The 2010s are certainly the decade of the comic-turned-movie and comic-turned-TV-show, but what about when it goes in the other direction?
Comics based on TV shows, movies, literature and video games have gone in some wildly interesting directions when they’ve moved past mere adaptation and taken the characters in bold new directions. With an infinite special effects budget, no actors, and an often more hardcore audience, they can expand on the universes of the original in ways that a TV producer or game developer would have a hard time justifying.
Here are the twelve properties not born in comics that have inspired some of the most noteworthy examples of the art form.
11. Injustice: Gods Among Us
We begin with a very popular, but very uneven comic-based-on-a-video-game-based-on-comics. Set in an alternate future, the fighting game Injustice: Gods Among Us has a well-worn concept – “What if Superman turned bad, or just substantially less nice?” – and the comic that shows Superman and his allies slouching toward dystopia has some embarrassingly hokey scenes (the death of Nightwing springs to mind).
At its best, though, it combines DC Comics’ best-loved characters in fresh and exciting ways, like Harley Quinn giving Black Canary a private baby shower. And if Superman isn’t such a good guy anymore, what happens to Bizarro?
Those who just couldn’t get enough of Joss Whedon’s space western Firefly after its abbreviated life on TV got two consolation prizes: the motion picture Serenity, and this set of comics, both named for the ship in which the characters travel.
Though it’s unlikely to become a regular series (and is a bit hard to get into without knowledge of the main property), Dark Horse Comics has released various short stories under the Serenity banner, covering a couple of previously undocumented capers the crew pulled off and then delving further into their backstories.
9. Sonic the Hedgehog
The longest-running continuously published spinoff comic of all time (beating Conan for that title last year) is that oddest of miracles in the American comic-book market, a well-executed kids’ series that has gone on long enough for the kids it first entertained to have kids of their own.
Sonic the character is a bit of a knucklehead, of course (not to be confused with Knuckles the Echidna, who tends to make a lot of noise), and the series suffered somewhat due to the sudden loss of many of its characters in a creator copyright dispute. But still, Archie Comics have been serving up dependable primary-colored adventure yarns every month since 1992, and show no signs of stopping now.
8. Tomb Raider
Lara Croft’s adventures in comics can be very good, but they were something of a mixed bag when the property was at Top Cow Publications, which tended to play up the cheesecake at the active expense of the story.
For the last few years, as the video games have shifted focus, the character has been at Dark Horse Comics, with better results: her latest adventure (co-written by Gail Simone) opens with a clever action sequence that offers a direct window into a highly strategic mind, and the series before it followed an exotic mystery full of intrigue, mysterious artifacts and falconry.
7. 2001: A Space Odyssey
The Arthur C. Clarke novel went through drastic style changes before it assumed its best-known form as Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie… then went through some equally drastic style changes when adapted by master comics artist Jack Kirby, whose bombastic and talky approach was almost as far from Kubrick’s minimal, controlled aesthetic as one can imagine.
Still, the giant-sized 2001: A Space Odyssey album did adapt the film’s story (while mixing back in a few elements from the book). And then Kirby just kept going for ten more issues, revealing there were many monoliths all over the cosmos, nudging primitive or advanced races forward in evolution. The series ended with the adventures of Machine Man (AKA X-51), an artificial life-form also enlightened by monoliths.
The barbarian warrior of Robert E. Howard’s stories was a natural fit for the Marvel audience of the early 1970s, which was ready for something even more testosterone-pumped than your average Hulk or Thor story, and Roy Thomas, a devoted reader, Conan fan, and already experienced superhero storyteller, was just the guy to start writing it.
Artist Barry Windsor-Smith, then John Buscema and Ernie Chan, gave Conan’s tales the muscular heft they called for. The series also introduced Conan’s rival and love interest Red Sonja. Marvel’s run with Conan and Red Sonja ended in the 1990s, but Dark Horse and Dynamite, respectively, have published their adventures in more recent years.
5. Adventure Time
The charming sense of humor, intelligence wedded to a childlike sense of wonder, is key to any version of Adventure Time, which continues the zealous Jake and stretchable Finn’s endless romp through the land of Ooo. The art of the comics series is scrupulously faithful to the original TV show, too.
Inspired by Dungeons and Dragons but squarely aimed at kids, the TV series and comic are both oddly relaxing experiences. Even if the comic toys with choose-your-own-adventure structure, disappointing alternate futures and the Lich King threatening to destroy the world, somehow you just know everything will be fine.
4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
A monster hit with critics and audiences for Dark Horse Comics in its early days, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has cooled somewhat, but remains an exciting adventure series, full of the signature Whedon wit and interesting new twists on the Slayer mythos: one “season” had Buffy leading thousands of Slayers and another “season” saw them all depowered (save Buffy herself) and magic itself broken almost beyond repair.
At times lately, the story’s been a bit weighed down by having to deal with everything from the old TV series, including some hard-to-excuse actions by Spike and Andrew, but 13 years after the TV series ended, the characters remain fresh, contemporary and likable.
3. Star Wars
Just as media fans often separate into Dr. Who, Star Trek and Star Wars supporters (while literary fans sigh and shake their heads), there are two basic kinds of Star Wars comics readers. Some prefer the Dark Horse years, which expanded relentlessly on the original three movies (and, later, on their sequels) to create an entire galaxy worth of Jedi, Sith and unattached space adventurers.
Others like what Marvel has been doing with the property since it regained the rights last year, sticking to the relatively narrow time-frame of “after New Hope, but before Empire” and keeping the original cast much more front and center. And then there’s always that one guy who liked the first Marvel run from the 1970s through the 1980s. In all that wealth of material, though, is surely something for almost any Wars fan.
2. Robocop vs. the Terminator
In the 1980s, before his problems started, Frank Miller was a legendary storyteller – and even today, his footprints are all over the film and TV adaptations of characters like Batman and Daredevil. He also did some lesser-known work on Robocop 2 and 3, and wrote this four-issue miniseries between them.
Walt Simonson was also riding high in the 1980s on the strength of his writing and illustrating work in Thor and Fantastic Four. In years to come, Simonson’s artistic output would drop significantly and Miller would just start getting weird and embarrassing, but they closed out their respective golden ages with this amazing time-travel epic, which pits Murphy against not just a Terminator, not even three Terminators, but the Terminators’ whole alternate future, which apparently he caused. How can he possibly – look, just buy this, you won’t regret it.
The comic book once called Transformers: Robots in Disguise and now called Transformers is as smart as the Michael Bay movies were dumb. The Autobots’ neverending war with the Decepticons has ended… more or less, though some factional violence remains. However, the neutrals elected Starscream, not Optimus Prime, to rule Cybertron, and Earth has picked up just enough Cybertronian technology to be dangerous, forcing Optimus Prime to… conquer the planet for its own protection. This would be a serious contender for the best spinoff comic title being published right now…
…if Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye wasn’t coming out at the same time and one of the ten best comics being published today. The group of bots questing for the Knights of Cybertron have personalities ranging from the eccentric to the unstable, one of their captains could become a great leader or remain a self-aggrandizing jackass, and the other… is Megatron, who’s apparently turned his back on tyranny and appealed to Optimus’ belief that anyone can be redeemed. But can they? Can Megatron wash billions of years’ worth of blood and motor oil off their hands? Will those around him ultimately even give him the chance?
As ever, let us know what we may have neglected, forgotten or irresponsibly ignored in the comments. As you do.