Steven Spielberg’s animated feature The Adventures of Tintin opened this week, closing out another year full of big-budget movies based on comic books and graphic novels. Tintin joins properties like Captain America, X-Men, Green Lantern, Cowboys and Aliens, and Thor in the seemingly endless cavalcade of four-color characters to make it to the big screen. And 2011 was a relatively light year. For next year, fans are bracing for Batman: The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, among many others.
But Tintin is not like these other comic movie adaptations. Despite its big budget and blockbuster pretentions, Tintin comes from a separate branch of the comics family—those quaint Europeans who, unlike Americans, have treated their graphic novels seriously for decades and consider comics a mass medium, not a genre. Can this Old World take on transmedia succeed in the U.S., or is it like asking Americans to put mayonnaise on their frites, when all they want is ketchup on their fries?
This question goes right to the heart of the transmedia boom that’s swept over the entertainment industry in the past two decades: the desire to create synergies between comic-book superheroes like Batman, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four, toys like GI Joe and Transformers, genre-oriented literary properties like Harry Potter and Twilight, and videogames like Resident Evil, and megabucks movie franchises. In all these cases, Hollywood has gone straight for the material that has a built-in cult following rather than obvious mass-audience appeal.
The idea is that the fanboys and fangirls who show up in their rabid, costumed multitudes at events like the San Diego Comic-Con will be uniquely motivated to act as viral PR shock troops for these kinds of movies, and then show up on opening night, assuring that all-important "winning weekend" that determines box office success. Both the commercial and artistic results of this geek gold rush have been mixed to say the least, but the trend shows no sign of abating.
Part of this is driven by consolidation in the entertainment industry. America’s two largest comic publishers, DC and Marvel, are owned by Warner Brothers Entertainment and Disney respectively, and their stock-in-trade is superheroes. Disney’s $4 billion purchase of Marvel in 2009 was clearly driven by a desire to use Marvel’s stable of action heroes and proven franchise-worthy lineup (The Hulk, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, etc.) to fill a hole the size of a teenage boy in Disney’s otherwise-dominant pop culture portfolio.
DC flew under Warner Brothers’ radar for decades, but now the parent company is mining its IP goldmine (which includes Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Justice League and other household-name characters) strategically rather than opportunistically. The synergies between DC’s recent "New 52" relaunch of its superhero comics and the release of transmedia properties like the Batman: Arkham City videogame and next year’s Dark Knight Rises movie are much more coordinated both from a marketing and timing perspective than in years past.
Spielberg’s Adventures of Tintin (produced by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson) is in an oddity, based on a comic character who is neither a costumed superhero nor even American. Created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi (under the pen name Hergé) in the late 1920s, the boy adventurer and his dog Snowy starred in a series of best-selling graphic novels throughout the '30s and '40s.
Hergé’s clean-line art style and fast-moving storytelling was an enormous influence in the European comic scene. In English-speaking countries, the graphic novel had to fight for decades to be taken seriously by critics and readers, and even today is still subject to the occasional "Zap! Bam! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!" treatment in the media. Thanks in part to creators like Hergé and others who produced general material for a wide range of audiences, the comics medium enjoys much greater artistic respect and mass-market appeal in Europe.
Ironically, European comic properties have proven much less bankable when moving to other media. Fantomas, Diabolik, Barbarella, and Asterix the Gaul—all blue-chip, well-recognized characters with huge followings in Europe—never made much of a splash as movies. Tintin is the king of this particular mountain and an incredibly popular character throughout the world, but until now has not received a big-budget adaptation on screen.
Is there something about the wonky, cultish aspects of U.S. comic book superheroes that makes them especially well-suited for the cinematic treatment, while characters with superficially wider appeal such as Tintin get taken for granted? The Adventures of Tintin will put that question to the test. If the combined commercial and artistic might of Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and a cast of thousands of the world’s greatest animators can’t propel the boy adventurer into the top tier of box office success, it’s hard to see prospects for other non-genre comics in the transmedia era.
Rob Salkowitz is author of Young World Rising: How Youth, Technology and Entrepreneurship are Changing the World from the Bottom Up. His new book, Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, will be published by McGraw-Hill in 2012.