by: Chris Thompson
With the growth of comic books in popular culture, it was only a matter of time before television networks got in the game….
There’s no doubt that we are living in the golden age of comic books. With the successful push of these colorful and animated storylines into mainstream films, and the rise in popularity of Comic-Cons, where fans dressed in costumes of their favorite characters mingle with the writers, artists and actors who create them, it was only a matter of time before television networks began to throw their hats into the ring. The multiple successes of Disney’s Marvel Studios and Time Warner’s DC Entertainment, two juggernauts with some of the most recognizable comic book characters in the business, has proven billions of dollars over that the ability to monetize a comic book character’s attraction simply works.
Starting this Fall, there were more adaptations of comic book storylines on television than ever before, and that number only continues to grow. This year alone, broadcast television has seven shows on the air who found their genesis in the comic book medium and two more that are slated as mid-season replacements, with many, many more adaptations in development. With this new outlet, comes an opportunity for some of our favorite comic book heroes and heroines from our youth to be dusted-off and their storylines reinterpreted, reinvigorated or just plain redone. To help make sense of it all, let’s take a look at where we stand, see what’s in store for us down the road, and examine if any of these shows are worth watching as the pulpy pages of these cherished comics invade our television screens.
The Walking Dead – Season 5 began October 12th, 2014 on AMC
The Walking Dead continues its wildly successful romp across the American post-apocalyptic zombie landscape. The show, like the comic, is primarily a horror-drama and is the most successful comic book-based television show ever produced. Period. The show has been praised by its critics and fans and nominated for numerous awards including the Golden Globes Best Television Series-Drama and a Writers Guild of America award for its derivative and fresh storylines. It also holds the unique honor of airing the most-watched drama series telecast on basic cable ever, for its 2014 Season 5 premiere, where a whopping 17.3 million viewers tuned-in. The Walking Dead is a behemoth of a television show and AMC is fully behind its production, playing up the show’s attributes of strength of story and wealth of diverse and emotional material derived from the comic and its creator, Robert Kirkland. But it’s also the show’s dynamic and relatable characters portrayed by a bevy of fine actors, its series of gifted showrunners starting with Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption, The Mist, The Majestic.) and, most importantly, its legions of adoring fans that allow the show to truly shine. The Walking Dead has been renewed for a sixth season and the show’s current Executive Producer, David Alpert has said of being able to source the comic book’s material, “I happen to love working from source material, specifically because we have a pretty good idea of what Season 10 is gonna be.” Well, the show’s only at Season 5 and it’s been a wild ride so far. I certainly hope they don’t just stop at ten.
Gotham – Season 1 premiered September 22nd, 2014 on FOX
Gotham is an origin story series following the ascent of a young Detective James Gordon. Flush with characters appearing in DC Comics’ Batman franchise, Gotham professes to be an uncomplicated telling of James Gordon’s rise to become the Police Commissioner that we all know so well. But Detective Gordon isn’t alone in the corrupt and seedy world that is FOX’s Gotham City, and the show’s storyline has rightly evolved to include a young Bruce Wayne, a child struggling to make sense of a world that killed his parents – for what is Gotham City without its Caped-Crusader? Understanding that one cannot have Batman without his arch-nemeses, and in a rather ambitous gamble for a television series, Gotham’s showrunners have chosen to explore the backstories of many of the city’s most treacherous criminals, including Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman, Joker, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Hugo Strange, Harvey Dent, Mr. Freeze and Victor Zsasz. According to the show’s official description, Gotham will boldly attempt to portray “one cop’s rise through a dangerously corrupt city teetering on the edge of evil and chronicles the birth of one of the most popular superheroes of our time.” That description alone is good enough for me to give this show my full attention. I only hope they haven’t bitten-off more then they can chew tackling the genesis of so many iconic comic book characters in one show.
Arrow – Season 3 began October 9th, 2014 on The CW
Arrow is a television series on The CW based on the DC Comics’ character Green Arrow. Historically not a well-known character outside of the pages of the comic books in which he resided, the master archer has gained a newfound popularity with the success of The CW’s live-action adaptation. Blessed with a trio of talented and experienced executive producers (Fringe, Everwood, Law & Order, The Simpsons, Warehouse 13) who have chosen to focus smartly on the humanity of its main hero, the billionaire Oliver Queen, the show is currently progressing through its third season. Having spent the last five years of his life lost on a deserted island, Queen’s re-assimilation into modern society finds him at odds with the wealthy elite he feels are ruining his home, Starling City. Capable of exerting his own brand of archery-based justice with extreme prejudice (i.e. death), Arrow has been a success largely due to its generous cinematic action sequences, its quality and depth of supporting characters and its impressive storytelling. The show hasn’t quite figured everything out yet, taking its time to achieve its current triumph, but the fact that The CW has managed to take a comic book character that no one really took seriously and make it into a hit show just proves that they are onto something. And with the successes of two seasons behind it, and the storylines of the third promising to be just as thrilling, there’s no telling how high Arrow can ultimately fly.
