How DC Became the Hero That Television Deserves

Marvel? Meh. The small screen belongs to a new breed of old favorites

From Superman and Wonder Woman to The Flash, more than 10,000 characters populate the universe of DC Entertainment. For TV networks seeking a foothold in a world of increasing competition for every great script, and in which cable operators are looking for any excuse to cut the number of channels they carry, that mighty legion of superheroes could prove to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Comics have long been source material for TV programming—in fact, the biggest show on TV at the moment is AMC's The Walking Dead, based on the Robert Kirkman graphic novels from Image Comics.

With the current explosion in popularity of superhero film franchises ranging from Marvel blockbusters like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy to other comics-born fare like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Big Hero 6, broadcast and cable networks are getting in on the action in a big way, often turning directly to the writers and artists who create the characters.

While Marvel has created a massively profitable world of movie properties, one with a much higher batting average than that of DC (though arguably, there's still nothing in Marvel's canon that holds a candle to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight for sheer, dour grandeur), DC has recently proven quite dramatically that its library should not be underestimated.

In the time that Marvel's prime-time gamble, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and its current timeslot placeholder Agent Carter), has lagged in the ratings, DC has produced high-flying successes in the CW's The Flash and Arrow, along with Fox's Gotham. Soon, in addition to NBC's Constantine, DC will roll out iZombie, a ghoulishly funny procedural overseen by Diane Ruggiero and Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas, premiering March 17 at 9 p.m. on the CW.

The young-skewing CW—co-owned by CBS and the parent company of DC, Time Warner—has been a proving ground for DC properties. The Flash is now the highest-rated show on the network (a steady 1.53) and its biggest show ever with men in the dollar demo (ages 18-49). Fox's Gotham, meanwhile, is an unqualified hit, with a 2.48 average rating. At the start of the season, it commanded $189,000 for a 30-second spot, according to media buyers.

Fox president of entertainment David Madden says the network is looking to expand its DC partnership, though he declined to divulge details about two DC shows in development there: Global Frequency, a creator-owned, action-heavy spy book by Warren Ellis, and Lucifer, a politically dense story about the Devil spanning thousands of pages. "We have high hopes for both of those, and we're hoping to have a second DC project on the air by next fall," says Madden.

How DC reclaimed its cool

To Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Entertainment and an experienced writer for both comic books and TV (including The Flash, which he also produces), this surge in the popularity of DC's heroic cast of characters—especially some of the more obscure ones—recalls the passion of his childhood. "When I was a kid, they had this line of Super Powers action figures, and when the Doctor Fate action figure came out, I felt like I'd arrived," he says. "You could get all kinds of Superman or Batman stuff."

Mark Waid, a longtime writer of The Flash comics, thinks the tendency of the DC shows to embrace their characters' rough edges is much of what informs their success, but that it's also OK to have some fun.

"I'm enjoying the hell out of it," he says of the CW series. "I think it goes to the question of why DC seems to be doing so well on television all of a sudden. They've learned all the right lessons from the Marvel movies: Not every story has to be dour and filled with angst and ashamed of the source material."

DC's creative chief is a highly sought-after partner. "I've been stalking Johns," confesses Bill McGoldrick, head of programming at Syfy, which is prepping a series from screenwriter/comics writer David Goyer about Superman's homeworld called Krypton. "The first person I met with the day I got this job was Geoff," says McGoldrick. "I had a drink with him the night I could talk about having gotten the job. They had actually developed Booster Gold with him before I was here, and I knew him from Blade [a Marvel property that had a brief life as a Spike series and for which Johns wrote]. Warner Bros. is one of the premier studios today, too, so it became a priority for us. We didn't want to do a superhero show just to do a superhero show."

(Meanwhile, Flash and Arrow writer/producer Greg Berlanti is also developing a Supergirl series for CBS.)

All characters are (finally) welcome

How to carefully deploy lesser-known creations in a portfolio as vast as DC's is an art form all its own. Marvel built its shared universe of movie characters, after all, around B-lister Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr., who would become a box-office force on the strength of the performance. On the small screen, DC has similarly benefitted from the appeal of Arrow star Stephen Amell and, more recently, The Flash's Grant Gustin. (Check out our interview with Gustin here.) But it's the writers who sit in the driver's seat.

Another benefit to working closely with DC, says CW president Mark Pedowitz, "is that you have the ability to test characters. Is there room to grow them into the next show?" The Flash tried out on Arrow before he got his own show.

The CW isn't the only network populated by DC's Hall of Justice. Overseen by Johns, the creators of NBC's Constantine (Goyer and Daniel Cerone) have inserted seriously weird characters like The Spectre and Doctor Fate into the Friday night drama, while others have taken heroes from a brighter corner of the bookshelf for The Flash, including golden oldies like The Atom (played by onetime Superman Brandon Routh) and Firestorm, the Nuclear Man.

