In the past decade, comic book films have gone from a possibly fleeting trend to an indelible and enduring part of the Hollywood landscape. And it's not just superhero films that are making an impact, as "Road to Perdition" and "Ghost World" have left their mark on pop culture. Comic books have also expanded out from the world of film, as almost every major television network either has adaptations on their schedule or are looking to publications to fill out their prime time lineup.
At Comic Con International in San Diego, a group of experts gathered to discuss the cultural impact of comics on film and how mainstream acceptance has changed the way the medium is produced. The panel also attempted to look into the future and see where comic books and comic book media could be going as the bond between comics and film becomes even deeper. On the panel, moderated by the deputy culture editor for BBC online Christian Blauvelt, were Marvel Comics' editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, "Fanboys" director Kyle Newman, "Batman: The Animated Series" writer/producer and Harley Quinn co-creator Paul Dini and Ashley Eckstein, who voices Ahsoka Tano on "Star Wars: The Clone Wars."
"First Hollywood and then the world," said Blauvelt, kicking off the discussion. "The past decade, we witnessed a pop culture revolution. Comics have gone from marginal to mainstream."
The first question Blauvelt posed to the esteemed panel asked if there is a larger psychological need for superheroes more now than ever before. "I think," Eckstein responded. "With social media taking over as it has and the fact we get news so quickly, a lot of it all is scary. 'Star Wars' is a story of hope. With everything going on in the world, we need stories of hope. I turn on the news and see these really bad stories, and I want to hear something good."
Alonso followed that line of thought. "The world is a very complicated place right now," he said. "There are sources of conflict and pain, many of which you can't punch. There are so many shades of grey in the world; I think people just want the kind of morality superhero stories provide -- to see good triumph over evil, to see role models."
Blauvelt delved into the history of each panelist and asked what their first exposure to comic book storytelling was. "For me, it was 'Star Wars' actually," answered Eckstein. "The first thing I remember is C-3P0 and R2-D2 on Tatooine. That was my first experience with this culture. But I'm not ashamed to admit my first comic was 'The New Kids on the Block.'"
After the laughter of that revelation died down Alonso said, "My grandma used to pick me up and I was a pain in the ass so she brought me comic books. This is where I discovered characters like Luke Cage and Iron Fist."
"I remember my dad telling me bedtime stories of the original Captain Marvel," said Dini. "It was a character I never saw before, but my dad brought it to life. There were no Captain Marvel comics at the time, but he brought this world to life so I started reading 'Captain America' and the like."
"'Star Wars' was the gateway," said Newman. "I remember reading the Marvel comics and then they did 'Indiana Jones' -- those are the comics I remember. My friend had 'Wolverine' comics and I was like 'What the what is this?'"
Blauvelt pointed out the old perception of comics, noting that legendary creator Stan Lee changed his name because comics were thought of as a low art form. Blauvelt asked the panelists if any of them hid their fandom back in the days when comics were a stigma.
"I gave comics up for sports and girls," Alonso said. "When I was nineteen years old, I found some ripped up copies of Alan Moore's 'Swamp Thing' and it was genius and literary and that brought me back in."
"Comic strips were always a huge part of my life," Dini proclaimed. "We used to subscribe to three papers so I got to see everything. I never encountered any moment in school about that because I went to a boarding school. When we got comics, they were prized because they were new things to read. It didn't matter if it was 'Playboy' or 'Iron Man.'"
Blauvelt turned the line of question to Eckstein and addressed the changing face of nerd culture in the modern world by asking the voice actress about when she first realized that "geek" means "cool." "I was always a different kid -- in school, I refused to wear a dress, so in pictures, I dressed as the Karate Kid," said Eckstein. "I've always been geeky and nerdy. I never realized it wasn't cool. I did see my friends put it down; they never put me down so I stood up for what I liked."
Since being a major player on "The Clone Wars" and "Star Wars: Rebels," Eckstein has founded the female targeted geek clothing shop Her Universe. Being a geek entrepreneur changed Eckstein's perspective on geek culture. "When I started Her Universe, I knew I was a girl that liked 'Star Wars' and I saw other girls, but I didn't realize that half of all sci-fi and fantasy fans are women," she said. "As I was doing research, I found stories of other women and found they were bullied. They pretended to be men online so they could take part in conversations. That's when it struck me that this is not okay. It is cool to like these properties and be a geek and a nerd -- and it's ok for a girl to step into the spotlight and say they like these things."
As a follower of pop culture for many years, Newman has seen many changes since he made "Fanboys," a film set in 1999 before the release of "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace." In response to these changes, Newman said, "It has not just grown, it has exploded. In 1999, it was just Marvel and DC and a few shows like 'Star Trek.' There was nothing that big. Now, you have superheroes, Harry Potter, 'Hunger Games' and 'Lord of the Rings.' So, it's everywhere. Everywhere you look, they are talking about Comic-Con. Everyone wants to be accepted into the comic book thing -- they even fake it."
"Eight years ago, people didn't know what this stuff was," Alonso added. "Eight years ago, people said 'Why is Marvel Studios doing 'Iron Man?' 'Who the hell is Iron Man?"
"Many writers in Hollywood now grew up on comics," Dini said. "Their language comes from 'Watchmen' or 'Dark Knight [Returns].'"
Of course the changing face and acceptance of comics has involved the inclusion of female creators and fans. "It's not like these girls decided they just like these properties," said Eckstein. "They were always there, but we weren't comfortable speaking up. Girls didn't feel safe to speak up. Now that it has become more accepted, women feel a lot more comfortable coming to Comic Con."
Axel Alonso became part of Marvel when the company was bankrupt. Blauvelt asked him about his experience joining a failing company, one that then grew into a trendsetting media empire. "I joined the company in 2001 when they were entering chapter eleven," said Alonso. "People said I was crazy for going there but I found it hard to believe that a company that owned Spider-Man and the X-Men was going away. When I took the job, the publisher Bill Jemas said his edict was to go crazy and have some fun and create a mythology. There wern't so many rules of how you did things and we were allowed to follow our instincts. We started hiring smart people like J. Michael Straczynski, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, and Garth Ennis -- creators that were just right to change things."
Newman was asked why Hollywood has woken up to the wonders of comics. "There's a technological freedom to allow Hollywood to explore the full potential of a hero. Years ago, superheroes looked ridiculous but now films can capture comics' visual language."
"The source of success for superhero movies," Dini added, "is that the filmmakers do not mock the source material. They don't make fun of it, they don't lampoon it. Moments in 'Avengers' and 'Iron Man' are very funny but the humor is in the situation not in the mockery of the character."
The next question dealt with how to tell stories in comics to welcome new fans. Some of the characters are over seventy-five years old -- how can they be presented in a way that is accessible to new readers? "When I first joined Marvel," answered Alonso, "we were told we can't tell stories that contradicted something inconsequential that happened decades ago. The key thing is to respect the past, respect that stuff that matters, but tell your stories."
Dini then discussed his experience working on "Batman: The Animated Series" with a group that had grown up knowing and loving the Batman mythology. "We all grew up with this," said Dini. "We thought, let's take what works for us, even if it violates continuity or what's going on currently. Appreciate the stuff from the past but take its spirit."
Back to the present, Alonso was asked what kind of impact the films have had on comic book readership. "Whenever there's a movie, it impacts retail sales," the editor-in-chief of Marvel said. "It's easier to move 'Avengers' comics when there is an 'Avengers' film. Right now everyone knows that the 'Avengers' is the world of Iron Man, Cap, Thor, Hulk, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch, which is a tremendous advantage. We never have to start from scratch. Now everyone knows who these characters are and what makes them great."