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
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
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.