. It was the story of a grounded character who spends most of the series within a few blocks of his apartment complex. Don’t get me wrong. I grew up with West Coast Avengers and love Hawkeye’s long term costume, but having Clint Barton chasing Russian mobsters while wearing a winged mask with an “H” on it just wouldn’t fit Aja’s minimalist style.
In a greater sense, Iannone isn’t completely wrong. The companies do need to be careful with how these characters or elements are introduced into the Universe. I think he would have been better served to revisit his fifth point and discuss how Marvel is trying to shove the Inhumans down our throats while downplaying mutants. That’s ruining comics more than a costume change.
#2 Comic Sales are Going Down, Not Up
This is the point I find most flawed and the one that inspired me to write this post. Iannone misuses data to make his point and that sub-headline is misleading. He isn’t actually saying comic sales overall are down (they are, sort of). He clarifies “comic book sales are way down, but only if the comic competes with a movie.” The hypothesis, I guess, is comics featuring a character in a recently released film doesn’t see a sales bump from the film?
He randomly pulls out the Hulk’s June 2014 title, Savage Hulk, and holds it up as an example of a book doing poorly. Yes, the Hulk was part of the ensemble cast in 2012’s Avengers, but other than that the last time the Hulk appeared in a film was 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. If we want to use Hulk as the example why not look at the other factors for the character in 2014?
Iannone fails to mention Marvel was publishing more than one Hulk series in 2014. As the year started Mark Waid’s The Indestructible Hulk was already on issue 17. In April, a second Hulk series was published and was simply titled Hulk. When it dropped it landed at number seven on the sales chart. Perhaps, just perhaps, when Savage Hulk hit the shelves two months later readers were experiencing Hulk fatigue? Maybe it had less to do with films than character saturation?
The interesting thing about The Indestructible Hulk is it was released seven months after the Avengers reintroduced the characters to filmgoers. The first issue landed at number five on the November 2012 sales chart moving more than 118,000 floppies.
Iannone also highlights April 2016’s sales data as proof that superhero movies have ruined comics. It is true that 2016 has seen a softening in overall comic book sales but April’s numbers come with a number of caveats. For one, major publishers have released 12 percent fewer comics in the first quarter of 2016 versus 2015. Marvel is the only publisher to increase offerings while DC, Image, IDW, Dark Horse, Boom, and Dynamite have all cutback. ComicChron writes “this month’s 300th place title sold 4,309 copies, which is the highest figure seen so far this year in that slot; that seems to suggest that the volumes on that smaller number of titles are hanging in there.”
April 2016 is notable for another reason that Iannone completely ignores: Black Panther. Black Panther is the breakout character of Captain America: Civil War. Marvel released a new Black Panther title in April which immediately sold out and is currently the top selling comic of 2016. This is the first number one solo outing for Black Panther in the character’s history.
Moving away from superheroes Iannone attempts to use Star Wars sales as an example of how movies aren’t helping comics. He writes, “In 2015, the wacky adventures of Luke and his Papa owned 19 of the top 50 sales spots, including #1. By January 2016, shortly after The Force Awakens came out, they only owned four spots.”
Firstly, he’s comparing yearly data to monthly data. He’s counting single issues. Technically, Marvel only had six Star Wars titles in the top 50 at the end of 2015. The flagship Star Wars title took 11 of the top 50 spots, the Darth Vader series took 4, and Vader Down, Leia, Lando, and Shattered Empire took the remaining slots.
Secondly, he’s wrong as to how many Star Wars books Marvel had in top 50 in January 2016. There were five: Star Wars 14 and 15, Obi-Wan and Anakin 1, Darth Vader 15, and Kanan 10. It would have been quite a feat for Marvel to have more Star Wars Universe titles in the top 50 considering they were only published four that month. Overall, Marvel has taken a mini-series approach to the Star Wars’ characters. Leia, Lando, and Shattered Empire were all mini-series that ended before 2015 came to a close.
Thirdly, Iannone calls out the fact that Darth Vader is coming to an end with issue 25. Okay…what’s the point? Does he understand the creative team publishing strategy Marvel has embraced over the last decade? In most cases, Marvel doesn’t publish a series ad infinitum anymore. Darth Vader, in storyline terms, is currently owned by Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca. The title has consistently landed in or near the monthly top 10 since issue one hit the shelves. Ending volume one in Darth Vader’s story likely has less to do with sales than it has to do with Gillen finishing this story he wanted to tell.
While shouting about the end of Darth Vader the article fails to mention the number two title in April was a Force Awakens established character, Poe Dameron. It overlooks the number four title in April was C-3PO. Iannone omits the fact that June will see the release of the first Han Solo solo series. The Star Wars vertical is strong with Marvel.
As for my parenthetical way up in the third sentence of this section, comic sales do appear to be softening in 2016. There are so many factors that could be contributing to a slowdown it would be reckless to place blame at the feet of superhero films. One simple factor, the average cover price of a top 300 comic has risen from $2.91 in 2005 to $3.96 in 2015. The average cost of a top 300 comic in April 2016? $4.12. Comic prices have increased faster than the rate of inflation and readers have significantly less buying power than they did a decade ago. However, while other websites are quick to blame the publishers I personally believe readers should shoulder most of the blame. As long as comic readers are willing to push $6 comic books into the top 25 the publishers will keep testing how high they can go. And Marvel editor Tom Brevoort will, justifiably, continue to perform his Scrooge McDuck impersonation.
One more complicated example, a failure of marketing comics to the mainstream. DC is about to embark on Rebirth but all of the promotion seems to be within the comic book news echo chamber. I don’t see any effort to communicate what comics are and why someone, as a non-reader but fan of the films, should pick one up. Where’s the out-of-home advertising? Why don’t I see Rebirth digital advertising while I’m making my daily laps around the Internet?
Marvel does a little bit better with marketing but there’s significant room for growth. I only learned last month (thanks, Free Comic Book Day) Peter Parker has spent the last 10 months in San Francisco. That’s interesting! We have more than a dozen comic shops in the Bay Area. Why isn’t Marvel using the image of Spider-Man swinging in front of the iconic Transamerica building to get people into those stores?
tl;dr: superhero films aren’t the factor impacting sales of comics.
#1 Anything that Isn’t DC or Marvel Gets Thrown Under the Bus
Iannone argues that Marvel and DC are sucking all of the air out of the room and their parent companies have no interest in adopting any other comic book properties from other publishers. Again, Iannone mixes the superhero genre with the comic book medium to make his point citing a number of non-superhero projects.
Here’s a quick selection of other comic-based properties (seeing as Iannone so easily flip-flops back and forth between the superhero genre and other genres in the comic book medium to make his point) in the production pipeline:
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Coldest City
Men In Black
That list doesn’t even scratch the surface of comic properties transitioning to television or Netflix. Iannone writes “third-party asides like Dark Horse Comics might as well not exist” without acknowledging Dark Horse signed a deal with Universal Cable Productions last year to bring a number of properties to television. Universal also snatched up Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick last year for Sex Criminals and other IPs. Based on Universal’s commitment to the deliciously bizarre Mr. Robot it’s likely we’ll start seeing the results of these relationships in the next two years.