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The Best TV Shows Based on Comic Books, Manga, and Graphic Novels — IndieWire Critics Survey

TV critics weigh in on the best TV series that started out as compelling artwork and storytelling on the page.

Comic Book TV Shows: "Tales From the Dark Side," "Supergirl" and "Batman: The Animated Series"

“Tales From the Crypt,” “Supergirl” and “Batman: The Animated Series”

Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock, The CW, Warner Bros.

IWCriticsPick

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: What is the best TV show based on a comic book, manga or graphic novel? Any current, older, live-action or animated show is fair game.

Erik Adams (@EricMAdams), A.V. Club

“Batman” (1966) spent the better part of the past 50 years as the candy-colored punching bag for the “Biff!”s and “Pow!”s of those aiming to “protect” the character’s integrity — which is to say fans whose sole perception of the Caped Crusader is a tortured loner threatening the criminals of Gotham City through clenched teeth. I know, because I used to be one of them, someone who’d have reflexively answered this question with “‘Batman: The Animated Series,’ duh,” because that show was so much truer to the superhero created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in the 1930s. But the Adam West-Burt Ward series is also true to the comics, reflective of the Dynamic Duo’s zanier adventures in the ’50s and ’60s. And though it might seem like kids’ stuff compared to subsequent TV adaptations like “B: TAS” or “Gotham,” the ’66 series is adult and sophisticated in its own way, a primetime artifact elevating the stuff of funny pages and matinee serials to the level of pop art. To truly love Batman is to accept the character’s many faces, and now that I’ve come to grips with that, my favorite of those faces is the one I used to watch in cable reruns at the same Bat-time on the same Bat-channel.

Gail Pennington (@gailpennington), St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Comic book and superhero adaptations are so not my genre, I almost skipped this week’s question. Then I remembered, well, “The Walking Dead,” to which I was devoted through Season 4 (yes, even at the farm) before realizing it had forgotten what made it good and bailing out. So, back to no answer, but — “Legion.” Unexpectedly, I was riveted by “Legion” even when I had no clue what was going on. (That was the point, wasn’t it?) It was gorgeous and surreal and funny and starred Matthew Crowley (I mean, Dan Stevens) and felt like a weekly LSD trip with no mental or legal repercussions. But I think I liked “Legion” more for its adaptation by Noah Hawley than because of its checkered comic book past.

"Inuyasha"

Melanie McFarland (@McTelevision), Slate

I suspect “Batman the Animated Series” will be a popular answer, as well as the excellent “Justice League Unlimited.” Both remain favorites of mine. However, my heart will always belong to the animated version of “The Tick,” one of the few series worth waking up for on Saturday mornings. A lot of people loved Patrick Warburton in the first live-action version, and I’m cautiously optimistic about Amazon’s reboot. But some aspects of The Tick and Arthur’s adventures probably wouldn’t translate terribly well to a real world setting, so I’m tempted to stick with the old cartoon.

A close second place goes to “Inuyasha” — you know, just your basic “girl falls down well and meets half-demon dog boy” adventure. My husband and I were addicted to this anime series when it aired on Adult Swim and became unreasonably invested (for 30-something adults, anyway) in the will they/won’t they dance between Inuyasha and Kagome, as well as the handsy flirtation between their traveling companions Sango, a demon hunter, and Miroku, a perpetually horny monk. Eventually we lost track of the plot, but its always fun to re-watch some of the show’s earliest episodes when we come across them.

James Poniewozik (@poniewozik), New York Times

If we’re including specials based on comic strips — and I’ve unilaterally decided that I am — “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is one of the finest works of art TV has produced. It took a simple commercial cash-in idea (make a holiday special out of “Peanuts” comics) and created a distinct work that captured the spirit of the comics without simply copying them. Charles Schulz’s work dealt in moods and themes that were rare in comic strips, like melancholy, loneliness, and the search for meaning. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” managed to re-create that for 1960s kids’ TV, in part thanks to the indispensable Vince Guaraldi soundtrack. I know the overt Christianity of the show, especially Linus’ scriptural monologue, makes some people feel left out: speaking as an atheist Jew, I think it’s the kind of specificity that makes good stories work.

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

I read this week’s question out to my boyfriend who said: “’Batman the Animated Series’ — there are no other answers.” Boom!

