I Hate the Term “Comic Book Movie”

I hate the term “comic book movie”.  

I have nothing against them, you understand.  They’re great for the industry, if for no other reason than they give lowly starving comic creators another revenue stream.  While there seems to be an enormously low conversion rate for moviegoers, comic book movies even tend to sell a few more books than they would otherwise.  They’re also good for publishers, where a company like Top Shelf can get a lot more notice and sales because they’ve got a Bruce Willis vehicle coming out from their Surrogates series.  Even when a movie doesn’t do all that well, as seems to have happened with Whiteout, it still garners more attention than they would normally get, and again, they sell some books.

However, to the general public, the term “comic book movie” is a weighted one, and not necessarily in a good way.  A “comic book movie” carries many of the same suppositions about the content or the maturity and sophistication of said movie.  Go ahead and ask some random folks what they think of when they hear the term “comic book movie”.  9 out of 10 mother in laws will agree that it has something to do with the following terms:


The list goes on, of course, and if you’re reading this, you know all the prejudices against comics, and by extension movies made from them.  Of course, we know that’s not true.  Trying to paint all films adapted from comics with a single stripe is absurd as saying that all comics are the same.  There are no “comic book comics” (excepting Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s series).  To anyone who has even an inkling of the current state of comics, the notion that all comics share any specific traits is absurd.  Last year, during the summer of “A Thousand Comic Book Movies,” we did a lot radio appearances.  They kept asking why so many comic book movies were coming out, and what it was that made them so attractive to film producers.  

Since X-Men was released in 2000, it’s been a bit like the gold rush for film producers, building every year, and reaching critical mass in 2008, when there were an inordinate amount of comic books made into films.  Of course, movies had previously been made from comic book properties.  There were movies like Men in Black, Tank Girl, and The Crow, but it never caused the entire film industry to look south to San Diego and snatch up any property available.  There are 2 reasons this happened in my view.  

For one thing, effects technology finally advanced to the point where they could actually show some of the ideas that have existed in comics for years, because comics were the only place where such giant ideas could be portrayed.  Comics have no effects budget an the spectacle of a comic book story is limited only by the imagination and drawing ability of the creative team.  Up until very recently movie effects simply weren’t up to the challenge of depicting these things in any way that wasn’t sort of silly looking.  15 years ago, they were still trying to make rubber suits look realistic and use miniatures and green screen to fool the audience, but mostly it didn’t work, and the movies were a bit laughable.  There are exceptions of course.  Audiences lapped up the Superman movies, but in retrospect, the flying is sort of goofy looking today.  The Fantastic Four movies almost worked against this for reasons I’ll never understand.  But now we can see Spider-Man flinging himself through the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and it damn well works.  This is a recent thing.

The other part of my theory has to do with the development of ideas in the ghetto of comic books.  By the late ’90’s, comics were on life support.  Comics didn’t sell many copies, there was a paucity of comic shops, and only the most ardent supporters had anything to do with comics.  Even today, with so much focus on comics from the film and pop culture industry, desperate for new Intellectual Property (IP), making money on an independent comic book, or even almost any comic book that’s not coming from Marvel or DC is a gigantic long shot.  This leads me to the conclusion that the people in comics are in comics very much for the reason that they really love comics.  That passion shows on the pages that we few lucky souls are fortunate enough to know about.  Comics are a terrible place to try to “make it big”, so if you’re in comics, you’re probably in it because you want to be, and love comics.  The more optimistic part of my mind thinks this would lead to better stories, and now, finally producers have realized it are now strip mining the vast deep veins of IP ore hidden in the San Diego Convention Center every year.  I think this is changing as people have realized that they can come up with high concepts that are easily understood and adapted to film.  But by and large, there are a lot of creators out there making comics for the sake of making comics.

But comics are vast and diverse.  Any kind of story you want to tell can be told in comic book form.  Obviously, comics have their strengths, but it’s a huge mistake to think you can’t tell certain kinds of story in panels and pages.  You can do anything.  This is what should make the term “comic book movie” mean one thing, and that is “a movie made from a story originally appearing in a comic book”.  It means nothing else, because that story can be any type of story, and the movie can be anything as well.  Sure there are dumb childish action movies made from comics, but American Splendor, Ghost World, Persepolis, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight dispel all those stereotypes.  I think the worst of comic book movies come from ideas held by shortsighted producers who think “It’s just a comic book movie, so why bother?” and you get Catwoman, Punisher War Zone, and LXG.

