Columnist Wayne Rée shares his discovery of comic books, from his start as a super-hero fan to his evolution into a believer of the power of the art form of comics.
I love going to the movies. Always have. I’m not a scholar of fine cinema or revolutionary filmmaking. I know a thing or two, sure, but at the end of the day, I just like catching a flick with friends and having a good time.
Iron Man 3’s opening in just a few weeks, so it seemed only right to talk a little about that love for moviegoing. After all, my journey, man, wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about comic films – specifically superhero films, for two reasons.
Comic films in general means a pretty broad list to cover. We’re talking everything from Ghost World to Dredd here. But superhero films? That’s a more specific subset. And, more importantly, there’s an emotional connection I have with superhero films that goes deeper than other comic films.
“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
That connection started when I was a kid, naturally. Anyone from my generation will tell you that the ’80s were a golden age for genre films. If you were a fantasy fan, you had Princess Bride. If you loved sci-fi, you had Blade Runner. And if you loved superheroes, you had Tim Burton’s Batman.
Yeah, I’d seen Richard Donner’s Superman, but Batman? Hoo boy. That was a different ball game altogether. And for the next half of a decade, the Batman films were the standard by which superhero flicks were measured. Hell, I can still unapologetically dig Batman Forever. Of course, to be fair, there were all that many superhero films out there anyway. Which is why, when Batman & Robin came out, I was devastated.
It was disappointing, simply because it seemed like this marriage of two of my favourite things was coming to an end. You got to understand: This was a film so bad that George Clooney eventually apologised for it and Joel Schumacher (the man who helmed easily one of my favourite vampire flicks of all time) practically faded from the spotlight.
As far as I was concerned, that was it for superhero movies. And then Wesley Snipes came along.
“I was born ready, mother—”
I’ve pointed out before that I’ve always been a Marvel guy. So, when Blade hit the big screen, you’d think I was ecstatic. But I wasn’t. Well, not initially. At first, I just couldn’t believe that the character that Wesley Snipes so perfectly brought to the screen was the same dude with the goofy 70s shades from the comics.
But it was, and after I got over that disbelief, I was all in, baby. I mean, come on. It was a Marvel character, no matter how obscure, that was translated into a genuinely kick-ass film.
The best thing about Blade, however, wasn’t just that it was an awesome film; it was a precursor to even more superhero films. Which made me happy as can be… for a little while anyway. That marriage of my loves was back, sure, but it was a marriage that was riddled with problems.
Quantity and quality
A glut of superhero films was released in the decade or so after Blade. But for every X-Men 2, there was an Elektra. Sure, I was glad to have these larger-than-life characters back on screen, but was the excitement of seeing Spidey swing through New York worth the awkward scripts that came along with Raimi’s web-slinging trilogy?
Pretty soon, I’d kind of had it. It actually felt worse than the this-is-over sensation that came with Batman & Robin. If we’re going to use the matrimonial analogy again, it became a loveless marriage. It just wasn’t exciting anymore.
What it needed was a second honeymoon. (I’ve totally lost control of this analogy, haven’t I?)
The Dark Knight Returns
And lo and behold, just like in the ’80s, Batman heralded a new era of superhero films with the aptly named Batman Begins. But they were different this time. It seemed like the one good thing that came out of that glut was that studios were learning that they couldn’t get away with releasing substandard films for our favourite colourful characters.
Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, and eventually Joss Whedon were names that were starting to get attached to these movies. Directors that carried weight, not just with your average moviegoer, but with us nerds and geeks too. Sure, we had Green Lantern, but crappy superhero films were comparatively fewer and farther between.
The new golden age
Last year, when I sat and watched Avengers for the first time, I swear to you, I was nearly moved to tears. Hell, I still get a little misty-eyed every time I hear Alan Silverstri’s theme from the show. Can you blame me though? For the first time since Burton’s Batman, I’m looking forward to watching superhero films regularly again.
Y’know… just catching a flick with friends and having a good time
Wayne Rée’s been writing professionally for about ten years. He’s worked in everything from advertising to publishing, and was even part of the team that created Singapore’s very first tattoo magazine. He dabbles in screenwriting and photography, travels way too much, and is currently putting together his very first short story collection. He blogs about his upcoming book, storytelling and other things at http://waynereewrites.com.
