The History and Evolution of Comic Books

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Powers in Motion

by Jeff Bowles

As a storytelling medium, comic books have been around longer than anyone living today. Some disagreement exists among historians as to just what the first published example is, but more or less, comics have been with us since the mid-19th century. Certainly, they didn’t explode into absolute pop culture dominance until the advent of superheroes and supervillains, their best-known and most beloved subjects of exploration, but the truth is millions upon millions of comics have sold in all the time since.

It goes without saying that if not for the creation of one very special character, comic books would not exist in the form in which they do today. In 1938, two young men from Cleveland, hard-up for more satisfying and lucrative creative endeavors, concocted a simple yet compelling narrative based on the biblical stories they’d grown up with. An infant savior from another place, sent from on high by his father to protect and guide humankind. Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster were thinking more Moses than Jesus, but the Judeo-Christian allegory that is Superman tapped into something deep within the psyches of readers everywhere.

When DC Comics published Action Comics #1, the first appearance of the Man of Steel, the company had no earthly concept what they were unleashing on the world. The first appearance of Batman followed a year later, and quick on his heels were characters like The Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman. Sales were massive for this new kind of storytelling, so full of color and simple, easy-to-understand moral allegory. Until Superman showed up, comics were usually about hard-as-nails detectives and avengers of the night who could neither fly nor leap tall buildings in a single bound. But Supes, he was different.

It was and still is widely accepted that comics are for children, but adults like them, too. In fact, as the Allies went to war in Europe and the Pacific, young servicemen and women brought their recreational reading habits to the front lines. Japan in particular adopted comic books with unrestrained delight. In the year 2020, they remain the top producer of the entire global industry, having created a literary genre unto itself in Manga.

Back in the US, the end of World War II brought with it new social standards, including a certain suspicion of the medium. It became widely believed that comics contributed to childhood delinquency, vandalism, and violence. Senate hearings were held on the matter, not unlike those that plagued the video game industry after the Columbine massacre. In both cases, the federal government imposed rating systems, and at least as far as comics were concerned, the high flying antics of superheroes were dragged a bit closer to earth.

In the 1950s, comics gained a squeaky-clean image, which contributed to their overall decline in sales. It seemed that the original generation of kids who had embraced characters like Superman and Batman had grown up, and they were by no means interested in overtly sanitized farces. Network television had a hit on their hands with the George Reeves Superman show, carried over to some extent by earlier radio productions. But the comic book itself faced its first major hurdle: people just didn’t care anymore.

Times change, and so do the kinds of stories we like to tell each other. In 1961, Marvel Comics (formerly, Timely Comics) got into the superhero game in a big way with the introduction of Fantastic Four #1. This single issue began what enthusiasts call the silver age of comic books, and creators Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko didn’t stop there. Many other characters emerged from their Manhattan offices: Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, The Uncanny X-Men, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Black Panther, all created within the first ten years of the company’s resurgence. They even added an old figure from their distant past to the roster of the newly-minted Marvel Universe. Captain America is almost as old as Superman, but he’d been all but forgotten by fans until Stan Lee decided to pull him from the ice.

The medium exploded in popularity once more, and the 1970s saw advancements that began eschewing the now decades-old Comics Code Authority. DC, for instance, who initially struggled to keep up with Marvel’s perceived hipness, got into all the major social battles of the time, including equal rights, racism, drug addiction, and violence against women. The decade introduced some of the most compelling and sophisticated comic stories told to date, and Marvel and DC became twin powerhouses of an artform many had thought dead and buried.

In 1978, Warner Bros. produced what many consider to be the first serious superhero film, Superman: The Movie. Demand for the character and other DC properties climbed to dizzying heights. In the decade that followed, comics continued to mature, became darker and much more adult, featuring storylines and characters that took advantage of the public’s newfound love of antiheroes. Marvel made huge waves with the likes of The Punisher, Venom, and new takes on classic characters like Spider-Man, The X-men, and The Avengers. Over at DC, things got even more experimental, with major new series like Watchmen and Batman: The Killing Joke, not to mention the introduction of their Vertigo imprint, which exclusively publishes adult-only material

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A new collector’s market formed around special releases and big-stakes stories that reset the board, such as The Death of Superman and the first issue of Marvel’s five-variant-cover X-Men #1. Like so many other markets built on false commodity, however, the bubble eventually ruptured, and comics have seen a slow but steady decline in sales ever since. DC has faired pretty well historically, partially because they were acquired by Warner Bros. in 1969. Marvel, on the other hand, slipped into bankruptcy, and only barely pulled themselves out by the skin of their teeth.

