Comic book TV is in the midst of a renaissance—it just doesn’t resemble what most people imagine when they hear the phrase.
The genre might have begun with capes, tights and more than a few old superhero tropes, but now it’s just as likely to feature a half-baked road trip in search of God (Preacher) or a zombie twentysomething just trying to live her life (iZombie). This in a genre exemplified by Smallville’s “Monster of the Week” less than a decade ago.
Since the 1950s, the term “comic book TV show” has conjured memories of the original Batman series, classic Superman serials, the Wonder Woman of the 1970s, or Lou Ferrigno busting out of his clothes in The Incredible Hulk. Even the last two decades have been dominated by superhero-y projects like Blade: The Series, Birds of Prey, Human Target and, more recently, Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
That’s meant as no slight against modern, traditional superhero projects such as the Arrow-verse or S.H.I.E.L.D., which have used the construct to tell some of the best stories on television over the past few years, regardless of genre. S.H.I.E.L.D. dropped jaws with the stunning tale of an agent marooned on an alien world in the episode “4,722 Hours,” while The Flash has employed enough twists to leave fans with whiplash. Still, even these successful series have had trouble breaking the superhero ties that bind. The hero struggles! The hero overcomes! After a while, it starts to get a bit predictable.
Largely led by the massive success of AMC’s The Walking Dead, though, TV networks are digging deeper than ever into comic book shelves, and looking beyond the traditional superhero stories that have led page-to-screen translation for decades. The Walking Dead showed networks and viewers alike that comic books could spawn a whole lot more than just super teens bitten by spiders, or vigilantes out to clean up the streets. It was something comic readers have known for years, but it took Robert Kirkman’s undead juggernaut to finally start swinging the pendulum. As The Walking Dead prepares to enter its eighth season, it’s become the granddaddy of sorts for a new generation of comic book TV shows, gaining a foothold where sitcoms and police procedurals once ruled the airwaves.
Networks have since rolled the dice on dark, heady dramedies, like AMC’s Preacher, about a guy who teams up with a vampire to find God (who’s gone AWOL) and Syfy’s feminist, supernatural romp Wynonna Earp. Even Archie—the quintessential, family-friendly, “aw shucks” staple of grocery store checkout lines for decades—has been re-imagined as a sexy, Twin Peaks-esque murder mystery via the CW’s Riverdale. The zombie subgenre has also gained some nuance, with producer Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars) adapting the CW’s iZombie with a comedy angle that makes you literally root for the undead. The acclaimed gothic mystery graphic novel Locke and Key has gone through more than a few high-profile development cycles, and finally looks to be getting off the ground at Hulu next year. If you weren’t told, the average viewer would be hard-pressed to realize these shows are based on comics in the first place. But they are.
As TV networks turn to new sources for story ideas, it’s like a switch has finally flipped, and comic book narratives outside the superhero box are finally being taken seriously. They’re often wildly inventive, to boot: Print acts as a proving ground for ideas might otherwise have had a snowball’s chance of making it past a studio executive. From horror and comedy, to science fiction and teen drama, comics have it all. All studios have to do is look—and now they are. (The stories are nothing new as far as readers are concerned, but television is starting to catch up: Comics spent the past few decades maturing and growing into a medium capable of telling these stories, and TV is now reaping the benefits.) Though there are certain comics that still seem resistant to adaptation—the seminal Y: The Last Man has yet to make it out of purgatory, despite an aborted film adaptation and two years in development as a TV series at, works perfectly just as it is—we’re finally reaching a point where the versatility of comics is being reflected by the stories being told on TV.
Even what could once be considered typical superhero fare has started to grow the genre that spawned it on the small screen. No company is pushing those boundaries as hard as Marvel Studios, with Luke Cage telling a street-level story about the battle for Harlem—which also happens to be a superhero origin story in disguise—and pushing even further with Jessica Jones, following a young woman as she faces off with her own personal demons—including one literal monster capable of forcing anyone to do as he commands with nothing more than a whisper. That story delves into dark corners, grappling with rape, suicide and post-traumatic stress. Yes, the protagonist might technically have super-strength, but it’s the farthest thing from an actual superhero story one can find. These are stories being told with characters born in the universe that spawned Captain America and Spider-Man, but they’re nothing like what you’ll find in a Hollywood blockbuster.
It’s likely there will always be superhero TV shows drawn from comics, as they’re still the most popular type of story from that medium—and that’s not a bad thing. Seeing good triumph over evil, and struggle in the journey to get there, is a storytelling tool that goes back all the way to the Bible. (There were less tights in those days, admittedly.) But we now have so much more, thanks to the caped crusaders who paved the way.
Comic books grew up a long time ago, and now comic book TV has finally followed suit.
Trent Moore is an award-winning journalist and professional geek. You can read more of his stuff at Syfy Wire, and keep up with all his shenanigans @trentlmoore.