Today’s comic books offer a diverse selection of artists and writers, who are reimagining heroes and heroines for readers of all ages, and they’re also creating new characters to enjoy. There’s more to choose from than ever before, making it a great time to be a fan—or a comic artist.
Movies Make Comics Mainstream, and Profitable
Many comic book readers became fans because of comic books themselves, but others came to comics because of a television show or movie they saw that hooked them on superheroes. Tim Burton is often credited with bringing the superhero genre back to the cinema with 1989’s Batman, reinvigorating superhero interest on the silver screen two years after the lackluster Superman IV: the Quest for Peace. Despite Burton’s efforts with Michael Keaton, follow-ups like Batman Forever (1995) along with George Clooney’s nipple-clad Dark Knight in Batman & Robin (1997) put a bad taste in the mouths of ticket-buyers and fans.
But Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) changed everything, according to Rich Barrett, designer, illustrator, author, and contributor to Mental Floss: “…that film kept the source material at an arm’s length and is pretty different from any X-Men comic you’ve ever read, but it might be the first big superhero movie that wasn’t afraid to be a superhero movie.”
Singer’s X-Men and X-Men 2 (2003) ushered in a wave of superhero movies with star-studded casts that were entertaining, action-packed, and also profitable. Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Batman Begins (2005) gave studios a cash-cow they could count on, and fueled interest in reading the source material the characters were based on.
Richard Graham, author of Government Issue: Comics for the People, 1940s–2000s, was a member of the 2015 Eisner Award Judging Panel and an Eisner Award and Harvey Award Nominee (2012) himself. Graham suggests that “comics have always been a commercial form” whether they’re in print or on screen. Over the past fifteen years at the box office at least, movies based on comic books have been a reliable commercial medium. On AMC’s FilmSite, which ranks top US box office earnings based on domestic gross revenue, three of the top ten performers in 2000–2009 were comic book properties, and in 2010–2015, four of the top ten are comic book properties.
Effects Evolve, Darkness Falls
With the passing of each year, a wealth of new movies based on comic book properties enters the cinema, and they’re also becoming television and Netflix series, as in the case of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and Daredevil. Although the kid-friendly Adam West Batman (1966–68) television series and Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) hold a dear place in the hearts of many of today’s fans, other productions like the short-lived The Amazing Spider-Man television series (1977–79) might be considered letdowns. But technology has evolved, and so have budgets, and today’s superheroes look amazing on television and in the movies, compared to their campy predecessors. And yet, they are more serious with more adult content, and they’re chock-full of dizzying and violent action sequences.
Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben said “with great power comes great responsibility” and it seems that from dark comic books come dark motion pictures. Adult themes and violence appear in plenty of R-rated superhero movies we’ve seen over the years, including The Crow (1994), Blade (1998) and its follow-ups, as well as Sin City (2005), 300 (2006), Watchmen (2009), and Kick-Ass (2010). Ryan Reynolds’s forthcoming Deadpool (2016) movie will likely have just as much violence as the comic book source material it’s based on.
Plenty of other movies have been rated PG–13, and in many cases, the PG–13 fair isn’t suitable for kids, preventing them from seeing their heroes on the silver screen. Barrett considers Superman, and how the hero was depicted in 2013’s rated PG–13 Man of Steel (2013): “I’d argue that a movie like Man of Steel missed its mark by going dark, but the ticket sales probably don’t reflect that. I think the difference in both movies and comics is the longterm influence they miss out on by not appealing to kids and making new, lifelong fans at those younger, impressionable ages.” Richard Donner’s Superman, which is far from being dark, still holds up, and can be enjoyed by children as well as adults. According to Barrett, “…if a movie like Man of Steel had a more family-friendly appeal maybe it could achieve a long term classic status that the original Superman film enjoys.”
Library Offerings Aplenty
Superhero movies have grown up, with more grown-up content, but if you’re looking for family-friendly comic books for youngsters, there are plenty of titles to choose from. Colleges, high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools have been stocking comic books and graphic novels on their school library shelves, proving that comic books are not only mainstream, but are also an acceptable form of literature. At Mental Floss, where Rich Barrett is a regular contributor, you’ll find his list of 10 Great Comics for Early Readers. Although frowned upon decades ago, comic books get you reading and get you thinking.
Comic books are something that Richard Graham thinks about a lot as not only an author, but also as an associate professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s University Libraries where he overseas a wealth of media, including comic books. Graham explains the benefits of reading comic books: “It’s all about the appeal of image and word, together… they scaffold literacy, build literacy.” At my own library in Charlotte, North Carolina, I’ve managed to find comic books and graphic novels on a regular basis, to the point where one summer I read at least one graphic novel per day.
And the libraries have more than your standard superhero fair. As a fellow Charlottean, who uses the same public libraries I do, Barrett shares my enthusiasm: “Libraries have become a great place to discover good manga, young adult and literary adult graphic novels. Not long ago you’d only see the most popular DC and Marvel trade paperbacks, some popular manga and other obvious choices like Maus and Persepolis. Now when I go I can find anything from the Flash to Roz Chast to Osamu Tezuka.”
Barrett was pleased to check out a copy of Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile from his local library. Barrett calls it a wonderful “choose your own adventure graphic novel that kids and adults alike will marvel at.” And if you can find it at your local library, Graham recommends reading Noelle Stevenson’s and Grace Ellis’s Lumberjanes: “Lumberjanes is a fun book—along the same vein of movies like Meatballs, or TV shows like Salute Your Shorts, with a supernatural bend, a la Scooby Doo. Archetypes are defied, and it’s so heartwarming and cheerful to read that you just know that this is indicative of a critical mass for comics.”
More Than Ever Before
At Mental Floss, Barrett’s 25 Most Interesting Comics of 2014 runs down even more comic books to add to your reading list. While you may recognize some of the heroes like She-Hulk or artists like Calvin and Hobbes‘s Bill Watterson, a lot of titles are sans superheroes.
Established artists and writers continue to churn out great reads, and we’re in a new age of comic books when plenty of big name heroes such as Batman or Spider-Man are being reimagined in the movies and in comic books, but fresh talent has also taken to self-publishing to create even more books to choose from. Rich Barrett published Nathan Sorry himself, and Graham suggests readers be on the lookout for Ben Templesmith‘s version of H.P. Lovecraft’s Dagon that was funded through Kickstarter.
Whether you’re a fan of one specific comic book or graphic novel genre, or if you love anything you can get your hands on so long as it has pictures and words, Graham says, “It’s a good time to be an omnivore.”
If you’re interested in comic books, chances are you’ve heard the names Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. With The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio by Mark Evanier, learn more about the duo who invented noteworthy characters like Captain America and Sandman, conceived the idea of romance comics, and created a new standard for the genres of crime, western, and horror comic books.