Playground battles round 1: Comics versus video games, FIGHT!

There are certain rivalries that every nerd, geek and gamer engage in for whatever reason. These arguments began as disagreements in grade school on the playground during recess. The most notable ones include Sega or SNES, Transformers or Gobots, Star Wars or Star Trek, Harry Potters or Lord of the Rings, Robocop or Terminator, console or PC, Windows or Mac, Marvel or DC, Freddy or Jason. The list goes on really.

Today I want to dig in and pick a part a playground argument that I’d like to settle once and for all that isn’t from the list above.

No today I want to compare the value, significance, fun factor, entertainment value, collectablility, importance and the merits of comic books against video games.

What prompted this line of inquiry is a podcast episode I recorded when the pandemic was shutting down the world. It had to do with finding the value in comic book characters as intellectual property for their respective parent companies, without the presence of their paper publications in the market. Then I was watching a good old MatPat video on the YouTubes where the uber popular Game Theorist explained why comic book movie adaptations work and video game ones, don’t.

This got me thinking as a fan of both do they absolutely have to intersect or could the world continue with only one over the other.

Let’s see how far this goes.

First up is value.

Video game fans will be quick to point out that for the price of admission ($60 new anywhere from $5 to 500 used) a video game offers tremendous entertainment value per dollar considerably more so than comic books.

Now if you look at monetary value, as in barrier of entry, comics easily beat video games, again on the surface. However, there are exceptions all around that make this decidedly difficult to determine.

For example. A new console plus 1 game is going to set you back, bare minimum, $300 on the low end and considerably higher in most cases. So video games might have more value per dollar over the long term, but comics have a negligible barrier of entry in comparison. Or so it would seam. Sure you can get a digital subscription to comics with access to hundreds, if not thousands, of titles. And you can get physical copies of back issues fairly cheap for the most part. On Average you’re going to pay between 25 cents to 25 dollars per comic for single issues. A far cry from what video games cost.

However here are the exceptions: expensive comics, and discount video games.

I won’t get into downloading mini games on devices you already own that happen to play games, such as streaming boxes, PC’s, tablets or cell phones. Instead I will point out that quit often you can get used consoles for reasonable after market prices, games do go on sale rather quickly after release and if you don’t mind buying last gen stuff used, you can pick up tons of games dirt cheap.

On the flip side you can get good value buying trade paperbacks that collect entire story arcs or story runs saving some money but even that can end up costing money. The real expense though is buying rare comics. What if you buy a run of Amazing Spider-Man, let’s say 40 issues, where the average cost for 38 of those comics is 50 cents. But the two smack in the middle, super important to the story, jump to 150 bucks or more say if a major event or new character is introduced for the first time. All of a sudden you’re shelling out more money for a SINGLE book than you might for a used console and a half dozen or so games. Not much value in that.

Like I said above, on average prices range between a quarter to $25. But they go up rather quickly if the particular issue is highly sought after.

Since you can’t really quantitize the per dollar value of each medium directly let’s call it a wash. A gamer trying to build a collection of fun games to play will get as much mileage out of their dollars as a comic book reader amassing a collection of picture books.

There is another aspect of this I haven’t considered too deep yet. No, not resale value, that’s built into the cost of buying used merchandise. Not subscription services either, I touched on those already. What about where the two mediums intersect?

Suppose you have a comic book fan who loves the characters, and the stories but doesn’t enjoy chasing down single issues, managing subscription services nor seeking out bound collections, but instead spends their comics energy on buying comic book  based video games. Aside from a very small handful of highly notable exceptions, yes exceptions, the rule of thumb is comic books adapted to video games tend to do quite well, similar to how they tend to adapt to film rather easily.

If you are a fan of Batman, Justice League, Spider-Man, Hulk, Spawn, X-Men, Superman and the like, chance are high, extremely so in fact, you can find a quality video game that will deliver loads of fun while representing your favorite character fairly and accurately.

Some examples include Batman on NES, Genesis, N64, GameCube, PS3 and Xbox. You can find some of the best video games of all time starring the Dark Knight himself. And not just the modern take, every version imaginable has been adapted to video games.

What makes playing a video game based on Batman more engaging to a gamer is YOU become the superhero. You are not a passive reader witnessing the story unfold, you are an active participant in the story, the action the drama as it plays out. Again there are some outliers such as Superman 64 for N64, or Aquaman on GameCube, but by and large if a video game is based on a video game property, you can rest assured it will satisfy. This includes ancilliary science fiction and horror properties that might not be comics properties per se but intersect seamlessly, for example Star Wars, Harry Potters or Robocop. Again with few exceptions, the video game is actually going to be well worth your time and more often than not, fairly affordable.

