There might be no better time to be a comic book fan than right now. With numerous properties being adapted into movies, television shows, and other multimedia projects, it’s difficult to not be excited. However there was one exchange on Twitter which caught my eye:
Are you not going according to the comics bc you are listening to the tumblr/twitter fans or bc you have your own story to tell @mguggenheim
@MyOpinions24 We have our own story to tell.
— Marc Guggenheim (@mguggenheim) February 10, 2016
It’s a fair question asked, and an even fairer response from Marc Guggenheim, one of the showrunners behind Arrow on The CW. The last two seasons of Arrow has divided its fanbase as it has strayed further from the source material. Some have embraced the new direction wholeheartedly, while others see it as a betrayal on the part of the showrunners who originally promised an evolution of Oliver Queen into a his recognizable, comic book counterpart. It ultimately begs the question, do comic book adaptations need to adhere to their comic book roots?
Of course, this dilemna extends beyond comics and can be extended to prose writing as well. Often, people can be heard exiting a movie theater muttering “the book was better.” However, the difference is that most comic book movies and television shows do not attempt to straight adaptations – at least those based on superhero properties. Those that are, such as Watchmen, Whiteout, and From Hell, are open to the same critiques as their prose brethren.
Television’s First Flights
DC Comics has a long history of bringing their heroes to television. Before Arrow kicked off the current television boom, there had been twelve live-action shows, not including specials and failed pilots. The first of which was the 1950s’ Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves as the titular hero, Noel Neill as Lois Lane, and Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen. Though the show did not feature any of Superman’s notable villains from the comic books, it remains fondly remembered for Reeves’ portrayal of Clark Kent / Superman. Moreover, the show is a fair representation of the early comic adventures by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. This Superman dealt with blue-collar problems and matters relevant to the era, while still being friendly to its target audience. His Clark Kent was not a the bumbling fool which has been popularized in recent interpretations, but rather a competent, mild-mannered individual with a wholesome, midwestern charm.
The 1960s saw color televisions make their way into the homes of many, and capitalizing on that success was the famous Batman series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. The series was known for its vibrant sets, colorful villains, and onomatopoeia splashing across the screen during the show’s fight scenes. Moreover, the show managed to strike a delicate balance of appealing to both children and adults. Younger audiences saw the show as a serious drama with high stakes with each cliffhanger, while older viewers saw a comedy.
In the years after Batman aired, comic book fans disavowed the show for making “the Dark Knight” a joke. This is a fair critique – to an extent – as producer Michael Uslan struggled for years to get a Batman movie made as a result of the stigma that the show attached to the character. However, to go back and read Batman comics from that era unveils the truth: that the silliness of the show is a direct reflection of the source material. Zebra-Batsuits, rainbow creatures, and Batcave liquidation sales were among the many ludicrous story gimmicks that exceeded that of the television series. Moreover, the show was well received in its day, and is beloved by many fans today.
Seventies’ Success and Continued Attempts
The 1970s saw several attempts at bringing superheroes to television. Marvel took a crack at adapting Spider-man and Captain America, which received lukewarm reception at best. The Amazing Spider-man floundered through 13 episodes at CBS, while Captain America’s two made-for-television movies were rather tepid affairs. These attempts to bring superheroes to the screen were also dwarfed by the success of The Incredible Hulk starring Bill Bixby and Wonder Woman starring Lynda Carter. Also enjoying success was Shazam! starring Michael Gray. None of these programs adhered closely to the source material, but those that maintained the core elements and the spirit of those comics managed to enjoy success.
Wonder Woman at first glance, adhered very strictly to the source material. It upheld Diana’s origin story, from being set during World War II to Steve Trevor crashing on Paradise Island. Carter embraced Diana’s compassionate, yet strong persona throughout the entire series. With the core elements in place, the show blazed its own path (I don’t recall Wonder Woman roller-skating in the comics).
The same can be said for The Incredible Hulk. That show made clear deviations from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation, even changing the titular character’s name from Bruce Banner to David Banner. Yet despite that change, casual and hardcore fans of superhero fare hold that show with great esteem. The show maintained a focus on Banner’s paranoia and unwillingness to maintain close relationships, keeping most everyone at an arm’s length in order to keep them safe. Due to a variety of factors, the show clearly did not strictly adhere to its source material. However, the essence of what had made the Hulk a successful asset for Marvel remained at the heart of the show.
This trend would continue throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Successful programs like Superboy, Swamp Thing, and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman struck a chord with audiences by holding true to the spirit of their printed counterparts. Meanwhile, shows that strayed too far (or that simply lacked quality) failed to take off, such as 1997’s Justice League of America or 1998’s Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD. However, it would be the launch of yet another Superman television series that would test the limits of how many liberties could be taken with a superhero property and remain successful.
