7 Underrated Comic Book Characters Killing It on TV Right Now

Jughead, Mon-El, and Gorilla Grodd are among the most surprisingly satisfying comic book character adaptations found on the small screen.

by | March 16, 2017 | Comments

Cole Sprouse as Jughead in Riverdale, Gorilla Grodd on The Flash, Chris Wood as Mon-El on Supergirl, Carlos Valdes as Cisco on The Flash (all The CW); Gabriel Luna as Ghost Rider on Agents of SHIELD (ABC)

The proliferation of television shows based on comic books means producers must dig deeper – much deeper – than the marquee characters of major motion pictures and TV’s yesteryear. With the Justice League, the Avengers, and a good number of X-Men unavailable, a lot of these second- and third-tier characters have a new chance at popularity.

Of course, adapting some of these characters is more difficult than trying to make a man fly. Some require radical reinvention, while others just need a change of clothes. And every so often, one is so perfectly realized in the pages of their source comic that the best thing television can do is let them live in their four-color glory. Let’s take a look at a handful of some of the most successful of these recent comic books–to–TV reinventions.

Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) | Riverdale 80%

Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones in Riverdale (Art Streiber/The CW); Jughead comic (Archie Comics)

One of the most recent comic book characters to enter the TV fray is not known for his amazing abilities or status as a beloved icon with T-shirt sales to prove his worth. Instead, Archie Comics’ Jughead Jones is known more for three things: a sunny disposition, his crown-like whoopee cap, and a voracious appetite. First appearing in Pep Comics #22, Juggie has been Archie’s best friend for at least three generations despite the character’s lack of interest in sports or girls (Archie’s favorite subjects). Typically, the character’s quirks are played for comedic effect, but the new CW series Riverdale shows that Jughead can have layers.

His appetite for hamburgers has been replaced with a thirst for justice as the town’s resident chronicler. A recent episode also revealed he was living in a drive-in movie theater; no doubt a source of his tendency to brood far more often than his classic comic-book interpretation. Elements of the characterization debuted in a major 2015 reboot of Archie Comics and the 2016 Jughead comic book series written by Chip Zdarsky and, later, Ryan North. But as played by Cole Sprouse, Archie’s ex-best friend is a delight to watch as he and Betty attempt to solve Jason Blossom’s murder and re-establish Riverdale High’s student newspaper.

One element that may not transfer from his new comic book status quo to screen is Jughead’s status as asexual. Sprouse has offered his support for that interpretation of the character in interviews, but it seems the producers of Riverdale may have other ideas.

And though it may seem one of the most radical departures from comics to TV, Jughead’s sense of fair play and outsider persona are well established traits in the comics, if usually presented in a happier light. If anything, the show has identified a number of dramatically provocative elements that make him an essential part of the series and a possible trendsetter with his modern take on the whoopee cap.

Riverdale airs Thursdays at 9/8C on The CW; series returns March 30

Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna) | Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 95%

Ghost Rider Agents of SHIELD (Marvel Comics; ABC)

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has offered a weekly glimpse into the Marvel Cinematic Universe for nearly five years, but as its ties to the films’ universe appear to become fewer, the series has found a new niche in focusing on Marvel Comics characters that may not be strong enough to carry their own film or television series. One example is the recent storyline featuring Ghost Rider.

The character first debuted in 1972 in the form of Johnny Blaze (created by Gary Friedrich, Roy Thomas, and Mike Ploog), but his television form comes from a recent Ghost Rider series by writer Felipe Smith with artist Tradd Moore.

Robbie Reyes is a hard working high school kid from the Lincoln Heights section of Los Angeles who happens to become possessed by the angry spirit of his Satan-worshipping dead uncle. In exchange for the powers of Ghost Rider, Robbie agrees to help Uncle Eli with his need to kill. But all Robbie really wants is to make the neighborhood safe for his developmentally challenged little brother Gabe.

