With The Green Hornet making its On Demand premiere this month, it got us thinking about the strides the comic book genre has made as of late. Now a fixture on the big screen, with summer blockbusters increasingly ratcheting up the spandex quotient, comic books have also permeated television and just about every other medium of entertainment.
Take Green Hornet, for example. The feature film is just the latest incarnation of a character that has been around since the 1930s when it premiered as a popular radio drama. From there, it found success as a comic book, a film serial, and a 1960s TV series that helped launch the career of Bruce Lee. In addition to showcasing a franchise’s longevity, the movie version is also a great illustration of how diverse comic book adaptations have become. It used to be that Hollywood’s masked vigilantes were to be played by square-jawed, leading-men types, like Van Williams. Or Christopher Reeve. Or Christian Bale. Not by guys like Seth Rogen, who is best known for playing schlubby slackers in R-rated comedies. Nor were they normally directed by filmmakers like Michel Gondry, who built his reputation with low-key, high-concept arty fare like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The same dynamic is at work on television, where the amount of comic book-based material is ever growing and diversifying. Superheroes certainly have a firm toehold in the landscape, mostly in the form of animated series (Cartoon Network’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Disney XD’s The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes), but there are also high-octane action series (FOX’s Human Target) and a zombie apocalypse drama that is one of the most acclaimed shows out there (AMC’s The Walking Dead).
It’s to the point where the genre is becoming as firmly entrenched as the cop show or medical drama, able to withstand a prominent flop like NBC’s The Cape (which, I know, technically wasn’t based on a comic book) without anyone questioning whether comic book shows have run their course.
For comics writer Brian Michael Bendis, who is currently adapting his series Powers for FX, going to television is a natural evolution.
“I’m surprised it’s taken this long for people to make the connection,” he says. “Powers has been going on for 11 years. It’s serialized, it’s character-based drama. Very similar to TV shows, you have ups and downs. With something like Watchmen, which has a beginning, middle and end, sure, that’s a movie. But something like Powers … it’s almost written like a TV show. It gives our producers on Powers 10 years of story backlog to mine and cherry-pick which ones will make good episodes.”
Perhaps no one can speak about the journey a comic takes to television better than Jeph Loeb, a longtime comics writer who has also worked on such TV series as Heroes, Lost and Smallville. Now working as Marvel’s head of television, Loeb says breakthroughs in technology have allowed more comics to make the leap to TV, as has the desire of comics companies to play a bigger role. Marvel, for instance, now owns the television rights to many of its characters and, thanks to its 2009 acquisition by Disney, has a family of networks (ABC, ABC Family, Disney XD) ready to distribute them.
“Marvel really knows its DNA,” Loeb says. “When you see that DNA being exploited by somebody else, those are the times when you start to raise your eyebrows. The good news about Marvel Television is it’s people who love Marvel, who know Marvel, who are working with the studio at ABC that really understands what it is we do. The shows that we’re doing and the creators that we’re talking to really are embracing what is Marvel.”
So far, Marvel is remaining tight-lipped about the particulars of its upcoming projects, but it sounds like the next few years will be chock full of them. It doesn’t end there, however, as several other networks have made plans to produce comic book-based series. Here are a few of the more high-profile titles in the works:
Wonder Woman (NBC — Fall 2011)
After years of false starts on the movie front, the Amazon feminist icon is finally coming back to TV, presumably with a slightly more serious vibe than the kitschy 1970s series. David E. Kelley (Boston Legal) is writing the script, which reportedly has the superhero’s alter ego, Diana Prince, operating in the business world. Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights) will wear the new Wonder Woman suit, which has spurred lots of debate upon its reveal, and she’ll go up against a villain played by Elizabeth Hurley. Cary Elwes costars.
Locke & Key (FOX — Fall 2011)
From the mind of novelist Joe Hill (son of Stephen King) comes this haunted-house story about a family that relocates to the old home of its recently murdered patriarch. Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go) will direct the pilot, and the solid cast includes Miranda Otto, Nick Stahl, Jesse McCartney, Sarah Bolger and Ksenia Solo.
DC Nation (Cartoon Network — 2012)
This programming block will be the exclusive home to DC’s TV animation projects with shows like the upcoming Green Lantern and returning favorites Young Justice and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. There will also be behind-the-scenes looks at DC’s movie projects as well as shorts and interstitials featuring characters from DC’s deep library. Cartoon Network president and COO Stu Snyder calls it a “wonderful partnership” between his network, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment to produce content with “evergreen” appeal. Geoff Johns, a longtime writer who is now DC Entertainment’s chief creative officer, says, “It gives us a chance to explore corners of the DC Universe that have never been explored before. It’s a complete company effort, and the passion everyone has for this, and putting a stake in the ground like this, is beyond encouraging for someone who loves DC.”
Powers (FX — 2012)
Brian Michael Bendis is adapting his comic about a pair of homicide detectives who work cases involving superheroes. One of the detectives, Christian Walker, is a former superhero himself. Casting is underway, with shooting set to begin this summer.
Also in development:
Blade: Anime (G4)
Ditz (Disney Channel)
The Governator (no network attached)
Iron Man: Anime (G4)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Nickelodeon)
Ultimate Spider-Man (Disney XD)
Wolverine: Anime (G4)
X-Men: Anime (G4)