by Tony Moore
Taking a look at the movie industry, or the marquee at your local theatre, this last decade or so, one trend has become undeniable and inescapable: The big screens have been jammed full of movies adapted from comic books. Films series such as those based on characters like the Avengers, X-Men, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man, as a small sampling, have raked in billions of dollars over that stretch, and moviegoers show no signs of growing weary of drinking in the exploits of these costume-wearing superheroes. Jumping over to TV, comic-based series like The Walking Dead, The Boys, Watchmen and WandaVision have had equal success in living rooms around the globe.
If you’ve ever stopped to think about how all these adaptations work creatively, how they make so much money, why some work better than others and where’s it’s all headed, Associate Professor of English and Film Studies Greg Steirer has just the thing. It’s his new book, called The American Comic Book Industry and Hollywood, and it does a deep-dive into the relationship between the comic book industry and Hollywood, through interviews he and his co-author conducted with the insiders making it all happen.
With what Disney has done with Marvel this past decade (or so), the timing of your book couldn’t be better. When did the idea occur to you and your co-author to write this book, and why did the topic grab you?
The idea for the book first came to us around 2012. I had been into comic books from a business perspective since the time I was a teenager: My dad and I ran a comic book store in upstate New York for most of the 1990s and I began publishing on the topic right after finishing graduate school. And Alisa [Perren]—whose previous work had focused on the film and television industries—had close personal ties to the industry: Her partner, Cully Hamner (who did the cover for our book), is a well-known comic artist and co-creator of the comic book Red, which was turned into a motion picture starring Bruce Willis (among others) in 2010.
Alisa and I began chatting about our mutual interests at a conference and noted the almost complete absence of scholarship that examined how comics and Hollywood interacted from a business perspective. So we thought we would try and fill this gap. The book ended up taking a long time to research and write—almost nine years—and in that time the connections between the two industries continued to evolve, with comic-book-based films and television shows becoming ubiquitous and a major part of mainstream popular culture. What had seemed a personally interesting topic had thus become by the time we were finished a hot subject right at the center of how media works today.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned about the intertwining industries in your research for the book?
One of the big takeaways from the book is that although Hollywood has invested heavily in comic books over the past couple decades—with companies like Marvel and Netflix purchasing or, in the case of Warner Bros., newly leveraging their ownership stakes in comic book companies—the comics and film/television industries remain distinct, with their own business norms, economics and labor practices. A lot of people assume that Hollywood has swallowed up the comics industry, with comics companies now serving, for example, as intellectual property farms for film and television. But this turned out not to be the case. There’s been integration in many ways, but in some important respects the two remain separate. We found, for example, that there was often little interaction or even communication between the comic book publishing division of a media conglomerate and, say, the film production side.
The headline of this article from 'Bleeding Cool' says a lot: “New Book Solves the Equation ‘Comics + Hollywood = $(?).’ " Can you tell me what you looked into in this regard and what you found? (And seriously, what’s wrong with DC when bringing superheroes to the big screen vs. the Marvel approach?)
“Solve” is a generous word! But I think our book does succeed in showing how complicated the relationship is and indicating its dynamism and how it continues to evolve. One of our main focuses was on the various economics of the relationship: at the business level, at the publishing level, at the worker’s level. In one chapter, for example, we look at how the comics publishing ecosystem has developed with respect to intellectual property: When new characters or stories are created, who owns them? In another we examine the way “deals” get structured between comic book publishers and film or television producers. In yet another we look at how the involvement between the two industries has brought new opportunities—and challenges—to creative workers’ lives, as they move (or attempt to move) between industries. We even have a chapter devoted to the economics of distribution—looking at how digital distribution (or “streaming”) has worked rather differently with respect to comic books vs. film or television. Although we do provide a lot of answers throughout, I think the biggest takeaway is probably that things are more complicated and more constantly changing than people tend to think.
As for DC, we actually devote an extended case study to examining the organizational strategy Warner Bros. has used for DC Comics adaptations—which, as you note, has arguably not worked all that well for films. That said, they’ve been very successful—perhaps even more successful than Marvel (recent Disney Plus content notwithstanding)—when it comes to television, starting way back with Smallville and continuing on today with the shows produced by Greg Berlanti (what fans call the “Berlantiverse”): Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Black Lightning, Titans, etc.
Have these blockbuster adaptations changed the way comics are written these days? E.g., are the comic creators writing the books in anticipation of filmmakers wants and needs?
The answer is yes and no. At Marvel and DC, there remains such a large disconnect between the publishing divisions and the film and television divisions that the influence has been largely superficial. In fact, some of the major books—such as X-Men or Batman—are currently so complicated and explicitly comic-book-ish in execution that adapting them would be quite challenging. At other publishers, however, the opposite is the case. Mark Millar (co-creator of Kick Ass and Jupiter’s Legacy), whose comic book company Millarworld was purchased by Netflix in 2017, is almost certainly trying to make comics that satisfy Netflix’s wants and needs. And Robert Kirkman’s stuff for his company Skybound—which includes The Walking Dead, Invincible and Outcast—seems particularly “adaptable,” though that might just be the way Kirkman writes. (The Walking Dead and Invincible were started long before television deals seemed possible.) For the most part, however, I’d say that American comic books are more diverse in style and content right now that at any point in their history.
What did the industry professionals you spoke with think of the relationship between the two industries?
We talked to quite a range of people: film and television executives, comic book writers and artists, entertainment lawyers and business affairs people, talent agents and managers, publishers and tech entrepreneurs. We talked more to senior people—people who’d been in the industries for some time—rather than people just coming in. And I think if we were to do a second edition someday, we’d like to include more of that latter group as well.
But in general, we heard a lot of excitement, a sense of great possibility, but also some frustration. Everyone had a sense that this was just the beginning: that comics—and film and television, for that matter—were in the midst of extraordinary change. And that that change was exciting but also hard to predict. Our book’s coverage stops at the end of 2019 (though we touch on 2020 in an afterword), and already there’s been so much that’s happened—COVID-19, the closing of theaters and temporary shutdowns of comic stores, the debut of Disney Plus and HBO Max. It’s hard to predict how things will continue to change.
Published July 22, 2021