On S.H.I.E.L.D., the producers went for a fairly faithful approach; right down to Robbie’s jacket, Lincoln Heights stomping ground, and boss Dodge Charger. A few alterations to his origin include receiving his powers directly from Johnny Blaze and Eli turning up alive in prison, but hellbent on learning the secrets of an ancient dark tome presumably stolen from the library at Kamar-Taj. He is also older than his comic-book counterpart.

Played by Gabriel Luna, the character gave the series some truly great episodes and one absolutely amazing sequence: the showdown between Ghost Rider and the Inhuman Hellfire in a fireworks factory.

While Ghost Rider – in any of his forms – may never be strong enough to carry a series, Luna’s Ghost Rider made for a spectacular ally (and occasional foil) for Coulson’s team simply by bringing the strongest elements of the comic book Robbie Reyes to the screen.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesdays at 10/9 C on ABC; series returns April 4

Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) | Marvel - Jessica Jones 83%

Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) from Jessica Jones (Netflix); Hellcat comic (Marvel Comics)

Perhaps one of the most unconventional characters on the list, Patsy Walker began her Marvel Comics career in the teen romance–comedy comics published by Marvel when it was known as Timely Comics in the 1940s. Created by Otto Binder and Ruth Atkinson in the pages of Miss America Magazine #2, Patsy soon earned her own title and survived changes in comic book trends and the company’s evolving identity until 1965 when Patsy Walker was canceled. She made a cameo appearance at wedding of the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richard and Sue Storm that same year, but would not become a Marvel superhero until writer Steve Engelhart revived her in the pages of The Avengers in 1976. Adopting the name Hellcat, she eventually became a member of the Defenders. Sometime later, she died — as many Marvel heroes do — and returned from Hell with magic-based powers. In recent years, she became the best friend of She-Hulk Jennifer Walters.

In an interesting wrinkle, the Patsy Walker comics of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s became part of her backstory; the in-universe products of her estranged and manipulative mother. In the current series, Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat!, this aspect of her past became relevant again as Patsy’s rival from the teen comics, Hedy Wolfe, attempted to seize control of her mother’s estate to reprint and profit from the Patsy Walker series. The resulting fanfare lead to Hellcat becoming internet famous in both her personas while also opening old wounds.

On Marvel’s Netflix series Jessica Jones, Patsy’s magical powers and superhero credentials were replaced with a popular New York radio show and a very special role as best friend to Jessica (Krysten Ritter), who is endowed with superstrength and other abilities.

Interestingly, the producers of the series seized on Patsy’s relationship with her mother and the Patsy Walker comics to create an involving supporting character. In the show’s history, Trish (as she is called) starred on the television teen comedy It’s Patsy and was forced to live the life her mother created for the character.

Escaping from her mother left Trish paranoid, but also interested in learning to fight. She trains in advanced martial arts and also prods Jessica into using her powers to help people, setting off the main story of the first season. It remains to be seen if this means Trish will eventually become Hellcat in Marvel’s TV New York, but actress Rachael Taylor already admitted that the prospect would be amazing.

Trish Walker appeared in voiceover in Luke Cage and will also appear in upcoming Marvel superhero ensemble series The Defenders on Netflix alongside Jessica, Luke, Daredevil, and Iron Fist.

Jessica Jones is available to stream on Netflix

Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) | The Flash 89%

Cisco (DC Comics); The Flash - Carlos Valdes ( Katie Yu/The CW)

One remarkable aspect of The CW’s various series based on DC Comics is their surprising devotion to the “Detroit Era” of the Justice League of America comic book. From 1984 to 1987, Aquaman ran the League out of old Detroit factory, and it featured members like Martian Manhunter (now appearing on Supergirl), Citizen Steel (now on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow), Vixen (star of the CW Seed series and a character on Legends), Gypsy (a Flash guest character), and Vibe. The latter was notable for being the first Puerto Rican superhero in the DC Universe, but his stereotypical gangland roots and penchant for breakdancing while using his sonic powers soon made him a punchline. He also died during the 1987 Legends crossover event.

