The best TV shows based on comic books and graphic novels

The colorful stories from comic books and graphic novels have been adapted into television shows for decades, dating all the way back to “Adventures of Superman” in the early ’50s. While numerous superheroes have graced the small screen, networks and streaming platforms have widened the scope of which hand-drawn tales can be translated for TV. The latest is FX on Hulu’s “Y: The Last Man” starring Olivia Thirlby, Diane Lane and Ben Schnetzer as a group of people living in a post-apocalyptic world where a mysterious cataclysmic event instantaneously killed every mammal with a Y chromosome. To celebrate the series premiere on Sept. 13, 2021, join as we take a look at some of the best shows based on comic books and graphic novels.

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“WandaVision” made waves when it arrived on streaming platform Disney+ in 2021. The limited series focuses on beloved “Avengers” characters Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, and Vision, and marks the first television series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe produced by Marvel Studios. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany reprise their respective film roles as Wanda tries to conceal her true nature in an idyllic suburban life in the town of Westview, New Jersey. As their surroundings begin to move through different decades and they encounter various television tropes, S.W.O.R.D. agents try to infiltrate the Hex that’s surrounding Westview after discovering things are not as they seem. The series received praise from critics for its sitcom settings, dark tonal shifts and versatile performances. Fans participated in endless online discussions centering around theories, mysteries, use of sitcom references and the show’s exploration of grief. TVLine called it “an intriguing, fresh, genuinely delightful deviation from what we’ve come to expect” from Marvel adaptations. The series received 23 Primetime Emmy Awards nominations in 2021.

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“Watchmen” was immediately declared one of the greatest graphic novels when it hit shelves in the mid-’80s, but it took more than 20 years for it to be adapted for the screen with a 2009 film. The movie polarized viewers and critics, but it didn’t keep “Lost” and “The Leftovers” mastermind Damon Lindelof from giving it another try a decade later with a 2019 HBO limited series. The show is a sequel that takes place 34 years after the events of the comics and focuses on events surrounding racist violence in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A white supremacist group has taken up arms against the Tulsa Police Department because of perceived racial injustices, and Regina King portrays a masked detective known as Sister Night who finds herself in over her head as she investigates the secrets surrounding the murder of the police chief. “Watchmen” received widespread critical acclaim for its performances, writing, visuals and expansion of the source material, with The Atlantic calling it “sublime and absurd.” The series received 26 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and won 11 of them, the most for any show in 2020.

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The post-apocalyptic horror program “The Walking Dead” — which is based on a long-running comic book series of the same name — has spent more than a decade as one of television’s most popular shows since it premiered in 2010. Featuring a massive ensemble cast, it follows the survivors of a zombie apocalypse who are trying to stay alive as they encounter the undead as well as other human survivors who’ve formed groups and communities with their own sets of laws and morals. The thrilling adventures — which will end after season 11 airs in 2021-2022 — developed a massive, devoted fanbase, attracting the most 18-to-49-year-old viewers of any cable or broadcast television series at one point. It debuted to critical praise, which dipped in later seasons before rebounding with its more recent episodes. Review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes noted the ninth season “feels more alive than ever, with heightened tension and a refreshed pace that rejuvenates this long-running franchise.” The show has spawned two spinoff shows — “Fear the Walking Dead” and “The Walking Dead: World Beyond.”

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Superman has appeared on television in numerous iterations, but arguably the most successful came with “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” in 1993. Starring Dean Cain as Clark Kent/Superman and Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane, it focuses on the relationship and romance between the comic book world’s most well-known couple. In this case, Superman’s heroic adventures played second fiddle to his personal life, which helped set it apart from other tales about the Man of Steel. People fell in love with the electric chemistry between Dean and Teri, and critics were equally spellbound. The Los Angeles Times wrote in its review at the time, “Cain, Hatcher and everyone else here strike just the right tone of playfulness. It’s the writing that sends this parody into orbit, however. Lois & Clark is a series that flies.” It ran for four seasons and earned multiple Primetime Emmy nominations until time slot changes caused ratings to drop and an eventual cancellation.

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The young, sweet-natured characters of the long-running Archie Comics were given a much darker spin on The CW’s “Riverdale.” The teen drama follows the sexy, murderous and supernatural underbelly of the idyllic town that houses Archie and his friends including Betty, Veronica and Jughead. As Rotten Tomatoes’ critical consensus reads, “‘Riverdale’ offers an amusingly self-aware reimagining of its classic source material that proves eerie, odd, daring and above all addictive.” It became an overnight sensation among teens when it premiered in 2017 and quickly shaped into one of the most popular shows worldwide on Netflix. The young cast of the show, which spawned two spinoff series and plenty of branded merchandise, were instant breakouts. The fifth season of “Riverdale” debuted in 2021 and season 6 premiers in late 2021.

