Mention the words ‘comic book’ to ten different people and you’ll get ten different reactions. Baby Boomers might remember faded, dog-eared Archie, Superman or Looney Tunes comics. A Generation Xer might remember the cultish underground birth of dark, brooding graphic novels. A teenager might consider them the same way as the web or mobile phone after growing up amid the ravenous demand for them and not knowing the world when it was any different.
Ask someone who’s never read one and they might smirk derisively, saying they’re for guys in their 30s who wear trenchcoats, still haven’t moved out of home and need to engage more with the real world instead of World of Warcraft. It’s a battle for legitimacy comic book and graphic novel publishers are finally winning, and after maturing beyond the ‘spandex superhero’ genres, appeal is showing up in surprising circles.
“Hollywood’s interest in comics has been primarily the standard Super Hero books from the 60s,” says Chris Ryall, publisher and editor-in-chief of IDW Publishing. “It’s been smaller things, movies like Ghost World or Road to Perdition that people saw as good movies and then found out later they were based on graphic novels that’s expanded readership. Now there are all these different projects out there that aren’t just your ‘macho guy beating up bad guys’ kind of stuff. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman reached across pretty much all boundaries and appealed to men and women equally.”
As Ryall’s comments remind us, if you were to ask a Hollywood executive what comic books mean their eyes will light up with dollar signs. Using cultural institutions like Manga as well as hit movies and fuelled by thriving online communities, comic books have well and truly piggypacked their way into the mainstream. Still not convinced? Disney’s investors and owners were — last year they approved the $4billion purchase of Marvel comics (home of Iron Man, Spider-man, Captain America and more).
The explosive and ongoing trend for movies based on them has seen comics appeal to young and old, male and female alike. You know things are serious when awards are involved, for one thing — just look at Heath Ledger’s posthumous 2008 Academy Award win was for his portrayal of a comic book character in The Dark Knight, a film that remains one of only four to make more than $1bn at the global box office.
While not as big as comic giants Marvel or DC Comics (home of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman) IDW has its share of big screen success with the license to produce the comics of the Star Trek, Transformers and True Blood franchises. You’ve also probably heard of 30 Days of Night, the vampire story by Perth artist Ben Templesmith that was turned into a spectacularly gory 2007 movie.
Ryall himself has no illustration work he’s ever published (‘or that I would want published’ he says). He’s a writer who’s worked on everything from car brochures to corporate speeches. A chance meeting and some work for filmmaker Kevin Smith led him into the word of comics and now he’s written three or four dozen of them as well as a book about the field itself. Like in more traditional book publishing (and very unlike the world of movies), it’s often the writer who gets the recognition for a comic or graphic novel rather than the illustrator. The name ‘Alan Moore’ is far more famous as the writer of Watchmen, V for Vendetta or From Hell as the artists he’s worked with, infamously taking his name off the film versions of several of his projects.
Moore’s actions highlight the double-edged sword Hollywood represents for comic book publishers, one Ryall’s only too aware of. “Studio interest is probably the thing we’re most wary of,” he says. “You’re popular in Hollywood until you’re not and then when you’re not, you’re very not. Conventions can turn into places movie people come to buy the next thing they think is going to be big and then turn their back on it just as quickly. You never want to get too full of yourself in thinking ‘Wow, comics are huge, everybody loves us!’
Ben Templesmith, who now lives in LA, enjoyed a spectacular shot in the arm as the illustrator behind 30 Days of Night when the film version came out, and a more recent work — Welcome to Hoxford — has been optioned by 1492, the company owned by Hollywood director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).
“Ultimately my 30 Days movie experience came from knowing David Slade,” says Templesmith, after the 30 Days of Night director, a fan of his work, asked to meet him. “I don’t think I would have been crashing at his house in LA or riding in the limo with him to the premiere without that. It wasn’t the typical process.
Templesmith’s career took off while he was still living and working in Perth because of the hype surrounding the option, but it still took 5 years to come to fruition. In that time he’s seen the inner workings of comic publishers willing to sell their soul for a movie deal. “Some try to control all the media rights and set themselves up as mini moguls, rather than the people who write and draw controlling their creations. What matters to creators is often different from what matters to a publisher, and most creators worth their salt are realising they should have their own people to handle their intellectual property.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily blame Hollywood for it,” Ryall adds, “but some comic companies stop caring about putting out a good comic because they just want something they can hand to a development executive to help get a movie made. Readers are astute enough to be able to see right through that approach and the comic graveyards are littered with companies that have taken it. Our approach is just to put out a great comic. If other things happen from that then great, but if not we’ve got something we’re proud of.”