Thursday, May 16, 2013

Comic Books--Focus Groups for Blockbuster Movies

Once more I'm going to share my thoughts on a well known loaf of Nerd Bread: comic books. Comic books are making a huge resurgence in popularity and cultural relevance these days. For the last year or two, some of the biggest movies (and even one really successful television show) have been comic book adaptations. The Avengers movie stands head-and-Hulk-trapezoids over the rest, but Spider-Man, X-men, Batman, and The Walking Dead all got a huge amount of audience keisters and dollars. Iron Man 3 (assisted by Avengers' awesomeness, if we're honest) is currently beating its way past $1 billion in global ticket sales. And with Man of Steel set to come out in June and another round of Marvel awesomeness hitting us in the fall (note I'm ignoring The Wolverine with that timeframe), the fact is that we've got another year with television and cinema dominated by comic books' huge appeal.

But comic books themselves are still considered a little bit niche. Ask the average non-nerd what Spider-Man's secret identity is, and they will almost certainly say Peter Parker. But if you ask them about the Superior Spider-Man, Superman: Red Son, or the New 52, they will shrug and answer "Peter Parker?" "Isn't that what makes Krypton special?" and "Are they the people trying to get Washington DC and Puerto Rico recognized as states?" respectively. Even though comic books are powerful cultural troves, they still are themselves fringe texts--still Nerd Bread.

But why are comics still considered nerdy when their characters are so well-known and popular? Well, I think a large part of it goes into my definition of a nerd--enthusiasm. Comic books are full of art and intricate plots and involved stories. They have vibrant, distinct characters that sometimes come off as offensive and over-the-top to the uninitiated reader. One issue of a comic is, by design, generally never enough to satisfy a reader, and so those of the right persuasion find themselves digging in for more and more while others sniff and back away.

And--a little critically--there's the issue of comic book marketing. As a monthly storytelling medium, comic books are a constantly shifting and reacclimatizing landscape. Being out of the loop for just a couple of years can yield a lot of surprising new changes, as I know first-hand. This leads to comic books appealing to younger readers more readily, as they're more often eager to join the cult of the new and are less offended by changes to established characters, teams, and plots. Older comic book readers exist, but it means that it takes a bit more effort and therefore makes adult comic book fans even more peculiar and nerdy in contrast to their peers.

"Even though comic books are powerful cultural troves, they still are themselves fringe texts--still Nerd Bread."

So why are comic books' stories and characters so relevant to the culture at large when the actual reading and ingesting, the true fandom, is still considered the province of nerds? Part of it has to be the appeal of an entire genre that is so visually attuned to tell its own stories. You can read a comic book and get pictures that bear composition as beautiful, evocative, and meaning-packed as any Oscar-winning cinematography. The visuals and style of heroes are often done with painstaking and self-conscious awareness of its fan preferences, meaning that the very best and longest-lasting heroes often have an almost symbiotic appeal to their fans. These elements mean that when transferring that appeal to the screen, directors already have a firm idea of the mass reaction they can expect from their choices--especially as they maintain fidelity to the original text.

Comic books also have some of the best economy of story-telling, which is an important factor in television and film. They might have meta-plots that span over months or years of publication, but at the same time every comic book issue needs to tell its own contained story in less than 30 pages. You need to fit drama, intrigue, and action into those 30 pages to qualify as the best of comic books today, and to be something really special you need to integrate the artistic vision and small story into something eminently relatable to the audience. These are key points that any movie-maker can appreciate, and a lot of them could gain an invaluable education from reading comic books for its own sake.

And finally, comic book fans are in it for the long haul. When you make a movie about X superhero--even if it's bad or disappointing--you can count on just about any pre-established fan of X's comics going to see the movie. I mean, why wouldn't they? They've probably already shelled out hundreds of dollars over years to read about X, now they just need to spend a little more to see him on the big screen. Of course they go. And if it's even reasonably good, every self-respecting comic book nerd will be evangelizing the movie to their friends--to see the movie, certainly, but also and more importantly in a clever attempt to coerce their buddies into becoming comic book aficionados as well. A well-done comic book movie has legs that no marketing budget can duplicate--the enthusiasm of nerds.

