How Superhero Movies Made Comic Books Cooler (If Not Better)

Click to viewEverybody talks about how superheroes have come to dominate movies in recent years. These days, summer is spandex season, and it's only going to get more superpowered in the next few years. But the success of movies like Spider-Man 2, Iron Man and Batman Begins has had a huge effect on comic book publishers as well, making mainstream comics cooler... if not always better. Here's a list of 9 ways the superhero movie boom has changed comics.

How Superhero Movies Made Comic Books Cooler (If Not Better)

9. Decompression. This term refers to a more "cinematic" style in comics, in which the "lens" lingers over every moment of a scene, and the action is slowed down. There are more splash pages, or single-page panels. And a sequence which might have taken half a page in the 1960s will take half an issue. Comics' fad for "decompression" in comics coincided with the first blush of superhero movie popularity in the early noughties, and it's best understood as an attempt to copy the experience of watching a movie. Comics Should Be Good criticized this trend in 2005, and held up this page from Warren Ellis' Ocean #1 as an example:

How Superhero Movies Made Comic Books Cooler (If Not Better)

Yes it's an entire page of a guy walking out of a building and dropping a coffee cup, which dissolves. The "decompression" boom seems to be more or less over, although most comics are still slower paced than they would have been even 15 years ago.

How Superhero Movies Made Comic Books Cooler (If Not Better)

8. Better, and fewer, costumes. Superhero movies are often loathe to cover up the faces of A-list actors, so masks tend to go out the window. You could get righteously sloshed if you drank to every occasion where Peter Parker loses his mask in Spider-Man 2. And many superhero movies avoid the gaudy spandex in general — most notably the X-Men movies, which influenced the comics to move over to the more dignified black leather uniforms... for a few years, at least. On television, Heroes chose to explore superheroic themes without any costumes at all, and it's becoming more common to see heroes in their civvies for long stretches in comics as well.

7. More Hollywood writers.

How Superhero Movies Made Comic Books Cooler (If Not Better)

Comic book writers used to be their own breed, many of whom had started out as assistant editors at the big comic-book publishers before "graduating" to writing. But these days, you're just as likely to see a revolving door between Hollywood and comics, with writers like Jeph Loeb, James Robinson and Brian K. Vaughn working in both comics and TV/movies. And more slumming Hollywood writers, starting with comics buff Kevin Smith, have ventured into writing comics in their spare time — which has led to horrendous delays between issues.

6. Back to basics. If you liked Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movie, and you wanted to read comics about that character, you might pick up a Spider-Man comic — only to read about a married high-school teacher who's some kind of mystical spider-totem and wears exo-armor. And goes around saying things like, "I AM THE SPIDER!!".

How Superhero Movies Made Comic Books Cooler (If Not Better)

(First J.M. DeMatteis, then J.M. Straczynski, explored the "spiritual"/mystical side of Spider-Man, adding a lot of baggage.) So Marvel started putting out Ultimate Spider-Man and other Ultimate titles, which retell the origins of their classic heroes. And as writer Mark Millar has pointed out, the Ultimate version of Tony Stark ended up being a huge influence on the new Iron Man movie. And of course, every now and then there's a huge effort to go back to basics in regular continuity, like in Spider-Man's "One More Day" storyline — which erased Spidey's marriage, his exo-skeleton, his unmasking and a ton of other baggage.

5. Reconstruction. In the 1980s, the watchword in comics was "deconstruction," meaning that writers like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Frank Miller were dismantling comics characters and critiquing them through works like Watchmen. In the 1990s, there was a wave of nostalgia and comics creators paid tribute to the innocence classic comics — which Moore creating the "1963" series of comics that were supposed to look like they'd been published in 1963, and later the "America's Best" comics. But it wasn't until superhero movies started to take off that the trend of "reconstruction" went mainstream, and superhero comics made a concerted effort to build up their heroic characters instead of taking them apart. Take Batman, whose spine got smushed in the early 1990s and then spent the rest of the decade mired in angst and self-doubt. Grant Morrison and other writers swung the pendulum the opposite way and started turning him into an almost infallible (well, except for that "Brother Eye" business) Nietzschean demigod.

4. The movie pitch in graphic novel form. This is one way that the rise of comic-book movies didn't necessarily make comics better — comics publishers put out a lot of graphic novels that were obviously only aimed at generating new characters and ideas that could result in a movie deal. In the worst cases, the graphic novels in question didn't have much to say besides, "Here's a cool concept and some kick-ass characters. Can't you just see Brad Pitt playing this guy?"

3. (Somewhat) more realistic art. In the 1990s, the trends in "mainstream" comics art were running away from realism as fast as possible. Hot artists included Rob Liefeld, who could not draw the human body if you put a gun to his head, and Todd McFarlane, whose art got more and more scratchy and gothic. There was also a huge trend towards cartoony Manga-influenced artists like Humberto Ramos, whose work lacked the expressiveness and detail of real Manga art, and was often just confusing to look at. In the noughties, as superhero movies have exploded, a more photorealistic art style has taken hold in superhero comics. This hasn't always been a good thing, as artists like Greg Horn apparently take photos from porn magazines and trace over them to create female characters. But it's an improvement over the bug-in-a-shitstorm art styles of the 1990s.

2. Every time, it's personal. One of the defining characteristics of superhero movies is that they take place in a small world. The villain of a superhero movie is usually someone the hero knows personally. Often, the villain plays a part in the hero's origin — think Batman Begins, where ubervillain Ra's Al Ghul trains Batman to be a super-ninja. This trend has carried over to superhero comics, where newer villains are more likely to have a personal issue with the hero. Like new-ish Bat-villain Hush, who turned out to be a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne's.

1. Villain stew. In superhero comics of the 1990s and earlier, each storyline would usually feature one villain at a time. Sometimes villains would team up, and they would have to come up with a cool name for their joint venture. Like the Sinister Six. Or the Superman Revenge Squad. Villains couldn't just have an ad-hoc team-up. And you would seldom have villains just randomly running around in the same storyline, each with their own agendas. But movies, starting with Batman Returns, regularly featured two or more villains per movie, just on a "more is better" theory. And comics started to follow suit, until every Daredevil villain, from the Owl to the Kingpin, would put in an appearance in the same story arc. Instead of getting defeated and then disappearing for a few months, the villains just hang around and keep getting in each other's hair.