The main character from the hit Netflix drama “Lucifer” is based on one from the acclaimed comic book series “The Sandman,” which was published in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In this reimagining, Tom Ellis stars as Lucifer Morningstar, aka the Devil, who abandons Hell for Los Angeles, where he runs his own nightclub and becomes a consultant to the L.A. Police Department. Tom’s performance was a highlight from the show’s start in 2016, but critics were as mixed about the series as the ratings were when it aired its first three seasons on FOX. While the network canned the show, Netflix quickly picked it up for another run, which received high ratings and critical acclaim. We Got This Covered wrote that “it remains an unapologetically sordid, demonically fun hour of TV.” Due to its success on the streaming platform, it was renewed for a fifth season, which was meant to be its last, until a sixth and final season was announced in 2020. The last episodes were released in 2021.

One of the more dark and adult inclusions on this list is “The Boys,” which is based on the comics of the same name published from 2006 to 2012. The Amazon Prime Video series follows the eponymous team of vigilantes as they combat other corrupt superpowered individuals who abuse their abilities. The show’s graphic violence and adult themes built a devoted fanbase, turning it into one of the streaming platform’s most popular programs. As Bloody Disgusting wrote in its review of the first season, “Not a frame is spared in crafting this nuanced and darkly humorous universe drenched in blood and violence. All eight episodes are expertly crafted and constructed to tell one cohesive story that will make you gasp, guffaw, and cheer in equal measure.” Other critics have given praise for the show’s writing, storyline, humor and performances. A third season is in production and a spinoff series is also in the works.

The Netflix hit “The Umbrella Academy,” which premiered in 2019, is based on a mid-’00s comic book series of the same name by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way. It revolves around a dysfunctional family of adopted sibling superheroes who reunite to solve the mystery of their father’s death and address the threat of an imminent apocalypse. Netflix reported that 45 million households had watched season 1 during its first month of release, making it one of the most streamed series that year. Critics warmed to the show’s dynamic ensemble, lead by Elliott Page, with Forbes writing, “If you’re looking for a pulpy show with lots of action, melodramatic plotting and eccentric characters then ‘The Umbrella Academy’ is your ticket.” Its winning brand of superhero action and family drama has proved popular over two seasons on Netflix and helped garner multiple Primetime Emmy Award nominations. In 2020, it was renewed for a third season.

The moody, British slice-of-life graphic novel “The End of the F****** World” was turned into a dramedy series for Netflix starting in 2017. It depicts a 17-year-old who believes himself to be a psychopath and his friendship with an angry classmate who runs away with him as a chance to escape from her tumultuous home life. The dark comedy ran for two seasons and received tons of critical praise. The Hollywood Reporter lauded the writing, characters, soundtrack and the performances of stars Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden, calling it a “pitch-black, eight-episode comedy gem of a U.K. import”. Both seasons were nominated for the British Academy Television Award for best drama series, with the second set of episodes winning in 2020; the also received a Peabody Award in 2019.

David Haller, aka Legion, is a lesser known character from the X-Men comic universe, a mutant who’s also the son of team founder Professor Charles Xavier. Despite making his first comic appearance in the mid-’80s, he didn’t make his live-action debut until FX’s “Legion” TV series in 2017. On the show, David is a mutant diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age who’s trying to control his powers and the sinister forces trying to control them while evading a government agency. Created by acclaimed “Fargo” helmer Noah Hawley and starring “Downton Abbey” alum Dan Stevens, it provides a unique approach to the superhero genre at a time when the box office has become oversaturated with “X-Men” films. The show ran for three seasons, all of which received universal acclaim for their distinct narrative structure and visual style, which included mixing ’60s design with modern-day elements. As NPR wrote, “‘Legion’ uses visuals, editing, music and sound better than almost any series on television. And I don’t just mean any series now — I mean ever.”

A more straightforward take on the superhero genre, “Arrow” became one of The CW’s signature shows when it premiered in 2012. It stars Stephen Amell as the beloved green-hooded character who made his first comic book appearance in the ’40s. The show follows the billionaire playboy who fights crime and corruption as a secret vigilante using a bow and arrow as his weapon of choice. It quickly became one of the network’s most popular shows and proved superhero heroics can translate for a modern audience on the small screen as well as they do in theaters. Entertainment Weekly said the series “possesses an intelligence that shines through its TV-budget production values, which aren’t too shabby. The writing is adult and witty, the action is exciting, and Amell holds the center with well-cultivated ease.” “Arrow” became such a sensation that it introduced an entire universe of television shows before it wrapped after eight seasons in 2019, with the so-called “Arrowverse” consisting of spinoff shows “The Flash,” “Supergirl,” “Legends of Tomorrow,” “Black Lightning,” “Batwoman” and “Superman & Lois.”

