Latest boom in comic-book movies is making cultural heroes out of former geeks

[10 May 2012]

By Rene Rodriguez

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MIAMI — Trends and fads are generational. The hippie movement died with Watergate. Disco ruled, until it became a bad word. MTV once dictated popular culture; now it airs “Jersey Shore.”

But geeks and nerds? They’re forever — and their ranks are growing.

In “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope,” director Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) follows several attendees to the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con — the largest nerd mecca in North America — as they pursue their dreams of drawing superheroes for a living, winning elaborate costume contests, or tracking down prized collectibles.

Not so long ago, their passionate, sometimes quixotic quests — like one man’s frenzied hunt for an 18-inch Galactus doll — might have been written off as trivial pursuits.

Today, though, everyone is paying attention.

“There was a time when nerds were guys who sat around on their computers and geeks were the ones who read comic books and action figures, and everyone made fun of them,” Spurlock says. “But now, those two worlds — geeks and nerds — have collided, and today they control every aspect of the media and the entertainment business. Geeks and nerds are the ones who are creating those tablets we’re using to read, the iPods we’re listening to, the movies and TV shows we watch, the books we read. These people who were once seen as being fringe and weird have become incredibly influential. And now you see frat guys wearing Green Lantern T-shirts. It’s almost become a badge of honor to show you’re an adult who still embraces your childhood passions and still has a sense of play in your life.”

On Sunday, “The Avengers” broke box-office records by grossing an astonishing $200 million in its initial three days of release (its worldwide tally stands at $642 million). Due later this summer: a 3-D reboot of “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” Christopher Nolan’s final entry in his trilogy of “Batman” films.

The love of all things geek transcends superhero movies. On HBO, the medieval fantasy “Game of Thrones” — based on George R.R. Martin’s perennial bestsellers — is drawing nearly 4 million viewers per week, despite having been dismissed by The New York Times as fodder for “Dungeons & Dragons types.” A “Game of Thrones” videogame is due May 15. “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” another videogame released last November in which players slay dragons and perform magic, generated $620 million in its first month of sales. The “Harry Potter,” “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” series were worldwide phenomena.

“More people are embracing nerd culture because so much of it is so good,” says Michael Avila of AviLand Productions, a content provider for and other entertainment websites. “If they had tried to make ‘Game of Thrones’ a decade ago, it would have had the production values of ‘Xena: Warrior Princess.’ There were several Marvel movies made in the 1970s and ‘80s, but they were terrible. Gradually, though, the budgets got higher and the talent pools got deeper. Today, there is a faction of the geek community that is drunk on the power the movie studios have granted them the past few years.”

Not every comic-book or geek-friendly movie is an instant smash: “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “The Green Lantern,” two seemingly can’t-miss nerd magnets, both tanked. The mega-budget “John Carter” disappointed in March, despite an extensive promotional campaign by the Walt Disney Co.

But as former nerds such as Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen grew up and became forces in Hollywood, comic books were no longer dismissed as lowbrow entertainment for teenage boys and overgrown man-children. Instead, the books are being increasingly recognized for their artistic and cultural merits.

Will Hess, one of the co-directors of the documentary “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story,” argues that the creator of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four deserves a place alongside other influential pop culture godheads

“Stan Lee is in the same category as George Lucas or Jim Henson or Walt Disney,” says Hess. “He is one of the great creators of the 20th century. He’s had an enormous impact on multiple generations. He’s almost 90 years old, and people are still discovering him.”

“With Great Power” is an affectionate and lively recounting of Lee’s personal life and amazing career. Much like Spurlock’s film, it is peppered with guest appearances by famous stars (including Nicolas Cage, Kenneth Branagh and Tobey Maguire) talking about the impact of comic books on their lives.

The snowballing prevalence of computer tablets and smart phones ensures that the next generation will be equally influenced by comic books. They’ll just be reading them in a different way. Axel Alonso, editor in chief of Marvel Comics, says the ongoing boom of superhero movies is helping his industry make the leap from print to digital.

“The story isn’t just that the multiplex is booming: We are also booming,” Alonso says. “Our current series ‘Avengers vs. X-Men’ is the biggest hit we’ve had since I’ve been at Marvel. The digital sales alone have been as big as some of our top 100 titles. And tablets allow us to try new things with the medium, such as ‘infinite comics,’ which are specifically designed to be interactive. We’re really embracing digital, but always to complement our print product, not to replace it.”

For old-school fans, the growing popularity of digital comics carries a bittersweet sting: A big part of the fun was hunting down pristine copies of cherished issues you could hold in your hands.

That sense of nostalgia is explored in Spurlock’s film. But the director says the method of delivery is not as important as the actual art.

“There will always be people who will pine for the old paper comics,” he says. “My generation has a very nostalgic attachment to comic books. But my son, who is 5 and reads digital comics, is not going to have that same kind of affinity. The environment is shifting. We’re just going to get used to this new way to consume this media.”

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