Why TV is home to more comic book heroes than ever before
When "Marvel's The Punisher" debuted on Netflix last month, it was greeted with high anticipation.
But it arrived as just one of many comic-book adaptations. "The Punisher" is the latest in a flood now comprising some 28 shows across nine broadcast, cable and streaming platforms, with no end in sight.
Granted, all comic-book shows aren't created equal. AMC's "The Walking Dead," beset by zombies, differs markedly from the teen adventures of Archie Andrews on The CW's "Riverdale" and from Amazon's superhero spoof "The Tick."
But the majority exist within either of two expansive brands.
One is DC, which (with the midseason arrival of "Black Lightning" on The CW) will be represented by nine shows on three networks. The other is Marvel with 13 shows arrayed on six outlets, chiefly Netflix.
That all adds up to more spandex get-ups than you'd find in an aerobics class. But before concluding that superheroes have taken over the small screen, it's worth noting a few things.
First, TV has always chased trends. Way back in Fall 1959, more than two dozen Westerns were airing on just three broadcast networks. That would dwarf the current slate of comic book shows as a percentage of the 500-odd scripted original prime-time series airing in 2017.
"Comics-related television series have always been a mainstay of television," says Paul Levinson, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University. "Now it may seem like they're all over the place. But that's because there's television all over the place."
Even so, an upsurge of comic-based shows the past few years is unmistakable. Consider The CW, where, without "Smallville" after a decade's run, no such shows were in its lineup in Fall 2011. But after a subsequent buildup, it will boast seven this season.
Along the way, comics-related movies proliferated, while in October 2010, "The Walking Dead" made clear that a comic-book property could be a TV smash.
By then, the CGI (computer graphics imagery) that any superhero show requires had become more sophisticated yet sufficiently affordable for weekly TV productions. Meanwhile, the launch of more and more channels, especially streaming platforms, signaled an ever-escalating need to create content.
"With this extraordinary appetite for source material, decades of comic books offered material just waiting to be plucked," says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture.
But none of this accounts for the apparently insatiable hunger for these shows with which the audience receives them.
"All of it, on some level, is escapism," explains Brett Rogers, classics professor at the University of Puget Sound. "If I'm watching 'Jessica Jones' for an hour, I'm not dealing with some real thing in my life. But the flip side is that comic-book-inspired shows can be spaces for thinking through some serious questions: 'Jessica Jones' is an opportunity to explore sexual violence and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The comic book industry famously has had to fight the stigma of being for just for children and idiots," he says. But as gifted "kids" like Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith came of age and made waves by nurturing a comics ethos across multiple media including TV, comics gained new gravitas, respect and urgency.
"It's now being normalized as shared myth of mainstream culture," Rogers said.
Such shows, like the comics that spawned them, can offer welcome moral clarity in a confounding world.
"It's much easier to identify the heroes and villains, the good guys vs. the bad guys, than it is on other television shows," says Levinson. "And, by and large, the good characters and heroes endure and triumph over adversity."
"These characters were created as morality tales. They have a primal appeal, a simple appeal," says Glen Weldon, a panelist on NPR's "Pop Culture Happy Hour" podcast and author of "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography."
"They represent our best selves."
And thanks to the internet, the appreciation of these comic-book heroes, whether they exist on the page or the screen, can now be enjoyed as a communal experience.
How long will the craze last?
"It may ebb as well as flow," says Thompson, "but I don't think there's any reason to believe that this genre will exhaust itself as others have done, or that viewers will get tired of it. It's such a versatile genre."