The movies are a terrible place to adapt comics. I know, I know, it’s huge box office right now and a trend that shows no sign of stopping but think about it. Many popular comics being adapted to screen right now have been in circulation since the 60’s and some even beyond that. We’re talking whole decades of continuity and canon crammed into a 90 minute plus block of time. Unless you’re sequelizing the source material you have to fill in the origin story as well as a robust super hero/super villain conflict and in the process, you have to cut corners in order to make it all fit. This incenses fans, of course. There is no one on Earth more critical of an adaptation than comic fans. The real place to put your comic adaptations is television.
The obvious problem is budgetary. If you go with a major network, then you have to produce a season of TV that runs 17 to 24 episodes in length. This results in a lot of fluff and filler. If your show is effects heavy, you’re going to spread your already meager budget pretty thin between your effects budget and cast salaries. So how do you remedy this problem? You go to cable. Cable network budgets are also quite fickle, though. You can run the shorter seasons but without a solid precedent to cite as a reasonable expectation of a return on investment, how do you convince FX that spending more than usual on a short season of a very specific genre of television is a good idea? Herein lies the problem. Until recently, the comic book medium, even as it raked in record box office, was seen as low-brow kids fare. You couldn’t produce such a movie unless it was accompanied by a merchandising line to cram the shelves at Walmart. Christopher Nolan’s extremely dark Batman movies mark a significant change in studio policy since the movies were not the sort of thing you wanted to take your kids to and you couldn’t find a Christian Bale action figure anywhere. Since that time, however, cable networks have been flirting with the idea of adapting comics to TV and pulling down some of that sweet super hero coin for themselves.
Most comic adaptations for TV in the past have been disastrous, discounting the obvious success of Smallville, a show that surprised even me. Birds of Prey, with its girls of Gotham theme, was a dud. Generation X was laughably terrible and The Flash was well-meaning but ultimately embarrassing. They just hadn’t figured out how to do it. Now it’s beginning to look like they’re figuring it out. Going back to Smallville, they have a couple of show policies that seem like deal breakers from the Kevin Smith story about writing Superman Lives for Jon Peters. He wouldn’t be seen in the suit and he wouldn’t fly. They’ve gotten around that, obviously, and every other character on the show wears a costume but the show remains a super hero TV show without being like the DC Universe of the comics. This is the approach that everyone seems to be taking.
The Walking Dead sets an interesting precedent in that Darabont assures us all that they will mostly stick to what you’ve seen in the comics while taking a few logical liberties with the source material, but the enormous fan reaction has convinced network people that you can do high concept comic books on TV, keep them as dark and violent and their source and people are still going to go house. This is the tipping point. Also in process is Fables, Bill Willingham’s urban fantasy about fairytale characters forced to live in the real world. It’s a sprawling and rich world where The Big Bad Wolf is actually a good guy and a cop, Prince Charming is a fucking dick, Goldilocks is a psychopath and Cinderella is a spy. It’s a suitably popular title thanks to it’s strong writing and fantastic art. If you haven’t yet read Fables, I really can’t recommend it, enough and it’s a book that I hope Willingham never stops doing. For those of you out there still grieving the end of Sandman, this is a worthy replacement. There hasn’t been any news on the show for quite some time and last we heard it was going into production for the 2009-2010 season of TV on ABC but it’s a safe bet that the hasty cancellation of the dreamy Pushing Daisies on the same network put the brakes on development. Hopefully it’s not down for the count.
Speaking of Sandman, recent Hollywood Reporter news came down that Neil Gaiman’s seminal fantasy comic series about a family of beings older than gods and the influence they have on the lives of us mortals, is going into development to be part of the CW’s lineup. Sandman has been in development for an intended feature film since the 90’s but wildly inconsistent vision between the studio and the writers has left the project in development hell. At its closest point to going into production, Dream, the sort of main protagonist of Sandman, was a two-fisted hobo fighting an evil version of himself in the sewers of San Francisco. It wasn’t pretty. Sandman spinoff series, Death: The High Cost of Living, has also been in development for nearly as long. So with all this futile creative bickering and an uncertainty on how to approach a theatrical adaptation of a comic that’s not a super hero book, the project was shuffled around from HBO, who passed on it, to the CW, who are now developing it for television under the supervision of Eric Kripke, responsible for the better-than-I-thought-it-would-be, Supernatural. Why The CW? Their genre stuff, though very popular, seems pretty unsophisticated and soapy. However, The CW is owned by Warner Brothers who is the current parent company of DC Comics, who owns the Vertigo imprint which is where Sandman lived. Series creator, Gaiman, still isn’t involved in this development, but this may change soon, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
This is all well and good, but none of these projects involve people in suits and capes. Capes are the traditional mental image to your average TV watcher or ticket buyer. You can call your Sandman show a comics to screen adaptation, but Average Joe isn’t going to recognize it as an actual comic book. This is where FX steps in. Before Brian Michael Bendis was writing absolutely everything at Marvel he was doing a book for Image called Powers. Powers, which has been quietly in development for a couple of years at FX, is less a super hero book and more a police procedural in a city populated by super powered heroes and villains. The heroes of Powers are a pair of cops, one a retired super hero named Diamond, rendered powerless by his arch enemy and the other his partner. Together, they investigated superpower-related crime in the city. It’s extremely engaging stuff. The general format plays out like Homicide: Life On The Street, Behind The Music and Watchmen.
The downside to all this good news is that no one is talking solid dates. With the exception of the much-anticipated launch of The Walking Dead on AMC on Halloween, Fables, Sandman and Powers have not set any expectation for launch and even worse, some of these projects have been silent since 2009, implying that there has been no movement on those fronts at all. I can only imagine that these networks are waiting to see how Darabont’s grim and gory zombie show fares before bringing their own epic visions to television.