Although the previous two decades saw a great surge in the respectability afforded to comic book characters adapted brilliantly to cinema screens, I don’t think the same level of appreciation carried over to the colorful, panel-style pages that all these characters originate from. What I mean is, while moviegoers might have cheered on at the sight of the Avengers, I predict very few people cared enough to go out and read up on the multitude of Avengers comics in publication since the mid-20th Century. I would argue the same probably holds true for many of the other top comics-to-cinema franchises.
Some movie historians point to the success of the 1978 Superman movie, or Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, as the beginning of the mainstream acceptance of comic book adaptations, but I’m not too sure it’s reasonable to cast such a far-reaching net. Movie genres, I believe, come in arcs and trends, and I don’t think the recent rise the comic book movie is anymore linked to the success of the two aforementioned movies than the rise of popularity of action movies throughout the 1980s and 1990s in general.
I’d argue that the precursor to the current comic book movies craze started just at the close of the 20th Century, with a movie called Blade.
For readers too young to remember 1998 too well, the first Blade movie was a humongous hit at the time of its release. Despite most moviegoers probably not being aware that they were in fact watching a comic book movie, Blade set the stage for Marvel’s superhero film adaptations that continue to this day. Moreover, it shifted the zeitgeist away from comic book movies needing to have an air of lightheartedness and child-friendly whimsy, and showed that you can have superheroes be dark, serious, and directed in a way where it looks as if they’re grounded in a reality that could plausibly overlap with our own (Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy would utilize a similar formula when adapting the caped crusader to the big screen in 2005’s Batman Begins).
Nevertheless, the theatrical success of Blade the movie, didn’t elevate the Blade comic book in the wider audience. Nor did the mainstream embrace of the subsequent comic book movies that enjoyed massive commercial success uplift most of it’s printed character counterparts to an equal footing with their cinematic namesakes’ successes.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not making some nerd-elitist “we true fans liked it before it was cool,” and in fact I’d argue that some comic book characters like Thor and Iron Man are not just adaptations, but superior works of storytelling in their big screen form than they ever were on the printed page.
What I am saying is that, despite the mainstream acceptance and success of movies based on comic book characters, and the widespread enjoyment the public gets out of the stories being told therein, comic books themselves are still not afforded the intellectual respect of being viewed as something beyond children’s entertainment, regardless of the maturity or complexity of the actual story being told within the drawn panels. Furthermore, if a comic book does reach a point where it is mature enough, raw enough, complex enough that it does crossover into the domain of being legitimate adult-approved entertainment, it immediately gets rebranded from mere “comic book” status up to the more reputable sounding category of a “Graphic Novel.”
Arguable the differentiation between what counts as a comic book, and what counts a graphic novel, could very well have its place. However the truth remains that, while a lot of people are willing to defend the intellectual worth of graphic novels like Watchmen, Maus, or Sin City, not too many bother to stand up for the literary value of the common comic book; often this includes those of us who grew up enjoying comic books. And I would argue this seemingly minor oversight causes us to ignore a major contributor to a child’s introductory development to the world of literature, which can and does give rise to a lifelong appreciation of storytelling as a whole. Stories that can, and ought to, still be enjoyed well into adulthood.
Personally, comic books were a gateway into appreciating the written word at a young age, and laid the groundwork for understanding the importance of syntax structure when communicating one’s ideas through prose. Now, I certainly didn’t realize as a kid, as all I did was enjoy the stories I followed in the printed panels, but the seed was planted for me to have a foundation to grasp the classics of literature once I was mature enough to engage them firsthand. Nowadays, I am surrounded by the greats (and some not-so-greats) of the literary world on my bookshelves, but I still feel no shame in openly indulging in the cheap, department store comic I bought along with my morning snickers bar.
To me, comic books are a form of literature. Like all literature, some of it is good and some of it is bad; some of it is fascinating, and some of it is corny; some of it is engaging, and some of it is dull. But to dismiss the entire genre, so critical in shaping a one’s early sense of imagination and reading comprehension, just seems like a betrayal to the very foundations that introduced us to the world of literature to begin with.