With the unprecedented success of The Walking Dead on AMC, the television industry has been on a tear lately. Any and every comic book that has an interesting new story to tell is being snatched up by big-name production companies. A few of them are being eyed toward the silver screen, but the producers who nab the rights to the majority of them know that they would work best on television.
Where else can you tell a serialized, winding story full of complex characters that slowly grow and change? Comics and TV are a pairing that once only met for cheesy superhero fare like The Amazing Spider-Man (the series, not the Andrew Garfield films) and Wonder Woman. But today, these two mediums are finding that they can translate from one to the other quite brilliantly.
It’s not easy to find any truly great non-superhero comics that haven’t already been optioned for TV (or film). We’d love to include loads of today’s critically acclaimed and fan-favorite comics on this list, but so many have already been optioned and are currently in development. They include the likes of Y the Last Man, Lumberjanes, The Wicked + The Divine, Sex Criminals, DMZ, Fables, The Woods, Harrow County, Lazarus, Wytches, Descender, Rat Queens, and many more. Some others just aren’t feasible for the small screen.
We humbly submit these ten comics as haven’t been optioned yet (that we know of), but very much deserve to be.
10. Morning Glories
Nick Spencer’s boarding-school-from-Hell follows a ragtag group of six wildly different characters who are sent to the Morning Glories Academy. The academy is supposedly a prestigious prep school, but is actually a place that students enter but never leave. The kids are kept in the dark about the school’s true purpose, the teachers are cruel, and the school nurse experiments on the students.
Hogwarts it ain’t. Its characters hammer this home as well, with complex personalities, shifting loyalties, and relationships more sophisticated than most of what’s on TV today. Morning Glories may star a group of teenage kids, but it’s a very grownup comic, and it’s definitely not for the squeamish.
Rick Remender‘s Black Science almost made this list, but an adaptation is already rumored to be happening, and its trippy, always-different setting would be a nightmare to attempt on a TV budget. So how about Remender’s Low, instead?
It’s every bit as high concept as Black Science, but has a more stable, potentially doable setting. In Low, billions of years from now, the end of our sun is nearing, yet humanity still hasn’t found a suitable planet to transplant itself to. With the surface increasingly uninhabitable, mankind retreats to the depths of the oceans, the only viable place left for us — but even that is dangerously close to destruction. The rest of the world has given up hope and given in to one war after another, but one optimistic woman continues to send out probes, searching for a habitable world.
When one of her probes crashes to the surface with evidence of a planet that can sustain human life, she has to find a way to retrieve it, up top in this now-alien zone of Earth where no one has been for tens of thousands of years. The surface is full of mutated lifeforms that Remender and artist Greg Tocchini let their imaginations run wild in creating. Would it be hard to translate this to the small screen? Given that so much of it happens in the depths of the ocean, sure. (Never stopped SeaQuest.) But technology’s come a long way, and when the story is this captivating, it’s worth considering.
Way back in the 20th Century, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson teamed up to create a story about a gonzo journalist in a future where…let’s just say the population has an unorthodox relationship with morality. Indulging in every form of hedonism imaginable is the status quo, no one knows what year it is, and a homicidal maniac runs for office and wins. It was controversial and ahead of its time, but is now fondly looked back on as a classic of the art form.
The main character, Spider Jerusalem, is the aforementioned journalist, who reluctantly fights a crusade against the injustices of this depraved society (while harboring a few depravities of his own). The series ran for five acclaimed years, but the world created by Ellis and Robertson would be very hard to translate to any screen — big or small. But if adapted a little loosely — keep the themes and ideas intact but scale down the setting a bit — by a network with big pockets like HBO, it could work.
Patrick Stewart wanted to star in a big-screen version of Transmetropolitan as far back as 2003, but it never came to fruition. Today’s sensibilities and production values being what they are, the time is right.
7. American Vampire
Fans know Scott Snyder as the writer that brought many of us back to Batman comics. But before taking on the Dark Knight, he wrote this sprawling epic about vampires in America throughout history. Along with artist Rafael Albuquerque, Snyder got a little help launching the book from a friend of his named Stephen King.
Snyder’s vampires come in many different breeds and houses, each of which has unique powers and abilities. The anchor character is Skinner Sweet, a more-benevolent-than-most vampire who stars in some of the stories and is a background player in others. Synder jumped back and forth in time to tell tales in eras like the Civil War, Prohibition, World War II, and more.
The first series ended in 2013, but Snyder and Albuquerque launched American Vampire: Second Cycle a year later, picking up the story in a new time period. But even if the comic one day comes to an end, its world is so broadly open-ended that TV writers could easily mine entirely new territory there.
Showtime nearly picked up Chew as a half-hour comedy, but in the end gave it a pass. It’s got a macabre premise, but if you read it, you’ll know why it would work as a dark comedy.
Writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory cooked up this devilish culinary tale about a cop named Tony Chu who discovers a unique ability. He’s a “Cibopath,” meaning he gets psychic impressions from anything he eats — including people. That’s right: in the name of justice, he eats bites of dead people. Gross. But Tony’s not alone; his world soon opens up to a huge cast of characters, most of whom have unique food-related abilities of their own.
Somehow, Chew manages to strike just the right balance between weird and darkly funny to make this wacky premise work. Maybe Showtime bailed because they couldn’t find that balance. But that doesn’t make bringing it to the small screen impossible.