Smallvile and The WB
On October 16, 2001, Smallville premiered on The WB. Developed by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the show had been originally conceived as a Bruce Wayne origin story. However, with Warner Bros. actively pursuing a means to revive its Batman film franchise, the concept was reworked to feature Clark Kent during his teenage years in Smallville, KS. Smallville was tailor made for The WB, a broadcast network that had launched in the mid-1990s and had found success with programming focused on young-adult audiences, such as Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls, Charmed, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While each of those shows featured romantic drama, it was a prominent part of Smallville, which adhered strictly to its “No Tights, No Flights” policy.
However, after two seasons of strong ratings, the “will they, won’t they” nature of Clark and Lana’s relationship took its toll. Also, the efforts taken to keep the two leads romantically apart resulted in both a character assassination for Lana, and steadily declining ratings. Viewership dropped from Season 2’s average of 7.78 million to 5.44 in Season 3. The rise of cable programs contributed to the decline. However, the drop is still significant when looking at rankings, as the show dropped from the 113th most watched program to 141st. Moreover, the showrunners were challenged by their self-imposed limitations which prevented them from pulling from much of Superman’s rich comic book history.
Smallville continued to drive forward, becoming a consistent, reliable performer for the WB, and later the CW over the course of its 10 season run. And despite the aforementioned limitations put on by the showrunners, Millar and Gough never lost sight of Superman’s source material. Despite taking many liberties – especially with the supporting cast and guest roles – those integral to the story of Clark Kent found there way into a place that more or less aligned with their comic counterparts. Pete Ross and Lana Lang, childhood friends in Smallville, eventually fell out of Clark’s life as he matured into the man known around the world today. Lois Lane came into his life. Lex Luthor became his greatest enemy. He went on adventures with other heroes and stopped both terrestrial and intergalactic threats. Even if Smallville spun its tires during its tenure, and despite its many twists and turns, it remains identifiable as a show about Superman.
The Current Divide
There is perhaps no better time to be a fan of comic book television. There’s The Walking Dead on AMC. Marvel has been a force thanks to Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter on ABC, while Jessica Jones and Daredevil took Netflix by storm. Powers found an audience on the Playstation Network. Meanwhile, DC has built a multi-network empire with seven shows on CBS, The CW, and FOX, with another show (Powerless) planned for 2016-17 on NBC. With such a varied mix of tones and genres, the impact of a show’s faithfulness to its source material has been lessened.
iZombie (CW) and The Walking Dead are the two shows based upon a world featuring the undead. More importantly, these shows have been successful, either with high ratings, critical acclaim, or both – while deviating heavily from their source material. iZombie borrows hardly anything from the Vertigo comic series other than its name. The show lacks the ridiculous and bizarre elements from the series, opting instead for a procedural formula. Gwen Dylan, professional grave digger, has been replaced by Liv Moore, a forensic pathologist. Gone are the ghosts, vampires, and other creatures of the night. In their place is a performance drink conspiracy and villain of the week setup. Despite these changes, the show works wonderfully. Ditto for Lucifer (another DC/Vertigo project) over at FOX.
Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter are successful (to varying degrees) because their comic book footprint is small. Phil Coulson was created for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while Peggy Carter’s comic book career served mostly to romance Captain America. This allowed the shows to strike their own path, as long as it didn’t contradict Marvel’s film universe too much. As a result, the shows were allowed to play in their own sandbox without the restrictions a well known property might have. It’s the same luxury afforded to DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (CW), where a rag-tag group of characters come together for a time-traveling adventure. The LoT team has no basis in the comics, enabling the creators to carve their own path.
Today’s Superheroes and Creative Liberties
Today, there are the five mainstream “superhero” shows – Daredevil and Jessica Jones on Netflix, Supergirl on CBS, and The CW’s Arrow and The Flash. Unlike the other shows currently airing, these properties are dedicated to the ongoing adventures on a central hero. These are characters with rich, layered histories for showrunners to draw from, and with that comes a different set of expectations.
Much like their efforts on the big screen, the Marvel-produced shows on Netflix have provided audiences with a true-to-the-comics experience. Despite the still-prevalent (though diminishing) perception that comic books are mostly targeted at children, Daredevil and Jessica Jones delivered viewers with a very adult experience. Jessica Jones drew heavily from the series Alias, published under Marvel’s MAX imprint.
Daredevil drew heavy inspiration from 30 years of of dark storytelling, though the Frank Miller / John Romita Jr collaboration The Man Without Fear appeared to be the primary inspiration. However, Daredevil’s freshman season was not a panel-for-panel translation of the comic, instead pulling key characters and moments from the story (and the larger Daredevil mythos). The result was a story that, while different from the comics, was fully identifiable as “Daredevil.” The show’s sophomore season also pulled direct inspiration from the comic book canon, while interweaving them into a wholly original story. Jessica Jones’ first season managed a similar feat as that series took on the identity of a noir thriller. The results netted both shows near-universal acclaim from fans and critics alike.
