NEW YORK – From last year's X-Men to today's Josie and the Pussycats to the upcoming Spider-Man, Hollywood appears to be under siege from former comic book characters come to life on the big screen.
"There's definitely a trend right now," Joe Quesada, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics said about the comic Renaissance. "The mainstream is becoming more aware of us again."
Besides the X-Men and Spider-Man, Marvel heroes to be made into live-action movies include the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, a second Blade movie, and possibly Ghost Rider.
Other comic houses can't complain either – the Internet Movie Database is already offering a trailer for Todd McFarlane's Spawn 2, and, DC Comics is looking to reinvigorate the Dark Knight with Batman: Year One. And despite the disappointing box office figures for Josie, there has been discussion about making an Archie or Betty & Veronica movie, according to Archie Comics publisher Michael Silberkleit.
But Hollywood's interest in comics is less surprising than, say, who wins out when Superman and Lex Luthor match wits, cultural historians say.
"First off, Hollywood and mass culture in general are desperate for culture," said Robert Thompson, a professor of film and television at Syracuse University. "Secondly, we've got a real kind of explosion in the appreciation of comic art from The Simpsons to Art Spiegelman's Maus. Comic books and Hollywood are a match made in heaven: Comic books are a simple story told with pictures; Hollywood movies are a simple story told with pictures."
Although there has been a recent flux in comic book films, the trend is not entirely new. Hollywood has been mining the funny pages since nearly the beginning of both media, from the The Katzenjammer Kids (1898) and Buster Brown (1904), to the Terry and the Pirates (1940) and the Blondie movies (1938 to 1950), to the reinvented Superman (1978) and Batman (1989).
"There's been a love affair between comics and films throughout history," said M. Thomas Inge, Blackwell history professor at Randolph-Macon College and author of Comics as Culture. "It's been sort of going on for a while but not attracting attention until last year, when the X-Men happened and suddenly people are looking at it."
Not only do successful comic books provide a recognizable brand name, the comic-story form is ideal for that other favorite Hollywood word: "sequel."
"They keep going and going and going," Thompson said. "If you get a hit, it's already serialized for you, designed for multiple episodes."
With subscriptions to comics declining, movie rights have become a primary source of income for comic book makers, Inge noted.
Indeed, Quesada said the X-Men movie was a start for Marvel Comics, showing the New York-based company it was time to shake up the hoary comic format.
"For the longest time the X-Men became this gigantic beast where a casual fan couldn't open up an X-Men book and start reading because you really needed this road map of the Marvel universe," he said. "We were so insular an industry that we didn't see that this was why fans were running. And then the movie came out and people were like 'Oh yeah, this is who the X-Men were.' It caused us to completely reinvigorate the X-Men line."
In September, Quesada said Marvel will unveil a new line of comics that the company hopes will provide another source for Marvel movies. And the company is no longer hobbled by the movie-rights deals on many popular Marvel characters that led to such celluloid travesties as the 1989 flop The Punisher, starring Dolph Lundgren, or the straight-to-video Fantastic Four.
"The Fantastic Four movie was truly dreadful," Quesada moaned.
But it's not all about superpowers. At Archie Comics, Michael Silberkleit sees the future of the wholesome Riverdale clan in a television series such as the successful Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Never mind that there's no such thing as a bad guy in the world of Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica.
"Our characters are poised to become role models for this country," he said. "People say Archie is square, but we say it's good to be square."
But, like Hollywood's previous infatuation with Henry James and the Bronte sisters, many sources noted that Tinseltown's comic-book infatuation will also eventually fade.
"It'll happen just like we first had the big-budget movies based on old television shows and then will be scraping the bottom of the barrel with a Charles in Charge movie," Thompson said. "When we see Cathy: The Motion Picture, we know we're in trouble."