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Friday at the Network Upfronts

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday at the Network Upfronts

So I gather Rob Thomas is in talks to continue his canceled television show, Veronica Mars, as a DC comic book.

I was, let us say, less excited than some of my fellow Veronica fans to hear this.

This is not to say that Julie and I don’t love Veronica Mars. We think it’s an amazingly good TV show.

All the preview and publicity material, sadly, make it look like Dawson’s Creek or The O.C. or something, which is thoroughly annoying. What it really is at its core is a classic noir hard-boiled mystery story. Layered, smart and funny… if I HAD to give you a one-sentence description of it, for those of you who haven’t seen it, it would be “Nancy Drew solves murder mysteries in Raymond Chandler’s southern California,” complete with all the dirty secrets and corruption that implies. Veronica Mars’ Neptune is an even nastier town than Philip Marlowe’s Bay City, and that’s saying something.

BUT– and this is a big ‘but’ — I don’t think it would work as a 22-page comic book. I think it’s too complex a show and it depends too much on the actors inhabiting the roles, and –the key issue for me — it’s not really visual enough. If Veronica were to be transferred to another medium I think a prose novel would be better. Better for the first-person narration and lots of room to tell a long complex Ross MacDonald-type mystery story.

It did start me thinking, though. What television shows DO deserve to continue as comics?

Honestly, if you pinned me to the wall and tickled my feet, I’d say that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was not one of them. I know that’s really the one that got everyone thinking about the possibilities for continuing canceled TV shows as comic books, and I did look at the first four-issue arc; but I just didn’t think it was All That. Sorry, Buffy faithful.

Despite an okay script from Buffy’s creator Joss Whedon and some really nice art from Georges Jeanty, I think this one has to fall under the heading of ‘interesting failure.’ Mostly because by season seven on television, the show itself had strayed so far from its original premise that it really WAS time for it to be retired. Compare bad-ass one-eyed Xander up there in the illustration with the lovable nerd Xander who was on the show for most of its run, and you see the problem. Buffy worked best when it was showing the horrors of high school in parallel with the horrors of, well, actual supernatural horror… and high school came off scarier. This ‘season 8’ Buffy is more like “SHIELD goes underground to fight demons and has to fight Checkmate instead.” Okay, but why bother to even try to call it Buffy the Vampire Slayer? A series that started as being about the horror of high school and morphed into a series about the horror of youth is now, suddenly, a series about supernatural espionage. It’s a little too jarring for me.

A much better Whedon television candidate for this treatment, if you ask me, is Firefly. Or Serenity, if you insist; we still call it Firefly around the house here, though.

As a science-fiction spacegoing series, it’s much more visual than other television shows, there’s a rabid fan base –not large enough to support a TV series or a movie franchise, but in comics those same numbers are boffo box office — and the previous Dark Horse series was a huge hit and the trade is doing really well. A lot of the writing talent being trumpeted as coming back to do Buffy comics also worked on Firefly, you know. And, most importantly of all, there’s not nearly as much existing material. The storytelling ground’s not all trampled yet. There are dozens of Buffy comics, about a hundred Buffy novels, seven seasons’ worth of television episodes, and that’s not even counting its spin-off franchise Angel, which is similarly burdened with tie-in stuff. But Firefly only has 13 television episodes, a three-issue comics series, and a movie. Lots of stories left there.

Buffy season 8 got all the publicity, but it certainly isn’t the first time anyone’s tried this with a TV show that got canceled. If you don’t count Star Trek — and I don’t really, that’s kind of its own phenomenon — I think the most successful comics rebirth of a television show in terms of sales was probably The Green Hornet.

The trouble is, it wasn’t very good. The premise of following three generations of Green Hornets from the 1930’s to the present was without question a great idea — the fault lay in the execution. (When I snarl at Justice League fans about hanging in there way too long with a book that you know in your heart is bad, I know what I’m talking about, damn it. Green Hornet broke my heart over and over, and I know I wasn’t alone.) This was a huge hit for Now Comics; it spun off all sorts of one-shots and mini-series and stuff with an amazing array of cover artists like Dave Dorman, Neal Adams, Steve Rude, Bill Sienkiewicz… but once you got past the covers, it all went to hell. Our other Greg already spelled out why in detail here, so there’s no point in rehashing it.

