Box office doors were blown wide open when Frank Miller’s 300 hit theatres last weekend, once again drawing attention to the graphic novel medium.
With the success of graphic novel-based films like Sin City and 300, it seems graphic novels are the latest resource filmmakers are capitalizing on.
“If it sells, people will do it,” said Doug Mann, a Western media, information and technoculture professor who teaches the popular class “Comic Book Culture: From Pulp Fiction to Post Modern Legitimacy.”
“If you can take a medium and make a product out of it, people will buy it. It doesn’t get any less complicated than that.”
Fellow MIT Professor Tim Blackmore agreed.
“As long as some producer thinks they can make a buck on it, we’re going to have it on the screen,” Blackmore said. “You think when they saw multiple films tank [at the box office] they’d stop, but they won’t. It’s still making them money. The worst of it is they’re choosing [to produce] some of the most brainless stuff.”
Blackmore has lectured on 300 for the three years and understands why graphic novels like it are made into films.
“There is a deep lack of critical willingness to critique eye candy like 300 because people see it as just popcorn,” he said.
Mann believes technological advances have made comics and graphic novels more accessible.
“It didn’t take off in the past because [filmmakers] couldn’t really do the special effects very well,” Mann said. “Everything looked too cheesy.”
Blackmore said the world of comics and graphic novels has more to offer than bare-chested men in loin clothes or a cast of gyrating women.
“As the saying goes, 90 per cent of everything in a medium is crap,” Blackmore said. “Whether it’s science fiction or genre film, that’s how it is. However, there are many artists out there who are doing great stuff and should be recognized.”
While Blackmore is pleased graphic novels like Sin City and 300 are receiving more exposure and respect through film, he said quality work is often overshadowed by comic book-based films like The Hulk.
“[Filmmakers] are dealing with good material. [Whether you] like the politics or not, 300 is a gorgeous piece of work,” Blackmore said. “That’s also true of Sin City, but the films are a different thing than the comics. People are more accepting when it comes to film.
“With smaller films [based on comics] like Ghost World or American Splendor, they do a really good job translating it to film. But go to a video store in 10 years and you won’t be able to find a copy of Ghost World. Instead, there’ll be copies of The Hulk. That’s really the reality of consumerism.”
Mann believes releasing these films benefits the film industry much more than the graphic novel industry.
“Out of the 100 people who go see 300, maybe 10 have read the book,” Mann said. “[But with] any movie, it’s going to promote sales of the book. It’s different when you write a novel about the movie afterwards — those don’t really turn out as well. But I don’t think the films will have a tremendous effect on the graphic novel industry as a whole.”
However, comic book shops often see increaseed sales when spectacles like 300 are released.
Carol Vandenberg, who works at L.A. Mood Comics and Games in London, said these films can effect sales.
“It always peaks when the movies come out, which is to be expected,” she said. “It works really well for the more unusual material. When an X-Men film comes out, it doesn’t bring in as many people. With something like Sin City though, you see a lot more people coming in.”
However, not all first-time buyers become fans.
“Sometimes it’s a one-time thing, but if they come back again, they slowly get drawn in,” Vandenberg said. “People do catch on.”
Despite graphic novels’ growing mainstream exposure, Mann said they remain stigmatized.
“If you went back 20 years or so, there might have been a stigma attached to reading comics as adults,” Mann said. “But I think that all changed a long time ago in the 1980s with [the release of graphic novels like] Watchmen and Maus and so on. Slowly but surely, that worked itself into popular consciousness.”
Film adaptations have helped de-stigmatize comics and graphic novels, Mann added.
“It’s much more acceptable to read something based on a movie. At the same time though, I never see people reading these books in public or on the bus — unless they’re in one of my classes. Other than those cases, it’s very rare, so there may still be a stigma attached.”
With or without help from the film industry, Mann and Blackmore believe things are looking up for comics and graphic novels.
“Comics are becoming more serious while our culture gets more superficial,” Mann said. “The characters on something like American Idol are less real than those in a comic like Watchmen.”
“Graphic novels themselves, on their own, have come a long way,” Blackmore said. “It’s because so many people have done so much good work that they are being recognized for it.
“What will help graphic novels more is for a store like Chapters to have a manga section or a graphic novel section. In terms for getting material out, that’s more important than any film.”