Comic books invade the small screen

Story highlights

As with movies, this TV season has a heavy reliance on comics

Fox is premiering the Batman prequel "Gotham"

The CW is revealing its take on "The Flash"

NBC has the series "Constantine" based on the "Hellblazer" comics

CNN —  

Maybe it’s the cobwebs, the skulls and the creepy books, but somehow one gets the feeling that this is no ordinary library.

In fact, it’s the inner sanctum of John Constantine, a tortured exorcist condemned to hell. More accurately, it’s the set of the upcoming NBC series “Constantine,” and it’s based on the cult favorite “Hellblazer” comics (from DC Comics, which shares a parent company with CNN).

But “Constantine” isn’t alone: a number of upcoming new shows pull their inspiration from comics. Just as superheroes have become a cash cow for movie studios, the comic book is now the choice source material for TV.

There’s “The Walking Dead,” which premiered in 2010 and is now one of the most popular series on the small screen, and then there’s “Gotham,” Fox’s Batman prequel that debuts to high anticipation Monday.

The show follows the immediate aftermath of the death of young Bruce Wayne’s parents, which parallels the story of Detective Gordon (Ben McKenzie) as he struggles to fight Gotham City’s underworld while maintaining his ethical beliefs.

And the place is already populated with up-and-coming supervillains, including Oswald Cobblepot (the Penguin) and Selina Kyle (Catwoman).

While “Gotham” may seem tailor-made for the hardcore Batman fan, 15-year-old actress Camren Bicondova, who fills the role of the future Catwoman, is confident all audiences will understand the show.

No matter “if you’re a ‘fanboy’ or a newcomer, it’s entertaining,” she said. The fans will appreciate the fresh perspective, she added, while “newcomers get to see a whole new kind of show.”

Fast track to TV success?

While Fox has the future Batman, The CW has “The Flash,” which is set to premiere on October 7.

Most people are at least somewhat aware of the “Scarlet Speedster,” a.k.a. Barry Allen, who’ll be played in this series by Grant Gustin. The previous small screen Flash, John Wesley Shipp, plays the hero’s father this time around.

With that awareness comes high expectations for the new title, but members of the cast say they’re ready to live up to the challenge.

“Everyone who is part of this production is very aware of the love for Flash,” said Candice Patton, who plays Barry’s love interest, Iris, noting that the producers are first and foremost fans of the character. “Our series feels and looks like the comic book in a lot of ways. The design is so incredible.”

As with any adaptation, for a feature film or network series, a huge hurdle can be the way the source material is interpreted and adapted on screen.

With “The Flash,” they’ve stuck close to the comic, but with its CW cousin “Arrow,” another comics-based series from which “The Flash” was spun off, there’s a more unique approach. So far, with the series having enjoyed two successful seasons, the risk has worked.

The trick to getting it right, says “Arrow” executive producer Marc Guggenheim, is having a deep love of the character.

“Comic books are an operatic medium,” Guggenheim explained. “That’s harder to get right or produce. Unless you love comics and that world, I don’t know how anyone else would do the job. So it starts with love of the character and the source material.”

Jeph Loeb, Marvel’s head of television, agreed that the secret to success with comic book heroes is a focus on people.

“You’re invested in Peter Parker and care about what happens to Peter, so you start from there,” he said. “[‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s’] Agent Coulson gave his life, literally, for an agency he believed in, only to find out that agency was raft with corruption. Combine that with the extraordinary, and you have something special.”

A bonafide phenomenon

With CBS’ announcement Friday that it was picking up a “Supergirl” TV series, every major network now has a show based on comic books. (Meanwhile, cable and others continue the trend, from FX’s “The Strain” and TNT’s possible future series “Titans” to Netflix’s “Daredevil” and Sony Playstation’s “Powers.”) If “Arrow” and “The Walking Dead” could be considered preludes to a trend, that trend is officially in full swing.

But as with much in pop culture, the superhero adoration is cyclical, mainly because it’s a timeless story, said “Arrow” actress Emily Bett Rickards.

“It’s always interesting to see a hero’s struggle and hide behind an identity,” Rickards said.

Back at Constantine’s inner sanctum, Constantine himself, Matt Ryan, has his own theory as to why comic characters resonate.

“It comes down to hope and heroes and people really wanting to lose themselves in a form of escapism,” he said. “We all want to be able to do something that we can’t.”

Yet aside from the natural romance of heroic storylines, there’s also an economic variable.

“[Comic books] already have that built-in fanbase, (so) they’re easily adaptable,” observed Josh McDermitt, a “Walking Dead” fan-turned-actor on the show. “They have stories that are already established. I don’t blame all those shows for jumping on the train – the fan base is already there and they’re rabid.”

Essentially, networks are launching series that have been “field tested” first, said “Veronica Mars” creator Rob Thomas, who’s now executive producer of the upcoming comics-based zombie series, the CW’s “iZombie.”

“[Comic book shows] gives studios and networks a comfort level to see something succeed in another medium and see where a story might go. It’s a business built on risk,” he said. “Anything that mitigates that risk they’re eager to jump on.”

Obviously, crafting a TV series from a popular comic doesn’t mean an automatic sure bet. That built-in audience will go right out the window – or to another channel – if creators fail to deliver a product that lives up to fans’ stiff standards.

Thomas, for one, can admit to some “trepidation” of how readers of the “iZombie” DC Comics series will react to his screen version.

“My mom found a letter not too long ago that I wrote to Stan Lee about something I found wrong with Spider-Man,” he said. “At 13, I was that kid berating somebody about getting the comic book wrong. Flash forward 35 years later, and it’s all karma.”