Seller's Market 2 Are Movies Changing the Face of Comics?

Are Movies Changing the Face of Comics?

[In Part 1 of the two-part series "Seller's Market", Newsarama's Vaneta Rogers examined the current state of Hollywood's fascination with comic books. In Part Two, Rogers explores what effect the Hollywood factor is having on the comics industry and what the future may hold.]

Nowhere was it more obvious than in the halls of last month's San Diego Comic-Con that Hollywood is changing the face of the comics industry. Just ask Marvel's Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada. In the shadows of the giant displays for the latest comic-based blockbuster films, agents and producers met with writers and publishers to talk business -- buzzing about concepts and properties, hoping the latest comic book idea might be the next big thing.

But it doesn't stop in San Diego. As filmmakers have become enamored of comics, Hollywood's impact on the comic book industry is already starting to alter everything from the structure of publishing companies, to the people who are reading comics, to the career paths of the writers and artists who make them.

There's no doubt that Hollywood's recent love affair with comics has paid off big for the film industry. With movies based on comics producing more than $1 billion this year alone, the attraction doesn't look to be letting up soon. There are more than 40 comic book movies in production and dozens more optioned for film -- and while The Dark Knight and Iron Man are getting all the attention, upcoming movies like the Kate Beckinsale vehicle Whiteout [see image above] and The Surrogates attest that it isn't just limited to superheroes.

"It's been a crazy summer for this stuff," said Steve Niles, writer of the 30 Days of Night comic that was adapted into last year's horror film of the same name. Niles said every comic property at least gets a look from Hollywood now, some before they're even written. "I guess you could call it a frenzy."

Niles said that more than 20 years ago, books were seen as a viable source for movies, but "the focus from novels has shifted firmly to comics."

"I think when you put illustrations on paper -- essentially storyboards, for people who think in movie terms -- and they can envision how this will look on the screen, it does help sell the product," said B. Clay Moore, a writer with three comics optioned as films. "In fact, I know there are more and more people in Hollywood that are putting together sort of graphic novels in an attempt to elevate the pitch so the people can see it visually, which I don't think is a bad idea at all."

"I think on a very practical level, it's just easier for Hollywood to envision a comic as a film," Niles said. "They're storyboards. They're very accessible. It's easy to go to your studio and say, 'This is exactly what I want to do.' And in most cases it's an already-mapped-out blueprint for a movie. It's having such a significant effect that even the major book publishers are talking to people about doing original graphic novels so they can get in on the action."

That move to "get in on the action" of comics is something a lot of industry insiders don't like, many voicing a concern that there are writers and publishers who are rushing to put movie ideas into comics without any regard for the comics medium.

"There are a lot of companies doing that. You can kind of see which ones are. People think they can just take a movie script and turn it into a comic and that's going to be their movie pitch," Niles said. "Unfortunately, they forget to put soul and enthusiasm in the comic. But it's definitely happening, yeah."

"There's a lot of cynicism about projects and Hollywood jumping on board," Moore said. "I was talking to a friend of mine, and he was talking about disingenuous movie pitches disguised as comics, but he couldn't really name a lot of those. I think there's just this assumption people have that people are just throwing ideas out there to get Hollywood to bite. "

It may be tempting to merely put movie ideas on paper, disguised as comic books, but it won't work, said Ross Richie, publisher at Boom! Studios, which has sold seven film options since the company started.

"You can't predict what Hollywood will love -- their taste changes minute by minute. But what you can do is tell a great story as a comic book, make a graphic novel that you love, and focus on publishing. If the Hollywood stuff comes, great. If not, we don't care -- we've got a successful comic book company to keep us occupied," Richie said. "What we do is make a great comic. When you do that, people get excited and buy it because it's a damn good story."

Jimmy Palmiotti, a writer who has 19 comic properties optioned for other media, said comics creators can't get distracted by whether or not their comic would make a good film. "They have to make their idea work as a comic first and not worry about how it will be adapted," he said. "In both Back to Brooklyn and the Last Resort, we are going crazy and over the top with sex and violence and doing anything we want. If they get picked up [as movies], it's their problem as to how to make it work on film. If we lose track of why we are creating comics, everything and everyone's work will suffer for it."

Moore said that Hollywood usually doesn't care about the comic anyway, because,"it's all about the concept." He pointed out that his latest property to sell for film, Billy Smoke, already has Lost star Matthew Fox attached despite the fact the comic hasn't been written, and negotiations for his Hawaiian Dick property were starting before the first issue was even published -- proving that Hollywood just wants the idea. Comics fans hear that story all the time -- even the recent Wanted movie had been optioned when only a few issues of the comic were released.

"People need to understand that how a comic book reads almost has nothing to do with whether or not it would make a good movie," Moore said. "It's going to get into the hands of screenwriters who are going to adapt it into what they think is a good movie. The main thing that's important is the basic idea and the hook to the story. You can take a bad comic with a great concept behind it and make a fantastic movie. And at the same time, a great comic won't necessarily be a good idea for a film."

