How comic book movies kill the deep, mythic history of comic book characters


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Spider-Man. With the dash.

I think the author was referring to Peter Spiderman, of the Brooklyn Spidermans.


Comic book characters are storytelling archetypes. Going dark, rebooting, going campy are all cycles that characters go through to keep writers and readers fresh. No native americans ever got mad at someone telling a story about Coyote that broke canon.

John Garder’s Grendel, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead, Winnie Holtzman’s Wicked, Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, etc. Just imagine how much MORE interesting things would be if corporations didn’t own the characters, which greatly limits their import. When was the last time anyone gave a crap about Mickey Mouse other than as a corporate logo?


I’m with your son on this. I feel excluded from stories if I’m expected to know about 50 years of convoluted and often contradictory back story of the characters (especially when most of the characters haven’t really aged since they were introduced).
I do read a few Marvel or DC comics, but if I have choice between picking up an issue of something new from Image like The Wicked and the Divine, or Bitch Planet, rather than yet another X Men(/X Force/Xtream/Weapon X/etc.) title that will require me to spend more time on the Marvel wiki finding out who these people are than actually reading the comic, I know what I’ll go for.


Quick correction: Constantine is, sadly, no more. And The Flash, and Arrow, are pretty much unwatchable. Other than that interesting article.

I could never get into comics, outside of Sandman, Elfquest, self-contained stories like The Watchmen, and short indie stuff like JtHM, partly because they are so large and daunting. Where does an outsider even start? I tried the Xmen when I was younger, but felt the only way to do it was go back through 10 years of back issues and odd side titles. This was before digital distribution, so cost prohibitive and work intensive. Now it might be easier (albeit still expensive), but no less daunting.

Comics are for people raised reading comics, but really hard to get into if you don’t have the background. How do you get into a character with 50 years of history and context? Especially when half that context is in opaque side stories and alternate titles?


I never grew up with comics because of reasons and now that the Marvel movies are catching my interest, I’ve found a lot of success in picking up the graphic novels (or perhaps bound volumes?) of the involved storylines. This way, I can learn about some of the history without feeling overwhelmed like when I pick up the massive archives of various superheroes.

Is your son generally a reader? Perhaps he’d be more interested in prose versions of the stories rather than the graphic novels? My husband is an avid reader but he has admitted that he doesn’t care for graphic novel format.

That pic of Daredevil at the beginning of the article: WTF is he doing? Isn’t he going to get tangled in his own rope? And how does a club with a rope attached affix itself to a building? And if it does affix itself, that much slack rope is going to cause one hell of a jolt. And that is why I can no long read superhero comics: it’s like they’re unconcerned about suspension of disbelief.

Maybe comics need to catch up with movies and TV’s condensed
story-telling, only relying on internal continuity for as long as the
show is renewed each season. As such, creators can begin again, not
beholden to any previous interpretation — except those fundamental to
the story that make them worth retelling

That’s it.

I tried to get into the Marvel or DC universes but characters referring to other issues of other series (See Inscrutable PowerMen #254, See Powerfull Iron Boy #123, See Uninspired Crusader #99) killed my desire to star a comic collection, I did not wanted to start buying comics that I would not understand without more comics that I wouldn’t understand without… (You get it).
The only American comics I would buy (and I still buy) are those that are self contained or are such a bold re-imagination that referring to past issues of other series is totally useless (Like Image’s Prophet or Glory).


I read comics constantly from the mid-60s to about four years ago. Now I find I enjoy the movies more. I accept that they are the modern mythology and subject to interpretation by whoever is telling the story.

As long as the core of the character is there, I’m completely fine with whatever a writer does. I don’t have to like the interpretation, but I’m fine with the fact that it is being reinterpreted.


