Super What? Bat-Who? Adaptations of fringe comics, graphic novels abound on the small screen
A history of adaptations
Unless it stars recognizable superheroes from the pages of DC or Marvel, some viewers might not realize that the TV show or film they love is adapted from a graphic novel or comic. Here are some titles you may not know started on paper:
* “Riverdale” (2017, The CW)
* “Powerless” (2017, NBC)
* “Legion” (2017, FX)
* “Defenders” (2017, Netflix)
* “Iron Fist” (2017, Netflix)
* “Luke Cage” (2016, Netflix)
* “Outcast” (2016-ongoing, Cinemax)
* “Preacher” (2016-ongoing, AMC)
* “Wynonna Earp” (2016-ongoing, SyFy)
* “The Tick” (2016, Amazon; 1994-1997 animated; 2001 live-action, Fox)
* “Lucifer” (2016-ongoing, Fox)
* “Legends of Tomorrow” (2016-ongoing, The CW)
* “Jessica Jones” (2015-ongoing, Netflix)
* “Powers” (2015-ongoing, Playstation Network)
* “Fear the Walking Dead” (2015-ongoing, AMC)
* “iZombie” (2014-ongoing, The CW)
* “Constantine” (2014-2015, NBC)
* “The Walking Dead” (2010-ongoing, AMC)
* “The Boondocks” (2005-2014, Cartoon Network)
* “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” (1996-2003, ABC)
* “The Maxx” (1995, MTV)
* “Weird Science” (1994-1998, USA Network)
* “Tales from the Crypt” (1989-1996, HBO)
* “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” series (1987-1996/2003-2009, 2012-present, various networks)
* “Captain Marvel” (2019)
* “Black Panther” (2018)
* “Guardians of the Galaxy” series (2014 & 2017)
* “Kingsman” series (2014 & 2017)
* “Doctor Strange” (2016)
* “Deadpool” (2016)
* “Ant-Man” (2015)
* “I, Frankenstein” (2014)
* “300” series (2006 & 2014)
* “Sin City” series (2005 & 2014)
* “Snowpiercer” (2013)
* “Kick-Ass” series (2010 & 2013)
* “RED” series (2010 & 2013)
* “R.I.P.D.” (2013)
* “Men in Black” series (1997, 2002 & 2012)
* “Judge Dredd” series (1995 & 2012)
* “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011)
* “The Losers” (2010)
* “Jonah Hex” (2010)
* “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)
* “Josie and the Pussycats” (2010)
* “30 Days of Night” series (2007 & 2010)
* “Watchmen” (2009)
* “The Punisher” series (1989, 2004 & 2008)
* “Hellboy” series (2004 & 2008)
* “Wanted” (2008)
* “The Spirit” (2008)
* “Constantine” (2005)
* “The Crow” series (1994, 1996, 2000 & 2005)
* “V for Vendetta” (2005)
* “A History of Violence” (2005)
* “Elektra” (2005)
* “Blade” series (1998, 2002 & 2004)
* “Bulletproof Monk” (2003)
* “American Splendor” (2003)
* “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003)
* “Road to Perdition” (2002)
* “From Hell” (2001)
* “Ghost World” (2001)
* “Spawn” (1997)
* “Tank Girl” (1995)
* “Richie Rich” (1994)
* “The Rocketeer” (1991)
* “Dick Tracy” (1990)
* “The Mask” (1994)
* “Howard the Duck” (1986)
Given the runaway success and marketing blitz surrounding blockbusters like "The Avengers" and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, it can be all too easy to think of the 75-year comic book industry as just a handful of high-profile series and costumed heroes.
Whatever theater marquees might suggest, however, the pages of pulp have introduced fans to thousands of characters, many of whom have never even heard of Gotham City or Captain America and who wouldn't be caught dead parading around while swaddled Spandex.
While Hollywood lavishes big budgets and slathers special effects onto films based on the likes of Iron Man, Thor and Wonder Woman, TV networks and online streaming services have been turning their attention to the characters and stories on the comic fringes.
In 2016 alone, shows adapted from relatively unknown comic properties have made or will make their way to more than half a dozen networks, including AMC ("The Walking Dead," "Preacher"), Fox ("Lucifer"), SyFy ("Wynonna Earp"), The CW ("Legends of Tomorrow"), Amazon ("Tick"), Cinemax ("Outcast") and Netflix ("Luke Cage").
By and large, fans — as well as more than a few critics — are enjoying the shift in focus to comic book welterweights.
"The varsity have proven the market, but that just means the juniors are finally getting their turn," says Jonathan Pohlner, a Cleveland, Tenn.-based landscaper and lifelong fan of graphic novel series such as "Elf Quest" and "Saga."
B-list characters, AAA praise
Many of the recently-released comic book and graphic novel adaptions have received high-profile critical praise that belies their B-list origins.
To date, Netflix's rush of shows featuring Marvel Comic second-stringers such as hard-drinking private investigator Jessica Jones and blind-lawyer-turned-acrobatic-crusader Daredevil have an average critical rating of 78 percent, based on reviews compiled by Metacritic.com.
AMC received a similarly high score of 76 for the debut season of "Preacher," which is based on a series of comics by Vertigo, a publishing arm of DC Comics, about a Texan preacher on a quest to literally find God with the help of an Irish vampire and a gun-happy woman — naturally. Critics gave an average rating of 70 to Cinemax's premiere of "Outcast," which is adapted from an Image Comics series about a man who has been surrounded by demons — and the subsequent demon possessions — his entire life.
