I Know that Icon, Just Can Not Place The Medium


Bill Amend’s strip points out a problem with comic publishing and the superhero genre in particular. Everyone knows the character(s)/set-up, but they have not read the originals. In the case of the comic book  that also means the current   on-going series.

Older folks will say, well that is for children. This is incorrect on two counts. First point is that comic publishing have been skewing to an older demographic target audience since about the early seventies. This thanks in part to the Baby Boomer Generation.

The tail end of the BB-Gens entered teen years in the 70s and the comics followed. Marvel lucked in to this trend first when Stan Lee coped with writing his comic superheroes in a slightly more realistic manner and acknowledged  the absurdity of of the characters’ situations.  How the average superhero earn money, ride a subway, get a date or deal with a head cold became a plot element. 


Current popular songs, movies and food showed up in the Marvel Comic Universe. The shawarma scene at the end of the Avengers movie was a typical Marvel comic element.


The gritty adult oriented  fantasy, horror and mystery of DC Vertigo comics line was also an acknowledgement of changing demographics and the need to hold on to an audience that enjoyed the graphic narrative form. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series being one that moved into literary acceptance as “Graphic Novel”.

DC Comics Sandman Fantasy hg

DC Comics Sandman

This however brings up the second error in stating that  comics are for kids, like Trix.

Kids are not reading comics. The comics publishers so successfully chased after the older demographic that their product was no longer accessible to the younger demographic – this was not simply a shift in content.  The increased price of printed paper entertainment together specialty stores taking over distribution altered the buying patterns. More serialized interconnected stories were great for an audience that had the money and a comic store available.


This helped produce the scene in Amend’s comic . You have an audience that knows the characters from television (live action & cartoons), movies, video games and toys, but have never read the original source material- even if it still being published monthly.


SUPERMAN #44 – cover art JOHN ROMITA JR. and KLAUS JANSON 2015

I remember my son  commenting years ago that his fellow students would get into debates about characters like Spider-man or Batman without having read any of the comics. They “knew” the character and debated the minutiae  of events, relationships and characters, as if they had been “reading” the stories for years.

While this situation is strange, it does have forerunners within Mass Media history. Consider this, among the most recognized fictional characters worldwide the following have been in the top twenty for many decades: Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Dracula, Frankenstein (The Monster), King Arthur, Merlin, Robin Hood, Zorro, Superman, Batman. Now consider how many people have actually read the original poems, short stories and novels which introduced the the first eight characters.


Most people have acquired a knowledge of those characters through movies and television. Some earlier generations may have been exposed through radio dramas, newspaper comic strips and  comic books.


That is why so many people had a vague sense of Sherlock  being alive running around in a deerstalker in a fog bound London right up into the late 1950s. It is also why Tarzan was regarded as a dumb monosyllabic  ape-man ( get an actor of limited skills who is an Olympic swimmer – looks good in a loin cloth ) and Frankenstein  was the monster, not the doctor (easier to market Frankenstein vs. The Wolfman).

Sherlock & Poirot

It also  helps us understand why the  character of Superman evokes such a strong opinion as to a movie interpretation. Generational layers of movies and television have created a distilled version of the character, that any deviation creates hostility. An expectation of emotional tone means that presenting something different feels like a piece of very familiar music that is altered/distortwed in tempo and style.

Mass Media consumes itself. As one form of Mass Media rises it imitates the codes and conventions of  the most dominate Medium and tries to absorb its content.  Look at the transition from Oral Literature to Written forms.  The significant pieces of Oral Literature are collected in a written form and edited. This early written body often takes the form of sacred text.


Shinto Text

Shinto Text

In reality, only a small number can read and write at this cultural stage. Emphasis is still placed on oral presentation, often accompanied by music. Eventually, some of these narratives take on the form of theatre. Medieval Passion Plays and the Morality Plays see the shift as those with the ability to read & write take the content of Biblical Stories, Allegory & Parable in combination with Folktale to generate a new Medium.

Scenery for the Valenciennes Mystery Play, 1547.

We have to wonder how much of the characterization of the Biblical protagonists & antagonists came from the stage interpretation and how this would shape the Medieval audiences understanding and expectations. David against Goliath is not that different from Spider-man against the Rhino.

Presently, we are cycling through a change in Mass Media that bears a strong resemblance to the lengthy transitional stage to a printed text society. As visual media  becomes more dominant, popular culture and general knowledge  is being shared in new forms. Many members of society are relying on those forms to acquire knowledge and have developed a shared experience based on them.

As a consequence, the comic book narrative is been absorbed into these other forms. Survival of the comic book narrative depends on how effectively and cost efficiently it can move to digital text and the Graphic Novel format. It is the only way to recapture and maintain a large enough market share. Whether this will encourage the movie & television audiences to sample the product is difficult to gauge. History has shown that here are many who are satisfied with the adaptation and will not seek out the original source.

The other factor now playing into this is how valuable the continued generation of new comic book material is to the other forms of media. Converting the source material into film and television may be of such economic benefit, that companies such as Disney and Warner Brothers  will maintain some form of comic book production.


One thought on “I Know that Icon, Just Can Not Place The Medium

  1. Pingback: Advice to Poets &Time Travellers | Implied Spaces

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