Iron Man. Captain America. Batman vs Superman. The Avengers. Spider-Man. Kick-Ass. Watchmen. X-Men. Persepolis. Man of Steel. Thor. Ant-Man.
Hear someone mention a “comic book movie”, and you naturally think —
Wait, what? Persepolis?
Ah, there’s the rub. When someone says “comic book movies”, what they inevitably mean is a summer superhero blockbuster, with heavily-muscled and tightly-gluted men (plus the occasional token woman) in tight-fitting costumes punching the living daylights out of one another for two hours.
“Comic book movies” is just quicker and easier to say.
It’s also wrong, lazy, and frankly insulting.
“Hey, critics: would you ever refer to “the movie genre”, or “the music genre”? It’s as absurd as saying “comic book movie” when you mean “superhero movie”.
Of course, it’s not their fault. The general public has been conditioned to think “comics = superheroes” for as long as caped crusaders have been around — by critics, mass media, and Marvel and DC themselves, who have what you might call a vested interest.
Even in the actual medium of comic books, a large percentage of the audience says “comics” when what they really mean is “superhero comics published by Marvel and DC”.
But this is changing. Thanks to an expansion in size, diversity, and age range of the audience beyond hardcore fanboys, the increased viability of graphic novels in libraries, and the rise of Image Comics, more and more readers are realizing that “comics” just means, well, “comics”. And like any creative medium, you can use comics to tell any kind of story you like.
(Image is best known for the original comics of The Walking Dead, of course. But it’s now the industry’s third-largest and fastest-growing publisher, focusing almost entirely on a wide and diverse slate of titles in almost every genre you can imagine. Many of them outsell more widely-known superhero comics, especially in collected ‘trade paperback’ form.)
“If there’s a genre in which you can tell a story, there’s a comic for it.”
Comics is incredibly diverse in both content and format, ranging from daily newspaper comedy strips and slice of life web comics, to monthly crime serials and multi-volume graphic novel fantasy epics, and everything in between.
Thrillers, horror, sci-fi, noir, murder mystery, fantasy, romance, western, espionage, crime, historical, non-fiction, sports, slice of life, biographical… if there’s a genre in which you can tell a story, there’s a comic for it.
Now, there’s no question that the biggest box office hits featuring comic characters are huge superhero movies from Marvel and DC. But here is a short and incomplete list of other movies based on comic books:
30 Days of Night
Bullet to the Head
A History of Violence
Men in Black
Road to Perdition
Scott Pilgrim vs The World
When the Wind Blows
How many of those did you know were based on comics? Probably not many. How many would you think to describe as a “comic book movie”? Probably even less.
Earlier I referred to the comics “medium”, not “genre”, which gets to the heart of the matter. The conflation of medium and genre, which itself grows out of the conflation between comics and superheroes, is deeply ingrained in popular cultural criticism of comics. Creators the world over cringe at the sight of someone referring to “the comic book genre”.
Hey, critics: would you ever refer to “the movie genre”, or “the music genre”? Of course not, it’s absurd. Just as absurd as saying “comic book movie” when you mean “superhero movie”.
(Aren’t you people supposed to know what you’re talking about? Or is it still a badge of honor to proclaim your ignorance of popular culture?)
So next time you find yourself about to say, “Oh, I don’t watch comic book movies”, try to instead imagine saying, “Oh, I don’t watch book movies” with a straight face.
Then go read a comic.
(Full disclosure of 100% bias: I’ve been writing non-superhero comics for almost 20 years and one of them, a spy thriller called The Coldest City, is the basis of the movie Atomic Blonde. But I’ve been tilting at this particular windmill since before I even broke into the industry. Come at me.)