The next time your or someone else talks about the low expectations that come along with a “comic book movie,” remember it’s not the same thing as a “popcorn movie”.  It can be anything, and of any quality.  Stand up for comics, and put an end to this destructive terminology that just forwards stereotypes about what comics are.  That not good for comics or films.  Comic books can be anything, and that is exactly what is so great about them.


  1. Loved the article.  I also don’t like the dubious distinction of the term "comic book" movie.  You never hear the term "book" movie.

  2. I agree with you…though its probably not a stereotype thats going away any time soon. For many years probably since their inception, people not in the know have equated comic books with childlike and juvinile stories, so naturally they are going to think that the movies based on them are the same. We can only hope that enough of the comic book movies that come out are mature non-popcorn outings to prove this stereotype wrong.

  3. I feel your pain Josh.  I’ve always fought against the distinction as well.  People want to use the term to describe low grade action movies.  I never saw Hancock but had to keep telling people it wasn’t a ‘comic book movie’.  People are usually surprised to know that it’s not a genre but an origin of stories.  They’re usuallly surprised to hear Road to Perdition and A History of Violence are, as you put it, "a movie made from a story originally appearing in a comic book".  Well done sir.

  4. I agree, though it’s possible the term is influenced less by the idea that people think comic books are bad as that comic book movies traditionally *have* been bad.  Or, at least, there have been a lot of bad comic book movies, and if that’s what people’s exposure is, that’s what they’re going to think.  It’s time for the term to go away, though.  Maybe whenever somebody says ‘comic book movie’, it’s our job to say, "You mean like The Dark Knight?  Like American Splendor? Like Persepolis?"  That might get the point across.

  5. I feel the same way about animated films.  People group them into one category, it is not a drama, or comedy, or action or scifi film but JUST an animated film. 

  6. Interestingly, the people I interact with on a daily basis react very positively when I inform them that an upcoming movie is based on a comic book.  I don’t know if I swayed them with my subtle prodding or if they formed the opinion on their own, but they are actually more likely to go see a movie if they find out (typically from me) that it is based on a comic book.  For example, a coworker of mine saw a trailer for the Surrogates and said something along the lines of "This looks as bad as I, Robot. Count me out."  I then explained that the movie is based on a very well regarded comics property and he immediately changed his tune.  He now plans on seeing it.  I think people are starting to realize that there are some amazingly high quality stories and concepts in our little industry.  I think the term "comic book movie" has started to lose its negative connotation.

  7. @stuclach They’re humoring you 😉

  8. @ato220 – No, the one I mentioned was extremely excited to go see Watchmen and immediately ran out to get a copy of the GN after watching it.  He even drove to Macon to see Whiteout (which I haven’t seen).  I believe I have him hooked.  My wife is becoming addicted to Fables and Hellboy.  Another coworker has been reading comics since Alan Moore was on Swamp Thing (no need to convert him) and yet another coworker has informed me that he will see anything I suggest after I convinced him to see Iron Man, Dark Knight, and Persepolis (and he loved all three).  I even have that last guy (a football watching, beer guzzling, homophobe, ultraconservative*) ready to read Maus.  He is really starting to come around.

    *Not to insult anyone with those characteristics.  I’m just trying to make it clear that this isn’t an open minded, Maus reading, Josh Flanagan type.  Every time I see him open a book I’m surprised.

  9. "an open minded, Maus reading, Josh Flanagan type."

    I’m going to start dropping that phrase into conversation. 

  10. @ohcaroline – Please do.

  11. Yeah, I agree with the jist of the article. I’ve especially found it odd when the term "comic book movie" is applied to movies that aren’t based on comics but hit the same target demo and are also action-based.

    Playing devil’s advocate, you can kind of see how the term is useful. Even the online comics community (i.e. US) uses the term to talk about the movies inspired by comics. What else would we say? "What’s the next ‘movie inspired by a comic book’ coming out?" or "What’s the next comic book movie coming out?" It’s just easier.

    And as far as the general public goes, "comic book movie" describes 9/10ths of those sorts of movies that they see in droves. There’s not really much use in arguing that the way "comic book movie" is used discriminates against American Splendor and Ghost World, if 9/10ths of the time people are talking about Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman etc.

    You may as well argue that the term "action movie" is no good, because many so-called action movies have really complicated dramatic qualities, and are more than just action.

    But these are the terms we’ve invented. EVERY label necessarily cuts to the quick, for fast reference, and in the process some meaning is lost. "Comic book movie", however, seems a less exact label than "action" or "drama", though–because there are comic books of many genres, and some of them are dramas or actions or comedies in themselves.

    Strangest thing to me is that people adopted "comic book movie" instead of "super-hero movie". Maybe that means there’s some hope for the general public yet. If nothing else, the term "comic book movie" alerts whoever hears it that, if they liked the movie, then there’s a comic they could read and buy.

