Monday, September 8, 2014

'Comic book movies' do not exist. Stop using that stupid, stupid term.

This is a scene from a movie, not a comic book.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the movie success story of both the summer and the year. I'll admit, I haven't gotten around to seeing it yet. (I know, I know. I'm the worst.) But the reviews and the word of mouth have both been excellent, and I've enjoyed previous Marvel movies in the past. I don't begrudge Guardians its box-office bonanza. My problem is that the film's commercial triumph has meant that I've had to endure a spate of articles and podcasts lately which use one of the dumbest cliches of pop culture criticism: the term "comic book movie." Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie based on characters and situations originally seen in comic books, so people are referring to it as a "comic book movie." This is, with all due respect, utter horseshit. Comics are a medium. Movies are another, separate medium. Calling Guardians a "comic book movie" is about as logical and helpful as referring to something as a "solid liquid," a "day night," or an "apple orange." If director James Gunn had taken an actual, printed issue of Guardians of the Galaxy and literally filmed its pages for 90 minutes, then it might almost make sense to call it a "comic book movie." But from what I've seen, he seems to have hired actors like Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana to, you know, say stuff out loud and move around. Like you would in a movie.

A  comic book movie?
Plenty of movies each year are based on text-only novels, yet we don't call these "novel movies," do we? Movies based on plays are not called "play movies." So why is Guardians of the Galaxy a "comic book movie?" I fear it's because people mistakenly think of comic books not as a medium but as a genre, and they feel that adding the descriptive "comic book" to the neutral word "movie" communicates something about a film's plot, characters, and tone. Now, it is true that the medium of comics has some longstanding relationships with a few specific genres, specifically superhero stories and so-called "funny animal" stories. And Guardians of the Galaxy (the movie) has elements of both of those genres. But those longstanding relationships I mentioned are not mutually exclusive by any means. There are plays and TV shows and even prose novels about both superheroes and funny animals. Moreover, comics can and have been used for a wide variety of purposes, far beyond superheroes and funny animals. Comics are an extremely versatile medium which can be used for any number of things: drama, comedy, action, romance history, surrealism, horror, biography, autobiography, education, etc. From Hell, 300, Ghost World, and Persepolis are among the movies based on comics, and yet we don't often refer to these titles as "comic book movies" because they don't fit the traditional "superhero"/"funny animal" mold. The rather silly term "graphic novel" is sometimes used to describe such works as Alison Bechdel's autobiographical Fun Home or Art Spiegelman's Maus simply because the public has a strong association between the perfectly good term "comic book" and images of super-powered musclemen flying around in tights or wisecracking mice who walk upright and speak English. Yes, comics can be used for these things -- and very effectively at that. But they can do so much more, and it's a mistake to confuse medium and genre.

For a brilliant and entertaining exploration of comics and their potential, please read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. In the meantime, at least stop saying "comic book movie." It makes you sound like a dumbass.

P.S. - "Video game movies" don't exist either. But you probably guessed that by now.

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