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August 23, 2006

Comics and Convergence Part II

This entry continues the series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Again, the primary focus is on comics. Here, the focus is on the ways comics content is moving into film and television as well as the ways that television and film content increasingly is moving into comics. I originally posted this on my blog. This is a follow-up to my first post on comics and convergence.

Paul Levitz, President of DC Comics, characterizes comics as having a "permeable membrane" to the other sectors of the entertainment industry. It is easy for comics's highly visual content to be translated into film or television series. Because the pay is low, comics represent a recruiting ground for new talent which, in turn, get absorbed into other media industries. Increasingly, comics are a playground where writers successful in other media - such as Kevin Smith in film or J. Michael Straczynski and Joss Whedon in television - can do creative work that would be harder to be funded in those other media.

From the beginning, comics content has moved into other media sectors. In the 1910s and 1920s, the popularity of Buster Brown, one early comic strip character, spilled over from the daily newspaper into live action films, stage shows, popular songs, toys, and advertising. Today, if Buster Brown is known at all, it is through the shoe company which still bears his name and image.

Similarly, within five years after the initial introduction of Superman, the character could be found in movie serials, animated shorts, and radio dramas, and subsequently, on television, stage shows, and computer games. This flow of comics content into other media is in many ways a prototype for our contemporary franchise system of media production.

Over the past few years, comics content has been increasingly in demand. Many recent comic-themed movies, including Spider-Man and X-Men, have become box office successes, and comics content has also influenced production in independent cinema (Ghost World, Road to Perdition, American Splendor, Sin City).

DC Comics, the company which controls Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and The Flash, among others, is owned by Time Warner, one of the major transmedia companies. DC Comics President Paul Levitz has outlined what he sees as the advantages of that relationship: "You gain the ability to work for the long run, you gain the ability to exploit creative properties across many different platforms, and at the same time, to be able to take the economic position in them that allows a single entity to brand and manage the assets so they can be deployed sensibly. You get a company that understands the line of work you are in so that you can take the appropriate creative risk, look for opportunities....There is no character in American culture who has been in as many media as Superman...It is difficult to name an entertainment medium that Superman has had no presence in....Did we benefit from having most of those assets stay under one roof? Yeah. We are still able to control rights to the George Reeves Superman shows...We are able to keep the Christopher Reeves movies on or off the air, according to our view of how they support the current initiatives whether Smallville, the new movies, an animated series, the comics, what have you. Our competitors are usually not able to do this."

By contrast, Marvel, the publisher of Spider-Man, X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, and the Fantastic Four, among others, subcontracts with studios to produce media versions of its franchises, while increasingly maintaining creative control over the process. As Avi Arad, the head of Marvel's film division explains, "we pick the studio that will best nurture the product because basically they all want the Marvel brand." Arad's division emerged as Marvel began to reconceptualize itself less as a comics publisher and more as an intellectual property company which would generate the bulk of its revenue from licensing its characters for movies, games, television series, and toys.

Other smaller comics companies or independent artists will sell the rights to their work on a case by case basis. Dark Horse Comics, Inc., for example, has been the launching pad for several recent media properties, including Men in Black, The Mask, and Tank Girl. In this context, even relatively obscure titles can attract industry interest. Steve Niles's and Ben Templesmith's Thirty Days of Night, a horror comic about vampires in Alaska, published by IDW Comics, was optioned for film production before the first issue hit the stands.

Throughout most of this history, the number of people who would encounter these characters in films or other media has remained significantly higher than the percentage who read comics; filmmakers assume that many viewers had little or no previous exposure to these characters; the films had to operate outside the complex continuity and back story which shapes contemporary comics productions; and in many cases, the characters had to be reintroduced or significantly reworked to reflect the tastes of a mass audience as opposed to those of a niche readership. In turn, it is often the look and feel of the character in the movies which shapes other media spin-offs, such as video games, because the movie reaches far more people than will see the comics. Comics publishers often coincide the debut of new plotlines in the comics to these releases so that readers, turned on by what they see on screen, can find a jumping on point to the series.

As content flows across media, it is often accompanied by creative talent who got their start in comics. For example, Brian Michael Bendis, the creator of Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man series, was hired to be script editor for an animated series based on the character for airing on MTV and to help direct the production of games set in the Marvel universe. In some cases, creative talents move fluidly across media. A notable example there would be Neil Gaiman who has been successful not only as the creator of The Sandman comic book series, but also has written English language scripts for Japanese anime films (Princess Mononoke), published best-selling novels (American Gods) and children's books (Coraline), and written original series for British television (Neverwhere). His short stories have, in turn, been adopted into comic book form by other writers and artists and into radio dramas.

Extension works in the other direction as well, with comics becoming a low cost, low risk means of expanding existing media franchises. Kevin Smith, the filmmaker who created Clerks and Chasing Amy, has been a long time comics shop owner and fan. He has developed a series of comic books which extends the stories of the characters he introduced in his so-called New Jersey films, in many cases, using them to provide back story or motivation for actions we observed on screen. Similarly, Joss Whedon, the creative producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has used comics to fill in gaps between episodes and perhaps more interestingly, to expand the time line of the series. Tales of the Slayers, for example, depicts the adventures of previous vampire slayers ranging across the full span of human history, while Fray depicts a slayer several hundred years in our future, battling demons and vampires in a world reminiscent of Bladerunner. Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel, Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which dealt with the early history of the American comic books industry and introduced a range of original superhero characters. Chabon subsequently worked with comic book writers and artists to develop a series focused on The Escapist, Luna Moth and his other original characters.

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