By the late 1990s, the future of comic books was in question. It had become clear that the business of printing colorful heroes and edgy villains was on shaky ground, but the new millennium heralded in a trend few in the industry saw coming.

DC had always had hit-and-miss successes with their film division. Though 1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman were big for their time and place, superhero movies were still widely considered risky business. In 1998, Marvel Entertainment co-produced a film based on their daywalking, vampire-slaying Blade character. Though the film did average box office, Marvel viewed it as a sign of bigger and better things to come. Two years later, they released an X-Men movie which fared much better, and two years after that, it was Spider-Man’s turn.

Marvel earned one success after another at the box office, creating new film-based iterations of classic characters like The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, and Daredevil. But it wasn’t until 2008 and the release of a little movie called Iron Man that everything changed. At the time, Marvel Entertainment and producer Kevin Feige hatched an idea to do for their movies what Stan Lee had done for their comics back in the early ’60s, namely, they decided to turn them into a working shared universe. Marvel released a few key introduction movies and then bet the farm on 2012’s The Avengers.

The absolute financial and critical dominance of that movie was eclipsed only by its potential for more stories and even bigger box office hauls. Disney bought Marvel in 2009, adding significant distribution and funding prowess to the small company that had almost folded not ten years prior. Though DC and the WB have tried to match the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the decade ending 2019 was completely dominated—in one form or another, it seems—by characters created by Stan Lee and his successors.

But what about comic books themselves? Do people still read them? Do they still sell? More or less, they do, though even fans get the sense the comic divisions of the big publishers only exist to fuel their filmmaking endeavors. Marvel, DC, and others still know how to tell great stories, and they do it every single week, every month, every year. More major contributors to the industry include Darkhorse, Image, IDW, and Valiant. Comics are not now and have never been solely about superheroes, and the indie space in particular proves that this kind of storytelling is open and ready for all.

Regardless of how you feel about the dominance of comic-bookisms in our culture, the slow decline of the publishing industry beneath it, and the ultimate moral ambiguity of “good guys” who beat the crap out of “bad guys”, the fact remains that comics have been a force of societal transformation for over eighty years, longer in fact, when you factor in the storytelling traditions at play, some of which are as ancient as humankind itself. The first comic book, published in the 19th century, whatever it may have been, set a ball rolling that continues to, well, crush the life out of everything in its path.

Only one question needs to be asked at this point: who do you like better, Marvel, DC, or the bold and bombastic characters of some other powerhouse company? Sound off in the comments section below, guys. And continue to stay tuned all May for more superhero/supervillain themed articles and posts right here on Writing to be Read. Excelsior!


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, Nashville Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!

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Jeff’s Movie Reviews – DC Comics Gets Animated

Jeff's Movie Reviews

Cartoon Justice

by Jeff Bowles

This month on Writing to be Read, we’re exploring superheroes and supervillains, so for May’s movie review, I thought I’d discuss a lesser known corner of the major comic book film adaptation landscape.

DC Comics and their parent company/distribution overlord, Warner Bros., have gotten a bad rap for producing superhero films that simply don’t meet the bar established by their rival, Marvel Studios. Well allow me to clue you in on one area DC has Marvel beat: animated films. Direct-to-video, barely seen by non-fans, but actually pretty good and by and large, better than their big-screen live action cousins.

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Justice League Dark: Apokolips War

Warner’s animation division has a long history of excellent superhero storytelling. Warner Bros. has owned DC since the 1980s. It took Marvel two additional decades to receive studio backing from Disney, probably because Marvel was in bankruptcy until it started making bankable movies like Spider-Man and Iron Man. But back in the early 90s, Warner Bros. and DC created the Emmy-winning Batman the Animated Series, which still holds up as one of the greatest Saturday morning cartoons of all time. All these years later, that same group is still together. They have released over fifty (count them, fifty) feature-length animated films that cover all areas of the DC universe.

Whereas Marvel requires audiences to have prior knowledge of their storylines before going into any given sequel, the DC animated film series rarely contains that much connective tissue, except in their main Justice League storyline, which just wrapped up this week with the release of Justice League Dark: Apokolips War. Now that’s spelled Apokolips rather than apocalypse; we’re talking a fire planet ruled over by Thanos-clone and best-dressed uber-villain of the year, Lord Darkseid. And that’s spelled Darkseid rather than dark side, because, well, he was created in the 1970s, and everyone in the comic industry at that time was on copious amounts of “powdered productivity”.

