Joseph Stinson sits, surrounded by stories on all sides. His shop, Alternate Universe, is small, somewhere around twenty feet deep and fifteen feet wide, but what it lacks in size is made up for in volume. Bookshelves line the walls, stocked with the latest colorful copies of The Amazing Spider-Man, Excalibur, and Detective Comics. In the center of the room are upward of a dozen long white cardboard boxes placed on a table about three feet off the ground, filled with comic books of years gone past—tales of mutants, marauders, and magical men—carefully stored in clear plastic bags with cardboard dividers to preserve their shape and prevent wrinkles. Alternate Universe is just one of the many local comic book shops in Connecticut, and it’s given an extra boost by calling New Haven, a city that combines both year-round residents and an expansive population of college students, its home.
Stinson has been in the comic book industry for over twenty years, and not much has changed. Books come out every week—sometimes too many for one character, he notes of Batman’s current upward of six ongoing monthly titles—but the size of his readership has largely stayed the same. Alternate Universe sells between eight and nine hundred comics a week, with most of their business being repeat and regular customers. Their core demographic is twenty- to thirty-year-olds. One to two new customers wander their way inside every week, and the numbers spike when a new movie or television show based on a comic book property comes out. In Stinson’s words, “That crowd is a transient bunch; some get stuck, some don’t.” Really, that’s the problem with the modern comic book industry: While the social profile of their heroes only soar higher, the comic books stay on the ground.
In many ways, the rise and decline of the comic book industry is the sort of Herculean feat that only a caped crusader could hope to accomplish. It is itself a tale of heroes, villains, secret identities, and an ever-shifting status quo. Comics as we know them today, in their magazine-style format, really got their start in the 1930s with titles like Action Comics, where the first issue marked the first appearance of Superman. Fast forward a few bankruptcies, brand-wide relaunches, and a pandemic supply chain shortage and retail shut down, and you’re in the modern world of comic books.
Exactly how many people buy comic books per year is hard to parse, often deliberately so by the publishing companies behind the comics, but Forbes reported that in 2019 the comic book industry earned a billion dollars including periodical comic sales, graphic novels, and resell value of back issues from all the publishing houses combined. For contrast, the film Avengers: Endgame made double that in their box office alone. The fact of the matter is that it would be impossible for as many people who are fans of comic book intellectual property—films, t-shirts, video games, lunchboxes—to also be fans of the comics that they were forged in.
There is an obsession among fans of comic book properties to seek legitimacy in the form of multimedia adaptation for their favorite characters and stories. For many, the ultimate mark of success for a comic book is whether it has been made into a movie, video game, or TV show. It makes sense; compared to comic books, the court of public opinion holds film and TV as high art. After all, the concept of high art necessitates a low art to punch down on. The high art and low art divide is not necessarily one decided along profit lines, but it can’t hurt that for a long time comics were printed on cheap newspaper paper and a single superhero movie can turn out a billion dollars of box office profit and go on to win best picture at the Oscars like The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman film.
In fact, the fanbase of comic book characters in their movie forms has grown so large that they have created their own industries of professional fandom. Spider-Man: No Way Home has sprouted its own cottage industry of professional spectators and culture vultures picking apart every crumb of information released, presumably in hopes to decode the secrets of the movie. Even more meta, is that the reason for the fanaticism around this particular release is it’s rumored (or “confirmed” if you ask a nerd culture news-site whose bread and butter is clickbait) inclusion of previous Spider-Man actors reprising their original roles as their versions of the character. So if you’ve ever wanted to see the aging Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire, two actors whose time after playing the webbed warrior was marked by arthouse and prestige projects, redon the ridiculous blue and scarlet spandex of their breakout roles from years past, then you’ll probably love this movie. If there was ever an argument to be made about the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood and the capitalistic weaponization of nostalgia, it would be made about Spider-Man: No Way Home.
On the one hand, there is an inherent gruesomeness to the idea that comic book stories only “count” if they’re repackaged and fed to audiences in a form they’re creators never intended. There isn’t anything better, and in fact there is something glaringly worse, about an hour long cheaply made 2D animated movie adaptation of the Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli masterpiece four issue Batman: Year One, one of the best marriages of writing and art in the Dark Knight’s bibliography that despite being practically line for line and shot for shot somehow drains all artistic verve from the story. Where a good colorist, the artist assigned with adding color to the sketches done by the primary artist, is essential to comic book art, a poor color palette will do that to a movie.
