What’s the point of Marvel still publishing comics?
Last week I wrote a bit about how Marvel seem to be flooding the market with new comics, to the extent where it’s hard to keep up with new issue 1s, never mind the issue 2, 3 etc of all these series. With the movies and associated merchandise making so much more money than printed comics, you may wonder, as many people have, why Marvel bother with comics at all any more – why don’t Disney just slash and burn the publishing division to concentrate on films, toys, videogames and other things that turn much bigger profits?
On one level this might seem to make sense, as the films etc are mainly sourced from much older material. Leaving aside the most recent sequels like Winter Soldier and Iron Man Three, which explicitly draw from comics published in the last decade, the first Iron Man, Thor and Captain America films told the origins pretty straight, mainly recycling characters and plot concepts that date back to the dawn of Marvel. The Avengers was The Coming of the Avengers, the main plot inheritance from the more recent ‘movie-friendly’ Avengers revision The Ultimates being the alien invasion. In terms of synopses it’s hard to see why Marvel just don’t stick to drawing on a pile of ancient back issues.
It’s not like the comics have turned out many major entirely new characters in the last two to three decades of publication, instead concentrating on the old mainstays and ‘legacy heroes’, i.e. new characters taking on the superhero identity of an earlier hero.
This is however taking a shallow reading of how the characters transfer to the screen, to presume that, because most of the plot beats and the essence of the characters remain the same, that there is an effortless movement of characters from the works of Lee, Kirby and Ditko to the movies we see on screen. While it’s true that, at the core, these are the characters that Stan, Jack and Steve created, it would be a mistake to underestimate the cumulative effect that decades of publication have had in keeping these characters and concepts relevant to a modern audience, in trying out different stories and experimenting with different takes. It’s to take no credit away from the original creators to suggest that, without those years of continuous publication suggesting ways in which these characters might be accessible to cinema audiences, The Avengers might be closer in status to the THUNDER Agents – a curio familiar mainly to devotees of old comics – than the pop culture juggernaut they now are.
Before Marvel Studios came along and started more seriously mining recent comics for stories, this influence was mainly visual – Marvel would go to directors and producers considering, say, a Hulk film through Universal, and present a concept book of pages from recent Hulk comics. You can see this in the Ang Lee Hulk movie, with set pieces taken straight from the Ennis/McCrea Hulk Smash comic and slapped on the screen. That kind of influence still persists, with Iron Man Three drawing the imagery of Tony dragging his broken armour through the snow from the recent Most Wanted storyline while much of the story itself comes from other comics.
While it’s dispiriting to think of comics as just a dry run for ideas to be used in films and games and TV shows, it’s undeniable that they make a relatively cheap test bed for ideas compared to those media, and that the more realistic style of comic book art popularised in recent years creates images that are easier to adapt to the screen. It’s arguable that all the textures and details on Captain America’s costume in a John Cassaday or Bryan Hitch comic are unnecessary in the abstract world of a two dimensional comic, but they certainly provide suggestions to costume designers and producers of how such costumes might be adapted to real life actors. For all their iconic simplicity the costumes of golden and silver age comic book characters work because they exist in a world of sharp, clear lines not real people. An actor can’t look like a Jack Kirby drawing any more than a real person can embody the simple lines of Mario in Donkey Kong, as anyone who has seen the Bob Hoskins Super Mario Bros movie will know.
Now that the origins are out of the way, the Marvel Studios films are using the long history of the comics as a deeper well for characters and stories, with both Iron Man Three and The Winter Soldier drawing heavily on recent storylines while also throwing in characters from earlier eras, reinventing them in the process. Yes, screenwriters could come up with completely new storylines, and I’m sure sooner or later there’ll be a Marvel sequel that draws entirely from the cinematic universe, picking up threads from the films without drawing heavily on comic book material. But in a film industry hungry for ideas to get on screen, Marvel has the advantage of a publishing division that does nothing but churn out endless ideas for the new films, both in terms of stories and arresting visuals. While the comics remain profitable, there’s no reason why the publishing arm shouldn’t keep going, the comics readership acting as a paying focus group.
You can see Marvel leaning into this role with its recent launches and relaunches. Marvel Now and its successor, All-New Marvel Now, are throwing new ideas and visual approaches to a wall to see what sticks. A Moon Knight in a suit, easier to do on screen, in a more procedural type story that would work as a TV series? Silver Surfer as a Doctor Who-ish SF adventure? New spins on Black Widow? A new take on Ghost Rider that’s a step away from the Johnny Blaze version tainted by two Nic Cage movies? A Secret Avengers series that teams the more grounded characters from the Avengers movie up? All here.
There’s a lot of material there. As I said the other week, possibly too much – as the House to Astonish podcast pointed out, Marvel are heading towards having 53 monthly titles, one more than DC’s ungainly New 52. But there’s a certain creative freedom involved in feeding the machine, an encouragement to let the comics be as wild and comicky as they can be, to try new approaches, even if it’s with old IP. Nobody seems to be telling comics creators to make something that’ll be a good movie, but to try new things in the comics and let the movie/TV people work out what they want to cherry pick at a later date.
In some ways it’s an ideal meeting of commercial cynicism and creative storytelling, which is really what one would hope for from a company liked Marvel. Excelsior and all that.
Thanks to Aaron Smithies (@snarkandfury) and Ash (@Ravenevermore) on twitter for chats that led to this piece. Go follow!