Justice League Dark: Apokolips War is an excellent animated film, one you may just skip if you’re not a fan. It’s got everything in it faithful DC-heads have come to expect. World-ending cataclysms, fists and superpowers and feats of incredible strength, magic and might, and more major character deaths than you can shake a batarang at.

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John Constantine saves the day in Apokolips War

John Constantine (that’s THE John Constantine, once played by Keanu Reeves in his own major film adaptation) is recruited by the Justice League to take down Darkseid for good. When things go terribly wrong, the population of Earth is more or less decimated, and it’s up to Constantine, a depowered Superman, and a small cast of other heroes to set things right.

Whether they do or not isn’t really the point. This small animated movie takes more risks with its characters than any big-screen Marvel romp. Perhaps because they can afford to. When I say there are a ton of unexpected deaths in this thing, I mean it. You never know who’s going to snuff it, which makes it all the more enjoyable.

The DC animated library is of much higher quality than you may expect. Most entries are made for adult fans, which is how you can justify an R-rating for Apokolips War. For crying out loud, these dying superheroes pop like balloons. Like bloody, spandex-clad, hope-to-see-you-in-the-reboot balloons.

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The Full Breadth of the DC Animated Universe

You wouldn’t want to sit your kid in front of Apokolips War, but the point is that over the course of more than fifty releases, the full breadth and scope of the DC universe has been on full display. We’ve gotten to see all corners and permutations, from Gotham City to Metropolis to outer space and DC‘s dark magical underbelly, loaded with lots and lots of characters the general public haven’t even heard of. If you want your DC education without sifting through stacks and stacks of old comics, these movies may be for you.

Marvel has a great reputation for entertaining if underwhelming storytelling, and right or wrong, they’re also perceived as being the light and enjoyable flip side of DC Comics and their brooding nature. To a certain extent, that reputation is in error. Read some comics from both companies in any given week and you’re likely to find tonal and narrative identicality.

So it’s kind of wonderful to have such a huge library of animated films that communicate what DC Comics is all about far better than their live action equivalents have done. Truth be told, I’d rather watch some of these cartoons than the likes of Batman v Superman or even the much-hyped huge disappointment that was Justice League.

You remember the Justice League movie? Yeah, not many people do, it seems.

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Do I Have Something on My Face?

But a good Justice League cartoon, now that I can get behind. The ending of Apokolips War is perhaps not as definitive as was advertised. Really, it’s just stage one of a massive retooling, but I’m fine with that. The legacy begun by that legendary Batman cartoon series from the early 90s is still in good hands, and you can pick out any one of these animated films and have a pretty good time with it. Plus, they’re all available for digital download and streaming.

Maybe animation isn’t your thing, and neither are comics or superheroes. But the truth is there is a massive installed fanbase that is ravenous for any new story from Warner Bros. Animation. These releases don’t do well financially in the larger sense, but every one of them takes great pleasure and care extoling the virtues of this kind of storytelling.

Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and hundreds of other DC characters have gotten time in the limelight, a feat that will most certainly never be repeated in big-budget live action form. So maybe it’s a little silly to get invested in a bunch of cartoons, but if you have any love or curiosity for the full scope of what DC Comics has to offer, this is a great place to dig in and enjoy.

You weren’t planning on leaving the house anyway, were you? Oh, you were? Then stand six feet away and in that direction, please. I’m not Superman, you know.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, Nashville Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!

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Words to Live By – Look, Up in the Sky!

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The first Wednesday of every month, writer Jeff Bowles muses on life, creativity, and our collective destinies as makers of cool stuff. You’re a writer, but have you ever thought about how or why? Here are some words to live by.

Look, Up in the Sky!

This month on Writing to be Read, we’ll be celebrating one of America’s original storytelling mediums, the comic book. In any other given year, one not smitten with the likes of COVID-19, May would see the release of the latest big-budget movies from Marvel and DC, their publishing divisions would be rolling out their next huge crossover events, and Free Comic Book Day would invite fans and newbies alike to visit their local comic shops and sample what’s available these days.

This year isn’t like any other year, of course. Practically everyone on the planet is being asked to make sacrifices to keep themselves and others safe. Superheroes are great at making sacrifices. In fact, you could say it’s their most important superpower. The truth is we don’t have to go out to the movies or visit a comic shop to witness feats of incredible valor and strength. All we have to do is look at the people around us. In fact, all we have to do is look in the mirror.

