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The 25 Best Comic Book TV Shows of All Time (Live-Action)

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The 25 Best Comic Book TV Shows of All Time (Live-Action)

When Hollywood struck gold with adaptations of comic books, it was only a matter of time before TV followed suit. More and more TV shows based on comics have found their way to various networks and streaming services, most notably AMC’s juggernaut Walking Dead franchise and Netflix’s New York-centric Marvel series. No longer limited to the superhero genre that found its way to the small screen in 20th century shows like Batman, Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk, the new crop of comic-book TV series ranges from the supernatural horror of Robert Kirkman’s Outcast, the teen dramedy of Riverdale and the devil-starring cop procedural Lucifer.

The trend shows no signs of slowing—we count at least 20 shows from DC and Marvel alone, including such ambitious projects as a Damon Lindelof-helmed Watchmen on HBO, the long-awaited Y: The Last Man series on FX, The Punisher spinoff on Netflix and Hulu’s Runaways, whose pilot screening hooked me enough to at least keep watching. This list may look a lot different in a few years.

But for now, here are the 25 best comic book TV series of all time:

25. Smallville

Creators: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar
Stars:: Tom Welling, Kristin Kreuk, Michael Rosenbaum, Allison Mack, Sam Jones III, Annette O’Toole
Networks: The WB, The CW
Original Run: 2001-2011

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So, 15 year-old Clark Kent is played by a 24 year-old man (Tom Welling) who doesn’t wear glasses and isn’t all that mild-mannered. Assuming he eventually becomes Superman, wouldn’t his high school friends all recognize him? With that as a premise/set-up, Smallville started off with both arms tied behind its back and still managed to make it 10 years as a (mostly) quality show. This is a hell of an achievement and only 36 non-daytime soap series have lasted longer. As a series set in high school (for the first four seasons), Smallville might have benefitted either by casting the lead younger or by skipping through high school at an accelerated rate. Still, Smallville managed to bring all the necessary high-school trimmings: first love, prom, rivalries with the jocks, spirit possession, mind-control and lots and lots of murder… you know, the usual. Season Four went off the rails when Clark became the school quarterback (seriously, did no one at The WB read a comic book?) but for most of the run, I was able to deal with the non-canon moments. That said, Smallville may be one of those shows that was “of its time” insofar as television programming (especially geek TV) has improved significantly over the last 5-10 years. It’s not that it wasn’t a good show, but I’d argue that 218 episodes was far too many to get where we all knew it was going, and it prolonged Superman’s Superboy period to an absurd length. —Mark Rabinowitz

24. Supergirl

Creators: Greg Berlanti, Ali Adler, Andrew Kreisberg
Stars:: Melissa Benoist, Mehcad Brooks, Chyler Leigh, Calista Flockhart, Jeremy Jordan, David Harewood, Chris Wood, Floriana Lima
Networks: CBS, The CW
Original Run: 2015-present

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Not since Lynda Carter began deflecting bullets with her bracelets has there been such a high-profile debut of a female superhero on network television. The fact that it only lasted a season on CBS before getting shuffled to the CW can’t be pinned on superb lead Melissa Benoist as the titular cousin to the Man of Steel. The series was a bigger hit with critics than audiences, celebrating the feminine strength and innate goodness of its source character in stark contrast to Zach Snyder’s darker vision of Krypton’s most famous son. Kara Zor-El confronts both the responsibilities of her inhuman powers and the difficulties of working for callous media exec Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), while juggling friendships, romances and family dysfunction of world-ending proportions. That this fun, family-friendly action adventure couldn’t make it on CBS says more about network television than anything else. Thankfully Supergirl found a new place to save National City. —Josh Jackson

23. Dark Matter

Creators: Joseph Mallozzi, Paul Mullie
Stars:: Melissa O’Neil, Anthony Lemke, Alex Mallari Jr., Jodelle Ferland, Roger Cross, Zoie Palmer, Marc Bendavid
Network: Syfy (U.S.), Space (Canada)
Original Run: 2015-2017

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Based on the Dark Horse Comics series of the same name, Dark Matter kicks off as six people wake up on a spaceship with no memories of who they are or how they ended up there. What follows are three seasons of adventures that gradually ratchet up the stakes while still focusing on glorious character development. Because when you don’t know whether you’re a hero or a villain, you have to redefine your identity. Dark Matter also boasts three kickass female protagonists, including one of the most endearing Androids on television. So it was disheartening when Syfy recently made the shortsighted decision to cancel the show. We need more three-dimensional leading ladies interacting on our screens, and Dark Matter has them in spades. Luckily, you can still binge every season on Netflix. —Frannie Jackson

22. Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

Creator: Deborah Joy LeVine
Stars:: Teri Hatcher, Dean Cain, Lane Smith, Eddie Jones, K Callan, Michael Landes, Justin Whalin, Tracy Scoggins, John Shea
Network: ABC
Original Run: 1993-1997

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It’s hard to believe now that every minor comic-book superhero you’ve never heard of has his own TV show, but in the 1990s, there was basically only one. The Big One. The Man of Steel. For four seasons, Terri Hatcher and Dean Cain were Lois & Clark, saving Metropolis when not trying to navigate their on-again-off-again relationship. It’s hard to open up to someone who doesn’t know about your alter-ego. —Josh Jackson

21. Outcast

Creator:   Robert Kirkman  
Stars:: Patrick Fugit, Philip Glenister, Wrenn Schmidt, David Denman, Julia Crockett, Kate Lyn Sheil, Brent Spiner
Network:: Cinemax 
Original Run: 2016-present

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Somewhere between his work on The Walking Dead and its spinoff show, Robert Kirkman helped develop this series for Cinemax. You would think having a showrunner pulled in so many different directions at once would spell disaster. Instead, Outcast has turned into one of the highlights of an already stacked year of television. The story of a demonically possessed young man searching for answers with the “help” of a troubled priest was brilliant enough on paper, but Kirkman and his team bring this to terrifying life with stories that provide shocks and scares. Key to it all are the terrific performances by Patrick Fugit as Kyle, the possessed and depressed lead, and the always-brilliant Philip Glenister as Reverend Anderson, a clergyman who has dealt with his own literal demons and seeks to bring righteousness to the world around him. —Robert Ham

20. Wynonna Earp

Creator: Emily Andras
Stars:: Melanie Scrofano, Shamier Anderson, Tim Rozon, Dominique Provost-Chalkley
Networks:: Syfy
Original Run: 2016-present

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Syfy has managed to make femininity a central feature of its recent slate. Wynonna’s past is deeply bruised by men snatching away her bodily autonomy (shock therapy in psychiatric hospitals), and her present by the weaponization of her body (the Earp family’s demon-killing curse). Played by Melanie Scrofano, Wynonna uses her body and freedom for pleasure whenever and wherever she can, because she knows what it means to have neither. We see girls not being believed; girls being told they’re crazy over and over and over until they believe it; girls being committed for refusing to lie about what they know to be true; girls being blamed for the evils of men—for a show about demon outlaws cursed to be shot to death by Earps over and over until an heir breaks the cycle, this one sure hits closest to home of the three at hand. As do every one of Wynonna’s boob and blowjob jokes, which play not to the fourteen-year-old boys in the audience (although I’m sure they love them), but, just like the fierce protectiveness she shows Waverly once they move back to the old homestead, to Wynonna’s need to control her own narrative. And when you’ve been through shock therapy, and now are cursed to aim the demon-killing gun that killed your own father, gross jokes and sisters are what keep you sane. That, and the hundred-year-young immortal ghost of Doc Holliday, who, along with fire-breathing Deputy Marshall Xavier Dolls (Shamier Anderson), knows well enough to be supportive, but to also step back and let independence bloom. —Alexis Gunderson

19. Sabrina, the Teenage Witch

Creator: Jonathan Schmock
Stars:: Melissa Joan Hart, Caroline Rhea, Beth Broderick, Nate Richert, Jenna Leigh Green, Michelle Beaudoin, Paul Feig 
Network:: ABC, The WB
Original Run: 1996-2003

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Melissa Joan Hart’s other television show, Clarissa Explains It All, began with her character in junior high. The long-running Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, on the other hand, saw Sabrina (Hart) heading to college in the fifth season. Before that, it was the tale of a young woman dealing with teenaged issues—but as a witch. Obviously, there was a bit of metaphor at play here. Sabrina learning how to be a witch and dealing with the issues of being a witch ran parallel to the issues that teenagers face. Hart was also a dynamic and entertaining presence, making her a great choice to serve as the center of this show. Sure the series was silly and frothy. It began life as a TGIF show after all. But its delightful silliness was the show’s strong suit. However, it must be said that the real highlight of Sabrina was not Sabrina herself, but her cat Salem (voiced by Nick Bakay). Salem was a supremely, wonderfully goofy presence. Whenever they trotted out the incredibly fake puppets designed to allow Salem to talk and do crazy things, it was usually incredibly funny—and not always intentionally is. To this day, there’s something so delightful about those moments, as the litany of Salem GIFs online can attest to. This is not to say that Hart was upstaged on her own show by a talking cat puppet… but it was close. —Chris Morgan