Comic book adaptions are not killing the ‘deep, mythic history’ of those characters. To the contrary, they are keeping them alive and introducing them to far larger audiences. Comic books have not had the deep cultural penetration that they enjoyed since the second World War. Prior to the end of that conflict, characters like Superman and Batman sold in the millions every month. The industry has had its ups and downs since then, but around the time you and I started reading comics? They nearly went out of business. Multiple times. (recommended reading: Sean Howe’s “Marvel: The Untold Story” and Van Lente and Dunleavy’s “The Comic Book History of Comics”).

The dirty secret of comics is that they have been far more popular in OTHER MEDIA for a very long time. Comics themselves have been niche entertainment. It’s not that they don’t appeal to kids. They continue to do that…to a limited subset of them. But consider this: Young Justice, the TV show, was cancelled because it only drew in about a million viewers and too many of them were girls, not boys (cue rage here), and they didn’t understand how to market to that audience (a digression for another time).

The point is those characters are now experienced through movies, cartoons, tv shows, books, video games, bedsheets, clothes, websites and a dozen other locations. The source comics get to them eventually filtered through other avenues.

It’s also worth noting that comics themselves have radically changed, both in their focus, client delivery and content. By choosing to cater primarily to a college to middle-aged men for years, many such comics are no longer so approachable or easy to sell. Marvel, in particular, has been making inroads to fix this (Kamala Khan being a female-creator driven title about a non-white non-male character being a great example).

And let’s not forget, that ‘mythic history’ is really a Big Fucking Mess. That can be a lot of fun, but it can also be incredibly off-putting to new readers and stretches credulity. I mean, let’s remember that Spider-man has been between 15-25 years old for about 50 years, now. And for the most part, it’s all still in continuity. Remember when the Punisher was a Vietnam Vet? Oh, wait… HE STILL IS. It’s best not to think about the fact that he’d been serving actively in the Vietnam conflict since 1970 and his family was killed while he was on leave in 1974 and that he came into conflict with Spidey not long after. One man’s mythic is another man’s ‘remember that time the Punisher became an Angel and hunted down Demons with guns from Heaven’ or ‘remember that time the Punisher became Frankenstein’?

The movies work best when they evoke the things people most like about the characters. The reason the recent Marvel films have succeeded is because they managed to capture the best parts of those stories, as opposed to just grafting the cosmetics onto other people’s stories.


I feel that the public has lost something which marks the difference between an enjoyable and intolerable comic: people today seem to have absolutely no interest in being lost.

To illustrate by example: in my youth I might have picked up an issue of (Adjective) Spider-Man and found it in the middle of a declared 3-issue arc. Spider-Man would be fighting a gorilla in a laboratory and I’d have no idea why… but Spidey is the good guy so I’m sure he has his reasons. A few panels later we find that the gorilla is trying to grab a canister of something (Aha!) that Spidey’s thought balloons tell us he’s trying to keep away from said gorilla. A few panels later Spidey has failed and we find the Red Ghost monologing about his scheme to grab the MacGuffin Serum, and there you go. Maybe there’d be a reference* to something in another comic. (* even the last issue of the series – Ed.)

Today, the same scene would play out with almost no text – hey, “show, don’t tell,” right? – and off-load all of the explanation into a single, mystery-killing recap page, for people who want to play along but have no patience for gradual discovery. Some might consider this more accessible, but it also takes out a lot of the mystique of the reading. Part of having a large, living universe is coming to grips with the fact that there are moving pieces that you don’t know about, and don’t always need to know about. From that obscurity can come a certain amount of weight. There is wonder in being lost.

As a cinematic example, consider the bar scene from Star Wars. Long before the franchise taught us to think of it as “the Cantina scene”… long before a dizzying array of cards, comics, and games taught us that the “Hammerhead” was an Ithorian named Momaw Nadon… the “bar scene” from Star Wars was a cultural touchstone. It was the epitome of a seedy place. What made it resonate was not just the staggering variety of aliens there, but also how little you knew about them: are those common? Are they hostile? What’s with the four sets of eyes? Are they criminals? Spies? There are answers, but they’re are trivial: the questions in your mind are what matter to the mood of the scene. Suddenly you were thrown into the deep end to understand just how big this galaxy really is. And that’s the sort of feeling you used to have in EVERY comic.

