As a devout fan of comic books, it is a great time to be alive. From the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe on the silver screen, newly released smash hit superhero video games like Spider-Man PS4, or even some of the exemplary stories coming out of DC in the original medium itself, comics are thriving in a cultural golden age. Television, of course, is not free from the all-encompassing reach of comics in the media zeitgeist and has a significant place in its ability to adapt original comic book stories.
As my article on Spider-Man: The Animated Series suggests, comics and television have been closely related for longer than comics and the rest of our entertainment media. Both involve the long-form serialisation of storytelling, composed of individual sections of stories being periodically provided to the audience, all the while being a part of a larger story arcs, some of which run for years. However, in recent years, comic adaptions for TV have shifted from the cartoon to live action formats, and this profound change illustrates the new role of comics into a more traditionally ‘adult’ form of storytelling.
Gotham in particular draws heavily on the sillier comic book concepts, such as no character staying dead forever, sinister and maniacal villains, and a world where costumed criminals can fit right in
For me, Smallville is a perfect example of this shift. The show began its run in 2001 as a series looking at the early years of a teenage Clark Kent, far from being Superman. As its run progressed for ten seasons, many characters from the comics were brought in and incorporated into the stories for the fans. As a show, Smallville, for the most part, excelled as an adaptation. It took the core elements and characters from the comic book series and made them fit into a different frame, the frame of a standard CW television drama.
This became a staple for many further adaptations in the 2010s: Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, etc. This is not to say that all these programs did this to the same level. I would argue that season one of The Flash is as perfect a television adaptation of the Scarlet Speedster as we will ever get, whilst Legends of Tomorrow has continuously been an over-bloated flop. However, these programs have all been able to take the characters and ideas of the comics and bring them to the small screen.
Programs like Gotham and The Tick have also done something similar, although in these cases not fitting comics to the format of a young adult drama, but goofy and campy adaptations of the comics they came from. Though these can also find varying levels of commercial and critical success, they are perhaps more faithful to the fantastical and silly elements that comic books long held as a key aspect of the format. Gotham in particular draws heavily on the sillier comic book concepts, such as no character staying dead forever, sinister and maniacal villains, and a world where costumed criminals can fit right in. This was much to the chagrin of any DC fans hoping for the gritty and down to Earth world many initial viewers expected, though this in now being provided more so by programs such as Titans and Doom Patrol.
On the whole, I think that comic book adaptations on television for the last twenty years have been great. Though there have been duds […] the vast majority have straddled the line between faithfulness and ingenuity well
So far, I have widely neglected Marvel adaptions to television, and this is because they broadly avoided the overly campy and swung hard for the realistic. Chief among these are the Marvel Netflix TV shows, such as Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage. These programs have also varied in quality massively, both Iron Fist and The Defenders were poor, but The Punisher, Daredevil, and Jessica Jones have had a fairly good critical reception, at the very least in their early series. These shows do, on the whole, provide the street-level crime fighting, with its own hefty helping of grit and darkness, that their comic book versions have long had in spades. The format is excellent for telling the stories that have been told with these characters in the comic books for decades.
On the whole, I think that comic book adaptations on television for the last twenty years have been great. Though there have been duds, here’s looking at you Inhumans, the vast majority have straddled the line between faithfulness and ingenuity well. By making the comic book story able to fit into so wide a selection of genres, television adaptions have certainly been a boon for fans everywhere.