16 Comic Book Series or Graphic Novels That Someone Should Consider Turning Into a Movie or Television Show (Or, If They Have, Should Hurry Up and Do It Already)
1. Hard Time
The pitch: The Shawshank Redemption meets Smallville
Anyone who’s been in a movie theatre in the past decade can tell you there have been more than a few movies based on comic-book characters, and not just the more obvious ones, either. And the proliferation of small-screen series with a comic-book bent to them (Smallville, Heroes, No Ordinary Family) suggests TV producers are keen to get in on the adaptation action as well. Lucky for them there’s still plenty of good source material to choose from. It’s just a shame they seem to be taking a pass on some of the more intriguing titles out there. Case in point: Hard Time, a 2004 series about a 15-year-old boy sent to a maximum-security prison for his role in a Columbine-style school shooting. Entertainment Weekly said it’s “like Oz meets My So-Called Life,” but I must have missed the episode where Claire Danes’ consciousness manifests itself as a being of pure energy that slips out at night to save lives. That metaphorical weirdness aside (“they can imprison my body,” etc.), Hard Time is a fascinating character study, allowing its players plenty of space to strut their stuff, from the young Ethan Harrow to crotchety lifer Curly to damaged shooting victim Alyssa to transgendered inmate Cindy, who would likely be the role of a lifetime for an actor eager to chart new territory (I’m thinking a post-Glee Chris Colfer looking for something a little more dramatic would jump at something like this).
The pitch: Heroes meets The Greatest American Hero (notice a theme…?)
Back in the ’60s, Dial H for Hero was a strip in DC’s House of Mystery that epitomized all that was gloriously goofy about the Silver Age: young fellow with alliterative name (Robbie Reed) finds a strange object with the letters H-E-R-O on it and uses it to turn himself into all kinds of superheroes (the idea was revived briefly in the ’80s, with readers invited to send in their ideas for new superhero names and costumes). It was a cute concept, but for obvious Code-related reasons the series never went too deep or dark. This 2003 update rectified that, asking questions and exploring themes the earlier stories could never touch. What would it feel like to gain awesome powers in an instant? How would you know what you’re supposed to do with them? What if you could step outside of your life and follow your own rules? How far would you go to hold on to something that can literally make you fly? As the 22-issue series progressed, the people whose lives are touched by the device start to come together for one final battle… and while we never find out where the device came from or how it does its thing, there’s a real “the power was inside you all along” vibe to the series that should be catnip to TV producers looking for the next geek-cult hit. Plus, if the series takes off, think of all the merchandising opportunities; why, the number of potential action figures alone…
3. Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld
The pitch: Harry Potter meets Game of Thrones meets your mother’s jewelry box
Let’s see now. Thirteen-year-old girl discovers she’s not human after all, but the princess of an other-dimensional realm, a magical place where the 12 ruling houses each possess a gemstone (amethyst, sardonyx, opal, etc.) as their totem. And she was sent to Earth as a baby to protect her from an evil guy who wants to rule the whole dimension. And because time flows differently between the two dimensions, she instantly becomes a young woman every time she steps through the portal and heads back home. Oh, and despite the constant threats to life and limb the young princess encounters in her journeys through Gemworld, she’s adored by the common folk, surrounded by friends, has a giant for her personal protector, studies under a wizened mentor to become a powerful spellcaster and flies a freakin’ winged unicorn, for the luvva Pete. Yeah, I can’t imagine this series ever taking off as a super-profitable film franchise, either…
4. Strikeforce Morituri
The pitch: Battlestar Galactica meets Justice League
Deriving its name from a Latin phrase believed to have been shouted by Roman gladiators performing for their emperor (Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant, or “Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you”), Strikeforce Morituri was a sci-fi series with a fascinating premise at a time when Marvel was not known for encouraging such things. Set outside the official Marvel universe, ST takes place at a time when Earth has been conquered by vicious aliens more interested in exploiting resources and committing random acts of butchery than exterminating all humans. Big mistake on their part. Scientists charged with finding a way to repel the aliens come up with the Morituri Process, a procedure that grants superhuman powers to people with a specific type of genetic structure; the only drawback is that the process has a 100% fatality rate, and most subjects die within a year. Fans of the Battlestar Galactica reboot will tune in for a gritty, character-driven show pitting humans against an intractable foe, while superhero fans will thrill at the many different powers exhibited by the Morituri volunteers. Heck, we can even throw the romance fans a bone and have one of the volunteers fall in love with a normal human. And we can amp up the intrigue by having a junior (and telegenic) scientist discover the government might not be telling the whole truth about the process. Dun dun dun….
