Panel Beating : Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Channel...
Alright, so I screwed up on making this a monthly series. From now on, then, Panel Beating will be bimonthly. Think of it as a cunning satire on comic book scheduling, if you like. Or just that I’m too lazy to crank out an article of this length every four weeks instead of every eight. Anyway, on with the column…
Regular NTS readers might recall an interview we did a few months back with Doctor Who and Captain Britain writer Paul Cornell, in which he mentioned a long-gestating superhero TV project of his that looked like it was finally going to go ahead at the BBC. Sadly, in more recent conversation with him, I’ve learned that the series has been put back on ice – and this, coupled with the relative success of Drew Pearce’s ITV2 sitcom No Heroics, has got me to thinking about superheroes on TV.
Apparently, the reason why the Beeb have turned down Paul’s show once more is, ironically enough, the same reason it was brought back up in the first place – Heroes. The success of the US import led to Auntie looking around for potential superhero projects of their own (indeed, I’ve learned after starting this article that another project by another Who alumnus and soon-to-be-comics writer, Joe Ahearne, is in the development stages) – but when they got one, they decided that they didn’t want to retread the same ground as Heroes after all (and the presence of No Heroics probably didn’t help, either). This seems strange, however, when you consider a few things.
First of all, the BBC don’t make Heroes. They show it, but only having bought it from the States - it’s not like they already have a self-produced or funded superhero series, and so another one would be too many. Same with No Heroics, really – it’s a rival show, so where’s the harm in setting something up in competition to it? Furthermore, any BBC project would undoubtedly be aimed at a different demographic, in a different timeslot, offering a different style, to either of the other two series. The Saturday night “family” slot, for example, would seem like the perfect home for just such a programme (Paul’s wasn’t planned for this, instead being a more Buffy-esque BBC3 project, but I could imagine a more straight-down-the-line project working in the Who slot perfectly, couldn’t you?).
The second question is… well, is there really only room for one or two superhero shows on TV? The comic book movie is, after all, just about the biggest thing in Hollywood at the moment – ever since X-Men kickstarted the current golden era, and Spider-Man set the real blockbusting trend, the superhero genre has come to dominate the box office, culminating in The Dark Knight, a film that met with critical and commercial success unlike any since the 1979 Superman (indeed, you wonder if the genre hasn’t now hit its zenith – while I don’t think TDK quite shades it as “best superhero film ever”, it’s hard to imagine another one in the future getting quite the same combination of gravitas in terms of cast, script, production and ultimately acclaim).
But on TV, it’s been a rather different story. You can probably count the number of genuinely successful live-action series based on comics on the fingers of Ultimate Nick Fury. You know, after he lost his arm. I’m saying there aren’t very many. (You’ll note I specified “live action” there, by the way. Cartoons are a different kettle of fish, really – cheaper and easier to make, superheroes have thrived in that form, especially during a time in the ‘90s when the movies weren’t cutting the mustard, yet we got genuinely brilliant Batman and X-Men cartoons, with half-decent stabs at the likes of Spider-Man and Justice League to follow.)
The 1960s Batman series, of course, was firmly rooted in “comic book”ness, even if it’s the sort of cliched view of the medium that most of us would rather wash our hands of. Many people assume that it was the garish campery of the TV show that led to the comics going the same way - in fact, though, while the show definitely took it to extremes, and certainly had an influence, the 1950s had already seen a “lightening” of the tone, and it was editor Julie Schwartz’s 1964 revamp that introduced many elements that the TV show would subsequently draw on (and then, it’s true, filter back into the comics). I’m no great fan of the TV series, largely for the impact it had on people’s perception of the character and of comics in general - and also its influence on the worst film ever made - but also because when you get over the initial enjoyment factor of the camp sense of fun, it really was somewhat repetitive and unimaginative. That said, I have no such problem with the 1966 movie, which somehow managed to be far more gleefully demented (and knowing) than the TV show, distilling all the best elements into a truly bonkers experience. Plus it contains one of the funniest sequences in the history of movies, capped off by that fantastic “They may be drinkers, Robin…” line.
The golden era of superheroes on TV, at least in terms of popularity, was in the ‘70s, and nothing since has really captured the mood of the public in the way that Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk managed (I’d include Spider-Man in that as well – but come on, theme tune aside, that was bloody dreadful). Both shows transcended their comic book roots pretty effectively – there are probably plenty of people out there who don’t even know that the characters originated on the page, especially in the case of the Hulk, the character being so far removed from the traditional image of a costumed hero. (I can forgive that lack of knowledge more than I can the guy at my old school who once expressed surprise that Superman existed in any another form prior to Christopher Reeve.)
