by Jarrod Jones. Comics and Hollywood. A union of industries that has become vastly more profitable and ubiquitous than anybody could have predicted half a century ago. With a single flick of the thumb, our social media feeds speed through a vivid gauntlet of advertisements for the latest live-action series, animated film, and major motion picture to feature the likes of The Avengers, Batman, Spider-Man, Harley Quinn, and others of their four-colored ilk. At present, Marvel Studios is absorbing the most oxygen online with its adaptations of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and its Disney+ animated series What If…?, while DC Films has enjoyed critical acclaim for their second filmic attack on DC Comics’ Suicide Squad intellectual property, the cheekily-titled The Suicide Squad. The comic industry monoliths have, beyond any doubt, conquered Hollywood.
And there’s another seemingly indomitable conga line of studio projects that are currently pulling from a well of creator-owned comic properties, such as Sweet Tooth, Invincible, and The Boys, with so, so many more potentially lucrative projects on the way. (Next on the creator-owned docket: The Sandman, Paper Girls, Black Hammer, Y: The Last Man, and far too many more to list here.) Whether it’s adapting an indie-darling comics series or an 80 year-old superhero juggernaut, Hollywood is in the comics-to-movie making business and business has been booming. And as this symbiosis between industries deepens, it has become crucial that someone, somewhere, takes on the duty of unpacking the particulars of this relationship between the comic industry and the Hollywood studio system that’s made an incalculable bundle tapping into it.
Enter: Alisa Perren, Media Studies Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Entertainment and Media Industries (CEMI) at the University of Texas at Austin, and Gregory Steirer, Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Their 9-year collaboration on the subject has delivered to us the book on the American comics industry and Hollywood as it exists today, helpfully titled The American Comic Book Industry and Hollywood, which dives into the exquisite details of this strange business relationship that has blurred the lines between both industries—or, as Perren & Steirer put it in their afterward, “the status of the American comic book industry as ‘both/and’—both a part of Hollywood, heavily reliant on its financial support and employment opportunities, and distinct from Hollywood, in terms of strategies, stakeholders and professional identities [.]” If there’s anybody who can draw the line that separates capital-C comics and Hollywood, Perren & Steirer have arrived with the Sharpie and the ruler. Our minutiae-minded heroes have come at last.
“There’s been a remarkable lack of work on the comics industry as an industry, which is to say the ‘business’ side of things,” Steirer tells me. “How artists and writers get paid and find jobs, how publishers make money, how intellectual property gets managed, etc. Part of the reason for this is that the academic disciplines that have most enthusiastically taken up comics have been from the humanities, where questions of aesthetics and ideology have tended to be seen as more important than questions of business and economics.
“We’re hopeful, however, that our book can begin to change this!”
Alisa Perren and Gregory Steirer spoke with DoomRocket about The American Comic Book Industry and Hollywood, the more cynical side of this subject (namely, “new comic projects as Hollywood pitches-in-the-making”), and how, for Perren & Steirer, this whole shebang begins with DC’s 2015 event series, Convergence.
DoomRocket: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, Alisa and Greg! Congratulations on the release of the book.
Alisa Perren: Jarrod, thanks for taking the time to talk with us! And thanks for the congratulations as well.
1. The most basic question any interviewer can ask their subject is “why?” “Why did you choose this particular subject,” etc. But as an academic pursuit, something that would take years and years of your life and be assessed by your peers, why did you choose the subject of the comic book industry and its ongoing, seemingly never-ending relationship with the studio system, or as we’ll use as shorthand, “Hollywood?”
Greg Steirer: The idea for the book first came to us around 2012. I had been into comic books from a business perspective since the time I was a teenager: my dad and I ran a comic book store in upstate New York for most of the 1990s and I began publishing on the topic right after finishing graduate school. And Alisa, whose previous work had focused on the film and television industries, had close personal ties to the industry: her partner Cully Hamner (who did the cover for our book) is a well-known comic artist and co-creator of the comic book, Red, which had been turned into a motion picture starring Bruce Willis (among others) in 2010.
Alisa and I began chatting about our mutual interests at a conference and noted the almost complete absence of scholarship that examined how comics and Hollywood interacted from a business perspective. So we thought we would try and fill this gap. The book ended up taking a long time to research and write—almost 9 years—and in that time the connections between the two industries continued to evolve, with comic-book-based films and television shows becoming ubiquitous and a major part of mainstream popular culture. What had seemed a personally interesting topic had thus become by the time we were finished a hot subject right at the center of how media works today.