A similar sentiment could be echoed for any of the dozen superhero films that use premises, or even whole plotlines, of comic books stories, but with just enough changes that they have plausible deniability when the question of royalties to the original creators comes into play. Such as in Disney Plus’s newest hit MCU streaming show, Hawkeye, which appears to have used the template of the 2012 Matt Fraction and David Aja comic with very little financial compensation. And by “used the template of”, I mean they have the same logo, issue covers designed by Aja are repurposed into posters, and concepts such as Lucky (Clint’s dog), the “tracksuit mafia”, and Clint’s hearing disability that were introduced in the 2012 run are introduced to the MCU audience here. More than any connection between Frank Miller’s dueling Superman and Batman in The Dark Knight Returns and Zach Snyder’s Batman v. Superman, more than Marvel Studios’ Infinity War and Marvel Comics’ The Infinity Saga, and even more than the critically maligned Wolverine: Origins film and the critically acclaimed Wolverine: Origins book, there has never been quite as transparent a comic book source material being drawn from so heavily, and shamelessly, by a parent company studio.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with drawing from specific comic book stories. On the contrary, it should be the golden standard; the problem is what it means, or does not mean, for the creators who did the heavy lifting of writing and illustrating the stories in the first place, such as artist David Aja. He recently took to his Twitter to reveal that he was not financially compensated for Disney’s use of his art in their marketing and production of Hawkeye. Summarizing his philosophy pretty plainly on the matter: “Stop crediting, start paying.” Compared to some of their predecessors and contemporaries, however, Aja and Fraction are lucky to be given any, very nominal, credit. The Hawkeye series does have Matt Fraction listed as a consulting producer, a title he revealed was for all intents and purposes in name only.
The cultural footprint of superhero comics pops up in places you would never think to suspect. Neil Gaiman, of such recognizable non-comic book works as Good Omens co-authored with the late master of fantasy Terry Pratchett, Coraline, Stardust, and American Gods, is often deservedly hailed as a master of his craft and also one of most creative voices in publishing, none of which is surprising considering his creative career began with comic books. According to his website, he’s even “credited with being one of the creators of modern comics.” His comic book magnum opus, Sandman, is even a canonical facet of the DC Comics universe, with appearances by Superman, Batman, Martian Manhunter, and John Constantine and crossovers with Swamp Thing, Green Arrow, and the Justice League. Sandman himself wasn’t even a Gaiman creation, the mantle of Sandman was originally that of a Golden Age character known as Wesley Dodds who appears in the first arc of Gaiman’s series.
No word yet on how exactly Sandman fits into the current continuity (the combined “canon” of character chronology) after DC Comics’ most recent attempts to draw in new readership resulted in a publishing house-wide reboot of their fictional universe, an initiative called “The New 52”. The chief problem with trying to bring in new readers is the decades of stories built into every character’s history. The prevailing sentiment at the time was that if someone was to watch a Batman movie, love it, and decide to read any of his current comics they would be overwhelmed by the sheer amount and variety of his Robin sidekicks alone. The solution was to wipe away those decades of continuity and give all of the DC heroes a clean slate, with new origins and ongoing series starting with issue ones. Fan reactions were mixed to say the least. For all the posturing of the New 52, Stinson notes that there’s a larger issue with comic book companies’ obsession with undoing years of work: it provides just as much of a jumping-off point for dedicated fans as it does a jumping-on point for prospective new fans.
If there is any hallmark of comics, it’s that they are allowed to get weird. It’s that weirdness that people love about comics. It’s the reason that the Jonathan Hickman penned soft reboot of the X-Men House of X/Powers of X, which is almost incomprehensible if you’re not along for the reality bending and resetting ride, made the list of top ten best selling comics of 2019. Also, Jean Grey, Wolverine, and Cyclops are now in a polyamorous open relationship, because, ya know, comics. It’s a weirdness as off-putting as it is engaging, which is a shame, as to ignore the medium of comics is to ignore some of the best storytelling from the last half century.
Caroline Kilian is a Staff Writer for the Blue Muse Magazine
Wolverine (2020) #7, Artist: Joshua Cassara, Colorist: Guru-eFX / Photo Credit: Marvel Comics