Once upon a time, twenty years ago, if you’d asked the general public what DC comics is, or whether they know of MARVEL comics, you might have been met with a confused face and a shrug.

If you weren’t an avid comic book buff, such names would have meant nothing to you, yet now in 2015, these names evoke certain images and themes that are vivid in our pop culture. The medium of comic books is more than well known – it has a staggering and growing following – so what’s changed?

One answer is the obvious success of X-Men, which came out in 2000 and represented the inception of the modern super hero movie. The source material (comic books) has been steadily experiencing a glorious renaissance thanks to captivating story lines inspired by real-world events and complex true-to-life characters (however exaggerated) playing a pivotal role in educating their readership about some of the inconsistencies of society by portraying it in their fictional worlds with as much sumptuous hyperbolic flair they can muster.

Some portrayals have been so close to reality it’s been uncanny and has sparked debate across the internet amongst comic book readers. A prime example is MARVEL’s Civil War, a 2006–2007 Marvel Comics crossover storyline built around a seven-issue limited series of the same name written by Mark Millar and pencilled by Steve McNiven.

The story is, as Berkay Max Erdemandi has titled his enlightening essay, ‘An Allegory of September 11 in an American Civil War Framework.’ The story makes for some entertaining suspenseful reading but also contains deep pensiveness. The film which is coming out in 2016 will no doubt be just as interesting. The comic book as a medium has changed the way people consume information in the society they live in. Comic books like Watchmen or Before Watchmen (a prequel to the former) depicts fractured society, damaged and complex people and insurmountable world challenges that make us question ourselves as individuals and as a race.

Watchmen, the 1986-87 DC Comics limited series, was written and illustrated by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Many verbal interpretations of the comic have graced the internet, my favourite being: ‘In a world where man can end the world, there is no place for moral absolutes.’

In a step to distance themselves from the idea that comics are for children, comics have addressed more serious series - much grittier, darker and more violent, and in general real to life. Coupled with these themes, we may find other parallels to our world. For example, X-Men mutants as a metaphor for the LGBT community is one interpretation. The fight against racism is another.

Readers of comic books have become more varied than ever, and characters of various races, sexual orientations and abilities have been showcased as comic book heads scramble to please their loyal audiences. This has translated well at events like Comic Con and other comic book festivals that give fans the opportunity to meet others like themselves, as well as to meet the individuals who work on the comics they religiously consume.

Comic books have grown beyond their pages and have been adapted to television shows, growing in strength and boosting views for channels, thus proving that there is an audience who want these stories to be told and not all of those fans are necessarily comic book fans.

The comic book has grown in stature and purpose, imparting knowledge whilst entertaining and directing interest in a way that traditional books perhaps cannot accomplish as acutely to some of the masses as they once were able to.

The adaptation of the comic book into television shows went one step further and made the jump to the silver screen in stupendous fashion at the beginning of the millennium, sparking an arms race between the comic book super powers.

V for Vendetta, of Vertigo comics, is a prime example of a graphic novel not necessarily known by non-comic book readers, but thanks to the silver screen it has become an example of the balance between entertainment and education.

A movie for its time, V for Vendetta (2006) is a political thriller directed by James McTeigue and written by the Wachowski Brothers. It is based on the 1988 Vertigo graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. Hugo Weaving portrays V, an anarchist freedom fighter who attempts to ignite a revolution against the brutal fascist regime that has subjugated the dystopian United Kingdom and exterminated its opponents in concentration camps.

Nowadays, movies inspired by comic books have the mighty responsibility to enlighten, provoke conversation and educate, as much as they do to entertain audiences. The super hero movies coming out have their source material to thank for their disposition, which forever is aimed at challenging society and inspiring it to be the best it can.

The only time when these movies fail is when the story does not translate well from page to screen. Fortunately this has been a relatively rare occurrence and hasn’t injured the medium. Since 2000, we’ve had on average about two to three superhero movies per year with no signs of slowing down. In fact, Marvel, DC and Fox have slated films for the next five years.

Comic books are now more than just escapism, that much is clear. Female fans have made their voices heard about how they are portrayed in the pages which has now translated to the silver screen in movies and television series. The LGBT community has clamoured for representation and received it, and ethnic fans of these comic book tales have communicated that they wish to be heroes portrayed in this fictional world and they have been heard too.

The medium is an important and successful one and shows no signs of waning. More comic book stores are opening yearly as readership grows. Some comic book labels raise money for charities like DC in their ‘We Can be Heroes’ campaign, which shows that comics and their ethos have grown beyond their own pages by literally giving people the opportunity to be the proverbial hero. One certainty is that the comic book medium will only grow larger because of all this, and that it now has a greater calling to depict stories and characters the masses can relate to, root for and learn from.