"Older comic book readers exist, but it means that it takes a bit more effort and therefore makes adult comic book fans even more peculiar and nerdy in contrast to their peers."

As a totally free add-on, I'm going to share with you a new discovery I made thanks to C2E2 this year that puts decades of comic books within your reach without bankrupting you, making you a pirate, or putting you at the mercy of your local library's selection.

Marvel Unlimited: The Netflix of Marvel Comic Books

Capture of the Marvel Unlimited web-reader of Ultimates #1's cover
Marvel Unlimited is an online app-and-browser-based service for reading comic books. For either a $10 monthly subscription or a $60 annual one, you get access to a digital library that you can read online that contains 13,000 issues of Marvel comics that range from decades-old to published just a couple months ago. It's a great service, and thanks to it I've been reading at least two new comics a day for the past two weeks.

I've been out of comic books for a while, and even when I was a regular reader my selections were pretty careful--I buy graphic novels (multiple issues bound as one), and the thought of putting something unsatisfying on my bookshelf always made me cautious. So there were a lot of comic books I always wanted to get into that I never did because I wasn't sure if I'd love them or because their graphic novel collections were hard to find, and so on. And that was before I'd fallen out of comics altogether for five years or so.

But at C2E2 I heard about Marvel Unlimited, and let me tell you: it's a great deal. I've been able to backtrack on my favorite series to 2008 and start catching up from there, or even further back for those series I always wanted to read but never bothered. And if there's a particular hero you like to follow who appears in different comic book series, like Ant-Man or Captain Marvel, you can browse for them specifically and follow their appearances throughout different series over the years. It's a great resource.

Ultimates #1
Allied soldiers assaulting the Nazi superweapon
And if you're curious about it, they have sample issues you can browse and see how you like it. Once you're hooked I recommend you start with one of my favorite Marvel comic book series: Ultimates, written by Mark Millar and illustrated by Bryan Hitch. As part of Marvel's Ultimate universe, it's a great place to launch into comics. You see, the Ultimate universe is a fresh take on Marvel's most popular comics that started about the same time Bryan Singer's first X-Men movie hit theaters. Starting from the ground up, the Ultimate universe tries to be as friendly to newcomers as possible while also taking the chance to take well-known characters into fresh directions. Ultimates is the Ultimate universe version of the Avengers, and it has some of the very finest art and storytelling. Some of the plot will be familiar to fans of last year's movie--the Chitauri do come out of the woodwork, and party conflict revolves around the Hulk. Some of the creative decisions of the movies were also lifted directly from Ultimates. Millar specifically cast Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury by having Hitch base his visualization on the actor, for instance, and Captain America's World War Two uniform in the first issue of Ultimates inspired the outfit Cap wears to raid the prison camp in The First Avenger. But it is by far a different, darker story than the one in Joss Whedon's movie, too.

Ultimates #1
Why aren't you reading this book by now?!
Ultimates is also a little richer than the movie in that it features a slightly larger roster of the Avengers, too. Hank Pym, or Ant-Man, and his wife Janet, the Wasp, are main characters alongside the ones you'll recognize from the movie. The art itself is very gritty and realistically proportioned, with fabulous use of shadow and color that keeps everything distinct and diverse in the classic four-color composition, while also evoking deep shadows and moral shades of gray with its meticulous realization of lighting. Inker Andrew Currie really lends a lot to the visual impact of this book, drawing sharp lines and highlighting fantastic expressions without overpowering Hitch's characters.

So give Marvel Unlimited a try, and if you've never read Ultimates I strongly recommend you start your online library there.


  1. Looks promising - is it same day as print like Comixology?

    1. Not quite--I'm pretty sure the newest comics are at least two or three months old. But the best thing is that they have large swathes of continuous issues of the same series, and related series are easy to follow thanks to the systems' "Similar series feature".