But what if you do this in reverse? Can you get as much enjoyment reading comic books based on video game properties? I’ll save you too much more reading, the short answer is a resounding NO, but more precisely a firm HELL NO.

This is where things are flipped. The exceptions become the rule. While Sonic the Hedgehog has lent himself well to comic books, Mortal Kombat has been treated fair and Street Fighter had a quality, short lived tie in, the rule of thumb is actually horrific. Most comic books based on video games are mere tie ins, cash grabs done to dupe kids shopping for quality comics into spending their money on mass market trash they will find no substance in. While playing a video game based on Batman can bring the pages to life, taking a fully interactive and immersive video game world then trying to flatten it into 2-D, pencil art is laughable at best. At Best.

You see it doesn’t go both ways. Therefore a comics fan can absolutely find plenty of video games to keep their interest and a video game fan can find comics worth reading, it’s not worth it to make a comic based on a video game, for the most part. You lose most of what makes a game so special. Not saying it can’t or isn’t sometimes done. Just saying it’s not usually a good idea.

What about collectibility?

Ah this is where comic collectors push their glasses back into their foreheads and proclaim victory. Remember how I said buying comics can be expensive, well that goes both ways. Those back issues more often than not retain their value, at least once achieved. So they can become a decent investment if that is your goal. If you want sheer numbers for small money trades are the way to go. Combine that with a subscription to Comixology and you’re pretty damn set. You can collect hordes of comics for little money and save up for the more expensive chase items later.

But there is a down side. Completionists lament trying to build a comics collection. Take something as benign as beloved as Action Comics the first true Super Hero book, home to the notable Superman. You think it’s daunting to try and collect the more than 1000 titles published in his book? Ha, think again. Even if you could limit yourself to *just* the main titles, there’s multiple volumes, reprints, numbering changes, reboots, spinoffs, etc. Even if you stick to Action Comics alone you have Annuals, anniversary issues, collectors issues, and reprints. That’s just Superman. Spinoffs include Adventures of Superman, Superboy, Superman, Justice League of America and that’s just the main line, popular titles.

Okay slow your roll you think. Why not limit it to a specific run say an artist/writer combo? Well because you still have to chase down all the issues. You can’t just buy single numbered issues of Action Comics for the full story. No sir. You HAVE to track down the spin offs and crossovers that tie into the story. You might 13 issues of Action Comics, 12 issues of Superman 9 issues of Batman, 4 issues of Jimmy Olsen, 2 issues of JLA, 1 issue of The Flash, a single One shot to wrap it all up and an issue zero to set the stage. It can be exhausting.

Not so fast. This doesn’t automatically make video games better. Sure it seems simple. Get a complete set of just NES games. But when you say complete set does that includes reprints? Players Choice? What about bootlegs, unauthorized copies or even unlicensed games? Where do Tengen games fall in your world?

Okay you say that’s too complicated let’s back it up and only buy Mario games. Sounds simple load up on Nintendo consoles, buy 3-5 games per console, throw in a Mario Kart here and there for good measure and done. What about Atari? Mario appears in several Donkey Kong games that pre-date the NES. That also includes original arcade Mario Bros. Do you toss those aside? What about Mario Picross, Paint, is Missing, fun with series, teachers typing, Hotel Mario? Do you throw those out? Where does Punch Out fall? Or Super Smash Bros? Or Golf, boring old NES golf? Mario is the main character in that. You thought it was simple.

Nope. Collecting video games can be easily as daunting if not more so than video games. Unlike comics where a digital subscription can be had by all for a low price and doesn’t eat too much WIFI data, a video game streaming service, or even digital store, is going to burn your data plan faster than Sonic chasing Eggman. That’s not a solution for all.

You could take a page from comics and go the video game equivalent of trade paperbacks, we call these game compilations. A collector who specializes in compilations can find them self acquiring the hidden gems, sought after icons and mass produced fluff so much easier than tracking down single copies. Don’t want to drop $60 bucks on Mega Man II for NES? Why not drop $20 on Mega Man Anniversary Collection on PS2 instead? Does buying King of the Monsters on NEO GEO AES give you an ulcer? Why not get SNK Anthology instead and get dozens of NEO GEO arcade  hits in one shot.

Even a bookshelf filled with compilations and collections can still be impressive. Hell even the iconic Super Mario All-Stars on SNES is technically a compilation.

It’s not just the value of video games being greater per dollar than comics, nor them being far more interactive, but they are far more visually appealing.

A comic is a static image, or a group of images. Now, don’t get me wrong a comic can be enthralling, immersive and visually pleasing but it’s still a clumping of static images grouped together with text. A video game, even something as simple as an 8-bit NES game can have a visual style in its graphics that outshines even the most beloved comic book art. Okay maybe that last part is a big of a stretch but still.

