If nothing else, this list should serve as a good jumping off point for further reading if your comic diet consists mostly of Spider-Man and Batman.
Hate. Peter Bagge’s ‘alternative comic’ (that’s what we used to call them in Ye Olden Days) followed surly Buddy Bradley in Seattle’s nascent grunge scene. Bagge sort of lucked out, with the comic - a follow-up to his earlier work in Nice Stuff - starting in 1990, before Nevermind changed Seattle forever. Buddy was a music obsessive, and so much of the comic ends up taking place in the grunge world, especially as Buddy begins managing his roommate’s band, Leonard and the Love Gods.
Bagge tried to get an animated Hate going years ago but it never happened. Then it felt too dated. But now it’s perfect. And I’m not talking about some kind of updated Hate set in hipster Williamsburg, but rather a totally of the period Hate. 90s retro nostalgia is hitting, and Hate fits perfectly there. Gen X isn’t done mythologizing itself on screen, and this feels like a perfect project for Ben Stiller - poster boy of Gen X (and probably target of Buddy Bradley hatred) - to produce.
While Hate only lasted 16 issues in Seattle before Buddy fled home to New Jersey, I imagine the show would stay at least a few seasons in the grunge mecca. Four years, maybe, from 1990 until Kurt Cobain’s suicide. A blend of self-loathing, drugs and rock ‘n roll, Hate would be just the thing to turn the Justin Bieber generation into something worthwhile.
But speaking of Justin Bieber…
Prez. One of DC Comics’ weirdest characters, Prez Rickard was America’s first teenage president. And he was created by Joe Simon, one half of the team who created Captain America! Spawned from the 26th Amendment, which gave suffrage to 18 year olds, Simon’s vision of a groovy teen president was short lived, lasting only four issues. But in that time he battled vampires (!), a right wing militia, evil chess players and was the victim of an assassination attempt. Neil Gaiman would briefly revive the character years later in a Sandman story. And yes, his name was Prez - his mother was so sure of his destiny that was the name she gave him.
The youth culture of the 60s created Prez, but it’s the youth culture of the 10s that could redefine him. We live in a nation with a weird tween subculture, filled with celebrities and players who adults don’t even know. This tween world is connected through social media - the same social media politicians have been trying so hard to use in elections. So what if a Justin Bieber type somehow ended up eligible to run for president, and all his fans somehow ended up eligible to vote for him?
There are two ways to do Prez as a TV show. One is aimed at the tween crowd, with a rising Disney star as the teenaged president. Fuck that way. The other way is to do it really serious, like West Wing but with way hipper hair cuts. That’s the more interesting way for me. Take good writers and try to tackle actual issues… just with an 18 year old calling the shots. Keep it kind of groovy, the way Joe Simon intended it. Maybe leave out the vampires, though. Or not - the tweens love the vampires! But you have to keep Eagle Free, Prez’s Native American best friend, owner of no shirts and head of the FBI.
And since we’re on the subject of tackling real issues…
Ex-Machina. Bryan K. Vaughn’s series about a superhero who becomes the mayor of New York City is one of my favorite underrated comics of the previous decade, and the one that most seems like a n0-brainer for a TV show.
Mitchell Hundred is an ordinary man until a weird accident gives him the ability to talk to, and control, all machines. And I mean ALL machines - include simple pulley and levers. Hundred, being a nerd, begins a short life as a superhero named The Great Machine, and his biggest moment is stopping the second plane from hitting the Twin Towers on 9/11. But Hundred sees that he can do more in the system, and so he hangs up the Great Machine’s helmet and runs for mayor… and wins.
Like Prez, the basic concept is West Wing, but this time Iron Man is in charge. Vaughn’s series was set in the near past New York so that he could have Hundred interact with actual political issues; I would change that up and set the show in the here and now. Let Hundred have spent the last decade since 9/11 still being The Great Machine, or maybe doing something else. Let him deal with the issues of the moment (although to be fair many of the issues in the comic remain issues of the moment).
But there’s more to the story - besides politics and Hundred’s personal life, Vaughn has a meta-story, which explains how and why Hundred got his powers. Combine that with flashbacks to his days as The Great Machine and you have a show that tackles hot button issues and supervillains, all in the same hour.