Now I know what you may be thinking, especially if you’ve never been a fan of the medium or if you’ve got no love for spandex-clad do-gooders on the silver screen. It is a certainty you’ve noticed Hollywood has pledged a good deal of their resources to the production of films and television series based on superheroes and supervillains. I have to tell you, as a longtime fan, it sort of gives me a thrill. When I was growing up, only nerds liked comics, spotty young men and women who argued with each other about who would win in a fight, Batman or Spider-Man, who dwelt in their parents basements and only went into the sun to hiss at it and then stalk around Lon-Chaney-style, searching for more comics.

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That stereotype isn’t even close to accurate, but look, up until about fifteen years ago, it was supremely uncool to be into this stuff. Which is why I’m so pleased I inherited an absolute passion for it.

My brother, Chris, is ten years older than me, quite an age difference by the standards of most families with only two children. He started reading and collecting comics around about the time I was born, and when I was old enough to read them, he got me hooked as well. I learned so much about my favorite comic characters from cartoons and movies, but it was really Chris who taught me everything I needed to know, who allowed me to glimpse these worlds as they really are: static on the page, but full of life in your mind.

The sum total value of that knowledge is this: comic books are fun, colorful, dynamic, easy on the eyes, and short. Their stories take place over twenty-two pages, and they’re almost always about doomsday scenarios and strong, noble crusaders who nip them in the bud. I remember going through stacks and stacks of my brother’s collection, marveling at the artwork, the boldness and speed of the actual storytelling. Some of the best memories of my life involve curling up with my own short stack of comics. I looked up to Chris with all my heart. I still do. He’s a personal hero of mine.

Lots of people have analyzed the relationship between comics and myth, the Hero with a Thousand Faces, a modern manifestation of our desire for legends and tall tales. But I honestly think people’s love of superheroes, especially in today’s world, stems from a basic psychological need for good examples, guiding lights. If you venture into the world right now, you’ll see that heroes are everywhere. They’re the doctors and nurses staffing our hospitals, putting their lives on the line so we can be happy and healthy. They’re the people who continue to produce and provide us with food, the butcher at the grocery store, the delivery guy who gets your pizza to you right on time.

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Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Even you, who must battle fear just to run a few weekly errands. And rather than seeing these fictional figures as a breed totally outside our experience, it might be more helpful to analyze their existence in relation to our deepest desires. Maybe we can see ourselves in the likes of Superman and Captain America. It doesn’t take much to look beyond yourself and lend people a helping hand when they need it, and this is the basic nature of the superhero.

Sure, their exploits are silly sometimes, even nonsensical. They wear ridiculous costumes and rattle off cheesy one-liners. You could even argue they set a bad example for young people, because no matter what seems to occur, they almost always solve every problem with their fists. But the truth is the modern world needs them. Realistically speaking, we’ve all got a good guy dwelling in our hearts and minds, and it’s possible, if we really try, to take courage and strength, and at the best of times, to let our inner super shine.

A lot of folks criticize Marvel and DC movies for their overreliance on end-of-the-world scenarios, but it’s all a subconscious thing, isn’t it? We’ve all had our personal doomsdays, have all needed to be strong when fate was against us and luck simply was not on our side. It’s a quaint pastime, reading comic books. There’s nothing magical or mystical about it. Just the enjoyment of disappearing into another world for about twenty minutes, and then reaching over to your brother’s stack and picking out another adventure.

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We here at Writing to Be Read believe strongly in literacy and the spread of a better kind of virus, good storytelling. My storytelling mode of choice is often comics, which taught me right and wrong, strength and courage in the face of adversity, and which allowed me to form a connection with my brother that I value and cherish to this day. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my Mom and Dad, who bought us all those comics for all those years. As a writer, I learned a great deal of the craft from this medium. As a human being, I learned everything I needed to know about how to treat others with dignity and respect.

If nothing else, comics are clearly a great bonding opportunity, and in their purest expression, they allow us to feel, if only for a little while, like we too can bend steel, soar through the air, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Have a wonderful May, everybody, and tune in all month long for more superhero and supervillain themed posts and articles. We’re all in this together, always have been and always will be. You don’t have to wear a cape and save my life to be a hero in my book. All you’ve got to do is turn to your fellow man, decide you can help, and then do everything in your power to make it happen. Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!

Up, up and away, everybody.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, Nashville Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!

