On July 29, Cowboys & Aliens opens in movie theaters across the US. Directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man), executive produced by Stephen Spielberg (do I really need to name one of his credits?), written and produced by Damon Lindelof (Lost), and starring Daniel Craig (Casino Royale), Harrison Ford (1 or 2 successful movies, can’t remember the titles) and Olivia Wilde (House). With an estimated budget of $100 million and big star names this is meant to be a big ol’ Hollywood blockbuster.
And most people may not realize it’s based on a comic book. More accurately, Cowboys & Aliens was first an original graphic novel published in 2006 by Platinum Studios and HarperCollins. The concept was created by Platinum chairman Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, and was executed by writers Fred Van Lente (Action Philosophers) and Andrew Foley (Parting Ways) and artists Dennis Calero (X-Factor) and Luciano Lima (Grifter and the Mask).
Comics are still battling a perception problem. The majority of Americans still think comic books = superheroes, maybe with a side dish of funny animals. The truth is that comics have as much if not more diversity as any other entertainment medium and art form. It’s just not as easy to find. Most comic book stores still predominantly sell superhero comics and the industry’s two largest publishers (holding over 75% of the market) almost exclusively publish superhero comics. But there a number of publishers, like Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics, Fantagraphics Books, First Second Books, Drawn & Quarterly, Boom! Studios, Archaia Entertainment, and lots more, that are carrying an ever-expanding selection of great material for readers of any shape and size that could fill up every section of a library. A change is happening, but even so, the perception is still comic book movie = superhero movie. This is reflected from the entertainment press and marketing to audiences’ own descriptions.
Perceptions are changed slowly and gradually. The problem is that a series of big successful Hollywood movies based on a comic book that isn’t superheroes has never really been trumpeted as based on a comic book or graphic novel. There have been notable exceptions, but the lasting impression doesn’t seem to stick. The Mask, Men in Black, From Hell, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Ghost World, A History of Violence, Road to Perdition, 30 Days of Night, and Red all did reasonably well but either lacked in reach or in leading with the message about their source material. Sin City and 300 are about as good as its gotten but largely because of the strength of Frank Miller’s name. The Walking Dead on TV has been a big leg up. But when this summer season alone has four big superhero movies enforcing the perception, it’s an uphill climb.
With comics sales leaking away every month, comics needs a big influx of readers looking for a wide variety of entertainment. To help put a kick in that awareness, Hollywood and their audiences need to see that big (and successful!) popcorn movies can come from comic books that aren’t about superheroes. And Cowboys & Aliens fits that criteria perfectly with a great high concept, fun setting and lots of explosions.
This year has already seen two failures for non-superhero comic book movies. Priest was based on a Korean comic (or manwha) of the same name by Hyung Min-woo. It was published in the US by Tokyopop, which was in the midst of shutting down its domestic publishing arm as the movie was released. Surely not a good sign. The movie performed about as well as you’d expect, despite some eye-catching trailers. Before that was Dylan Dog: Dead of Night starring Brandon Routh (Superman Returns). The movie was based on the Italian comic book series Dylan Dog, an acclaimed horror comic created by Tiziano Sclavi. Unfortunately it failed to capture the surreal nature of the comic and the main character’s charm in reacting to the horror he investigates.
Both of those movies failed for any number of reasons, but that they have the common link of being adaptations of foreign comic books not about superheroes isn’t good. Cowboys & Aliens needs to be the start of a new trend where Hollywood (and their audiences) starts to see the value in non-superhero comic books that are filled with ideas and concepts people want to experience. It can’t establish this perception all on its own, but with no other movies that fit the bill this summer, it needs to at least push the needle in the opposite direction.
Also released this summer is The Smurfs, which is adapted from the classic Belgian comic Les Schtroumpfs by Peyo, but it’s more associated with the popular animated series that ran on NBC throughout the 1980s, or the little figurines. The Belgian comics have rarely been translated and published in English, which surely contributes to this perception. Papercutz has been doing a great job importing these fun comics to the US.
Otherwise, it’s up to The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn in December, based on the Belgian adventure comics by Hergé.