While it seems almost every show you hear about these days is based on a comic book, there is a fairly robust market in the other direction: comic books based on television shows. This has been true since at least the Silver Age of Comics (c. 1956 – c.1970) when publishers like DC Comics, Dell, and Gold Key published monthly titles based on television shows like Leave It to Beaver and The Twilight Zone. In more recent times, you were just as likely to see a cartoon with a companion comic book than not.
Then there are the strange outliers like Masters of the Universe, which initially told its story in the form of minicomics available within the packaging of the various action figures, playsets, and vehicles. The cartoon series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, cherry-picked some of the minicomics ideas for its own continuity, which in turn inspired DC’s Masters of the Universe series a decade or so later.
While many of these titles were quick tie-in comics with little heart, many manage to reflect their sources and turn into successful continuations — or even longer lasting series in their own right. With that in mind, here are five comic book titles which excelled at making what works on TV work in the panels and pages of comic books.
Perhaps the most commercially successful television to comic book transition is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Beginning in 1998, while the show starring Sarah Michelle Gellar (pictured) was still airing, Dark Horse Comics began to publish tie-in comics detailing new adventures. While some stories took place between episodes or between seasons, the canonicity – whether or not they mattered to the television series – was debatable. In 2001, Buffy creator Joss Whedon began an eight-issue series called Fray. It featured a future Slayer named Melaka Fray and was one of the first high-profile stories to be considered canon with the television show.
Both the television series and Dark Horse’s ongoing Buffy comic wrapped up in 2003, but the comic wasn’t dormant for long. In 2007, the company announced a new direction for their Buffy brand: Season Eight. Considered an official continuation of the television series following its season 7 finale, Whedon and writers like Lost’s Brian K. Vaughn, Drew Goddard, and Buffy alumn Jane Espenseon followed Buffy as she directed a band of Slayers, psychics, witches, and other supernaturally inclined allies. The series took on a more epic scale with international ramifications and a “Big Bad” who hoped to end the Slayers and magic itself. The series ran until 2011, when it was replaced with a Season Nine title and spin-offs like Angel & Faith and Spike: A Dark Place.
After the sprawling Season Eight tale, Whedon and his collaborators chose to return to the TV show’s emphasis on the characters. New seasons have continued intermittently with a four-issue Season Twelve set to begin in June. It is slated to be the final canonical comic book season of Buffy, wrapping up a story Whedon began over 20 years ago.
The classic 1960s spy series about an abducted former agent, dubbed “Number 6” by his captors, nearly became a Jack Kirby production when he drew pages for a Prisoner comic book series in the early 1970s. It never materialized, but the pages he produced will soon be available to the public as The Prisoner: Original Art Edition from Titan Comics in July. The collection will include Kirby’s incomplete adaptation of the series pilot and 18 pages of a separate story by writer Steve Englehart and artist Gil Kane.
A second attempt to adapt The Prisoner occurred in the late 1980s when DC Comics released the four-issue prestige miniseries The Prisoner: Shattered Visage. Written by Dean Motter with art by Mark Askwith, the miniseries hoped to answer some of the questions left behind by the television series baffling conclusion; though a text prologue in the collected edition dismissed the finale as a drug-induced hallucination. Picking up 20 years later, former British intelligence agent Alice Drake washes up on the shores of the Village and discovers a lone Villager, a man who resembles the star of the television series, but answers to no name or number. He immediately dubs her “Number 6.” The pair tour the disused Village until the arrival of its former head administrator, a member of Parliament known only as “Number 2” who spent the last 20 years in prison and published a tell-all book about the retirement home for spies. Meanwhile, Alice’s husband has his own reasons for locating the Village, which may or may not have something to do with the stockpile of nuclear weapons left behind by the site’s creator, Number 1.
Askwith’s moody art makes it a compelling, if difficult, read. Though tacitly approved by series creator Patrick McGoohan — Motter was latter told “he didn’t hate it” — fans recoiled from its choice to characterize the final episode as a drug trip and return to the more conventional spy tone of the early episodes. Nonetheless, it maintains the characterization of the McGoohan’s lone wolf ex-agent while leading the final Number 2 into a place of madness. Since it divides fans as much as the series finale, it carries the heart of The Prisoner into its pages.
A new Prisoner comic book series from Titan debuted this week. Written by Peter Milligan and drawn by Colin Lorimer, it begins a new Village tale with a new Number 6.
Like the series upon which they are based, Doctor Who comics share its longevity and ability to weather change. The program’s connection to comics stretches back almost as far as the television series itself, appearing in comic strip form in UK anthology titles like Countdown and TV Comic. But due to strange licensing deals, the first two Doctors appeared with a pair of child companions made especially for the strip, establishing a new and bizarre canon from the word go.