Not all this year's adaptations have been as well-received, including Fox's "Lucifer," which is based on a DC Comics series created by fantasy author Neil Gaiman and starring the titular Prince of Evil, who moves to Los Angeles to help the police solve crimes and punish criminals. The show received a lukewarm response from critics, who rated it 49 percent on average.
"Legends of Tomorrow," a CW comic-based series featuring relatively obscure DC characters such as Heat Wave and White Canary, was almost as poorly rated with an average score of 58 percent. The show is the latest addition to The CW's vast stable of comic-to-TV adaptations and exists in the same universe as "Arrow" and "The Flash," which premiered on the network in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
In addition to its adaptations of popular DC properties, The CW recently began creating shows based on lesser-known comic series including "iZombie," an ongoing program derived from a Vertigo series about a medical student-turned-zombie who must eat brains to retain her humanity. In 2017, the network will premiere "Riverdale," a teen drama featuring characters from Archie Comics, including Josie McCoy of the Archie Comics spin-off "Josie and The Pussycats."
Despite the recent glut of pulp fiction adaptations, the path between comics and TV studios has seen decades of traffic.
In the early 1950s, Superman's first TV appearance in the "The Adventures of Superman" featured the exploits of Man of Steel — portrayed by George Reeves — during a run that lasted for more than 100 episodes. In 1966, the Adam West-led "Batman" saw the Caped Crusader begin a campy three-season term on TV. In the late 1970s, bodybuilder-turned-actor Lou Ferrigno starred for five seasons as the green-skinned lead in CBS's adaptation of Marvel Comics' "The Incredible Hulk."
By the '80s and '90s, however, studios began adapting lower-profile works for the small screen, such as ABC's "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," which started out life in the '60s as an Archie Comic, and HBO's "Tales from the Crypt," based on pulp anthologies published in the early '50s that led to congressional hearings on whether the comics were fostering juvenile delinquency in the teens who read them.
In the late-'80s and early-'90s, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" became a pop cultural touchstone thanks to a popular cartoon series and toy line. Prior to that, however, the ninjutsu-practicing reptiles began life as a comic series created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, who published issues through their own house Mirage Studios.
The translation from comic to the screen, big or small, can rapidly increase the profile of an otherwise niche character or series — who except for comic fans heard of Rocket Raccoon or Groot before "Guardians of the Galaxy" made its way to theaters? — but the growth in popularity flows both ways.
Chattanoogan Rickie Blevins says he came to love the Marvel Comics series "Powers," which features a former superhero working as a homicide detective, after watching the show, which is available exclusively on the Playstation Network.
"It's a comic I'd never heard of before and got really interested in after watching the first season of the series," the 40-year-old says. "It's very modern and touches on a lot of things that haven't been fully fleshed out in other comics."
'The Walking Dead's' footsteps, the Netflix experiment
The most recent flood of under-the-radar comic adaptations to the small screen can be traced back to 2010 and the mammoth popularity attracted by AMC's "The Walking Dead," which was based on comics written by Robert Kirkman, who also created "Outcast."
For its sixth season, which ended in April, "The Walking Dead" was the top-rated show on TV for the fourth year running among the key 18- to 49-year-old demographic, based on Nielsen statistics. Critics and analysts say the mainstream success of that series, which adapted a violent, macabre storyline, made it possible for other comics featuring adult settings and scenarios to find their way to the TV.
"'The Walking Dead' actually has provided a lot of good precedent for us to do a lot of stuff that we wouldn't be able to do," "Preacher" co-creator Seth Rogen said in a May interview with ComicBookResources.com.
If "The Walking Dead" paved the way for darker comic adaptations, then Netflix is fundamentally changing how they can be delivered to audiences.
In 2013, the online streaming service and Marvel Comics announced a partnership to create live-action programs based on four characters associated with the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood in New York City. The shows, as with other Netflix original programming, would be made available in bulk — meaning the entire series is available on the first day it's released rather than serialized in weekly episodes as it is with traditional cable and broadcast network programming.
According to a Marvel news release about the deal, the agreement was for each series to last at least one season, but the two shows currently released, "Daredevil" and "Jessica Jones," were popular enough to be renewed for a second and third season, respectively. The remaining two series, "Luke Cage" and "Iron Fist," are slated to be available on Sept. 30 and at an unspecified date in 2017. Also in 2017, Netflix will release "The Defenders," an ensemble miniseries featuring all four characters.
"Netflix offers an incredible platform for the kind of rich storytelling that is Marvel's specialty," said Alan Fine, president of Marvel Entertainment, in a 2013 press release detailing the partnership. "This serialized epic expands the narrative possibilities of on-demand television and gives fans the flexibility to immerse themselves how and when they want in what's sure to be a thrilling and engaging adventure."
The Netflix-Marvel partnership emphasizes the narrative breadth that can make small-screen comic adaptations more engaging than their blockbuster brethren, Pohlner says.
The first season of "Jessica Jones," for example, lasts roughly 13 hours. By comparison, the runtime of films featuring Iron Man — one of Marvel's heaviest hitting franchises — amounts to just 11 hours, including seven years worth of appearances in a mainline trilogy as well as supporting roles in "The Avengers" and "The Avengers: Age of Ultron."
Especially for lesser-known properties, Pohlner says, a TV adaptation can offer a more appealing introduction to a character or series.
"I think the Netflix format has some inherent advantages already, regardless of if you're binge watching or not," he says. "[A TV show] gives you a lot more time to digest the story than your typical two-hour movie."
Contact Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.