The blockbuster movie Avengers: Infinity War, released in April 2018, made over 2 billion dollars. The Avengers comic book released that month sold only 47,000 copies. Superheroes currently dominate cinema screens, but their comic book source material is read by a niche audience: “One-half of one percent of the US population,” as Shawna Kidman informs us. This paradox of mass entertainment and niche hobby informs her study of comics’ fluid, multimedia history.
From the outset, she warns that this will not be a conventional account. Previous histories have focused more on the content of comic books – narrative, form, style, characters and cultural meaning – whereas Kidman is interested in issues of licensing, distribution, ownership and regulation. This is, she acknowledges, a “less sexy” take. She is fascinated by infrastructures yet knows that she is setting herself a challenge by confining herself to these drier industrial frameworks, rather than the rich, vivid cityscapes of masked heroes. “There can be intrigue in infrastructure too,” she promises, adding a touchingly personal parenthesis: “(Or so I hope!)” Her obvious enthusiasm for the subject goes a long way, and her original approach complements rather than replaces other studies of the comic book.
This rigorous work often yields unexpected cautionary tales, in contrast to the more celebratory received history. DC Comics’ recognition of creators in the 1970s, for instance, is revealed as entirely consistent with the industry’s baser commercial imperatives. Writers and artists gained a new social status but were still denied economic and legal rights. This focus on the author, we learn, was a surprising inheritance from the short-lived underground comics (or “commix”) of the late 1960s, which also inspired a different sales strategy: from the early 1980s, mainstream publishers began to target fans in specialist stores rather than through newsstands. It was this “direct market” approach, Kidman demonstrates, that saved the industry financially, transformed fans into a powerful, vocal and educated minority, and gave comics a greater cultural legitimacy that ultimately led to the movie licensing of the present day. The most important changes to comic books were, she argues, not due to individual influence, but the result of larger, invisible forces such as capital.
By deliberately playing down the subversive, creative, “sexy” side of comics in favour of a corporate perspective, Kidman places us, with her final chapter, in the company of studio executives, whose clichéd commercial wisdom – “when one door closes, another door will open” – has far less flair than the average comic book script. Some of these CEOs, such as former Marvel chairman Avi Arad, clearly care about the characters, but others see Batman and Superman as “unique properties” and films as products, or “iconic event projects”. Even Kidman’s passion can’t always make these deals feel dynamic, or turn the business talk about licences, leverages and cash flow into a gripping story. Yet this drier material is nevertheless important to our understanding of superheroes’ contemporary social function.
The field needs studies like this, and it needs academics like Kidman who take on the sometimes unglamorous task of exposing the frames – the structures and infrastructures – within which, and between which, the colourful figures of comics and screen so fluidly move.
Will Brooker is professor of film and cultural studies at Kingston University, London.
Comic Books Incorporated: How the Business of Comics Became the Business of Hollywood
By Shawna Kidman
University of California Press
328pp, £66.00 and £27.00
ISBN 9780520297555 and 9780520297562
Published 16 April 2019
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