"Batman"

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx

We live in not just Peak TV, but Peak Comic Book TV, with more adaptations of comic book characters both beloved (the Flash) and obscure (Legion) than my adolescent mind could have once dreamed. Most of the current ones are flawed in some way — Netflix’s Marvel shows all start dragging about halfway through each season, the CW’s Berlanti-verse shows have a tendency to lean on angst above all else, “Legion” is more style than substance (but what style!), “iZombie” tends to have too much plot while “Preacher” doesn’t always have enough — but there’s one to scratch nearly any kind of fan itch.

Of the current comic adaptations, “Legion” is my favorite, even though I hope the characters become a bit deeper in Season 2. But when we’re talking all-time, I have to go with Batman — twice. The reputation of the ’60s “Batman” series with Adam West has been on quite the journey over the past 50 years. It started as a beloved camp classic, then was shunned for decades as somehow being an embarrassment to the name of a character whose underground headquarters has a gigantic penny in it as a souvenir from a case — to the point where Batman comics and movies became almost absurdly grim ‘n gritty to try to scrub away any taint of the Batusi — and more recently has been praised again by adults who recognize not only that there can be many different flavors of the Caped Crusader, but that this particular show knew exactly what it was doing. It was a marvelous Pop Art blend of self-aware comedy, social satire, and genuinely sincere heroics, all of it anchored by a fantastic performance by West, who thankfully got to see the show’s reputation rehabilitated decades later. (He lived long enough to become the hero in his own story.) That version of Batman hasn’t been a model point for most modern comic book shows — other than the brilliant-but-canceled ABC Family comedy “The Middleman,” which was the right show at the wrong time on the wrong network — but all these years later, it still plays.

And while the trend in live-action comic book adaptations is still relatively new, animated ones never really went away, with great takes on Spider-Man, the X-Men, and others. But the best also involves the Dark Knight: the early ’90s “Batman: The Animated Series,” which managed to be all things to all Bat-fans: fine viewing for kids and adults alike, moody and atmospheric and serious, but never pushed too far, and with room for much lighter characters like Harley Quinn, who proved so popular on the show, she was quickly written into the comic book universe. There have been plenty of cartoon takes on Batman since (including the delightful “Batman: The Brave & The Bold,” which owed its own debt to Adam West and friends), but this was perhaps the most faithful and satisfying superhero screen adaptation ever.

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

I still remain blown away by the fact that one of my all-time favorite comics, Brian Michael Bendis’s “Alias,” was translated to the screen so well. “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” got so very much right from the very beginning, such as the pitch perfect casting, including Krysten Ritter perfectly capturing Jessica’s trauma, sarcasm and strength and David Tennant as the dangerous yet charismatic Kilgrave. In addition, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg managed to find just the right tone, keeping the series grounded in the emotional journey of her protagonist while also weaving in some quality humor and atmospheric noir components to make the series stand out amongst the darker superhero offerings of late. We’re looking forward to the upcoming “Defenders,” of course, but “Jessica Jones” Season 2 is already one of my most anticipated series of 2018.

"Supergirl"

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

Oh god, is this what a parent feels like when they say “I love all my children equally”? Because I so want to answer that way. But that would be boring and since we’re discussing comic-book shows, boring will not fly. Unlike “Supergirl,” which totally soars, as far as pure comic-book adaptations go (how about that segue?!). It’s fun and colorful and inspirational and exciting, just like the actual DC Comics publications (especially lately) and you couldn’t ask for a better Kara Zor-El than Melissa Benoist, whose charm is almost as powerful as her Krypton-powered heroine. In the flat-out comic-book category, first runner-up has to go to “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” also the most-improved series drawn from the racks in its second season. The massive cast gelled, the superteam storylines made more sense and there was a looser, funnier energy to this season than it’s still-finding-itself first year. Also, like “Supergirl,” it wisely avoided the sophomore season darkness that often invades hero shows and for that, we’re all better off. When it comes to non-superhero comics-based programs, I give it to “Preacher” for maintaining the rockabilly sensibility and comedic scariness of of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Vertigo books. Plus, the Dominic Cooper casting was just spot-on.

