5 NON-COMIC BOOK TV SHOWS THAT COMIC BOOK FANS LOVE
Back Issue Ben
Every now and again, there’s a TV series that seems to grab the hearts and minds of comic book fans everywhere. Though they aren’t specifically derived from any comic book property, something about them attracts comic book fans like shambling zombies to a fresh bowl of brains (I don’t know why there would be a bowl full of brains, but cut me some slack, I really wanted to have the word shambling in here somehow). From big hits, to cult classics, these projects apparently scratch that comic itch so well, that most of the time they actually become comic books as well. So my, dare I say, epic goal is to talk about 5 shows that comic book fans seem to always find themselves drawn towards, like a child actor to narcotics.
For the purposes of this discussion, Star Wars and Star Trek are not being considered. To say comic book fans like these is a little obvious, because everyone likes those properties. Similarly, Doctor Who is off the list, as it is another quintessential “geek” (calm down, I use the word lovingly) show (plus I refuse to ever watch Doctor Who).
Also, Transformers and G.I. Joe don’t count, as I’m pretty sure they both existed as comic books before they were cartoons (and as toys before both of them, but now you’re just giving me a hard time).
Finally, Heroes and shows of that nature will be skipped as well. Though they may not technically be based on any specific property (unless you want to count how much Heroes ripped off from the X-Men) they are based pretty heavily and intentionally on the superhero genre of comic books. (Also, Heroes sucked. I don’t care how much it costs, you have to have Peter and Sylar face off in a superpowered slugfest at least once.)
With all the disclaimers out of the way, let’s get started!
In no particular order:
AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER
After having my first son, Nickelodeon became a pretty standard channel to get left on all day on the TV. With Avatar (I’m just going to call it Avatar, and you’ll just have to assume I’m not talking about the big blue monkey 3-D monstrosity that our society can never take back, like our own version of Germany with WWII) in heavy re-run rotation, it wasn’t long before casually watching it while doing other things, became a trip to Best Buy to purchase all the DVDs, and a weekend long binge-watching session with myself and Mrs. Back Issue Ben.
What we found was a rich mythology within a fully realized world, absolutely great characters (not a single bad apple in the bunch), and one of the most satisfying endings to any work of fiction I have ever experienced. The finale that closes out the 3rd season (and the original animated series as a whole) is so perfect that it has been known to bring tears to my eyes. (Make fun of me if you will.) It’s that good. It’s that satisfying. It’s that (to use a word I’m going to definitely overuse today) epic.
As I became more involved in online comic book communities, I was somewhat surprised to discover how many comic book readers also absolutely adore this animated series.
Less surprisingly, the series is currently continuing its story in comic book form (as you’ll see, this is will be a recurring trend as we continue the list).
The sequel series, Legend of Korra, is a pretty capable follow-up as well.
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
After years of seeing references to Joss Whedon and Buffy on comic book message boards, I happened upon a display at Wal-Mart one day, with every DVD box set season of Buffy on sale for $20 each. Acting completely on faith (not Eliza Dushku) I purchased them all and prepared for the daunting task of watching this series completely from beginning to end (I had a lot more spare time back then).
After a shaky first season, I began to wonder if maybe my faith had been misplaced. Holding out hope that the arrival of the often mentioned Spike might turn fortunes around, he would do that and more. From the very beginning, with his memorable entry into the series, I was guaranteed onboard for the duration.
As I continued, my enjoyment of the show would wax and wane depending on the involvement of Spike (excluding season three, with the prominence of the previously mentioned Faith). I loved how in season 5 he would make an appearance just to mock the Scoobies, or highlight his complete disinterest in whatever their problems were before leaving. (“Out for a walk….bitch.”) All the way until season 6 and 7, when he finally made that epic (told you I’m going to overuse that word) leap to hero. (Spike has become one of my all-time favorite fictional characters, if you couldn’t tell.)
Of course, you can’t watch Buffy without eventually watching Angel, and I couldn’t watch Spike in season 5 of that series without watching the first four. While I wasn’t as satisfied with Angel as a series (even though I like the characters better in general — how does that work?) it did have its high points (and low, Connor?). The highest point being season 5, where Spike joins the show (shocker, I know), which is the best season ever produced in the Buffyverse.
It’s not that hard to pinpoint why this series appeals so much to comic book fans. It was created by a comic book fan. Whedon has been very open about Kitty Pryde’s (of X-Men fame) influence on the creation of Buffy. Also, just like Avatar, it had a rich world, a far-reaching history and mythology, and smart and witty characters (a Whedon staple).
It’s not surprising that Buffy, Angel, and Spike have had a long history of starring in their own comic books (including “official season” continuations of the TV series).
(On the same note, Firefly and Serenity might be the best things Whedon has ever made, barring Avengers.)
Angel would also indirectly lead me to the next show on my list.
There I was, taking some time off before a year-long assignment in Korea, watching Angel re-runs on TNT every morning. Eventually, I found myself casually watching the show that followed, Supernatural (starring that “other guy” kissing Lana Lang from season 4 of Smallville).
