From Netflix’s corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the CW’s small empire of DC Comics-based series, there has never been a better time for live-action comic book shows on television. While live-action superhero shows used to be defined by the kid-friendly campiness of “Batman,” today’s broad range of comic-based series have earned critical acclaim and wild commercial success while proudly embracing their four-color roots.
While some comic-based shows like “Smallville” remained on the airwaves and in viewers' hearts for over a decade, others have left far less lasting impressions. Now, CBR is taking a look back at some of the more forgotten live-action shows based on comic books. For this list, we’ll be looking at shows that were adapted from or at least inspired by comics and lasted for at least one season.
15 Birds of Prey
In the wake of “Smallville’s” early success, “Birds of Prey” offered a new take on the Batman mythology for the WB in 2002. Over 13 episodes, the series followed a team of heroines, loosely based on DC’s team series “Birds of Prey,” as they protected a New Gotham City that had been abandoned by Batman. After Batgirl was left paralyzed by the Joker, Dina Meyer’s Barbara Gordon led the team as the computer expert known as Oracle. She trained Ashley Scott’s Helena Kyle, the daughter of Batman and the late Catwoman, who used her enhanced senses and reflexes to fight crime as the Huntress. The main trio was rounded out by Rachel Skarsten’s Dinah Redmond, a teenage runaway Black Canary who had precognitive abilities and limited telepathic powers.
While Alfred was a regular character, Batman and the Joker only made a few quick cameos. The series marked the first live-action appearances of Bat-villains like Lady Shiva, Clayface, and Harley Quinn, the show’s main villain played by Mia Sera. While the series had solid ratings at first, all but a handful of viewers left the show by the end of its first and only season.
14 Blade: The Series
Between the end of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the beginning of “True Blood,” “Blade: The Series” was the showcase for vampire action on television. Starting in 2006, “Blade” followed the continuity of the Marvel character’s successful film trilogy as one of the first original series for Spike TV. Over 13 episodes, the series followed Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones’ Blade and Jill Wagner’s newly vampiric Krista Starr as they fought the vampires of the House of Chthon.
With film scribe David S. Goyer and future DC Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns co-creating and writing scripts for the series, the show had the right ingredients for success and was a little bit ahead of its time. After the two-hour premiere drew high ratings, Jones and Wagner’s performances drew a decent amount of praise. While the show was a modest success, the young network canceled “Blade” after one season, due to the show’s expensive production.
13 Human Target
For a relatively obscure Len Wein and Carmine Infantino-created character, Christopher Chance has lucked his way into a surprising number of onscreen roles. In two shows based on the DC series “Human Target,” the bodyguard and private investigator has protected his clients by inserting himself into their lives. After an unaired pilot in 1990, Rick Springfield played Chance in ABC’s “Human Target” in 1992. Springfield’s Chance used masks to impersonate his clients over seven poorly-received episodes.
After an underrated comic revival from Vertigo, “Human Target” ran for two seasons on Fox starting in 2010. During 25 episodes, Mark Valley’s Chance became part of his clients’ lives instead of taking their place. With a strong supporting cast including Indira Varma, Chi McBride and Jackie Earl Haley, the moderately well-reviewed show received praise for its mix of light adventure and action, especially for its stunt choreography. More recently, Chance appeared on the CW’s “Arrow” earlier this year, played by “Jessica Jones’” Wil Traval.
12 Amazing Spider-Man
While Spider-Man’s 1970s live-action Japanese series has gained minor cult status in recent years, “The Amazing Spider-Man” has remained a footnote in the character’s history. After a TV movie in 1977, the series ran for 12 episodes over two seasons on CBS. While no traditional Spider-Man villains appeared, Nicholas Hammond’s Peter Parker had Spider-Man’s traditional origin and worked at the Daily Bugle for Robert F. Simon’s J. Jonah Jameson. Instead of drawing from Spider-Man’s many existing allies, the series used original characters like Chip Fields' Rita Conway, Michael Pataki's Captain Barbera and Ellen Bry's Julie Powers to round out the cast.
While the show was a ratings success, especially with younger audiences, CBS aired the program infrequently. Since they already broadcasted “The Incredible Hulk” and “Wonder Woman,” the network ultimately canceled the show to avoid being known as “the super-hero network.”Almost every episode of the series was stitched together with another to create a series of features that were theatrically released in some international markets, broadcast as TV movies in the United States, and later released on home video.
11 The Middleman
Before it was a comic book, Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine’s “The Middleman” was originally conceived as a television series. After Viper Comics published three miniseries based on the concept in the mid 2000s, “The Middleman” was brought to the small screen in 2008 on ABC Family. Over one season, this zany series followed Natalie Morales’ Wendy Watson, a starving artist who became the sidekick/apprentice to Matt Keeslar’s Middleman. As agents of the Middle Organization, the pair fought various bizarre threats like tentacle monsters and living ghosts.