This didn’t stop Flash’s eventual executive producer Andrew Kreisberg from attempting to rehabilitate the character in his own Vibe series in 2013. Teased as a member of the New 52’s Justice League, Vibe was said to be the survivor of a close encounter with an interdimensional gate known as a Boom Tube, developing sonic powers thereafter.

But the real saving throw for Vibe came when Kreisberg and producers Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim enlisted him into the ranks of Team Flash in the Flash series they were developing for The CW.

Played by Carlos Valdes, Vibe was reshaped as Cisco Ramon; an engineer of particular skill, an expert in nerdy media, and a procurer of fantastic T-shirts. With no gang affiliations or a particular need to breakdance, he was quite a departure from the Justice League Detroit character, but also a further adaption from Kreisberg’s earlier work with the character. At first Cisco exhibited no powers, but was presented as an equal amongst the S.T.A.R. Labs crew. Ready with the wry quip or pop culture reference, he quickly became one of Barry Allen’s closest friends. In the second season, his metahuman abilities began to emerge and now resemble the skill set Kreisberg gave the character in the comic book.

Unlike the previous characters on this list, Cisco required the most reconstruction as the character underneath the superpowers needed serious thought and consideration. It is interesting to note that the Flash production team had to look at him first as a character before thinking about him as a superhero – he’s only recently worn a costume. The end result is a character filled with a charm one suspects his creators always wanted him to have, but never quite accomplished.

The Flash airs Tuesdays at 8/7 C on The CW

Mon-El (Chris Wood) | Supergirl 88%

Mon-El: Chris Wood, Melissa Benoist, David Harewood in Supergirl (Katie Yu/The CW)

Lar Gand of Daxam has a lush, but often rewritten history in the DC Comics Universe, making him an ideal choice for reinvention of TV.

As he first appeared in Superboy #89, he was an amnesiac explorer with nearly identical strengths as Superboy. Believing him to be another survivor of Krypton, Clark dubbed him “Mon-El” and helped him integrate into Smallville society. Eventually, they discovered — to Mon-El’s horror — that he is not Kryptonian. He is also deathly allergic to lead, and a severe reaction forces Clark to send his new friend into the Phantom Zone where he had to remain for 1,000 years to suspend the lethal effects of the poisoning. In the 2960s, the Legion of Super-Heroes finally discovered a means to stave off Mon-El’s vulnerability to lead and induct him into the team.

Beyond similar powers, Mon-El was very much a version of Superboy with a side order of wanderlust. His sense of honor and dedication to his new team led him to become a favorite character among Legion fans in the 1970s. He served two terms as the team leader and as DC Comics changed its in-universe history, he eventually became the inspiration for the Legion in a time travel story more complex than Doctor Who.

But bringing him to The CW’s Supergirl meant reinterpreting not just the character, but his homeworld. On the show, Daxam is depicted as a sister planet to Krypton; sharing the same sun and engaging in a fierce sibling rivalry. Both are completely new elements as the Daxam of DC Comics has always been a world colonized by ancient Kryptonians in another part of the universe. The society of that comic book planet is extremely xenophobic and isolationist. On Supergirl, Kara’s secondhand knowledge of Daxam led her to believe it is a world of autocratic excesses.

This would also seem to be true of Mon-El. Though he claims to be a guard to the prince of Daxam, his boorish, almost fratty tendencies – played with aplomb by Chris Wood — suggest a more affluent upbringing. (A tease for the March 20 episode seemingly gives away Mon-El’s ruse: Looks like he’s actually a prince.) It is also a wild departure from the straight-laced symbol of valor in the Legion comics of the 20th century. At the same time, the changes positioned him as a worthy romantic foil for Kara.

It could also be suggested that this Mon-El will eventually be that heroic Legionnaire of a far-away time. He just has to learn some humility (and to listen to Kara) before he adopts a blue cape and superhero identity.

