The Suitability of Various Artistic Media for the Superhero Genre
By Bevan Thomas
Not all superheroes are in comic books, and certainly not all comic books are about superheroes, but somehow the two fit together. Superheroism as a genre is defined by its visual spectacle and kinetic energy: larger-than-life characters in bright costumes using their strange powers and special moves to beat the hell out of each other and save the world. This is a genre that comics can present well, other mediums less so.
Superheroes in novels rarely come off well. Image reading this in a novel: “A figure dropped down in front of Captain Magnificence. The figure’s pants and shirt were mainly yellow, though much of his chest and shoulders was black, over which criss-crossed golden lines that resembled crackling electricity, and this black-and-gold design was repeated on his gloves and boots, the cape that hung from his shoulders, and the mask that covered the top part of his head. The image of a golden ball of energy was emblazoned on the centre of his chest and he stared at me with large golden eyes lined with black that featured prominently on his mask.” Wow, that’s a convoluted mouthful of a description! How easy is it for you to envision this guy in your head? The complexity of the costumes that so many superheroes and villains wear make them very difficult to describe and seeing them just as words takes away a lot of their punch. It’s a style of dress that’s meant to be seen, not just described.
However, it’s also a style of dress that does not generally look great in real life. There’s a reason why superheroes frequently change their outfits when they stride onto film from the comic page: masks and spandex look really neat on a drawn page, but so often end-up being totally ludicrous when someone in real life squeezes into them. The stylized unreality of a comic page accepts things which real life forbids.
Energy and movement is harder to show in a novel as well. You can certainly say “the lightning crackled up and down his arms as his eyes glowed with power. With a howl he hurtled the eldritch energy towards Captain Magnificence, who barely leapt out of the way in time as the lightening bolt shattered the wall behind him.” But it doesn’t grab a person as much as actually seeing it happen. As seeing the wall shatter from Laser-Lightning’s bursts, as seeing Captain Magnificent hurled himself at the villain and retaliate with furious blows. There are, of course many things that novels do superbly, better than any other kind of storytelling medium. But visual spectacle isn’t one of them.
One would think that movies, the most widely respected medium of visual storytelling in the modern world, would be perfectly suited for this sort of spectacle, but sadly that is not always the case. To produce on the silver screen the same level of imagery and stylized movement that comics take for granted often requires a very large budget and a very specific aesthetic that movies generally lack. After all, real human bodies are much more limited in what they can do and how they can show it than are figures drawn on a page. Asian martial arts cinema is generally the only kind of movie that produces the same artistry in combat, the kinetic beauty of stylized struggle, that is important for superheroes. Without this, superhumans are just a bunch of nuts in funny outfits beating each other up.
Now in contrasting comics with other mediums, I’ve so far neglected to mention animation. Since unlike live-action cinema, animation is drawn, it can present things in a manner more akin to comic books. Because of the drawn images, the costumes seem a lot more plausible than they would if live action, and the movements of the characters are much more stylized as well. Certainly animated superhero adaptations generally capture the spirit more than live-action productions do. Contrast the Wolverine and the X-Men show with the X-Men movies or the acclaimed Batman the Animated Series with Tim Burton’s Batman or even with Batman Begins. Like comic books, animation is an attempt to juxtapose words with art to produce a cohesive story. The difference being, of course, is that in animation the words are spoken and the art moves. Though they are of course separate mediums with their own particular talents, comic books and animation still have a lot in common, so it makes sense that animation can capture the spirit of such a specifically comic book genre.
Capering in Costumes is written by Cloudscape Member Bevan Thomas