Television, it seems, has finally discovered that comic books can actually attract viewers without having to venture into Captain Tightpants territory. AMC’s Walking Dead has essentially nothing in common with its graphic novel base material except its characters, but has been a commercial success by dressing up its melodrama with zombies; likewise, Marvel is squeezing every bit of juice from The Avengers by moving to the small screen and focusing in on the human agents on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. And in the coming year, we’ve been told AMC and Netflix are both launching miniseries or seasonal shows based off of comic books; sadly however, all these new series (AMC’s Preacher; Netflix’s run of four Marvel shows, beginning with a reboot of Daredevil under Drew Goddard) are centered around relatively mainstream, superhero-based titles: Preacher, Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage and, mind-numbingly enough, Jessica Jones. By this time next year, basic cable and streaming availability of superhero fare will be commonplace- especially if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. overcomes its’ lackluster ratings and gets a broader audience.
That, of course, is the crux of the problem. Comic book readers will flock to comic book television shows, but there’s little reason for the average citizen to suddenly become enthralled with a genre that they’ve previously ignored. White-collar worker bees and housefraus who don’t know the difference between a Skrull and the Sh’iar aren’t going to pore through decades of backstory of what’s going on in a new series; more to the point, they wouldn’t have any reason to switch the channel in the first place. Much of what Netflix and AMC is banking on is the current popularity of superhero movies, but as we know, public taste is a fickle bitch. What works today is no guarantee of future performance, and superhero series, by dint of their reliance on visual effects and costumes, can be prohibitively expensive to film. So why not expand beyond the obvious teen market and look for series that can engage long-term adult audiences?
Comic book writers realized a long time ago that superheroes didn’t need to exist for their series success; they were, as Art Spiegelman said, “a gateway for literacy”. Have a good romance story but need an audience? Throw in a mutant. Philosophical horror based in existential dread? Add a zombie or two and you’ve be able to earn a living. Superheroes are the spice added, by necessity, by writers who have something to say but can’t get kids to open the funny book without adding some pop. The good news is that enough of the good stuff- serious, thought-provoking books- have snuck through over the years that television studios could now cash in on them. They could draw on the book’s built-in audience without having to pander into juvenile male power fantasies that involve weekly fight scenes. Here’s some- just a small sampling, really- of some of works just waiting out there to be picked up for television.
1. Lone Wolf & Cub. Genre: Historical Action.
Kazuo Koike’s 1970 epic Lone Wolf & Cub is considered one the masterpieces of Japanese manga, amazing given how slow-paced it is, and veering far away from comical or supernatural elements. The 28-volume story follows outcast Ogami Itto, a former royal executioner, as he travels 16th-century Japan as a masterless samurai, seeking out any job that pays enough to propel him closer towards revenging the murder of his wife at the hands of a rival political faction.
Koike’s story has plenty of bloody samurai-sword action in it, but just as much time is given to his explanations of medieval Japanese politics, Itto’s meditations on reconciling his violent life with his Buddhist beliefs, and how women and children were exploited in that age. Koike draws on a large canvas- a single swordfight once took 178 pages to be portrayed, and the story carries Itto from coastal islands to the northern Hokkaido mountains- a great landscape for a network looking to use lush sets and the historical context as a way to imply gravitas in their series- and in this case, it would work. Lastly, the “cub” of the series is Itto’s child Daigoro, who travels with his father, slowly absorbing his father’s callous yet honorable nature. The element of Daigoro lends a much-needed humanity to LW&C where it would otherwise be a grim mercenary tale, and in the hands a sympathetic writer, could serve to soften the edges of the series and attract a wider swath of viewers.
2. The Invisibles. Genre: Surrealist.
Grant Morrison’s 1990’s series that spanned almost ten years of publication was rumored to be the inspiration for, among other things, The Matrix- to the point that Morrison actually sued Warner Brothers over the similarities. But if Matrix lifted one slim portion of the Invisibles omnibus of ideas, they left out the following elements:
Lovecraftian demon cults. Mind control through secret alphabets. Transvestite witches. Scorpion assassin gods. Marquis de Sade. Psychic martial arts. Homeless wizards. UFO abductions as metaphors for nervous breakdowns. Extra-dimensional dream parasites. The hand of John the Baptist acting as a time machine. Invisible universities and astral projection.
