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What do we want out of a comic-based television series?
At this point in pop-culture history the corporate synergies are so closely aligned, and the fans so plugged in, that we can all come up with various ways to adapt our favorite comics into TV shows or movies. I mean, when I heard about the proposed Gotham drama — lots of Gordon, no Batman, some supervillains — it got me thinking about a half-dozen other DC features that would make passable TV series.
For example …
• Martian Manhunter: that detective’s really an alien shapeshifter with all of Superman’s powers, but he doesn’t know his version of General Zod is also on Earth and looking for him!
• Challengers of the Unknown: living on borrowed time after inexplicably surviving a plane crash, four adventurers solve the world’s weirdest mysteries!
• Adam Strange: it’s Indiana Jones with a jetpack, as an Earth archaeologist finds himself on another planet!
• Checkmate: in a world of superheroes, this United Nations agency handles the threats no one else can!
• Elongated Man: He’s got super-stretchy powers, she’s an heiress, and his twitchy nose leads them into lighthearted adventure!
• Zatanna: World-famous magician by night, superhero by day!
Basically, if there’s a way to adapt even a mildly familiar DC comic into a budget-conscious TV show, I’m sure someone at Warner Bros. has thought of it. In fact, I’m sure it’s the job of at least one person at the studio to keep thinking of such ideas. The Futon Critic has several such concepts on its “based on a comic book” series-in-development list — including 100 Bullets, Booster Gold, Deadman, Fables, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Midnight Mass, Preacher, Raven, The Spectre and Starman — but most are dead and none is any further along than “stuck in limbo.” Some higher-profile prospects have sputtered out more visibly, like David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman pilot, the Aquaman pilot also known as Mercy Reef, the young-Diana series Amazon, and the even-younger-Robin series The Graysons.
Still, successes like Smallville and Arrow have certainly emboldened Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment executives, so now we’re hearing about Gotham and Constantine. And why not? Putting familiar names on boilerplate genre shows is something of a trend. There are two “modern-day Sherlock Holmes” series, NBC will have a Dracula series (premiering Oct. 25) to go along with Hannibal, A&E has Bates Motel, and ABC has Once Upon a Time (speaking of Fables) and its spinoff Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.
Therefore, I don’t think fans need to worry about a dearth of such adaptations anytime soon. However, the question remains, what do we want out of such shows? I preferred Lois & Clark to Smallville because the former was a more proper Superman show, what with the costume and the flying and the glasses-based alter ego; but the latter ran three times as long and eventually featured the world’s shortest Doctor Fate. (Still wish it had turned Lana into a proper Insect Queen, though.) I hear Arrow is a decent series, but I’d be happier if it featured Old Lefty Ollie muttering about “corporate fat cats.”
However, I’ll be sure to check out the three episodes of Arrow introducing Central City police scientist Barry Allen, because I’m curious to see how they treat the future Flash. For almost 30 years, Barry Allen’s adventures had a Silver Age foundation that wasn’t exactly whimsical, but never went entirely into “gritty realism,” even in the accused-of-murder years. Wally West spent much of his quarter-century as headliner reacting to Barry’s legacy — either directly, in trying to honor his uncle, or indirectly, by showing how venerable characters and institutions had been updated. After Barry returned to the top spot, the updates remained but the tone tried to stay light. (Artist Francis Manapul’s distinctive style has been a big help in this regard.)
The point is, for 50-plus years The Flash has been one of the more “comic-booky” superheroes, in the sense that the character works a lot better on the page than on the screen. No, scratch that — what I mean to say is that the stories the comics used to tell work better in print. A Flash series that spins out of Arrow isn’t going to give its hero a giant head one week and turn him into a puppet the next. The 1990-91 Flash TV series took away Captain Cold and Mirror Master’s costumes, and made the Trickster into a proto-Joker (foreshadowing actor Mark Hamill’s voice work on the latter). Otherwise it emphasized mad scientists and gangsters, and its only time-travel episode sent The Flash into a near-future dystopia, as opposed to the 25th century of Professor Zoom or the 64th century of Abra Kadabra. While that series’ history doesn’t necessarily determine the tone of whatever comes out of Arrow, I’d be very surprised if a new Flash featured the Scarlet Speedster fighting the traditionally costumed Rogues Gallery in the daytime.