History repeats itself, and so casual watching turned to powering through the seasons on DVD. Supernatural was able to do the best job I can think of, of copying what comic books often do so well. Build a larger on-going storyline, while also telling satisfying single installments episode to episode. Not only that, but the two series leads, Sam and Dean Winchester, are two of the most engaging and well-developed characters in television history (Dean is another character on my all-time favorites list).
As the series went on, the stakes got higher, and unlike many other shows that unveil a grander storyline, it did not disappoint. Yet, it never made you feel like you weren’t getting enough resolution from season to season. The threads established from the very first episode, culminated in an epic (word count = four) season 5.
With the ending of the original planned storyline, and the original show-runners leaving, season 6 and beyond have been up-and-down while they try to find new directions, but still very well worth watching.
Yet again, I was surprised to learn that not only did everyone that worked at my local comic shop at the time watch Supernatural, many of the other customers did too. Supernatural hasn’t had as many comic books produced as the previous entries, but they’ve had a few. (I have no idea if they’re any good. Considering that the show relies so much on the performances of the two lead actors, I doubt it.)
With strong comic book ties, it wasn’t a mystery why this show became a favorite of readers everywhere. First off, the pilot premiered at San Diego Comic-Con, creating a lot of buzz for the upcoming first season. Also, one of the show-runners, Damon Lindelof, is an acknowledged comic fan, even writing for Marvel at one point (it only took him eight years to finish one mini-series). Characters even read comic books in the show itself, with hints dropped that the plot of the comics they read, contained clues to the mystery of the show itself (I don’t know if it was true, because there was no way I was reading a Flash comic).
The show itself mirrors the mysterious and frustrating comic book past of Wolverine, in concept. For every reveal of the ongoing mystery, there were just as many new questions posed, with the occasional invalidation of previous stories mixed in from time to time as well (Wolverine’s infamous implanted false memories). Like Wolverine’s eventual comic book origin, the series finale of Lost was met with mixed reactions (to put it lightly).
But barring disappointing mysteries, the thing that made Lost such a great show to watch was the deep characterization of its large and mostly fascinating cast. Lindelof doesn’t hesitate to admit that Watchmen was a big influence on the show’s single character flashbacks from episode to episode. Those flashbacks gave you a unique look into the minds, motivations, and pasts of every single character on the show, making them that much more real in the minds of the viewers (while also providing some amazing twists).
Unlike the previous shows on this list, there have been no comic books based on Lost that I am aware of.
THE VENTURE BROS
For this last one, I was considering the X-Files, but Mrs Back Issue Ben was able to suggest this perfect capper when I pressed her for ideas. (Duy was of absolutely no help. Gargoyles?)
(Duy here. YEAH, Gargoyles! I wrote about that here. I also wrote about Avatar here. And the Looney Tunes Show here, but that's unrelated.)
The Venture Bros animated series is able to simultaneously satirize and homage many great action adventure stories. From Johnny Quest to the numerous comic book analogs for characters like Dr Strange, Blade, and Reed Richards, (Shore Leave, the analog of G.I. Joe’s Shipwreck, is a personal favorite) to the subverting of superhero fiction tropes like arch-enemies and secret organizations. The list goes on and on (the perception of what the Superman analog does with his young adolescent sidekicks is particularly damning).
It’s a show that is as funny as it is action packed and entertaining. For every genre staple they make fun of, it never feels like its mean-spirited or insulting. It all comes from a place of love for that type of fiction. That love translates through to the viewer (unlike Big Bang Theory, which some comic readers seem to take very personally for some reason).
Plus, it’s really hilarious.
During my previous time as the admin for an online comic book discussion group, one of the things we liked to do was bracket-based “best-of” voting games. One of them was the best comic book related animated series of all time. Venture Bros won overall, shockingly beating out such classics as Batman the Animated Series, Justice League, Transformers, Avatar, Ducktales, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (The voting was a sample size of about 20 people, so take that however you like.)
There are no Venture Bros comic books that I am aware of, but there should be.
MY FINAL BRAIN THOUGHTS: As you may have noticed, many of these shows have similar characteristics, which are probably what makes them so appealing to your average comic book fan. All of them created an expansive and meticulously developed world. They all nurtured a larger ongoing mythology, while also providing satisfying smaller storylines episode to episode, or even season to season. They all had complex and interesting characters that are easy to become invested in, and care about (and mourn when they die). They all have mystical or sci-fi elements that take them outside the realm of your standard police procedural.
They’re all very fun to guess, and speculate, and debate, and argue about (comic book readers do love a good argument). Spike or Angel? What kind of “bender” would you be? Zuko or Aang? Is Dean the hero and Sam the disappointment, or is it the other way around? What the hell was happening on that island? Is Dr Girlfriend a dude or a lady?
Lastly, and probably most importantly, they’re just very entertaining, well-made television shows. Sometimes it’s not any more complicated than that.
So, there you have it. If you love comic books, but up until now haven’t seen any of these shows, you might want to give them a chance. If for no other reason, because some guy on the internet told you they were good.