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Paneled Pages on the Small Screen

July 28, 2015 Andrew Sanford

These days you can’t throw a rock without hitting a super hero. Over the last five years, popular culture has been dressed in tights and a mask and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change any time soon. For some people, the ever growing hipness of costumed adventurers has grown stale. The phrase “Super Hero Fatigue” gets thrown around a lot. For comic book fans old and new, it is a time of celebration. Not only are we finally invited to the party, we’re putting the damn thing on! Be it video games, big budget movies or even smaller independent films, general pop culture now comes in a pill that we fans want to swallow. Given that this cultural shift has taken place during what many refer to as a “Renaissance of Television”, it’s not surprising that TV is no exception. In fact, that’s where we may feel most at home.

Let’s be honest, the rise in comic book popularity is due in large part to the year round barrage of summer blockbuster style comic book movies. Movie studios tried for years to mine the paneled medium for anything it was worth, though these attempts were often filled with a wink and a nod. Littered with camp and cheesy dialogue, even the best comic book adaptations were hard to take seriously (and have not aged well). It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that studios really started taking comic properties seriously. Eventually, Marvel comics took it one step further and formed their own studio, their characters done their way. Sure there are jokes and to some degree a level of camp but it is usually added as a means of enriching a character or story. They took a chance and took the reigns and now stand as a model of success both critically and financially.

Iron Man

Yet, with all that success there are still bumps in the road. Marvel has developed a method of storytelling meant to span various films and that is not always a cohesive process. When it works, it’s a beautiful thing, a new world of interconnectivity that excites even the more casual fan. When it fails, the result can be… messy. What was once exciting and new can become confusing and tedious. Arguably, this is a result of film being a difficult format in which to tell longer, drawn out stories. That is where TV comes in.

The television format has always lent itself to serialized story telling. Be it a two part episode or a whole season, TV allows creators room to breathe and work out longer storylines. They are not beholden to two hours to tell one story. While some shows have still rely on a “One and Done” style format usually reserved for sitcoms, these days networks have embraced the idea of season long story arcs. Some networks have even committed to shows with a predetermined length like Lost on ABC or more recently, The Strain on FX. Long form storytelling, like comic books, has become more embraced by audiences and networks, so why not mix the two?

There have been plenty of comic book TV shows in the past (Smallville, The Flash circa 1990) but they still hit some of the same failings as their film counterparts. Cheesy stories and in a lot of cases, even cheesier acting led to these shows being looked at as subpar. Now with the success of comic books on film, studios have been more willing to support shows about super powered people. Their support has grown so strong that shows based on comic books now fill the digital airwaves and we fans are able to reap the benefits.

The big two (Marvel and DC) are very well represented. Marvel has used television to further their movie universe. Through shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, they have been able to expand their already burgeoning movie universe, offering people a glimpse at the world they’ve created through a different format. While it hasn’t always worked smoothly, it is a fresh new way to explore their properties. DC on the other hand has found much success in keeping their film and television universes separate with shows like Arrow and The Flash (circa now). Both shows have exceeded expectations both with the critics and the fans. They are, however, not immune to missteps. Like a lot of hour long television shows with 22 episode seasons, both shows have the occasional “filler” episode that neither furthers the plot nor the characters.

Agents of Shield

The sure winner so far has been Marvel’s Daredevil. A Netflix original show, DD has the advantage of only 13 episode seasons. With a smaller amount of time, the story remained focused and thrilling while using every episode to add to all characters and stories involved. It also capitalized on its connection to the “Avengers Universe” embracing its movie ties while not relying on them. This added an exciting element instead of feeling too forced (a problem that S.H.I.E.L.D. suffers from quite often).

There are, of course, other comic book properties finding success on television. One cannot ignore the powerhouse that is The Walking Dead. Based on an Image comic book of the same name, The Walking Dead has become a cultural icon and much like Arrow for the CW, is spawning another show (Fear The Walking Dead) which may very well be the first of many. The show’s success has also upped the success of the book. What was once an independent comic book that only printed 3000 initial copies is now regularly on best seller lists be it in collection or single issue format. Also, keeping the story in the books different than what is put on screen gives the creators an opportunity to tell varying stories with the same characters.

The Walking Dead

Adaptations of preexisting works have been done since the early days of cinema and television. Given the longevity of this practice, it has become more and more difficult to keep things fresh. Now, with comic book adaptations being done more frequently on TV, there has been an attempt to marry to the two formats more cohesively. Material that has been done before on the page is now making its way on screen with the talent and the budget to make it more exciting and quite frankly, more popular. This in turn has led to an increase in popularity for said material. Comic book shows are starting to more closely resemble the series they are based on and even when they aren’t exactly the same, it is in a way that adds to the story. There is now real way to see how long this trend will continue. Eventually, “Super Hero Fatigue” may be a condition that we all suffer from. Until that time comes, I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the ride. Please, join me.

Andrew Sanford