Perhaps that is what makes this adaptation so successful. Despite a number of wild departures from the comics, Mon-El is on an interesting path. Though he clearly has been holding back a big secret, his time on Earth has been far more productive than a simple case of lead poisoning and a trip to the Phantom Zone.

Supergirl airs Mondays at 8/7C on The CW

Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) | Arrow 86%

Felicity Smoak in Green Arrow (2011-2016) Vol. 35 (DC Comics); Emily Bett Rickards in Arrow (Katie Yu /The CW)

Now a beloved member of Team Arrow, Felicity Smoak began her comics career with a very different role – an opponent for Firestorm. First appearing in The Fury of Firestorm #23, writer Jerry Conway and artist Rafael Kayanan fashioned her as a supervisor at a software firm where Firestorm caused serious collateral damage to their in-development projects. She threatened to sue him and continued to appear in the series as a reminder of unintended consequences.

Ultimately, she married the father of Ronnie Raymond, one half of the team who make up Firestorm. The two eventually called a truce, but Felicity never stopped reminding Ronnie about the damage Firestorm’s powers can unleash. Unlike other characters on the list, Felicity never developed beyond those Firestorm appearances and became DC Comics trivia as Firestorm himself lost relevance.

In 2012, Felicity was re-imagined as an IT expert working at Queen Consolidated in the television series Arrow. Initially planned to be a one-off character with a deep-pull name from DC Comics lore, actress Emily Bett Rickards impressed the producers with her performance, and Felicity soon became a regular facet of Starling City.

Other than retaining the character’s computer background, Arrow had a great amount of freedom adapting the minor DC Comics character into the quippy voice of reason; bringing much needed light to the gruff-voiced duo of Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) and John Diggle (David Ramsey). That freedom gave rise to a character that can be believable as a goth hacktivist college kid and the CEO of Palmer Tech.

The success of Felicity’s adaptation led to the creation of a specific support class within The CW’s superhero shows. It is hard to imagine Winn on Supergirl or even Cisco without Felicity establishing the way.

Arrow airs on Wednesdays at 8/7 C on The CW

Gorilla Grodd (voiced by David Sobolov) | The Flash 89%

Grodd and Grant Gustin in The Flash (The CW); Gorilla Grodd (DC Comics)

So imagine the pitch to a network executive: “This week, the Flash fights a giant, intelligent, telepathic gorilla with mind control powers.” It sounds insane. It always has from the moment Barry Allen first fought Gorilla Grodd in the pages of 1959’s The Flash #106. Created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino, Grodd was a criminal mastermind from a society of hyper-intelligent apes who sought to become its unquestioned leader and, from there, conquer the world.

Yeah, it still sounds insane. But the producers of The Flash television series figured out a way to make it all work by parsing out Grodd’s basic premise over three years and four episodes. Introduced as one of S.T.A.R. Labs’s test animals, Grodd made his first real appearance late in the show’s debut season.

Voiced by David Sobolov, Grodd sought revenge on a U.S. Army general who tortured him during a joint S.T.A.R. Labs–Army experiment in mind control. The season 1 big bad, the Reverse-Flash, was more than happy to assist Grodd and later used him as a distraction when his civilian identity was revealed to the Flash.

In his second season appearance, he hoped to create more apes like himself. Team Flash tried their best to help him by sending him to another Earth where a society of intelligent gorillas already existed. In the most recent episodes, he became ruler of Gorilla City and returned to Earth-1 in an attempt to make it a world under Grodd.

Grodd is, perhaps, the best example of comic book character adapted to TV faithfully while also well-realized. In parceling him out in manageable segments, the show’s staff established him first as a character – even a sympathetic one – before making him a true adversary of the Flash. In doing so, they also managed to create a plausible TV reality in which a hyper-intelligent gorilla with mind control powers is not instantly the most laughable thing on television that week, but instead an anticipated and marketable event.

The Flash airs Tuesdays at 8/7 C on The CW

Is there a comic book character who you think surpasses his or her (or its) paper potential on TV? Tell us in the comments! Comments

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