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The Lair Of Gary James

Is There A Future For DC Comics On The Small Screen?

Posted by BigWords on September 26, 2010

an open plea to DC Comics execs for better television adaptations

DC Comics has struggled with live action television for the last few years. Smallville has faced numerous problems since introducing its’ superpowered supporting characters, and neither of the two Human Target series did justice to the concept. While its’ first season started strongly, Lois & Clark quickly descended into farce; The Flash series disappointed as often as it entertained, while the short-lived Birds Of Prey failed to capitalize on the inherent tension which ran through the comics. There are only so many times that I’ll accept television executive interference as a reason for the poor showing of DC properties before giving up on them entirely – and the high quality of the various animated series’ makes me more frustrated at the fluctuating quality of live-action shows based on DC properties. I expect more from my entertainment post- The Shield, The Wire, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica.

It isn’t as if there is a dearth of quality concepts nestled in the world of the comic titles, yet the simple (and, unfortunately, TV-friendly) ideas keep getting brought forth as acceptable material for these shows, failing utterly to capitalize on several of the themes which tie together the comics. Part of the problem thus far has been the simplification of elements which, when used seriously, could provide an entirely new audience for the characters. The most glaring example of adaptation decay is in the Smallville series, where both Checkmate and the Justice League have been reduced to starring in a series of increasingly ludicrous plots, and are in no danger of breaking out into their own series. There’s hope for more intelligent fare, though only if chances are taken with other series.

Think about the best comics of the last thirty or so years, and a few examples will spring instantly to mind as being suitable, both in tone and being financially feasible, for the rigors of a series. What is acceptable in the funny pages isn’t always suitable for the harsh requirements and standards live-action television demands these days. People in bright clothes flying overhead is something of an anachronism thanks to shows such as Greatest American Hero, the sixties Batman series and My Hero. Beyond the visual problems, we are also faced with increasing importance being placed on films as a medium in which comics adaptations can be best presented. This is an enormous error in thinking, as the serial nature of comics cannot be properly replicated with a single feature film.

Part of the problem seems to be that the characters chosen for television series are often of the superhero variety, and therein lies the major obstacle to a successful series. Another superhero show now would be a misstep, particularly in light of the magnificent failure of Superman Returns and the sup-par showings of various other FX-heavy superhero franchises. The verisimilitude (although still based on heightened and distorted reality) which The Dark Knight and Iron Man displayed has raised the bar for future adaptations, and no less than the very best adaptations will suffice for an audience whose expectations are higher than ever. Looking at the titles which have less fantastic elements, there are numerous potential series awaiting discovery by television producers. Even the characters who are currently without their own titles are worth examining.

Big Business, The Freedom Of The Press & Rampant Crime

DC Comics is peppered with internationally-influential companies – LexCorp, The Wayne Foundation, Queen Industries, Kord Enterprises, plus assorted millionaires and billionaires who have had other interests – run through the titles, so it makes sense that prominence be placed on a business angle. Even though certain aspects of this facet of the comics universe have been played out over the years in adaptations, their portrayals have fallen far short of the depth which their comics appearances have allowed. With various news agencies (from the comics) such as The Daily Planet, WGBS-TV, and The Daily Star, there is a lot of room for stories which examine the nature of capitalism, how businesses work, illegal stock trading, and the encroachment of organizations such as Intergang and other criminal forces into areas of business.

The preponderance of crime families, crime syndicates, street gangs and numerous drugs cartels in the comics – some of which are actively funded by big business – is a good reason not to rule out this avenue for future television shows. A real attempt at fleshing out story aspects which have hitherto been background filler could show an increased maturity, and well as tell some important stories told in the process. It’s an area oft overlooked in the comics these days, which have slowly and steadily moved towards more ‘epic’ superhero battles and flashy crossover events, but nearly everything which depends entirely on the long-underwear types would look ridiculous in a live-action television show. Backtracking to the late 80s depiction of Lex Luthor in Adventure Comics and Superman would go a long way, examining the mindsets of people so ludicrously wealthy that their moral compass has depolarized over the years.

One of the delights of Batman Begins, especially, was the depiction of crime families being in control of law enforcement, if only on a regional scale. Tying together the disparate elements of business, the press, and criminals who believe themselves to be above the law, could result in a series which might rival The Wire for its’ depiction of a fully fleshed-out city. Even if only a fraction of the elements were used, there is more than enough to sustain an ongoing storyline about what it means to be a reporter in a world where the owner of one of the largest companies in the world has political aspirations as well as hidden criminal depths. It would be a nice touch to see allusions to the legendary Frost/Nixon interview played out between Cat Grant and Lex Luthor, though that may just be my taste coming through…

Hidden Agencies, Secret Experiments & Covert Research

Where there is big money being thrown at research and development, there are the covert agencies hoping to learn of anything which could possibly threaten the status quo. Checkmate, Project Cadmus, S.T.A.R. Labs, and the Department of Extranormal Operations are all excellent places to look for story possibilities. Without touching on the superhero element, there are questions of genetic research, illegal wiretapping, advanced mechanics, political coercion and tax dollars siphoned off to unaccountable agencies. With examples of real-life groups to play off of, there is a wealth of potential in exploring the interaction (both legitimate and dubious) between the various parties. This presents a safe fictionalized avenue in which to explore issues raised by MK-ULTRA, the Iran-Contra affair and various other exploits governments have partaken in over the years.

