In recent years, superhero comics have received a major boom when it comes to adaptations in other media. Particularly thanks to Marvel and the skilled work that has been going into their Cinematic Universe, the gates have opened with film and television media using comics (from Marvel, DC, and otherwise) as the basis for new content. Some may see this as overload, but while there may be some risk of oversaturation, adaptations of superhero comics are something that have been around for as long as the comics themselves. Long before television shows or full-length movie adaptations, superheroes were hitting mass media thanks to radio shows and movie serials. They’ve always kept in the public eye ever since their creation, thanks to their numerous adaptations. However, this is not a simple one-way street. It is not as if these movies or shows simply take from the comic book page and put it to screen. In fact, just as much as they take their basis and plots from the comics, they can also give back and create characters or ideas which then become part of the comics and forever tied to these stories.
Now, this isn’t something that has just happened in recent years. This is something that stretches back to those days of radio shows and movie serials. Take Superman, for example. Jimmy Olsen is one of the classic members of his supporting cast, a photographer for the Daily Planet who helps out Clark Kent and Lois Lane while also having a close friendship with Superman. Well, he didn’t get his start in the comic books. Rather, he was created for The Adventures of Superman radio show, specifically as a character for Superman to talk to. Similarly, another thing which would become a key part of the Superman mythos had its start on this program: Kryptonite. A chunk of Krypton forever irradiated by its destruction, this substance would become Superman’s key weakness as its radiation could nullify his powers and even hurt him. Despite the grand power behind such a substance, its creation for The Adventures of Superman was for a more mundane reason: so that the actor playing Superman could have some vacation time. From these mundane reasons emerged things that would eventually arrive in the comics and thus become a part of their mythology.
Of course, it’s not only about creating something new. It can also be a case of how they change or present something that elevates its presence in the comics. Take the 1960s Batman show, for example. Prior to his appearance on the show, the Riddler (a supervillain obsessed with puzzles and proving his intellectual superiority over Batman) only had three appearances in the comics. Two of these were back in the ’40s, and the other was in 1965. However, thanks to Frank Gorshin’s delightfully manic performance as the Riddler, the character clicked with audiences and he becomes one of the classic Batman foes, right alongside characters like the Joker or Catwoman. Now, these particular changes and additions from adaptations were ones that happened that a point in time that was still pretty early for their source material. Have there been such changes, such alterations since then? Honestly, there has been plenty.
Since its debut back in the early ’90s, Batman: the Animated Series is regarded as one of the best adaptations that has been done of Batman. Its stylish Art Deco-influenced designs were complimented by strong writing, excellent direction, and wonderful voice acting (particularly Mark Hamill’s performance as the Joker). It’s only natural that such a strong piece of work might make an impact on the comics. One such impact was its revision of Mr. Freeze. Prior to the show, Mr. Freeze was just a generic villain, a man named Victor Fries whose body was exposed to chemicals that forced him to wear a cryo-containment suit and thus turn his rage against the world with a freeze gun. After the show and an episode known as “Heart of Ice”, he became a tragic figure, left physically cold from cryogenic chemicals and emotionally cold when his attempt to save his wife was taken from him by a cruel boss who had her killed. It injected some real pathos and character into a once-generic criminal, making him a far more fascinating villain as a result.
Along with that particular change were several new characters who would eventually come to the comics. One of them was Renee Montoya, a police officer in the GCPD who serves under Commissioner Gordon and frequently alongside detective Harvey Bullock. Another character, one who would quickly rise in popularity, was Harley Quinn. She stood out as a fresh face among Batman’s villains, her bubbly personality giving her a fun charm while her dependence upon the Joker gave her a tragic component. It was then in the comics that her backstory was finally revealed: she was once Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist who had joined the staff at Arkham Asylum and found herself falling in love with the Joker. Thus, a full villain comes together and quickly becomes a solid addition to Batman’s rogue’s gallery. Now, I’ve talked a lot about DC Comics, but what about Marvel? What additions or changes have they had, thanks to media? Well, look no further than Phil Coulson.
Introduced in the first Iron Man film, Phil Coulson is an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and considered to be a top-notch member of the organization. He first comes calling when Tony Stark begins operating as Iron Man, then deals with Thor when Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer) lands in New Mexico. As the pieces began to come together for the superhero team that would become known as the Avengers, Coulson was there each step of the way. Played by Clark Gregg, Coulson began to grow in popularity with audiences. With his everyman charm and calm attitude in the face of the extraordinary proceedings around him, he grew into becoming a face for the MCU. In fact, when it came time for the MCU to expand to television, he became one of the lead figures in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a series currently shown on ABC about S.H.I.E.L.D. taking on all sorts of threats around the globe. With that show running in its third season, Coulson’s presence isn’t only limited in the MCU anymore. He is now a figure in the comics, not only appearing as a guest character in a variety of titles but also as a headliner in S.H.I.E.L.D., a series which brings him and his team from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to the comic book page. It’s almost incredible how quickly he has become such a ubiquitous character for Marvel Comics.
Honestly, this is a subject that could go on for a while. I’ve only scratched the surface on how all of these adaptations have helped to bolster or introduce new parts to their comic book mythos. However, I don’t want to take up too much time with a post that could potentially go on for far too long. Suffice to say, when it comes to the wave of superhero adaptations that we have been getting, I welcome them. After all, they not only represent a great chance to expose general audiences to characters they may not have known otherwise, but also can help to offer new blood to their source material with the new characters or takes that they can offer.