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May: Superheroes & Supervillains

Superheros.Supervillains

In May, on Writing to be Read, our theme is Superheroes & Supervillains in celebration of comic books and comic universes, and all that it has evolved into over the years. Comic books aren’t really in my wheelhouse. I’m more of a Saturday morning cartoon type of gal, with Underdog and Mighty Mouse as my favorite heroes, and I still watch reruns of the original Batman series with Adam West and Burt Ward on ME TV.  But I wanted to run this theme because I think there is a little bit of superhero in every protagonist we write, and a little bit of supervillain in every adversary.

Because I’m not versed in the comic universes, I’m turning to others, who know comics and superheroes much better than I. Jeff Bowels is much younger and wiser in this area, and he will be offering us his expertise and insight on the evolution of the comic and its characters this month, as well as a look at the similarities and differences between the characters of the Marvel and DC universes. In addition, my “Chatting with the Pros” author guest this month is international bestselling author, Kevin J. Anderson, who also authored the book, Enemies and Allies. My supporting interview will be with comic author and novelist, Jason Henderson, who most recently authored Young Captain Nemo. Both of these authors appeared at the recent WordCrafter 2020 Stay in Place Virtual Writing Conference and they know what it takes to create superheroes and supervillains in their own science fiction and fantasy writing. My review for The Encyclopedia of American Animated Television Shows, by David Perlmutter posted last Friday, and I will also be reviewing Echo One: Tales From the Secret Chronicles anthology from WordFire Press. And don’t miss “Mind Fields” this month, where Art Rosch will give us a piece on the character development of villains.

Comics are based on serialized art, and Famous Funnies is considered by many to be the first comic book, coming out in 1933 and publishing until 1955. DC‘s Superman got his start in a comic strip, and he was the first character to wear a cape, setting the image for many of the superheroes that have followed. He made his debut in his own comic book in 1939, the same year that Marvel launched Timely Comics. Not long after, DC came out with Batman in Detective Comics #27, the most sought after comic among collectors and fans alike, and he and Superman both celebrated their 80th birthdays last year.

Other superhero characters followed, including Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Cyborg and Aquaman, who along with Batman and and Superman, came to be known as the Big Seven of DC’s Justice League, and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four: Mister Fantastic, Invisible Girl (now Invisible Woman), Thing and Human Torch, and Marvel’s X-Men: Professor X, Cyclops, Iceman, Angel (later known as Archangel), Beast and Marvel Girl (a.k.a. Pheonix/Dark Pheonix). And let’s not forget Marvel’s Hulk, Spiderman, and Ironman, Wolverine, and DC’s Swamp Thing.

It’s interesting to see how the characters, and comics have evolved into other forms of media. While comic books remain popular, as the turnout for any Comicon can demonstrate, today we see comics and comic book characters in the form of graphic novels, and they’ve made the jump to visual media, first in television, and then in film. We’ve also seen the rise of the anti-hero, giving us characters such as Dead Pool, who are the epitome of the reluctant hero in every hero’s journey. (See my review of Dead Pool (2016) here.) Although superhero, (and anti-hero), movies had a lull in popularity during the 1980s and 90s, they’ve seen a rise during the 21st century and are big money at the box office today. Statista claims that the superhero movies of 2019 grossed 3.2 billion dollars in combined domestic revenue.

However, we can only weigh the strength and goodness of the superhero by the evilness and capabilities of the villains they face. DC wove the history behind how Batman’s first adversary came to become a supervillain, the notorious Joker. Just as superheroes evolve and change, so do supervillains, and the Joker is no exception. He has changed and evolved over the years, but not always on the same evolutionary time table as superheroes. (See Jeff Bowels’ review of  Joker from 2019.) But even with a supervillain, who is super-evil, there must always be a grain of humanity that makes them vulnerable. They weren’t just born evil. They have tragic histories that have twisted them into the super-evil, hard hearted villains that they are, and that makes them relatable on some level, even if we can’t bring ourselves to root for them and breath a sigh of relief when they meet their demise.

The heroes and villains in genre fiction may not have super powers or be invincible, but they do share certain qualities with the superheroes and supervillains of the comic book world, like altruism (for heroes), and selfishness and greed (for villains), and basic humanity (for all). They have a lot to teach us about making relatable heroes and villains we can love to hate. Please join us this month as we explore the world of comics, superheroes and supervillains, on Writing to be Read.