  12. It just sound like you hate that people dismiss comic book movies, not really the actual term. 

  13. The article is fine… but you’re preaching to teh choir here. I doubt many iFanboy followers are not aware that comics are just tights and fist fights. Unfortunately, you will be hard pressed to convert any significant number of non-comic fans to even consider reading this. Let alone change their preconceived notions.

  14. And the converted will be the missionaries…

  15.  yeah, i agree. dont let superheroes ruin the reputation of all the creator owned book adaptations, like what’s happened with the comics themselves.

    and the watchmen movie wasn’t anything special. maybe not childish, but apart from that, throw it with the rest [i better just say ‘in my opinion’ here, so i don’t get destroyed by someone a bit crazy…no offense…].

  16. I pretty much agree with @ohcaroline on this one. The term "comic book" is really the problem. THAT is the weighted term. As long as there remains a direct correlation between "silly kid’s super-hero fantasies" and comic books, then the appellation will have a negative connotation.

    The thing is: we’re guilty in our part, too. In our drive to show that comics are a MEDIUM and not a genre, we’ve taken the term "graphic novel" into our lexicon, and we’ve USED that to show people that "hey, we’re serious too!"

    Thus, "comic books" still equate to super-heroes (in the public eye) and super-heroes are still equated to "silly and immature fantasies."

    Now, as others have mentioned, the bulk of what the public is consuming (and enjoying) are super-hero movies.  But the difference now is that the super-hero movies are running the gamut from silly/lame to really fucking awesome (The Dark Knight).  And so, maybe, because of comic book movies, the public is starting to realize that you can’t dismiss them all together.

    And really, that’s kind of what we need, right? I mean, we just need some really good comic book movies to show people what we already know — that super-hero comic books can actually range from silly/lame to really fucking awesome — just like the movies.

  17. I didnt know that about Men in Black being a comic first, interesting, hopefully that guy made some money (doubt it). I think hollywood treats more independent books as screenplays so that dont feel the need to say that it is based on a comic in interviews etc. If American Splendor was adverised with big letters saying "based on the comic book…", it probably wont bring in more poeple to see the movie.

    That said I dont know why I havnt seen someone handing out comics after say an Iron Man movie, I think they are losing a golden oppurtunity. Just do it on opening day and give them out for free or sell trades for 5 bucks.

  18. Sorry, writing between doing things at work, and I think I left out some of what I was trying to say.

    By creating the term "graphic novel," you now have Hollywood marketers using the term to show that this is a more serious piece of art. Thus, "graphic novels" become a valid source material, while the general public can still use "comic book" to describe something for kids.

    We haven’t done a good job of fixing the term "comic book" in the public eye. We’ve just added a new term for more serious art.

    Perhaps ironically, the best publicity that comic books are getting are from movies. Films like the Dark Knight and Iron Man are CLEARLY from comic books, and by being awesomely fun and smart and even artistic, they are giving comics the best PR they’ve had in a while.

  19. What’s a more serious term to use when ‘graphic novel’ becomes to childlike?

    ‘Whiteout is based off the award winning series of 6×6 panels in a book"

  20. I’m not sure I’m going to go out of my way to correct someone that says ‘comic book movie’. 

    When Sonia posted her article about the stigma with comics, I said that I have problems with my own elitism when it comes to comics. 

    It’s difficult to not feel above or beside others that will always label comics as childish and petty superhero nonsense. 

    I had similar feelings when the Lord of the Rings movies came out.  I’ve been reading the books since I was a kid and know most of the mythology and storyline involved.  When people said the movies were awesome, I nodded and smiled knowing that they had never read the books.  That gave me a strong feeling of pride that I had read the books and knew what really happened and what Tolkein intended. 

    It’s the same with comics.  I don’t vocally express my contempt for people who use the term ‘comic book movie’.  I judge them in silence:) 

  21. I think what most people mean when they say "comic book movie", is super-hero movie.  I think the general public has no idea how many movies are actually based on comic books or graphic novels unless it is a major part of the marketing.  I have had discussions with friends on several occasions about various movies based on comics and they had no idea what the source material was.  It’s actually a great gateway into the conversations about how there are different kinds of comic books and they all aren’t super heroes in tights. 

  22. I think that after last summer’s huge amount of movies, there is a certain trope that comes with calling something a "comic book movie."  More than ever, I think the general public thinks that comic book movies are superhero movies.  I think this is also the reason why some movie studios down play a stories comic roots, ala Whiteout and Surrogates, because they don’t want people thinking the movie is about superheroes.