5. Night Force
The pitch: The X-Files meets Mission: Impossible
This series from the early ’80s benefited from the talents of creators Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, but despite a brief revival in the mid-’90s it never really took off with comic fans. That’s a shame, because the open-ended premise allows for many interesting storytelling possibilities. Baron Winters (the giant head seen here) is known to the world as the eccentric owner of a mansion in Washington, D.C., that he never leaves. In reality, he’s a powerful sorcerer ever on guard against supernatural threats to our plane of existence, and the many doors in his home operate as portals to just about any moment in time and space. Because he can never leave his house (the series never explained why), he assembles teams of people with the skills needed to complete each mission, sometimes manipulating unwilling souls to do his bidding. “Unlikely heroes saving the world” is a common enough TV trope, so sending one more group out to watch our backs doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Plus, if you’re aching for a bit of that “season-long suspenseful story arc” action, you could intersperse the A-plots with the ongoing mystery of how Winters and his mysterious mansion came to be. Far-fetched, you say? Hey, if they can get people to watch Lost…
6. The Golem’s Mighty Swing
The pitch: A League of Their Own meets the uglier parts of Boardwalk Empire
Set during the freewheeling 1920s, James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing follows The Stars of David, a barnstorming baseball team that travels from town to town staging exhibition matches against local teams. All the players sport beards and play up their Jewish roots, but the gimmick isn’t getting enough spectators out to see the games. When a Chicago promoter gets inspired by a movie about a golem (the protective monster of Jewish legend), the team agrees to dress up their star player as the mythical beast, hoping the mix of fear and curiosity will fill the stadiums. Things don’t exactly go as planned, and soon winning the big game takes on less of a priority than surviving it. This revisionist tale about a dark chapter from baseball’s past was named 2001’s top graphic novel by Time, but that’s not the reason why someone should be talking film rights with Sturm; no, it’s because the story paints a wonderfully detailed landscape of pre-Depression, small-town America, and explores the conflicts and ethnic divisions within the American soul.
The pitch: Quantum Leap meets Doctor Who
Speaking of unlikely heroes. As I said in a previous list of reasons why the 1990s weren’t totally terrible for comic-book fans, Chronos stars Walker Gabriel, a petty thief who lucks into the time-travel technology of a classic Silver Age super-villain and ends up bouncing around the timestream, becoming a hero on occasion in spite of himself. The set-up makes it possible for him to interact with just about any DC character throughout history, and he often finds himself in situations where he has to get creative to ensure the proper timeline is preserved (though his efforts aren’t appreciated by a group who see themselves as the self-appointed guardians of the timeline). Because it was a DC series, the dozen issues of Chronos saw Gabriel interact with the past, present and future of several major superheroes (he spends time with a circus travelling through 19th-century Smallville, for example), but there’s no reason why the writers couldn’t excise the superhero bits and present the ongoing tale of a lovable time-travelling rogue who’s literally having the time of his life (except for that one issue where he had to erase himself from history to protect his family from reprisals, but that’s a story for another time).
8. Cinder and Ashe
The pitch: Million Dollar Baby meets The A-Team
This one is a bit of an obscure choice, but it’s worth a look if you ever come across it. Published by DC before its Vertigo imprint provided a home for “suggested for mature readers” titles, the four-issue mini-series introduces Vietnam War vet Jacob Ashe and Cinder Dubois, the child of an African-American solider and a Vietnamese woman. Together, they operate as “damage control experts” in New Orleans (essentially private eyes, only more likely to whip out their weapons); their story begins when an Iowa farmer seeks their help in locating his kidnapped daughter. Yes, “Cinder and Ashe” is a little too cute and the Vietnam flashbacks firmly place this series among the many Vietnam-fixated stories that came out in the 1980s, but there’s no reason an enterprising screenwriter couldn’t update things and make them, say, survivors of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. The key to getting this project greenlit is emphasizing the relationship between the two characters: he’s the grizzled veteran, she’s the woman whose childhood ended far too soon, and while both are capable of taking care of themselves, they see in each other what they’ve been looking for — non-romantically, of course — ever since their private wars ended. Tell me that’s not the kind of role that a Clint Eastwood or Tommy Lee Jones wouldn’t jump at the chance to produce.