Over one season of 12 episodes, “The Middleman” received significant critical acclaim and amassed a small cult following. Taking cues from the science heroes of the Silver Age, the show faithfully adapted its source material, complete with plenty of pop culture references. After the show’s early cancellation, an unused script became a graphic novel, “The Middleman: The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse.” After a successful IndieGoGo fund-raising campaign in 2014, the Middlemen of the show and the comic crossed over in “The Middleman: The Pan-Universal Parental Reconciliation."
10 Superboy/The Adventures of Superboy
Just in time for the 50th anniversary of Superman, “Superboy” premiered in syndication in 1988. After shepherding the Superman film franchise for a decade, the Salkinds produced 100 episodes of the series that chronicled Superman’s earlier days as a young hero and journalism student. While the series debuted shortly after Superboy had been erased from DC continuity, it featured regular contributions from comic writers like Mike Carlin, Cary Bates, and Denny O’Neil, and marked the first live-action appearances of characters like Bizarro, Metallo and Mr. Mxyzptlk.
After the show’s first season featured John Newton’s Superboy, Stacy Haiduk’s Lana Lang, and Scott Wells’ Lex Luthor in more character-focused stories, the second season brought in more comic book elements and recast Gerard Christopher as Superboy and Sherman Howard as Luthor. After being retitled “The Adventures of Superboy,” the last two seasons of the show followed Superboy and Lang as interns for the Bureau for Extra-Normal Matters and took on a darker tone. Legal entanglements between the Salkinds and Warner Bros. eventually forced the show off the air in 1992, largely to make way for “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” in 1993.
While most of the shows on the list have roots in American comics, “Jeremiah” found its loose inspiration in Hermann’s landmark Franco-Belgian series “Jeremiah.” While the world of the comic was torn apart by racial wars, the Showtime show’s world was ravaged by the Big Death, a plague that killed everyone over the age of 13. The series picked up 15 years later and followed Luke Perry’s Jeremiah and Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s Kurdy as they tried to help rebuild a world they barely remembered over 35 episodes, starting in 2002.
With its various human factions fighting for influence in a post-apocalyptic America, “Jeremiah” almost plays out like a zombie-less “The Walking Dead.” Developed for television by J. Michael Straczynski, the series’ two seasons were well-reviewed. After new Showtime executives came into power, the network made a broader move away from science-fiction programming. After the series was canceled, the premiere dates of the final episodes were stretched out, with almost a year passing between the last season’s two halves.
8 Painkiller Jane
Joe Quesada may be synonymous with Marvel Comics today, but he and Jimmy Palmiotti self-published their creator-owned characters under the Event Comics banner in the mid-1990s. One of those characters was Painkiller Jane, a police officer with remarkable regenerative abilities. While most of Jane’s most prominent roles came in crossovers with other established characters like Hellboy in the late 1990s, the Sci-Fi Channel tried to bring the character to the small screen twice.
In the 2005 TV movie, “Painkiller Jane,” Emmanuelle Vaugier starred as Jane Browning, a soldier who gained healing powers after being exposed to a biological weapon. After that movie’s success, a 22-episode series called “Painkiller Jane” premiered in 2007. The show completely disregarded the movie’s plot and starred Kristanna Loken as Jane Vasco, a D.E.A. agent with regenerative abilities. Lasting one season, the show followed Jane as she battled with super-powered “neurological aberrants." Despite that show’s tepid reviews, a “Painkiller Jane” feature film is in development, set to be directed by the Soska Sisters and star Jessica Chastain in the title role.
When the memory of Adam West’s Batman was still fresh, DC’s Captain Marvel made his live-action debut on “Shazam!” Running for three seasons starting in 1974, “Shazam!” offered kid-friendly adventures as part of CBS’ Saturday morning line-up. In the show, Michael Gray’s Billy Batson traveled “the highways and bi-ways of the land” looking for wrongs to right in an RV with Les Tremayne’s mystical Mentor. When the pair ran into trouble, Billy could transform into Captain Marvel, played by Jackson Bostwick and later John Davey, by saying “Shazam!”
Despite Captain Marvel’s lengthy history, the show didn’t feature any super-villains and was mainly concerned with teaching a moral of the week. After one season, the show was paired with Filmation’s live-action “The Secrets of Isis” to form “The Shazam!/Isis Hour.” Both characters crossed over into the other’s show on a few occasions. Isis also appeared in that era’s “Shazam” comic series, which had been reconfigured to mirror the show’s set-up with the established character Uncle Dudley in the Mentor role.
6 Night Man
Marvel’s only successful live-action television series during the 1990s came from one of its most unlikely corners, the Ultraverse. The Ultraverse was a moderately successful superhero line originally published by Malibu Comics. After Marvel bought Malibu in 1994, the Ultraverse was rebooted and published for a few years before Marvel ended the line early in 1997. Later that same year, “Night Man” offered a glimpse into a new iteration of that defunct universe,
Over two syndicated seasons, the series followed Matt McColm’s Night Man. After being struck by lightning while playing the saxophone in a cable car, Johnny Domino lost the ability to sleep and gained the ability to “hear the frequency of evil.” Armed with a bulletproof suit, an anti-gravity belt, an invisibility cloak, and a laser-generating mask, Domino fought crime as Night Man in this bizarre series. 44 episodes long, Night Man fought aliens, sorceresses and vampires, and even teamed-up with “Manimal.” While no other Malibu or Marvel characters appeared, the show, which ended in 1999, remains the most recent appearance of any characters from the Ultraverse, which has not been revisited in two decades for undisclosed reasons.
