Comics That Deserve Their Own Show/Film
There are many reasons for film and television producers to turn to the realm of comic books for source material. Richly imagined worlds, compelling and diverse stories, colourful characters, and, of course, an excuse to use some hugely impressive visual effects, it’s no wonder there’s been a surge in the development of comic book movies and television series in recent years.
With Marvel now heading toward its cinematic ‘Phase Three’ and DC hot on their heels with the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it is apparent that the age of superhero blockbusters is now. But, as with every medium, there’s a vast expanse of material out there, and much of it seems to have been overlooked. So what else is out there? And how many comics are just waiting to be developed for the screen?
The Industry Giants: What lurks in the pages of Marvel and DC?
Since the inception of the comic book as we know it, two companies have led the way in terms of superheroes: Marvel, home of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and their numerous fantastical creations, and DC, housing such greats as Bob Kane, Alan Moore and… well, many more fantastical creations.
Initially, there was something of a divide in the way these two powerhouses present their work on the screen today. Marvel led the way in movies, kicking off their current success with films like Iron Man, Thor and The Avengers. DC, on the other hand, began to make their mark on the world of television, with shows like Smallville and Arrow convincing audiences and critics alike of the value of comics. There were exceptions: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy captured the character of Batman in a way no one had ever seen before, and Marvel movies were not always wonderfully received. Generally speaking, however, it was Marvel that held the title in film, while DC dominated the comic adaptation market in television.
Recently, this has changed. Both companies have now started stepping outside these comfort zones, DC making plans to build their own cinematic universe and Marvel launching Agents of Shield, Daredevil and Powers as TV shows. So, now the question is: what’s next?
A seemingly limitless factory of creativity, flair and innovation, Marvel is the company that brought heroes such as Spider-Man, Thor and The Hulk to the table, now dominating screens with a new, refined cinematic universe. Known for their expansive and detailed creations, it’s easy to see why these masters of the medium hold such a firm place in both comic book culture and in the pop culture of America. Their best writers have developed storylines exploring everything from teenage angst to alien invasion, alcoholism and nervous breakdowns to demonic wars of magic and mystery.
It’s difficult to deny their versatility. In recent years, stories have broken even further boundaries. The ambitious Civil War storyline saw a grand battle of superheroes and superpowers combined with moral greyness; brutal American politics and a national tragedy tearing heroes apart and bitterly ending long established friendships. Admittedly, Marvel were quick to re-establish the former state of the Marvel universe following these events, but while the war raged, it made for one of their most mature and discussion-provoking arcs.
But what hasn’t yet been seen by a wider audience? From comedy to tragedy, troubled hero to loveable villain, Marvel haven’t yet exhausted their source material ready for the screen. In fact, they’re barely getting started…
Heroes come in many forms – tragic heroes, reluctant heroes, perfect heroes, flawed heroes – but perhaps most fascinating is the antihero. And antiheroes don’t come much more complex than Marvel’s Baron Helmut Zemo, son of a Nazi scientist and the leader of reformed supervillain team The Thunderbolts. Cruel, unforgiving and manipulative, Zemo makes for a darkly intriguing protagonist, and his ruthless comrades for an engaging and colourful supporting cast.
Could this be Marvel’s answer to DC’s Suicide Squad? Perhaps more fit for television adaptation, there’s certainly a lot of content that could be explored here. What makes The Thunderbolts particularly interesting is the ever changing, never clear motives of its characters. Are they truly reformed? Or are they simply endeavouring to gain the trust of the public and each other, in the hope that they can use it to their advantage? Are they ultimately on the side of good, or are they secretly planning a cunning and merciless betrayal? This element of the series is one that could potentially translate to the small screen incredibly well, achieving a sense of tension and uncertainty in the audience similar to the effect generated in such stories as US drama Homeland.
The Great Lakes Avengers
The legendary merc-with-a-mouth Deadpool isn’t Marvel’s only laugh-out-loud hero – the Great Lakes Avengers (name subject to change in a long running joke) also fit the bill of comical characters in the universe. Taking great pleasure in ruthlessly mocking his own craft, writer John Byrne uses his super-team of unappreciated heroes to explore soap-opera cliches, ridicule comic book tropes and generally have fun with these highly amusing, highly unusual characters.
