FlashTricksterSo, I am pretty excited about Joss Whedon’s new television series: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Of course, part of the excitement is that it is a new television show by Whedon. And part of the excitement is just nerding out about S.H.I.E.L.D. But it also got me thinking about different artistic formats, and adaptations from one to another.

The surge of film adaptations of comic book properties has been well-documented. Notable recent examples include The Amazing Spider-man, The Avengers, Captain America, Cowboys and Aliens, The Dark Knight Rises, Dredd, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Green Lantern, Iron Man 3, Kick Ass  2, The Losers, Man of Steel, Oldboy, Red 2, R.I.P.D., Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Thor: The Dark World,  The Wolverine, and X-Men First Class.

BirdsPreyLess well commented on is the list of comic book properties that have been adapted to television over the past few years. nevertheless, there are some notable examples, including: Arrow, Birds of Prey, Blade: the Series, Human Target, The Middleman, Painkiller Jane, Smallville, and The Walking Dead.

Sure, list of films based on comics is both longer and (perhaps) more impressive (critically, aesthetically, etc.) than the list of television shows. But there are still a decent number of TV shows – and a decent number of decent TV shows –  being based on comics these days. And this raises the question: Are television shows better or worse than film at adapting comic book stories?

My buddy Henry Pratt wrote an excellent article about film adaptations of comics in The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach. In that essay, he notes a number of structural similarities between comics and films: For example, there is a relatively straightforward analogy between the shot-scene structure around which films are built, and the panel-page structure upon which comics are built. The ultimate example of this is the cinematic version of Sin City, which avoided the entire process of creating storyboards (comic strips?), and instead used the graphic novel itself as script/storyboard. Of course, the analogy is not perfect, but it goes some way towards explaining why comics have been so successfully adapted to film in recent years.

ArrowThe structural properties of television, however, allow one to draw the analogy even tighter: In addition to the shot-scene/panel-page analogy, we also have the fact that (unlike the vast majority of films) television programs are serialized and, in principle at least, completely open-ended (there is not fixed date or episode at which they must end). As a result, the sort of storytelling that has developed in television is, arguably, more similar to storytelling in comics than is cinematic storytelling.

Does this mean that we should expect television adaptations of comics to be, on average, better (or, at the very least, more faithful) than corresponding film adaptations of the same properties? Does this mean that we should get more excited (and fight more for) television adaptations, rather than film adaptations, of our favorite comics? Hard questions, but questions worth thinking hard about.


About roytcook

Roy T Cook is CLA Scholar of the College and John M Dolan Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of popular art. He is the co-editor of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012, w/ Aaron Meskin), The Routledge Companion to Comics (Routledge 2016, w/ Aaron Meskin & Frank Bramlett), and LEGO and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick By Brick (Wiley-Blackwell 2017, w/ Sondra Bacharach).

2 responses »

  1. A really nice post, Roy!

    While I agree with regard to the structural analogies between comics and TV Shows, I’m quite puzzled about the cliffhanger element they share.

    I always thought (but maybe I’m absolutely mistaken) that comics could end their issues without forced or artificially devised cliffhangers -as most TV shows episodes do. Personally, I find it really anoying. It feels like a bad thing for the development of the story’s argument in an audiovisual support.

    But, again, maybe I’m wrong about this, or there are intersting counterexamples to mention.


  2. I think some of the answer to your question depends on what kind of television shows we consider. Damian’s comment about television cliff hangers is a good one! Dramatic series often end their season with questions, with ambiguity, with potential, in hopes that viewers will return the next year. Even dramas that are meant to be satiric or at least comedic use this strategy, with ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Ugly Betty’ being two examples.

    I wonder how sit-coms would figure into this discussion. Often, re-runs of shows like ‘I Love Lucy’ or ‘Bewitched’ or ‘Third Rock from the Sun’ can be broadcast in a flexible order, with very little loss of meaning. Are there comics that would lend themselves to that kind of format better than others?

    Great post, Roy!

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