Peter Suderman on How the Widescreen Comics Movement Paved the Way for the Era of Superhero Movies


The Ultimates, Marvel Comics

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.

These days, hardly a month goes by without a major superhero release, and studios are betting their entire future on an ever-growing number of comic book movie universes.

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.

 Read the whole thing

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  1. I credit Gentleman Jim Corbett…..mons_Fight

    The film was also the first ever to be shot in widescreen, with an aspect ratio of about 1.65:1.

  2. Some crazy how they have episodes of T.J. Hooker and Fantasy Island in widescreen format. WHAT KIND OF WITCHCRAFT IS THIS?

    1. Well with Tatto, you don’t need High Screen, so you have to Wide Screen.

      Same with T. J. Hooker. He was always laying across the hood of some car so again you don’t need High Screen. Wide Screen gives you the best visual of T. J.’s legs swinging back and forth across the hood of the car.

  3. Is this a good thing? I used to be indifferent to comic books, but now I think all the educators that warned they would turn children into morons were correct.

    Especially since it’s not children reading them anymore, but 20-somethings.

  4. There was also a big boom in the trade paperback business that wasn’t just giant collections of old stuff. Writing for a TPB meant actually focusing on the story and not just selling the individual issue, but not a “cliffhanger to cliffhanger” soap opera style, but with a clear end in sight. The art definitely got more cinematic, in part because everyone and their mom was influenced by manga, which broke up panels and took over two page spreads whenever it felt visually or emotionally necessary.

    What i like about comics now, though, is that there’s a huge variety. It’s maybe going to end up just another medium for creativity and storytelling like books or movies or music. More kids seem to read them (or at least the cartoon network spinoff comics!) and it’s far from the superheroes and alt comics only it used to be.

  5. The comic books had very little to do with the movies. No one reads comics. Everyone goes to the movies.

    And X-Men wasn’t the first big success in the modern CBM era. That would go to Spider-Man in 2002, or farther back to Superman in 1978 and then Batman in 1989.

    1. +1 Batman in ’89.

  6. Spoiler Alert, I guess . . .

    One of the problems with the new Captain America Civil War movie is that the characters end up on the wrong sides.

    Captain America shouldn’t be an outlaw with Stark working for the U.S. government. It should be the other way around. Captain America should fight for American ideals even as government leaders fail to live up to them.

    And Iron Man has the money and organization to work outside of government.

    And why did they pretend Nick Fury wasn’t in charge anymore?

    The first Avengers flick was the best of them. They’ve all been downhill ever since.

    1. I haven’t seen Civil War yet, but they foreshadowed Stark’s change of heart in Age of Ultron.

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