More than 'Kapow' and 'Shazam'

My mom has a theory: Peter Pan has won. Our culture now refuses to grow up.

Her disgust stems partly from the fact that movie screens soon will be filled with enough men in tights to field 12 of Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Projects. Pretty much every superhero except Howard the Duck is getting his own movie. In the latest development, Wolfgang Petersen has signed on to direct the ultimate superhero slugfest, "Batman vs. Superman."

You might think "Road to Perdition" is a Tom Hanks film. Actually, it's a comic-book movie – a graphic novel, to be precise, as was one of last year's most acclaimed movies, "Ghost World." Michael Chabon is turning his Pulitzer Prize-winning saga of comic-book artists, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," into a series of comic books and a movie.

None of these are kids stuff.

Comics readers today are actually 30- and 40somethings. People like Henry Jenkins, an MIT professor who estimates he spends $200 to $300 a month on comic books.

These readers demand more from storytelling than "kapow" and "shazam." And according to Dr. Jenkins, who teaches a course on comic books, they get it. He sees in the best of the medium a fusion of pop culture and the avant-garde that, to him, is more exciting than anything TV, movies, or "serious" literature is currently attempting.

That's partly out of desperation: There are about the same number of comic-book readers as there are art-film buffs. (As any foreign film fan knows, that's not a lot.)

"The medium may be dying," Jenkins says. So, it's willing to try anything – concepts so high even Superman couldn't leap them in a single bound. Take, for example, "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman," in which heroes of Victorian literature are turned into a 19th-century Justice League. Sean Connery is attached to star.

Not that this creativity always translates. The historical detective work that Alan Moore did in "From Hell," positing the identity of one of the first serial killers, got watered down to the point where it was just a movie about Jack the Ripper, says Eric Reynolds, an editor at Fantagraphics, which published "Ghost World." But after 25 years, he sees a conflation of events where serious graphic novels are finally garnering respect – and improved sales. And while graphic-novel adaptations may never outstrip the superheroes, Daniel Clowes, author of "Ghost World," is working on another movie.

For those not persuaded of the graphic novel's literary merit, consider that there are worse places for Hollywood to get ideas. This summer also features movies inspired by a commercial slogan ("Like Mike"), a theme park attraction ("The Country Bears"), and the athletic prowess of a golden retriever ("Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch"). Or, as Bradley Wright, author of "Comic Book Nation" says, "Do we really need another Tom Clancy movie?"

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