At this point, despite the occasional think pieces to the contrary, the continued successes of super-hero films and TV series indicate that stories of heroes vs. villains won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. But the bulk of the properties have largely been drawn from either Marvel or DC Comics. Though we’ve seen comic book properties successfully adapted from non-superhero sources recently (“The Walking Dead” and “Preacher” being among the most prominent), when it comes to capes and masks, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see either a DC or Marvel logo kick the proceedings off.
But all that’s about to change, as film studios and TV production companies are itching to get in on the super-action, and are tapping a number of comic book universes for inspiration. We’re going to look at a few such worlds that you’ll soon be seeing at your multiplex or on your TV, and tell you what makes them tick.
Invincible & the Image Universe
Robert Kirkman‘s long-running Image title Invincible recently made big news (in fact, we reported on it ourselves) when a deal was inked that would see Kirkman team with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to adapt the title into a possible franchise for Universal.
Invincible tells the story of Mark Grayson, your average everyday American teenager. Except for the facts that his father is the most powerful super-hero on Earth, and Mark himself is developing powers of his own. Created by Robert Kirkman with Ryan Ottley and Cory Walker, the comic book series is set to end soon in 2017 after 144 issues. Over the years, the series has found fans with its engaging lead characters and well-established relationships combined with an aggressively violent and consequential approach to its super-action, as well as Kirkman’s trademark penchant for the shock/surprise plot twist. The title has maintained a remarkably stable level of quality over the years, and with a compelling central character on a grand journey, there’s more than enough material there to mine.
All of those aspects makes Invincible an attractive prospect for film adaptation, but when you also add in to the equation that Kirkman is also responsible for creating the cultural phenomenon known as “The Walking Dead,” and it becomes an opportunity too good to refuse. In fact, I’d say that it’s Rogen and Goldberg’s track record with comics, which includes a success with “Preacher” and…..let’s call it a not-success with “The Green Hornet,” that is the more untested part of the team-up. But, is there enough meat on the bones of Invincible to establish an entire franchise, and even provide Universal with its own Marvel-like series of interconnected films?
One of the reasons why Invincible might succeed at this better than other comic book universes is that Kirkman and his collaborators spent a lot of time on the title creating the world in which Mark operates. The most resonant and long-lived supporting characters in the book spring from the Teen Team, the first super-team Mark encounters and allies with. Characters such as Rex-Splode, Atom Eve, Duple-Kate and Robot are all major players within the story, but also flesh out the universe as well. Kirkman also provided a Justice League/Avengers analogue with the Guardians of the Globe, giving the Invincible Universe still more supporting characters that could flesh out into their own storylines.
Additionally, Invincible also tied Mark’s world in with the super-hero world that Image had already established. The character first made an appearance in an issue of Image’s other long-running super-character, Savage Dragon and has made appearances in other Image hero titles and featured those characters in his own title and storylines as well. Image and Universal could use Invincible, and Kirkman’s “Walking Dead” fanbase, to conceivably act as a launching pad for their other less well-known super-hero titles. The major stumbling block will be, as Marvel has discovered, whether or not Image has enough control over the film rights of their properties to put them all under the auspices of Universal.
The most obvious and desirable property from Image aside from Invincible is probably Spawn, a long-time character with a sizeable following and at least some presence in the larger public consciousness. The character has been adapted once already in a 1997 film for New Line Studios. Spawn creator Todd McFarlane revealed last year that he’s completed a script and is looking to direct a reboot himself, which suggest he owns the rights. The question is whether he’d be willing to include Spawn in with a larger universe, and whether he’d cede control over the character that is the nearest and dearest to his heart, and his financial success.
Similarly, creator Erik Larsen announced a few years back that he had completed a screenplay featuring his long-running Image super-hero Savage Dragon. This once again suggests the film rights reside with Larsen himself, and therefore Universal could obtain them or enter into some kind of partnership with him to tie the Dragon into the Invincible franchise and give the big green-finned cop a franchise of his own, possible as a counter-punch to the similarly monochromatic working-class tough guy “Hellboy.” The series has also served as the launching point for a bunch of Image’s supporting suerp-heor characters, as well.