Seth Rogen served as one of the executive producers of the AMC series “Preacher,” which is based on the popular adult-oriented comic book from the late ’90s. It stars Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking preacher who, enduring a crisis of faith, becomes infused with an extraordinary power to command others with only his voice. He embarks on a quest to better understand his new gift and literally find God, alongside his trigger-happy ex-girlfriend and new vampire friend. Its mix of comedy and horror drew appreciation from critics even if it wasn’t considered award-worthy, with The New York Times writing, “It’s a blasphemous blood bath, a metaphysical action caper, stylized and splattery, that doesn’t have great depth but makes up for it with volume.” Fans fell for the violent action that ran for four seasons.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator — and “The Avengers” director — Joss Whedon brought Marvel superheroes to network television with “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” in 2013. While the show isn’t adapted from a specific comic book, it is based on the Marvel Comics organization S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), a peacekeeping and spy agency in a world of superheroes. It marks the first TV show to be set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, acknowledging the franchise’s other entries and featuring guest appearances from characters from the films. While the action-packed procedural never earned the same acclaim as the Marvel movies, it developed enough of a following to run for seven seasons and spawn a digital show and a comic book series of its own.

One of the earliest superhero success stories on television was the ’70s action series “Wonder Woman” starring Lynda Carter as the most famous female name in comics. The series follows the Amazonian heroine as she saves American pilot Major Steve Trevor and follows him back to the United States to fight crime. The landmark series ran for three seasons and became the quintessential embodiment of the golden-lasso-flinging heroine. Viewers fell for the campy action featuring her iconic bulletproof accessories and invisible plane, and Lynda’s performance remained the most recognizable face of Wonder Woman until she finally hit the big screen in 2016 as played by Gal Gadot. “I’ve tried to keep her alive a long time,” Lynda told People magazine that same year. “People either wanted to be her, or be her best friend. She lives in us. There’s a part of her that is the secret self, the unrecognized self that we all have.” 

A different take on the Batman universe arrived on the small screen when “Gotham” premiered in 2014. It serves as a prequel to the Caped Crusader’s comic books and reveals the origin stories of eventual Gotham City Police Department Commissioner James Gordon and the city’s infamous villains. Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue star as the police detectives who take on the countless comic book bad guys and solve the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents years before he becomes the beloved masked superhero. The crime-drama series never reached the same heights of acclaim or popularity as the Batman films, but fans of the comics were excited to watch the backstories of some of Gotham’s most popular characters. Indiewire referred to “Gotham” as “the perfect antidote to superhero fatigue,” praising the “bright, pop-inflected aesthetic, with urban backdrops that appear as though cut out from the panels of a comic book.” It developed enough demand to run for five seasons on FOX before ending in 2019.

There’s not a superpower to be found on the comic book series “Stumptown,” which instead served as a modern-day noir-style detective tale when it arrived in 2009. A decade later, ABC turned it into a primetime drama series starring Cobie Smulders as a sharp-witted military veteran who becomes a private investigator to solve problems where the police cannot get involved. The title is a nickname for the city of Portland, Oregon, where the series is set. As she solves various crimes, she also deals with heavy gambling debt and PTSD from her time in the military as she takes care of her younger brother. The show received critical raves upon its release, with Rotten Tomatoes’ consensus reading, “Simple, but strong, ‘Stumptown’ moves at a brisk pace and packs a serious punch thanks in large part to Cobie Smulders’ star-making performance.” Despite subdued ratings, the appealing mystery program was renewed for a second season. But after COVID-19 caused numerous production delays, ABC sadly decided to cancel it instead.

The early ’00s comic book “iZombie” took a more light-hearted approach to zombies, which made it the perfect source material for a CW comedic crime series that debuted in 2015. It stars Rose McIver as doctor-turned-zombie Olivia “Liv” Moore, a Seattle Police medical examiner who helps solve murders after eating the victims’ brains and temporarily inheriting their memories and personalities. The bizarre story became one of television’s most unique dramedies, with the Dallas Observer calling it “dazzlingly, tirelessly witty” with an “acute attention to human relationships.” Rose’s winning performance and the clever, funny portrayal of a potential zombie takeover built a cult audience who helped keep it running for five seasons. 