I shared above that my favorite comic superheroes as a kid were Mighty Mouse, Underdog and Batman. Let me know in the comments who your favorite superheroes or supervillains are, and why they are your favorite in the comments. Let’s talk superheroes and supervillains.


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Jeff’s Movie Reviews Presents: Rise of the Comic Book Film

Jeff's Movie Reviews

Dollars, Cents, and Superpowers

by Jeff Bowles

There was a time comic book adaptations were a non-starter for the majority of moviegoers. For every generally well-liked superhero movie, like 1978’s Superman: The Movie or 1989’s Batman, there were at least a dozen examples of comic films gone wrong. For one, the Marvel Universe was bargain-basement, low-rent stuff. Old timers will tell you of an era in which Stan Lee’s greatest creations were relegated to B-movie direct-to-video time wasters, most of which were shot and funded outside the Hollywood system. Like, waaaaay outside the Hollywood system.

And DC, the former granddaddy of the genre? They tanked at least two very lucrative franchises because they forgot about pleasing fans and got cynical about their own intellectual property. Nobody, for instance, then or now, was willing to take 1997’s Batman and Robin seriously. For God’s sake, the batsuit had nipples. Holy unnecessary anatomy, Batman! You’ll poke someone’s eye out!

The 21st century, however, has seen quite the reversal in fortune for comic book adaptations. Boy, has it ever. In the year 2020, the biggest, most financially successful films in motion picture history feature superheroes, most of which are Marvel characters, because the notion of a working cinematic universe turned out to be an absolutely genius stroke. So how did this happen? What turned the silliest of nerd pastimes into a multi-billion dollar entertainment powerhouse?

In a few months, Writing to Be Read will be running some special articles in honor of national comic book month. May, by the way, is usually the time Marvel unleashes its biggest contender for the year. 2019’s Avengers: Endgame was a blockbuster of epic proportions, and over at DC, they’re cooking up a Wonder Woman sequel, a possible sequel to the Oscar nominated Joker, yet another Batman reboot, and Birds of Prey just hit theaters last week (and immediately flopped; sorry, DC).

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Two things account for the dynamic transformation comic movies have undergone in the past twenty years: the aging-up of the comic-loving, video-game-playing, anime-watching nerd population, and the success of a movie called Blade.

For those who’ve never seen it (and at this point, it’s a little bit obscure), Blade is a 1998 Marvel action-horror flick starring everyone’s favorite vampire-slaying daywalker. Wesley Snipes took the lead role and made him exceptionally cool. And since he was still a bankable star, the film overperformed. The success of Blade emboldened Marvel to take the plunge and adapt one of their most popular properties, The Uncanny X-Men. Featuring all the fan-faves like Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Gene Grey, and Professor X, 2000’s X-Men was not exactly faithful to the source material, but it was thrilling to finally watch a Marvel movie that didn’t suck. Again, the idea of an entire working cinematic universe was just a glint in the eye of current Marvel Studios chief, Kevin Feige. The success of X-Men paved the way for the Spider-Man series, halfway decent adaptations of Hulk, Daredevil, Punisher, and The Fantastic Four, and at last, the granddaddy of all franchise starters, Iron Man.

In truth, however, the modern comic movie owes everything to Superman and its star, Christopher Reeve. His first turn in the famous blue tights hasn’t aged exceptionally well, but it still stands out as one of finest examples of a big-screen superhero adaptation done right. Gone are the childish theatrics and abysmally small budget, the mindless plot, and for the most part, the wink-wink, nudge-nudge counter culture irreverence of something like the 1960s Batman television series. Superman: The Movie took its source material seriously. Richard Donner, the film’s director, insisted on a high level of verisimilitude, which isn’t something most Hollywood filmmakers would’ve gone for. Word has it the original screenwriter—none other than Mario Puzzo of Godfather fame—loaded his script with so many tongue-in-cheek gags the film may as well have been a super-farce. For an entire generation of fans, Christopher Reeve embodied the Man of Steel, fighting for truth and justice, making everyone believe a man could fly.

And of course, historically the franchise bombed out after four entries because, you know, DC. Same thing happened to the Batman franchise in the nineties. The folks at Warner Brothers were so shocked and sickened by Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, they snatched the option to make a third bat-sequel from his grubby, weird, Edward-scissor-like hands and passed it off to the marketing machine. Again, four movies was all that first Batman series got, but by then, the genie was out of the bottle, and it wouldn’t be long until Marvel ruled the roost. Marvel, by the way, had been in bankruptcy right until the time X-Men released in theaters. Quite a Cinderella story for the House of Ideas, one nobody could have predicted two decades ago.