Another popular Image character that has possibilities is The Darkness. Created in 1996 for Top Cow/Image by David Wohl, Marc Silvestri and Garth Ennis, the Darkness is an ancient primordial chaotic power that attaches itself to a human host, in this case a hitman named Jackie Estacado. Like Spawn, the Darkness is more anti-hero than hero, which is fitting given the era of his creation being the grim and gritty 1990s. The character is loosely affiliated with fellow Image character Witchblade, herself already optioned to NBC for a potential TV series. The Darkness’ morally ambiguous central character, and merging of supernatural horror with urban super-heroics, have made it a fan favorite. While the violent and dark Jackie may make an unconventional hero, his strict code places him more in line with film’s long-line of brutal antiheroes. And his level of violence, though darker and more scary than the kind found in Invincible, is no less explicit. A film version of the Darkness has often been in development over the years, with Dimension Films once paying a large amount for the rights, though little has been heard on that front since around 2012, when Regency was planning to produce a film.
And those are just three of the other Image properties that have popped up within Invincible, even briefly. Even if Universal was unable to secure the rights of those well-known characters, that still leaves all the characters that do appear in Invincible itself. Added to the Teen Team and Guardians of the Globe, Mark Grayon’s adventures also take him into space, where he meets comic characters that have proved popular with fans of the title, including Allen the Alien and Battle Beast. Additionally, Kirkman has created other characters for Image, such as Brit, Tech Jacket and Wolf-Man, who could be utilized easily to broaden the Invincible Universe.
With the heat attached to Invincible‘s creator, a deal with a for studio and famous producers already in place, Invincible provides the best option right now to see a new super-hero film franchise attempt to rival the popularity and success of Marvel and DC’s series of films.
The Valiant Universe
Valiant was founded in 1989 by former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter and Steven Massarsky. With the help of celebrated creators like Bob Layton (who would eventually become Valiant’s Editor-in-Chief after Shooter), the company soon launched its own line of super-hero books, made up of new characters such as Harbinger, X-O Manowar, Ninjak, Bloodshot, Rai, Shadowman, and Archer & Armstrong. The line was supplemented by existing characters licensed from the defunct Western Publishing, which included Mangus – Robot Fighter, Turok, and Dr. Solar. Valiant enjoyed considerable success in its early days, especially with its skill at crafting interconnected large events such as Unity, and its sales elevated its line to a place of legitimate completion with Marvel and DC, even as its critical success in some cases put it above fellow upstart Image Comics in the eyes of many fans and critics.
The company hit trouble early on, however. Shooter left the company in 1992, just as the publisher began expanding its line. This also coincided with the bust in the comics industry of the mind 1990s, and Valiant soon found itself struggling. Purchased by video game company Acclaim in 1994, Valiant started to become more of an intellectual property development line for video games Acclaim wanted to release, with several titles and their concepts being retooled to make them more friendly for that medium. The line continued for a few more years, even had a few critical successes, but it had lost much of its heat. Then, in 2004, Acclaim filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The following year, a group of investors including Dinesh Shamdasani and Jason Kothari raised enough to acquire the rights to the Valiant library of characters and created Valiant Entertainment. Since 2012, Valiant Entertainment has been focused on revitalizing and re-establishing its super-hero universe, drawing top creators to work on their books and pushing an ambitious plan to establish a cohesive inter-connected universe as soon as possible.
Experienced editor Warren Simons became Valiant’s Editor-in-Chief in 2014, and creators like Joshua Dysart, Matt Kindt, Robert Venditti, Jeff Lemire, Duane Swierczynski, James Asmus, Tom Fowler, Patrick Zircher and Clayton Henry delivered a wide range of books that garnered acclaim and popularity with fans, culminating in the company being nominated for 50 Harvey Awards in 2016, the most for any publisher that year. The success of the line thus far has been the result of a deliberate attempt to construct not just an array of titles, but an interconnected universe which sees titles feeding into each other to create a lived-in reality. Unlike other comic companies which have taken a series of characters initially created on their own and then merged them into a universe that occasionally doesn’t quite fit together seamlessly owing to different and disparate tones, a central aim of Valiant Entertainment’s mission since 2012 has been the construction of an entire universe. As a result, Valiant’s Universe revolves around three main elements; Aliens, Immortals and mutant-like beings called Psiots.
