This section will mostly refer to the American market as we are generally dealing with Hollywood’s adaptation of US comic books and graphic novels.
While many saw the Richard Donner Superman movie and the Tim Burton Batman movies, and their sequels, as adaptations of comics, I saw them as adaptations of successful tv shows. The only surprise for me was that Wonder Woman did not follow. It was another ten years before film makers actually started adapting comics into movies.
It is hard to imagine a greater boost to any product than big budget Hollywood movies, but we have seen a steady decline in comic book sales over the past ten years. Top selling comics used to clock in at 300,000 and now they score 100,000. Why have comic books not managed to capitalize on the increased awareness created by movie adaptations?
While the Spider-Man, X-Men and Hulk movies have not increased the sales of those comic books, which still primarily sell in the direct sales market, individual graphic novels can benefit from a movie adaptation.
Personally I think the general market’s acceptance of comic book movies was probably due to computer games, which feature action heroes with strange powers battling endless adversaries. Comic book characters had fleshed out back stories which film makers could use, while computer game characters had none.
Unfortunately movies based on comic books are generally awful. Hollywood doesn’t understand comic books, and it hasn’t understood science fiction either, even though it’s been making lots of science fiction movies since Star Wars. When movies are based on long running characters Hollywood basically takes a supermarket approach (the 600+ issues of Spider-Man being the supermarket). They walk down the aisles picking story ideas off the shelves and putting them all into a shopping basket and turning that into something which they hope will resemble a story.
The movies have shown that a general audience can accept comic book characters, especially those who have stood the test of time and hold a place in their collective consciousness. This should be encouraging news to comic publishers.
Comic publishers have yet to find a way to turn general acceptance of comic book characters into comic book sales. This leads me to believe that there is a fundamental problem with the product turned out by comic book companies, and as I’ve stated before I think it is the length of the monthly comics and the proliferation of different versions of popular characters. If a moviegoer sees a movie based on a graphic novel it is simple for them to go into a shop and buy that graphic novel. If he likes a Batman or Spider-Man movie there is no simple answer as to which comic he should pick up that would feed the interest generated by that movie. It is too much to expect a new-comer to buy every Batman or Spider-Man comic, and keep buying them until they finally “get it” (that’s assuming they ever would).
Hollywood generally makes pretty awful movies, but that doesn’t stop them from making lots and lots of money because lots and lots of people go to see those awful movies. Hollywood has created a system which promotes all their movies to the general market and creates a feeling that they must see these movies whether they’re good or bad. This did not happen by accident, this is a deliberate strategy and it’s called marketing. Comic books engage in very little marketing, but do they not engage in marketing because their books don’t sell, or do their books not sell because they don’t engage in marketing?
The movies can (and should) act as marketing for the comic books they are based upon, but as I have said before this works better with individual graphic novels than with long running series. However comic books have a long history of not marketing their product, and one has to wonder why they go to all the trouble of producing comics only to keep it a secret by not advertising. Most other entertainment media factor in marketing or advertising into their budgets, a Hollywood studio can spend as much on advertising as it does on the production of a movie.
Does Hollywood just see comics as a fad that they will outgrow and leave behind, or will it establish itself alongside the science fiction and horror genres as one of the sources of exciting fantasy entertainment. It may be that the proliferation of the computer game with its garish power fantasies may benefit comics in the long run. However that will all be for nothing if the comic industry cannot generate comic book sales, which is their core business and their fundamental reason for existence.
I fear for the comic book companies if they start to see the comics as a means to an end rather than the end in and of themselves. I think it would be easy for the heads of big comic companies which have been bought by corporations to be blinded by the glitz and glamour of the movies. If with all this publicity, marketing and exposure they cannot increase their sales then they should take a good long look at what they’re doing and ask themselves where they are going wrong.
It is also important that comic book writers do not fall under the spell of Hollywood and suddenly think that they are sought after talent. The script of a movie is the easiest thing to change, producers, directors and actors all feel that they can (and should) have an input. The cameraman probably has more autonomy than the script writer because no one can come up to him and start suggesting what depth of field he should have or which filter to use etc (that’s far too technical for nearly everyone in Hollywood except other cameramen!). If the writer comes so low on the pecking order then the comic book writer who supplies the writer with the raw material comes even lower.
Most comic book writers are fortunately ill suited to the schmoozing and politics of Hollywood, although some have taken to it like a duck to water. If they actually make it in Hollywood, climbing up that slippery ladder from writer to executive producer to co-producer, very few of them will have sustained success (very few producers of any stripe have long term success). For them there will always be the safety net of comic book writing where they can be big fish in a little pond.
The adaptation of so many comics has led to a great many creators from outside the industry using comics as a stepping stone to a movie. It remains to be seen if comic publishers will begin to see the creation of a comic company as an entity to be sold to the first corporation which comes along (like so many dot.coms). We are also seeing a great many comic books now being produced in a movie friendly style. The fact that they don’t sell very well as comic books (because they are not playing to the strengths of the comic strip medium) doesn’t matter, they are merely a stepping stone to a movie deal. Who remembers, or has even seen, the original comic book version of Men In Black which the movie was based on? To a certain extent the comic is becoming an irrelevance compared to the possible movie it might spawn.
With so many comic strips being turned into movies why have we not seen existing comic companies creating new characters and new comic companies coming into existence? As for new companies I would guess that they look at the business model on which the direct sales market is based on and realize that it’s a very difficult market to understand yet alone break into. It cannot be that they believe only long established characters can make the leap to movies, Ghost World, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hellboy, Kick Ass etc are all relatively new comic books.
Surely anyone involved in other media would see comic books as a very low cost, and therefore low risk, enterprise. Compared to making a movie producing a comic is a fraction of the cost and also takes a fraction of the manpower. Book publishers have entered the market rather than periodical publishers, but individual graphic novels as we have seen are a very hit and miss proposition. As I stated in my first blog it is the regular visit to a recognizable character in a distinctive style which builds the audiences’ affinity with a comic strip.