In late 2013, the comic book market began to change when Marvel announced they were launching a new series - Ms. Marvel, starring a teenage Pakistani American from New Jersey as the title hero. I doubt that they knew it at the time, but they were kicking off a transformation in the comic book scene. But there's one tantalising question: when are the movies going to catch up?
Superheroes: The Next Generation
Writer G. Willow Wilson chose to pit Kamala Khan against the fear of youth. Both British and American culture have a strong fear of youth; whenever anyone sees a group of teenagers together, they automatically flinch in fear, and the popular perception is that youth crime is at a record high. Needless to say, in reality it’s not.
Kamala Khan confronted this head-on, with a first villain who was drafting kids into his service by persuading them that their lives were of no value. Kamala can be sometimes a little 'preachy', and insisted that her generation have more to offer.
This youthfulness and positivity was surprisingly popular. In fact, Ms. Marvel became the first book Marvel acknowledged as selling better digitally than in paper format. Given that traditional sales were good in the first place, that’s saying something.
Just as with any other business, the rest of the comic book industry noted Ms. Marvel’s sales success, and Marvel and DC began to commission books starring young teenage leads – usually female. Whereas other books were often dark and disturbing, these were comics of optimism and hope, and gave the writers a chance to indulge their sense of humour.
For Marvel, the next major name went by the name of Spider-Gwen. Crafted as an alternate-universe Spider-Man, where Gwen Stacy was bitten by the radioactive spider, Spider-Gwen was an instant hint – the name was a result of a Twitter hashtag. Her miniseries performed well sales-wise, helped by the quality of Jason Latour’s writing and the unique artistic style of Robbi Rodriguez. The fourth issue, a character-driven piece, remains one of the strongest comics of the year so far. Again, notice the messages in the comic.
But Spider-Gwen is by no means alone, and even Marvel’s rival DC are getting in on the act. Starfire, for example, has leaped out of the pages of Teen Titans and into her own ongoing; an entertaining book that pokes fun at the character’s history, and uses the lead character’s alien nature to have a laugh at the oddities of human society that we take for granted.
Even moving away from the Big Two comic companies, Brendon Montclare and Amy Reeder have tapped into this same trend with the entertaining Rocket Girl. Their success was notable enough that Marvel have approached them to launch a new title, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur.
It seems pretty clear that comics are changing. Youthfulness is in, selling more to the digital crowd than to the older fans who have traditionally owned the niche. We’re seeing the emergence of fresh new ideas and entertaining concepts, and we’re seeing comics portraying teenage heroes as figures of hope.
But not in the superhero movies.
Why superhero movies are out-of-step
The biggest success of comic books right now is that it’s no longer unusual to see a comic translated on to the big screen. Now, even the smaller comic book companies are embraced by the studios, and superhero movies are the very biggest of blockbusters. Comic sales are increasing off the back of the movies, and the industry looks to be doing better than it has in a long, long time.
That said, there’s a sharp discontinuity between the movies and the characters we’re seeing emerge in the comics. Sure, humour is a mainstay of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Guardians of the Galaxy alone proves that – but DC are betting on a darker, grimmer alternative being a strong contender. The heroes being used are iconic and legendary – Iron Man, Superman, Captain America, and Batman. Even as Marvel Studios expand away from this, they’re choosing adult heroes such as Captain Marvel or Doctor Strange.
Frankly, it feels as though the comic book movies are missing a trick.
And then there’s Spider-Man. Marvel’s next Spider-Man movie will mark a change in their approach; they’re choosing to head back to Peter Parker’s high school days. They’re exploring what it’s like for a kid to be a superhero, and fan excitement is growing. This is the nearest Marvel Studios have come to approaching the pro-youth comics, and I’m suspecting that it’s a matter of testing the waters. If they’re right and it works, we could see Marvel capitalising on a lot more of their teenage properties – perhaps even including the newer heroes.
Rumours continue to build that there’s interest for both Miss Marvel and Spider-Gwen. When Sony saw Spider-Gwen’s success last year, they were reportedly very interested, and the reboot – plus alternate-universe-hopping in Doctor Strange – may well mean that Gwen Stacy is back in the game. Meanwhile, fans continue to debate whether or not John Ridley’s Marvel TV project could be based on Miss Marvel. Unfortunately, that looks unlikely, as Ridley has insisted that’s not the case:
“I can tell you that 99.99999 percent of everything that was put on social media was phenomenally off-the-mark.”
The real questions are these: why are comics and the movies diverging so sharply? And is it time for the movies to take a trick from the comics and start starring younger protagonists once again?