In 2008, Marvel and Paramount Pictures released Iron Man, and it was off to the races. Starring the always impeccable Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man injected new life into the genre, and in so doing, completely rewrote the rules of Hollywood. Over ten years later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is twenty-three movies strong and still growing. Two MCU movies are scheduled to hit theaters in 2020, Black Widow and The Eternals. The thing about Marvel is they’re willing to take risks, knowing that if they do their characters justice, fans will show up. And we do. In droves.

The MCU is truly a mighty thing, containing team-ups like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, more experimental and hipper entries like Thor: Ragnarok (and doubtless) the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder, politically relevant films like Black Panther, and everything in between. Yeah, they’re still just silly comic book movies, but the entire world is in love with them, and their impact on our culture cannot be overstated. Just imagine all those kids growing up with Captain America posters on their walls. That’s a lot of money in the making, and Marvel’s parent company, Disney, knows it.

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The future of this genre is wide-open, and its not hard to imagine a time Marvel and DC have become two of the most powerful and ubiquitous entertainment companies in the world. Their most popular characters are already known everywhere, and they have been for decades. Really, this is just the cherry on top for a literary form invented for children in the first half of the 20th century. Superman wasn’t just the first superhero, he was the first super media product. The chiseled face that launched a thousand ships. And that doesn’t even begin to account for all the successful and wonderful comic book movie adaptations that don’t include a single cape or superpower. Greats of the sub-sub genre include Ghost World, American Splendor, 300, Road to Perdition, and Sin City. Check any of those out for a palate cleanser. You won’t be disappointed.

It’s funny, but the comic book industry itself has only shrunk in recent years. The good news for comic readers is the movies aren’t likely to completely replace good old paper and ink any time soon. After all, where would all those mega powerful, newly wealthy studio execs get their ideas? What, Hollywood come up with something fresh? Yeah. And Captain America is a communist.

Next month we’ll get back to the movie reviews, folks. For now though, go and have yourself a Marvel movie marathon, especially if you’ve never done one before. Yeah, it’s a lot of confusing action and universe-ending doom, but hey, saving the world has never been so fun. Or so lucrative. Am I right, Disney?


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, Nashville Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!

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Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


You can keep up on what Jeff’s been watching and catch all of his great movie reviews the second Friday of each month on Writing to be Read. Subscribe to email or follow on WordPress today.


Jeff’s Movie Reviews – Shazam!

Jeff's Movie Reviews

Just say the word.

by Jeff Bowles

(Be sure to check out my video review of Shazam! on YouTube’s Jeff Bowles Central.)

Shazam! is the kind of movie just about anyone can get behind. Film audiences segment into a multitude of groups, but when it comes to comic flicks, you’re either on board for the ridiculousness or you aren’t. Younger audiences tend to take a movie like this more seriously, whereas more mature viewers are often left scratching their heads. When science fiction and fantasy work best, they indulge in a certain real-world approach to emotionality, family, romance, regret, passion, and they do so at high enough levels that any and all nerdy accoutrements go down a little bit smoother, in that for many people out there, they’re extraordinarily hard to swallow.

Shazam! is a big, fun, friendly superhero movie with more heart and humor than just about any other DC Comics offering made in the last twenty years. During a time in which Superman is angst-ridden and Batman is a violent rage-freak, Shazam! understands home is where the heart is. Ask any comic movie fan the difference between the two behemoth companies, Marvel and DC, and you’re likely to hear Marvel is fun and DC is morose. Such is the genius of David F. Sandberg’s new movie. It feels Marvel-fun but engages the kind of deep archetypes and mythic dynamics DC Comics has been famous for since the 1930s.

Billy Batson is an orphan looking for a place to finally call home. He thinks finding his birth mother is the answer, but the truth is, if she’d wanted to be found, he wouldn’t have to break into cop cars and hack suspect ID computers for her deets. Enter the Vazquez family, genuinely supportive parental figures Victor and Rosa, and a full house of five other kids, all of them orphans. The dynamics at play in the Vazquez household expound in wonderful ways when Billy expects disaffection and dysfunction and finds hardcore familial love. And the other kids are all great to watch onscreen, always eager with another funny quip or charming character quirk.

