Comic books (or graphic novels to those who care) have had plenty of big-screen opportunities, especially in the superhero genre. But many of today’s cutting-edge, literary-minded comics would make even better television. Just as comics have grown more serious and respected in the last few years, so has television – no longer just the bastard child of film, television is now an art in itself, and like comics its writers tell long-form stories that explore characters with depth and complexity. Here are five comic book series that would never fit into the standard two-hour feature film treatment, but would make killer TV.
Neil Gaiman’s seminal 10-volume series seems to defy adaptation. It tells the story of ten god-like creatures who represent the passions that push and pull all conscious life; the main character is the personification of dreams, Morpheus, a tortured wanderer growing weary of his immortality. Surrounding him is an epically sprawling cast of human, animal, and mythical creatures from the past and present.
Accompanying Gaiman’s storyweaving is a phalanx of artists: instead of maintaining a uniform artistic vision throughout the series, Sandman featured a succession of guest artists who illustrated each storyline in their own distinct styles.While many fans of Sandman will likely claim that it’s Gaiman’s inventive storytelling and larger-than-life characters that make this television-worthy material, I’d hold that it’s actually the art that sets it apart from all the other epic fantasy that has been hitting screens lately. Because Sandman is as much about the look as it is about the story, it would be a great opportunity to experiment in a new form of television art: instead of having a team of revolving directors step in to direct episodes in a single style, let a series of directors take each storyline and tell it in their own way. The actors could unify the series, but the visuals would feature the same kaleidescope that made the original comic so unique.
On Demetria, islands of land float in the air above a planet of uninhabitable toxic oceans. City-states built on these islands engage in a medieval push-and-tug of wars and negotiations based on trade and transportation. In a delightfully steampunk flourish, the main mode of transportation between the island city-states are flying galleons which harness the wind in sails for propulsion and steering, while anti-gravity engines keep them afloat in the air.
Meridian‘s publisher went out of business before the story could reach a satisfying conclusion. However, it lasted long enough to prove its potential as a fantasy that could appeal to both young adults and grown-ups, with a light touch. It also had the potential to evolve over several seasons, with a plot that offered many opportunities for development and a solid core cast of characters. The main character, Sephie, is a strong, intelligent female character who avoids both fantasy stereotypes of ditzy damsel and sexy Amazon. Before the series’ cut off, the story already had several promising twists, including mistaken reports of a death, love triangles, and palace intrigue. And any fan of the original, truncated series wouldn’t mind seeing it finally brought to a conclusion on screen.
This is my wildcard choice, especially because it really is more of a true comic, rather than graphic novel: no overarching storyline, just a series of page-long vignettes. I also have an intense fondness for this little comic; at the risk of sounding like a hipster that you’ll want to punch in the face, I started reading Kate Beaton before she’d published her books, on her little blog that I told all my friends about, and I am absolutely overflowing with happiness at her success.
Hark! A Vagrant is the name of Kate Beaton’s blog, featuring comics about famous authors, historical figures and scientists, with segues into her own life and reflections on childhood, infused with an exuberant, innocent, life-loving sense of humor. A sad Napoleon who’s addicted to cookies, a whimsical sailor who falls in love with a mermaid, and a pack of quirky, cheeky American Founding Fathers are a few of my favorite recurring characters.
Of this list, Hark! A Vagrant is the series I think would be most difficult to adapt. I could see it becoming a quirky, madcap and brainy sketch comedy show. The technique of this adaptation eludes me, but the reason I chose the series is because it’s a tone I wish I saw more of on TV. Kate Beaton is unafraid of cuteness. Not cloying, put-on cuteness; real cuteness, the cuteness that comes from being earnest about things like happiness and love and loss and longing. It’s surprising how much cuteness can come out of sadness, in a person who can capture the sweet in bittersweet. And it’s smart. Not just because of the historical name-dropping; it’s clever, with layers of referential humor and the plain old humor of human relationships. Kate Beaton packs a lot into a single page. I would love to see some of that spirit and intelligence animate a TV comedy.
Picture My So-Called Life, the short-lived but iconic coming-of-age television series from the 1990s starring Claire Danes as a high schooler struggling with the pressures of friends, family and a fruitless crush on a gorgeous upperclassman. Now, add a superboy with jet-powered flying boots and you have Zot!, Scott McCloud’s 1984 comic series about average American high schooler Jenny Weaver and her boyfriend, a superhero from an alternate universe. When Zot gets trapped in the real world, however, Jenny winds up being the one who teaches him about surviving bullies, divorce, peer pressure and evolving friendships. Zot! could be the TV series for kids who aren’t even cool enough for glee club. McCloud addresses the issues that trouble teenagers with a light and whimsical touch, making this the perfect material for fans of realism and fantasy alike.
Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf have been exiled from their fairytale Homelands, along with the rest of Fable population, by the armies of the Adversary. The exiled Fables have set up shop in our modern world, secretly governing themselves under the leadership of Mayor Snow and Sheriff Bigby. Besides keeping Fabletown law in our mundane world (a large part of which involves concealing their true natures from the clueless mundies), the heroes also work to defeat the Adversary in the Homelands so they can return.
Writer Bill Willingham’s fabulous epic deserves fame not just among graphic novel readers, but literary critics. Willingham succeeds as a writer because he understands that for characters to feel real, a healthy dose of cynicism should be mixed with an even greater dose of affection and humor. His characters and worlds feel real, sometimes gritty and sometimes comforting, because he has mastered the fine line between too-sugary and too-dismal. And he’s a masterful story-weaver; one of the things I respect most about his series is that when a character, or pair of characters reach their happy (or not-so-happy) ending, that storyline fades into the background and others step into the spotlight. This way he avoids torturing any single storyline for lack of anything better to do; and his supporting cast is so real and fleshed-out that when one of them steps forward to be the hero of a new storyline, there’s no feeling of being cheated out of watching the characters you really wanted to follow. In fact, the writers of many existing shows should take a page out of his book.
I often watch new TV series and wonder, “Did the writers ever think about where this could possibly go in seasons two, three or four?” ABC’s new show, Once Upon a Time, was inspired by Fables, but I don’t see the same potential for a long run in it. In Once Upon a Time, it’s a curse that keeps the fairytale characters in the real world; where does the story go once the curse is lifted? In Fables, the device of an enemy with armies and the power to move back and forth between the mundane and fairytale worlds offer endless possibilities of plot development, political drama and action without getting worn-out. In Once Upon a Time, the cast of characters is also restricted by the premise: the characters are all trapped in a single, small town. In Fables, an endless number of Fable characters roam all over the world, again opening up possibilities for side-plots and variety.
The bigger point is that it isn’t just the familiar fairytale characters that make Fables such a compelling and successful story; it’s the storytelling mastery of Bill Willingham, the attention to details, the foresight for plot development, and the care he takes in crafting his characters into fresh individuals. Character, storytelling and art are what set apart my picks for this list; but each of them also represents something missing from television right now, whether it’s ingenuous gaiety or multi-layered plots that take a little bit of thought to crack. Together, comic books and TV shows can overcome their bad reputation for being “lesser” arts, to show the big kids how it’s done.
***Also check out Chris Queen’s recent PJ Lifestyle article, Reimagining Fairy Tales: Grimm, Once Upon A Time and Their Modern Spin On Fantasy