I’m not saying that comics need to be impenetrable by design. Rather, I’m saying that the audience used to be expected to approach a story at it’s own pace, and now many questions have to be answered in advance as an appeal to get the audience interested. This leads to a very different reading experience.


My son fails to share my same nerdish obsessions, there must be something to blame.


I feel like this article perfectly articulates why I can’t get into the Marvel movies and it was only the insane amount of money per month needed to keep up with comics that drove me away from Marvel and to the self-contained Image Comics.

What I love is the crazy backstories - it’s what I enjoy most about Sci Fi and Fantasy stories. Whenever they mention Aegon the Conqueror on the Game of Thrones TV show, it makes me want a prequel about dragons conquering Westeros.

I’m with WhyBother on not understanding why people find it so hard to get into comics - maybe only the people who post on these articles are completists who must know every detail? I feel like it’s pretty easy to just dive into comics. I got into reading comics again a few years ago after having been away for decades. I just started reading and enjoying the story where it was at. Where it interested me ( Spidey or X-Men) I went back a few years to the last major arcs and just went from there. SO with X-Men that was Morrison’s run. Whatever happened before then didn’t matter - characters might refer to stuff, but it rarely mattered to the story at large. And if I was curious, there was Comic Vine or Google. With Spidey I went back to Brand New Day and then forward to where I picked up - Spider-Island. I was able to enjoy his story with Carlie before I knew the history. Learning it let me see things in a new light.

Things like Secret Wars and DC’s various attempts at retconning/reworking its continuity remind me of a hoarder who believes that they don’t need to get rid of any of their junk, it just needs to be sorted and organized properly.


I understand the author’s point and many of the ones commenters have articulated above, but I guess I just don’t care. I’ve recently got back into comics after, oh, about 25 years away and regardless of major story arc, which I admit have been fun to at least read about, the whole “cape and mask” thing just seems so derivative at this point. However, if we go by some loose interpretation of the law of averages, the average comic reader is loyal to their favorite character, no matter the writer/artist/story arc. So, these average things continue to be what is pushed in not only the various forms of media, but in the books themselves. Apparently the average DC reader is not into the unlimited potential and strangeness, both in terms of story and art of Swamp Thing, because they just cancelled it, thus cancelling DC for me. When Kaare Andrews’s amazing run on Iron Fist ends, so does Marvel for me.

Image, as a couple commenters alluded to above, is where its at. I much rather have a really cool story that reaches its logical conclusion, with high quality on all fronts being the focus, rather than continuity, and with full knowledge this is where the creators’ true passion lies. Plus, I know they own the property and should see the lion’s share of the profits.

This year Netflix will debut two new shows based on comic book
characters—both properties of Marvel comics and part of what is called
the Marvel Universe — Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

Full title is A.K.A. Jessica Jones.

Also apparently incoming - Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Defenders - but not necessarily this year.

Hey, I know, let’s tell Spidey’s origin story again! Zzz…

FWIW most of the now-legendary comic heroes in our pop culture didn’t get especially complex backstories until after they got popular. I think Batman’s origin story was originally about four panels long.


It was even shorter in silver age comics. They’d introduce a character, give a run-down of his powers, and then IF anyone cared, they might later do his origin story as a “flashback”. One of many great things about the X-Men is that being a mutant meant you didn’t need an origin.

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I would like to remind everyone that “comics” does not mean “superheros”. There’s a huge world of people making comics about all kinds of subjects - non-fiction, autobio, sf/f, westerns, any kind of genre story you might want. It’s only the “comics industry” that obsesses over all these crusty old superheros with way too much backstory for anyone to bother comprehending.

And now I should stop babbling on the Internet and get back to work on my comic about a robot lady dragged out of reality by her ex-boyfriend.