Comic book adaptations and viewer fatigue

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Recently, when flicking through the planner on my Sky box, I noted how among the extensive backlog of recordings I still had to watch were several comic related programmes – The Flash, Arrow, Gotham and The Walking Dead. When I realised that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned next week I was surprised to find that my reaction wasn’t excitement but rather a feeling of resignation that here was another programme to add to the list, another recording to linger on the Sky box until I had the time or inclination to watch it. Such a reaction made me feel somewhat ungrateful, being almost a betrayal of the teenage Gary who would have sawn his own arm off for the chance to see his comic heroes on TV on a regular basis. But it did make me think, exactly when did comic book adaptations become so ubiquitous that I can now almost take them for granted?

Of course it’s not just on TV that comic book fans have an embarrassment of riches, even though such shows achieve varying levels of success. Where once comic related movies consisted of the Batman and Superman franchises and a host of flops (Howard the Duck, Judge Dredd and Barbed Wire to name but a few), now superhero movies are the toast of Hollywood, viewed as box office gold and released on a regular basis. In the space of less than two decades we have moved from Marvel fans being absurdly grateful for terrible TV movies (Generation X, what might have been…) to fans being treated to at least three Marvel movies in any given year, each one adding to the cohesiveness and mythology of the movie universe. With DC finally looking like getting their act together in regards to their own movie properties it will be interesting to see whether the success of superhero movies will continue, or whether audiences will grow tired of this constant deluge of new material.

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I recall my excitement when X-Men and Spider-Man were released while I was at University, and I religiously watched every subsequent Marvel release. While not all films were of similar quality I always watched these films with a slight air of disbelief that my favourite characters had not only become the stars of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters but were also being enjoyed by millions of non-comic readers. After years of having to explain the most basic comic facts it was a strange adjustment to have so many people gain at least a passing familiarity with these characters. Yet when I think about it I realise that I have also fallen behind with my movie watching, with The Avengers being the last comic book film I saw at the pictures. Since then Iron Man 3, Captain America 2, Thor 2, Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Guardians of the Galaxy have all been released – the majority of them to good reviews – and all have passed me by. Indeed, I haven’t even watched these films on DVD.

How to explain this? Is it a question of free time and the demands of a full-time job and a young family? Possibly, but plenty of other people still manage to fit this in. Is it a question of finance and prioritising disposable income? Again, possible, but the amount of tat that I manage to accumulate suggests that I could see some of these films if I wanted to. Which leaves us with motivation and I think there are a couple of points that tie into this.

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Firstly, like many comic book fans I have the combination of a collector’s mentality and a love of continuity. I love following the adventures of my favourite characters across titles and teams, and tracing the development of their lives, loves, successes and failures. This naturally demands a certain investment and was one reason why I stopped buying the Ultimate titles after collecting them for the first three years of their existence. While there were some enjoyable stories I found it hard to see the protagonists as characters in their own right rather than inferior copies of their Marvel Universe counterparts. As I rationalised it at the time, dropping Ultimate Spider-Man would allow me to buy a further title featuring the ‘real’ Spider-Man that I already had such investment in.

Applied to the TV and movie version of these characters, I wonder if similar considerations apply. While these versions can deviate from their printed counterparts in new and interesting ways I’ve never quite formed an attachment to them in the way that I would have liked, never quite been able to enjoy them on their own merits. Where I have been most successful in this regard is with shows like The Flash and Arrow where I know bits and pieces of the characters’ comic history but not enough to drastically influence my preconceptions of the shows.

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Perhaps, also, the very popularity that these characters are now experiencing is a double-edged sword. In the last ten years it has been a big adjustment for me as two of my great loves – Doctor Who and Marvel comics – have moved from being a specialist interest to being part of the mainstream. I began watching Doctor Who in 1988, the 25th anniversary season. By the end of the following year the programme had vanished from Britain’s TV screens and to be a self-proclaimed fan was hardly a passport to social acceptance. I recall one class trip in 1990, to a book festival that was being held in Stirling. One of the speakers was Terrance Dicks, author of scores of Doctor Who novelisations, and I was giddy at the prospect of meeting him. He gave a brief talk to my class and then asked us some generic questions about Doctor Who. Each time he was rewarded with a sea of blank faces and my hand extended in the air, waving furiously. “There’s always one,” I recall him muttering.  

That set the pattern for the next 15+ years. Aside from a few anniversaries marked with sporadic features and repeats, Doctor Who retreated from the mainstream and was kept alive by the fans. It flourished in books, in audio adventures and in other forms of media, but the outside world took little notice. While I longed for a new TV series I also enjoyed the sense of having something that seemed to belong to ‘me’, something that was almost like a pleasurable secret kept from the outside world. Of course, this all changed when the series came back in 2005 and reached new heights of success. I wouldn’t trade the past decade for anything and it’s been a fantastic experience getting to experience so many new stories. It has, however, been a bit of an adjustment to find my interest transformed from the province of a privileged few to something that commands attention across the globe. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, but there’s a certain adjustment required in re-evaluating where you fit in within this new context. For Doctor Who¸ you could equally substitute Marvel comics as the movies have enjoyed ever greater success.

After examining the issue, am I any closer to working out the reasons behind my diminishing interest in comic book adaptations? Not really, but perhaps I’m overthinking it. Perhaps the reason I’m not more enthused is that many of the adaptations just aren’t that good. Or perhaps it’s simply that I’m increasingly inclined to seek out entertainment away from the comics’ field. Now that is a scary thought on which to finish.

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