22 Apr 2010

Thought Balloon: The Rise Of Celebrity Comics

By Matt T

There's no getting round it, and it's almost painful for a geek such as myself to admit, but comics are cool. No longer are the fanboys of the world downtrodden and insulted for their love of funny books. This is partly down to the emergence of comic-themed movies, which have suddenly made Hollywood spy the dollar signs and option every mildly successful book with the intention of getting us geeks, and even a few normal people, into the theatres.

This has, of course, had a huge backlash in the comic book industry. Where even the most popular properties would be lost in development hell ten years ago, now these projects actually become reality, and have propelled the likes of Hugh Jackman from virtual obscurity into superstardom. Rather than waiting to get chosen for a coveted role, a number of celebrities have started involving themselves in a comic at its inception, usually credited with 'concept by' which might as well translate into 'idea drunkenly scrawled onto a napkin after too many Martini's' or 'nodded when an actual comic book writer suggested idea'.

Samuel L Jackson is currently involved in the generic space-opera Cold Space for likeness and 'ideas', insuring that if the comic were to make it to the cinema he'd be guaranteed to grin back at you from the screen. Of course, it's not always that straightforward. Mark Millar's Wanted featured likenesses so close to Halle Berry and Eminem there were no real questions over who the designs are based on, yet neither appeared in the film. Tommy Lee Jones has frequently been used as an obvious template for Norman Osborn recently by Lenil Yu and Mike Deodato Jr, but unless Marvel have Osborn being far older than any previous appearance in the Spidey films it's seriously unlikely TLJ will appear in any future version. The now defunct Virgin Comics made a habit of sticking a known name on the cover, no matter how tenuous the relationship (Nicholas Cage's son, Weston, writing a book for example) and used numerous failed movie scripts to produce miniseries of differing quality.

The fact that so many comics are based on failed scripts is a double-edged sword, as even the likes of 30 Days Of Night started life as a film idea and then went full circle care of the superb Steve Niles/Ben Templesmith mini. Annoyingly this brings into question the use of comics as a transitional format, rather than the final product. If the creators simply see our four-colour tomes as a stepping stone to Hollywood fame and fortune we'll get the same generic crap that Virgin churned out more often than not, sticking to a rigid panel template and attempting to inject cinematic pacing into a format which adheres to a different set of rules. Although the likes of The Ultimates have benefited hugely from blockbuster-style storytelling, there shouldn't be a film dangled in front of the writers and artists as a 'golden carrot', as an unsuccessful property won't make a successful film. We should see the comic as the best possible format for the story, and any film to spin from it as a separate entity to be appreciated as such, and hopefully the comics can then shift away from being a callous marketing tool for some.


Matt Clark said...

You make some decent points there, Matt T, but I'm not sure what you're on about regarding a "backlash". There may be a few disgruntled creators who've seen their work passed over in favour of something with a 'name' attached, but generally having 'celebrities' involved in and talking about comics is a positive thing. Fanboys, by and large, aren't stupid, and can spot the difference between a vanity project and a famous face wanting to contribute something meaningful to the medium.

There's a lot of money in comic book movie options, and whether or not that results in great end products doesn't detract from the fact that a spotlight is being shone on the comics, and that kind of attention (and money) should create a healthier more robust industry in the long run.

Anonymous said...

I read this article but I can't see what point's being made. Hollywood mixing with comics is a totally bad thing? Enlighten us!

Greg Hughes

Anonymous said...

I'd be wary of suggesting that the 'celebrity comics' cycle has made waves. By and large the comics with 'names' attached to the creator credits have been poorly received on a critical level and have failed to achieve major sales figures too. Perhaps more importantly, they have failed to spark film adaptations, which seems to have been the motivating factor in many cases.

Also, are comics cool now? I'm pretty sure the average public still doesn't read them. I know a lot of people at work who will watch the next Iron Man film at the cinema, but none of them will buy the comic, despite the fact that Matt Fraction (arguably) has the franchise at an all time high, quality wise. Are comic book sales at an all time peak? I don't think so. Yes, people who watch Buffy and Harry Potter and Star Trek now know a bit more about comics, but that's not to say they buy them, nor does it mean the medium is any more 'cool' in the eyes of the 'mainstream' than Star Trek and Harry Potter is.

- Rob N

Matt T said...

I was mostly trying to make the point that a celebrity attachment seems to be coming more common, and that it shows both the publishers willingness to throw out a below par product purely because it has a name attached and the slightly callous notion of a few celebs that by getting in on 'ground level' gives them first dibs on a role in the film adaptation. More often than not, as Rob rightly says, the end product is poor but as there's a name attached these titles find a way to the shelf. New readers coming to comics will then see a name they recognize and buy it off the stength of that rather than hoing with more established talent. It annoys me that celebrity culture is seeping into comics, and it indicates how the popularity brought on by the films is launching the 'quick buck brigade' into action.

Matt Clark said...

Can you think of any 'celebrity comics' that have actually turned into movie adaptations?

This kind of thing works both ways anyway. Publishers are businesses so they'll look to make money, and so we've had years and years of comic tie-ins for movies, TV shows etc. (Star Wars, Buffy, and so on). I don't think there's been any detrimental impact on the industry in the long term. If it gets people into comic shops, you can't knock it.