18. Wonder Woman

Creators: Douglas S. Cramer, Stanley Ralph Ross
Stars:: Lynda Carter, Lyle Waggoner, Beatrice Colen, Richard Eastham, Norman Burton, Saundra Sharp
Networks:: ABC, CBS
Original Run: 1975-1979

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Apologies to the charismatic Gal Gadot, but Wonder Woman will always first be Lynda Carter spinning from Diana Price into her Stars & Stripes outfit, lasso at the ready. After a season of expensive World War II sets on ABC, CBS picked up the series and moved it forward in time to the 1970s, retitling it The New Adventures of Wonder Woman. Lyle Waggoner, who played sidekick Steve Trevor in the first season, was the only other member of the cast to return in Season Two, playing Trevor’s son. —Josh Jackson

17. Arrow

Creators: Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, Andrew Kreisberg
Stars:: Stephen Amell, Katie Cassidy, Colin Donnell, David Ramsey, Willa Holland, Susanna Thompson
Network:: The CW
Original Run: 2012-present

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Based on the Green Arrow comic run, Arrow debuted in 2012 as, essentially, a small-screen homage to Batman Begins. It mimicked Nolan’s super-serious tone note for note, and at the time it was a ratings smash. The show was such a success that it served as the foundation for The CW’s own shared universe, with The Flash’s Barry Allen being introduced in a backdoor pilot before getting his own (more successful) series, while several key characters were spun off from Arrow to front Legends of Tomorrow. With its ground-level story of a Batman-esque figure—replace the utility belt with trick arrows—trying to clean up mean streets, Arrow obviously skews a bit darker than something like The Flash. Lately the series has taken steps to retool itself and follow parts of the template that makes The Flash such a romp, adding supporting characters who mirror some of those in the The Flash (we see you, Curtis and Cisco), and some of the more foolish elements from the comic canon. The result can be a little muddled. It’s hard to balance wackier elements with a hooded vigilante stalking downtown and shredding villains with a hail of arrows. —Trent Moore

16. Luke Cage

Creator: Cheo Hodari Coker
Stars: Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, Simone Missick, Erik LaRay Harvey, Rosario Dawson, Theo Rossi
Network: Netflix 
Original Run: 2016-present

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Marvel’s third Netflix venture isn’t perfect—the structure of its villain hierarchy needed some serious recalibration—but it is good, very good in fact, and most of all it’s ballsy. Who writes a superhero show around a naked discussion of what it means to a black American in 2016? Luke Cage is obviously a Marvel product, but it’s also the product of its creator, Cheo Hodari Coker, and its cast, including Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, Simone Missick, and Erik LaRay Harvey (plus appearances by Frankie Faison, Ron Cephas Jones and, of course, Method Man): The series has more flexibility in addressing its subject matter thanks to its platform, but it’s hard to imagine that it’d speak as loudly or as boldly even on Netflix without Coker driving the narrative forward. Even though he stumbles during the show’s midsection, his errors don’t add up to more than an inconvenience: Luke Cage blends its source material with a wide range of influences, from jazz to rap to horrors ripped straight from the headlines, and churns out a yarn that’s as powerful as it is irresistibly poppy. —Andy Crump

15. Lucifer

Creator: Tom Kapinos
Stars:: Tom Ellis, Lauren German, Kevin Alejandro, D.B. Woodside, Tricia Helfer, Aimee Garcia
Network:: Fox
Original Run: 2016-present

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Fox’s Lucifer is smart, funny, savvy and actually a joy to watch, rare praise for a TV series that follows the threadbare formula of a cop solving murders. The hit series is based on a character co-created by acclaimed comic writer and novelist Neil Gaiman, first introduced in Gaiman’s seminal graphic novel The Sandman. The king of Hell turned out to be a hit supporting player, and he eventually spun off into his own solo series, which follows Lucifer (Tom Ellis) as he heads for L.A. with his demon pal Mazikeen to run a piano bar called “Lux.” In adapting the comic for television, producer Tom Kapinos (Californication) sketched the bones of the series from the comic. But where the source material focused on deeper questions of free will and predestination, weaving them into an ambitious, modern fantasy tale tailored for a niche audience—a version that might’ve fit in somewhere like HBO, Fox’s Lucifer reframes the story with a formula viewers are intimately familiar with: the police procedural. Lucifer’s kicking around L.A. in the midst of an existential crisis, but here he becomes enamored of Det. Chloe Decker (Lauren German) and joins the LAPD as a civilian consultant to help her work cases. A bit contrived? Sure, but Kapinos and company manage to weave this with the fantastical elements adapted from the comics. If anything, Lucifer is an exploration of what can be done with a comic book premise when you strip it down to its fundamental elements and find a way to make them fit a different medium. As any comic reader can tell you, the form is a whole lot more than zombies and superheroes. As networks dig deeper for ideas, Lucifer shows that even the most ambitious comics can make the leap in an audience-friendly way, while still retaining the DNA that made the comic worth adapting in the first place. As networks struggle to find this delicate balance, Lucifer is proof positive that the devil really is in the details. —Trent Moore

