Fox's Human Target is only the latest, if not the greatest, TV show to spring from the pages of four-color comic books. While comics on television haven’t touched the crossover success of films like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, they’ve still got a long history of supplying material to the small screen; we've rounded up some of the best and worst comics-to-TV adaptations and, just for kicks, the real-life creative superheroes with feet in both worlds.
The Best Comics-to-TV Shows
Human Target (FOX, 2010- )
Although it’s a bit early to judge, Human Target is off to an enjoyable start; viewers are only likely to be disappointed if they expect it to be a faithful adaptation of the psychologically intense, master-of-disguise stories published by Vertigo in the early 1990s. Instead, the show (featuring a top-rate cast of regulars in Mark Valley, Chi McBride, and Jackie Earle Haley) eschews its comic-book origins and instead plays like a throwback to the frothy days of ‘80s television action. Which, in these days of heavy backstories and intricate serial storytelling, can be downright refreshing. Anyway, it’s far better than a previous adaptation attempt from 1992, in which the lead role of Christopher Chance was played by Rick “Jesse’s Girl” Springfield. Grade: B-
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (syndicated/CBS, 1987-1996)
This animated kids’ show strayed far afield from its source. The indie comic it was based on, by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, was a somewhat dark, black-and-white affair that took itself pretty seriously—or at least as seriously as a comic about intelligent, karate-fighting bipedal turtles named after Renaissance painters possibly could take itself. The cartoon version ditched all that in exchange for a gleefully stupid approach that was saturated in ’80s and ’90s junk culture. In doing so, it took the comic from a small cult hit to a massive international success. The less said about the movie versions, though, the better; reveling in junk culture is one thing, but prolonging the career of Vanilla Ice is quite another.
Grade: B (cartoon); D+ (movies); Z- (“Ninja Rap”)
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The Incredible Hulk (CBS, 1977-1982)
Creator Kenneth Johnson took a lot of liberties with the venerable Marvel Comics Jekyll-and-Hyde character, but the result was the first truly successful superhero show of the color era. Even though the scripts got a little tired after a while, the show wisely anchored its appeal on the character of the tightly controlled Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby), the little man forever pushed too far, and the raging gargantuan demon (Lou Ferrigno) inside him. It’s a testament to the staying power of the TV series that the show was a much bigger influence on the two recent film adaptations than the comic book on which both are based. Sure, it was just The Fugitive with a radioactive monster instead of a one-armed man, but how is that not awesome?
Grade: B, raised to a B+ for any episode where the Hulk captures a dude by throwing a bunch of tires around him.
Tales from the Crypt (HBO, 1989-1996)
The original EC Comics horror series, which ran from 1950 to 1955, caused a nationwide moral panic for its gory, sex-stoked morality tales—but it was also a huge influence on a generation of young filmmakers. Forty years later, they paid tribute to the comic with this top-notch horror anthology series; directors like Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner, John Frankenheimer, Walter Hill and William Friedkin all pitched in with episodes drawn from the original EC series, and given their full measure of spice thanks to HBO’s ability to show content that wouldn’t be allowed on network TV. It also featured an instant classic score from Danny Elfman, and an unforgettable host in the Crypt Keeper.
Grade: B+, depending on the director
The Tick (FOX, 1994)
Based on author Ben Edlund’s indie series for New England Comics, The Tick played the superhero angle for laughs, but never cheap ones: Absurdist humor was placed over sharp character notes, and the main character—a hulking brick with a dementedly philosophical outlook—took fighting Soviet vending machines and gangsters with chairs for faces very seriously. The excellent, though short-lived, animated adaptation was followed in 2001 by an equally excellent—and equally short-lived—live-action series, with a pre-Lost Nestor Carbonell as “Batmanuel.”
Grade: A (animated series); A- (live-action series)
Batman: The Animated Series (FOX, 1992-1995)
Setting the standard for small-screen adaptations of superhero comics, Batman: The Animated Series featured a unique visual style, thanks to designer Bruce Timm. The dark tone of the series made it decidedly not-for-kids, but it maintained a sense of adventure that appealed to longtime fans; a similar series starring Superman wasn’t quite as good, but a second spinoff featuring the Justice League may be the best superhero series ever to air.
Grade: A- (Batman); B (Superman); A (Justice League)
The Worst Comics-to-TV Shows
Sabrina the Teenage Witch (ABC/WB, 1996-2003)
Another runaway success that spawned TV movies, merchandising, and its own comic book, Sabrina the Teenage Witch—itself based on a franchise from the Archie Comics empire—capitalized on the booming tween market and made a star out of Melissa Joan Hart. But the show was defined by its limitations: It's camp was extremely mild, it lacked the edge of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its target audience meant that it couldn’t conjure the soap-opera sexiness of Charmed. More often than not, it played out like a teenage version of Bewitched—with a less appealing cast. Plus, despite being an Archie property, we didn't see a single cameo from Moose, Jughead, or Professor Flutesnoot.