5. East of West
The backstory of East of West is so complex, there’s not enough space here to explain it all. It’s set in an alternate history version of modern day United States where the Civil War never ended, causing things to be very much like the Old West today. But the end times have brought forth the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — who behave and interact very much like humans do. There’s loads more, including seven warring American nations and an all-important prophecy.
The story follows the Horseman named Death, who once fell in love with a human woman and had a son, but he’s recently been led to believe that they’re dead (not-a-spoiler: they’re alive). He sets out on a quest of revenge against the other three Horsemen, whom he holds responsible.
East of West is a big boiling pot of Western-style justice, political maneuvering, heady mythology, and a slow-burn meditation on the human tendency to find our differences instead of our similarities. It could be the next Game of Thrones waiting to happen. HBO, Showtime, Netflix…somebody take this on, stat.
4. Locke & Key
Yeah, we know. Hollywood already tried Locke & Key and it didn’t work out. It actually came very, very close. In 2011, a pilot was produced by power players Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci — and Steven Spielberg. Despite this, along with an appealing cast (Nick Stahl, Mirando Otto, and future young Matt Murdock, Skylar Gaertner) and a positive reception of the pilot’s screening at Comic-Con, Fox passed on the series. A movie trilogy was announced in 2014 and dropped a year later.
But TV is still the format it’s best suited for, despite its ultra-dark subject matter. Basically, Locke & Key is about a house filled with doors to supernatural places and things like demonic possession, but require special keys to open them. When a new family moves into the Locke House, they discover a much deeper connection to its past than they ever imagined. It’s Lovecraftian horror of the highest order, and fantastic storytelling to boot.
3. Southern Bastards
Dark. Bleak. Compelling. These words can be used to describe The Walking Dead, but they can also describe Southern Bastards, albeit for very different reasons. Written by Jason Aaron with art by Jason Latour (whose every line conveys a simmering anger ready to boil over at any moment), it’s a heat-soaked crime drama in which the heightened reality of the region where it’s set — a fictional county in Alabama — is practically one of its characters. Bastards follows the bloody trail of one Euless Boss, the man who is not just the local crime lord, but its high school football coach, too. And in this county, where football is what matters most, those two things are very believably one and the same.
Boss’ opponent is Earl Tubb, whose father was once sheriff. When an older Tubb returns to his hometown to find it held firmly under the thumb of Boss, a war begins for the place’s very soul. Neither man is particularly appealing, but when one of them takes the stage, it’s impossible to look away.
The book leans hard on “redneck” stereotypes, but turns them on their head by deeply humanizing its complex characters. It’s humorless, it’s intense, and at times it’s jarringly violent. In other words, it scratches the very same itch as a certain hit show on AMC.
For almost 20 years now, Neil Gaiman’s celebrated tale of Morpheus, aka Dream of the Endless, has withered away in development hell. Twenty. Years. Countless attempts to adapt it for film and television have come and gone, the most recent of which involved Joseph Gordon-Levitt possibly starring as the title character or directing a big-budget movie. He recently dropped out, but supposedly development continues.
Frankly, Hollywood has dangled this one in front of our eyes too many times now, and we’ve lost hope that it’s ever going to happen. Besides, it’s hard to disagree with Gaiman’s well-known assertion that he’d rather there was “no Sandman movie than a bad Sandman movie.” Its “out there” premise is probably what’s kept studio execs from believing that it could find a mainstream audience. But what if it could be done, and done right, on television?
There’s only one way to do that, and that’s to sign on Neil Gaiman as its producer, or at the very least, consultant. The dark, moody saga of the master of the dream realm and his slow, reluctant character arc is the sort of one-of-a-kind property that could intrigue Starz, or if done smartly, on a smaller budget, maybe even Syfy. Wherever it might land, with Gaiman’s direct involvement, its mythological storytelling would make for something very, very special.
There’s an elephant in the room, so let’s get it out of the way. Writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples have repeatedly said that they have no interest in licensing Saga for television or film. Ever. Vaughan likes to say that he intentionally added all kinds of wild settings and characters to Saga that for budgetary reasons, you could never do in a live-action medium. Okay, granted.
But what if the planets aligned, with just the right cast, the perfect showrunner, and a network willing to make it a marquee title? Never say never. Game of Thrones won’t go on forever, and you can bet that by the time it’s winding down, HBO will already be looking for its next high-concept, big budget, buzz-worthy show.
Saga would be a brilliant candidate to succeed Thrones, because its fans are just as rabid, its world is just as dense, and its characters are every bit as fascinating. Instead of fantasy, Saga is a Romeo and Juliet set amid “serious” science fiction trappings, but in a world unlike anything ever seen before. Obviously the setting would have to be reigned-in a bit to have any hope of happening in live action. Its inhabitants are comprised of seemingly the most bizarre ideas Vaughan could conjure, with TV-headed robots, half a ghost whose intestines dangle from her broken torso, and alien creatures that are little more than legs with faces being just a few of his visually outlandish characters. It’s also explicit enough to only work on pay cable.
Despite all of this, it’s a testament to Vaughan and Staples’ work that the characters and situations are completely relatable. Yeah, it’ll probably never happen. But it sure is fun to imagine. Who would you cast as main characters Alana and Marko?
Which of these comics do you most want to see on the small screen? Did we miss any of your favorites? Let us hear it in the comments section.