9. Mail Order Bride
The pitch: You know, I can’t even think of another movie that comes close
Monty Wheeler, the owner of a small-town comic shop, is a pathetic shlub of a guy who has pretty much given up securing companionship through the normal channels. He expects Kyung Seo, his Korean mail-order bride, to fulfill his every fantasy about Asian women, but it soon becomes clear she is not interested in being the obedient, domestic partner that Monty expected. Trouble starts brewing when she shows more interest in embracing Western culture and exploring her independence. Eventually, they come to realize that neither is living up to the expectations of the other, and by the end everyone — readers included — ends up reassessing their assumptions about other people. Though it sounds like the premise for a romantic comedy starring Seth Rogen and Grace Park, Mark Kalesniko’s Mail Order Bride is actually a powerfully written story about people thrown into a situation together and forced to confront their feelings and fears about life… you know, the kind of stories Hollywood used to do before it started rummaging through Junior’s toybox for inspiration (“Coming next summer: Hungry Hungry Hippos 2 — this time, they’re even hungrier!”)
10. Green Lantern Corps
The pitch: Hill Street Blues meets Star Wars
I’m cheating slightly with this suggestion, because the Green Lantern Corps has already made appearances in the Justice League animated series, the 2011 Green Lantern film, and the Green Lantern: Emerald Knights direct-to-DVD film (released the same year to stoke fan interest in the Ryan Reynolds film) that showcased the background stories of several members of the corps. But with the exception of that last example (and the 2006 comic series), the members of the Corps have typically functioned as background extras in the “real” Green Lantern’s adventures. That’s a shame: there’s something ennobling about the concept (members of intergalactic peacekeeper force overcome their vast differences to work together) that just begs for a weekly animated series to do it justice. And there wouldn’t be any lack of material to work with, either; as Alan Moore and other writers demonstrated back when the “Tales of the Green Lantern Corps” strip ran in the back of Green Lantern comic books, there really is no limit to the kind of stories you can tell about the Corps — mainly because there is no limit to the type of alien characters you can imagine.
The pitch: Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Veronica Mars
Right off the bat, a title change would be in order; there’s no point confusing viewers who will tune in expecting Jennifer Garner’s superspy moves. But once that’s settled, viewers will get a chance to follow that rarest of television creatures: a foul-mouthed, highly independent young woman who takes care of business on her own. Jessica Jones was once a minor-league superhero, but she now dresses in civilian clothes to fight for justice as a private investigator — only to find she can never quite get completely away from the superhero world. Throughout the series, readers got hints about the reasons why she left a life most people would kill to lead, but it was only in the final few issues of the series that readers saw the horrifying truth. Before that, readers got to see the Marvel universe from a less-lofty vantage point, and it was made clear there were many dangers to living in a world where super-beings exist — you know, aside from the costumed super-villains and occasional planet-eater. Call me crazy, but that sounds like a premise rife with possibilities.
12. Haunted Tank
The pitch: Three Kings meets your favorite whacky 1960s sitcom
No, I’m serious. Introduced in DC’s G.I. Combat comic back in the ’60s, “Haunted Tank” was a regular feature that saw the ghost of a Confederate army general act as the spirit guardian for his Second World War namesakes, Lieutenant Jeb Stuart (his descendant) and the Light Tank M3 Stuart that Jeb commands. In 2008, writer Frank Marraffino updated the feature by having the ghost appear before another of his descendants, an African-American sergeant commanding a tank during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As you can imagine, both ghost and sergeant are surprised to learn they are related, and much of the five-issue series is taken up by the sergeant butting heads with his ghostly ancestor about… well, you can take a guess. At one point, as their tank is driving through Iraq and coping with the carnage and insanity of war, the ghost haughtily tells Stuart that “your people” got their freedom, to which Stuart replies, “Yeah, they got freedom. And nothing else… You can’t break a people and expect them to fix everything so easily.” “Which country are we talking about?” one of the other soldiers asks. While the premise may sound like a plot from an old live-action Disney feature, there’s a lot of potential in a story that literally brings Americans face to face with their past — a past that, in some respects, they seemed doomed to repeat.
13. Blue Devil
The pitch: A Hollywood superhero. ‘Nuff said.
