Top 10: Comic Book TV Series by Jerry Whitworth
Comic books being adapted for feature films are all the rage now but much of that has grown from exposure on the small screen over the last six decades. Heroes like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man have graced television sets across the world in that time only to be given bigger budgets and more notable actors to portray them for theaters. And while upcoming films like Amazing Spider-Man, Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For are on the horizon, series like Arrow and Powers are also preparing runs on the small screen (with the third season of Walking Dead being filmed presently). Lets take a look now at the greatest live action television series to adapt comic book characters.
10. HUMAN TARGET
Christopher Chance (Mark Valley of Fringe) is an ex-assassin who through circumstances in his life decided to pursue a path using his deadly skills to instead protect lives. Working in the lucrative, and dangerous, business of being a bodyguard and infiltration specialist, Chance assumed the role of someone close to a client where he protects them while rooting out those that sought his client’s harm. Assisting him were former police detective Laverne Winston (Chi McBride) and fellow ex-assassin Guerrero (Jackie Earle Haley of Watchmen) who were joined in the second season by billionaire widower and philanthropist Ilsa Pucci (Indira Varma) and professional thief Ames (Janet Montgomery). Lasting two seasons and twenty-five episodes, Human Target worked well on several levels: the action-adventure aspect that’s obvious for the type of show it was, the drama that arises from the storyline as it’s one of redemption and hope, the drama and comedy that comes from mixing the largely unique characters put together by fate and circumstance, and uncovering the mystery of who represents the threat to the client (and the espionage and intrigue therein). An overarching theme that also supported the show was uncovering Chance’s past, as the protagonist has to deal with his former assassination agency, such as Baptiste (Lennie James of Jericho and the Walking Dead) and the Old Man (Armand Assante of Judge Dredd), or dealing with his ex-girlfriend Maria Gallego (Leonor Varela of Blade II). The series is based on DC Comics’ Human Target, which featured Christopher Chance, a private investigator, who assumed the identity of a client using make-up and uncovered the forces seeking to kill them. In 1992, an earlier Human Target television series was developed starring Rick Springfield as a Vietnam veteran who used the latest technology to assume the identity of a client and uncover forces trying to eliminate them. This incarnation lasted only seven episodes.
9. SWAMP THING
The swamp is my world. It is who I am. It is what I am. I was once a man. I know the evil men do. Do not bring your evil here, I warn you. Beware the wrath of… Swamp Thing!
The Swamp Thing television franchise grew out of its film franchise, the first film written and directed by Wes Craven, of The Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises fame, who offered a spin on the horror genre where the monster was in fact the protagonist (something later picked up in Troma’s Toxic Avenger franchise). Featuring stuntman Dick Durock in the titular role, scientist Alec Holland makes a breakthrough in an animal/plant hybrid as rival scientist Anton Arcane (Louis Jordan) arrives with his paramilitary mercenaries that kill him and his sister Linda and destroy his work. Returning as the Swamp Thing, Holland seeks out the heavily fortified Arcane. The film led to a sequel featuring Arcane’s Un-Men which spawned a toyline and animated series before becoming a television series on the USA Network (becoming its most top-rated show). Durock reprised his role with Mark Lindsay Chapman (The Langoliers) taking over for Arcane which reset the series. Largely, the show shifted from its DC Comics comic book roots and played up its science fiction themes while having episodes dealing with the supernatural. Swamp Thing would last three seasons for seventy-two episodes.
8. THE FLASH
Adapted for television by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo (who wrote the Trancers film and went on to adapt the Rocketeer for film, created the original Human Target television series, and write the DC Comics’ series the Flash: Fastest Man Alive), the Flash series follows the adventures of forensic police scientist Barry Allen (John Wesley Shipp) who during a thunderstorm is given the powers of super speed. With these abilities, he battles a wave of emerging threats including Nicholas Pike (Michael Nader) and his Dark Riders, the Ghost (Anthony Starke), the Deadly Nightshade (Richard Burgi), Captain Cold (Michael Champion), Pollux (John Wesley Shipp), Mirror Master (David Cassidy), and the Trickster (Mark Hamill, famous for portraying Star Wars‘ Luke Skywalker who would go on to be a prominent voice actor for the Joker due in part to his role on the Flash). Coming off the success of Batman on the big screen, the Flash was in many ways done in the same vein: the Flash’s suit was muscular and dark, the setting some amalgamation of modern time with a peppering of the old mixed in here and there, the villains were menacing and not in any real form campy, and the hero was complex, brooding and heavy with the responsibility placed upon his shoulders. The Flash lasted only one season of twenty-two episodes. Barry Allen would return as the Flash in the pilot for a live action Justice League of America television series this time portrayed by Ken Johnston (though, the characterization this time around seemed more like comics’ Wally West).
