Over the past three decades, comic books have been mined for movies and TV series. The past few years have seen comic book movies bringing droves of people into the theatres. What makes for a successful comic to other media adaptation?
As mentioned many times in Lost in Translation, the bulk of the work is done. The characters are created, their looks are easily found, the setting has already been fleshed out. Many superheroes are well known to the general public, guaranteeing interest in the adaptation. A first draft of the storyboards already exists. There is a built-in crowd already in the readers of the comics. The balancing act lies in maintaining faithfulness to the original work while still making the adaptation palpable to the general audience. There are several ways to go about the process.
Creating an animated adaptation is a natural step. Most comic book adaptations have gone this way; comic to cartoon and manga to anime. The advantages of animating include being able to portray the characters as they appear in the comic, easy to predict costs as compared to live-action adaptations*, and ease of special effects. The drawback is falling into the animation ghetto, where people assume that, since the show or movie is animated, it is automatically for kids. The drawback could limit the size of the audience and how faithful the adaptation is.
With the proper backing and budgeting, a live-action feature film of a comic can be done. The mere fact of a cinematic adaptation can get the fans a-stir and, with a well-known character, might even get non-readers interested enough to see the movie. The catch, though, is that the budget needs to be large enough to cover the necessary special effects for the characters’ powers and to get a name involved to draw in non-fans. As well, fans will become more vocal about the portrayal of the adapted title. Costuming may become difficult or impossible**. Movies that are being touted for a major action blockbuster may also be limited to just the A-listers*** of the publisher to ensure that a return on investment is seen. B-list heroes have been used to various degrees of success, though.
Live-Action Television Series
Sometimes, the best format for a comic is a regular TV series, either on one of the traditional broadcasters or on a specialty channel. Viewers are more likely to give a show an episode or two to find its feet. While having an A-lister as the focus character will get people to watch, a B-lister or even a C-lister could pick up an audience. The drawback returns to budgeting for special effects, though a careful choice of heroes can mitigate the problem.
One thing that will come up in a superhero adaptation is the origin story, how the hero came to be. While some heroes have a well-know background – Superman’s flight from his doomed homeworld Krypton and being raised by the Kents; the death of Batman’s parents and his quest to keep the city of Gotham safe – others are only aware to comic book fans. Time will be spent on the origin. Ideally, the hero is an active participant in the origin; early conflict and drama will keep viewers hooked before the main plot starts. Spider-Man’s origin is a good example of the hero being involved; Peter Parker may have been bit by a radioactive spider, but his reaction after discovering his powers and the fateful choice to not get involved leading to the death of his uncle is all under his control. Superman’s origin, however, is more passive; he was rescued and sent off in a rocket as a baby while his world exploded and was raised right by a couple who couldn’t have children of their own. The conflict and drama are lacking in Superman’s case.
In most successful superhero movies, the villain either has a personal link to the hero (for example, Norman Osbourne in Spider-Man and Obadiah Stane in Iron Man), represents the diametric opposite of the hero (the Joker in Batman), or cannot be defeated using the hero’s main abilities (Lex Luthor in Superman). Sometimes, a theme starts appearing in a hero’s rogue’s gallery that emphasizes the hero’s abilities. Spider-Man’s gallery has a scientific bent with Doctor Octopus and the Lizard. Batman’s rogues run the gamut of mental health disorders. The catch, though, is that the villain shouldn’t be killed off by the end the episode or the movie. Very few villains die in the comics, and fewer still stay dead.
Historically, most comics are set in New York City. This came about because the publishers, writers, and artists were in New York City. DC writers tended to rename the city while Marvel kept their characters in a facsimile of the real world. The city becomes another character, lending its air to the work. The dark, foreboding atmosphere of Gotham City adds to the Batman stories while the brightness of Metropolis**** reflect Superman’s fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Even the real New York City can present different atmospheres. The busy Midtown Manhattan, where Spider-Man fights crime and villainy, allows the Webhead to make snappy comments as he batters his opponents with verbal quips. Meanwhile, the rundown area of Hell’s Kitchen provides a backdrop for both Daredevil and Cloak & Dagger‘s fight for the disadvantages against the those who would steamroller them.