  23. @TheNextChampion Graphic novel will never be regarded an immature term, because the word novel is in it. As long as books are printed, if you tell someone you’re reading a novel, they’ll treat you with some level of respect- until you tell them that you’re reading "Twilight."


    BTW, Surrogates’ ad campaign owes something to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It’s basically a direct copy.

  24. We should embrase the term "Comicbook Movie" when non-Superhero movies are made (and play it down when it is a Superhero movie). This will help educate the masses that comics are a means to tell a story.  

    You might be preaching to the choir, Josh, but nice preaching!

  25. I totally agree. I feel like people do this with animation, mistakingly labeling it as a genre, when it’s more a method.  It’s nice to read articles on here that just make me go ‘I know, right.’ Comforting. 

  26. people do this wiht anime and such. i completely agree. sometimes its not all comic book movies. call then superheroes or whatever. jsut dont call it comic book movie

  27. Movies based on comic books should be called comic book movies. The Hancockas and My Super Ex-girlfriends of the world are Superhero movies.


    I think people see the word comic and think what I thought as a kid- that comic had something to do with comedy, with something silly or funny. 

  28. We the fans are to blame for the image of comic books and their derivatives have in the general publics eye. The public does not see a smart, highly educated and usually articulate individual when the words comic book fan if thrown out. They see the comic book guy from The Simpsons. This is somewhat our fault. As much as we heap praise on sophisticated works of art such as Asterios Polyp, Maus, and Watchmen we know what we really sells. Look at the racks at any comic book store- though entertaining at times- they are most filled with trivial works with the depth of As The World Turns. Then there are the few overly zealous fans which sometimes make the local news which further errodes our overall reputaion. We as a community have to take the words "comic book" back.

  29. Speak for yourself with that "we".

  30. I have a certain love for the term "comic book movie." I am somehow able to determine a difference betwwen the comic book movie and the movie based on a comic, neither with an immediate lack of positive expectations, with the former being more loyal to the source material (and propbably using only one or two books as source material) and the latter using elements from various stories. Here’s what I mean:

    The Watchmen, Kick-Ass = Comic book movies

    Iron Man, Dark Knight = Movies based on comics

    It could make little sense to some, I suppose. I’m aware of that much. I just want to express my love of the term "comic book movie."

  31. I don’t think it’s too different from any other adapted work.  Whether you’re making a movie based on a comic, television show, video game or other property, I think that the skeptecism is inherent.  Even with prose books, which Hollywood has the most experience adapting, they produce more stinkers from masterpieces than actually make it work.  Those other media are diverse, too.  It doesn’t change the fact that most movies based on them are bad.

  32. =) I’m so hyped to watch Surrogates this month. I was lucky enough to score a free ticket to see it at the premiere with all those stupid newspaper reviewers and am prepared to argue the stigma afterwards whilst they talk down it amongst themselves as they often do when I attend a premiere.

    @Josh: why use "mother-in-laws" as an example? *wink-wink-nudge-nudge*
    The thing I see you really saying (which I profoundly agree with) is that Hollywood is barren of ideas and is now working like a leech to find the goldmine of juicy stories to sell and profit off of. It’s just how Hollywood functions now.
    @ohcaroline: splended idea, only one issue: save for the term "open minded" that phrase would be lost to the general audience.
    @stuclach: I’m offended! D=< (just kidding)
    @VichusSmith: I certainly do. With a boiling red passion.
    @Zombox: I was not aware. And am a convert. Well once-upon-a-time.
    @TNC: I’m totally going to start describing movies in that way:
    "________ is based off the award winning series of #x# panels in a book"
    @Rush: I agree with Josh man, you look alone on that one. It took me MONTHS to accept the term "fanboy" and that was just to register on ifanboy.
    @J4K3: Then you would accept all the negative connotations and comments that come with it? I mean I’m so sick of validating some movie I enjoy just because it’s based on a graphic novel (some I hadn’t ever read before the movie’s release) and I’m at the point where, like vandamowens, I just judge them silently. This is the reason why I believe conversion of state of mind is necessary in the general public.

  33. Ah, but do you hate "Comic Book: The Movie"? 🙂

  34. Ah I do not good sir. That was a fine film. Wierd how it’s the only ad I ever really acted on from a comic book but it was good all the same.

  35. @mangaman: the point I wam making is that labels are meaningless. It’s how you feel about something that is important and if a perticular label bothers you then change it’s meaning. I think I am right in that how you are persieved is in your control to some extent.

    Are you being serious about that fanboy comment?