On July 29, Cowboys & Aliens opens in movie theaters across the US. Directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man), executive produced by Stephen Spielberg (do I really need to name one of his credits?), written and produced by Damon Lindelof (Lost), and starring Daniel Craig (Casino Royale), Harrison Ford (1 or 2 successful movies, can’t remember the titles) and Olivia Wilde (House). With an estimated budget of $100 million and big star names this is meant to be a big ol’ Hollywood blockbuster.
And most people may not realize it’s based on a comic book. More accurately, Cowboys & Aliens was first an original graphic novel published in 2006 by Platinum Studios and HarperCollins. The concept was created by Platinum chairman Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, and was executed by writers Fred Van Lente (Action Philosophers) and Andrew Foley (Parting Ways) and artists Dennis Calero (X-Factor) and Luciano Lima (Grifter and the Mask).
Comics are still battling a perception problem. The majority of Americans still think comic books = superheroes, maybe with a side dish of funny animals. The truth is that comics have as much if not more diversity as any other entertainment medium and art form. It’s just not as easy to find. Most comic book stores still predominantly sell superhero comics and the industry’s two largest publishers (holding over 75% of the market) almost exclusively publish superhero comics. But there a number of publishers, like Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics, Fantagraphics Books, First Second Books, Drawn & Quarterly, Boom! Studios, Archaia Entertainment, and lots more, that are carrying an ever-expanding selection of great material for readers of any shape and size that could fill up every section of a library. A change is happening, but even so, the perception is still comic book movie = superhero movie. This is reflected from the entertainment press and marketing to audiences’ own descriptions.
Perceptions are changed slowly and gradually. The problem is that a series of big successful Hollywood movies based on a comic book that isn’t superheroes has never really been trumpeted as based on a comic book or graphic novel. There have been notable exceptions, but the lasting impression doesn’t seem to stick. The Mask, Men in Black, From Hell, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Ghost World, A History of Violence, Road to Perdition, 30 Days of Night, and Red all did reasonably well but either lacked in reach or in leading with the message about their source material. Sin City and 300 are about as good as its gotten but largely because of the strength of Frank Miller’s name. The Walking Dead on TV has been a big leg up. But when this summer season alone has four big superhero movies enforcing the perception, it’s an uphill climb.
With comics sales leaking away every month, comics needs a big influx of readers looking for a wide variety of entertainment. To help put a kick in that awareness, Hollywood and their audiences need to see that big (and successful!) popcorn movies can come from comic books that aren’t about superheroes. And Cowboys & Aliens fits that criteria perfectly with a great high concept, fun setting and lots of explosions.
This year has already seen two failures for non-superhero comic book movies. Priest was based on a Korean comic (or manwha) of the same name by Hyung Min-woo. It was published in the US by Tokyopop, which was in the midst of shutting down its domestic publishing arm as the movie was released. Surely not a good sign. The movie performed about as well as you’d expect, despite some eye-catching trailers. Before that was Dylan Dog: Dead of Night starring Brandon Routh (Superman Returns). The movie was based on the Italian comic book series Dylan Dog, an acclaimed horror comic created by Tiziano Sclavi. Unfortunately it failed to capture the surreal nature of the comic and the main character’s charm in reacting to the horror he investigates.
Both of those movies failed for any number of reasons, but that they have the common link of being adaptations of foreign comic books not about superheroes isn’t good. Cowboys & Aliens needs to be the start of a new trend where Hollywood (and their audiences) starts to see the value in non-superhero comic books that are filled with ideas and concepts people want to experience. It can’t establish this perception all on its own, but with no other movies that fit the bill this summer, it needs to at least push the needle in the opposite direction.
Also released this summer is The Smurfs, which is adapted from the classic Belgian comic Les Schtroumpfs by Peyo, but it’s more associated with the popular animated series that ran on NBC throughout the 1980s, or the little figurines. The Belgian comics have rarely been translated and published in English, which surely contributes to this perception. Papercutz has been doing a great job importing these fun comics to the US.
Otherwise, it’s up to The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn in December, based on the Belgian adventure comics by Hergé.