5 Perversions of Science
While the success of HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” can be difficult to remember today, the series was a juggernaut in the early-to-mid 1990s. After that show ended, HBO adapted another EC Comics title, the sci-fi anthology “Weird Science.” Since one of “Weird Science’s” stories had already been adapted into a feature film and a follow-up television series using the comic’s title, the new HBO series was called “Perversions of Science.”
Despite performances from sci-fi veterans like William Shatner, Ron Pearlman and Wil Wheaton, “Perversions of Science” failed to connect with audiences during its 10 episode run. Hosted by a female robot named Chrome, the show featured time travel, aliens and other robots in a host of stories that ran the tonal spectrum and featured HBO’s trademark explicit content. While Showtime had considerable success with its concurrent revival of “The Outer Limits,” this series was canceled after less than two months on the air.
4 Swamp Thing
After two wildly different Swamp Thing films in the 1980s, “Swamp Thing: The Series” ran for a remarkable 72 episodes in the early 1990s. After starring in the films, Dick Durock reprised his role as Swamp Thing for three seasons. The show’s first episodes saw Swamp Thing battle Mark Lindsay Chapman’s Dr. Arcane while protecting members of the Kipp family.
After the first half of the first season, the show’s producers soon decided that a darker tone would be more appropriate for the show, and the young Jim Kipp was abducted and sold into a child slavery ring. This darker tone would continue throughout the rest of the series as it dealt with more psychological themes and supernatural mysteries of the week. While this deeply weird show only received mixed reviews, it was a ratings success for the USA Network. Despite the show’s fairly low budget, Swamp Thing’s makeup and modulated voice were excellent for the time and remain effective today.
3 Harsh Realm
While “The Matrix” and a few other sci-fi properties would have great success exploring virtual worlds, “Harsh Realm” has a fascinating premise. In 1993, James Hudnall and Andrew Paquette created “Harsh Realm,” an underrated miniseries about searching for a missing person in a future virtual world, for Harris Comics. After the success of “The X-Files” and “Millennium,” Chris Carter developed a show loosely based on their original concept. After three episodes premiered on Fox in 1999 to tepid reviews and low ratings, the series moved to the cable network FX for its six remaining unaired episodes.
In Carter’s “Harsh Realm,” Scott Bairstow’s soldier Tom Hobbes was sent into a U.S. Army-built virtual world where a nuclear strike had taken out New York City. While this was originally used as a training simulation, Terry O’Quinn’s General Omar Santiago went rogue and took over the virtual world, which also had vague real-world ramifications. While the short-lived series featured Carter’s trademark brand of paranoid conspiracy, it seemed to hold loftier aspirations as his thesis on the role on conflict in human nature.
In the mid-to-late-1990s, “Witchblade” was the signature success of Top Cow Productions. Just as the character’s popularity crested, a TV movie based on the comic premiered on TNT in late 2000. Loosely based on the first eight issues of the comic series, the movie followed Yancy Butler’s Sara Pezzini, a N.Y.P.D. detective who unintentionally bonded with a mystical gauntlet called the Witchblade during a museum gunfight. The film was a ratings hit and garnered significant critical acclaim, especially for Butler’s performance.
After the success of the movie, “Witchblade,” the television series, premiered in 2001. With two seasons totaling 23 episodes, the show remained a moderate hit for the duration of its run. While the revealing outfit and more fantastic elements of the comic were absent, the show offered a reasonable, more realistic adaption of the comic series. While the Witchblade weapon of the comics had a large array of abilities and encased its bearer in organic armor, the show’s weapon, which looked like traditional medieval armor, was mainly used to block bullets, give Sara visions of the dead and control time.
1 Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation
After a decade starring in a successful cartoon series, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first and only live-action series lasted for only one poorly-reviewed season. In 1997, “Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation” premiered on the Fox Kids programming block. The series loosely followed the Turtles’ live-action film continuity, but didn’t include Turtle allies like April O’Neil and Casey Jones.
While Michelangelo used tonfa instead of his traditional nunchucks, the show’s biggest deviation from Turtles’ lore was the inclusion of Venus di Milo, a magic-wielding female fifth Turtle. With 26 serialized episodes, the show followed the Turtles’ ongoing adventures with Venus, who had been raised in seclusion after being transformed by the Ooze. Although this incarnation of the Turtles guest-starred in a few episodes of “Power Rangers in Space,” “The Next Mutation” was canceled due to the show’s high production costs. While the rest of the Turtles have gone on to star in multiple well-regarded television series, Venus di Milo has not appeared in any other Turtles-based media since the show’s series finale.
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