Paneled Page to Simple Screen: Comic Books on Television

[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]


I can recite the Green Lantern oath by heart, and can name most of the Corps’ primary members. I periodically place three pencils between the knuckles of my fist to make myself look like Wolverine. I have a section on my bookshelf devoted to the Last Son of Krypton, and I will emphatically point out to anyone who gives me reason that “With great power comes great responsibility” is misquoted.

In short, I’m a comic book nerd, and I wear that badge with pride.

So you can take it to the bank that I’ve had a lot to be excited over during the past year’s worth of television. We’ve experienced a veritable population explosion of comic-based TV shows, with four of the five major networks debuting at least one superhero-inspired show last fall (and the fifth one joining them shortly). In an era many have already described as being overabundant in good television, everyone in the business, it seems, is trying to get in on some swinging super-powered action.

It’s not to say that superhero shows are a “new” thing, of course. They’ve been around pretty much since the dawn of television in the Fifties, when George Reeves brought an extra-bouncy Superman to viewers’ homes. The trend continued in the Sixties when Adam West donned the cowl of Batman, in a move that simultaneously established and ruined his career. And it took a more serious turn in the Seventies, when Lynda Carter lassoed in viewers across the nation as Wonder Woman. In more recent decades, we’ve had countless more renditions of these and other heroes, including several excellent animated series that pushed the boundaries of sophisticated storytelling in the superhero medium.

And then at the dawn of the 21st century, Marvel began its own “cinematic universe”. What began as a series of unrelated film series designed to chronicle the adventures of Spider-Man, the X-Men, and so forth has developed into a full-fledged world of intersecting and interlocking franchises, beginning with the first Iron Man movie and gathering momentum through the Thor and Captain America films before climaxing with the all-star Avengers.

So perhaps its spillover from their big-screen success (in which DC has been unfortunately less accomplished, apart from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy), or perhaps it’s due to the rampant success of the graphic-novel based cable series The Walking Dead, but comics have finally been made a prevalent fixture of primetime TV. Last year, DC and Marvel each had but one successful series on the air. (Arrow and Agents of SHIELD, respectively.) Yet in the past nine months, the former company has treated us to The Flash, Gotham, Constantine, and iZombie, while the latter has give us Agent Carter and Daredevil.

Due to my ever-busying schedule, I wasn’t able to watch all the page-to-screen offerings made available this year, or at least couldn’t push myself to get through all of them – I never got to the now-cancelled Constantine, abandoned the erratic and muddled Gotham after the first few episodes, and haven’t yet had the time to get to Daredevil. (Which may be my loss, as it’s reportedly the best of the bunch, and the first of a multi-series Netflix deal that will bring even more comic book shows our way.) I have been watching iZombie, but it’s a relatively recent show, and a bit too new for me to dig deeply into its Veronica Mars-inspired flavor. So instead, we’re going to take some time today and discuss the other DC and Marvel adaptations, and the way they not only serve as good entertainment, but are actually experimenting with the network television model in new and unusual ways.

Let’s split these shows off into two pairs – Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter on Marvel’s side, Arrow and The Flash on DC’s. Both of these duos did some fairly intriguing stuff with the help of their respective counterparts this season, and while not all of it was successful, enough of it is interesting enough to warrant an extended discussion.

Let’s begin with Marvel. As many of you know, I wrote an article about a year ago on Agents of SHIELD. I did not so much discuss the show itself as I did talk about the struggles it had in staying on the air amid what TV Tropes has dubbed “Hype Backlash”. But with ABC now cognizant of the fact that SHIELD is never going to be a Shonda Rhimes-level smash, the show was able to move with more creative flow and invention in its second season. A series which began as banal and generic now turned stylish and fun.

Although it remains primarily plot-driven, SHIELD gave its characters more freedom to develop this season, and added some new faces to the mix. Well-bred actors like Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights) and Henry Simmons (NYPD Blue) added more electricity to the group dynamic of the series, while the long-term serialization kept things moving at a surefooted yet rarely extraneous pace.

There are many who credit the improvement of SHIELD to the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film whose in-universe events had a profound impact on the series. But Winter Soldier‘s impact is more than story-related. It in fact speaks to the totality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s immersive nature.

Marvel already took a few risks when it trusted viewers to familiarize themselves with the continuity of the initial Thor and Captain America films in order to better understand the plot of The Avengers – and it truly paid off, as Avengers is now the highest-grossing non-James Cameron film ever made. And now they’ve taken things a step further by incorporating a TV series in their increasingly elaborate onscreen mix.