The Flash – Season 1 premiered October 7th, 2014 on The CW
The Flash chronicles the adventures of Barry Allen, an unorthodox Crime Scene Investigator who is fanatically obsessed with uncovering the underpinnings of his mother’s strange and terrifying death and his father’s subsequent conviction for her murder. After a freak explosion and electrical storm during the public unveiling of a new particle accelerator leaves Allen in a coma, he awakens several months later to find out that his life and physical body are no longer the same. The explosion has left him with the uncanny ability to move at super speeds through the streets of Central City where he resides, affecting people’s lives like some unseen guardian angel. But as Barry struggles to make sense of his newfound powers, he begins to realize that he isn’t the only resident of Central City affected by the explosion. And some of those people, meta-humans as the show cleverly christens them, are putting their powers to use at the expense of those around them. With the rise in crime, missing people and unexplained occurrences in the wake of the particle accelerator accident growing, Barry finds himself with a newfound purpose: protect the innocent. Based on DC Comics’ character The Flash, and existing as a spin-off from The CW’s hit comic-book television series Arrow, The Flash is another in a popular string of origin stories adapted for television. In a clever attempt to fuse the worlds of both Arrow and The Flash, Barry Allen’s character appeared in three episodes of Season 2 of Arrow, with the last of the three episodes functioning as a “back-door pilot” or a proof of functioning for a new series. Initial reactions to Barry Allen’s character arc from Arrow, where he played a visiting CSI from Central City, were mixed, but his character’s real strength – his keen scientific mind – was not properly tested. Hopefully, once The Flash gets-up and running (pun intended), Barry Allen’s character will have plenty of room within his own series to wow us with both his human and “meta-human” deeds. Green-lighted for an initial thirteen episodes, with three more ordered by the show’s executives, The Flash has the potential to expand upon the already successful comic book world that The CW’s created.
Constantine – Season 1 is scheduled to premiere October 24th, 2014 on NBC
John Constantine, Hellblazer is a comic book series created by the legendary Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta). It is one of the longest-running and most successful comic books of DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, launching the literary careers of several of my favorite writers, many of them British. Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan) and Garth Ennis (Preacher) all contributed to the comics storyline, and after three hundred plus comic book issues, and a 2005 movie starring Keanu Reeves, John Constantine’s story has finally found its way to a major network. Based on the characters appearing in the Hellblazer horror-comic series, Constantine will focus on the struggles of John Constantine, an occult detective and con-man struggling to atone for his past sins and protect humanity from a growing supernatural threat. Constantine’s showrunners have promised to remain more faithful to the Hellblazer storyline than the 2005 film, but it remains yet to be seen what exactly NBC means by that. The Hellblazer comic book series runs its engines on hopelessness and despair, and its themes more often than not were extremely dark and edgy, mixing the supernatural with real-life horror and a healthy dosing of political and social commentary. It’s hard to imagine a network like NBC tackling these themes with any level of closeness to what existed in the comic book, but I admire their attempts to convince us of their devotion to the original storyline. The show’s official trailer can be found here and I’ll allow you to make your own mind up about its merit, but I have to admit, I’m a bit on the fence about the entire affair. John Constantine’s character in the trailer, played by Welsh actor Matt Ryan, comes off a lot glossier and lacking of his edge than in the comic, and the fact that his character doesn’t even smoke is a huge red flag for me. I’d probably be singing a much different tune if Constantine was being offered up by a drama-series powerhouse like AMC or FX but sadly, that is not the case. Like a cold beer, I’ll take my comics anyway I can. I just hope NBC isn’t serving us Constantine Light.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Season 2 premiered September 23rd, 2014 on ABC