Corporate espionage – a very real problem for many companies nestled on the cutting edge of technology – has rarely been done well on television. I’m struggling to think of a single example which stands out, that’s how rare examples are. Within the framework of a DC Universe adaptation, replete with all manner of crazy scientists working on secret projects, there seems to be a real opening for untapped story potential here. A clumsy attempt at marrying the worlds of business and secret government agencies was made in Smallville when Tess Mercer (an ill-advised character to begin with, but that’s a whole other blog post) was revealed to be a member of Checkmate. I suggest something much subtler, and framed within a more realistic world-view, expanding the presence of these agencies only when clues as to their existence is revealed. Subtlety has never been a strong point for Smallville.

The Military Is Always Involved, Even When Its Offscreen

It’s long been established in the comics that various technologies developed by the preeminent companies in the DC Universe have been filtered down to military applications. Oliver Queen’s company was explicitly stated to be in the arms business, Lex’s enterprises are heavily influenced by both defensive and offensive applications for the technology he funds, and many of the agencies such as Checkmate have advanced equipment which raises numerous ethical questions. It follows that at least a few threads from both the business storyline possibilities and the material generated by having secret agencies should touch on the very real effect that large companies have on international military peacekeeping. Having real-world parallels strengthens story, which is why the use of the military alongside superheroes in Smallville has always felt ‘off’ to me. If a man can bend steel with his bare hands, what use is the armed forces?

For a while, back in the fifties, there were very few superhero titles, and military comics flourished. Having a strong storyline about the armed forces in a series based on the world of DC comics would, in essence, be truer to the comics than any costumed adventures could ever be. Plus there’s the aspect of topicality – allowing stories to be told with the characters which would otherwise be consigned to awful Elseworlds exploits, where nothing really matters because it doesn’t count. Embedded journalists could be used to tie in the military strands of the story to the other aspects, and add yet more threads to the story… Threads which could easily be picked up in the main segment as soldiers return home and look for work at the companies which have been providing the advanced weaponry used in the battlefield.

So Many Opportunities, If You Know Where To Look For Them

Some of the best characters in DC Comics are the ones which have no fantastic powers, alien roots or supernatural origins. The Crime Doctor, an old Batman villain, is one of the best examples or a character who could realistically exist in any major city. Characters such as The Question, Richard Dragon, and The Unknown Soldier could all be folded in to a more mundane setting with minimal alterations. Most of the acclaimed Question series by Dennis O’Neil fits in with a less superhero-oriented style anyway, and is an awesome read for both comics fans and anyone who loves well told stories. I would also add that Barbara Gordon’s time in Congress should be considered as a bridge between the government and law enforcement aspects. And just because I loved the idea, the (relatively obscure) the Chain Gang should also be considered for added drama potential.

The era of style over substance is long gone, and any future series should seriously consider the numerous television and films which have failed to capture the attention of an audience in the last few years. We, the audience, need more cerebral product if we are to keep paying attention to comic book properties on the small screen – a medium notorious for its’ harsh treatment of series which do not draw the expected viewing figures as soon as possible, may I add. Maybe there is enough material from the comics to sustain several series without ever feeling the need to introduce costumed heroes, but knowing that the lowest common denominator often trumps common sense, I have the feeling the days of intelligent adaptations are still some ways away.

I’m depressed by the knowledge that there exists a Krypto The Superdog series, yet we have still to see a proper, grown-up television drama emerge from the comics… I can’t even say “Make mine Marvel” at the end of this post because Blade: The Series was canceled. *sigh*

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2 Responses to “Is There A Future For DC Comics On The Small Screen?”

  1. I remember when Birds of Prey came out. I was so excited to watch it. Some of my friends at the time refused to watch it since they knew it was going aganst a lot of established canon. That didn’t bother me. I just wanted a good show. Unfortunately, it was just slapped together. Lazy writing and uneven actors.

  2. bigwords88 said

    Some of the problems with Birds Of Prey could have been solved with a half-decent writer and a reasonable budget. I must admit, the only DC Comics-derived series I was actually excited about in recent years (leaving aside the guilty pleasure of classic George Reeves Adventures Of Superman season box-sets on DVD) is the one show I’m not allowed to legitimately watch

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