Hobbits, Superman and Godzilla at 2012 Comic-Con

The cover art for the first appearance of Superman, the first true superhero, in 1938.

More than 130,000 fans gathered over the weekend for the biggest celebration of US comic book culture in the world. Superheroes and villains are modern icons – and big business too.

The San Diego Comic Convention, or ‘Comic-Con’, does not attract critics from grand newspapers; there are no graduates here from Royal Academies of Art; no pirouetting ballerinas, Shakespearean actors or symphony orchestras. And yet, this four-day festival of all things comic related has a strong case to make for being the most important cultural event in the world.

When it was first held in 1970, the San Diego Comic-Con attracted a hardcore audience of just 300 comic book enthusiasts, who came to compare superhero costumes and argue over obscure plot points; to meet others who had fallen in love with the alternative universes created by the great rival publishing houses: Marvel and DC Comics.

Now, nearly four decades later, their obsession has gone mainstream. Avengers Assemble – based on Marvel characters like Iron Man, Thor and the Incredible Hulk – smashed US box office records when it appeared in cinemas earlier this year. DC’s batman films, starring Christian Bale, have also been huge hits, with a third film in the series out this week.

And this is not an unusual year. The trend for comic-book films has been growing steadily for decades. Some are action blockbusters like X-Men or Green Lantern, but even darker independent films draw on comics for inspiration, from moody epics like Watchmen to quirky hits like Scott Pilgrim or Kickass.

Even relatively obscure characters like Hellboy and Deadpool have been drafted into cinematic service. And with a really big star you can keep reinventing the character to make movies (and profit) practically without end. Batman, Spiderman and Superman have all had multiple series, films and videogames made about them.

In each case, the central story of the character remains the same, but the mood and themes can be totally different. In the course of his 73-year career, Batman has gone from being an almost comic figure, in the 1960s TV series, through Tim Burton’s surrealist 1980s vision to the dark, tortured hero of today.

Modern myths?

Some critics are in despair at the constant flood of comic book films that fill our screens. The endless regurgitation of the same tired characters, they say, is a symptom of deep and disastrous cultural decline.

But others make the opposite argument. Comic book figures, they say, are filling the same role in today’s culture that heroes like Hercules, Aeneas or Achilles did in the classical age, inspiring poets and playwrights in Ancient Greece and Rome. Constantly revisited and reworked, these are not merely stories, but modern day myths.

You Decide

  1. Who is the greatest superhero of all time?
  2. Does a society need myths? If so, why?

Activities

  1. Invent your own superhero. What powers would he or she have? How would you make your hero relevant to the world today?
  2. Draw a page from a graphic novel, inspired by a story from ancient mythology.

Some People Say...

“Comic books are just for kids.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Not all films these days are based on comics. What aboutThe Hobbit?
True,The Hobbit, which was widely advertised at Comic-Con, is not a comic book film, but it has a lot in common. Like the comic book films with which it competes, The Hobbit is based on a preestablished world with its own fairly well known characters and mythology.
Why does that matter?
Film studios love it for two reasons. First, because it means directors have to spend less time setting up the characters and the world and second because there will always be a ready made group of hardcore fans.
Great – so if I want to make millions in royalties and merchandising fees, I should write comics?
It’s not easy to get into – but worth a try!

Word Watch

Marvel and DC Comics
These two publishing houses have dominated the US comic book scene for more than 70 years. Marvel is responsible for characters like Spiderman, the X-Men and the Avengers. DC Comics boasts Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman among its heroes. Both houses have hundreds of more minor characters too, spanning dozens of different fictional universes.
73-year career
Batman is one of the oldest superheroes, first introduced by DC Comics in 1939. The first true superhero, however, was Superman, who first appeared in 1938.
Constantly revisited and reworked
Like modern film directors, ancient playwrights drew on an established body of myth. Heroes like Achilles appeared in many stories told by many different authors and, just like superheroes, the ancient heroes could be reimagined to suit the mood of the times.

Subjects

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