So, is this series suitable for, or even deserving of, its own adaptation? Arguably, it’s perfect source material – funny, clever and surprisingly diverse. Stories range from light-hearted silliness (including a team-up with Deadpool to rescue the Greek God of alcohol) to some bizarre dark comedy (the hero Grasshopper accidentally launching himself out of the atmosphere and dying only moments after delivering an optimistic internal monologue). There are even moments of genuine emotion (albeit ones frequently interrupted by strange comical events). In addition, there’s plenty to explore in terms of character – Doorman’s relationship with his father and his resurrection as an angel of Death, Mr Immortal’s traumatic character arc, the comic relief of Squirrel Girl. The comic includes all the key ingredients needed for a great adaptation, as well as that extra spark of creativity and originality that distinguishes it from other works.
Before starring in his own comic, mechanical “freelance peacekeeping agent” Death’s Head appeared as a guest antagonist in several other Marvel works, including sci-fi thriller Dragon’s Claws, a licensed Transformers tie-in, and even an issue of their Doctor Who series. The phrase “bounty hunter with a heart” isn’t entirely appropriate when talking about Death’s Head. The only human emotions this robotic gun-for-hire possesses are greed, rage, selfishness and a warped sense of humour that makes him somehow loveable.
He thrives in his setting (Earth in the year 8162), a colourful world of corruption and chaos filled with the bizarre, but also the familiar. His adventures reflect all the insanity of this setting as he encounters environmental terrorists, bloodthirsty rivals, strange mutant creatures, gamblers and gangsters, fighting both with them and against them by turns. However, his cruel, double-crossing character allows him to flourish in other environments: motivated entirely by the prospect of payment, he can wind up on any side of any conflict, making the possibilities for his stories expansive and interesting. A unique, well-designed, brilliantly imagined creation, Death’s Head could, in the right hands, make for an engrossing and absorbing on-screen protagonist.
The Winter Soldier
Okay, it could be argued that this has technically already been explored in the most recent Captain America movie. But with Marvel showing a clear talent for spy pieces (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), especially spy pieces with a classic historical edge (Agent Carter), Ed Brubaker’s reinvention of Bucky Barnes may well be suitable for further adaptation. Haunted by a past that is not his own, the character makes a gripping hero for some of the most engaging stories written in recent memory.
What makes his adventures unique is the grit, the dark heart of espionage that is explored, the feeling of authenticity despite the fantastical nature of the Marvel Universe. And what makes the character interesting is, among other things, his psychological complexity and growth. His struggle to come to terms with his actions in his brainwashed state and the exploration of his irrational but understandable guilt complex makes him a hero like no other, and one whom it’s almost impossible not to engage with. On that topic, the series also offers an interesting study of supporting cast member and fellow super-spy the Black Widow, and brings another layer to the character’s identity – something definitely worth exploring in Marvel’s cinematic universe. On top of this, the stories themselves have so much potential – complex, globe-spanning epics with enough balance of intrigue, action, and even the occasional dosage of humour to make them near-perfect for the cinema or the television.
If there are two heroes DC have nurtured that deserve particular recognition, they are – as any fan will tell you – Superman and Batman. Two of the greatest legends to come not just out of comic books, but out of modern culture. Because of this association, it’s easy to overlook DC’s smaller characters in favour of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. Yet, it’s not solely these heroes that deserve appreciation, as recent television successes like The Flash and Arrow demonstrate – there’s more to DC than Metropolis and Gotham. Much more.
Much like Marvel, DC are great entrepreneurs of the imagination. They have produced staggering epics, poignant characters and incredible fantastical worlds that resonate with audiences on multiple levels. The mystic, the magic, the macabre – the company pulls no punches when it comes to telling a story, a dynamic helped by the fact that they’ve been home to some of the most noteworthy writers of the modern world. Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, Frank Miller’s revolutionary The Dark Knight Returns – unique, powerful, absorbing stories working in unison with the visuals of distinct, visually stunning artists (Dave Gibbons and Kevin O’Neil to name a few).
So, what’s slipped under the radar of directors seeking source material? And just how much is there to be explored in the depths of this unique universe?