Many of us kept buying it anyway, though, because we so desperately wanted to see the character succeed, and Chuck Dixon did some nice work there for a while… but in the end, I think you’d have to call this one a failure too. Nevertheless, I think the Green Hornet could still work for comics, and I think it’s been long enough since Now’s version. Dynamite is doing a (I can’t resist) bang-up job with the Lone Ranger — why not the Lone Ranger’s great-nephew?

Another TV continuation I wish DC, or someone, would put out again was their sequel to The Prisoner.

This was another effort, like Buffy, where time and distance from the original helped a lot; there were quite a few of us ready for more, in any form we could get it. The nice thing about The Prisoner, the television show, is that it ‘ended’ in such a freakishly weird and incomprehensible manner that you really could go in any direction with it. Motter and Askwith did a sort of “The Prisoner: the Next Generation” riff which, while not entirely successful, was nevertheless fun and certainly the book was a treat to LOOK at. I don’t know that we need any more of it, but I’d like to see this book back in print again, as long as we’re on the subject.

Speaking of smart eccentric British television shows, isn’t it about time to revisit this particular comics version of one?

Come on, everyone loves The Avengers, even if those stuffed-shirts at Marvel’s legal department won’t let them call the comic book that. A trade collection of the Eclipse/Acme book at the very least, and why not some more new stuff while we’re at it? I don’t know if Grant Morrison has the time or the inclination to do any more, but Anne Caulfield’s scripts for the series were just as good. What’s she up to these days?

Another good candidate for a comics-from-film continuation looks like it might finally be happening, though I haven’t actually seen the book yet.

Buckaroo Banzai always struck me as one of the best comic-book movies ever, even if it didn’t technically come from a comic. Moonstone’s got a reasonably good track record in the cult-television-continued genre so far with their Kolchak: the Night Stalker book; so this certainly would be something worth taking a chance on, I think.

Some shows actually worked way better AS comics.

Mutant X wasn’t a very good show, but Marvel put out a couple of entertaining tie-in comics.

Not anything terribly innovative or brilliant, but solidly fun ways to kill a half-hour, and much better scripted than the show. The only downside is that the comic-art depictions of the cast aren’t nearly as good-looking eye candy.

“But, Greg,” I hear some of you grumbling. “Those are all shows and movies that got comics already. What about other shows that got canceled too soon, should be continued, and would make good comic-book stories? That haven’t been done? That’s what you said you were going to talk about.”

All right. Let’s review. A TV-to-comics transition should have several requirements. It should be…

Visual. I know that seems stupid to even bring up, but on the other hand, DC’s talking about doing Veronica Mars: which was never really an action show and had no fantasy elements. It was mostly people talking, layered with introspective narration and reflection, with occasional bouts of sneaking around and sometimes some running. Once in a while someone threw a punch. On TV, with charismatic actors delivering snappy dialogue, you can get away with that. In comics it would read as glacially slow, even if the likenesses in the art are good enough to evoke the original cast ‘saying’ the words for readers.

For comics, especially an ongoing series, you don’t necessarily need fights, or even ‘action’ in the traditional sense– but you need stuff for the artist to draw. Movement. Scenery. A variety of people and things. The dingy sun-baked look of Veronica Mars, with actors confronting each other in scenes laden with emotional tension, made for a terrific daytime-noir look on TV but I think it would be too monotonous for comics. Comic book stories need to be more visually varied.

Largely Plot-Driven. Because the art has to carry its share of the storyteling, you need plot-driven stories. So this requirement translates into something a little more action-oriented. Something that requires the protagonists to move, be physical, perform a variety of actions. Again, not necessarily fighting, but at least moving and doing stuff.

Simple. That’s not the same thing as “simple-MINDED.” But 22 pages of comics is NOT equivalent to 45 minutes of film. It’s just not. So what you want is something that can be put across almost as well in a sketch as in a painting, if that analogy makes sense. You need to keep the basic structure, the foundation the series rests on, reasonably simple.

Remember, that’s not a perjorative. Lots of complex stories are built on a simple premise. Ahab chases the white whale. Project Wildfire tries to cure an alien disease. Mulder and Scully investigate weird shit. And so on. Accessible.

