Four Color Television
Preacher just returned to AMC. The adaptation of the cult hit comic book has entered its third season, and so far things are just as ludicrous— and violent— as the last two. Between The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, AMC has a lock on high-budget prestige comic shows.
They’re far from the only network to raid the comic racks, however. FX’s mind-bending Legion was renewed for season three before the second season was even finished. The CW has a whole stable of DC superhero series (not to mention Vertigo title iZombie and the delightfully trashy Riverdale), and Netflix’s Marvel shows will be joined by 2019s The Umbrella Academy— properties from its recent Millarworld deal, and now Lucifer. Freeform just launched Cloak & Dagger, Hulu has Runaways, and ABC Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recently wrapped its fifth season. Enough people watched Gotham to get it renewed for season five. Hell, even Batman’s butler is getting a show. Much like the box office, it’s almost a given that at any moment, a comic book series will be on the air or new to stream. Although, what makes these adaptations so accessible and successful?
There’s a lot comics and television have in common. Single issues and episodes are delivered in digestible chunks: a typical issue runs 22 pages, and a half hour of television hovers around 21 minutes without commercials. They’re both classically maligned mediums. Comics, particularly superheroes, have long been dismissed as immature, and the prestige of the Golden Age and Peak TV is relatively recent. It used to be slandered as the “boob tube,” a dumping ground for lowbrow content. However, at the end of the day, they have the same goal: to keep audiences coming back for more.
Serialization drives both the comics and the television industries. Though tights and capes lend themselves easily to blockbuster films, those are largely standalone (usually, anyway), but most serialized stories aren’t finite. Rather, they’re designed to keep going and going; they build worlds and characters that last. Even the simplest ideas have depths to explore. A concept as straightforward as the superhero— colorful costumes and solving problems with fists— has an incredible longevity; Superman’s been one of the most recognizable pop culture icons since 1933. Everyone on the planet knows the “S” shield and what it means: Truth, Justice, and the American Way.™
Successful television, like successful comics, doesn’t just hook viewers, but cultivates a relationship between audience and creator— we don’t just consume entertainment, we invest ourselves in it. Would a show like Talking Dead even existed if no one cared about The Walking Dead? Stories and series don’t just have audiences, they have fans. Part of that boils down to progression. Just as we grow and change, so do these ever-present characters. The Walking Dead comic is on, as of this writing, Do the stories end? Of course, but the characters will always exist.
Part of that perserverence comes from adaptability.