The award-winning comic book “Y the Last Man” has a Hollywood saga possibly more epic even than its actual story. The graphic novel, which chronicles the story of the only man left alive after a brutal plague kills everyone else with a Y chromosome, was created by writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Pia Guerra in 2002 and was first optioned for a feature adaptation in 2007. Over the ensuing years, it’s bounced around in development hell in no shortage of incarnations (from a film trilogy to a stand-alone feature); a hell which might be close to ending as of yesterday, when The Hollywood Reporter revealed FX would be working with Vaughn to adapt the property for television.
It’s easy to see the move as FX going after the lucrative post-apocalyptic horror genre popularized by “The Walking Dead,” but it also speaks to where the industry currently stands and why graphic novel adaptations are better served by TV, rather than film.
Whether or not you believe there’s “too much TV” right now, the fact remains networks and platforms are still thirsty for new shows, especially from the rich well of comics properties. Sony Playstation adapting Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s “Powers” as its first original scripted series probably serves as the perfect example there. But the way that darker themes and subjects on TV have been embraced in recent years means that the comics being developed for television are increasingly more mature thematically.
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Beyond this new infant form of “Y,” notable adaptations on the horizon include AMC’s “Preacher” (written by Garth Ennis, art by Steve Dillon) and Netflix’s “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” (based on “Alias,” written by Brian Michael Bendis, art by Michael Gaydos). There are also new rumors that “Watchmen,” the game-changing post-modern superhero series created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, may actually find its way to television as an HBO miniseries. (This would be karmic justice for the not-so-great 2009 film adaptation, tempered only by the fact that Zack Snyder — who directed said film — would be involved in the series.)
And there’s real potential for all of these projects, because of the way that — when it comes to storytelling — comics and television share a great deal of DNA. For one thing, the language we use to describe comics is awfully similar to television. It’s “titles” instead of “shows,” and “issues” instead of “episodes,” but otherwise the rhythms match elegantly. There’s even the same concept of limited series versus ongoing series and canceling titles based on poor performance.
When it comes to structuring the number of installments, styles vary. There aren’t a lot of anthology-style series like “American Horror Story” to point to in the comic book world. (“Watchmen,” or Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight” series might be the best example.) But the way that characters will migrate between different “X-Men” comics will feels pretty familiar to anyone who’s ever watched “CSI” or “Chicago Fire,” where characters would constantly shift between episodes. And whether you’re waiting a month for new issues or a week for new episodes, the rhythm remains the same.
There are classic “graphic novel” graphic novels — stories published all at once, not serialized — but by far, most of the truly iconic comics ever created were originally released sequentially. However, while the first introduction of these stories might come in the form of individual issues, the way they are packaged and archived for secondary distribution is the classic trade paperback compiling multiple issues, comprising complete story arcs. Sounds kinda like Netflix or Amazon releasing a season at a time, right? Or a DVD box set? (Kids, DVD box sets are how we used to binge-watch TV shows, before Netflix.)
There’s something fundamentally key to the art of sequential storytelling that makes these two mediums feel well-paired. Witness TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The X-Files” launching comic runs that, in theory, “officially” continue the shows from the screen back to print — referred to, at the time, as “Buffy Season 8” and “The X-Files: Season 10.”
In case you were wondering — since we brought it up — the first “X-Files: Season 10” comic was published in 2013 with the involvement of series creator Chris Carter, two years before the concept of a revival became possible. But at New York Comic Con last week, according to Indiewire’s Ben Travers, Carter said that the comics would not count as part of the continuity leading into the six-episode 2016 series.
That represents the industry mentality, at this point, to approaching franchises that span multiple media, across both film and television. With the exception of the at times too sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, executives and creators don’t like to make audiences feel like they have to consume every possible facet of a property in order to understand what the hell’s going on. One of the biggest changes for “Star Wars,” post-Disney acquisition, was an essential nuking of the Expanded Universe, simplifying the “Star Wars” empire to the original films and a handful of TV properties.
But it’s not always an executive decision. Take a look at AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” which has been a huge show for the spread of genre storytelling, not to mention the mainstream acceptance of comics as a source material for quality television. But its fidelity as an adaption of the original comic book (which is still ongoing) has waned pretty dramatically over the ensuing seasons. Creator Robert Kirkman, at this point, approaches the two strands of his franchise as completely separate narrative experiences, as he revealed at this year’s SXSW. “I want people who read the comics to watch the show and be surprised,” he said.
Knowing all of this is part of why I understand not to expect scene-by-scene recreations of my favorite graphic novels; why I know they’re all being reworked to stand as individually as possible from the source material. But with properties like “Y the Last Man,” “Preacher” and “Alias (Jessica Jones),” ideally the source material will be used as more than a jumping-off point because they represent complete narratives rich with seasons’ worth of ideas.
No matter how the series mentioned above perform, comics will remain a fundamental inspiration point for television — certainly as long as “Arrow”/”The Flash”/”Supergirl” super-producer Greg Berlanti draws breath, anyway. But with these series mentioned above, there’s real hope that the motivations for adapting them go beyond the money and/or sellable premises. For example, the ultra-violent and maybe blasphemous “Preacher” — about as unfriendly a concept to advertisers as you could ever hope to see on a basic cable network — seems to be riding the tidal wave of producers Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Sam Catlin’s passion for the project. (Hell, they kept in a character named Arseface, so signs are good that they’re not pulling punches.)
None of these comics are perfect. Like nearly every story told sequentially, there are ebbs and flows in the action, creative choices made that creators might look back on with regret. But it’s all part of the same high-wire act that makes episodic television so exciting, when it succeeds.
Thanks to Rudy Jahchan, Asa Shumskas-Tait, Jeff Stone and Jesse Vigil for their insight in developing this piece.