Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Adapt This #1: Graphic novels

I'm not a huge graphic novel fan. I've only recently started really delving into them, and I certainly don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. I know the huge trend is to turn graphic novels (and/or regular old comic books) into movies, and that's turned out a lot of fun films (though, personally, I'm waiting for Christopher Nolan's dark reimagining of the Archie mythos). But, honestly, comics and graphic novels, which often are published in several issues that comprise longer arcs then collected into trade paperbacks, are naturals for the TV world. And as the budgetary and artistic lines between film and TV continue to blur, there are four properties I think TV producers would be well-served by considering for televised adaptation. For those network flunkies who keep checking this site every day, I've helpfully provided just the right network for the project.

Without further ado. . .

100 Bullets (Vertigo Comics, perfect for CBS): CBS, supposedly, is looking to hip up its image. But a huge problem with this is that its huge, huge audience likes being unhip. Hip shows tend to have strong serial elements and complicated character relationships. The CBS formula is deeply, deeply antithetical to this (even Jericho is like a Serial Lite). But here's a project that would simultaneously boost the network's image, play into its greatest strength (its loyal, unflappable audience) and revive an old television standby -- the anthology show. Plus, the goal for syndication is right there in the title.

100 Bullets is a mysterious story of a man who finds people who would give anything to get ultimate vengeance. The man (Agent Graves) gives people a briefcase that contains a gun, the ammunition and the proof to eliminate the one person who has given them the burning need for revenge. Some of the clients take the opportunity. Some don't.

Naturally, there's an elaborate story being played out as to where Graves has come from, but this is the sort of thing that could be squeezed into the background or even eliminated altogether. Stories of revenge are universal, and I think there's a chance here to do some really stylish and cinematic stuff, perhaps even tell some deeply moral and ethical stories (which are certainly lacking on CBS' crime procedurals). It's a non-serial drama that feels like one (what with its one regular cast member), and it might give CBS a chance to lure in that disenfranchised X-Files fanbase.

Ex Machina (Wildstorm Comics, perfect for HBO): Ex Machina, at first, feels like the perfect sort of comic for television adaptation. But after you think about it for a while, Ex Machina doesn't feel so perfect anymore. Sure, it's got key elements of wish fulfillment, a great opportunity for action sequences and a milieu that would easily give rise to weekly stories for episodes. But it's also going to be a tricky, tricky thing to make work. The comic pulls it off, but a series could skew too far toward the maudlin or the cheesy.

That's why HBO would have to do this show. Preferably with one of their older writers, the ones who keep turning out the excellent shows on the network, the sort of person who grew up with Superman and has a deep interest in politics. Because, really, that's the only way you do this without having it feel ridiculous.

Ex Machina is the story of the world's one superhero, a man who was given the ability to control any machine near him after an encounter with alien technology. It's a conventional and believable enough set-up, which is important, because it soon becomes clear that this comic takes place in our world with one key difference -- the hero, Mitchell Hundred, saved one of the two towers on Sept. 11 by using his powers to divert one of the planes. Immediately, as you can see, you're treading in dangerous terrain.

Then, of course, our hero mostly sets aside his powers (though they are still used occasionally) to run for the office of mayor of New York City. The series is equal parts poignant flashback, backroom political drama and collection of action setpieces. It's easy to see how the mayor-who's-also-a-superhero setup could make a perfect series, as you can see, but it's also easy to see how that storyline could be twisted and abused into a place where it would lose all poignancy and become mawkish. That's why this would need to go to HBO -- they'd take the time to do it right.

DMZ (Vertigo Comics, perfect for FX): Sorry for all of the DC-related comics. I'm still new to this field, and the Vertigo titles are what is leaping out at me at the moment.

DMZ is the war series waiting to happen that television is crying out for right now. It's an incredibly imaginative attempt to transpose the long-standing conflicts in the Middle East that so baffle Americans and recast them in a setting we understand. And, what's more, for a war comic, it's held surprisingly close -- this is a series that could be done without breaking the bank after the sets were built, so little does it rely on huge battles or daring missions.

In DMZ, Manhattan has become a demilitarized zone in some sort of second U.S. Civil War between (so it seems) the middle of the country and the coasts. The rebels control everything west of Manhattan; the U.S. controls the little bit of land east of Manhattan (please correct me if I'm getting this wrong -- still new to this one). Into Manhattan is dropped a young wannabe journalist at his first job who finds himself stranded there. Using his press credentials as protection, he sets out to chronicle life on the embattled island, meeting everyone from hyper-survivalists to environmentalists who are holed up in Central Park, protecting the animals in the zoo there (by any means necessary).

DMZ engages the morality and ethics of war and violence in some fascinating ways. It's easy to imagine this series filmed with some real grit and the (almost obligatory) shaky camera. It's the kind of thing FX could do in its sleep, and its general milieu ties in well with that network's masculine-skewing dramas. Of all of these properties, it's the one I could most readily imagine making a fascinating television series.

Fables (Vertigo Comics, perfect for ABC): I really toyed with trying to choose between ABC and NBC, but I ultimately thought that Fables, with its slightly soapy plotlines and complicated mythology that's somehow intuitively comprehensible, would work better on ABC, where it could be paired with Lost or Traveler (assuming that show takes off like I think it will).

Fables is, for lack of a better descriptor, a fairy tale noir. In its storyline, the fairy tale characters and legends that we have treasured as tales to tell our children are very real. They've been pushed out of their lands (alternate universes next to ours) and into ours, where they live right beside us on a neglected block in the East Village (that makes, what, three of these series set in New York?). There, they try to make their way in our world and also plot to protect themselves from the foe who pushed them out of their lands (and I'm not going to spoil who that foe is -- the reveal is too well done).

In its own way, Fables feels the most like a television series of any of these -- its cliffhanger-driven plotting feels the most like the classic Marvel serials of the 60s and 70s that inspired the TV writers who have taken over the airwaves today. While it certainly tackles issues, the series doesn't feel as politically or thematically relevant as some of the other's I've described. It makes up for that weakness with pure storytelling gusto and a willingness to pursue the storytelling style most suited to the story being told. The first trade paperback collection of Fables is a sort of hard-boiled detective story. The next is a battlefield tragedy. The next is a deeply warped romance. And so on. If this made it on the air intact, it would feel like nothing else out there, and that's a good thing.

The characterizations here are well-drawn, as well. The ensemble, of course, would have to be huge, but the series is well-grounded enough in a few central characters that the storytelling wouldn't feel untenable. Plus, with the general interest raised by the setting, it would be easy to do one-shots and single-episode stories to keep the mythology from becoming too unwieldy for casual fans.

Fables, I think, is the one comic described here that's most waiting to be television-ized. Here's hoping a lucky network picks it up.

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