I've just spent the better part of a week in the trenches. I've now seen the other side up close and personal. I've just spent five days in a row with my nephews, and I've seen firsthand these new fans that Marvel and DC are fighting for and what they are fighting against.
Melodrama aside, the next generation of comic book fans is perpetually a hot topic. Every new cartoon, every film, every relaunch and reboot from Marvel and DC always mentions accessibility and new readers. Rightfully so, as the core group of comic book readers slowly becomes distracted by things like "careers" and "kids" and "really artistic dramas on AMC." Where are these new readers?
My nephews are eleven and seven years old. Both of them live in a post-"X-Men" film world. They have never seen a Batman film that was not helmed by Christopher Nolan. Their television intake includes hundreds of episodes of dozens of comic book-based cartoons. There are video games, toys, Hulk hands and storybooks. Their generation will never know a time when comic books were niche and liking them was punishable in middle school hallways. The efforts of the Big Two, specifically Marvel, are paying off well, even if it's not in the ways that the old guard intended.
While sequestered in a beach house with them, I became incredibly familiar with the depths of their fandom. They both know that I am a comic book fan; the oldest one remembers the wall of X-Men action figures on display in my old living room that he could not touch. This means that I became the authority on all of their "who would win in a fight" questions (rest assured, I know Batman always wins). They watched numerous episodes of "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" on my iPad, reciting plot points and character names as they unfolded. They identified Annihilus and Ronan the Accuser on sight. The older nephew told me that his favorite character was Black Panther, a character who has yet to appear in a major motion picture or have a best-selling comic book. Both of my nephews love Deadpool, who I assume they know from the "Hulk vs. Wolverine" straight-to-DVD film. They are both obsessed with "Captain America: Super-Soldier" for the Xbox and both said "Baron Strucker" aloud more times while playing than I ever have in my entire life. As they were slinging a shield at Strucker's deadly Satan Claw, I realized that both of my nephews possessed a wider spectrum of Marvel Comics knowledge than I did upon high school graduation. And they learned all of them without much help from the comics.
Kids are becoming comic book fans from video games, motion pictures and animation, not from comic books. Of course the people behind these mass media adaptations want them to succeed. They want the movies to be blockbusters and kids to go crazy over the cartoons. But the attitude from longtime comic book fans seems to be that the cartoons and movies can only really be successful if those new fans start reading the comics. My kneejerk reaction to the success of "Marvel's The Avengers" was slathered in that belief-sauce; I immediately thought that the movie's success would translate into comic book sales. It very well may have, but I now see the inherent "who cares" in my point of view. Even if a grand total of zero people picked up an Avengers comic after seeing the film, would that take away from the fact that it's the most successful movie of all time, ignoring James Cameron? If no one picked up an Iron Man comic book after fawning over Robert Downey Jr., would that change the fact that Iron Man has somehow become as recognizable as Batman? To my nephews, "comic books" are a genre and not a medium, but they still know who Baron Strucker and Ronan the Accuser are.
I say none of this to knock comics. I love them, incredi-duh, but I think that moving forward they should not be the end game. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that. Comics were a necessary part of the fan equation when I first discovered the X-Men in 1992. That cartoon only came on once a week. There weren't that many action figures and the tiger stripe Wolverine figure was crazy rare. If I needed an X-Men fix during the week, my mother could either track down the comics at a grocery store or put me in suspended animation until Saturday morning at 10 AM. My nephews, though, can have these characters anytime they want. The seven year old powered up the Xbox and became a Super-Soldier. Yes, comics are great, and yes, I could argue for days about how they are the purest, most rewarding method of ingesting these characters, but man, they have some stiff competition.
This "anytime they want" schedule applies to comics as well, which shows that comics are putting up a fight. The older nephew has an iPod touch and the Marvel Comics app, with which he has downloaded every single free comic book Marvel has offered. He showed me his collection proudly and then started reading a "Fear Itself" digital tie-in starring Crossbones. Crossbones. As a kid who grew up with the X-Men, who my generation treated the way a previous generation treated the Beatles, it surprised me that my nephew would read a comic book starring a B-level (being really generous there) villain participating in a crossover he has no wider grasp of, all because it's a Marvel comic book. Marvel has become a brand he trusts.
Even more telling was when he went through my iPad's comic library. He flipped through "Deadpool" #11 and issues from Jeff Parker's "Hulk" run. He didn't ask for a recap, he didn't care about reading them in any order, he just wanted to read cool comics. He gasped when he saw issues of "Avengers vs. X-Men" and excitedly read through them. He came across a page depicting a squad of Avengers in Phoenix-proof armor descending upon the X-Men. He let out a, "Whoah, cool!" before exclaiming that they had been "upgraded." He was blown away by a cool image in a cool comic, an image that I'm pretty sure was met with eyerolls from jaded fans. His reaction was just like the one I had when ten-year-old me saw Wolverine get his adamantium skeleton ripped out, which was part of an X-era I hold dear that older fans loathe.
But my nephew deemed a moment in "AvX," one that he had shoddy context for, as Really Cool. He probably won't finish "AvX" until it comes out in a hardcover (because that will be his Christmas gift this year, spoiler alert!) and he had no real pressing desire to find out what happens. He had a video game and a cartoon to get back to. The truth is, he may never be as enamored with Marvel Comics as he is with the rest of Marvel's multimedia empire, and is that so wrong? I now have dear friends of mine who are downright obsessed with "Marvel Studios' The Avengers." Obsessed. They have never read an Avengers comic in their life, but they are die-hard fans of Loki, Iron Man and the rest.
They watch the Marvel films repeatedly and actively participate in long-winded discussions dissecting the nuances of every character's arc. But they don't read the comics. They might never read the comics.
Does that make them any less of a fan than I am? No, it really doesn't.
I call myself a die-hard "Star Wars" fan. I love the original trilogy -- and that's it. I don't like the prequels, I don't watch "Clone Wars," I haven't read a Star Wars novel since the 6th grade and I have only read a small portion of the comic books. But yet I consider myself a "Star Wars" freak. I can pick Salacious Crumb out of a lineup, but my knowledge of Anakin Solo comes strictly from Wikipedia entries. If I consider myself a real "Star Wars" fan and I only engage in a tiny portion of that universe's output, then I have to consider my nephews and friends real superhero fans.
And I do see that there's a difference; I am a fan of the original "Star Wars" source material and my friends are fans of a derivation of Marvel Comics. Old me would flail his arms around violently, exclaiming, "You gotta read the comics! That's the source material! Help, I'm hurting myself!" But new me realizes that there's a big difference between six hours of film and upwards of 14,000 pages of comic books. One is manageable and the other is terrifying.
I now understand, in 2012, it is entirely possible to be a comic book fanatic without actually reading comic books. This is a scary thought to the old guard, who worry about sales and the future of print comics (I am with you, old guard). But truthfully, it's about time that comics stopped waiting for people to come to them and started being proactive. That's what these movies and television shows are doing. They are going out into the world and reaching people who, for reasons good or oh-come-on, have never and will never touch a comic book. Marvel's characters are getting into the public consciousness and that can only lead to a healthy future of the genre. And really, when these adaptations are as good as "Marvel's The Avengers" and "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes," it's hard to argue that they are any less valid than the comics they're based on. The superheroes they love aren't comic book characters, they are cultural icons who appear regularly in nearly every medium imaginable. They're bigger than comic books. My nephews may never have a comic collection of apartment-devouring proportions. That's fine because they get their superhero fix in other ways, so much so that they know who Iron Fist is. The next generation is doing just fine.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre show Left Handed Radio: The Sequel Machine. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).