Yet despite the success of the likes of Batman, Wonder Woman and so on, and the obvious pulling power of the superhero movie, it’s been a while since we’ve had a proper superhero adaptation on TV. Following a fair few stabs at the Man of Steel - including the not-terrible-but-not-great Superboy series and the not-really-about-Superman-at-all-especially-in-those-bonkers-last-few-series Lois and Clark, both of which failed to match up in any way to the 1950s George Reeves series - Smallville of course became a runaway success, but it’s notable that it did so by very deliberately not placing its lead character as Superman. This philosophy has stuck out like a sore thumb as the series has gone on (for fear of angering its fans, I’ll say it’s probably outstayed its welcome now), since Clark has surely by now reached an age where he would have donned the cape, particularly as he’s hanging out with other DCU heroes such as Green Arrow and Aquaman. I’ve always had a bit of residual affection, meanwhile, for the early ’90s John Wesley Shipp Flash series - although it lost its way rather rapidly after the initial TV movies - and the less said about the 1997 Justice League America pilot the better, frankly.
It’s strange, though, that more people haven’t had a crack at getting a comics adaptation off the ground on the small screen, because in many ways they’re arguably better suited to TV than to film. The structure of comics, particularly in the current era, is very much based around individual “episodes” that can either stand alone or make up shorter arcs, while maintaining an underlying story (an individual writer’s run on a particular title could be seen as equivalent to a “season” of a TV show). It’s no coincidence that a number of TV writers - far more so than screenwriters - have made their way into the medium, as they have in common certain visual sensibilities, and rely on the ability to concisely tell a complete story within a shorter timeframe.
Plus, of course, there are plenty of comics that would make excellent ongoing TV series rather than having to be contained in a two-hour film. Take, for example, my long-standing idea about doing Green Lantern Corps as, essentially, a “cop show in space” (those of you thinking Space Precinct, wash your mind out RIGHT NOW) - it would work perfectly, enabling you to focus on a variety of different characters from GL lore old and new (you wouldn’t have to worry about choosing which character to have as the “lead” - Hal Jordan, Guy Gardner, John Stewart and Kyle Rayner could all make appearances), telling parallel and intertwining stories both long and short-form about different characters dotted around the Corps. The current comics series actually serves as quite a decent template for such a series (though I’ve honestly been suggesting this for far longer), and if anyone wants to talk, I’ve got a slew of ideas and a copy of Final Draft ready to go…
Indeed, team books generally seem well-suited to TV. The “soap opera” nature of long-running titles such as X-Men or the Giffen/deMatteis Justice League would fit better within the framework of a 22-episode (or whatever) TV season than trying to squeeze them into a film (not that the X-Men films did a bad job, but they did so by stripping the team right back to a much smaller size) - such series tend to attract loyal fans for depth of character development rather than the amount of action they throw at the page, and that’s something that TV can effectively replicate.
Of course, there’s nothing to say that a superhero TV show has to be based on an existing comic - but as with films, there’s far less success in the field of “original” ideas than there is with adaptations. There’s Heroes, of course, but I struggle to think of that as a “superhero” show at all, determined as it is to rid itself of almost all the trappings and tropes of the genre (while happy to mine it for story ideas). Shows such as Buffy and The Six Million Dollar Man are often described as “superhero” shows, and to an extent they are - but only in so much as they feature characters with powers doing good deeds. I’m sure there’ll be those who disagree, but to me the word “superhero” specifically carries certain other connotations - secret identities, colourful costumes, and a certain reverence for the genre’s roots in comics rather than attempting to disassociate oneself from them.
Still, No Heroics, while a comedy rather than a “straight” superhero drama, was a decent stab at the genre. It’s far from the funniest thing ever, but it surprised me with the level of affection for superheroes that creator Drew Pearce seemed to hold. Rather than resorting to cheap shots (alright, there were a few cheap shots, but we’re talking about mainstream sitcom here), Pearce constructed an entire “world” with care and attention (much has been made of the show’s background detail) and seemed to have a proper grasp of superhero lore from which to draw his characters and settings. At the very least, it’s a step in the right direction from stuff like, dare I mention it, My Hero. Plus, I have to admit, I’ve developed a hell of a thing for Electroclash. There, I said it.
Despite the setback that Cornell’s project has seen, though, it’s inconceivable that the ongoing success of films such as The Dark Knight won’t continue to filter down to TV in some way, especially in the wake of Heroes, which - the odd instance aside - should be opening doors for the genre rather than closing them. It’s a touch ironic, mind, that the next big superhero movie, Watchmen, is based on a comic that for many years people said would only work as “a twelve-part TV miniseries”. Brian Michael Bendis’ superbly high-concept Powers, meanwhile, has seemed ripe for the TV plucking for years, and rumours abound that it might finally come to fruition. But it would be nice to have some honest-to-goodness four-colour costumed heroics on our screens once more (even No Heroics was sparing in its use of costumes, focusing its attention on the characters’ “normal” lives and usually playing costumes for gags) - whether based on an existing comic (from which there are plenty to choose) or something genuinely original. A twelve-part adaptation of All-Star Superman? Joss Whedon writing a live-action X-Men show? Charlie Brooker (a comics reader, according to his Grauniad columns) following up Dead Set with a superhero E4 drama? Brian K. Vaughan adapting his own Ex Machina? Come on, people, the possibilities are there. TV has done much to show in recent years that it can be the equal, if not the better, of cinema - but when it comes to superheroics (which, despite how much people might still scoff at comics, remains one of our most enduring pop culture genres) it’s always been second best. It’s about time someone really stepped up and changed that.