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

I haven’t really cheated on a question for a couple weeks, but this once is almost impossible. I don’t watch enough of the animated shows based on comics. When I was a kid, animated shows were based on toys, darnit. And in my mind, the comic adaptations of my childhood are pretty unimpeachable, but am I prepared to say that “The Incredible Hulk” and “Wonder Woman” would be as good if I watched them today? No, I am not. The original “Batman” deserves an incredible amount of credit for choosing a tone and owning it, for way-ahead-of-the-curve visuals and ridiculously great guest stars, so perhaps it holds up and deserves the top place. But we’re in the golden age of good-not-great superhero TV. So all praise to the feminist moxie of “Supergirl,” the feminist badassery of much of “Jessica Jones,” the political consciousness of the first two-thirds of “Luke Cage,” the murky moralism of much of “Daredevil,” the stuntwork on “Arrow,” the levity of the first season of “The Flash,” the ensemble spirit of “iZombie” and the often stunning production design and cinematography on “Gotham.” I also want to at least mention “The Middleman” and the original “The Tick” and the gone-too-soon “Agent Carter.” If that sounds like too much cheating, let me narrow it down. The best TV show based on a comic book, manga or graphic novel is: Anything but “Iron Fist.”

"Young Justice"

Ernie Estrella (@ernieestrella), Monsters & Critics

To pick one is very tough when you consider some of the earliest serial anime like “Speed Racer” or “Mazinger Z” that first made it to the States. Then you have the 1967 “Spider-Man” cartoon, which basically put in motion Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s comics and became a touchstone for so many.

“Batman: The Animated Series” was pure art and created a new standard, but when I think about high-level serial storytelling, action, and surprising twists I have to go with “Young Justice” because it starts out as a Teen Titans-like story where the sidekicks of the larger-than-life heroes like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Lantern etc., get center stage.

These younger heroes wind up proving to be just as awesome, whether they be men, women or aliens, overcoming character flaws and some killer villains. In the long game, each episode builds on the previous one and creates a tapestry of leveled storytelling that’s filled with intrigue, mystery, duplicity, and stories where multiple generations of one character, whether it be Flash, Blue Beetle, or Robin share the same screen often.

Visually, it’s a lot to manage, but “Young Justice” is one of the few modern cartoons that did not hold the viewers’ hands, but instead challenged its audience. Fans cried outrage when it was canceled many years ago, but a resurgence in streaming has justified a third, upcoming season sometime in 2018 (the presumed release date could come out of Comic-Con International) at its new home on Netflix.

"Tales From the Crypt"

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com

If this were just based on the first season, I’d say “Daredevil,” but I’m still exhausted by how unnecessarily overstuffed Season 2 was. So I’ll go with something that never disappointed me: “Tales from the Crypt.” I’ve never read the comics (or any comic for that matter) and I was probably too young to have been watching it, but my twisted little mind loved it. It was macabre, darkly comedic, outright scary and wholly satisfying — and I’m hardly a huge horror buff. I’m kinda glad M. Night Shyamalan’s reboot is dead (heh), because why mess with perfection? Related: I’m pretty sure I have the Crypt Keeper to thank for my love of puns.

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

The real answer to this question is probably some animated Japanese series I’ve never seen. (That I haven’t gotten into anime is a genuine regret of mine.) But as it stands, I think I’ll say “Batman: The Animated Series,” with a close runner-up going to “Justice League Unlimited.” These animated trips to the DC universe were grand and Gothic and dark, but also willing to go a little silly if need be. In short, they balanced the many tones of the DC universe with aplomb, without breaking a sweat. It’s something that even Christopher Nolan struggled to do consistently, and for me, some of the definitive takes on some of these characters (at least in TV or movies) come courtesy of these series.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Answering honestly, I’d have to go with “Batman: The Animated Series” and the live-action “Tick,” but since both of those have gotten their due above, let’s throw a little love to a show right up there in terms of nostalgic pics that stand up: “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” Melissa Joan Hart’s ABC sitcom was based on an Archie Comics’ series of the same name, which inspired the adventures of Sabrina (Hart), her two aunts, Hilda (Caroline Rhea) and Zelda (Beth Broderick), and everyone’s favorite talking cat, Salem (voiced by Nick Bakay). Salem is the reason just yesterday I shared a video with my co-workers of a talking cat meant for much more mature audiences, and Sabrina not only provided my predilection for liking all things Boston, but also ruined any negative connotation I had regarding witches. That’s a slight divergence from the comic book, and I’m sure someone out there has written better analyses on how “Sabrina” usurped stereotypes, but as far as meaningful adaptations go, this one is right up there for a lot of ’90s kids.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Twin Peaks” (four votes)

Other contenders: “Game of Thrones” (three votes), “The Bold Type,” “Broadchurch,” “The Carmichael Show,” “GLOW,” “Orphan Black” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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"Batman: The Animated Series"

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