Grade: C (show); B (Melissa Joan Hart)
The Adventures of Superman (syndicated/ABC, 1951-1958)
For the greatest superhero of all time, Superman just can’t catch a break. He’s been the subject of innumerable movies and TV series, almost all of them deeply flawed; this early hit suffered from dopey special effects, utterly forgettable bad guys, and scripts that were almost indistinguishable from one episode to the next. (It pales in comparison even to the Max Fleischer cartoons that aired a decade earlier.) And worse was yet to come: There were the inconsistent films, Lois & Clark, and—see below—Smallville. People talk about the Superman Curse (which began with this show’s hero, George Reeves, blowing his brains out); the real curse is having to watch all of this nonsense.
Grade: C- (live-action series); B (Fleischer cartoons)
Smallville (WB/CW, 2001-present)
It’s hard to argue with those dates: Any show that can last ten years in this day and age has to have something going for it. But this series, based extremely loosely on the teenage adventures of Superman, has always suffered from not knowing exactly what it wants to be. It started out as an angsty teen relationship drama; it later tossed in monster-of-the-week elements borrowed from Buffy; it set up a tense love-hate relationship between Clark Kent and Lex Luthor that circled around until all the life fizzled out of it; and it deliberately eschewed costumed superheroics until its producers realized that it could draw in the geek crowd with them, after which it absolutely piled them on. Sometimes it’s better to burn out than fade away.
Grade: C- (Smallville); D (The Flash)
The Fantastic Four (NBC, 1978)
The Fantastic Four are widely considered one of the greatest comic book superhero teams, but no one seems to be able to get them right in the movies or on TV. The 1978 animated series did no one any favors by replacing the Human Torch with the cretinous H.E.R.B.I.E. the Robot. The Marvel cartoons of the ’60s, a trio of badly animated adventures starring the FF, Captain America, and The Hulk, preceded this version and were slightly less awful, but they’re mostly remembered now for their ridiculous theme songs (“When Captain America wields his mighty shield/all foes who chose to oppose his shield must yield!”). When people say comic books are stupid, this is what they’re talking about.
Grade: D+ (1978 series); C- (1960s series); F+ (the line “Ol’ Doc Banner, belted by gamma rays/turns to the Hulk—ain’t he un-glamour-ous?”)
Batman (ABC, 1966-1968)
There’s no denying that the 1960s television adaptation of the Batman comic was a success; the problem is that it was too much of one. For years after, its iconography (“Bam! Pow! Comics!”) and low-camp approach to the medium tainted any attempt to take comics seriously as a medium. Adam West and Burt Ward’s hokey take on Batman and Robin set even the comics back by a decade; by the time Batman got his grim-avenger aspect back, it was almost too late to salvage the character.
Grade: D-, with an extra minus for every time since 1966 that someone has uttered some variant of “Holy _______, Batman!”
The Men Behind the Curtain
Unless you’re into comics, you might never have heard of most of these writers—but they’ve been the creative force behind shows like Heroes, Lost, and Babylon 5. Here’s our quick take on their work so far.
Paul Dini and Bruce Timm
The men behind Batman: The Animated Series (Dini provided many of the scripts, and Timm gave the show its unforgettable look) made a splash in animation; DC animated series are often said to take place in “the Diniverse.” Both went on to ear acclaim as comics creators as well.
Best TV episode: “Heart of Ice” (Batman: The Animated Series, Season 1, Episode 3)
TV Grade: A
Best comics work: “Detective Comics”
Brian K. Vaughn
A number of Lost writers and producers have moved from TV to comics, including Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Drew Goddard. (Paul Dini has also written for the show.) Brian K. Vaughn followed the opposite path: The producers brought the hotshot comics author into the writers room after reading his work on titles like “Y: The Last Man” and “Ex Machina.”
Best TV episode: “The Shape of Things to Come” (Lost, Season 4, Episode 9)
TV Grade: B+
Best comics work: “Ex Machina”
J. Michael Straczynski
The man fans call “JMS” first got into television via Saturday morning cartoon scripts, contributing work to Marvel and DC before creating the cult hit TV series Babylon 5. From there, he’s taken a far more prominent role in comics, penning high-profile titles like "The Amazing Spider-Man," "Fantastic Four," and his own "Rising Stars" series.
Best TV episode: “Severed Dreams” (Babylon 5, Season 3, Episode 10)
TV Grade: B
Best comics work: “Supreme Power”
The creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dollhouse is also a lifelong comics fan, and, after making it big as a TV producer, dabbled in comics. He’s given Buffy an eighth season in comic-book form, he took over for Brian K. Vaughn on “Runaways,” and he wrote “Astonishing X-Men” for several years to general critical acclaim.
Best TV episode: “Hush” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 4, episode 10)
TV Grade: B
Best comics work: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
Loved by many fans, hated by many others, Jeph Loeb—a writer who’s had one foot in comics and another in TV for over a decade—is controversial in both worlds. A veteran of Smallville and Lost, Loeb didn’t manage to win over many of his detractors when he became a writer and producer for Heroes during its first three seasons.
Worst TV episode: “Dual” (Heroes Season 3, Episode 13)
TV Grade: D+
Worst comics work: “Ultimatum”
Which comics-to-TV shows (or creators) would make your best and worst lists?