Feb 25, 2018

Why "Let's Not Play Off the Movie" Doesn't Work

One of the most common things we say, as fans, is that the comics shouldn't play off of the fact that there are movies, TV shows, and other forms of media. We say comics should be their own thing and not mind what the other, more high-reaching forms of media are doing. And sometimes we're right. And sometimes we're wrong.

Why "Let's Not Play Off the Movie" That Doesn't Work
by Duy

Superhero comics have played on the other mass media interpretations of their characters since the inception, when the Superman radio show introduced kryptonite, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White, and the difficulty of animating a man jumping forced the movie animators working on the Superman short serials to bring the power of flight to the Man of Steel. At the time, some people complained about that last one (Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, was apparently one), but I think with the benefit of hindsight we can agree that the power of flight was a blessing to Superman, at least on a commercial level.

Comics are, first and foremost, a business, and that means capitalizing on items that can maximize your revenue. Using things that a wider audience knows about is a tried and true tactic, and sometimes the results are bad, like when they introduced organic webshooters to Spider-Man, which was, in itself, not the greatest idea in the world for the movies anyway.  

My favorite example of something that capitalizes on a TV show and failing is the 1970s Shazam comic. You see, in the 70s, there was a Shazam TV show. It featured Billy Batson traveling in a van with an old man named Mentor. So in the comic, they had Billy Batson traveling in a van with his Uncle Dudley, and he called him "Mentor."

It's hilariously bad.

But sometimes they're good. The 1966 Batman series not only picked up sales on the then-flagging Batman comics, but it also reintroduced Alfred Pennyworth, bringing him back into comics for the first time in almost 20 years. Even better, the perception of Batman as a campy, over-the-top, exaggerated character really set the stage for Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams. With Batman once again prominent in the public consciousness, O'Neil and Adams did a complete 180 and brought Batman back to his gritty, hard-boiled roots. It was the perfect time to do it. If they had done it while sales were flagging, would it have worked in getting a new audience? Maybe. But this already had a captive audience, one bigger than they probably could have asked for at the time from only comics. This further elevated his stature, which has only gone up since.

But here's my favorite example. You see, in 1982, DC had a movie out called Swamp Thing.

To capitalize on this, editor Len Wein decided to launch The Saga of the Swamp Thing, a new series based on his creation. After a year of it running, he was on the lookout for a new writer, and therefore placed a call to England to talk to one Alan Moore.

Yes, Alan Moore, writer of Swamp Thing, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell, and many more acclaimed comics only started writing American comics because Swamp Thing had a movie out.

Okay, so imagine that butterfly effect. No Alan Moore, and the floodgates to Britain for writers (they'd already been hiring artists before Moore) don't open when they do and Karen Berger doesn't have the manpower to start Vertigo. And let's say by some chain of events, she still does bring the British writers in and Vertigo still happens. You know which writer she definitely doesn't get, other than Moore?

Neil Gaiman. By his own admission, at that point in his life, Gaiman had almost completely walked away from comics, living life as a journalist instead. The only two comics he was keeping up with were reprints of Will Eisner's The Spirit, and Alan Moore's Saga of the Swamp Thing. It's Swamp Thing that pushed him into giving this a shot for himself, and it was even Moore who taught him how to write a comics script. So, no Gaiman, no Sandman, and all that entails: the higher female readership, the imitators, the ones who are clearly influenced by him (goodbye, Loki: Agent of Asgard and The Wicked and the Divine and everyone else who's even remotely influenced by Gaiman). And, arguably, you can say goodbye to Gaiman's entire career as a novelist and fiction writer as well.

And there's also this: in Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked, in the 6:30 mark of this video, Paul Levitz relates the story of how when Watchmen came out, it forced the entire industry to step up their game. Imagine if that doesn't happen.

All because Swamp Thing had a movie. Imagine if Wein hadn't considered the possibility of capitalizing on that at all. (My view: the comic industry would have played copycat instead with the other breakout star of the 80s, Frank Miller. And since Frank Miller isn't as reproducible as Alan Moore, you'd have a lot of people missing the point of Miller's work. Miller walks a fine line between real and goofy, and he makes it work. I think we'd have ended up with the Image artists going dark and gory, with no Alan Moore influence to have the rest of the industry try more ornate wordsmithing. That's not necessarily a bad thing — I like Frank. But I think we all benefited from both guys having influence.

The real answer is there's no hard and fast rule. Sometimes playing off the movie or TV show is good. Sometimes it doesn't work. But you'd have to be myopic as a businessman, and even arguably as an artist, not to at least consider the best way you can do some capitalizing.

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