That sounds like I’m judging a series based on its fidelity to the comics, which isn’t entirely fair, considering the practical restrictions that come with television. The old Superboy series had plenty of goofy, Silver Age-y episodes, and Smallville prided itself on its faithful adaptations of familiar DC characters, but that doesn’t mean they were consistently good. Indeed, for years many fans sneered at the old Batman series because it got laughs out of adapting old comics stories — so one might say it was faithful to a fault.
Accordingly, taking details like tone, continuity, and production design out of the mix leaves the feature’s fundamental setup. With The Flash, it’s “police scientist with super-speed has red-suited alter ego.” With Gotham, I suppose it’s “honest cop fights corrupt colleagues as well as theme-using criminals.” Constantine might be “misanthropic Brit fights demons, possibly with American magician girlfriend.” (Yes, I’m still hoping for more Zatanna on TV.) In each case, we are asking why am I watching this show? Is it because we want to see these characters specifically, or their setups generally?
I suspect it’s more of the former, mostly because using the familiar elements triggers certain fan expectations. I grew up frustrated that the Saturday-morning Shazam! show never featured Black Adam or Mister Mind, and that the prime-time Incredible Hulk had none of the comics’ anarchic energy. I wish I could say this was preparation for the liberties taken by the Birds Of Prey TV series, where the Huntress had cat-powers (because Catwoman had cat-powers…?) and Dinah Lance was a telepathic teenager, not a proper Black Canary … but I didn’t even make it through all thirteen episodes. Likewise, these days there are probably fans out there who want the new SHIELD series to dive deep into Marvel lore, fighting HYDRA and AIM and flying to Wundagore Mountain or to the Starcore space station. Every adaptation seems to bring with it this sense of opportunity, like “why did you send Coulson and crew to Peru when you could have used Costa Verde,” which I think comes from the fact that these kinds of touches appear pretty simple to pull off. Given its pre-Batman era, Gotham probably won’t use the Joker or Two-Face, because their origins both depend on the Darknight Detective, but you have to think the Penguin and maybe the Riddler will make up for that, along with more obscure villains like Hugo Strange or the gangster Lew Moxon. Their successful portrayals will depend on writing and acting, not effects or even costumes. At heart TV hasn’t gotten that far past that basic “let’s put on a show” ethos, even with all the advances in technology which have made superhero shows more feasible.
Therefore, again I ask, why am I watching this show? Is it enough to have a police procedural where the characters are named Gordon and Dent and Cobblepot, who act nominally like their four-color counterparts, and who are (hopefully) compelling enough apart from the regular Bat-setup? Will a Flash show satisfy whatever urge I may have for TV to depict a super-speedster for an hour every week? Are these characters sufficient in themselves to justify their own series, regardless of their comic-book origins? In other words, would I watch them if they hadn’t come out of the comics?
Those kinds of questions tend to separate the success of an adaptation from the merits of its source material, even if that separation may be hard for fans to accept. The simple fact is that the comics can do infinitely more than any TV series can, but TV conveys a certain mass-market legitimacy to which comics have perpetually aspired. I’d want to see a Checkmate or Zatanna series, and I’m eager to see how The Flash turns out, because I like those characters and I think they should have more exposure.
Ultimately, then, the answer to what do we want does boil down to fidelity, but in a general sense rather than a specific one. If a show manages to capture the spirit of a comic book, that should be enough. While TV has done too little in this respect, occasionally I have asked too much.
That said, though, a Zatanna series really wouldn’t be so hard …