The Revolution WILL Be Televised! A History of Comic Book Adaptions on the Small Screen (Part 2)

Written by Adrian Care

In Part 1 of this feature, we looked at comic book adaptations on the small screen leading up to the turn of the century.

Comic book-related TV shows had still yet to really find their groove. The 2000s weren’t showing any promising signs either. Mutant X was terrible, and aside from sharing a namesake with an X-book, it had little else to do with the comics and was mired in legal, quality, and production troubles (You can avoid it at all costs, trust me).

A good hidden gem of this period is 2001’s single season of The Tick (also recently resurrected and rebooted by Amazon in 2017). It’s corny, ridiculous, but short enough to enjoy as a fair enough, enjoyable adaptation of Ben Edlund’s satirical creation.

In 2001, Smallville was released on the WB network (later the CW) and would create the mould for a slew of successful DC properties in later years. It was Superboy, but not really. It was Superman’s origins, but even less so. It had winks and nods, and Easter eggs for comic fans aplenty, but it was aimed at teen audiences who didn’t have to be steeped in comic book nous to tune in. It was a big success and lasted 10 seasons. It wrapped in 2011 and there is still a large contingent of fans who believe star Tom Welling is slighted for never getting a well-earned shot at playing Superman on the big screen.

The only show to (sort of) show itself capable of hanging with Smallville’s longevity was Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The Archie Comics property lasted 7 seasons from 1996 to 2003. A sitcom-rooted adaptation that starred Melissa Joan Hart in the title role.

Although nothing else would succeed or was as well made as Smallville, there were still some notable releases at the time. One season-wonder Birds of Prey wasn’t a speck on the ever-popular Chuck Dixon creation. Another stab at The Human Target (why is it so hard to get this excellent premise right?) lasted only one more season than its first attempt. Jimmy Palmiotti’s Painkiller Jane was given a single season that wasn’t too bad. Blade: The Series followed on from Blade: Trinity and starred Onyx member Sticky Fingaz as the titular vampire hunter.

Hidden gem number two is 2008’s The Middleman. If anything deserved more than its 12-episode run, it’s Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine’s little indie that could, originally published by Viper Comics. Do yourself a kindness, watch this series and tell me you don’t agree.

It was after the MCU had gathered momentum that things on TV escalated. From the success of the Avengers film spun Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which continued the story of Agent Coulson from the films and often had storylines effected by the continuing story of the cinematic universe. It rode the coattails of the MCU success from 2013 to now and spawned (as well did the films) Agent Carter (lasting 18 episodes).

Netflix followed suit. Although only tangentially connecting to the MCU, the sheer quality of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, The Punisher, Luke Cage, (ahem) Iron Fist, and The Defenders was at another level. The performances were great. The villains were as good as, if not better than, anything the movies had shown us (bar Loki) and they really did treat the source material they were adapted from with love and respect. More than just winks and nods, in the case of Jessica Jones and Daredevil especially, entire sections were lifted directly from the comic book pages. The only blemish so far from the MCU/TV coalition has been The Inhumans, which Marvel has tried for years to convince us is what we want without committing wholeheartedly to it itself. It’s quietly gone away after 8 episodes. Unfortunately, the Netflix shows, too, have just reached their conclusions as Marvel prepares to move to Disney Plus.

It’s a common opinion in fandom today that while Marvel has succeeded undeniably at the movies, DC is killing it with TV series. It’s a hard statement to deny. In 2012, Arrow debuted. An adaptation of Green Arrow, at first it leaned more into darker vigilantism but, as it continued, drew closer to its printed origins with outright connections to the work done on the character by Denny O’Neil, Mike Grell, Brad Meltzer, and Kevin Smith.
Soon it was followed by 2014’s The Flash, creating the foundations for what’s known as The Arrowverse or the Berlantiverse (named for overseer Greg Berlanti, the man with the comic book TV Midas touch). The Flash leaned joyously into comic book mythology AND harkened back to the 1990s Flash series.

If these adaptations couldn’t be exact science, then they would pull heavily at every turn from the source material. It worked so well that Supergirl was produced and later brought into the Arrowverse. Supergirl would act as somewhat of an analog, transposing rich Superman history into this TV universe. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow would soon follow, finding a place for characters from Arrow and Flash to have further adventures, as well as rescuing fan-favourite, but recently cancelled, Constantine. Black Lightning rounds out the group of CW stalwarts and these series have all been renowned, in true comic book fashion, for having multi-episode crossovers mid-season.