  36. Yes. I am. Never cared for it, still don’t to some extent. I enjoy comics but I really hate the immediate connection people tend to have when you say "fanboy" and people think "comicbookguy". And I agree with what you’re saying, to some extent, in this circumstance I do not think that self-perception is entirely significant because it’s yours versus the general stereotype, you have to first beat that stereotype before you can percieve yourself accepting the term. Otherwise you are also accepting the negative connotation provided by the attached stereotype. It’s like being a pacifist when you know you’re going to be shanked.

    Fight the stereotype then reclaim the title if you wish. 

  37. @mangaman: I think when people react to a term they give credence to the views that spawned the term. You do fight the stereotype by reclaiming it. Take the term geek for example. Geeks are reclaiming that word.

    You’re worried about being called a fanboy? I’m East Indian, work in the tech sector and drive a Honda Accord. How is that for fitting into a stereotype? Most people I run accross probably think I’m another FOB until Ithey speak to me at which point their preconceived notions are dispelled. 

    There is no reason to get perturbed by terms like ”comic book movie", "comic book guy", or "fanboy" because once someone watches that movie, reads something like Asterios Polyp, and meets someone into what we are into they will change their minds.

  38. Labels are useful.  Stereotypes are useful.  Just because there are negative aspects to these things doesn’t mean that we should abandon them.

  39. @Rush: let geeks reclaim that term if that’s what they want. But you do not, and I repeat, do not fight a stereotype by reclaiming it. If anything you look even more foolish and conformitive than you would have otherwise. I see where you’re coming from and I wish I could see it that way, I really do, unfortunately I’m a realist and know the damage it could have in comic culture.

    @PudgeyNinja: Labels are only useful for those who are trying to negatively or those who are trying to sell themselves into a business/job market. Show me where else they are useful. Stereotypes are never useful. The negative aspects are reason enough to drop them, but as a last resort. You should try to redefine them, the term itself (if too self referencial) merits dropping.

  40. @mangaman: I never said to feed a stereotype; I am saying we can redefine a label thereby dispelling a stereotype to some degree.

    Think about it, there is a grain of truth in every term that seeks to classify. There is some truth in every stereotype. Address those things from which the sterotype was born.

     @PudgyNinja: I agree with you to the extent that label are useful when it comes to business. There are whole marketing campaigns designed around them.

  41. I don’t think it matters too much what one calls or labels a movie, book, TV show or other media. By and large, I don’t think the public does either.  For me, they either fall into a two basic catagories: either a good movie to watch or one that was made badly, something I won’t see or have no interest in watching.  

    I do think, however, what the public (and not the comic book fans) assumes that comic book movies falls into two type movies: a movie with a high profile property like Batman or Superman or Spider-man, something that has almost a namebrand in the pop public conscience like Coke, Nike, or whatever, that we instantly recognize as such (which basically falls into the super hero mode).  The other movie I think that the public thinks of as comic book movies are the ones that seem to be similar in style, but really didn’t start out as comics:  Darkman, My Super Girlfriend, Hancock, Robocop–movies that seemed like they may have come from comics due to the super hero nature of the films.

    The remainder leaves movies made from comics that the public have no clue about it being a movie made from a comic (unless they read about it from a review or other some other source) ie. Whitout, Ghost World, Road to Perdition, From Hell, etc.  But in the end it doesn’t matter as either they went to see the movie based on subject matter, reviews, word of mouth, a trailer from the movie, or another source.  But either way, it still comes back to the same criteria of films in general, which tends to exclude the source: either it is a well made movie and people will pay to watch it, or a bad one.  So I sort of see it the same way as movies made from books, original scripts, or any other source, and that would be the good news, as it gives comic creators a nice paycheck for their hard earned labor, it give credence & impetus to the film industry to perhaps try and make more movies from comics (Disney buys Marvel, anyone?) as a source to make more money, and ultimately gives comic fans a chance to see something they might enjoy on the large screen.

  42. Labels and stereotypes are usefull in day to day judgments.  If you approach every single person, situation, comic, game, whatever making no assumptions about them, you’re going to end up wasting a lot of time.  It’s hopelessly idealistic to think that you could live in such a way. 

    If you were trying to describe Star Trek to someone who knew nothing about it, most people would probably start by saying that it’s a science fiction/action movie.  Those are labels and they connotate certain stereotypes.  It gives you a baseline from which to descibe this specific movie.  How it might be different from some of those stereotypes.  But it makes no sense at all to try and avoid the label altogether. 

  43. @PudgyNinja  Stereotypes are useful as a way to avoid thinking, yes.

  44. @ohcaroline – If you think that you don’t make assumptions about people based on stereotypes, you’re fooling yourself.