Incredibly dense, sometimes to the point of total confusion, Morrison wrote Invisibles as a spoof on conspiracy theorists, but along the way it meandered through prolonged segues concerning French literature and censorship, how personal trauma can be interpreted as magic, the fear of fascism in modern governments, and how easily memory can be altered through language and society. Invisibles is a premium-cable purchase only, however: it’s explicit across its entire run, both in language and sexuality, and the concepts it attacks would only attract the kind of network dedicated to telling long-running difficult themes.
I know what you’re about to say. “But I thought that was turned into 2005’s Constantine, starring master thespian Keanu Reeves!” Well, it was, but boiling Hellblazer and its 25-year run in comics down into two hours of bad special effects is so reductive it’s almost criminal. And then you follow up with, “But I thought they were making an American version of this show!” Like Walking Dead and its stalking horse hijacking of the comic’s name, pulling Hellblazer out of the British Isles is doomed to failure because it rips out the central idea of the original series.
Like V For Vendetta or the original Judge Dredd books, Hellblazer was written *specifically* as a response to Thatcherite England and the ills that the Tory government put upon their people. Breaking of unions, abandonment of mental health, virulently racist and sexist social programs, and militarization of the government were all factors that gave raise to Hellblazer as a bleak reflection of a nation in the middle of a second Dark Age. John Constantine, the book’s central character, is the last in a long run of natural magicians reaching back to pre-Roman pagan tribes, yet he is only reluctantly a willworker, preferring to use his powers for gambling, drinking, and jumping from one bad relationship to the next. Even Constantine’s fictional past- with roots in 1970’s punk and anarchist movements- echo the populist resistance to post-colonial England; and in the book, Constantine’s enemies- demons, vampires and rogue spirits- are strongly tied to being analogies for England’s social and political problems, with parallel storylines told concerning things like the rise of opiate addiction in England, race riots, and Church of England corruption. Putting Hellblazer in New Yawk or Chicago might be cheaper for an American network, but it ensures low ratings and loss of meaningful narrative.
Another British series, but this one was published beginning in the same time frame as 9/11 and running through 2007. A dry, unemotional examination of how a national security organization runs paramilitary operations, Q&C excelled precisely for that reason- no over-the-top action scenes, no super secret agents able to survive bomb blasts, and no illusion of its players as doing anything but serving their masters in the name of power and control; as an anti-James Bond, the series was a sober response to the realities of the 2000’s and the increasingly globalized nature of espionage.
Q&C has had its imitators already- Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty come dangerously close to lawsuit territory with their mimicking of Queen’s female protagonist and portrayals of interrogation, political backbiting and integration of intelligence and military professionals- but Q&C did it first, and due to how cheap ink is compared to film stock, did it better, fleshing out the failings of Tara Chance, its main protagonist (an alcoholic, PTSD-riddled field agent) and the risk-averse careerist mechanisms of her superiors, as well as her private successes and the impacts of her work, invisible and misunderstood as they are. As a study of wheels within wheels and the unintended consequences that governments create when they wage war, Q&C is masterful, and could be put on either basic cable or premium channels for a minimal cost, with little adaption of language or violence necessary.
Although the “Sandman” character originated as a vigilante superhero in comics from the 40’s, this series removed any notion of that and focused in on the man behind the mask, Wesley Dodds. Dodds, a World War One veteran who studied meditation and science, resolved his social anxiety and eccentricities by putting on his wartime gas mask and investigating serial murderers, criminal syndicates and mysteries in this series that ran for eight years in the 1990’s. Dodds is not much of a heroic character- his romantic and sexual hangups make him no better than many of the people he’s investigating- but the series itself was a wonderful mix of social commentary, soap opera and mystery serial. Those that Dodds hunts use colorful nom de plumes to hide themselves (The Tarantula, The Scarlet Ghost) but at the end of each series, the villains are consistently revealed to be nothing more than deeply damaged human beings.
