Movie poster filled with superheroes and the word Avengers

This year, Marvel Studios marks the 10th anniversary of the release of its first movie, Iron Man, and it does so with a movie that would have seemed like a crazy dream back then: Avengers: Infinity War, in which too many heroes to list fight a big guy with a giant purple chin and bejeweled golden glove and actually make it seem not totally ridiculous. Filmmaking has come so far that one of the biggest, gaudiest comic events of the early 90s can be adapted for the screen into a massive, critically-acclaimed blockbuster.

Superhero comics aren’t selling at nearly the numbers they were when the first Infinity Gauntlet crossover was published in 1991. According to industry tracking site Comichron, 2017’s top-selling issue, Marvel Legacy #1, sold just over 300,000 copies. Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly reported Infinity War made $39 million on Thursday night preview showings alone. Though the comics publishing side of things is far less expensive, thanks in part to the pitiful amounts it pays contract creators, it’s dwarfed in every way by the movie studio it’s spawned. Apart from a few inspired books like Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl, Marvel Comics has become an intellectual property farm team for other, more lucrative media.

So maybe it’s time to leave the superheroes to the movies and start looking at comic books as a medium rather than a genre.

For most of the life of the mainstream comics industry, it’s been defined by superheroes. It was the best way to tell those kinds of stories. Superhumans and supervillains and monsters and aliens and all their explosive, reality-bending trappings could be drawn far more easily than they could be done through the special effects of any era until recently. Animation could tell those stories too, but in America it was dismissed as children’s entertainment, and by the 70s superhero creators were past telling stories for children. With a few exceptions like Wonder Woman and the Incredible Hulk, live action couldn’t keep up, and even those exceptions couldn’t capture the bombastic stories in their respective comics.

In the late 70s and 80s, anime was dominated by science fiction. But as special effects evolved to create bigger and more imaginative worlds for live action productions, science fiction has become just a tiny sliver of a medium full of slice-of-life dramas and fantasy and, okay, too many stories about people stuck in MMORPGs. It branched out.

The comic book industry needs to do that too. Some of them get that. Image Comics, once the poster child for over-the-top superhero nonsense, now focuses more on drama, horror, and sci-fi. IDW has a line-up that’s equal parts surprisingly good licensed comics and creator-owned work. Smaller publishers know it’s time to move on from the heroes.

Comic books have become synonymous with superheroes, but they don’t need to be. There are millions of potential readers out there, people who read webcomics, who watch animated shows, but who wouldn’t dream of going into a comic book shop because they assume it’s all gatekeeping superhero fans waiting to quiz them on Black Costume Spider-Man. But superheros don’t need comic books anymore, and mainstream comics needs to let them go.

 

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