Yet marketing "ideas" to Hollywood has become more of a priority with comics publishers as they adjust to all the Hollywood attention. Most publishers who don't already have a production company attached have at least added a full-time staff member -- and often a whole department -- that does nothing but talk with Hollywood.

"In a way, Dark Horse was kind of at the forefront of this. Dark Horse was doing stuff like Barbed Wire and The Mask before we were even talking about all this. I think they recognized early on that this would be a way to fund their business model," Moore said. "But a company like Oni, 15 years ago, probably wouldn't have had an attached production company like they do now, with guys whose experience is more in Hollywood than comic books. What they've essentially done is set up twin companies now, and that allows them to develop something like Scott Pilgrim as a movie and not loose focus on the comics they're making at the same time."

Yet Hollywood's interest in buying fresh, new concepts from comics will only last as long as they are being generated. And while it may seem impossible that comics would run out of ideas, some worry that the current state of the comics industry -- with superheroes becoming so dominant that other genres struggle -- may lead to fewer "different" ideas being published.

"I think there are less new and clever ideas than ever," Palmiotti said. "The feedback I got from agents is that there is less and less books to mine and less original work being published because the sales are all down. And on a whole, comic fans don't rush out to buy new concepts and ideas unless they are by comic creators they know and like. It's an interesting time."

Moore agreed that loyal comics readers are buying fewer non-superhero titles than they have in the past, and that's caused a shift in the market. "Fifteen years ago, Mike Mignola could create Hellboy, and Mike Allred could create Madman, and Dave Sim could exist on Cerebus, and I think market conditions are now such that you don't see a lot of guys doing that," Moore said. "Everything seems so marginalized lately, and I don't think there's as much crossover between the guys buying Final Crisis and Secret Invasion with the guys buying indy books now."

But Moore said that's where Hollywood comes into play. While the comics industry itself may be focused on the latest superhero event, people are missing how Hollywood's attention can actually end up benefitting their creators.

"That's the kind of shift that I think people are kind of missing the boat on," Moore said. "You've got all these people who are fighting so damned hard to write Wolverine or whatever, and that's fine if you want to do that. But at the same time, the situation exists now where those guys can also take their own ideas, and even if they don't sell 80,000 or 50,000 copies in comic book shops, there's life for these ideas beyond comics that would allow them to continue putting their own original ideas out there and maybe even reach a wider audience with them.

"I'm not dumping on anybody if they want to put a new spin on old superhero stories. We all read that stuff and love it, and as fans, we're always looking for that kind of thing," Moore said. "But I just think there's a mindset that you're at the top of the heap when you reach Justice League. But in reality, now that Hollywood is offering up this attention, you could write these books over here that you really want to write, on your own terms, without much editorial interference, and be satisfied with your work and able to afford to do it."

Besides the potential to open up opportunities for creators, the attention from Hollywood also implies more people find out what kind of stories are available in comic books. That excites industry insiders, who would like to see more of the general public reading comics and more genres being published to meet their demands.

"It's about to happen," Niles said, "and all we need to do is have [Ed] Brubaker make a movie out of Criminal, and then we've opened up another genre. I mean, I've sold horror comics, there are people selling crime comics, we've had Ghost World, we've had A History of Violence. We can do this."

Todd McFarlane, founder of one of the first recent viable independent companies, Image Comics, said that even a "superhero guy" like him sees the potential of other genres showing up as movies. "As a publisher, you see the potential in the comics you're publishing that might not be selling as well. And it's cool to think we might be able to reach out to the audiences who would like this kind of stuff by getting it into a movie," McFarlane said.

"And as sad as it is, Billy Smoke isn't going to do well if it just relies on the current comics community," Moore added. "But if the real world gets interested in something like Billy Smoke because of a movie, that might not only bring in new readers, but it would actually trickle back into the comics shop and make comics readers give it a chance. And if we can do that for more genres, it can only help."

Of course, it's often difficult to make movie-goers recognize when movies come from comics. "When they're not superheroes, the assumption that they were made from comic books automatically drops off. Like 300 -- there are a lot of people who don't know that came from a comic book, shockingly," Niles said.

Moore said it's up to the publisher to get the message out -- citing floor displays at bookstores for movie-related books as an example of smart marketing. He said if movies like Sin City and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen can cause major sales increases on those books, there's no reason to believe the same thing can't happen for any property, as long as the books are there for them to buy.

"I know Top Cow, in advance of the Wanted movie, printed up tons of copies of the comic book in anticipation of what the movie would do. With Hellboy, Dark Horse couldn't meet demand. So hopefully the industry, which is renowned for shooting itself in the foot time and time again, can supply the demand for these books when the movies come out," he said.

And Moore added that if Hollywood's attention can help publishers sell more independent comics and make people aware of the non-superhero titles that most comics readers ignore, then the changes in the comics industry end up benefitting everyone.

"Hollywood is allowing people to do what they want to do and write what they want to write, and if it continues and the movies do well, it will continue to open people's eyes to what comics have to offer," Moore said. "So maybe it's good for everybody. That's my hope."

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