Actually, make that two TV series. (And counting, now that the Netflix deal is underway.) Agent Carter, airing during the SHIELD winter break (more on that in a moment) was another branch on the blossoming Marvel tree, this one focusing on Hayley Atwell’s character from the first Captain America film. Although the film’s version of Peggy Carter was little more than a glorified love interest for the good Captain, the first season of her own show gave the minor comic-book heroine quite a bit more to do. Taking advantage of its eight-episode length, as well as the retro period setting of the late 1940s, Carter played out like an old movie serial, complete with the cliffhangers that have similarly become a fixture of SHIELD. In many ways, Carter was actually superior to SHIELD this season (despite the unfortunate wasting of Dollhouse‘s Enver Gjokaj), as the brief running time allowed for tighter pacing and a more complete sense of a story arc.

It would almost be hypocritical to say that Carter eased the three-month midseason wait for the return of SHIELD, as SHIELD was specifically put on hold to give airtime to its sister series. But injecting Carter halfway through SHIELD‘s second season run may have been the smartest move the network did this year outside of the TGIT programming block. Combined, the two Marvel shows aired for thirty weeks, with most of the viewers of one sticking around for the others. More viewers means more ad revenue, which, in a welcome move by ABC, means more Agent Carter.

The CW doesn’t have quite the luxury of airing for as many consecutive weeks as ABC does, in part because their fall season usually doesn’t start until October. But the network has done quite well for itself lately, debuting one of the best TV shows of the year in Jane the Virgin, as well as the Rob Thomas/Diane Ruggiero-penned iZombie. The latter of these two, as I’ve already mentioned, is inspired by a comic book – in this case, one from DC’s Vertigo line. But we’re here to talk about the two shows based on their more mainstream titles, and just how well they work with one another.

I was highly complimentary of Arrow when composing my “Best Shows of the Lustrum” article, which was written just as the third season of the show was premiering. And as Arrow returned, it brought The Flash along with it, having spun off Barry Allen’s famed speedster from an earlier two-parter. Airing alongside one another throughout the traditional season, Arrow and The Flash could not be more different – which, regrettably, turned out to be a problematic move for both.

In its first season, Arrow existed in its own world, less a DC comics offshoot than a harsh urban drama that happened to wear the green hood of a superhero show. These standards loosened in Season Two, as the show found a more amiable balance between its dark atmosphere and accepted comic book standards, plus an added slice of much-welcome humor. It was grim, but it was a lot of fun.

That fun, regrettably, was largely absent from the third season, which pulls its duty in full-on serious mode. But this feels less like a product of diminishing ideas than a desire to distinguish itself from The Flash, a show that, for much of the year, was as light and breezy as Arrow was dark and foreboding. And although much of the reception to the new Flash was highly positive, I remain decidedly lukewarm to its tone.

As I’ve stated, the two shows are intertwined continuity-wise, and several crossovers have transpired over the year. And it was in these crossover moments that I found myself gaining the most enjoyment out of either series. Not just for the sake of their intercrossing continuity (these shows are still nowhere near the MCU on that front), but for the way the grimness of Arrow was so perfectly counterbalanced by the levity of The Flash. Standing alone, each of the two series leaned two much in one tonal direction; together, they met at a perfectly-balanced middle.

Both Arrow and The Flash are produced by Greg Berlanti, whose early forays into the superhero world (No Ordinary Family and the 2011 Green Lantern film) were nothing short of forgettable. But with the first two seasons of Arrow, Berlanti (along with fellow developers Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg) has proven a knack for superhero storytelling. He and his fellow producers will be doubling their repertoire next season, with the Flash/Arrow supporting-character patchwork Legends of Tomorrow and CBS’ first new foray into the genre, Supergirl.

Due to differing networks, Supergirl will likely not coexist in the same world as its fellow Berlanti productions (despite the fact that CBS is among the CW’s parent companies). But with its Arrow/Flash/Legends combination (the third of these will reportedly air during the midseason break of the other two, Carter-style), the CW has crafted its own form of a miniature comic-book universe, one in which shows intersect just as effortlessly as the Marvel films. All it will take is a bit of fine-tuning on the part of both their current flagship super-shows, and we won’t need to pay for movie tickets (or bug-filled torrents) to see superhero world-building done right.