To wit, Billy’s roommate, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), perhaps the best personification of a sympathetic sidekick you’re likely to see all year. He’s disabled, hilarious, and he’s got a keen geek obsession. Superheroes, after all, exist in this world in spades. In fact, one of Batman’s famous baterangs is a star narrative prop, and Freddy’s knowledge of said-comic-isms comes in pretty handy when Billy gets his powers and then has to figure out what the hell to do with them.

Off world or in another realm, or wherever/whenever else you prefer, the ancient god of right-makes-might, Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), searches for a suitable replacement after millennia of tireless service. Unfortunately, the forces of evil are on the hunt for a successor, too. The clock’s seriously ticking, so in a spray of CG pyrotechnics and unexpected altruism on Billy’s part, Shazam summons our would-be hero to his mysterious throne room and endows the kid with strength, speed, flight, and of course, killer lightning powers. All Billy has to do is say his name, and he’ll transform into a musclebound adult version of himself in a red suit and sparkly white cape. Zachary Levi plays the god-like, full-grown superhero with all the adolescent joy, immaturity, and zany recklessness we’d expect from a teenager stuck in a man’s body. This is the where the movie kicks into full Tom Hanks’ Big mode, and Levi is the perfect choice. You get the sense this kind of thing is a walk in the park for him. It’s almost criminal how much fun he appears to be having.

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Just as Billy begins to feel confident in his new dual identity, the evil Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong)—similarly endowed with incredible power, but by monstrous avatars of the seven deadly sins—arrives to threaten his heroic dominance, his life, and all the wonderful new people he’s come to love. The real joy of Shazam! is that it takes for granted how crucial it is to have people who care about and support you. So when Mom and Dad and all the other kids are in danger, we really feel the urgency. The filmmakers value them and what they mean to Billy, and we can’t help but do the same.

Billy Batson may not be a groundbreaking addition to the world of comic movies, but he does offer us a glimpse at a different kind of pop superhero psychology. There’s not much tragedy, horrific scarring, or trauma in his makeup, no more or less than in you or me. It’s almost a relief that the film only sparingly engages in world-ending theatrics. An interesting paradigm emerged in March and April, 2019 when Marvel Studios released Captain Marvel, and Warner Bros./DC released Shazam! As any fan will tell you, Shazam was also originally called Captain Marvel, and years ago, the two companies settled the branding dispute out of court. Apparently, Marvel was dead set on maintaining a character that carried their moniker and DC, well, maybe they realized Shazam is a better name for a boy-in-man combo that literally cannot do anything cool unless he, as the advertising declares, says the word.

But whereas Captain Marvel was a movie about finally realizing the power that always dwelt inside, Shazam! is about a sudden overwhelming change of fortune. Sometimes the thing you need most is right there in front of you. It is also admittedly the ultimate adolescent boyhood fantasy to wake up one day and find out you’ve got super powers. Shazam! won’t win any awards for exploring gender, sexuality, or race, but its heart is in the right place, and lest we forget, we could still be watching scowling Superman beating the crap out of growling Batman for no discernible reason other than MUSLCES! ANGER! KA-POW!

Billy Batson is enormously relatable, the perennial loner and outsider who has so much more to offer people than he knows. Who hasn’t felt unloved? Who’s never been lonely? Yet isn’t there always just a bit of hope in all the neglectful crap we have to put up with? Someday an amazing person will recognize me, and I’ll finally come home. It’s the emotional psychology of a movie like this that makes it so effective. Yes, the world is a terrible place sometimes, but when we take off our costumes and put away our utility belts, all we really want to do is laugh and dream.

On the surface, Shazam! is just another silly superhero movie in a sea of nearly identical offerings. But it’s also a fine example of comic book storytelling done right, supremely enjoyable, heartwarming, surprising, in fact more than enough to redeem the brooding misanthropy of other recent DC films. It rivals the very best of Marvel, and what’s more, it recognizes when a cape is just a cape. You don’t need to wipe out half of humanity or destroy the globe to bring out the hero in people. When the chips are down, all you have to do is say the word.

Shazam!

Am I … am I still here? Still just a slightly overweight yet lovable, handsome, and humble author/movie reviewer? I’ll work on that. We’ll get there, folks.

The new Shazam! movie gets 9 sparkling red tights out of 10


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The first Wednesday of every month, you can find him dispensing writerly wisdom in Jeff’s Pep Talk, right here on Writing to be Read. The best of Jeff’s outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars.

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – Short Stories – So Much More!


You can keep up on what Jeff’s been watching and catch all of his great movie reviews the third Friday of each month. Subscribe to email or follow on WordPress today!