Comics, superheroes and movies: changing perceptions?

The flood of Marvel blockbusters has conditioned most of us to think of comic-book movies and superhero movies as being the same thing. Even before the multimedia Avengers juggernaut, most of us associated comic movies with big-name franchises like the Christopher Reeve Superman series. But superhero films are far from the only comic adaptations out there.

Take Diary of a Teenage Girl, for instance: a critically-acclaimed look at a young woman’s developing sexuality, it’s based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner. Comics are important to the story, too: the protagonist reveres underground cartoonist Aline Kominksy, who plays a vital role in her artistic development. Diary is hardly alone: comics like Ghost World, American Splendor or Josie and the Pussycats have been garnering critical or cult acclaim for years. More standard action outings like RED, Kingsman: The Secret Service and 300 are all based on comics. And yet somehow we don’t seem to think of them as comic-book films.

It’s easy to see why fans thought of superheroes and comics as synonymous. From the outset, comics have covered a wide range of genres, from science fiction and westerns to comedy and romance. In the 1950s and 60s, though, superheroes achieved a dominant status within the medium that they’ve held ever since. This was matched by an equal lack of superhero representation in other media. A few successful examples, like the Reeve Superman films or the Wonder Woman TV series, only served to underline the point: superheroes were something only comics really did well. They were distinctive.

But is that really true any more?

After all, the last decade and a half have seen superhero films not only succeed at the box office but come to dominate the action genre. Only the release of something like Star Wars: The Force Awakens generates hype equivalent to a big Marvel movie, and the studio now feels comfortable enough to put out films starring characters like Ant Man and Rocket No Kiddin’ Raccoon.

So if comics are no longer the only place where superheroes thrive, what effect will breaking the link between the two have? It’s not likely to unseat superhero books from their dominance within the industry, at least not any time soon. It probably also won’t drive out other genres of comic. Non-cape comics have existed for a long time, and they seem healthy — ask your cool friends what comics they read, and you’re as likely to hear about Saga or The Wicked and the Divine as you are about Ms Marvel or Unbeatable Squirrel Girl — but it would be nice to see some of the superhero shine rubbing off on them. It’s definitely having the effect of blurring some of the boundaries between superheroes and other genres: the upcoming Jessica Jones Netflix series is getting the big Marvel push you’d expect, but although it has superpowers in it it’s not quite a superhero show.

We know that comic publishers have historically struggled to turn movie success into long-term comic sales, although they may be improving their techniques these days. I don’t have the numbers to argue the point; anyone know better? It may just be that we’re discovering that most people quite like superheroes but aren’t huge fans of comics for whatever reason. Which would be a shame, but not the end of the world.

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