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Comic Books and Video Games: A Shared History

Comic books and video games have a lot in common. Yes, our two cultures are stereotyped as geeks and nerds, video games frequently feature popular comic book characters, and our two medias involve a great deal of visual and story-telling art. But the similarities run deeper than that, our two histories share a great deal of similarities, many of which spawn from society and the world around us.

 

A Culture of War
In modern gaming, we see some of our most popular games influenced by the current state of military affairs. Battlefield, Call of Duty, Spec Ops: The Line, Operation Flashpoint, and a large list of other games have been directly influenced by combat operations in the Middle East. This is not unlike the early days of comic books.

Early comic books found their niche and popularity when covering the realms of military conflict. The very first issue of Captain America, published prior to the US entrance into World War II, featured Captain America punching Hitler in the face on the cover and sold over a million copies. For the entirety of the war, comic book heroes would be seen on the front lines of the conflict. Superman number 17 featured The Man of Steel heroically holding Hitler in one hand and Stalin in the other, apparently teaching them a lesson. Comic books were even used, much like the celebrities of the time, to sell war bonds to fund the growing military costs.

Interestingly, comic books faced a decline in popularity as the war died down and soldiers returned home. With no real enemy for them to mock, comic books diminished in popularity. It makes one wonder if peace time for us would mean a decline in video game sales, specifically within the shooter genre.

 
While there are many other explanations for the recent rise in sales, it makes one wonder what effect the culture of war has on these numbers... (this chart was taken directly from the ESA's report on video game sales growth from 2012)

Regulated Viewing
ESRB was formed in 1994 to respond to criticism about violence in video games like Night Trap, Mortal Kombat and the popular shooters of the day as well as the supposed corruption it bled into society. Over time, violent and infamous incidents have been blamed on video games (as well as other popular media) including the shootings at Columbine High School. Society sought a faceless entity to place the blame and they found one. However, this is something that has all been done before.

 

From 1930 to 1950 comic books experienced their golden age. Super heroes fought the villains of World War II and rallied support for the cause. The comic books had something of a propaganda feel and purpose and society bought into it without question. But after the war had ended, comic books needed to seek a new direction and the increasing popularity of the television wasn't making it any easier. Inevitably, a doctor came along and performed a "study" (as they tend to) on the effect of comic books. He ended up writing one of the most infamous books in comic book history. The book was "The Seduction of the Innocent" and the doctor was Fredric Wertham.

Dr. Wertham made numerous wild accusations and claimed that comic books of all types contributed to juvenile delinquency. Other subsequent studies and books made claims that the reading of comic books was a common thread and cause for the creation of serial killers. Of course, people bought into the concepts presented in these studies, especially when they claimed many of the books promoted fascism, a word as forbidden as communism in the late 50's and early 60's. In a biography of Stan Lee, With Great Power, Lee states that he was even afraid to admit to people in public settings that he wrote comic books for a living simply because of the reactions he would receive.

In response to the Senate hearings and bad publicity, the comic book world created a self-governing unit, the Comics Code Authority, which would act as an approval system for comic books. Any comics that wanted their seal of approval in comic books had to go through a rigorous screening process, quite similar to the ESRB for video games.

 

Shift to Digital Distribution
As we see the rise in support for the Ouya and the increasing amount of titles available for digital download (not to mention the growing popularity of Steam), we find ourselves wondering if the future of gaming is digital distribution and when that shift will take place. Yet many of us have thought out many of the complexities and issues this will cause for the industry, and there are many to be named. At this point, some of us (myself included) wonder how the industry would adapt and if it could even survive the shift. But we are not alone in this debate.

Recently, comic book apps have surfaced from many of the major publishers of comic books and many of the issues are available for digital download. But at the same time, this shift from paper to digital brings about many questions.

For instance, one of the main draws for some is comic books acting as a sort of investment, growing in value over time. Not long ago, I purchased a variant cover of a very recent G.I. Joe comic book. The variant only showed up 1 in every 100 books. I paid a measly $6 for the book and sent it off to be graded by the professional grading company. It received a perfect 10/10 on the condition score and now sits in a sealed case in my small collection. With the grading, my cost was right around $40. The most recent offer I received for it: $250. Older books garner even larger offers with some acting as holy grails and financial saviors to those who find them in their attics or basements, forgotten over the years by owners who stopped paying attention.

The question remains, would a switch to solely digital distribution, would the comic book industry suffer to thrive? At this point, much like gaming, we can only speculate what the digital shift may bring.

 

At the Movies
Video games have tried numerous times to break into the feature film industry, mostly with disastrous results like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, BloodRayne, Alone in the Dark, Wing Commander, Far Cry, Mario Brothers, and Double Dragon. With the announcement of each film, many of us groan deep down inside ourselves and then say that we hope the film isn't the same as every other video game movie ever made. But this was even the case for comic book movies until recently.

Every Batman movie up until Batman Begins was nothing but a terrible joke gone wrong to just about every Batman fan I know of. These movies tried to take on a "dark" version of the campy (read: "crappy") Adam West Batman television series. They got huge actors to play the parts of every role and every one of them was terrible. Then, the Dark Knight made its way onto the screen, and moviegoers got to see what Batman is really about: a dark hero, forced into truly difficult decisions.

 

Batman was not alone in this, there is a massive list of terrible comic book movies including Judge Dredd, Howard the Duck, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Catwoman, and even more recent adaptations like Spiderman 3 were absolutely dreadful. But, the point is, more and more modern comic book movies are becoming massive blockbusters like The Avengers and the Dark Knight trilogy. Perhaps, one day, video games will have their moment on the big screen.

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