14. The Tick

Creator: Ben Edlund
Stars:: Patrick Warburton, David Burke, Nestor Carbonell, Liz Vassey
Network:: Fox
Original Run: 2001

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Silly, smart and a little too weird for Fox in 2001, The Tick was the superhero parody the world didn’t know it needed. Canceled after just nine episodes, a version of the show was recently revived by original creator Ben Edlund and Amazon with Peter Serafinowitz replacing Patrick Warburton in the lead. The original show and its revival are full of charming camp, anchored by Warburton’s dry humor and complete lack of self-awareness as the indestructible titular character and his mild-mannered sidekick Arthur (David Burke), an accountant who buys a moth costume to try his hand at fighting The City’s supervillains, aided by sometimes-heroes like Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell) and Captain Liberty (Liz Vassey). —Josh Jackson

13. iZombie

Creators: Rob Thomas, Diane Ruggiero-Wright
Stars:: Rose McIver, Malcolm Goodwin, Rahul Kohli, Robert Buckley, David Anders, Aly Michalka
Network:: The CW
Original Run: 2015-present

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  Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Veronica Mars is the best way to describe this delightful drama. iZombie, from Mars creator Rob Thomas, draws on the strengths of both of these iconic series while carving a distinct path for itself. Liv Moore (Rose McIver) was a promising medical student until one bad night of partying turned her into a zombie. Now she works in the morgue solving murders on the side, all while keeping the true nature of her condition from her loved ones (she’s not that pale because she uses sunscreen people). As the second season progressed, more were let in on Liv’s secret and she assembled a Scooby gang of her very own, while struggling to protect those that she loves. Much of the show’s success stems from its great sense of humor—witness all the delectable ways Liv serves up brains. But the ghoulish and voracious zombies offer real frights and Steven Weber’s nefarious CEO Vaughn Du Clark is truly terrifying. However it’s the show’s overarching premise—that any of us could find ourselves among the undead trying to control our most basic instincts while our normal life remains just out of our grasp—that will keep you up at night. —Amy Amatangelo

12. The Incredible Hulk

Creator: Kenneth Johnson
Stars:: Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Jack Colvin
Network:: CBS
Original Run: 1977-1982

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Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby) was a good guy. He traveled across the country working odd jobs and helping those in need. But we don’t remember Bill Bixby. We remember Lou Ferrigno, who played Banner’s ripped, green alter-ego. We remember the transformation as yet another set off clothes were torn to pieces (pay from those odd jobs must have mostly gone to shirts). The show wasn’t afraid to explore outside it’s scenario-of-the-week format as in the two-hour Season Two premiere when widower Bixby gets remarried to a woman with ALS and plans to use a tissue of sample of the Hulk to heal her, only to lose her too. Smarter than your average 20th century superhero show, the rage of the Hulk served as a metaphor for the rage inside inside us all. —Josh Jackson

11. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Creators:   Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen
Stars:: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennett, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, Nick Blood, Adrianne Palicki
Network:: ABC
Original Run: 2013-present

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Nothing in S.H.I.E.L.D. ever stays the same for long. It is this vital characteristic that allowed the show to endure a series of early rough patches that not even Phil Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) flying car could avoid. This element would also end up making the series unique. A re-watch of the beginning of the show’s first season almost feels like the launching point for a different series. Each week found Coulson and his team of agents going on a wacky new spy-laden adventure. Though intended to be fun and lively, the show reached a little too far over the top, resulting in an awkward feeling of camp (think Roger Moore’s Bond films) that simply didn’t mesh with the world the Marvel films established. Then, in 2014, as the show’s first season began its final arc, Captain America: The Winter Soldier happened. The events of the Captain America sequel tied in heavily with the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series, and it finally felt like it belonged within the MCU instead of being relegated to the outside looking in. Ironically, H.Y.D.R.A.’s attempt at destroying S.H.I.E.L.D. proved to be the show’s saving grace. The series often turns on a dime, but the viewer never feels whiplash. An impressive accomplishment given the multitude of times this show could have easily veered off the rails. Always remaining in a state of reinvention, no two seasons are alike. Revolving team lineups keep the character dynamics fresh, and the audience can never fully guess which direction the series is going to head next. This sense of ballsy exploration keeps the narrative from ever becoming stale, resulting in a show that is both criminally underrated and underappreciated. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. absolutely belongs in the upper echelon of Marvel’s catalogue, be it works from the small screen or the silver one. —Geoff Miller

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