The Emmy nominations were only recently announced, but a winner has already been announced: comic book adaptations. But it’s more than that, with WandaVision’s success this year (at 23 nominations, it’s 1 behind co-leaders The Crown and The Mandalorian), we’re seeing the success of the massive fictional universe (MFU) in an unlikely space: prestige entertainment. One could point to Watchmen’s massive success (a whopping 26 nominations with 11 wins) as a harbinger of things to come, but that project was an expansion of Alan Moore’s singular vision, largely untethered from any MFU (even if it was eventually folded into it). But with these latest developments, it’s clear more than ever that MFUs (a big part of which is comic books) remain on the rise.
Right now, the only MFUs are Marvel, DC, and Star Wars. An easy way to test this theory is by looking at which fan wikis are the largest — there are other massive databases but they’re either about real-life things (like logos or military history) or video games (which could become extremely valuable, but the nature of video game narratives has made them difficult to adapt to other media).
There are many reasons this change may feel surprising. Partially it’s because these MFUs, with their fantasy and science fiction, lack the grounded realism of traditional dramas. I’d contend that line of thinking is similar to and no less irrational than the French Academy’s hierarchy of genres back in the 17th century; the quality of the story, not the medium in which it’s conveyed, should signify something’s worth. Part of it is because MFUs are filled with superheroes, wizards, and mad scientists with abilities beyond that of normal humans. Never mind that superheroes in form if not name have been around forever (one could argue that Batman is basically Odysseus with a utility belt), such that it’s not hard to fit classical heroes into modern superhero narratives (see Gilgamesh in theatres this November).
The rise in MFUs shouldn’t be surprising — it’s an inevitable progression. The largest media company today (Disney) understands the value of these properties and has a vested interest in building them into ever bigger franchises. And that means spending more effort on publishing comics and tie-in novels so that they can test out new stories and ideas for later adaptation.
A Medium for Every Season
Any story requires a medium to be told, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. To categorize the media of stories, I think mostly about how much is communicated in words vs. images and whether something is performed or not. A novel or podcast is easy to catalog — it’s all written or spoken, with visuals supplied by the audience’s imagination. The other extreme — all images with no words — is generally only found in children’s books. Sure there are great exceptions in television and film and comics, but it’s rare and almost always a flex of some kind. As for performance, that’s pretty straightforward — is it something that you can hold in your hands or something that you need to see other people perform. It’s important to note here that, of course, you can read scripts or plays, but those are the raw materials, not the finished results. Reading Hamlet in your dorm room is not the same as seeing it performed by great thespians on stage.
More importantly to media companies though, there are very different cost structures and profit margins to each media. Of course, any medium can be made by one person with the right technology, but that’s rare when creating things in the modern landscape for profit. Writing a novel today only needs the fairly cheap team of a writer plus an editorial staff; in contrast, a modern big-budget film requires a whole army of people with complicated and specialized jobs. Because of their relatively lower cost structures novels can be insanely profitable (J.K. Rowling’s rate-of-return for Harry Potter is incalculably large), but the best risk-adjusted money-makers are filmed productions (i.e., TV and film). Of course, given the boom-or-bust nature of filmed productions, today’s media conglomerates want to hedge their bets, and that means leaning towards adaptations rather than original ideas.
Adaptations aren’t a modern invention — Sophocles didn’t make Oedipus out of whole cloth after all — but they’ve taken off in the modern-day given the money involved to create high-quality film and television productions and a desire to reduce risk. Unsurprisingly, early inspiration for filmed media tended to be stage productions, a tendency most clearly seen today in multi-camera sitcoms. Like a traditional play, there’s a set where actors perform in front of humans; the main difference is that action is performed multiple times, and then edited for the final audience. However, as live theater became less popular (likely driven by the emergence of films and television), other media were necessary, namely novels.
Novels are great for adaptations because they span many different genres and lots of people read them. Thus it’s possible to find novels for any genre of filmed entertainment one might like to make and also know which ones are good and which ones aren’t by seeing what people read (you only want to adapt the good ones). However, the recent success of comic books highlights a key deficiency of the novel: compelling visuals. Because novels are told only in words, they’re best at describing something that can’t be visualized. A picture of a sunset is generally more helpful than a paragraph describing one; on the other hand, a paragraph of internal monologue can better explain someone’s emotions and motivations. In this way, a comic book can provide not only story beats but also visuals (for a quick example see how this panel from the Civil War comic set up a similar shot in the 2016 film).
As filmed adaptations started to turn to comics more and more, they came across a trait of comics, namely to have all the characters across the publisher interact with one another (Marvel started this, but soon DC Comics copied it; Star Wars did it a bit differently with both comics and tie-in novels but arrived at the same place). For example, The Fantastic Four (the original Marvel superhero team) travel to Africa and fight The Black Panther, the King of Wakanda. If people think that The Black Panther is cool, then he gets his own spinoff series, full of characters that can generate interest of their own. And because all these characters and setups are so fantastical, they invite questions that are just avenues for future stories, often told by different authors. In an MFU, even plot holes are a way to generate more stories.
To be clear: lots of the stories in comics and tie-in novels are bad. Marvel and DC have much lower hit rates in their comics than in their films. But if you’re going to fail, it’s better to fail with a comic or tie-in novel than with a very expensive filmed production. Though these stories may serve some purpose, they’re more likely to be quickly referenced in mainstream adaptations via “easter egg” jokes for the hardcore fans. As for the good stories, they can be retold by repackaging them into a more profitable medium and distributed to a broader audience, for significantly less risk than an original idea.
