[24 April 2012]
When The Avengers opens in US theaters on 4 May, at least some in the audience will want to continue the story or learn more about the characters. Naturally, they will turn to people they know to be readers of comics for guidance and advice on what to read. As logical as this course of action is, coming up with recommendations for new comers looking to enter the DC or Marvel Universes from the movies is not an easy task.
Anyone who saw, say, the first Iron Man (2008), and who then went to a local comics shop to find something to read, likely had a hard time locating anything that looked like the movie in terms of cast of characters or story. And the clerk, no matter how helpful or knowledgeable, would likely not have had an obvious entry to suggest, either. The accumulated histories to Marvel’s and DC’s mainline superhero comics are deeper and more twisted than the films, which necessarily recast, update, and condense character origins and relationships for a wider audience. Decades of books, and maybe millions of pages of text and images, are distilled and filtered into a feature film, or series of films, where total running times cannot possibly accommodate more than a fraction of the printed material.
For these kinds of superhero films, the problem of moving from page to screen and back again is that there’s no authoritative text for the writer to reference or for would-be readers to access. These movies are better thought of as character adaptations than adaptations of specific books. When seen that way, one thing that becomes clear is that the characters are already transmedia creations. The first set of X-Men movies, for example, owe as much to the ‘90s cartoon as to any specific book, and as that series was developed, the writers and producers crisscrossed different titles for story ideas.
Similarly, anyone who brings Batman to the big screen needs to deal with expectations shaped by the ‘60s live-action TV show. Adapting Superman is as much about other films and screen versions of the Man of Steel as it is about the comics. While more minor characters such as Iron Man or Ghost Rider don’t have the same kinds of legacies for adapters to address, for many Marvel and DC superheroes the range of possible references is more likely to be multi-media than not.
Perhaps because, as corporate properties, superheroes like the ones that make up The Avengers are conceived of in transmedia terms by their rights holders, it isn’t clear that Marvel or DC is primarily interested in using their films to attract new readers of their comics, or that they are necessarily more interested in selling books than they are in selling, for example, toys. That’s not to say that the executives at either company don’t welcome new readers as a side effect of the films, but nothing in their related publishing strategies suggest that this is a main drive in their marketing of either books or films.
Typically, there are books released in order to capitalize on interest generated from the movies, from mini-series, or story lines in ongoing titles, to new trade editions or collections, but these strategies seem more directed at established readers than at drawing in new ones. Rarely are such books situated within the particular storyworlds of the films, instead of the comics. One thing I have never seen, but which seems like an obvious move if there were an intent to appeal to new readers, is trade paperbacks carefully curated and designed to give film audiences an entry into the books based on the comics history and characters that are part of the screen adaptations.
If such books were made, then the question of what to read after the film would be relatively easy to answer. If done well, such collections would likely make it easier to recommend additional reading by providing a secondary jumping off point, one that explicitly bridges books and films and that would give additional clues as to what someone finds interesting or appealing, not just on screen, but also from what’s in print.
Barring such books, of course, there’s still the problem of what to tell people who are motivated to read, after they’ve seen a movie. Here’s my practical advice for trying to navigate the thicket of texts that one enters when trying to answer the seemingly simple question of what a friend or acquaintance should do after seeing The Avengers or any other mainstream comics adaptation.
Movies like The Avengers may not be made so as to create readers, but inevitably, they do.