Back in the early ’80s, DC was taking a chance on just about any crazy idea it came across, with covers proclaiming “The New DC!” and “Comics aren’t just for kids!” True enough, but retaining one’s playful sense of humor isn’t a bad thing, either. Amethyst creators Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn also came up with this light-hearted book about a Hollywood stuntman who, thanks to a demon’s curse, ends up trapped inside a special-effects suit of his own design. Once the shock of sporting a new body wears off, he starts to enjoy his new life as a “weirdness magnet,” and protects Hollywood from all kinds of threats to life, limb and box-office grosses. Clearly, a property like this provides plenty of opportunities to pile on the satirical comments about both Hollywood and superheroes, not to mention the ability to go “meta” with the concept. Besides, this sounds perfect for a cost-conscious studio that wouldn’t have to worry about pricey location shoots; just get a guy into makeup and costume à la Ron Perlman’s Hellboy get-up, stick him out on your studio lot and start filming.
14. 100 Bullets
The pitch: Pulp Fiction meets Mission: Impossible meets every damn movie ever about secret societies taking over the world
100 Bullets is a hard series to love; it’s got a great premise, tight writing and plenty of action, but damned if you can keep track of what’s going on without a flow chart. The 100-issue series started off with a man called Agent Graves, a mysterious figure who would offer random people a briefcase with four items: a gun, 100 bullets, a photo and incontrovertible evidence that the person in that photo was responsible for the recipient’s shattered life. Oh, and the gun and bullets are completely untraceable and no one can ever be charged for any crimes committed with them. Intriguing, no? While any TV or film adaptation of the series would have to deviate from the comic’s storyline (and possibly ditch some of the cast) in order to present a slightly less convoluted path towards the final chapter, IGN.com reported earlier this summer that Dark Knight co-writer David S. Goyer is attached to executive produce and write a TV series based on 100 Bullets for Showtime. No word on when — or if — the series will debut, but just knowing Showtime (home of Dexter and Weeds) is interested should make fans happy the book’s over-the-top violence has a good chance of remaining intact.
15. Charley’s War: 2 June – 1 August 1916
The pitch: Think of the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, only with way more rats
Originally published in Britain’s Battle Picture Weekly from 1979 to 1985, Charley’s War was a strip that followed the story of young Charley Bourne, a 16-year-old who lied about his age to get into the British Army during the First World War. Once sent to the front, Charley discovers that life in the trenches isn’t the grand adventure he thought it would be, and his life quickly becomes a neverending battle against boredom, rats, and flooded tunnels. Minor skirmishes and attacks on the German line break the monotony, but Charley soon learns monotony is far better than what awaits him and his comrades at the Battle of the Somme… One British reviewer dubbed this series “the greatest British comic strip ever created,” and it’s easy to see why; the incredibly researched and detailed strips never flinched from show the true horrors of wars, to the point that later reprints were often censored by British authorities. Writer Pat Mills also added a political slant to the story that was rare in war comics at the time; the upbeat letters that Charley sent home contrasted greatly with his grim reality, a point not lost on those who believe the old adage about truth in war.
16. Unnamed Project Based Loosely on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The pitch: Think Mad Men, only set in the 1940s and starring a bunch of comic-book artists
The IMDb lists a film version of Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel as “in development,” which is code for “someone wants to make it, but danged if we know if it’s ever gonna come out.” The Pulitzer Prize winner is a fictional account of two young Jewish cousins who create the wildly successful Escapist character during the Golden Age of comic books, and how their involvement in the nascent comic industry affected their postwar lives. While the lead characters are fictional, they’re obviously based on actual comic-book creators, including Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. I’m not sure why this book can’t get made into a movie, and it’s not important — regardless of whether Chabon’s novel is adapted or just serves as inspiration, there’s plenty of drama to be mined in a television series about a group of men and women (and yes, they had women working at comics) toiling in the comic-book trenches as the world marches towards war. Funny and fabulous fashions from the Forties! Wildly inappropriate workplace behavior that was perfectly acceptable back in the day! Ironic dialogue that’s ironic because we know how history will turn out! Classic tales of the little guy (or girl) trying to make it in the world, and the big bad businessmen keeping them down! How could something like that not be a huge success? I’d even be tempted to call it Mystery Men, after the term for superheroes used in those days, but I feel like I’m incurring enough of Matthew Weiner’s litigious wrath as it is.