Perhaps Benjamin Franklin started all of this, way back in 1754, with a single cartoon panel printed by an editorial with political connotations. However, most experts would concur that Rudolph Topffer's “Obediah Oldbuck” (1837) was not only the first comic book, but also the first graphic novel. Since then, the artistic styles that the comic medium presented, and the social issues it has juggled, have rapidly changed with oncoming generations. Soon thereafter, comics developed the superhero/supervillain tandem, and they've been running with it ever since. While comic books have had nearly two centuries to achieve their present evolutionary states; comic books that have been translated to film have a history that spans a little over a half a century. And these last 25 years have produced quite a colorful explosion of cinematic energy.
Though there are many publishers of comic books; the two corporate juggernauts that have come to seize and define the industry are DC and Marvel respectively. Marvel began as Timely Publications in 1939. Timely Publications renamed itself as Atlas Comics in the early fifties. It changed its name once again in 1961 and so became Marvel. DC started as National Allied Publications in 1934. Three years later, National Allied Publications released the groundbreaking and long running Detective Comics series; eventually using this series to introduce to its readers their future franchise quarterback: Batman. Both companies respectfully named their future publications after their first major endeavors: Marvel was named after the successful Marvel Comics series and DC after the still running Detective Comics series.
In 1961, Marvel Comics published the Fantastic Four. The Four may have been Marvel's first hit printed under its recently changed name, but Captain America preceded the Four by nearly twenty years under Timely Comic's jurisdiction. Captain America was also the first Marvel superhero to appear on the silver screen, way back in 1944. It was one of the most over budgeted moves of its era at a now meager $200,000.
At first I was adamant about giving both Marvel and DC equal scope in this article. But there are two graphic novels -both published through DC- that deserve an entire body of writing to even begin to comprehend their impact on the superhero genre. These two patriarchs of superhero literature must tip this conversation toward DC. The early history of the superhero was pivotal in shaping the identities(or secret identities)of the hero and villain; however, it a was twelve issue series by three visionary artists, and a four issue series by a creative genius from the fringe, that was to shatter any further criticism that comic books were never to be considered a piece of expressive art. Both were released through DC publications and both ran throughout 1986; though, Alan Moore and David Gibbon's “Watchmen” preceded Frank Miller's “The Dark Knight Returns” by a mere few months.
The symbol laden “Watchmen” imbued the storytelling of comic books with an artistic integrity that helped bestow a newfound courage for artists to explore powerful social issues within the comic matrix. Watchmen even made Time magazine's All Time Greatest Novels List. This prestigeous list is for all novels, not just graphic ones. The “Watchmen” was a big step for comic kind and there were several thwarted attempts to translate the Watchmen to film. Zack Snyder finally nailed it in 2009. Snyder also directed Frank Miller's 300 and the upcoming Man of Steel in 2013. The Man of Steel will be produced by Christopher Nolan. Nolan directed the latest Batman trilogy. The tangled web that superhero artistry weaves...
Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns is considered by many in the comic book industry to be the undisputed champion of superhero storytelling. It has maintained an immeasurable influence on the generations of artists that proceed this seminal work. The Dark Knight Returns granted a psychological edge and depth to Batman, who in the 80's, was in serious need of a makeover. It could even be argued that Miller saved the Batman from franchise doom. Staying true to the Kane formula, Miller's twisted menagerie of villains stole the show. Miller dared to tweak the Bruce Wayne character into a brooding mess of mental issues. It was an exhilarating success. It invigorated comic books, and would raise the bar for the artists that were to follow it. Miller was a major influence on Tim Burton's vision of Batman in the late eighties and the early nineties. Trust me, he said so. The eighties was a precarious time for superhero cinema. It was a make or break moment for the major studio productions of films based on comic books. The last smash superhero hit in the box office at the time was Richard Donner's Superman in the late 70's. Donner's take on Superman was campy and his leading man, Christopher Reeves, pulled off the square jawed sensibility of the Golden and Silver Age Superman. But Superman's sequels were not doing so well financially, nor critically. Burton changed all of that and definitely made headway with studio suits for Nolan's future Batman films.
These two publication behemoths of the comic business were not able to overshadow all their competitors. Image comics had a good run in the nineties with its token antihero Spawn. The success of the film version of Spawn was the first of many that were to ride off the dark interest that Tim Burton had helped cultivate a years earlier with his two Batman films. This grim cinematic movement produced mega hits like the Blade trilogy and culminated with Robert Rodriguez's stylish film adaptation of Frank Miller's(yeah I know, this guy is everywhere in comics)”Sin City”. “Sin City” blew the lid off of the conventions that were beginning to bind superhero movies in the nineties. Alan Moore's “V for Vendetta” was another honorable mention from this era.
Superheroes are so ingrained into pop culture, it would be impossible to separate one from the other. The revenue they generate is as outrageous as the villains they ink. The marketing of comic related merchandise shows no sign of losing its profitability. Comic books are going to definitely be here a while. And with all the buzz about their box office performances circulating Hollywood, it is game over for all you comic haters. So, where will the evolutionary journey of the superhero lead theater audiences now? We've been through the Gold and Silver Age, and the reinvention of the graphic novel onto theater screens. What's next? Well, if we follow the path that actual comic books traversed, we'd be pretty close to the point on their time line when manga artwork exploded on the scene as their major influence. Anyone see Sony's “The Amazing Spider-Man” this summer?