Saturday, January 10, 2009

The future of TV is... comics?!? Part I

Okay, so several months ago I was asked to review something and I kept putting it off and putting it off. Over those months I kept thinking about it, mentally writing it but never putting pen to paper (so to speak), but about two weeks ago a new thought occurred to me. There may be more to the story than a simply review, so here it goes....

Over the last half-century we have witnessed the growth of the media entertainment industry as it borrows and sometimes steals out-right from other sources entertainment, especially books and comic books. Now, for much of this last half century comics have been relegated to childish fantasy (Chabon's Kavalier & Clay portrays this quite well, not to mention it is a wonderful novel in and of itself that all should read). Sure we had movie and TV adaptations of Superman, Batman, Spider-man and The Hulk but I'm not sure anyone could claim that those movies and shows ever truly took the source material serious.

Then something changed in the comic industry with the advent and rise of the graphic novel (btw: this history of the comics is incomplete, so please forgive me), in particular the work of Frank Miller. However, by in-large that remained outside the general public consciousness. With Tim Burton's Batman and the later Batman animated television, people got a feel for some of the changes in the comic industry.
But in the 90s something else happened. Following the demise of shows like and the rise in Star Trek: TNG and the rise in Star Wars books and toys, suddenly comics became a new medium for new stories. Just like the novels for these two franchises, the stories were sanctioned by Paramount and Lucas but not written by the scribes of the shows or by Lucas himself.

Then about a decade ago, J. Michael Straczynscki had all but given up on TV. B5 and its telemovies and spinoffs were not great hits. Sure, he was well-loved by his fans, but I can honestly say that apart from myself and a few of my nerd friends few people had heard of him (even now after having a screenplay turned into a movie by Clint Eastwood I bet many have not yet heard of him). JMS had written several comics before this time, including a couple B5 ones, but rather than working occassionaly in comics while writing for TV he turned his attention to comics full-time and signed a contract with Marvel and started writing Amazing Spider-man. I am a comic fan but I've never been a big one. Sure, I bought some of the issues when Todd Macfarlane was working on it, but I got hooked by JMS's take on Spider-man. After Spider-man he has gone on to write Fantastic Four and most recently Thor. And now, like many comic scribes he finds himself writing for DC.
I'm not sure he was the first, but after JMS suddenly comics became a hot place and comic execs actively sought big names in Hollywood to start writing for them. Kevin Smith worked for DC on a Green Arrow mini-series and wrote the first arc of a Daredevil relaunch (a. Smith's work was nothing short of brilliant but is all but forgotten because of the amazing talent that followed, and b. it's not surprising Smith was asked given how everyone knows he owns a comic store).

In my opinion though it was Joss Whedon that really started an amazing cross-polonization. While working on Buffy Joss had pulled together and co-wrote a couple of limited series books based in the Buffy universe: Tales of the Slayers and Tales of the Vampire (I never read the former but the latter was brilliant). In the meantime, the tradition of stories being told in print continued with a Buffy comic. But it was when Whedon decided to write a limited series story set in the Buffy-verse, several hundred year in the future that things really changed. Titled Fray it was the story of the future of the slayers and it was brilliant. Whedon nearly returned full-circle with his female protagonist (Kitty Pryde of X-Men comics to Buffy of movie/TV to Fray of comics). In Fray we also caught sight of a certain scythe that would find its way into season 7 of the show. With Firefly over, Buffy ending soon and the end of Angel around the corner, Joss was approached by Marvel to see if he might be interesting in writing for them. And in 2004, we had Joss writing Astonishing X-Men. It was immediately heralded as one of the best comics of the year, and the storyline directly inspired elements of the third X-Men movie.
By now the flood-gates were open with scribes from Lost and The O.C. joining the ranks of writers going comics. Comics even started to pull from the literary world, with Orson Scott Card eventually writing a couple limited series books about Iron Man.

The real change in the industry happened 2-3 years ago. Heroes appeared on the air and I was an instant fan. I was shocked at first to learn that the creator was not a comic book person. But I was comforted by the familiar presence of a name, a comic book scribe of great reknown who was an executive produce: Jeph Loeb. And I was further comforted and impressed when he also had some writing credits. Of course I was dismayed to the extreme when NBC accounced he had been let go because of the poor ratings. I only hope that this show, which is an homage (and sometimes a rip-off) of great comics like Watchmen, Rising Stars and X-Men doesn't completely lose its grounding. The presence of Loeb's name signaled a change as more comic scribes entered the television world. By now we had seen Frank Miller directing movies, but that felt more like a fluke than a change. I knew something had changed while watching Lost and finding another comic scribe name show up, first with a writing credit and later as a producer: Brian K. Vaughn (who has happened to write some of my favorite Lost episodes not the least because they focused on Desmond).
I can't name any further names but I know more shows are open to the idea of hiring comic scribes. Comics are not just for kids; there are some amazing writers out there who are gain traction in the entertainment industry. And comics themselves are gaining noteriety and popularity. When Captain America was killed in an issue, it was talked about for weeks and features on CNN and in the New York Times. I hadn't even made it to the comic book store and was told about this tragedy by my wife. The author of this issue, Ed Brubaker, had been doing some great stuff and is getting noticed by people like John Singleton.
However, there is one more change that is occurring in the entertainment industry. But that'll keep for Part II.

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