Described by many as Superboy meets Dawson’s Creek, Smallville tells the adventures of Clark Kent (Tom Welling) as he develops super powers native to his alien homeworld Krypton living in the town of Smallville while meteors that followed him from his planet arrive on Earth and transform the populace (generally spawning threats to its people). In time, the series became more about developing concepts from the comics, such as the emergence of the Justice League, minus Batman and Wonder Woman, and adapting various villains of Superman such as Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum, a notable voice actor who portrayed the Flash, Deadshot, Kid Flash, and Deadman), Zod (Callum Blue), Brainiac (James Marsters, known for portraying Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), Bizarro (Tom Welling), Doomsday (Dario Delacio), Darkseid and his Elite, Metallo (Brian Austin Green), Toyman (Chris Gauthier), Solomon Grundy (John DeSantis), Parasite (Brendan Fletcher), Silver Banshee (Odessa Rae), Neutron (Jae Lee), and Livewire (Anna Mae Routledge). From the start, it was defined it would tell the story of Kent leading up to his emergence as Superman, with the hero taking on the costume in its finale. The series would be a major hit, spawning a Batman-inspired take off in Birds of Prey, the Aquaman driven Mercy Reef, and create a following for Green Arrow which could have provided a push for the upcoming Arrow series. In May 2012, DC Comics began to print the series Smallville: Season Eleven which picks up where the ten seasons and 218 episodes of Smallville left off.
6. WONDER WOMAN
In 1974, a pilot film was aired for a Wonder Woman television series starring Cathy Lee Crosby as the titular character as a sort of secret agent superhero, like Captain America meets James Bond (with the looks of Emma Peel). While the film wasn’t received as well as executives would’ve liked, it warranted a retooling closer to the original material instead starring Miss World USA Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, set during the backdrop of World War II. A pilot was shot and aired on ABC and was a hit. After several specials, the first featuring one of Wonder Woman’s nemeses Baroness Paula Von Gunther (Christine Belford) and the second Fausta Grables (Lynda Day George), the network discovered it had a new popular series and ordered more episodes (two of these episodes featuring Debra Winger as Wonder Girl). However, after the first season, it was decided further seasons would be in modern times as the show moved to CBS becoming the New Adventures of Wonder Woman. In all, Wonder Woman lasted three seasons and sixty episodes (including the pilot). While the series was well-done and popular on its own, it maybe most fondly remembered because of the impact it had on the LGBT community, empowering homosexual viewers who lived in a world that largely hated and didn’t understand them. Wonder Woman tore down gender roles with a heroine that was powerful but still experienced joy and pain, becoming a symbol to both men and women confused with their own bodies and feelings. Today, Lynda Carter is a strong advocate for LGBT rights. Wonder Woman was on the air during a renaissance for live action super hero endeavors, with Superman in move theaters, a live action adaptation of Challenge of the Super Friends in Legends of the Superheroes on NBC (featuring the return of Adam West, Burt Ward, and Frank Gorshin to the roles of Batman, Robin, and Riddler, respectively), and airing alongside Wonder Woman on CBS were the Amazing Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk (with pilot films for Captain America and Doctor Strange aired). There was an earlier attempt to bring Wonder Woman to television by William Dozier (Batman, Green Hornet) called Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince? that was never picked up. Recently, David E. Kelley tried to bring a new Wonder Woman series to television starring Adrianne Palicki as the titular character that was dropped. Erica Durance (Smallville‘s Lois Lane) would put on the Wonder Woman costume for Kelley’s series Harry’s Law.
5. TALES FROM THE CRYPT
It’s hard to quantify the impact of Tales from the Crypt. An HBO series, Tales adapted stories from various EC Comics series such as Haunt of Fear, Vault of Horror, Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories, and, of course, Tales from the Crypt. Featuring various big name actors and directors (including many who worked on or went on to work on live action comic book adaptations), the show would open with the Cryptkeeper (voiced by John Kassir) who introduced a horror story that, thanks to being aired on a premium channel, could actually be faithful to the source material featuring gore, graphic violence and language, and nudity. It was a huge hit, pushing HBO to venture further into more original content (and all the success that would bring, which inspired other premium channels to follow suit) and a multimedia franchise. Producing seven seasons of ninety-three episodes, three feature films (Demon Knight, Bordello of Blood, and Ritual with Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners intended to be part of the franchise), an animated series (with accompanying toyline), a children’s game show, music albums, radio series, and spin-off television series (Two-Fisted Tales filmed as pilot for a new series at Fox became episodes for Tales). In some ways, Tales changed television if you consider it laid the groundwork for series like the Sopranos, the Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Weeds, Dexter, Deadwood, True Blood, Sex and the City, Entourage, Game of Thrones, and Spartacus (to name a few). John Kassir would go on to star as the Atom in the Justice League of America television series film pilot.
4. THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN
Having proven you can believe a man can fly by the Adventures of Captain Marvel, National tried to bring their Superman to screen for years before they finally convinced Columbia to produce a film serial series starring Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel. The serial was a hit, producing a sequel featuring Superman battle his nemesis Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot) in Atom Man vs. Superman. The following year, the serial series beget instead a feature film (which doubled as a pilot for a proposed television series). This time around, Superman was portrayed by George Reeves in Superman and the Mole Men. The effort again proved successful and thus led the series the Adventures of Superman, a show that took Hollywood by storm. Reeves was thrust into the limelight becoming an overnight star, something he embraced presenting himself as best as he could as a role model for children, including to quit smoking, supplementing his income by doing public appearances as the superhero (though, the restrictive contract to play the character could in part have prompted this as it prevented the actors from taking virtually any other acting job). However, Reeves became so associated with the role, it became virtually impossible to get work in any other capacity. Despite this, Reeves carried on, including appearing in costume in one of the most memorable episodes to ever air of I Love Lucy. The show lasted for six seasons of one hundred four episodes, a short film for the Treasury Department named Stamp Day for Superman, and whose success inspired the title of Filmation’s The New Adventures of Superman. The series ended with the suicide of its star George Reeves (which the events leading up to his death were adapted for film in Hollywoodland) in 1959. There were efforts to produce a spin-off, namely Superpup and then the Adventures of Superboy, which never took off.
3. THE INCREDIBLE HULK
Bill Bixby, close friend and sometimes co-star to Elvis Presley who was known for working on popular television series like My Favorite Martian and the Courtship of Eddie’s Father, may best be known for his role of David Banner (“Bruce,” according to several people internally, was considered “too gay” a name), who when consumed with pain, sorrow, or rage turned into the rampaging Hulk. The part of the Incredible Hulk‘s titular character was that of bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno (reportedly after the show’s developer Kenneth Johnson’s son noted Richard Kiel, known for his role of Jaws in the James Bond film franchise, who was brought on wasn’t muscular enough to play the part), a frequent rival to Arnold Schwarzenegger (who auditioned for the role only to lose out to Ferrigno and went on to portray Robert E. Howard’s Conan in two feature films). The Incredible Hulk was the latest series adapted from comic books airing on CBS alongside Wonder Woman and the Amazing Spider-Man (with pilot films for Captain America and Doctor Strange) which also proved to be another hit series. In fact, reportedly when the head of CBS was noted by a friend at a party that his network seemed to be for superheroes, the embarrassment led to the cancellation of all such shows (despite all doing well) save Incredible Hulk, whose ratings were such that it would survive. In all, the series lasted five seasons of eighty-two episodes and spawned three television films afterward (The Incredible Hulk Returns, the Trial of the Incredible Hulk, and the Death of the Incredible Hulk). Despite the title of the final film, there were talks of a fourth film called the Revenge of the Incredible Hulk that fell through in wake of Bill Bixby’s death due to cancer.
Batman was failing. Created as some dark counterpart to Superman steeped in the flavor of pulp heroes, Batman proved to be a success in his premier but by the 1950s he limped along (when claims arose by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham that Batman was a pedophile and homosexual, his situation became even more dire). Despite co-starring with Superman in World’s Finest Comics and being featured in two film serials, it was clear he was on the way out. To try and save the once great money maker, DC Comics tasked editor Julius Schwartz with resurrecting the Dark Knight and Schwartz, in turn, brought on artist Carmine Infantino to redesign the character returning him back to his earlier, more gothic tone which kept the franchise alive. However, Batman would get a much greater shot in the arm when a television series based on him hit the air. A confluence of elements precipitated the series, as an ABC executive saw a Batman serial at the Playboy Club, noting how well received it was, while the network was searching for a comic character to adapt for screen. Based on this executive’s input, Batman was greenlit for production. Under the watch of producer William Dozier and head writer Lorenzo Semple, Jr, the series premiered with actors Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, respectively, as they battled Gotham City’s rogues like the Joker (Cesar Romero), Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Penguin (Burgess Meredith), and Catwoman (Julie Newmar) and proved to be a monster hit.
