My latest Vox column looks at how the widescreen comics movement that started in the late 1990s helped make comic books bigger, more epic, and more cinematic—and paved the way for the era of superhero movies we live in today.
Here's how it starts:
In most tellings, the current age of superhero movies began in earnest in 2000, with Bryan Singer's X-Men. That relatively modest film, built around a pair of classically trained Brits and an Australian actor with a background in musical theater, proved that audiences would turn out for reasonably faithful adaptations of classic comic book stories. And it set in motion a new wave of superhero films — from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man series to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy to Marvel's ever-expanding catalog of Avengers and Avengers-adjacent blockbusters, not to mention a host of less-successful efforts.
Of course, while that history of the modern superhero movie isn't wrong, it largely ignores the role of comic books themselves, which over the years have served as a sort of testing ground for the types of storytelling devices and thematic questions that now dominate both the box office and the public's pop-culture conversation.
In particular, it glosses over a strain that emerged in the late 1990s that became known as "widescreen comics." Widescreen comics were a reaction to the talky, cartoony superhero comics of the 1990s, many of which were mired in a kind of second-rate '70s revivalism, and which often had more in common with soap operas and professional wrestling than with epic Hollywood tentpoles.
They were drawn to mimic big-screen visuals, with wide panels that looked like movie-theater screens. The essential idea was to emphasize grand spectacle and visual storytelling, to insist that comic book creators should take advantage of their "unlimited budgets" — as afforded by the fact that comic book action was illustrated on the page, not CGI'd on the screen — to create show-stopping action that Hollywood, due to the limitations of finances and effects technology, could never afford to produce.