Comics Are Flying Off the Page

The image that jumps to mind of your traditional comic book reader, is either of a pimply faced adolescent boy with an unnatural affinity for brightly colored tights or an awkward social misfit living in his or her parents' garage. The kind of person who keeps insisting the thicker comics lying on the coffee table aren't comic books, they're "graphic novels."But, like the case of the nerds in high school who tried to convince everyone that computers were going to be the big thing to get into, and received for their trouble an atomic wedgie, the joke seems to be on us.A certain jaw-droppingly rich computer nerd named Gates, who probably had a painful flashback at the mention of the atomic wedgie, was recently named the richest man in the world. And comic books are doing all right too.From a business perspective, comic books and comic book characters are some of the most successful examples of the trend toward multi-media diversification. Comic book heroes have been made into popular prime-time TV shows, including the momentarily successful "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman", Saturday morning cartoons, CD roms, books, and, of course, movies.With the success of the four Batman movies -- combined profits approaching the national debt -- the Superman movies, "The Crow", "The Mask", "Spawn" and "Men in Black", Hollywood can't get enough of comic book superheroes. Recent articles in film industry trade magazines list the number of comic book inspired movies currently in some phase of production at more than 20. Liscensing, according to Dave Romeo of Comics on the Green in Scranton, is the single most important reason. "I know one of the big things is liscensing movies that involve anything fantasy or superhero related will get you toys and lunchboxes and T-shirts," he said. "That's where the real money is from what I understand, box-office receipts are almost insignificant sometimes compared to what they make on liscensed products."The Batman movies are a good example. Even if a Batman movie flops -- and the latest installment, "Batman and Robin", did -- the money made off trading cards, new action figures and video games helps the film turn a profit anyway. Another factor behind Hollywood's race to get the most popular comics into theaters is producers assume there's a ready-made audience for the product. They believe if they get a comic on the screen, loyal fans will run to see it again and again. What they aren't considering, Romeo said, is that avid fans of a comics series will almost never be satisfied with the movie. Just like novels adapted for the screen, the typical reaction to movies based on comics is the old Hollywood lament that the movie wasn't as good as the book. Romeo said the most successful comics-turned-movies and the ones that make the most money are often the ones that didn't on the newsstands. "'Men in Black' is a classic example," he said, "'Men in Black' was I think a mediocre comic book at best, from a now defunct company, years ago. It was a black and white thing, that looked almost amateurish really. But in the right hands it turned into a really good movie." The advantage lesser known comics have is they can capitalize on the fun and flexible reality of the comic format without having to confront enormous expectations. At the other end of the spectrum, James Cameron has had an eagerly-awaited "Spiderman" movie in development for years now, and if it ever comes out, it better be untouchably good, because word-of-mouth among the millions of Spidey fans will quickly tear it from the theaters if it isn't. Eric Wescott of Unknown comics in Clarks Summit, added that a lot of comic-book based movies may be finally making it out of the planning stages and onto the screen because of recent technological advancements in the field of computer generated effects. Re-creating the spectacular looking vistas of heightened comic-book reality while keeping within the constraints of a moderate budget, is a more viable option. Now stuff like laser vision, stretchable arms and gravity-defying leaps can be made to look more realistic than every before. The extra revenue generated by this trend couldn't have come along at a better time either. A few years ago, after realizing the value of older comics, many people started collecting them as an investment. Trying to guess which books would be the next big thing, the next valuable commodity, was part of the fun. The problem was the market was inflated, the first issue of a new comic frequently sold in the millions, press runs were enormous and gimmicks like hologram covers and alternate covers were the norm. Since then, the market has come back down to Earth, and much of the prosperity of the last few years has given way to a sort of industry depression, or at least a return to the way things were before. "We went through the boom in '94 then we went bust in '95 and I lost half my business," Wescott said. As the industry came back to reality, many comic buyers who were in it for profit margins not for any love of the medium, faded away. Then in stepped Hollywood and big businesses, buying up properties and adding zeros to everyone's bottom lines. Though avid fans will inevitably complain that all this crossover marketting is tainting the industry, Romeo said comic buyers should understand they of all people will benefit. After DC scored a hit with the Batman movies, he said, the company was afforded the leeway to fund some smaller, more