The Alien aspect of the universe is personified with the X-O Manowar series and related titles. Created by Jim Shooter and Bob Layton, X-O Manowar tells the story of a man from the Earth’s past, a legendary Visigoth Warrior who was battling the Romans when he was abducted by aliens. In his effort to escape his captors, he becomes bonded to their high-tech sentient armor, which helps him gain his freedom and return to earth, only to find centuries have passed and he is now stuck in the 21st century. This “Game of Thrones” meets “Iron Man” aspect of the character could translate to the screen extremely well, and it feels fresh enough to stand out from other comic book films. Valiant’s premiere super-team title, Unity, features X-O Manowar as a member, as well as a sentient alien robot named Gin-GR who originally came to Earth to kill X-O Manowar.
The Immortals are best exemplified through two ongoing titles, the first being Eternal Warrior, the second being Archer & Armstrong. Thousands of years ago, three brothers became immortal and super-powered after stealing a mystical object called the Boon. Gilad grew to become the Eternal Warrior, and served a lineage of super-powered guardians called the Geomancers. Another brother was Aram, who eventually became the Armstrong in Archer & Armstrong. Unlike the Eternal Warrior, Armstrong served no real duty or purpose, but rather roamed the world through the ages as an adventuring and hard-living reprobate. His life was a mostly solitary one until hemeets with Obadiah Archer, an ascetic young man raised by a brutal and abusive cult to be an assassin. Together, they save each other, and the world. The Eternal Warrior is also a member of Unity, and no Valiant event or major storyline occurs without some kind of participation from the beloved fan favorite team of Archer & Armstrong. Films and TV series starring immortals are certainly nothing new, so it’s not so outlandish as to put off audiences. However, the flavor of the story is unique, and the grimmer, more serious Eternal Warrior has its appeal while Archer & Armstrong‘s rollicking tone is a perfect buddy movie vibe. And like X-O Manowar, it all leads into Unity.
But the most important and unifying part of Valiant’s Universe comes from the Psiots. Psiots, like Mutants in the Marvel Universe, are naturally occurring super-powered individuals. Some simply possess their abilities, others require their powers to be activated by other Psiots. The central linchpin to the Psiot storyline is the anti-hero known as Toyo Harada, a massively powerful Psiot whose aim is to locate, protect and train other Psiots. But the Harada Foundation isn’t altruistic entirely, as Harada’s ultimate goal is remake the world into his vision of utopia, by force if necessary. Harada and his machinations form the centrepiece of much of the Valiant Universe, as Psiots drive the actions of much of the remaining characters. Governments create super-powered operatives in reaction to the Psiots, corporations like Rising Spirit create their own super-powered versions of Blackwater to oppose them, and the conflict affects the world at large. Hamada’s story spans the Harbinger series and into the acclaimed Imperium title, and Harada himself is, of course, also a member of Unity.
The left over characters, the most popular of which are definitely Bloodshot (created by Kevin VanHook and Yvel Guichet) and Ninjak (created by Mark Moretti and Joe Quesada), each draw much of their mythology from a relationship to the other aspects of the Universe, whether its Bloodshot’s connection to Rising Spirit or Ninjak’s relationship with X-O Manowar. And this solid foundation is part of what makes Valiant such an attractive and likely candidate for building a viable universe of interconnected properties. Since it was relaunched in 2012, Valiant’s line of books have been deliberately constructed to all feed into and support each other, with some characters having their original 1990s origins tweaked to accommodate this editorial decision. The relaunch also had the side effect of making the Valiant Universe new-reader friendly, without the decades of mythology and confusing continuity that sometimes proves a barrier to building a new audience. And this lack of established rules, supported by Valiant’s apparent inclination to hire talented creators and give them free reign, results in comics that are both accessible and refreshingly bold.