AP: As Greg notes, my own interest first came about for personal reasons—I began to learn first-hand about the world of comics when I started dating Cully in 2007. It seems only fitting that our relationship started just as the MCU launched with Iron Man going into production. At the time, I was working on a book looking at the rise and fall of indie film through a case study of Miramax (Indie, Inc: Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s). Though a study of comics and Hollywood might seem like a very different direction to take in terms of my research, each study provided me with a way of making sense of Hollywood’s labor conditions, production practices, and distribution strategies at a specific moment in time (the 1990s and early 2000s for Miramax, the late 2000s and 2010s for the comics industry).
2. It’s noted in the book’s introduction that “the comics industry has been significantly understudied by scholars in virtually all fields, including media studies, communication and comics studies.” Is that still the case? Is academia, in the year 2021, still semi-allergic to comic books?
GS: Yes and no. Academia has definitely come to embrace comic books: since at least 2010, there’s been an ever-growing number of scholarly works—monographs, edited collections, and journal articles—on comic books. And more and more graduate students are pursuing doctoral research on the medium. That said, there’s been a remarkable lack of work on the comics industry as an industry, which is to say the “business” side of things: how artists and writers get paid and find jobs, how publishers make money, how intellectual property gets managed, etc. Part of the reason for this is that the academic disciplines that have most enthusiastically taken up comics have been from the humanities, where questions of aesthetics and ideology have tended to be seen as more important than questions of business and economics. We’re hopeful, however, that our book can begin to change this!
3. ‘The American Comic Book Industry and Hollywood’ begins on an interesting note by singling out DC’s 2015 event series, ‘Convergence’. The event, as I recall, was designed as a production buffer for DC, who was moving house from New York City, NY to Burbank, CA during its release. How does ‘Convergence’ represent the synergy that exists between the comics industry and the Hollywood system that’s been mining from it over the last 30-odd years? What was it about this particular event that made you decide to use it as a means of establishing the message for the rest of your book?
GS: Two things attracted us to DC’s Convergence event as an opening example. First, as you noted, the event series was conceived quite literally as a means of facilitating the relocation of DC Comics headquarters from New York (the home of print publishing) to Southern California (the home of Hollywood). Which is exactly the kind of shift our book sets out to explore. But also, Convergence was something of a critical and business failure—a far cry from successful and beloved cross-overs like Infinite Crisis and Blackest Night. In this sense, we felt the 2015 event series immediately problematized the kind of taken-for-granted assumptions that govern the discourse around synergy within the business and fan press (and even some academic work). As we discovered in our research, integrating different media companies is actually quite a difficult task! And what we take to be synergy working is often just the result of dumb luck.
4. Do you feel that the advent of fan forums and the spike in comic convention interest over the course of the late 90s and 00s contributed to the validation of comics as an acceptable source for filmic adaptations? Did studios and corporate bodies actually pay attention to what fans wanted from these comic book adaptations during that time?
AP: Good question! I would say the 1990s, in particular, can be seen as a time when the foundation was being laid for comic book adaptations in a variety of ways. Certainly the growth of online fan culture, facilitated by the diffusion of the internet, helped connect fans with each other as well as with comics creators. And of course, the growing prominence of conventions provided physical spaces where these fans could connect with each other and the industry. What’s interesting about this time is that, for the most part, Hollywood—excluding those working in children’s animation (e.g., Batman: The Animated Series)—didn’t really “get” comics. There were few Hollywood executives who identified as comics fans and few Hollywood creatives who moved back and forth between comics and film or TV. But a new generation of comics fans was starting to rise up the ranks of Hollywood in the late 1990s—people like former New Line executive Michael De Luca and writer/producer Joss Whedon. At the same time, visual effects were improving, making it easier to realize the visions of the books onscreen in a non-cheesy way. Plus these movies could perform well on the global market, which was becoming more and more important. And TV shows were becoming more serialized, which made them align more with the narrative structure of comic books (think Smallville as an early example). It was really the perfect confluence of events.
5. These days it’s almost impossible to separate DC and Marvel from their multimedia ventures. ‘The Suicide Squad’ film release gets a variant cover theme month. ‘Man of Steel’ (and a lot of other DC movies for that matter) had its own prequel comic series published by DC. Fox owned the film rights to Magneto for a time, so Marvel Comics changed the familial origins of the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, two characters who appeared in Marvel Studios films. What do you think, both as a result of your studies on this subject and as fans of pop culture, was the turning point for this relationship between the comics industry and Hollywood? What was the catalyst that led these companies down a symbiotic path of no return?