esoteric comic titles that fans love.An example was "Preacher", a DC comic that wouldn't have been given the luxury of much time or resources in a struggling company, yet with some nurturing it has developed into one of the most critically and commercially successful in the industry. As an intellectually challenging, adult oriented comic, it is a fair representative of another major trend in comics. "Preacher" and other similar titles are getting respect from more than just business circles. Many critics, for instance, are beginning to re-examine comics and the comic book format as credible works of art. (See sidebar) Gene Suszco of Gema Books in Wilkes-Barre said modern comics contain some of the best artists, creating the best artwork around. "If you're an artist or if you appreciate art, today there's such variety and such extraordinary stuff going on that you couldn't fail to appreciate it," he said. Compared to the superhero, horror and humor comics that dominated the 40s and 50s, the modern comics are for a variety of reasons almost unrecognizable. Not only do they feature far superior artwork but they also have storylines that exceed in complexity and subject matter anything in the past. "At one time you used to have basically superhero stories, the guy in the costume who saves the world," said Suszco. Now, just like the variety of subjects that can be found in any bookstore, comics feature storylines on virtually every subject and genre, from mystery, to psychology, to current events, to history, to -- of course -- superhero fiction. Because of this increase in the complexity of the artwork and the sophistication of the storylines, comic books are beginning to be picked up by older readers and readers that aren't -- according to the old stereotype -- young boys living in a testosterone-heavy fantasy land. Suszco said critics who still contend that comics are an adolescent art form appealing to adolescents apparently haven't read comics lately. "Many comics are dealing with subject matter that is in no way adolescent," he said, "it's not like the 50's when Archie was around." Wescott added, "It's a medium and most people treat it like it's for kids but it's just images and text and there's nothing childish about either. So I don't know why the sum of the parts should be considered childish." And others outside of the business are starting to take note. From the business end to the artistic content, comic books have grown up, in a lot of ways. Even the old stereotypes about the readers and the subject matter no longer seem to apply. After gains in the quality of the books themselves, gains in the diversity of the fan base, successes in TV, movies, novels, video games and CD-ROMs and continued increases in their value as investments; comic books seem to have finally shed their adolescents-of-the-art-world persona. They "are" getting respect. And who's to say if some of history's most famous artists like Michelangelo and Van Gogh -- a bit antiestabishment, non-conformist and bohemian themselves -- were living and creating today, they wouldn't be working for DC. Sidebar OneThe Mouse That RoaredApril of 1992 was a very important month for comic book artist Art Spiegelman and comic books in general. That month, the Pulitzer board voted a special award to Spiegelman for his exceptional work in the comic book format, thus bestowing long overdue credibility and prestige on the entire field. The award was in recognition of his "Maus" series. Editor of the avant-garde comic magazine "Raw", Spiegelman authored this group of books which gleaned inpiration from the experiences of his Jewish parents during the German occupation of Poland. The stories -- written in comic book format -- are told using mice and cats as the main characters. The preyed upon mice are the Jews and the predatory cats are Nazis. Crossing literary and artistic genres, the books often times take a traditional narrative stance, with his father, Zladek, as narrator. At other times, the books lapse into a journal-like account of Spiegelman's own first-hand experiences listening to Zladek tell his story. The title of the first book, "Maus: A Survivor's Tale", highlights one of the author's obvious goals. The stories are told through flashbacks from a modern perspective so they can reveal not only stories of holocaust horrors but also the overlooked story of how difficult it is to be a survivor. Often times, Spiegelman's father, living in New York after the war, is shown as a troubled and difficult man whose wife -- Spiegelman's mother and a holocaust survivor also -- killed herself in 1968. Much of his parents' post-war grief can be traced back to unhealable wounds, entrenched by wartime experiences. Rabbi David Geffen of Temple Israel in Scranton commented on the books and said that initially he had some concerns about the way the subject matter was being handled. But after looking at the first book, Geffen, who was living in Israel the first time he read it, said he quickly began to grasp it's impact. "I found it a very telling way of transmitting the story of the holocaust," he said. Then, with perfectly succinct endorsement, added, "It really was quite moving." Indeed, instead of diminishing the importance of the subject matter, he said the comic style was "unique" and resulted in an artistic work that highlights how comic books can be used to approach serious topics. "It shows how really powerful the comic format is," he said.


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