So far, DC’s cinematic universe has largely explored earthbound heroes (with the possible exception of Green Lantern, but we won’t talk about that). Even Superman, despite his extraterrestrial origins, has in his live action adaptations been based on this planet. There’s nothing currently in the company’s screen arsenal to seriously rival a space-opera like Marvel’s acclaimed Guardians of the Galaxy. But that’s not to say DC doesn’t have its own wider universe – among the most important of DC’s cosmic characters is Scott Free, the hero known as Mister Miracle. Created by the great Jack Kirby, this son of faraway civilization New Genesis is a great introduction to the rich DC galaxy as he fights for his freedom, frequently escapes lethal traps and faces Darkseid, tyrant ruler of the planet Apokolips and one of DC’s greatest villains.
To explore this character and his adventures on the screen would be to explore the DC Universe beyond Earth and Krypton, opening a whole new trove of stories to explore. And with all the cosmic adventure, unique and intricate costume design, superbly fantastical gadgets, and huge potential for an amazing supporting cast, it’s a wonder this alien/escape artist/ intergalactic superhero hasn’t made into DC’s recent pictures already.
There are very few comic book enthusiasts – or indeed, Neil Gaiman fans – who haven’t at some point at least heard of The Sandman. An epic, unusual fantasy series chronicling the various journeys of Dream (A.K.A Morpheus, A.K.A The Sandman), it’s technically been announced for a film adaptation already, with David S. Goyer and Joseph Gordon-Levitt taking the helm. The source material is widely considered one of the greatest masterpieces ever to grace the world of comics, and for good reason. Gaiman’s writing was always impressive, but his work on The Sandman saw him grow into something special, a unique talent not just in the world of comics, but in the world of literature. His development as a writer over the course of the 75 issues produced is something that shows when reading the series, as his brilliantly imagined world and characters become more layered and the tales increasingly diverse, resulting in a comic that is both magical and disturbing.
There’s little question as to whether the series is suitable for adaptation. It’s colourful, gloriously dark, rich, and, frankly, deserves its place on the screen as much as it warrants its success on the page. It can only be hoped that the adaptation will live up to the inevitably huge expectations for a comic as special as this.
Etrigan the Demon
Another Jack Kirby creation, the star of The Demon is neither hero nor villain. He lives not according to morality, but to whims either of his own or of his human host Jason Blood, and often these two inescapably bonded individuals find that their interests deeply conflict. His antiheroic nature has seen him both battle and aid DC’s greatest heroes (he even made a brief appearance in an issue of The Sandman). He also possesses a habitual talent for speaking in rhyme, a character trait that makes his dialogue doubly fascinating and lends a unique touch to his interactions with others.
As with Mister Miracle, part of Kirby’s genius in the creation of this series lies in his imaginative ability to open a new world of possibilities within the DC universe, in this case establishing a supernatural backdrop that has been used time and again by the company. It’s rich source material indeed, offering a selection of unique storylines, compelling characters, and of course a chance to explore this fascinating other world in great depth. So, with Marvel’s new Doctor Strange film on the way, perhaps it’s time for DC to bring their own ‘magic’ card into play.
Another World of Creativity: Image and Independents
While it’s true that the pages of Marvel and DC are rich, inventive and colourful, to talk only about these corporate giants would be to neglect to mention the arguably more interesting and diverse world of independent comics. The majority of creator-owned works, for instance, come from Image (including the enormously popular source material for The Walking Dead), a company that works on the principle of allowing writers and artists to maintain the rights to their own characters and stories. There exists an enormous world of independent creators, and from the pages of these comics come some fascinating stories ripe for translating to the screen.
Considering Brian K. Vaughan’s space operatic fantasy series has been compared to Star Wars, Game of Thrones and the work of William Shakespeare, it’s difficult to imagine it not working on some level on the screen. It’s written with passion, humour and understanding, and drawn in a uniquely detailed and vibrant way by Fiona Staples. These two creators compliment each other brilliantly in Saga, painting an expansive world filled with danger, beauty, magic, and diverse characters that feel somehow more real than many protagonists in comics – arguably the perfect backdrop for a film or television series.
This makes it all the more interesting, then, that Staples and Vaughan have no wish to adapt their work for the screen. In a 2013 interview, Vaughan explained that he was satisfied with the comic in its current format, and felt it couldn’t work in the medium of film or television. Disappointing news for fans? Perhaps. Disappointing news for producers interested in such a project? Almost certainly. It’s undoubtedly fantastic source material. But maybe Vaughan has a point – for all the magic of the screen, all its popularity as a medium, could it ever truly capture what makes Saga special?
