Comic Book Critical Mass: Inside TV's Biggest Bet

Fall's new season reveals how TV is following the movies with sometimes obscure comic book adaptations that will strain to satisfy both nerds and a broad audience all at once: "It's the Goldilocks problem: It has to be juuuust right"
 

This story first appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

For years, superheroes have reigned supreme over movies. Now they've set their sights on dominating TV, too.

This fall, the broadcast networks will feature five first-year shows based on DC and Marvel comics characters: Fox's Batman prequel Gotham; NBC's Constantine, based on the Hellblazer comic about a demon hunter from DC's Vertigo label; The CW's Arrow spinoff, The Flash, and iZombie, based on another Vertigo comic; and ABC's Marvel adaptation Agent Carter. They join a roster that includes AMC's hit The Walking Dead, ABC's Agents of SHIELD and Arrow.

In the pipeline, Netflix has four shows and a miniseries based on Marvel characters starting with Daredevil; Sony's PlayStation recently greenlighted Powers, based on a graphic novel, straight to series; and AMC has a Walking Dead companion series for 2015. Also joining the party are AMC (Preacher), WGN America (Scalped), Cinemax (Outcast), Syfy (RoninClone) and TNT (Titans).

Photos: Fox's 'Gotham': Meet the Characters From the Batman Prequel

Ask producers behind the shows why the small screen has seen such an influx of new heroes, and they cite the built-in brand equity of DC and Marvel properties and the fact that visual effects work now enables fantastical storylines on a TV-sized budget.

"It's a perfect confluence of zeitgeist and the actual ability to do it and do it well," says Arrow executive producer Marc Guggenheim, who also is writing Marvel's all-female X-Men comic. "A big part of it is the technology is finally here that allows these characters to be realized in TV and film."

That much is clear with CW's VFX-heavy Flash, which bows Oct. 7. Warner Bros. TV president Peter Roth — who has made it a priority to mine the studio's DC division — says comics heroes provide "good, positive messages." But SHIELD executive producer Jeff Bell also acknowledges that familiar characters and storylines are a big part of the allure, especially because viewers are used to seeing Marvel and DC comics heroes on the big screen. "People like hearing the same story in new ways," he says.

Brand recognition helps series stand out in an increasingly crowded TV landscape. More than 20 broadcast shows will debut in September and October alone; most will fail to persuade viewers to even sample them. A proven concept or format can help hedge a bet even a little. "Networks are buying formats from Australia. If you feel like it works, if there's a proof of concept in an existing show or a comic book, that's very attractive because it feels like people are taking less risk," says Michele Fazekas, co-showrunner on ABC's Captain America period drama Agent Carter, starring Hayley Atwell. Adds Gotham show­runner Bruno Heller: "If you are going to address the largest possible audience, then it helps to use easily understandable, visually powerful material. That's what graphic novels are. They were designed to appeal to that largest possible audience."

Photos: Broadcast TV's New 2014-15 Shows

Adding to the trend is a new generation of showrunners with geek interests, including The Strain's Carlton Cuse, who adapted Oni Press' The Sixth Gun as a pilot for NBC. "For a lot of people, including myself, who are comic book fans, that's what we read," says Cuse. Adds Strain co-creator Guillermo del Toro, "Every generation brings with them the media in which they were raised as part of the narrative leap in what is acceptable or not in mainstream entertainment."

Oversaturation is a concern, of course. But producers say the diversity of formats means not all superhero shows are alike. Gotham, for instance, plays like a crime procedural set in Batman's hometown, while iZombie is a teen dramedy in the vein of creator Rob ThomasVeronica Mars. Still, because network audiences are generally older, producers warn of the need to balance fanboy rewards with a broader appeal. For instance, SHIELD, while ABC's top new show last season, failed to live up to expectations given the film success of Marvel's The Avengers. "For network TV, you can't assume that the audience knows anything about it — but you also have to reward the fans who know everything about it," says Fazekas. Adds Guggenheim: "Yet at the same time, if you're so far away from what the original comic was, why are you doing it at all? It's the Goldilocks problem: It has to be juuuust right."

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Everyone seems to be chasing the magic formula of TV's top drama in the 18-49 demographic, The Walking Dead. "Walking Dead is shedding a light on the wealth of non-superhero concepts that exist in comics," says creator Robert Kirkman, who is adapting his exorcism comic Outcast for Cinemax. "There's no end of fantastic comics out there that would make great TV shows."

TV's Top Comics Heroes*

The Walking Dead (AMC)
18.4 million total viewers, 12.2 million adults 18-49

Agents of SHIELD (ABC)|
8.5 million total viewers, 3.1 million adults 18-49

Arrow (The CW)
3.8 million total viewers, 1.4 million adults 18-49

* Nielsen live plus 7

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit

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