In the aftermath of The Battle of New York, an epic clusterfuck that unfolded across Marvel’s mega-superhero flick The Avengers, Agent Phil Coulson has been mysteriously resurrected. His job: to actively recruit and lead an elite team of global agents tasked with investigating the strange and unknown while protecting the common folk from the legions of uncommon forces intent on world domination. Created for television by the dynamic duo of Jed and Joss Whedon (Firefly) and the multi-dimensional Maurissa Tancharoen (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog), Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. promised to keep us up to date with the Marvel Cinematic Universe while we waited with held breath for the next Captain America or Iron Man superhero flick to drop. However, the show’s first season never quite lived-up to the hype and goodwill garnered from Marvel Studio’s seemingly unlimited supply of quality superhero films. S.H.I.E.L.D. has some growing pains to shake-off and the first season came off as more of a formulaic comic book action series than a show with any quality of depth or imagination. Mix in a cadre of dull supporting character performances, clunky banter and Joss Whedon’s penchant for cliches and you are left with a show that falls way short of being any good. To the show’s credit, the second half of the first season got better, but only through a plot twist that saw the complete and total destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. The beginning of the second season shows signs of life though, with a strong series premier, but the show still has a lot of work to do if it wants to be taken seriously. On the other hand, maybe Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t want to be taken seriously? Maybe for Joss Whedon and the S.H.I.E.L.D. fanboys who love the show so much that’s simply okay? Who am I to judge? All I know is that for me it’s a flawed construct, and only when the show strikes that proper balance between believable characters, impressive action, and engaging comic book storytelling will I give Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. my full attention.
The Strain – Season 1 premiered July 13th, 2014 on FX
The Strain is a vampire-themed horror story created by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy 1 & 2, Pacific Rim, The Hobbit) and Chuck Hogan that originally began as a trilogy of novels before it was translated into a successful comic book series. Debuting in the midst of America’s love affair with everything Vampire (Twilight, True Blood, etc.), I wasn’t exactly looking to get hooked by any story that professed to exist within that genre. But on the strength of the story’s creator, Guillermo del Toro, and his lifelong fascination with monsters and his ability to weave wonderfully dark and engrossing tales, I gave the comics a read. And from that moment on I was hooked. Adapted by writer David Lapham (Stray Bullets…a great comic!) and illustrated brilliantly by Mike Huddleston ((Huddleston was hand-picked by del Toro to be the comic books artist, an honor in and of itself.)), del Toro gave the comic book’s creators free reign to translate the novels under the Dark Horse Comics imprint. The Strain comic books emerged as a fresh take on the thoroughly overplayed idea of vampires in entertainment. Within its illustrated pages there existed a level of grittiness to Lapham’s writing that played well off of his deep exploration of human nature, and the uncanny ability of Huddleson to illustrate the creepiness of del Toro’s story in a manner that remained grounded and believable resulted in a well-rounded and chilling comic. So when I heard that Guillermo del Toro was looking to produce a show for FX based on the series, I was overcome with joy ((Guillermo del Toro had originally intended The Strain to be only a television show.)). The draw of The Strain is that it tells the story of Dr. Ephraim Slant, the head of the Centers for Disease Control Canary Team Project, a rapid-response team that handles emerging biological threats. His crack team of scientists arrives at New York City’s JFK Airport after a mysterious flight lands with all of its crew and passengers dead. From that moment forward, begins the herculean effort of getting a handle on a highly contagious disease that has all the hallmarks of an ancient strain of vampirism, for The Strain is contagious like Ebola or the Flu. There is no magic, no turning into bats or sleeping in coffins when you turn. The Strain is simply a disease like anything else (it’s a virus carried by a capillary worm parasite) except that it turns its victims in blood-sucking, terrifying vampires, more morbid undead than ruffled-shirt wearing gentlemen who dine on their wealthy victims during the night. Guillermo del Toro has given us the vampiric apocalypse, a worldwide vampire invasion that has its roots in an ancient religious backstory, and it has descended upon the streets of New York City. Dr. Slant and his team of CDC scientists have become locked in an all out battle for the future of our race and for the safety of Dr. Slant’s wife and child. Approved for thirteen episodes, and so far being an almost faithful interpretation of the comic book series I love, I can honestly admit that I’ve become infected by The Strain’s unique brand of television.