Castle, Sherlock, even Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Television loves the cop, the detective, the criminal. But the medium is also always searching for something different. Something like Chew. To call this series by John Layman and Rob Guillory unique would be an enormous understatement – the adventures of F.D.A agent Tony Chu, the comic takes place in a world where chicken is outlawed in a new era of prohibition, and a few rare individuals have the ability to (seriously) gain psychic impressions from what they eat. Tony Chu is one of these. In his occupation as a crime-solver, this means he will occasionally be required to bite into a corpse – or worse. Bizarre? Absolutely. The creative team of Layman and Guillory revel in its strangeness, providing the comic with hilarious and often grotesque dark humour while still making it work as a cop piece, the atmosphere of mystery never failing to capture interest.
As if that weren’t enough, the comic features a fantastic supporting cast, characters like the charismatic Mason Savoy and the repulsive Mike Applebee making it all that much more compelling. Above all, it feels like a television series, each issue reaching either a satisfying conclusion or jaw-dropping cliffhanger. Any producer fortunate enough to get the rights to this material will have a hell of a project on their hands, and one that could turn out to be the most unique piece of on-screen entertainment that’s been seen for a while.
America is no stranger to satire in film and television – from South Park to Catch-22, this distinctly sharp brand of comedy is often both popular and controversial, and a unique way of delivering a message. Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! is satire of the best kind: subtle, witty, tongue-in-cheek and fantastically entertaining. Telling the story of how Reuben Flagg, a former television star, finds himself living as a ranger in ‘The Plex’ (the remnants of Earth now owned by corporations and capitalists). Like greats such as Orwell and Atwood, Chaykin manages to balance thrilling science fiction with some perceptive comments on social themes – in this case the bizarre consumerist nature mankind has developed in favour of ignoring those who are struggling. Flagg is in some ways a hero reminiscent of such characters as John Dunbar (Dances with Wolves) – an outsider who finds clarity in life where he least expects it. It’s arguably a kind of trope, but it’s one that works, particularly in the setting, and Flagg has enough of his own personality and flair to be compelling.
There are so many opportunities that could be explored in the development of this on the screen – American Flagg! had its ups and downs (largely ups whenever Chaykin was writing), and there’s some content that may benefit from a little tweaking, but for the most part, the series had maturity, complexity and a unique charm. As with the comics, an adaptation could make for a hugely entertaining exploration of western society, both of today and of the possible future.
Like several other titles on this list, Maus was a revolutionary comic that brought the medium further into the public eye. A deeply affecting blend of tragic fact, unique storytelling and brilliant artwork, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning series is an account of his father’s experiences in the Holocaust. Hollywood has always found interest and power in this subject matter – indeed, many would argue that films exploring this topic have been produced in excess due to the potential for drama and emotional depth concerned, to the point where such works are created solely as ‘Oscar Bait’.
Yet Spiegelman’s work is rarely overly dramatic or cliched; he instead explores events with appropriate rawness and doesn’t hold back, lending the comic more emotional power as a result. It’s this that makes it unique: with characters based on real, ordinary people in all their flawed complexities, there’s something that feels brutally authentic about it. It might seem strange, then, that Spiegelman chooses to tell the story in a highly unusual way – he portrays characters as various animals (the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, etc.). By doing this, however, he makes them incredibly (at times alarmingly) human, and we see elements of ourselves in many of the characters, despite their anthropomorphic qualities. This is what gives Spiegelman’s work its utter genius – despite the metaphorical meanings that could be driven from this particular creative choice, there’s striking resemblance to ourselves that makes it seem almost beside the point. It’s an intelligent, compelling and genuinely moving tale that could make for a fantastic adaptation, Spiegelman’s illustrations providing a unique twist for animators to explore.
Comics are highly intertwined with film and television – both are incredibly visual mediums offering new and diverse ways of telling a story, capable of both defying form and embracing it to create something compelling. In many ways they’re both somewhat recent developments, yet in the short time they’ve been around (in comparison to other mediums), the amount of content produced is remarkable. Therefore, this list is far from comprehensive, and additional works that would make great on-screen entertainment include Y: The Last Man and Nightwing, to name only a few. But in a cinematic age of sequels and a fair amount of unoriginality, comics offer something truly refreshing, and much of it has not even yet begun to be explored.
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