Bringing Things Together
To show how the adaptations could work, I’ll use several examples in parallel. First, an A-list example for a hypothetical live action movie – DC’s Wonder Woman. Next, for a live-action TV series, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger. Finally, to go through the thought process that I hope gets used, one of my own works, Subject 13.
Starting off, I already know how I’m adapting both Wonder Woman and Cloak & Dagger. However, Subject 13‘s format is in the air. Given the strong language used by the main character, an animated adaptation is out of the question unless aired late at night on a specialty channel. A live-action movie won’t work as well as I’d hope because the character is practically unknown. That leaves the live-action TV series on a specialty channel, unless there’s a way to reduce the language without losing characterization.
The setting is the next. Wonder Woman is based out of two locations, New York City and Themyscira. Given those locations, she’s set for a story that combines modern sensibilities with Greek myths and the conflict between the two. Cloak & Dagger are based out of Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, suitable to tell stories about fighting for the underdog and of survival. /Subject 13/ is, at least at the beginning, also set in New Yotk City, a mix of working class apartment neighbourhood and a private school, allowing for a fish out of water backdrop to the main character’s discovery of her abilities and figuring out what she’s doing.
The origin of each will be dealt with. Wonder Woman’s is fairly quick – she was made from clay then given life after her mother prayed to the Greek goddesses. Cloak & Dagger’s origin can easily fill an episode as two teens from opposite sides of society are kidnapped and given an experimental drug that triggered their mutant abilities. Their origin can return as they deal with elements from the gang that was looking for a new street drug. Subject 13‘s origin is important to the storyline, as she escapes from an evil consortium, but the actual moment where she becomes a hero could be done during the opening credits of the pilot.
Depiction of powers needs to be looked at, mainly for budget issues. Since my hypothetical Wonder Woman adaptation is meant to be a summer blockbuster, her powers won’t have limits. However, since her powers include super-strength, the Lasso of Truth, and invulnerability, portraying them won’t be difficult, just using camera tricks and props. Cloak & Dagger might get expensive for television; Cloak is a gateway into a dimension of darkness while Dagger generates living light. Fortunately, decades of science fiction has made laser blasts easy to do and Cloak’s power can be simulated with lighting when needed. As for Subject 13, she has a powered punch that flares when she hits. The power isn’t used often as it tends to end fights when she connects; the budget for the power should be easy to control.
The villains for the adaptations now comes into play. Wonder Woman’s rogues gallery tends to come from Greek myth. Tie in the locations, and Ares trying to start World War III through manipulating the United Nations makes for a good baseline for a plot. For Cloak & Dagger, the general theme for the first season is survival and adapting to being on the outside of society. Villains can include various gangs and, if we look at later works featuring the characters, toss in D’Spayre, a demon who can resist both characters’ powers, at the end of the season. In /Subject 13/, the origin ties directly to the villains, an evil consortium who was responsible for her getting her powers.
To sum up, Wonder Woman, if done well, should get a good audience. The adapters will have to make sure that the costume reminds the casual fan of her classic one. Cloak & Dagger, being a lesser known title, could work on TV if the drama is played up. Meanwhile, Subject 13, even with the language issue, could work as a live-action series with its on going plot, though her complete lack of fame in the general population without any ties to an existing property could work against the show’s survival
Next time, more stuff!
* Crew, cast, computer equipment (having replaced cels, paint, and ink) vs costs of different special effects based on the needs of the episode/movie.
** Particularly for the women in the film. Some comic costumes defy the laws of physics while revealing more skin than most bikinis.
*** The characters that are known far and wide. DC’s A-listers include Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Marvel’s are Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America and, as groups, the X-Men and the Avenger. A-listers get on the list by wide exposure through comics, animated adaptations, movie adaptations, and cultural drift.
**** Technically, originally modelled on Toronto.