GS: From a fan or consumer perspective, it’s definitely true that the different divisions of Marvel or DC—say, for example, the publishing division and the television division—are difficult to separate out. We tend to think of them all as one big unified business enterprise. But one of the big take-aways from our research is that, despite Hollywood’s heavy investment in comic book companies and properties over the past couple decades, comics and film/television remain distinct industries, with their own business norms, economics, and labor practices. There’s been integration in many ways, but in a number of important respects, the two remain separate. We found, for example, that—notwithstanding the movement of a small number of comics writers into key positions on comics-based film and television projects—there was often little interaction or even communication between the comic book publishing divisions of media conglomerates and the film and television divisions. In terms of narrative, aesthetics, and even sales, the links between comics and film and television remain—with, of course, a few important exceptions—pretty minimal today. This partly explains why the release of new comics-based films and television shows rarely bring with them any bump in sales at comics stores.
6. What about creator-owned comic properties? Do you think independent companies like Dark Horse Comics and Image Comics, who publish creator-owned comics and have yet to see their respective libraries get swallowed up by Time Warner or Disney or whatever, have any say over how to promote the books they publish when an adaptation is around the corner? Or does that get left up to the creators themselves? Jeff Lemire’s and Dean Ormston’s ‘Black Hammer’ TV series is in production under the Legendary Entertainment banner—how do you suppose Dark Horse might take advantage of this extra promotion of one of its premiere titles?
GS: In our book, we try to separate out the way Image Comics works, with the creator retaining 100% of the rights to their work, from the way Dark Horse and other companies, such as BOOM! Studios, work, where the creator and publisher split the rights. We call books published under the former arrangement “creator-owned” and books published under the latter “co-owned” to better get at the different costs and incentives associated with each. And though you’re right that, for the most part, publishers using either of these models have yet to have their libraries swallowed up by big media conglomerates, there have been some noteworthy exceptions: particularly Netflix’s purchase in 2017 of Millarworld (responsible, among other things, for Kick Ass and Jupiter’s Legacy), the books of which were originally published under a creator-owned model by Image. And Robert Kirkman of Walking Dead fame has been particularly successful at creating his Image-Comics-imprint Skybound as a multimedia company.
But to your question about adaptations and promotions, in most cases—even with co-owned books—the original creator (so long as they haven’t sold their ownership stake) have a lot of say in what happens on the book side of the property. If they want to try to position a book as a means of promoting a film or TV series, that’s presumably within their power—although in most cases they’re likely to have little involvement with the film or TV production process and so wouldn’t necessarily be in the best position to adjust art or storylines in support of the adaptations. That said, just as film and TV adaptations don’t seem to have much effect on comic book sales, it’s unlikely comic books would be a particularly effective promotional medium for film and TV. Their market is just too small.
7. Your book discusses the comic creator’s function in this ongoing relationship between major studios and comic companies. I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on the independent comic book market and how a few of its highest-profile creators often aim their new comic endeavours at Hollywood as pitches-in-the-making. Do you feel that in today’s climate this is an effective way to get a comic book adapted into a television series or film?
AP: In our interviews with comics writers and artists, we regularly heard that the worst thing someone could do is create a comic with the main goal of selling it to Hollywood. That’s not to say it isn’t done, but the perspective held by many of the people that we spoke with, at least, was that comics, film, and TV are each their own medium. The stories have to be imagined to suit their respective forms. Often comics writers or artists would bristle when they were asked if they created a comic to become a movie or TV show—making clear to me that such a view implied cynicism on the part of the questioner and a view that their projects were seen as little more than storyboards rather than artistic works that could stand on their own.
That said, of course a possible Hollywood film or TV deal is on the minds of many comics creatives. How could it not be, when the money in comics is often so small relative to the potential income available through film and television? I think there is a real ambivalence by many writers and artists who identify as comics fans. They want to be true to the form but they also recognize the larger canvas (and heightened income) made possible with a Hollywood deal. The views about this topic also continue to evolve, as more opportunities for licensing comics to Hollywood emerge, and a larger number of film and TV writers try to write comics. Many new entrants into comics from Hollywood see the medium as a possible shortcut—they can re-envision original screenplays as comics that then can be sold back to Hollywood as IP with a dedicated fanbase/sales data.
I do think that right now, there are greater possibilities than ever before to license a comics property to Hollywood. There also are more people—agents, managers, lawyers—who understand the comics space in its particularities and are able to help creatives navigate Hollywood effectively. The greater potential for a Hollywood deal, notably, is mainly due to the rise of peak TV and the expansion of streaming services. There is a hunger by these services for distinctive pre-sold content, and the genres and fanbases connected with comics IP are especially desirable for companies like Netflix (The Umbrella Academy) and Amazon (The Boys).
8. There was a time when many thought that ‘Watchmen’ would never be made into a film or a television show and now both have come to pass. Television allows for more thoughtful adaptations of things like ‘Sweet Tooth’ and independent film companies can put more care in developing vital works like ‘Persepolis’, but there was a willingness from the creators to see these adaptations through. As time goes along and major studios and corporate entities attempt to gobble up and repurpose these known comic properties, do you feel like there are any boundaries left? Do you think we’ll ever see a ‘Maus’ animated film, even though there likely isn’t an artistic reason to make it?