Whichever comic genre or brand you prefer (I’m actually slightly more of a DC fan than a Marvelite, despite what you may take from my impressions of their respective shows), television has currently got you covered. And even if you don’t enjoy the men-in-tights variety of storytelling, you can at least respect the fact that television, even in as golden a period as it’s currently in, can still make room for an abundance of page-to-screen adaptations. And even if you just plain hate the sheer amount of TV so many people are watching today, consider the fact that series like SHIELD and Arrow are introducing new fans to comics they may otherwise never have heard of. Which means that eventually, they may just turn off the TV and go read a book.

Jeremy Grayson is a freelance writer and reviewer for Critically Touched. He would appreciate if you didn’t tell that to his neighbors, whom he likes to stay on good terms with.


8 thoughts on “Paneled Page to Simple Screen: Comic Books on Television”

  1. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on May 22, 2015.]

    I periodically place three pencils between the knuckles of my fist to make myself look like Wolverine.

    Thank God I’m not the only person who does this.


  2. [Note: Pathbeyondthedark posted this comment on May 23, 2015.]

    I pretend I’m doing a Kamehameha like Goku from DBZ… among other things…

    First season of Arrow was great because of it’s urban drama with the superhero backdrop, rather than the latter being at the forefront. I lost interest when season 2 introduced too much of the comic-inspired lore.

    Jeremy knows my mild distaste with AoS this season, but in short it’s simply because of how plot driven it truly is. Most of the season was a setup for two different payoffs, both of which were entertaining and respectable in their own rights yet not worth the grueling build up.

    I’m a fan of the larger cinematic universe since, even though most films aren’t anything special even entertainment-wise, the short run-times make them tolerable and enjoyable and it’s so unprecedented that the idea alone of such an expansive film continuity is enough of a draw in itself.


  3. [Note: Jay posted this comment on May 23, 2015.]

    I kept on with Gotham for the whole season, somehow. Episode 5, “Viper” was probably the silliest I watched and I’m not sure how much better “Spirit of the Goat” was, but I feel like they had a good, strong, sustained run after that where they were able to integrate a few backstories for future villains. There was still some camp here and there (“Red Hood”), but I remained modestly entertained by its silliness and felt that there was usually one or two character moments per episode that made me smile. That said, the final arc of the season had a looooot of issues deviating from the established canon in weird ways, for no reason I could determine. I probably err too much on the side of faithful adaptation, but it’s difficult for me to determine what the series will be gaining from the choices they made.


  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on May 25, 2015.]

    I believe “Viper” was the last episode I watched. I was just so disheartened by the lack of faithfulness to any real Batman mythos and the whole anything-but-the-kitchen-sink mentality that I just up and quit.

    The show had some good dark visuals, and Jada Pinkett Smith was fun in her role. But that was pretty much it.


  5. [Note: Jay posted this comment on May 25, 2015.]

    Growing up with the era of gritty and psychological Batmen as we did from the Miller era, it’s hard to know what to do going back to the campier material or the 90s Batnipples. “Viper” was a strange thing to be doing with the Bane backstory, but for what it’s worth, that was probably the apex of the season’s silliness and one that it never really came back to.

    I’m not inclined to say “give it another chance” if it really offended your sensibilities that much. But the camp died down considerably after that and the only red flags that popped up for me were in the ending arc when Fish got a bit too real for a moment and they started doing some very dark things that I can only make sense of by citing one of the more recent Scott Snyder storylines as precedent (Disclaimer: I know Scott from before he did comics, from a fiction workshop he taught, and have peripherally kept track of his Batman work since)

    The stretch from “Penguin’s Umbrella” to “Everyone Has a Cobblepot” was largely good and the “Red Hood” episode, while a little goofy in the foreground story, had enough going on in the background to bear watching. The final four-episode arc, eh, I mean, you’d probably have opinions on it, I know I did. But hey, Morena Baccarin!


  6. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on May 26, 2015.]

    Well, when I think of 90s Batman, I don’t think of Bat-nipples. I think of the animated series. That pretty much defined Batman of the 90s, much like Frank Miller defined Batman of the 80s.

    I don’t really think I’ll be returning to Gotham, largely because I’m not sure I have the time and motivation to get through another 17 episodes, what with all the other great television all the networks keep throwing at me nonstop.


  7. [Note: Pathbeyondthedark posted this comment on May 26, 2015.]

    I stopped at the mid-season finale and never went back. I felt it was still too camp and didn’t expect much to change. “Penguin’s Umbrella” was the only episode I can say was more than a distraction at best, and Cobblepot the only character I actually enjoyed watching. I may go back and watch the remainder when it becomes available on Netflix – after that gutsy deal they made – but I’m not certain at the moment.


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