Issue to issue, SMT spends most of its time not worrying about Dodd’s investigation for that season, but on the circumstances that created the atmosphere for crimes to occur in the first place. Matt Wagner, the series creator, is one of the best writers in the business (responsible for the hit series Mage, and the ongoing antihero Grendel), and for him, looking at repressed sexuality in the early 20th century, particularly at at time when an isolationist America was rife with poverty, powerful crime organizations and racial hatred, is far more fascinating than guys in masks hitting each other. In a time where Boardwalk Empirei and Bonnie & Clyde are hot commodities, a post-Prohibition mystery series could have enough draw on an AMC or Netflix to draw attention.
Fringe is off the air, and Dr. Who‘s tenure as the bastion of science fiction on television is based on the thinnest interpretation of science fiction possible; at the same time, science is hot- scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye are enjoying an explosion of popularity right now as projects like the LHC and CURIOSITY grab the public’s imagination of what science can bring us. So with the time being ripe for a solid SF title, Manhattan Project is the best of two worlds- an imaginative, farcical ‘what-if’ telling of the Cold War science arms race that involves Death Buddhists, a telepathic Laika and a schizophrenic Oppenheimer; but it also uses real scientists from both sides of that war to spin its tale. Feynman, Einstein, the aforementioned Oppenheimer, and Fermi are the main characters, but the series also rolls into German Nazi-regime scientists (von Braun and Gottrup), politicians and Soviet science heroes in its bastardization of the past.
The series really takes off once these assembled Earth factions realize that they are not alone in the universe, and instead of fighting each other, decide to use Earth’s combined scientific community not to coexist with other races, but to wage war in order to stave off imminent alien invasions. At the same time, the team deals with Oppenheimer killing and cannibalizing friends and enemies alike, an alcoholic and possibly evil Einstein, and Enrico Fermi occasionally turning into a giant monster. It’s a fantastic voyage, and insane enough to get both hardcore science groupies and casual action fans to tag along.
The fact that 100 Bullets was ever published is a miracle. Even its most basic premise- a man approaches you with a gun, a case of 100 bullets, and carte blanche to shoot someone with no legal repercussions- is a stretch, and once the series moved beyond that narrative to its larger storyline, it became a convoluted web of guessing which characters would betray each other, and where each one’s loyalties really lay. It’s a credit to writer Brian Azzarello (who also worked on Hellblazer) that he was able to convince DC to give him a noir series with nary a cape or mask in sight, and have them credit with enough faith for 100 issues.
1oo grew its cast of character beyond its mystery man- Agent Graves- and those that he approaches with his offer, into an expanded universe of desperate gamblers, three-time losers, agent provocateurs, bare-knuckle brawlers, and cold-hearted femme fatales. The series’ master narrative, concerning intercontinental crime organizations and their betrayals of the very people who protect them, is just the set dressing for Azzarello to tell seedy tales about dangerous people and their schemes. This series already got “incredibly close” to a television series but was cancelled over concerns that its central idea was too closely linked to mass shootings. But in the right hands- a deft writer with a touch light enough to remove that casual inference, and a director capable of showing 100’s real motives- it would work well on a basic cable network. Hell, if the American people can buy off on a meth dealer as an anti-hero, they’d certainly be fine with some guys with guns.
The representation of Native Americans on television is still far below any other ethnicity in this country, and considering the storytelling traditions and rich mythologies of The People, this is a horrible loss of sources of inspiration; double that when you look at the social issues that reservations still struggle with today. Vertigo’s Scalped is not only the only comic right now with a nearly 100% character rate that’s NA, but well-written, beautifully drawn, and paced enough to match its action and noir narratives with themes about how the failures of the reservation result in terrible devastation for those who choose to remain there.