DC has also had some success with taking a corner of their universe and making departures with the story or history. A fresh take on a familiar property, these ideas are slow to start but steadily come into their own. Gotham is one such show, debuting in 2014 and wrapping with its fifth season this year. Krypton is another (soon to be in its second season), as well as slated series Pennyworth and Metropolis on the DC universe app. All these shows are, at minimum, moderate successes to hugely popular hits. The only failure so far has been the it-wasn’t-even-that-bad Powerless (cancelled after only one season).

DC has also had success adapting its Vertigo properties. iZombie has made it to five seasons. Lucifer began in 2016 and was recently rescued from limbo by Netflix. Preacher, also debuting in 2016, has been renewed for a fourth season at AMC. The very same network that is home to monster hit The Walking Dead.

A ratings bonanza for a network that wondered what it would do post Breaking Bad and Mad Men, TWD is a great example of a show that has been, at times, both a literal adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s Image Comics property, and a departure from the story set by the comic. It has garnered a successful spin off in Fear the Walking Dead and is often recognized for bringing new audiences to comic book stores.

If only Preacher could develop into such a hit for AMC. I’m forever conflicted by Preacher. At least I’m getting something called Preacher, with an excellent Joseph Gilgun performance every week. But it isn’t the Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon favourite that I know from back to front. If the Duffy Brothers manage to make and screw up the alluded to (in Stranger Things) The Invisibles, I’ll be out for blood.

In writing this I’m in awe of the TV landscape and how populated with comic book properties it is. I haven’t the space to give proper mention to adaptations of Dark Horse’s Dark Matter, Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers, The End of the F**king World on Netflix, Robert Kirkman’s Outcast, Enormous, Wynonna Earp, and the absolutely, insanely good Happy! (from my hero and yours, Grant Morrison).

I also can’t neglect Marvel’s (now up in the air) Fox productions: the critically acclaimed Legion, and The Gifted. Not to mention I’ve still yet to watch Cloak and Dagger or The Runaways. There’s literally a Runaways series that gives the live-action treatment to Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Alphona’s original run. If this is a dream, don’t wake me…. Ever.

Let’s not forget either what Roberto Aguirre-Sacassa has done with Riverdale and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, making people outside of the Archie Comics faithful fall in love with a new, dark, brooding and subversive version of a property that has stayed true to one form since 1941.

Although the DC Universe app is not yet available in Australia, I recently finished watching what began as (I thought) a very fast and loose take on Titans. I wasn’t fanboy raging-out at the infamous line Grayson gives us in the promo, or the Televisionisation of Starfire and Raven, but I’ll tell you by the time episode 9 (“Hank and Dawn”) rolled around, I was well and truly hooked. No longer mad that this “wasn’t my Titans” at all.

I now live with the anticipation there is an adaptation of The Boys coming my way, and that Deadly Class just saluted and was beyond awesome.

On the way from DC we’re getting Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing, Stargirl, Watchmen, Batwoman, The Secret Six, Y: The Last Man, V for Vendetta, and Sweet Tooth.

Mark Millar has recently inked a deal with Netflix that gives most, if not all, his MillarWorld properties a shot at excellent adaptations, and man, are The Magic Order, Huck, American Jesus, RPM, Chrononauts, ready-made for the Netflix treatment.

Not to be left out, Marvel is going to continue to annex out its MCU properties onto Disney Plus. Shows for Loki, Vision and the Scarlet Witch, Falcon, and Winter Soldier are going into production.

It’s impossible for me to expect all of these will be straight from the page adaptations. In truth, I don’t think hardcore fans will ever get that. I don’t think hardcore fans will ever be satisfied completely with what they get anyway.

But the fact is that the source material will always be there. On shelves. In trades. Digitally. It will never be out of our reach. We can read it over and over and be transported to another time and place whenever we choose.
The popularity of TV shows should constantly bring new eyes to the original work. To this end, DC must be applauded by converging so much content on to one platform in the DC Universe app.

At the very least, even if a new fan only comes to the characters via watching TV, that’s another seed planted in the fan community.