The Secret Damage Comic Book Movies Are Doing

By  · Published on November 4th, 2010

There’s a rarely talked about scourge worming its way through the studio system and reaching beyond it. It’s the comic book movie ‐ in all of its harmless glory, the beauty of its spectacle, and the incredible nature of its dominance over other sub-genres.

The truth is, no single comic book movie can do direct harm to an audience (except maybe Jonah Hex). The sub-genre has been incredibly helpful not only in bringing about a large amount of joy to the lives of billions but also in helping to usher in other “geek” properties to the mainstream.

But we’re not talking about direct damage here. The insidious problem that comic book movies cause comes from their own popularity. Executives in the major studios and even those in the indie world are passing over original ideas simply because they aren’t comic books, and that’s a problem.

Colin and Greg Strause are angry. They keep that anger calmly flowing as they speak to me over the phone about their forthcoming film Skyline and what it took to make it. The quick and dirty version is that the project was born out of the frustration born out of futilely pitching to the studios and from realizing they would be better off making the movie themselves. I ask what they see as wrong with the industry. Colin Strause responds:

“There’s this phenomenon that people have been cynical about in the last couple of years that I happen to agree with ‐ that if a property isn’t based on something pre-existing, a video game, a comic book, graphic novel, [producers] won’t be interested. There’s a real aversion to original properties, but if you’ve got a graphic novel that sold 500 copies, they’ll say, ‘Look! It’s based off a graphic novel! It must be cool!’

The Brothers Strause theorize that this mindset is caused by the fear of losing a producing job and the need for a safety net that comes with a proven formula. If the comic book adaptation fails (even if its from a hyper-niche comic book), it’s not the fault of the executive. They were just doing what everyone else does. Something else must have tanked the film.

Here’s where the problem gets weird. Not only is there an apparent aversion to original material, there’s a track record of executives seeking to release original ideas as comic books first in order to claim that the film project is an adaptation. Regarding Skyline specifically, Colin went on to claim that, “people were telling us we needed to create a comic first in order to sell our movie idea even if the book didn’t sell anything.”

There’s an absurdity with all of this that could only exist in the film industry.

There’s no rubric for success. It doesn’t matter how many copies of the comic you sell. Producers only want the phrase “Based On the Graphic Novel” slapped onto their TV spot. It’s the same hollow gesture that comes from abusing an earlier film’s title in order to gain name recognition. It’s cheap, and it’s grown to a size that’s injuring originality.

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard of the practice. A handful of colleagues in the comic book industry (ranging from indie outlets to bigger names) have all casually talked about having studios approach them in order to develop a comic book based on spec scripts. In those conversations, the story is almost always the same: the producers really love the script, but they want to see it as a comic book first. It’s a practice that happens with unhealthy regularity.

One possible example of this practice is the forthcoming graphic novel “The Reconcilers.” The story focuses on a future world where nations are gone, and only corporations remain. War is outlawed, but corporations settle their differences with televised combat in the well-tread gladiatorial tradition. A quick search shows that the idea originally cropped up as the short film The Reconcilers in which “two multinational corporations opt for trial by combat…to settle their differences.” Both the director of the short, Jens Pilegaard and co-writer R. Emery Bright are listed on the comic with “created by” credits alongside writer Erik Jensen who didn’t get a credit on the short film, but is getting creation and writing credits for the comic book.

It’s just speculation that the ultimate goal for “The Reconcilers” is a feature length film, and my questions as to that effect (aimed toward their press contact) went unanswered as of press time. However, three television and film personalities with no previous ties to the comic book world are now involved in an independent comic version of their short film. It might be a passion project (especially considering that Viking Warrior Press seems to exist solely to print “The Reconcilers”) or, in all likelihood, someone wants to give their idea a shot as a film as long as it’s technically as a comic book adaptation.

The positive way of looking at this practice is that printing a comic book is a lower-cost testing ground for original ideas. Unfortunately, not all concepts fit nicely into the comic book mold, and the practice seems less of a true proving ground at this point and more as a needless added step in the development process.

The problem behind all of this is the false belief that something has to be a comic book adaptation in order to be successful. With that belief ‐ or at least with the belief that there’s an adequate scapegoat in place ‐ producers are turning a blind eye to otherwise interesting original material (especially from relative newcomers).

Sadly, the solution to the problem is going to have to come from within. Studio executives and producers on every level are going to have to remember how to be innovative, to take chances, and to go out on a limb without a safety net. Perhaps there will be a few writers and creators happy to see their work turned into a comic book just for the shot of having the movie go forward, but can you imagine a possible business partner demanding to see your idea in a different medium before being sold on it? The possibility of tangled rights and credit issues alone is staggering. The best case scenario is one of annoyance and pointlessness. The worst is one of a failed opportunity because something meant to be a movie didn’t succeed as a comic book.

For the time being, it doesn’t seem like many are actually judging the numbers of the comic books being sold, or that many of these original ideas are actually moving forward. As it stands, the demand for more comic book adaptations has led to creating comics out of movies in order to create a movie from a comic book. It’s also led to another injurious hurdle to those makers of music and dreamers of dreams.

The humble tip for the future? If you’re an aspiring writer, be ready to turn your baby into a comic book first, and don’t be surprised if you hear that request in the meeting room. If you’re a movie fan, continue not particularly caring whether a film claims it’s based on anything, continue to enjoy quality writing, directing and acting, and maybe one day producers will emerge from their shell long enough to see that the sky isn’t falling and that they don’t need to trace over other people’s work in order to have a hit.

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