Comics on TV: What’s the Problem?

By: Daniel Reynolds

So I don’t know how else to say this: that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show is the opposite of good. I’m not going to dogpile on it too much – it’s still getting ratings and I feel like we’ve done enough of that as a society already. Frankly, I’m not angry about it or anything, the pop culture landscape is already dotted with Marvel Comics’ past attempts at TV glory. It usually isn’t pretty, but you applaud them for trying. This time out I’ll admit it’s sad to see the Joss Whedon name draped across something so resolutely ho-hum. I gave up after a couple episodes, and please don’t try to tell me that I have to give it more of a chance. Have you seen how much good TV there is these days? I can’t waste time with Clark freakin’ Gregg if it’s not working.

I mean, they're trying and everything.

I mean, they’re trying and everything.

But then, how do we get comic TV shows that work? With a comparatively smaller budget than film, show runners and pitchmen have had to be creative with identifying and adapting their source material. The Walking Dead, for all its shuffling dumbness, is the biggest hit on cable TV (12.1 million viewers for the last mid-season finale). Despite launching from an initially obscure black-and-white comic (one that is now hugely popular), the Walking Dead is a success, almost single-handedly carrying its network, AMC, to solvency. I may not actually like the show anymore, but it is a standard bearer; no doubt producers are even now digging through crates looking for their next comic inspiration. (Or they’re just, um, borrowing an idea like Fables and dancing out on to the network floor.)

Back at Marvel HQ, despite backing from the Avengers – a.k.a a license to print money – the company’s grand TV plan has been belittling, rather than elevating, its material. Sure, they can drop Samuel L. Jackson in on an episode, or mention Thor, but their effect only highlights the gap between the two products. While Marvel’s movie division continues adding more and more to its world crushing empire (the Ant-Man film feels almost like a na-na-na taunt), their TV dreams appear to be crumbling into dust. Meanwhile its biggest rival, DC Comics, a company with a handful of absolutely iconic characters, has continuously built up, torn down, angered, won over, pissed off, etc. on a loop for the past three decades as many of its fans as it could with its movie decisions. For every indelible Dark Knight, there’s been a Catwoman, a Green Lantern, or worse, still no Wonder Woman. We’ll save the Ben Affleck as Batman discussion for another time.

Remember, this was also a thing that happened.

Remember, this was also a thing that happened.

And yet, DC’s soaring TV! The last twenty years have seen some nice little side successes for DC’s Superman (both as a pulpy romance and as a teen angst origin story), absolutely crushing animated offerings (particularly for Batman), and a modest re-purposing of characters in recent small scale hits like Arrow. Were we shocked to hear that Gotham, a show set in Batman’s town told from the perspective of the cops that walk its streets, was an idea that could and presumably would happen? I know I wasn’t.

Now there is talk of finally bringing the Vertigo (a mature comic line also under the DC umbrella) title Preacher to small screens. My attempts to describe Preacher to other people is one of my favourite past times. To wit: it’s about a defeated Texan preacher named Jesse Custer (because of course) who is struck by the Word of God (a demon and an angel have sex and… well, it gets complicated) which allows him to effortlessly command people, God abdicates his throne, there’s a spiritual assassin stalking after Jesse along with a bunch of different quasi-religious groups/cults, and the story takes every single opportunity it can to steer itself into the vulgar, profane or just plain disgusting. Also, there’s an Irish vampire and a character named Arseface. I’m not making this up. I read Preacher about ten years too late, as it would have definitely been a personal highlight if I’d read it at 16, rather than at a discerning (ha!) 26. Still, this time it sounds like for real it’s getting the TV treatment. AMC is involved, as is Seth Rogen (which, strangely, feels right). Despite once being considered too controversial, it’s on its way.

Looks like fun, right?

Looks like fun, right?

In even more remote news, Dark Horse Comics, shepherds of the venerable Hellboy character of modest movie fame, is being worked over by none other than the Weinstein brothers to get a deal done for a Sin City TV show. As a sequel to the original Sin City film is finally supposed to come out next year, this makes sense. As fellow contributor James Cooper remarked, it could definitely be constructed around a loosely bound seasonal structure, a la American Horror Story. Not a bad idea considering the book itself operates best as standalone missives from a pitch black universe. The characters are probably a tad one note and, if we’re being honest, it’s amazing that Frank Miller is being let near cameras (or other people) anymore, but there it is: a show in development. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here, just talking about a TV show doesn’t mean its a done deal.

Case in point: for what feels like a very long time, Powers has been in development limbo. Originally fleshed out as a starring vehicle for Jason Patric (which, in retrospect, should have been a clear red flag), Powers was to bring to life the story of two cops, Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim, as they investigate superhero related crimes. If ever there was a slam dunk idea of the ’10s, to me, this would be it. You’d have your buddy crime procedural structure, your fun, dark, just plain compelling super hero angle, and a ready made universe with rich characters ripe for on-screen translation. Oh, what could have been done with a character like Wolfe. But now, the twist: despite being co-created by current Marvel golden boy Brian Michael Bendis (and eventually published under Marvel’s Icon imprint), Powers has been a ghost for the last half-decade, repeatedly getting sent back to the TV workshop for reconstruction. How does this happen? How has this show had its golden premise usurped by DC’s Gotham?

Walker and Pilgrim: TV's saddest cold case.

Walker and Pilgrim: TV’s saddest cold case.

Getting a TV show to air is a tough project. Getting it to survive past a few episodes or a season is even tougher. TV has always been a medium of slow development followed by fast reaction. Take your time and get a show like Lost on the air and suddenly there are half a dozen mystery science shows trying to convince you to care. With comics, the allure is simple. There is already years of built in continuity in place, years of adaptable story arcs, and of course, in the most popular cases, an easily identifiable audience. It feels like Marvel both understands and confuses this. And I swear, I don’t mean to harp on Marvel here. Unlike the film world, TV goes on, success begets more work and effort. You can make the Avengers, count your one billion dollars and chill. With TV, you’ve got to figure out next week.

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