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Comics come of age

Comic books have gotten smarter and Hollywood is taking notice

Published: Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Updated: Monday, January 18, 2010 09:01

Ron Pearlman in “Hellboy”

Garth Ennis´s “Preacher”

Keanu Reeves in “Constantine”

A quick look at the pop media landscape in the last few years makes it clear: comic books, once considered a cheap and vacant children’s distraction, are no longer just kid’s stuff. From television and film to the New York Times’ bestseller list, comic books and comic writers finally seem to be making it into the spotlight.

There have always been the odd few breakout stars – icons Superman and Batman making hit movies throughout the 80’s and 90’s. But with the recent success of Marvel Comics’ “Spider Man” and “X-Men” franchises (both of which took more than 30 years to make it to the big screen) more obscure and adult comic fare is going mainstream.

Many comics aimed at an adult, even a heavily intellectual, audience have made the leap from panel to big screen in the last year. In Alan Moore’s “The League of Extraordinaty Gentlemen,” classic characters from Victorian-era fiction teamed up to save the world. “Road to Perdition” was a complex family story about sin and redemption that boasted stars Paul Newman, Tom Hanks and Jude Law. “American Splendor,” winner of the Grand Jury prize at Sundance last year, lays bare the joys and heartbreaks of everyday life as they were actually lived and illustrated by comic writer Harvey Pekar.

In April alone Dark Horse Comics’ “Hellboy” and Marvel’s “The Punisher” – both dark, graphically violent comics that have raised protests from conservative groups – will come to a multiplex near you. Even now several books from DC Comics’ adult imprint, Vertigo, are in pre-production. Among these are “Constantine,” the story of a drunken, profane occult detective played, strangely enough, by Keanu Reeves. Also on the way, a film version of Vertigo’s hit comic “Preacher,” about a Texas minister who has graphic sex, pals around with an Irish vampire and challenges God to explain why he’s done such a poor job for humanity.

Not your father’s comic books.

That’s what seems to be at the root of comics’ break into the mainstream. While the industry’s still dominated by superhero comics, more publishers are giving their writers license to explore adult themes, using graphic violence, sex and language to tell their stories.

One of the very real reasons for this sudden shift is that DC’s Vertigo imprint – a pioneer in mature-readers’ titles – just celebrated its ten year anniversary. Throughout the 90s Vertigo revamped strange, old comic book characters like “The Sandman” and “Swamp Thing” and also presented original science fiction, horror and fantasy comics – all aimed at adults. A rogues gallery of comic talent from the UK has always been the muscle behind Vertigo – Alan Moore (“Watchmen,” “Swamp Thing”), Grant Morrison (“Doom Patrol,” “The Invisibles,” “The Filth”), Jamie Delano (“Hellblazer,” “Outlaw Nation”) and Warren Ellis (“Transmetropolitan,” “Global Frequency”).

“I think that I’ve done my best work for Vertigo,” said writer Brian K. Vaughan in a recent interview. Vaughan is the creator of Vertigo’s “Y: The Last Man,” a sci-fi title about the only man to survive a plague that kills every other male life form on earth.

“I grew up reading Vertigo comics when I was like 16,” said Vaughan. “They just celebrated 10 years and I was reading [Neil Gaiman’s] “The Sandman” before that. Whereas Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore grew up on great DC Comics, I think I’m part of the first generation that grew up with their more sophisticated work.”

This new generation, many of whom cut their teeth on Vertigo books, come at comic writing from a different angle, never assuming their writing is for kids. Strangely, it’s paid off. When film and television producers look to comics for material now it’s no longer a matter of how to sell childhood concepts to adults, but often how to sand down the sharp edges of darker, more mature comics titles for a mass audience.

Marvel Comics, who have been trailing DC for years in the adult market, have spent the last two years playing catch-up, hiring some of Vertigo’s most popular creators to revamp their titles – many of which are 20 or 30 years old: Grant Morrison, the Scottish comics writer whose work has been compared to William S. Burroughs and Kurt Vonnegut, successfully revived the X-Men title – taking on sex and politics in a book that had degenerated into far-out science fiction for fans only. Garth Ennis, creator of Preacher, brought back the cancelled “Punisher” title with a racy, violent and darkly humorous spin – priming the character for a film version featuring John Travolta. Warren Ellis, whos DC espionage comic “Global Frequency” has been optioned for television by the WB, will take over Marvel’s “Ultimate Fantastic Four” this summer.

So, in a strange cycle comics are thriving in mainstream media by becoming more adult-oriented even as the writers responsible for that change are hired to give old-fashioned superheroes a new edge. As comics movies and TV shows prove big earners for Hollywood we can be sure producers will come back to the well again and again. For now, at least, that well seems deep, dark and plentiful.

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