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Comics are Character and Story Laboratories

April 27, 2011

I was interested to read a story, originally from the New York Times, about how Marvel Comics are adapting what they do to the modern age.  Traditionaly they were a printed-paper comic company.  However the sales of comics (as with newspapers) have been in decline for some time now.  So Marvel has looked to lever its huge roster of characters into other media – games and films being the notable ones here.  Not only that but it has been seeking more control of the films it makes – which has yielded results:

But these opportunities arrive as the comics industry is still struggling to adapt to the 21st century, and Marvel’s core business faces some of the toughest challenges in its history. While its movie business thrives, its print business is contracting, and those responsible for creating its comics are more cognizant than ever of their place within a larger corporate structure.

“If comics is sick, it’s not a broken arm, it’s diabetes,” said Tom Spurgeon, a journalist who covers the industry for the Web site The Comics Reporter. “There’s no easy solution.”

Marvel also benefited more from movie franchises as “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” became blockbusters and brought new attention to its characters. The company reached a turning point during the making of the 2008 film “Iron Man,” which was produced by its own Marvel Studios in and that starred Robert Downey Jr. as the armor-clad hero. Still, during the development of “Iron Man,” Marvel invited some of its editors and writers to consult with its director, Jon Favreau. When “Iron Man” went on to sell $585 million in tickets worldwide, its success seemed to validate the suggestions from its publishing talent.

The films that come from comics are, at their best, iterative.  By this I mean the writers can plunder the huge archives of stories looking for the best stuff and adapt this as a film.  This means the stories have already been tested out on an audience.  So the writer can draw on material that s/he knows works.  For example (acknowledged or not) the film of Batman Begins is influenced by Batman: Year One by Frank Miller.  In this sense the history of a comic is a rich treasure trove of material for bigger, more expensive productions.  So if you are going to experiment with ideas and characters, do it in comic form where its cheap.  Then take the best bits of there and make games and films from them…

Though Marvel’s publishing side does not directly control the content of Marvel films, Kevin Feige, the president of production at Marvel Studios, said the storytelling in the comics had a strong influence on the movies “because it’s a hell of a lot less expensive to take a chance in a comic than it is to take a chance in a movie.”

I remember putting a plan to one of the directors of Hothouse to start a digital comics division (back in 1999?) so the costs would be even cheaper.  My idea was down-time in the art dept. could be used to make online comics and to experiment with new characters.  We could then use the popular ones to put into games.  Sadly they never went for it.

When you see comics as a character/story research lab, it means it may be a part of the business that looses money on its own (though it seems not for Marvel) yet the things it develops, as much as new graphics technology or hardware – are ideas that may make lots of money back in the long term.

from Batman: Year One

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