The release of Marvel and Paramount's "Thor" officially delivers us into comic-book movie season.
You may have formerly known the period between early May and mid-August as "summer movie season," of course, but that label appears to be as outdated as the VHS tape of "Twister" sitting on the shelf in your media room. The theatrical release period that frames the months when teenagers are free from school has always been about spectacle -- at least since 1973 or so -- but that spectacle is increasingly dominated by characters who originated in four-color comics.
This summer's entries include "Thor," directed by former Shakespearean wunderkind Kenneth Branagh; "X-Men: First Class," a reboot of the mutant franchise featuring the 1960's-based origins of the mutant team and directed by "Kick-Ass" helmer Matthew Vaughn; "Green Lantern," the first real non-Batman or Superman movie from DC Comics, directed by Martin Campbell; and "Captain America: The First Avenger," directed by Spielberg protege Joe Johnston.
Making movies featuring comic-book characters is part of studios' increasing reliance on franchises and properties that come with audiences that are already sold, it's presumed, on that franchise or property. People who have read comic books featuring Thor, for instance, are considered likely to come to the theater.
But is there a reverse effect? Could all these comic-book movies turn non-readers into comic buyers? That's certainly part of what Marvel and DC have in mind.
Some tactics both Marvel and DC have employed before, and will probably trot out again this superhero-heavy summer, include:
Jumping-on Points: There's so much history with superhero characters that non-readers complain it's impossible to just buy an issue off the shelves and know what's going on. So the publishers will heavily promote certain issues this summer as a "perfect jumping-on point for new readers" -- one not part of a 12-issue story arc and not dependent on plot points first introduced 30+ years ago.
New or Limited Series: Probably the most-popular tactic employed, this achieves the same goal as the above but in an even more substantial way, providing new or casual buyers an easy point of entry into a character's mythology. Often these new series will pit the hero of the movie against, conveniently, the villain he's facing in the film.
Collections: Why sell a single issue when you can sell someone a collection of a half-dozen issues connected by a single story arc? Particularly popular for how they translate to mainstream book stores, trade paperback collections can act as ways for people to catch up on a character or characters in one fell swoop and hopefully get a large enough sample that they're hooked. Bonus points for collections that use the word "Origin," which is especially attractive among new buyers.
Retconning: Short for "retroactive continuity," this is where the history of the character in question gets a bit of a revamp, usually so that it's more in line with what's introduced in the movie. So if the character was originally the prisoner of some Cold War bad guys, his back story will be subtly altered so that he was a prisoner of the current world's bad guys. Other parts of the character's origin or history may also be played with so that someone familiar mostly with the film version isn't presented a whole new mythology in the books.
Big Event: Have a character about to appear in a major motion picture? All of a sudden he or she is going to be involved in an event that involves his death, his assent to power, or something similarly splashy. This is especially important to do with perceived "second-tier" characters who don't have major recognition outside comics readers.
This summer, with its plethora of comics-based movies, will show just how intertwined the two worlds are and how each media serves as a promotional platform for the other.