Conversely, DC’s heroes have garnered a decidedly mixed fan reaction in their live-action pursuits. Each show has received critical acclaim, with Supergirl Season 1, The Flash Season 2, and Arrow Season 4 earning critic favorability scores on Rottentomatoes.com of 97%, 100%, and 100%, respectively, fan reaction has been a different story. The Flash has been viewed as a delightful foray into superheroics since its debut. Supergirl struggled to find a tone out of the gate, but the general consensus among fans is that it has improved substantially. And then, there is Arrow, which has seen its fandom fracture into warring factions on social media, with more and more people admitting to “hate-watching” the show out of habit.
The Flash not only has received high critical acclaim, but it has become the most successful program on The CW in recent memory. In a television landscape dominated by procedurals, political dramas, low-brow comedy, and reality TV, The Flash is one of the few shows on network television that offers true escapist entertainment. Unashamed of its source material, producers Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kriesberg have taken the lessons they learned running Arrow to make The Flash a show to be enjoyed by the comics community and mainstream audiences alike. The talent, chemistry, and charisma of the cast built around lead actor Grant Gustin has made it easy for viewers to latch onto concepts of time-travel, multiverses, and the ever-nebulous Speed Force. There’s also been villainous speedsters, The Rogues, Gorilla Grodd, and King Shark. It’s a formula that has been replicated, to a degree, on Supergirl.
Supergirl premiered to strong numbers, but it’s overt “girl power” message, clunky dialogue, and half-baked plots soured on viewers during its early episodes, resulting in declining ratings. However, since the airing of “Red Faced” (episode 7), many that stuck it out have noted an uptick in quality, in part because of the showrunnings finding their footing and lovingly embracing the wider DC Universe. The result has yielded appearances by Martian Manhunter, the Black Mercy, and Project Cadmus, as well as a late-season appearance by the Flash. However, the show continues to see ratings decline as a result of the early season stigma against it.
Ultimately, this brings us back to Arrow. Whereas The Flash, Supergirl, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil have made honest efforts to faithfully adapt (to varying degrees) their respective source material to the small screen, Arrow has been a proverbial kick to the groin for Oliver Queen’s fans. To quote a close friend of mine, “He’s a man in tights with a Robin Hood fetish, don’t take it so seriously.” Those familiar with the comics written Mike Grell, Kevin Smith, Judd Winnick, and Jeff Lemire might recognize names like Eddie Fryars, Shado, Merlyn, Slade Wilson, Dinah (Laurel) Lance, and [of course] Oliver Queen himself. However, the characters on the show share the name and little else with their comic book counterparts, misleading audiences about who they have been over the course of decades.
Despite its flaws, Arrow quickly established itself as The CW’s top rated show, providing a weekly dose of action for superhero fans and romantic melodrama for the network’s core audience – young adults. After a rocky first season, Arrow reached a creative high during its second season. With Deathstroke established as the season’s overarching antagonist, Arrow Season 2 is widely considered among the best television seasons for any superhero show. The butt-clenching tension in each episode was only rivaled by the enjoyment fans received from the show’s expanded cast, which saw Arsenal, [not Black] Canary, and Barry Allen show up. However, the show’s lauded second season also holds the distinction of the series’ lowest ratings.
In fact, since the show jettisoned its original direction to focus on a romance between Oliver Queen and Felicity Smoak in the middle of the third season (arguably sacrificing the show’s quality along the way), its ratings have been substantially higher. Despite the latest episode (S04E016) yielding a season (and series) low for viewers (2.09 million), Seasons 3 and 4 have exceeded the average viewership (2.76 and 2.63 million, respectively) than Season 2 (2.62 million). There are reasons people can point to to explain this. Some claim that the success of The Flash might have brought more viewers to Arrow. Others point to the crossovers giving the show an artificial boost in ratings. Regardless of the reasoning, the show’s current ratings on network with low benchmarks means that the show won’t be going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
Is Sticking to the Canon Necessary?
So should comic book television be beholden to the source material? At the end of the day, no. As much as comic book readers (myself included) would like to see a faithful and accurate representation of their favorite characters appear on screen, there will always be liberties taken by television producers. Why? Because television shows are made to target demographics and tastes which may differ vastly from those of the comic book community. These shows are adaptations; no matter how faithful they attempt to be, there will always be differences from the source material.
However, just because a show doesn’t have to stick to its source material doesn’t mean it show throw the baby out with the bathwater. Those shows that have adhered to or embraced their comic book roots have enjoyed far more success than those that have not, either critically or commercially. Today’s shows like The Flash and Jessica Jones give their viewers an experience that closely mirrors the best of their printed versions. Even older programs such as Batman (1966) and Wonder Woman (1975) are relatively faithful adaptation of the comics from their respective eras.
As long as television continues to thrive as a medium, there will be adaptations of comic book properties that will divert from the foundation built by decades of comic book writers and artists. With that said, showrunners shouldn’t be surprised if a creative decision brings the wraith of one of the most passionate fandoms in existence. Just ask the people behind The Walking Dead and Arrow. If you have an open mind about things and aren’t bothered, that’s great! If the deviations are too drastic for your tastes, just stop watching – why waste time on something that induces misery and rage? After all, it’s only a TV show.
Author’s Note: All ratings information courtesy of TVByTheNumbers.com