Fox's Gotham is overflowing with familiar faces, from The Penguin to Catwoman. "Johns and his team were so imaginative," enthuses Madden. "As a kid, I read DC. I read Superman and Batman and The Flash and World's Finest and Justice League of America. It's been such an incredible, satisfying experience."

Photo: Michael Desmond

One of the more interesting things about the forthcoming slate of DC series is that it encompasses properties from an imprint radically different from DC's typical powers-and-tights heroes: Vertigo, where many titles are owned by their creators.

Shows like iZombie and Preacher (ordered to pilot on AMC and quite buzzy) are not DC's body and soul like the company's shared-universe characters such as Superman and Batman. Rather, they belong to creators Chris Roberson and Mike Allred (iZombie) and Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (Preacher). Since nobody likes losing the rights to his or her work, it is the preferred model of comics creators—a far cry from decades ago when Jack Kirby, co-creator of much of the Marvel universe, sued to get his original pages back. It's also likely the future of the comics-to-screen cottage industry, for both the big and small screens.

How comic creators are retaking control

Vertigo is still a "profit center," as comics writer and historian Kurt Busiek puts it. (The company publishes Busiek's book, Astro City, though his contract is with a publisher DC bought a few years ago, so it's atypical.) At Vertigo, depending on the agreement, writers retain the copyright for printed works, but, as is the case with Roberson, take an upfront payment for half the media rights, which go to DC. "Almost every publisher in the business is owned by a film company," Busiek says. "They don't think, 'How do we structure this like Stephen King's publishing contract?' They say, 'How do we structure this like our movie deals?'"

If you care most about comics, that's a good thing, Roberson says. It means the creators don't have to put together teams to get their work adapted for other media. Under Time Warner, DC is tied to a broadcaster (the CW), cable networks (Adult Swim, Cartoon, TBS, TNT) and, of course, the movie studio. "For the longest time, one of the big attractions at DC and Vertigo was that they were the appendage of this giant conglomerate," Roberson explains. "I think iZombie is the first Vertigo show to make the jump [to TV]." (In fact, it is.)

"I have friends who've been very involved in their transition of comics to television and film," Roberson says. "And the brutal reality is that a lot of those things die on the vine. The result is that those people spend a lot of time not making more comics but making a thing that doesn't go anywhere." (Roberson likes the show based on his work, by the way.) "I mean, I have some interest in doing other stuff, but making comics is what I got into this to do," he adds. "I was very content to let someone else shoulder the burden of getting it off the ground. I was cautiously optimistic, trending toward skeptical, that it would ever succeed—and when it did, I was overjoyed."

The pluses and perils of parallel universes

The thematic differences between comics from DC proper and Vertigo are striking. Established as an imprint "for mature readers," Vertigo's stories feature complex situations, plenty of sex and violence, and, in the case of Preacher, a shit-kicking, joyfully offensive sensibility that has undeniable potential in the current climate for cable drama.

That is quite distinct from Marvel. Granted, there are tonal dissimilarities between, say, Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it is reasonably plausible they'd meet up and have adventures together. Meanwhile, The Flash and John Constantine don't appear to be from the same dimension, let alone the same planet.

Part of that is owing to network identity. "They're very good, both at Warner Bros. and DC, about meshing their brand with the existing brand of the channel," says McGoldrick. "The DC/Syfy connection, we hope this isn't the last version of that." And that identity is more important than ever, as the nets are in danger of consolidation within their corporate families, or even extinction, if they fail to maintain a unique brand positioning and attract creative partners that produce like-minded content.

Even within a network, crossovers are not a given. "Does iZombie share the universe [with Flash and Arrow]?" Pedowitz muses. "We're not sure about that yet." The separation does allow the shows to fly a wide variety of freak flags. "On TV, The Flash is The Flash," says Busiek. "Constantine is Constantine, Gotham is Gotham. They're not all the same show."

Of course, no one knows characters better than their creators, and sometimes comics writers get to personally manage every aspect of media incarnations of their work. Everyone interviewed here spoke admiringly of Robert Kirkman, writer of AMC's The Walking Dead and single-minded master of the empire that it has become. (Admiringly, but not enviously.  "I just want to do comics," Roberson says.)

Certainly, the changing game of comics presents an opportunity for all sorts of cross-media relationships. For a writer, that can mean newfound clout at his or her publisher or getting to know a heavy hitter like McGoldrick who is eager to check out their stuff. As for the TV networks, it means greater opportunity to work with those who made the comics appealing in the first place—and, they hope, to keep making hits. 

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