Then there are video games that look like comic books but aren’t necessarily based on existing comic properties, for example Comix Zone on the Sega Genesis.

Video games offer a depth of interaction and immersive storytelling comics can’t replicate. Now this is where I do swing things back in favor of comics. Even with modern CGI-heavy, story-driven games like the Arkham series, you are still losing the intimate story-telling you can get in a comic book. I played X-Men Legends II on the GameCube and I felt immersed in the world for sure but I didn’t feel as emotionally invested in the story as I did reading the Dark Phoenix Saga in paper back comic form.

Also let’s take a step back to an earlier observation I made regarding collecting. A single issue of a comic book is going to tell a short, self-contained micro-story that is itself part of a larger connected story. Multiple issues weave an arc together that draws the reader in month after month. A video game is usually, especially a single-player game as most comic based games tend to be, a limited engagement. I can get through the story-mode of DC Gods Among Us in less than an hour. But to read the same number of comics that would tell the same story would take days, months if you have to wait for them to arrive in the mail as I in fact do.

The reality is comics keep going. And remember all those spin offs and tie ins I said that make collecting difficult? Yeah, they also make reading comics a blast. Hunting for all the issues in a cross over event can be exciting. Reading through all those different issues one by one is even more thrilling.

You get an experience when you read a comic book that a video game can’t replicate. They both have you holding a physical object in your hands, allowing for a tangible form of interaction, but they do it in different ways. I can sit on the couch, knees bent, laid back and read a comic while a movie is playing in the background. I can set it aside once completed and either pick up another issue or move on to something else. The time investment to get through a single issue might not offer the same dollar for hour as a video game, but admittedly it can offer a nice quick romp through a fantastic world between other activities. I could spend an entire day flipping through pages after pages just admiring the art not even reading a single inked letter.

So which do I prefer? Or more importantly which one is more important to sustaining popular culture? Can Superman exist entirely as a character in movies and video games without a comic book to prop him up? Or can the comic book industry survive without Supes there to prop it up? These are difficult questions to answer.

At the end of the day I truly believe that you do get more out of a video game than you do a comic book but it costs more to get into gaming and it can be major hassle keeping track of all the hardware required to achieve the gaming goals. Comics can be overwhelming if you get bogged down in the lore, multiverse and all, or can be simple time wasters if that is what suits you best.

Personally I love them both and honestly cannot envision a world where one exists without the other. I have a small but concentrated collection of comic books that offer me a glimpse into a world beyond my own. I have a fairly large video game collection that represents every genre of game known to man, save for some obvious ones I shall not divulge.

Still, the truth is I set out to make a case that one is superior to the other in the grandest of scene in that age old format of two kids duking it out at recess on the playground.

Here we go.

Comics are cheap. 1 point

Hard to collect 0 point

flimsy 0 point

artistic pleasing 1 point

immersive 1 point

total 3 points.

Video games are expensive 0 points.

easy to collect 1 point

artistic pleasing 1 point

immersive 1 point

interactive 1 point

total 4 points.

Video Games win by a small margin. Mostly because while I have read a handful of Batman comics, all of which I have enjoyed, I have gotten no more than a few hours cumulative in my entire life spread out among all the Batman comics I’ve read. But I lost count how many hours of Batman video games I’ve played.

I was a regular reader of X-Men in the 90s. By far the comic book property I invested the most reading time into. I had tons, dozens of books ranging from all different titles from Uncanny X-Men, Generation X, New Mutants, Wolverine, Cable, Red and Slim, Kitty Pride and Wolverine, etc., too many to count. But I still got exponentially more hours worth of enjoyment out of X-Men video games. I played a lot from X-Men 1 and 2 on Genesis, Apocalypse on SNES, Marvel vs. Capcom PS1, X-Men Children of the Atom Saturn, X-Men Legends 2 GameCube, Marvel Ultimate Alliance Wii, Marvel Nemesis PS2 and GameCube, X-Men Legends 1 PC, X-Men Mutant Academy PS1 and probably others I have forgotten.

I truly believe that video games based on comic books, when done right, can offer the player an experience that not entirely comparable to reading a comic book of the same character, it can be equally enjoyable and vastly more entertaining once you take the interactive aspects into account.

There is one final point video games  have I didn’t even bother to touch on because it really makes things unfair to comic books. Music. Background music in video games can be an art form itself. Sure you could listen to music while reading a comic but most likely this will only distract you from the story, take you out of the illusion or worst of all give  you a headache. But a pumping soundtrack, be it orchestral or techno based, playing in the background of a hard hitting, fast paced action Spider-Man game can get your heart racing to the rhythm of euphoria. You can’t replicate that reading a coloring book someone else pre-colored for you.