The Advantageous Economics of MFUs
This may sound obvious — try out stories in a cheap medium before making a more expensive yet profitable form later — but given the proliferation in content, it’s more important than ever. The biggest risk for filmed entertainment is execution, and the best way to reduce that is by trying things out ahead of time in a less risky way. Of course, the second biggest threat (from the perspective of a massive media company), is having to pay lots of money to the creative staff behind your latest hit project. That’s the true genius of these MFUs — you can get great creators for better terms because they want to play in these special sandboxes.
Let’s take a look at how something like this plays out with a creator like Ed Brubaker whom I referenced earlier. In 2005, Brubaker (along with artist Steve Epting) reimagined Captain America’s long-dead, golden age teen sidekick (James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes) as a brainwashed assassin with a cybernetic metal arm, codenamed The Winter Soldier. Although reintroduced as an antagonist for Captain America, Bucky soon caught on as an antihero of sorts. The character was tremendously popular and had been a mainstay of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (unsurprisingly, the character features prominently in the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the TV series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier). Despite all this, Brubaker claims he earns more from a cameo in the film than from creating the source material it’s based on.
This owes a fair bit to a quirk in the way the comics industry works. If something is written in the worlds controlled by Marvel and DC, that work is “for hire” and ultimately owned by the big corporate entity. A writer can publish a story based on their own original creation; to do so they’ll go to a smaller publisher like Image and strike up a deal where they retain rights and the publisher handles and profits off of distribution. This can be an incredibly lucrative path if you make successful comics like Robert Kirkman (he created The Walking Dead and the recently adapted Invincible).
Now, there’s no reason for Marvel not to compensate Brubaker better in the future (he should get Jim Starlin’s agent), but why would writers choose to write for Marvel rather than create their own worlds for higher paydays like Kirkman? It comes down to three reasons. First, writing for DC and Marvel gives comic book creators the opportunity to build up their personal brand and develop a following for creator-owned works that may come later. Second, it’s more stable — a job at Marvel or DC will pay, and creating something new may not. Last and most importantly, working in those MFUs is a chance to build on something that you loved as a child. Writers grew up with Star Wars, Marvel, and DC — the chance to put your own spin on those fictional worlds, is something many would love to do.
The beauty of this system is that while you have lots of old comics to rely upon, there are always new stories being written that could potentially be adapted. One of Marvel’s upcoming Disney+ series is centered around Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, the first Muslim Marvel character to headline her own series. In the comics, Kamala Khan is a Pakistani-American, teen living in Jersey City that can grow/shrink her body and limbs; she takes her name from the Carol Danvers, the former Ms. Marvel (now called Captain Marvel, she’s already had a movie; Kamala will appear in the sequel). However, this character is relatively new — she only debuted with her superhero code name in 2014. Even older characters can take something from newer adaptations — the 2019 film Black Panther took many visuals from the version of the character drawn by Brian Stelfreeze in 2016.
Taken together, MFUs create flywheel effects. The critical mass of interconnected stories and characters within an MFU attracts a dedicated audience; this, in turn, inspires artists to create new stories, increasing the value of the MFU. The beauty of this system is that a media corporation can then sift through the best of these published stories and elevate the best for profitable filmed entertainment vehicles. And of course, those adaptations will only increase the value of the underlying IP, strengthening the circle more (and leading to ancillary revenue streams, like merchandising, licensing, theme parks, or even weird car commercials). Best of all (from the perspective of the media companies), they control the mass of stories, reducing the leverage of the artists who create these works. What’s left is an ever-more-valuable, constantly growing pile of revenue streams, with little-to-no individual artistic ownership.
Who has MFUs, and Who Wants Them
In terms of corporate ownership, Disney owns the two biggest MFUs (Marvel and Star Wars) while Warner Discovery manages the third (DC Comics). That’s not to say other fictional universes cannot rise to join them — Harry Potter and Game of Thrones certainly have the potential — but it’s unclear if they will grow and mature enough.
Despite some impressive box office receipts for Fantastic Beasts, it’s unclear how much interest audiences have in the “Wizarding World” if our favorite, lightning-scarred chosen boy isn’t driving the narrative (note the more common name is still “Harry Potter” after all). Game of Thrones (or a Song of Ice and Fire for book purists) will be put to the test with the new HBO show House of the Dragon. But the larger problem for both universes is that they’re still young and driven primarily by one creative voice. Star Wars will always be the vision of George Lucas, but it’s increasingly his disciples who are expanding and guiding its future, moving beyond the Skywalker Saga to other places and times in a galaxy far far away. The value of Star Wars is that you can care about those other characters because you care about the setting, not just whatever Luke Skywalker is doing. For now, the Wizarding World only works if it includes Harry and Hogwarts.
CBS Viacom has tried to grow Star Trek, but it pales in comparison to Star Wars. Amazon, Netflix, and Apple have even less with which to work. Amazon has an unparalleled retail database and a surprisingly large number of pop culture websites — the company owns pop culture databases IMDb and Goodreads as well as the largest digital comic seller ComiXology. In fact, that comics marketplace might help explain how Amazon developed well-regarded comic book adaptations The Boys and Invincible; neither is an MFU, though Amazon is certainly trying to start one by developing a The Boys spinoff. Netflix for its part is all about franchises and may have something with Stranger Things, but it’s still very early for a series with no underlying IP and only 25 episodes aired to date. Beyond The Witcher (which can never be an entirely Netflix property given the video games that the streamer does not control), Netflix’s attempts have not done so well (RIP Jupiter’s Legacy). As for Apple, well, they have a very large checkbook and are trying some things with Foundation.
MFUs are where the traditional media companies have a big leg up on their tech competitors. These properties are rich tapestries of stories, written by many, loved by millions, making billions. Eventually, even an organization as backward as the Television Academy would recognize their merits and give them some awards. Just don’t expect it to stop anytime soon.