There are, to date, still numerous television shows in development at major television networks and on-demand services like Netflix and Sony’s PlayStation Network. Below is a list of comic book adapted televison shows that have already been picked-up and are readying themselves to air.
iZombie – Premiering on The CW mid-season 2014, iZombie chronicles the life of Olivia “Liv” Moore, an “undead” medical student who joins the Coroner’s Office so that she can have access to the brains she must eat in order to not turn fully into a zombie. But with every brain consumed comes glimpses of the dead people’s memories. Rather quickly, Liv realizes that she must team-up with a police detective and the Medical Examiner she works for to help investigate these crimes, murders that only she knows the intimate details about.
Marvel’s Agent Carter – Intended as mid-season replacement for ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. while that series is off on break, Agent Carter follows Peggy Carter, an agent for the Strategic Scientific Reserve struggling to bring balance to her life in the post-War year of 1946. Her one true love – Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) – has gone missing, billionaire industrialist Howard Stark (Iron Man’s father) has her going on secret missions, and her work at the Strategic Scientific Reserve has been marginalized due to the influx of returning men from battle. But all that is nothing compared to Agent Carter’s struggle to figure out how to live her life as a newly single woman in a rapidly evolving post-War America. Existing within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and based on the Marvel One-Shot film of the same name, Agent Carter has been approved for eight episodes and will star actress Hayley Atwell, reprising the roles she played in both Captain America films and the Marvel One-Shot short film Agent Carter.
Powers – Streaming via the Sony PlayStation Network and a first in original programing for the popular gaming service, Powers will premiere in December of this year. Adapted from the comic book series by Brian Bendis and artist Michael Oeming, Powers is a superhero and fantasy-noir crime drama that follows the cases of two homicide detectives as they chase down criminals with superhuman abilities in a world where being superhuman is not that uncommon. Starring Sharlto Copley (District 9, Elysium), the series will stream exclusively on PlayStation consoles and represents a new direction for the traditionally gamer-heavy network.
Marvel’s The Defenders, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Daredevil & Jessica Jones – Marvel is continuing its aggressive comic book push into every facet of media possible. With the recent formation of Marvel TV, and in cooperation with Netflix, the comic book powerhouse and the internet TV juggernaut are joining forces in an epic deal to produce an unprecedented four television shows and one mini-series event (that comes out to over sixty episodes if my math is correct!). This is a ground-breaking deal, one that will see Netflix exclusively streaming Marvel live-action television shows for years to come, taking us deep, deep into the world of several of Marvel’s most famous characters. Marvel’s press-release regarding the partnership expands on the particulars of the deal, but the takeaway message is that it promises to bring some of our favorite flawed comic book characters to the “gritty world of heroes and villains of Hell’s Kitchen, New York.” And with characters like Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and my all-time personal favorite, Daredevil, slated for their own TV series, I can attest that we’ll all be bathing in the grit by the time the shows are done. Be on the look-out this one friends…its kinda a big deal.
There are even more comic book based-television series out there that are in the very early stages of development. Here is a list of what to expect in the coming years as the excitement and buzz surrounding comic books reaches a fevered pitch.
Preacher, Hourman, Scalped, Letter 44, Ronin, Clone, Pax Romana, Outcast, Thief of Thieves, a yet-untitled Walking Dead Spin-off, Supergirl, Titans, Lucifer, DMZ, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
So there you have it fans, thirty television shows either on, or headed to the airwaves soon. The way I see it, comic books have left the tight confines of their glossy pages in more ways than one. They have become bigger than the rich stories and lush illustrations poured into their pages and that is a fantastic thing. And with all the exciting events that take place between the comic book panels, the things that we had left-up to our imaginations to figure out, finally coming to life, it’s easy to see that comic books’ currency is on the rise. They have been embraced by popular culture as a whole and we now rejoice in them en masse. It’s no longer a nerdy thing to read these illustrated tales. The authors and artists who forge these exceptional and often times visceral works of art are being celebrated like rock stars for their talents and it is about damn time. These stories have always existed on the fringe, but with popular backing and new mediums to communicate them, they are now moving to the center and drawing in new generations of fans. To me, that sounds a lot like a golden age.
As the successes of this foray into comic book-based entertainment grows, I’m confident that the ranks and quality of these shows will expand appropriately. It is truly a wonderful time to be a fan of comic books and the superheroes, zombies, alien visitors, vampires, alternate realities and apocalyptic storylines that make them home. So sit back, relax, put on your favorite pair of Superman PJ’s and fire-up the ol’ boob tube, for there may not be another time like this in our lives for comic books to shine so bright.
We’d love to hear your take on the future of comic books and their adaptation for television and film! Drop us a line in the Comment’s Section below and share your thoughts…