Chances are that whenever you’re reading this, a tentpole movie based on a comic book opened in theaters or a new streaming series based on a comic character you may or may not have ever heard of just launched. Odds are equally good that you scanned social media this week and saw a news item that your favorite actor just accepted a role in an upcoming comic-based property.
Most likely, all of these things happened. And will continue to happen, across screens of all sizes, on platforms both paid and free, until every costumed character, colorful supervillain, four-color world or two-color comic-strip is brought to life via moving pictures.
As much as the past two decades have shown that our entertainment spaces are just additional planets in the comic-book multiverse, there remains a threshold that comic-book characters have yet to conquer: the world of gaming.
Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been a handful of wildly successful games based on comics—the many beloved Spider-Man games and Batman: Arkham Asylum, to name a couple, have won over legions of fans with soaring graphics and gameplay. Even all-new concepts infused with comics’ DNA—World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, League of Legends—have proven globally popular. Comics make up a piece of the videogame ecosystem, surely… but not a very big piece, and many of the related games have proven to be pleasant diversions but not yet garnered rabid fan support on a larger basis. And here is where I’m telling you that they should.
I’m a longtime comic-book writer, editor, and publisher. Comics have been a part of my life for the entirety of my life, and it’s been a thrill seeing the things that I quietly loved as a kid become mainstream franchises that captivate people the world over. I welcome anything that introduces the concepts and characters to new audiences while also finding new ways to delight us pre-sold fans. Some people think that we’ve reached the saturation point of comic-based entertainment, and if they’re talking about passive consumption, I wouldn’t necessarily argue with them.
But we should all be able to actively engage with these characters in ways we’re still not—on a grand scale, through gameplay.
It’s exciting to see Tony Stark don the Iron Man armor and fly around; or to watch Carol Danvers power up as Captain Marvel and have a cosmic adventure. Hell, it’s a visceral thrill to watch the Hulk and She-Hulk smash things up when the situation calls for a good smashing. But even more than that, we all want the chance to control the smashing ourselves! For all the game universes we’ve been exposed to, there are so many more that we still deserve to experience through active gameplay. Want to wield your giant red Fist of Doom to smash some mythological beastie instead of just reading about Hellboy? Yeah, me too. And never mind a clever throwback like Cuphead to drop gamers into visuals of the past—let me stab a zombie in the eye as The Goon’s partner Frankie while inhabiting Eric Powell’s noir comic-book world; hell, never mind the fact that Jeff Smith’s wonderful Bone character didn’t get the animated series he deserves—let people immerse themselves in Bone’s world and experience it for themselves.
The reason why comics haven’t taken over the gaming world probably has something to do with lawyers. Or a couple companies owning the most well-known characters. Fair enough. But there are plenty of less well-known but equally-deserving comics, filled with awesome characters with rich backstories. In fact, I’d advocate for leveraging comic book IP owned by single or small-team creators (rather than, say, Marvel or DC) as even better source material for gaming. Without the constraints that accompany a half-century-old corporate character and unrestrained by a need to ensure corporate synergy across all iterations of a piece of I.P., comic-book properties owned and controlled by one or two creators offer many advantages beyond just the unfettered imagination of their small creative teams.
First, despite (or maybe even because of) the small teams that work on them, these properties come with a sizable fanbase all their own, one that tends to remain loyal to the character or the creator more than a game based on a corporate entity and marketed toward a more limited category like “teenage boys,”—which remains the target audience for too many games—and certainly those based on globally popular superheroes. But for the legions of fans who love comics such as The Goon, Saga, Bone, Hellboy, Locke & Key, Once and Future… those titles may not be household names in the way that Batman (born-on date: 1939) or the Hulk (1962) are, but longevity was never the true indicator of fan passion. Which means that there are a plethora of interesting, vibrant, and popular worlds ready to be developed yet devoid of the preconceived notions and toxic demands of corporate-character fanbases. As much as comics have broken into the mainstream, they’ve not yet done so in demonstrable ways with so many of these smaller but well-loved characters who stand ready and waiting.
Manifest destiny of comic IP for game material makes sense for game developers and studios, too. While comic-book movies and shows have been the driving force of the broader entertainment ecosystem over the past couple decades, anyone paying attention knows that games are where the true innovation and active participation has really evolved in the most unique, fun, and engaging ways.
Look at the recent fervor over the releases of Elden Ring and Apex Legends. There was advertising for these games the same way there are ads for films, but the ads for games such as these were beside the point: gamers already knew of these games a year prior to their release, and were rabidly consuming every bit of information they could find about these games, marking the days until their release, whether traditional messaging reached them or not. Which is much the same way the “smaller” comic titles I mentioned above operate.
When Saga, a comic book that went on hiatus for nearly three years’ time in 2018, announced its return in January 2022, it was a watershed announcement for those in the know: retailers saw this as a bottom-line-saving release; fans planned release parties. But, even if you happen to know the book yourself, would anyone else in your family know the title if you mentioned it? Probably not. And that doesn’t matter at all—a game based on a comic with as many eager fans as that doesn’t need the name-recognition of Wonder Woman to be a massive, industry-altering success. It’s comics like that, the ones below the mass-market radar but squarely in the sights of loyal, eager-to-spend fans, that are ideal fodder for video-game adaptation.
It goes beyond the cool factor, too. At their core, comic-book superheroes originally began as wish-fulfillment for their otherwise-powerless teenage creators and readers. They told stories of or read about characters powerful enough to fight back against fascism, against bullies… hell, even against nasty employers and other pain points large and small. Creators and the comics’ fans could both escape from life’s drudgery or outright injustice via the pages of the comic. So the catharsis of playing as such characters would not only be engaging but, well, it’d be fuckin’ awesome. This wasn’t exactly as cathartic as being able to, say, punch videogame Hitler in the jaw (as Captain America did on the cover of his first comic book and we’d all love to do in a game) but the first time I was able to just swing around New York City in the Playstation Spider-Man game, it offered a jolt of cool and freedom that the comics could never match. And I’ve read a lot of Spider-Man comics.
So, more of that sensation, please. Let us become the heroes we love to read and watch. Who knows, maybe experiencing some of their heroic behavior in a more direct way will even infuse more of our behavior in the real world, which can always use more heroes.