Eventually, successive creative teams of the strip were allowed to use the Doctor’s TV companions and newer artists were more successful at rendering the various lead actors from the television show. Nonetheless, the Doctor Who strip reserved the right to create its own companions and stories while following lock-step with the television show’s major cast changes.
Comic book royalty like Alan Moore, Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, and Happy!’s Grant Morrison worked on the strip in the 1980s. The stories began to look and feel more like the television show, though Morrison’s stories would see the Sixth Doctor adventuring with a talking penguin and reuniting with former companion Jamie McCrimmon. He also offered an alternative origin for the Cybermen in a story which linked up two early Doctor Who television stories.
After the original television series’ conclusion in 1989, the strip continued in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine. Published by Marvel’s UK branch at the time, the Doctor — in his Sylvester McCoy form — would find himself appearing in Marvel UK titles like Death’s Head, making him an occasional visitor to the Marvel Universe.
While the strip has continued without pause for decades, dedicated Doctor Who comic books have a spottier history. Marvel occasionally reprinted Doctor Who Magazine strips in comic book format for the U.S. market, but it never took off. Comic book publisher IDW released a number of Doctor Who miniseries in the mid-2000s. Currently, Titan Comics publishes a number of Doctor Who titles centered around the New Series Doctors (and, like the strips, all-new exclusive companion characters) with the occasional miniseries featuring a classic Doctor. In 2015, the individual series crossed over to bring the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Doctors together; though, the earlier Doctors refused to recognize the Twelfth as their future self at first. Titan already has plans to publish Thirteenth Doctor comics alongside the debut of new series star Jodie Whittaker in the fall.
Riding on the success of Batman: The Animated Series, DC Comics quickly put into production a new Batman series, The Batman Adventures, based on the cartoon’s look and tone in 1992. With writing (for the most part) by Kelley Puckett and art by Mike Parobeck and Rick Burchett, each issue told a story in the TAS mold, but the most successful Batman Adventures issue was the Mad Love special. Written by TAS scriptwriter Paul Dini and illustrated by executive producer Bruce Timm, the special explored the strange attraction Harley Quinn felt for the Joker, firming an element of the character that now spans into filmland. Thanks to Dini and Timm’s involvement, the special issue was later adapted into an episode of the series, as was a later holiday-themed special issue.
As the animated series was rebranded, so was the comic book series, molting into The Batman and Robin Adventures in 1995. Burchett returned to draw the 25-issue series while Ty Templeton took over as writer. The format finally wrapped up in 2004 when DC began to publish comics based on the then-airing The Batman Strikes! animated series.
Over the course of the Adventures titles, they became one of the company’s few children’s titles to succeed despite a number of initiatives to get kids back into comics. Maintaining the look and feel of the animated series was key to its success and the success of Adventures titles based on Superman: The Animated Series and the two Timm-produced Justice League cartoon series.
Thanks to Hasbro’s relationship with Marvel Comics — which grew from their work developing G.I. Joe characters in the early part of the 1980s — The Transformers comic book predates the 1984 animated series by several months. Their concurrent development meant the two would have diverging concepts for characters, backstory, and even the reason the Transformers crash-landed on Earth in the first place. The early issues of the Marvel series also saw cameos by Marvel characters like Spider-Man. For many longtime fans, the Marvel comic book is the canon for Transformers with a Grimlock known for his disdain of humans and a timeline that never jumped forward to 2005 (as seen in the animated Transformers: The Movie).
Of course, the nature of that cannon is somewhat muddled as British writer Simon Furman would add more material to the U.K.’s weekly Transformer series. He eventually took over plotting duties of the U.S. monthly series, adding concepts like Transformer creator Primus to the lore; in fact, it may surprise those who mainly remember the 1980s cartoon that much of the modern Transformer history — both in the films and current IDW comic books — has its roots in the Marvel comic book series.
Dreamwave Productions began publishing Transformers comic books in 2001, melding the comic book history Marvel created with elements of the classic cartoon. They even had ambitious plans to incorporate the Beast Wars series into a single, sensible canon. Their master plan was not to be, as the company went bankrupt. IDW took over the license in 2005 and started over. Initiated by Furman, the IDW continuity continues to this day with lesser known characters like Cyclonus and Tailgate emerging as fan favorite characters and new toy products like Windblade making successful leaps into pages of the company’s ongoing Transformers comic book. Sadly, it is about to end, as IDW has planned for a major reboot of their Transformers comics in September.
While the five titles listed represent some of the most creatively and financially successful television-to-comics transitions, they are no means the only comics based on TV shows to be found. Series like CSI, Adventure Time, Vikings, The Bionic Woman, Dark Shadows, and Star Trek all found their way to comic book pages. And for at least one reader, they were the best comics to be found. Though often subordinate to their television counterparts, these titles can find unexpected lives and, like The Transformers, feed right back into the main part of the brand. Sometimes, they even breathe more life into a long-departed television show.