PITTSBURGH – He towers over the land, his muscles rippling and blond mane blowing in a windstorm of his own making. Wielding his trusty magical hammer, he crushes villains as easily as he romances beautiful women.
Thor, epic god of thunder, was inspired by Norse mythology. But his modern, movie-star incarnation was born on the pulpy, hand-drawn pages of 1960s comic books. He will storm into your local multiplex again next month, one of the many superheroes who have escaped the illustrated panels of comic books to dominate not only our theater and TV screens, but much of our pop culture landscape, from toys to clothes.
But while comic book characters are everywhere, comic books themselves remain mostly a niche product.
Take Arkham Gift Shoppe, for instance, a small comic book store in Pittsburgh. When regulars arrive to pick up their monthly orders, some slip in with all the stealth of Catwoman eluding Batman. These guys carefully hide their comic-buying habit, or the extent of it, from their girlfriends or wives (yes, they have those) because these women “aren’t cool with them spending their money on something so juvenile,” shop owner Jeff Bigley said.
How is it that the painstakingly inked comic pages where these wildly popular characters were born still don’t get the attention and respect that fans said they deserve?
Chris Sims of Sumter, S.C., waits for the befuddled reaction when he tells people that he reads, writes about and creates comic books for a living. The popularity of Marvel’s blockbuster films has made it only a little less awkward for him to admit being an avid consumer of comics.
“If you tell somebody you read ‘Captain America’ now, they know who you’re talking about,” said Sims, who blogs at websites including comicsalliance.com. “The characters being visible lessens the kind of stigma of reading comics because people know those characters and have affection for them.”
Lina Krueger is a single woman in her 20s working in Washington, but her love of comics also garners an strong reaction.
“A lot of guys are like, ‘Really?’” Krueger said.
In her spare time, she blogs at girlsreadcomics.com, hoping to fight that attitude.
Is it simply a problem of supply and demand? Many towns lack a brick-and-mortar comic book shop. And who needs to hunt for one when television is suddenly stocked with heroes and their friends?
“Green Arrow” has stuck around for another season, and that series’ producers are considering a spin-off “Flash” series. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” premiered to solid ratings, despite the absence of any actual Avengers on screen. And deadline.com described Fox’s recent acquisition of the new TV series “Gotham,” featuring a young, not-yet-commissioner Gordon, as “one of the biggest drama deals this season.”
A fictional comic book shop is featured on the popular CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” But the lead characters who hang out there are socially stunted, and the running joke is that attractive women never, ever set foot in the store.
Another challenge might be that those accustomed to the shock and awe of blockbuster superhero movies are bored by even the most vividly drawn comic book.
A generation ago, only a comic book or cartoon could depict an apocalyptic clash of titans just as easily as it delivered an intimate, whispered moment between two characters. Live-action movies needed a thousand extras and weeks of shooting to do the same.
The science of computer-generated animation, which has rocketed forward even in the years since Robert Downey, Jr., first climbed inside an Iron Man suit, now does the same trick on a vastly larger scale. How can a 10-by-7-inch booklet of stapled paper compete with a thundering IMAX screen?