Comics to Film (and Film to Comics): The Two-Way Street Between Page and Screen


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.

  • Assuming that you are familiar with the characters in question, think about your favorite creators, titles, or story arcs and recommend those, setting aside excessive worrying about continuity. Let the questioner know that what they are going to read isn’t organically connected to the film and that there are going to pieces of plot and characters that they won’t know, but good writing is good writing and good art is good art. If the newcomer is sufficiently motivated, they’ll get past the unfamiliar, and before they know it, what seemed unfamiliar will start to seem familiar after a few issues or chapters.

  • Find out if the person asking has any history with the relevant comics. I was out of the loop with superhero comics for about a decade, and when I started picking up X-Men titles again, I had to deal with some disorientation and had to try a few different books before falling back into a rhythm and it was like I never stopped reading in the first place. You won’t be able to promise a seamless experience from movie to books, but you can tell your questioner that they might be surprised at how well their years-old impressions and memories from youthful reading will serve them in jumping back into DC or Marvel.

  • Recommend comiXology. Yes, it would be cool to turn these kinds of questions into some immediate new business for your local shop, but for someone new to comics, or new to comics as an adult, browsing from their home computer, smart phone, or tablet is likely to seem more convenient, and less intimidating than a trip to a shop. comiXology is also more likely to offer a complete set of whatever attracts the eye than is a traditional shop, and a variety of books to sample at what seems like a reasonable price. You can always introduce someone to the local shop after they’ve had a chance to find their footing.

  • Consider skewing older in your initial recommendations. If for no other reason than there were simply fewer comics in circulation, and therefore less history, comics from the ’60s and ’70s, and even older in the case of DC, are more likely to be welcoming to new readers on an issue-by-issue basis than are even the identical titles once you get to the late ’80s and the ’90s. By the ’00s longer form storytelling and “writing for the trade” became more of a norm, which is one additional reason why it is hard to recommend that a new reader pursue their curiosity by, for example, picking up the latest issue of The Avengers. Monthly comics used to be published more with the idea that anyone could pick up any issue on a given day. Opening panels were frequently devoted to resetting the scene, and stories, while still serialized, were more likely to have a discernible beginning, middle and end, and the action was often heavily narrated so as to make its meaning obvious. While Marvel and DC may not be producing collections specifically directed at fans of their movies, both publishers do have a variety of trade series that delve into the archives of their most prominent titles and characters. In line with the point just above, back catalogs on comiXology have also been growing.

  • Explore whether something other than comics might be a better recommendation. Much like missing the opportunity to send more business to the local shop might seem like a lost opportunity, so too, I’m sure, does this advice, but as I argue in the lead-up to this section, few of the Marvel and DC characters gracing the big screen right now are solely creations of the comics, but are also found in other media, like TV series and video games. Depending on an individual’s interests and why they want to see more of a character or what kinds of stories they like, it might make more sense to direct them elsewhere than to the comics. My daughter, for example, adores Harley Quinn, but her frame of reference is Lego Batman and Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), not the comics, and in this case, both TV and the game are easier to recommend to her than most comics in which Harley appears.

Movies like The Avengers may not be made so as to create readers, but inevitably, they do.