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|
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.
Allied soldiers assaulting the Nazi superweapon
Why aren't you reading this book by now?!
So give Marvel Unlimited a try, and if you've never read Ultimates I strongly recommend you start your online library there.