Comic Book Movies are good business, but will comic books survive their new popularity?

According to Young -- author of the comic book "Astronauts in Trouble" and the comics industry column "True Facts" -- it all started in the mid-'70s...
Larry Young says he knows the exact moment when comic books launched their takeover of the multiplex.

It wasn't in 2000, when "X-Men" brought a touch of character-driven smarts to the superhero movie. And it wasn't when "Spider-Man" added tragedy and teen angst to the formula two years later, smashing box-office records in the process.

According to Young -- author of the comic book "Astronauts in Trouble" and the comics industry column "True Facts" -- it all started in the mid-'70s, shortly after the first great comic-book pastiche, "Star Wars," burned itself onto impressionable retinas worldwide.

"All the geeks who grew up on 'Logan's Run' and 'Star Wars' and 'Close Encounters,' who got movie cameras for their 16th birthdays instead of keys to the family station wagon, have grown up to offer their particularly skewed visions of entertainment," Young says in an e-mail. "The punks who hung out at pinball arcades 20 years ago are now driving the video-game aesthetic into the entertainment narrative.

"The lunatics," he adds, "are in charge of the asylum!"

Those lunatics are raking in boffo box office. We've become a nation of comic-book geeks (and these days, the word's a point of pride among comic-book and movie fans, signifying an unapologetic passion instead of an unhealthy obsession), whether we know it or not.

It's not just our collective obsession with superhero movies -- evidenced by "Spider-Man" ($404 million domestic box office), "Daredevil" ($102 million) and the "X-Men" franchise (combined $358 million and counting). Hollywood is also adapting "graphic novels" into prestige Hollywood dramas ("Road to Perdition"), period mysteries ("From Hell") and art-house fare ("Ghost World," "American Splendor"). And high art is embracing low pulp this very weekend, as "Ice Storm" director Ang Lee's re-imagining of "The Hulk" brings a peculiar mix of art-house repression and tank-tossing luridness into movie houses.

Even movies that aren't adapted from funny books -- the "Matrix" series comes to mind -- deal in heroic deeds and those great poses invented by comic legend Steve Ditko. (Which isn't really all that surprising: "Matrix" creators Larry and Andy Wachowski got their start writing comics, after all, and they employed comic-book cult figure Geoff Darrow to help design the "Matrix" universe.)

Young's remarks suggest a sort of "Unified Geek Theory." Even though geeks come in many shapes and sizes, each occupying an obsessive niche -- video-game geeks, role-playing geeks, kung fu geeks, anime geeks -- all those obsessions connect somehow to the most primal geekdom of all: the comic book. There's a little bit of comic book in all forms of geek cinema; sequential panels make up the code by which one can decode a national obsession. Geeks ascendant Young says the comic-book influence is dramatically altering what's on the menu at your local multiplex. These days, he writes, "There are no ruminations on lost love; no treatises on missed opportunities; even a silly teen comedy is a rare thing in mainstream blockbuster cinema today."

A recent issue of the trade magazine In Focus listed no fewer than 42 comic-book movies in varying stages of development -- everything from another "Batman" film (to be directed by "Memento's" Christopher Nolan) to the more obscure "Black Panther." And that list didn't include the just-announced "Man-Thing" or "Preacher" or "Death: The High Cost of Living" or, heaven help us, "Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu," to be directed by "Matrix" choreographer Woo-ping Yuen. Even the voice of Miss Piggy, Frank Oz, is getting in on the act, negotiating to direct a film version of the Image comic "Powers," written by Portlander Brian Michael Bendis.

Scott Allie, an editor and writer at Milwaukie's Dark Horse Comics, remembers reading last year "some article by a sleepwalking journalist criticizing popcorn movies vs. serious films like 'Road to Perdition,' and they referred to the popcorn movies as being like comic books -- even though the film they were criticizing, 'Charlie's Angels' or something, wasn't based on a comic, and their cinematic ideal, 'Road to Perdition,' of course was."

It's worth noting here that Dark Horse has done its part to contribute to the high and low ends of the comics-to-film spectrum -- "The Mask" and "Dr. Giggles" occupy proud or notorious positions in the pantheon. Right now, art-splatter director Guillermo del Toro ("Chronos," "The Devil's Backbone," Marvel Studios' "Blade II") is in Prague filming an adaptation of one of Dark Horse's most respected titles, the horror/action hybrid "Hellboy" -- the story of a demon summoned by Nazis and intercepted by American GIs who grows up to become a "paranormal investigator."

But how did a movie that imagines the bastard son of Satan as a two-fisted action hero ever get a green light?

Several factors conspired to create today's comics-to-film glut. First, special effects caught up with the comic-book aesthetic, allowing for more seamless flights of fancy. Then, starting with "Blade," Marvel Comics adaptations starting raking in cash -- even as the Internet allowed fans to present a united front behind such geek-film sites as Ain't It Cool News (which achieved infamy by publishing the toxic advance-screening reports for "Batman and Robin").

Also, comic books themselves got better. "It's nice to see Marvel putting out decent books again," says Peter Fagnant, owner of Excalibur Books & Comics on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. "Five or 10 years ago, it was a real stark time for good writing." That would be the 1990s, when comics became overpriced, overpackaged "collectibles" and more time was spent foil-wrapping the covers than writing compelling narratives.

But then -- around the time "X-Men" went into production and after Marvel survived a traumatic 1996 bankruptcy -- the company "made a very concerted effort to upgrade," says Excalibur employee Shawn Brooks. Even as respected filmmakers such as Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, del Toro and Ang Lee lined up to film Marvel characters, acclaimed writers and artists stepped up to the Bristol board to extend the comic book art. Marvel's smartest move may have been recruiting Bendis, a writer of indie crime comics. Bendis re-vamped "Daredevil" to great effect starting four years ago and followed with his blockbuster re-imagining of the Wall-Crawler in "Ultimate Spider-Man."
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