Volume 94, Issue 61

Thursday, January 11, 2001


Comics - A mix of literature and art that's still grabbing fans

The Best of the Best

Comics - A mix of literature and art that's still grabbing fans

By Sean Maraj
Gazette Staff

Comic books aren't just for kids anymore.

That's perhaps the best way to describe a form of literature that is quickly emerging into the mainstream of North American pop culture. Combining both the medium of art and writing, comic books have produced such household names as Superman, Batman and Spiderman, to name a few.

Graphic by Phil Arnold

Flying into the mainstream

Although comic books have existed for 60 years, the medium has been marginalized to the arena of children's literature. This has begun to change as comic books have become much more diverse in the last 20 years.

"Over the past couple of years a lot of movies got their start in comic books. X-Men and Men In Black. You can't say that in any other time frame," says Brian Cunningham, editor of Wizard magazine, a major trade publication in the comic book industry. "I don't think in any other time there has been this exposure."

Perhaps one of the reasons for the rising popularity of comic books come from the appeal of its characters. Joe Quesada, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, the company that owns and publishes popular books such as Spiderman, X-Men and The Incredible Hulk, pointed to the accessibility of characters.

"The biggest push is the accessibility. Here's the X-Men movie that grossed $100 million domestic. It's the appeal of the characters like Wolverine, it's about exposing them to a bigger audience," Quesada says.

Variety also appears to be a major part of the comic book emergence into the mass media. While major characters such as Superman and Spiderman have appeared in television shows and major motion pictures in the past, more recently there has been an emergence of lesser known and newer characters. According to Cunningham, this variety has been a major feature of the comic book medium in last two decades.

"The past 20 years things have changed as far as variety goes," Cunningham notes. "In the '80s there was a big boom of publishers doing black and white books, the most successful being Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Steve Jewett, owner of The Comic Book Collector, one of London's oldest comic book shops, disagrees with the idea that comic books are moving further into the mainstream. Instead, Jewett makes the suggestions that comic books, with the exception of the big name characters, are not as widely available as they once were.

"Comic books have probably gotten bad press, it's never been a legitimate form of entertainment," Jewett laments. "We use to be mainstream in the sense every drugstore was a comic shop. [Now, only] some variety stores carry mainstream comics."

Evolution: Coming of age

Once upon a time, comic books were meant more for kids than anyone else. But over the years, something began to change. Comic books began to tackle complex societal problems, including themes such as drug use and relationships. To many, comic books have evolved into a very diverse medium of art.

"It's funny we're looking back at the old comics with nostalgia. The industry is so sophisticated today you'll say they wouldn't work. [Comic books] have progressed into an artform," Quesada said.

This is an assessment Jewett agreed was also an emerging facet of comic books today. He also noted perhaps one of the greatest changes in how people perceive comic books came from a shift in direction during the mid-1980s.

"Comic books were directed at an audience of 6-12 from 1936 to 1985. Things changed with The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns," he said. "The readership now is way older, the average comic book reader is at least 25."

Jewett explains this major change in direction of the industry has been due to the easy accessibility of comic books, as well as a boom in creativity.

"The last 15 years have been a phenomenal period I could do a book store on the stuff. It's been our best creative period. Comics, unlike novels, read phenomenally well. With a comic you can re-read it several times and get more out of it. It's probably the most frontier artwork [out there]."

A prime example of the new direction of mainstream comic books can be seen in the recent Marvel Knights imprint Daredevil comic book series. Written by Kevin Smith, the man also responsible for movies such as Chasing Amy and Dogma, the book features heavy religious overtones and includes a climactic battle in a church, where several nuns and other religious figures are killed in front of the altar.

Quesada was one of the driving forces behind the series and maintains that despite the mature content, comic books still have an appeal to younger readers.

"Looking back at our younger lives and the book Stan [Lee] did, it was a guilty pleasure. They worked on a level that they didn't talk down to the readers," he remarks. "Kids are shrewd – they don't want to be talked down to. Although [Marvel Knights]might be percieved by adults on several levels, kids can look at it and say it's intense."

The Future

Now at the turn of the century, comic books are continuing to develop in the hopes of achieving new readers and advancing as a medium. As for the near future, Quesada says Marvel is redirecting its efforts to a more modern, realistic approach. This, he hopes, will attract a totally new audience.

"[We're taking] a new fresh real world approach. In the last five to seven years the fans have voted with their feet. We've become very insular as an industry and writing stories about comic books and not the real world," he said. "People like Lee used to write Spiderman and watch the news and say 'What if Spiderman was in situation X'."

Despite the changing future and direction of comic books, Cunningham still believes comics haven't lost their appeal, especially in attracting younger readers.

"Now is an interesting time – there's even more comic book movies on the horizon, particularly Spiderman. Marvel is lauching the Ultimate line that's making an effort of finding a younger audience. Comics are still a good way to introduce people to reading."

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