“Marvel’s Runaways” introduced comic book fans in the mid-’00s to a slew of new teen heroes who were adapted to appear on a drama series by the creators of “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl” for streaming platform Hulu in 2017. It features a group of high schoolers from different backgrounds who discover that their parents are all part of an evil crime organization. Upon learning that they’ve inherited their powers, the team steals weapons from their parents in order to defeat them. It provides a timely way of mixing a diverse cast, the teen angst of popular youth-skewing dramas and the exciting action of Marvel’s theatrical properties. USA Today called it “a cheeky, splashy and addictive coming-of-age adventure that feels at once fresh and comfortingly familiar.” It never caught the same buzz of, say, “Riverdale” or “Stranger Things,” but its winning ensemble cast helped attract enough of an audience to keep it running for three seasons.

Horror westerns are a rare commodity in any medium, but “Wynonna Earp” filled that gap when the comic book was first published in 1996. Ten years later and the action-packed saga was adapted for television with a Canadian series of the same name. Melanie Scrofano stars as the titular character, the great-great-granddaughter of legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, who returns to her hometown near the Canadian Rockies and battles revenants, the reincarnated outlaws that Wyatt killed. It aired in the U.S. on Spike before eventually being moved to SyFy, where the show found a small but devoted following. Collider called it “a fresh and familiar take on zombies, the Wild West and gunslinger culture” and “something that also feels different to anything we’re seeing on TV currently, thanks not only to its setting, but its prominent placement of so many strong, profane, kicka** female characters.” The show’s gritty, silly, supernatural fun kept it on the air for four seasons until 2021.

Long before the kids of “Riverdale” began investigating murders, a much lighter and more kid-friendly adaptation of the characters from Archie Comics hit the airwaves with “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” in 1996. The sitcom stars Melissa Joan Hart as Sabrina Spellman, who learns that she has magical powers on her 16th birthday. Viewers became enamored with the teen sorceress as the show chronicled her struggles to adjust to her new abilities with the help of her 600-year-old aunts and their magical talking cat. The show was a ratings titan, becoming the biggest hit on ABC’s popular “T.G.I.F.” lineup, before moving to youth-skewing network The WB and running for a total of seven seasons. It turned Melissa into a major celebrity and spawned two TV movies, an animated series and an endless supply of merchandise.

A new Superman origin story became a teen sensation when “Smallville” arrived on the small screen in 2001. Tom Welling stars as Clark Kent, high school student who’s balancing a normal life with his secret superhuman powers in the fictional town of Smallville, Kansas, years before becoming the Man of Steel. It starts by focusing on his love story with fellow student Lana Lang as they deal with the teen angst that comes with high school life, while later seasons head to Metropolis to depict Clark’s growing journalism career at the Daily Planet alongside eventual love Lois Lane. Both comic book fans and teen viewers fell for the young superhero, his romantic drama with Lana and the action-packed sequences featuring Clark and his arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor. The first episode set a ratings record for The WB and the show ran for 10 seasons, passing “Stargate SG-1” as the longest running North American science-fiction series by episode count. “Smallville” received accolades ranging from Emmys to Teen Choice Awards and spawned tons of merchandise, including an original comic book series based on the show.

Marvel Comics hero Daredevil made his first hand-drawn appearance in 1964. His big-screen debut came in 2003 in a much-maligned film starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner. But after the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a box office powerhouse, a new adaptation was developed for Netflix. Charlie Cox stars as Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, a blind lawyer by day who fights crime as a masked vigilante by night. This version of the beloved character received a much warmer reception from both viewers and critics, with Rotten Tomatoes’ consensus reading, “With tight adherence to its source material’s history, high production quality, and a no-nonsense dramatic flair, ‘Daredevil’ excels as an effective superhero origin story, a gritty procedural and an exciting action adventure.” The response was so good for the show’s three seasons that it became the first in a series of Marvel programs for the streaming platform that included “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage,” “Iron Fist,” “The Punisher” and “The Defenders.”

We likely wouldn’t have superheroes on television without the success of the ’60s live-action series “Batman.” It stars Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Burt Ward as Dick Grayson/Robin, the iconic crime-fighting heroes who defend Gotham City from a variety of archvillains. The hit show became synonymous with its campy style, upbeat theme music and intentionally humorous, simplistic morality. The series was aimed at children and came at a time before comic books explored the darker themes that eventually bled into later television adaptations. It ran for three seasons, spawned a movie and still stands out from the darker depictions of the Caped Crusader that have been released since. It speaks to a different era when comics had yet to be taken seriously by adults and before creatives had truly explored the depths to which comic book TV shows could go.

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