Comics are attractive to producers for the same reasons books are—preexisting story lines, a built-in audience—but there is more. The graphic element of a comic sets the visual style for a film, and the iconic nature of the hero and ongoing story lines lend themselves to licensing, merchandising (including tie-in publishing) and a franchise. There's much to be gained for the filmmaker, but also a lot to be risked. Movies based on comic books tend to be expensive and need a big director or star to give the project credibility and lots of elaborate special effects. So a comic-book—based movie is often what they call a "tent-pole" picture—that big summer release aimed primarily at kids, but with hopes that adults will go to see it, too.

Movie studios are not the only beneficiaries of comics-based films. Marvel has seen its stock price rise almost 20% this quarter, with revenue estimates up to $87 million, nearly $20 million more than anticipated. This is due almost entirely to licensing income. Variety reported in August that "licensing comprises the majority of Marvel cash flow and profits, and in the second quarter of 2003, revenues from character licensing fees jumped threefold to $56.8 million, thanks largely to Spider-Man and X-2: X-Men United product sales."

Marvel has been working with several major studios and has a slew of forthcoming films, including Spider-Man 2 with Tobey Maguire reprising his role (July 2004); The Punisher starring Thomas Jane and John Travolta (summer 2004); Blade 3 (Blade started out as a minor character in Marvel's 1970s series, Tomb of Dracula); and Iron Man in 2005. Marvel has also had successes with Men in Black, Daredevil and The Hulk. Marvel announced last month that it intends to launch its own film production company, with a view to producing smaller movies based on its 4,700-character library. This would put it in a position to retain more of the profits. Avi Arad, president and CEO of Marvel Studios, has hinted that he will focus his production efforts on lesser-known characters such as Blade, and will still work with the major studios.

Marvel is the market leader in the comic-to-film business, with Warner-owned DC Comics in second place. In the interests of corporate synergy—and profits—Warner Bros. produces most of the DC product. Batman is a huge perennial franchise for Warner, both on film and TV. A Catwoman movie starring Halle Berry is scheduled for release on July 30, 2004, with the sixth Batman film, starring Christian Bale, on the slate for 2005. Other forthcoming DC properties include Constantine starring Keanu Reeves, based on the Vertigo title Hellblazer; Wonder Woman and Superman are also in development. Many in the industry think DC would benefit from having an in-house producer at Warner Bros. to focus on the properties, as an equivalent to Marvel's Arad.

Television also is a huge customer for comic-book material, and the WB Network does well with its DC-inspired series of Batman Beyond, while Justice League is popular on the Cartoon Network. Meanwhile, Marvel has TV versions of Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four and X-Men. Platinum Studios also this year made a first-look deal with Disney TV.

The two giants of comic book publishing cannot be complacent, as their market share is being challenged by companies like Dark Horse, founded by Mike Richardson in 1986. Richardson set up a subsidiary, Dark Horse Entertainment, in 1992 and has had significant successes with The Mask, Timecop and the forthcoming Hellboy starring Ron Perlman, scheduled for release next May, based on the Seeds of Destruction trade paperback. Dark Horse recently announced that it is expanding its publishing into novels and nonfiction via an imprint called M Press. Other comic-book publishers are making an impact in Hollywood, such as Archie Comics (Betty and Veronica, optioned to Miramax), CrossGen Comics (represented in Hollywood by Endeavor) and IDW (Steve Niles's Wake the Dead, optioned to Dimension). Then there is the whole Japanese manga tradition, which is making inroads in the U.S. both in terms of publishing and as source material for films. Paramount is developing a film from Kazuo Koike's 28-volume Lone Wolf and Cub series, published by Dark Horse, to be directed by Darren Aronofsky.

So the question is, Why this popularity now? Maybe because America needs superheroes, to take on the forces of darkness with no moral ambiguity; maybe because we're looking for fantasy in an attempt to escape reality; maybe just because special effects are so sophisticated nowadays that we can really make the comics work.