Not only did sales go up of Batman’s comics, he became the star of titles like Justice League of America and World’s Finest Comics and the series the Brave and the Bold became a team-up book starring the Dark Knight. Merchandise of all sorts cropped up with Batman’s face on it, most being high sellers, and so-called Batmania swept the United States including a Batman haircut and the dance craze known as the Batusi. Batman became big business and the show attracted big stars, many of which were content with cameos appearing out of windows as the Dynamic Duo scaled a building (actor Clint Eastwood was discussed at one point to play Two-Face on the series). A feature film was made following the first season in order to sell the series to the international market but that too became another hit for the franchise. However, regardless of how bright the star shown for the series, it dimmed soon after. Head writer Lorenzo Semple, Jr left the show after writing the screenplay for the film and the program went from so-called “camp” which entertained children with the costumes and sets and adults with various amusing in-jokes to very largely into silliness, and the audience reacted. By the end of the second season, the show was barely getting along. The third season was trimmed from the two-episode a week format to only one and the character Batgirl (Yvonne Craig) was added, but it wasn’t enough and the show died. While the series was no longer a hit for ABC, NBC saw promise in it and tried to pick up the series (something similar taking place years later when CBS snatched up Wonder Woman from ABC) until it was learned the sets were demolished which were too expensive to reproduce.
NBC would later try to in part resurrect the series by doing a live action adaptation of Challenge of the Super Friends called Legends of the Superheroes that saw West, Ward, and Gorshin return to their former roles. This was likely due to the success CBS had with Wonder Woman, Incredible Hulk, and Amazing Spider-Man at the time (with pilot films aired for Captain America and Doctor Strange). Unfortunately, Wonder Woman was tied up at the time with her own series as Superman was tied up in his own hit film franchise, though the show managed to snag Captain Marvel whose Shazam! television series from Filmation had recently ended on CBS (the Captain was intended to be on Challenge until the show’s creators learned Filmation still had the rights at the time). The show featured famous voice actor Howard Morris as Dr. Sivana, popular comedian Charlie Callas as Sinestro, and Mickey Morton, who played Gargantua on Wonder Woman, as Solomon Grundy. Despite all of this, the two specials aired didn’t catch on with audiences. Adam West would go on to continue to be closely identified with Batman, playing his voice actor for the New Adventures of Batman, Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show, and the Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians. He would also portray Batman’s idol the Gray Ghost for Batman: The Animated Series and the villainous Breathtaker on Black Scorpion. The cast of Batman came together infrequently for reunion programs, most notable the television film Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt.
1. THE WALKING DEAD
In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the zombie horror genre. It’s hard to pin down where this new well rose up, though certainly some likely candidates include the Resident Evil video game franchise, the film 28 Days Later (and its sequel 28 Weeks Later), the film [●REC] (which includes two sequels and a remake in Quarantine and that series’ sequel), the remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and Max Brooks’ books the Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (the latter made into a film set to hit theaters in the summer of 2013). Amidst this, a zombie comic was published at Image Comics named the Walking Dead. Telling the story of Rick Grimes, a police officer who awakes from a coma to find the world overrun by the living dead, Walking Dead added a new approach to the genre, focusing on survival in this new, dangerous world and how the people in it are often more hazardous than the undead. It was Walking Dead and the superhero series Invincible that catapulted creator Robert Kirkman into being recognized as one of the best new talents to hit the comic book industry in quite some time.
Fortune would smile again when the Walking Dead found its way to the cable network AMC, who already televised hit shows Mad Men and Breaking Bad, when a limited series based on the comic was produced. Despite the cost spent on effects for the program, it was wildly successful with AMC quickly ordering a second season more than twice as long as the first. And when the second season returned, it shattered records for cable television. Two seasons have aired thus far with a total of nineteen episodes as a third season is currently being filmed with sixteen episodes. While the success of the series alone and the quality of the product provide it high marks, what it may represent best is that a television series based on a comic can mean high ratings for television today (something Hollywood has already learned for features films and box office take) and that comics can be based on something other than superheroes to be successful (in turn leading to television series based on non-superhero comics).
Honorable Mentions: Blade: the Series, Superboy, Witchblade, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and the Tick.