Now that I’ve mentioned supervillains…
Sleeper. Holden Carver is a good guy, but he has to act like a bad guy. After getting super powers from an alien artifact, Holden is inserted into the supercriminal organization of the villain TAO, working as a mole for International Operations. But the only person who knows that Holden isn’t actually a bad guy falls into a coma, and so Holden is left fighting for his life deep inside a nest of super-powered creeps… some of whom he comes to like. And even love.
Ed Brubaker’s super-powered take on Wiseguy is ideal for a TV show because it eschews the big theatrics of superhero movies and instead deals with street-level operatives. It’s about crime and espionage, with the twist being everybody has some kind of super power (Holden’s is the ability to not feel any pain and conduct the pain he should be feeling into anyone who touches him).
Gritty and dark, Sleeper would be a show that runs only a handful of short seasons. It’s a story that has a beginning, middle and end, but it also has enough room to stretch things out and play around in between the issues of the comic that Brubaker wrote. While the comic is set in the Wildstorm Universe, there’s no reason the TV version couldn’t create its own complex and gritty world. Sleeper has sex, violence and plenty of intrigue, as well as excruciating moral quandries. Hire a sexy cast and air it right after Mad Men.
Mad Men is a show that really works as a period piece, which brings to mind another period piece…
Sandman Mystery Theater. Before Neil Gaiman redefined the name, the Sandman was a guy in a gasmask in the WWII era who shot sleeping gas at bad guys. Wesley Dodd was his name, and he battled street crime in New York City. In the 1990s Wesley was revisited in the Vertigo comic Sandman Mystery Theater, which brought a decidedly noir tone to his adventures.
Wesley Dodd is just a man in a silly outfit with a silly gun. He works with his fiancee, Dian Belmont, using detective work to crack weird and gruesome cases. Sandman Mystery Theater takes place in the late 30s, as America is climbing out of the Great Depression and headed towards WWII. Sandman comes up against all manner of killer and crook, many of them influenced by early comics and pulps. It’s not quite full blown superhero stuff, but it’s still kinkier and weirder than straight crime procedurals.
What’s great is that it’s possible to have Sandman meet other Mystery Men of the era, if the show ends up working on that level. It’s before the formation of the Justice Society of America, and the comic book Wesley Dodd met up with many of the people who would later go on to become famous Golden Age heroes, including Jim Corrigan, who would one day die and become The Spectre, and boxer Ted Grant, who would go on to become Wildcat.
But even without the Mystery Man angle, Sandman Mystery Theater offers a great convergence point of murder mystery and superhero story, with the glamor of the 30s mixed in for good measure. And the relationship between Wesley and Dian, modeled after Nick and Nora Charles, would be incredible stuff for a television series.
Sandman Mystery Theater isn’t the only Vertigo title I think would make a great TV show…
Shade, The Changing Man. Originally a weird character created by Steve Ditko, Shade, the Changing Man became an even weirder character in the hands of Peter Milligan in 1990. A poet from the planet Meta in another dimension, Rac Shade has come to Earth wearing the M-Vest to stop a plague of madness threatening our planet.
But Milligan’s character was anything but a hero but rather more of a romantic in the mode of Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Mad Mod Poet God (as he was known) engaged in surreal adventures, often aimed at the center of his own psyche. Like Dr. Who, Shade could come back from death in new forms (including a woman), although sometimes he could come back in his original form (with a new haircut). His M-Vest (which stands for Madness Vest) can warp reality, although eventually he controlled the Madness all on his own.
Shade’s love interest was Kathy George, a relationship that was endlessly fraught with drama. The series would be like one of those problem of the week shows (The A-Team, The Hulk), with Shade, Kathy and Lenny (their lesbian friend) dealing with outbreaks of madness as they arose. The first season would likely follow the American Scream storyline, which saw Shade fighting a madness that was infecting America (and which, in our politically charged time, seems all too real); future seasons could follow the book or wander off into its own surreal, pop fiction soap opera directions.
Imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Twin Peaks meets candy colored pop art. With strange sexuality, odd adventures and soul-searching social commentary thrown in for good measure. (I didn’t promise all of these would make hit shows, by the way)
And speaking of shows that weren’t hits…
Global Frequency. Yeah, they already tried this one and it didn’t get past the pilot. But they fucked it up, andI think it’s still an incredibly viable concept.