Nerd Appeal. Sorry, but let’s be serious — who else is going to buy these things on a monthly basis from a comics shop? The biggest thing DC’s Veronica Mars has going for it — if it happens — is that there’s a fair amount of overlap between fans of the show and regular comics fans. Thus shows like Battlestar Galactica or Supernatural have a much better chance as a monthly comic book than, say, Law and Order: SVU. (Although IDW’s success with CSI may prove me wrong there, I dunno. It can be argued, I suppose.) But I think your chances for success go way up if it’s something that comics folks are probably already into, something in the SF/fantasy/action-adventure milieu. I suspect our colleague Joe Rice was thinking of this when he sneered that “comics is where mediocre TV goes to die,” but on the other hand, mediocre TV — even BAD TV — can still translate into good comics with the right creative team. Genre stuff doesn’t automatically equal bad work, and comics have often done it very well.

Bearing those things in mind, what TV shows would make good candidates for comics?

Here’s one that I think would be obvious. Hell, the star of this one already has two successful comics properties that I know of.

Fun show, simple premise, and hey, the guy even has a costume and a secret identity.

Bruce Campbell may be too much of a gimme, though. And he DOES already have comics that he sort of stars in.

Here’s another costumed swashbuckler, that I thought was a fun exercise that I wish somebody’d do something with: Queen of Swords. It really annoys me that the comapny that did this show had much bigger success with Mutant X and Andromeda when this was the best of the three: Queen of Swords only ran one season and didn’t even get a DVD release. A comic book doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Probably too close to Lady Rawhide for comics, though, and Dynamite’s reviving that one along with Zorro. So maybe not. What else?

When we first started kicking around the Veronica Mars comic idea here I opined that I thought Dark Angel would make a hell of a lot better comic. I still think so. And it only ran two seasons; Veronica got three.

There are three novels by Max Allan Collins that pretty well wrapped up the show’s dangling plot threads, though. Although there’s no rule that says you still couldn’t tell more stories. Still, there WAS a wrapup of sorts. What about cult-following shows that just got arbitrarily cut off, no DVD, no novels, no nothing?

I can think of two right off the bat. (Actually you can just go down the Fox Network cancellation list and find a half-dozen; these are just my top two.)

Those of us that used to watch Firefly on Friday night also were watching John Doe. And us poor John Doe fans never got a big-budget movie wrapping up the story… the goddamned thing even ended on a cliffhanger. What WAS the reason John knew everything about everything except who he was? And was William Forsythe’s character really the master villain behind it all? I’m still wondering. I can’t be the only one.

There was action, an interesting fantasy hook, an ongoing conspiracy-mystery, and it ended way too soon. It might be a little too talky for a good comic book, but it could be tweaked a little. This could work as a tough Wildstorm/Vertigo kind of book, something like Planetary.

And, most recently, Fox cut off Drive after four episodes. That hurt.

Again, there were a lot of people from Team Whedon involved with this show, Tim Minear especially, and he’s a comics-lovin’ guy. I bet he’d be open to the idea and I think they’d be able to make it work as a comic. There are some skeptics who might think that a story about an illegal road race isn’t a good fit for comics, but it could be pulled off with the right artist.

After all, Hot Wheels was a comic, for crying out loud, and that had less of a premise than Drive. Alex Toth is no longer with us, of course, but I think there have to be other creators out there that could make a road-race comic feasible.

Really going back a few years now, but Julie and I have been watching the complete set on DVD, and it occurred to me that The Rat Patrol would make a hell of a great comic.

Just for the hell of it I looked it up, and it WAS a comic, albeit a very short-lived one. I would be so all over this if someone tried it again — and really it could work as a straight adaptation to comics, this show was a half-hour action drama. Twenty-five minutes of action would translate pretty well to a 22-page comic. And the show really was pure adrenaline most of the time: four tough guys vs. the Nazi horde in North Africa 1943. This is a brilliant Chuck Dixon book waiting to happen, I’m telling you.

Anyway. I could go on and on. There are lots of comic-book premises out there in TV land. Hell, Kenneth Johnson’s CliffHangers! practically WAS a comic-book show.

In fact, the middle segment, The Secret Empire, about a tough cowboy trying to thwart an alien invasion in the days of the old West, is a premise screaming to be a comic book. It may even have already been one. You could give that one to Chuck Dixon too (unless he’s doing Rat Patrol. I’d rather have that.)

Anyway. That’s my list. Feel free to play at home. I’m sure you all could come up with a list of your own… and they’d probably make better monthly comics than Veronica Mars. If you’re going to do it, DC, do it right and pick a show that will work in your format.

See you next week.

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