AP: I begin to get at some of these issues in my answer to the previous question—namely, that contemporary TV, in particular, provides a real opportunity for more iconoclastic comics IP to be adapted (and adapted successfully!). In some ways, I think that what we could start to see in the indie film world in terms of comics adaptations in the 2000s—with Persepolis as one example, another that comes to mind is Ghost World (one of my favorite comics adaptations)—is now being realized more consistently with series TV now. As far as what may or may not be adapted moving forward, I think a lot of that depends on 1) if there is a producer who has a workable vision for it and can attach the “right” talent and 2) the rights holders are willing to make the deal. There are some instances, such as Saga as an especially prominent case, where the creatives have taken a stance that there will not be a movie adaptation. But otherwise, in most instances… I don’t think there are clear boundaries!
9. Alisa, I came across an article you wrote for Flow Journal back in 2008, when ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Iron Man’ were both enjoying amazing critical and financial success. Here you make a bit of commentary concerning Marvel Studios and their future endeavours:
“So far it [Marvel Studios] has been fortunate to have a mega-hit in Iron Man and a satisfactory performance with The Incredible Hulk […] however should one of its upcoming projects—which include ‘Thor’, ‘Captain America’ and ‘The Avengers’—be received poorly, the company’s future viability could be endangered. All one has to do is consider the immense failure of United Artists’ recent release, ‘Lions For Lambs’, and the subsequent troubles faced by this division of MGM in order to see how a single expensive film can play a major part in harming a company.”
When you were writing about film back in those days, how did you view the upstart Marvel Studios? Did you think that Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau might one day lead this franchise to mega-fame and uber-fortune? What might Alisa from 2008 say about the present state of the comic-to-film/tv pipeline?
AP: Wow! I don’t think I have looked at that article since I wrote this more than a decade ago (yikes). What a trip to look back at it now. This is also a perfect example of why I always tell my students never to make predictions about Hollywood. It’s a fool’s errand. Who possibly could have imagined in 2008 that Iron Man would propel Downey Jr. and Favreau to the “mega-fame and uber-fortune” that it did? It’s easy to forget now what a huge risk this project was—and that both Downey and Favreau of now were not the Downey and Favreau of 2008. Marvel initially got them, and many others, on the cheap. Obviously, Kevin Feige was important to this all coming to fruition, and the brilliant casting early on of not only Downey Jr. but also Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth (among others) made all the difference. (As a side note, it’s worth highlighting how much of the talent that has thrived with Marvel—beginning with Jon Favreau with Swingers and continuing with Scarlett Johansson with Ghost World—got their start in the indie world of the 1990s and 2000s. Yet another link between my earlier work and this more recent book project…)
Of course, it’s worth pointing to one of the key ingredients enabling this all to happen: Disney. Less than a year after I wrote this article, Disney purchased Marvel. Disney’s distribution, marketing, and licensing machinery changed the stakes altogether. These days, I enjoy speculating if—post-Endgame—Marvel can sustain its momentum with theatrical releases such as Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. No predictions on my part, though!
10. I wanted to ask both of you about your personal favorite comic book adaptations. Which have worked for you as a fan of the source material? Which of them didn’t? I’ll go ahead and assume ‘Red’ is on this list, somewhere.
GS: For me, this is an especially tough one to answer, as I’ve loved quite a number of comic book adaptations. But I’d say my favorite remains the television series Smallville. In part this was because it was the first live-action comics-based television series to look decent with regards to special effects. But, more importantly I think, it managed to capture what I felt and continue to feel (as does, judging by the current Superman books and the success of the new Superman and Lois television show) is the heart of the Superman storyline: the characters and their relationships. The trick to telling a good Superman story, it seems, is focusing on the small and mundane—and yet extraordinary—aspects of what it’s like to be a human being: feeling different and alone, losing a parent, falling in love, searching for purpose. The Clark Kent side of things. This is something, in my opinion, that Warner Bros. has gotten wrong in the films, with their focus on superhero battles and aliens and special-effect sequences. But Smallville did it right.
AP: Well, excluding Red, I would have to say the HBO iteration of Watchmen. Granted, it’s not an adaptation per se, but that’s part of what I loved about it. It captured the spirit of the book and was true to the comic’s tone and characters. But at the same time, it expanded the storyworld in exciting ways. I have to say, though, that there are so many comics adaptations in the works that I am excited about—in particular, Paper Girls (being developed for Amazon) and Ms. Marvel (forthcoming on Disney+).
‘The American Comic Book Industry and Hollywood’ is available now. Contact your local bookstore to snag a copy of your own or order one here.
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