The arcs of Scalped are familiar territory- American Indian political movements, the lure and corruption of corporate casinos, alcoholism, the lack of law enforcement powers beyond reservation lines- so the buy-in of a network wouldn’t require any fanciful explanation of origin stories, or even any sets beyond the South Dakota hills. And given how many NA actors would jump at the chance for an all-NA show (Michael Horse, Wes Studi and Irene Bedard all come to mind as possible players in this one), a small-screen adaption of Scalped could purchase a network a wreath of awards, if nothing else.
Anthropomorphic animals are, by far, the largest staple of children’s literature, to the point where they are almost a trope. From Muppets to Adventure Time, almost every example of children’s books or television require the presence of talking animals, because we mature adults are sure that children relate more to them than to our strange adult world. What separates Mouseguard from the rest of the herd is its richness of character and the fullness of its world; with a cast of more than forty characters, each with alignments and flaws that make sense within their world, the series is relatable to children not because the heroes wear fur and whiskers, but because they are clear-cut in their motivations, ideas and archetypes- the type of primary characters that children can attach to positive values.
That broad character development isn’t all that MG would offer in an animated television show. David Petersen’s artwork is naturalistic, even when the characters wield weapons. A quiet, solitary nature is captured in his art, demonstrating a primal level to MG that will connect children to the world around them- a world not comprised of music, or electronics, or even television- just the sounds and sights of nature. With a minimalist score and understated narration, MG would be a welcome alternative to the over- caffeinated hyperkinetic structure of most children’s shows.
If you ask most people about American graphic novels that just follow the lives of ordinary people, they will most likely say Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical American Splendor, Dan Clowe’s work on David Boring and Ghost World, or if they’re really reaching, Spiegelman’s Maus. There are several strands of commonality that run through these works- each of those books are done by Jewish-American men; they were written about characters that feel, both on an individual and national level, alienated and confused about their identities; and each are both strongly disdainful of (and yet attracted to) the American ideal of conformity. And while Pekar’s work is the oldest of all of these, they are all late-20th century contemporary works that owe their eventual success to Eisner’s look at Jewish-American life in ACWG.
Like the other works, Eisner’s compilation of stories (and its two sequels) are a mix of text blocks and artwork, with deceptively simple artwork, and is widely cited as the first novelistic comic book. His stories rely on internal struggles of the working-class characters to overcome thwarted dreams, everyday frustrations, and the pettiness of each other and themselves. If this sounds like a dreary idea for a television show, think about how the pitch for Mad Men would have sounded. Eisner understood that there was no need to disguise characters with melodramatic elements in order to satisfy the core story of their motivations and intent- it just sold better if your leading man held a gun or swung from a rope while he grappled with inner demons. After all, his work previous to ACWG had been a little thing called The Spirit, a superhero-cum-vigilante serial that lasted for nearly forty years. But the work left Eisner unsatisfied. In one interview, he said:
“I wanted to write better things than superheroes. Comic books were a ghetto. I sold my part of the enterprise to my associate and then began The Spirit. They wanted an heroic character, a costumed character. They asked me if he’d have a costume. And I put a mask on him and said, ‘Yes, he has a costume!’
Eisner kept food on the table writing superhero comic books until he realized that they weren’t emotionally central enough to what he wanted to write; the result of his transition into other genres was ACWG, the first masterpiece of the graphical novel format, and a legacy that extends through today via the annual Eisner Awards- a set of awards that probably would not exist had he stuck with the heroic genre.
Today, television and film executives face the same decision that Eisner did in the 1970’s. There’s no doubt that studios will continue the sweet, sweet revenue that superhero films provide; but in a few short years, they’re going to be facing a generation of audiences burnt out by the antics of superheroes fighting the same type of villain repeatedly. If they look beyond the boundaries of the heroic genre and explore some of the other offerings that graphic novels have, there’s plenty of room for growth in dramatic structure. If they don’t, both art forms will suffer- comic writers might return to the superhero genre ghetto, and film will find some other medium to exploit. But the vacuum created if that occurs will leave a lot of stories untold, a lot of good characters uncreated, and that loss- the loss to the audience- would be worse, since the cost would be the squandered potential to open more eyes up to new avenues towards other stories- strange, outlandish, violent stories- that will never make it to the screen.