Warren Ellis’ comic follows the exploits of the members of Global Frequency. Who are they? Almost anyone; predicting the crowd-sourcing world of Twitter, Global Frequency is made up of perhaps 1001 people, experts in different fields, who can be contacted at any time by Aleph, the woman at the nerve center of the organization. A crisis comes up - a black hole inside a man’s head in San Francisco, a nuclear monster about to get out of a containment facility - and Aleph finds the nearest and most appropriate Global Frequency members and activates them.
One part anthology show, one part mystery show, a properly done Global Frequency series would spend half the first season setting up characters (who would appear every now and again) while also creating a meta story that would necessitate the activation of many of our favorite GF members at the end of the season. Wash, rinse and repeat every year; characters die or leave the organization and new ones come on. Some characters are activated more often than others. And always at the center, Aleph, the beautiful internet tribalist.
The scope of Ellis’ series was a little big for TV, but it could be managed. One half monster of the week, one half big story, Global Frequency perfectly straddles the line between shows that work in box sets and shows that can be joined by anyone at any point in the season. And it has guys with black holes in their heads.
But some people really like the longform storytelling possibilities TV offers, and so we come to…
Bone. Hey, I never said these would all be live action. Bone is one of the greatest comic book stories ever told; what began as a kids comedy comic slowly evolved into an epic fantasy adventure. The comedy and the wonderful, kid-friendly characters remained, but the stakes got bigger and the story got more serious. Reading Bone as it went along was like going from The Hobbit directly into Fellowship of the Ring.
Creator Jeff Smith has been working on adapting Bone for some time; there’s been a movie in the works forever (the rights went to Warner Bros in 2008), but a movie isn’t the right format. The story of Bone is huge - the collected volume is over one thousand pages long.
With its mix of lovable cartoony characters - talking animals and the just cartoony Bone cousins - and humans fighting against evil rat monsters and demons, and featuring dragons and armies clashing - Bone would make for an incredible limited animates series. One or two seasons, twenty or thirty episodes, with the tone being allowed to change as naturally and organically as it did in the book, and without sacrificing any of the eventual scope and depth of the plot. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender as it originally aired on Nickelodeon, in three season-long ‘volumes.’
But if the kiddie stuff or all the boy-oriented stories aren’t for you, we could go a little more adult and more female-centered…
Strangers in Paradise. Terry Moore’s long-running indie comic is a weird bird. At first it’s just a lightly comic relationship story. Francine and Katchoo are best friends and roommates, and a new friend, David Qin, comes into their life. He complicates everything, as he falls in love with Katchoo, who is secretly in love with Francine. Meanwhile Francine remains infatuated with her unfaithful boyfriend Freddie. Katchoo is a beautiful blonde, while Francine is a plump brunette (the real hot one, for my money), and for a while the book is about the lives of these people.
And then it turns out that Katchoo is an operative in a shadowy, all-female espionage organization. And David turns out to be the heir to a crime syndicate. The series then goes on to balance the odd genre elements with the relationship elements, more successfully than you might imagine.
The things that made Strangers in Paradise work would be tricky to adapt to TV, and you’d need strong hands behind the scenes. If the show could capture the tone of the first season of Desperate Housewives - soapy but odd and mystery oriented - it could stand a chance. Also Francine and Katchoo are simply great characters, and with so few great female film roles, it could be possible to lure terrific actresses to the small screen.
Are you wondering where the hell the mainstream stuff is? Where the superheroes you know are? Well, this next one is for you…
Damage Control. When superheroes fight things get destroyed. Who takes care of that? Why isn’t the Manhattan of the Marvel Universe just a giant crater or a constant construction zone? Meet Damage Control, the people who deal with the destruction.
The comic was originally pitched as a sitcom in the Marvel Universe, and that’s how it should be adapted to TV. Imagine The Office, but with Kang the Conqueror as a potential recurring character. The comedy arises from the characters and the matter-of-fact way they deal with the inconveniences of being mortals in a superhero world.
The added value is that Damage Control gives Marvel a place to throw around some of their lesser characters. And if the show really works, and becomes hip and fun and part of the culture, the big movie Marvel actors (who already have their contracts spelled out) could probably be talked into doing guest spots. Robert Downey Jr is, obviously, a natural to come on during sweeps.
The scope of Damage Control is actually surprisingly small. Because the company (which is owned by Tony Stark) comes in when the battle is done, the show only deals with the aftermath of battles. And even then that’s the secondary stuff; it’s the human element that makes the show work. It isn’t like Community is dealing with the ins and outs of classwork every week. A workplace comedy with regular costumed guest stars - how could this not work as a TV show?