Friday, July 24, 2009

Comic Con

It is amazing how important Comic Con has become. A few years ago hardly anyone knew about it. Now it gets national attention. A good bit of this has little to do with comic book characters per se. It is the way that studios have used the convention to market new movies.

Consider what the news is - movie previews. Twilight is the big story but major directors and stars are coming to the convention to promote their new movies. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were there along with a sneak peak at Alice in Wonderland. James Cameron showed 20 minutes of his new 3-d movie. A sequel to TRON is coming and Jeff Bridges was showing concept sketches.

All of this becomes a cycle feeding on itself. The bigger the stars who show up, the more national press it gets which attracts even more stars, etc.

While the studios have figured out that going to Comic Con is a cheap way of getting publicity it also shows a major shift in attitudes about superheroes and comic book characters (or characters who could be in comic books).

Back in the 1960s, comic books were dismissed as kid stuff. Yes, the Batman TV show was a big hit for a short while but it defined camp. The 1970s didn't help super hero acceptance much. The Hulk, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man all had TV shows but they were cheaply produced. The Hulk was critically the best of them but it followed the same formula as a dozen other shows. A rewrite of the script could change an episode from the Hulk to Airwolf or Kung Fu. Attempts were made to adapt Captain America and Doctor Strange but these were flops that never made it past the pilot movie. Superman the Motion Picture made a lot of money and showed that a comic book character could appeal to a broad enough market to support an A-level movie but there was still far too much camp.

The 1980s were kinder to superheroes (except for the Superman movies which came out with decreasing quality). Original superheroes did fairly well on TV. Shows like Beauty and the Beast moved beyond camp and attracted critical praise.

The big breakthrough was 1989's Batman. While over the top in places, it showed that a comic book movie didn't have to be campy.

The 1990s is when comic book based entertainment really took off. Batman descended into camp (along with bat nipples) but other comic book-based movies were bit hits, especially ones adapted from independent comics. They also established comic book movies as adult entertainment. By 2002, the Road to Perdition, which was adapted from a graphic novel, was on several critics' top movies list.

Which brings us to the 2000s. This decade has been dominated by superheroes. Spider-Man was one of the top draws of the decade. The reboot of Batman was phenomenally successful. The new Superman movie was a mess but it still made a lot of money. The X-Men movies became important events. Ghost Rider was an unexpected hit. When it was announced that the category for best picture would be expanded to ten nominees, Dark Knight and Iron Man were given as movies that should have been nominated but were not.

Even the blockbusters that have not been comic book adaptations featured characters who would fit nicely in a comic book. The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Matrix all featured characters with superhuman powers.

Somehow comic book conventions have incorporated this better than more general science fiction conventions. Which brings us back to Comic Con and the convergence of popular culture.

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