All of this explains why in 2015 a Chinese-based entertainment company called DMG invested a nine figure sum in a partnership with Valiant Entertainment to develop Valiant’s library for other mediums. The deal has yet to result in anything tangible, though apparently Archer & Armstrong is high on the list of initial film concepts. There isn’t any major American studio participation as of yet, but there are plenty of film studios that would love to have their own Marvel-like series. Paramount, for example, really needs a big franchise, as the “Transformers” series looks to be losing steam, “Star Trek” hasn’t really connected to anyone’s satisfaction, and that really only leaves “Mission: Impossible” as a successful franchise for the studio. A partnership with Valiant and DMG to produce their own series of super-hero movies, ones that could surprise audiences and feel fresh, might be a no-brainer.
In 1993, several of the top African-American comic creators got together to create a new company whose aim was to address the severe underrepresentation of minorities in American comics, and the result was Milestone Media. Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis and Derek T. Dingle founded the company, and though Christopher Priest was originally slated to be editor-in-chief of the line he wound up dropping out before any titles were printed. Milestone reached a deal with DC Comics to publish and distribute the line, and hopes initially were high.
But, sadly, it may have been an idea ahead of its time. The idea of focusing on African-American heroes by African-American creators never really caught on with the predominantly white readership of comics. There are a bunch of reason for this. The introduction of the line coincided with the rise of a bunch of new publishers and lines, including both Image and Valiant, the result being a glut of new tittles fighting for readers. And there’s no denying that many readers may have thought that books with a focus on African-American characters and viewpoints held little relevance for their own lives. Despite acclaim for many of the titles, which included Static, Hardware, Icon and Xombi, Milestone ceased publication of the line in 1997. The line had enjoyed respectable sales, despite their challenges, but they also utilized a more expensive and higher quality production approach, which cut into their bottom line. In the end, they never shook the “comics for black people” tag, even though that assessment is both unfair troublingly racist. What Milestone was, in fact, was a company that tried simply to depict the point of view of the creators that were making the books. The people creating the books were among the best creators in comics at the time, and their vision on these books were unlike anything comics was producing at the time, but they certainly weren’t inaccessible. Nevertheless, Milestone’s characters looked to have vanished.
But that wasn’t the end. Because Milestone Media wound up licensing their character Static for animation, and the resulting series, Static Shock, was a major success, running for four seasons. And with that, Static became a successful comic book character in the way that every comic book super hero has since Superman; by being beloved by a generation of kids. In this way, Static Shock kept the ideas and characters of Milestone alive, and over the years since, DC Comics has tried to integrate some of the Milestone characters and concepts into their line, with Static being a part of DC’s New 52 reboot. And what of the claim that Milestone was simply comics “for black folk?” The line features a diverse assemblage of both characters and creators. Jimmy Palmiotti worked for Milestone. As did JH Williams III. And their line of comics featured characters of all shapes and sizes. Xombi was Korean American, for instance, and the team book Blood Syndicate featured an ethnically diverse roster that included Chinese, Latino and white characters.
It’s impossible not see value in this day and age in a potential line of super-hero movies/TV series that featured such a rich cast. There are plenty of people going to super-hero movies in droves that aren’t seeing themselves reflected on the screen, and the eagerness with with people are looking forward to Marvel’s “Black Panther” film, or the vociferous objection people mounted to the whitewashed casting of Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell” should make film studios seriously consider looking at Milestone as a one-stop destination for a resonant and well-defined diverse super-hero universe. In 2015, Oscar nominated producer, film director, “Black Panther” comic writer, and former BET president Reginald Hudlin became involved in an effort with some of the original founders to revive Milestone, and he might just be the perfect man to generate interest with film studios looking to develop their own super-hero universes, this time with an untapped market that’s probably itching to see themselves as champions on screen.
So there you have it. Any film studios or production companies without a Marvel or DC franchise to exploit clearly has options, and with their unique flavours and tones, each of these properties have something totally refreshing to offer to a genre that could run the risk of becoming old hat. If super-hero films and TV series are to survive, they can’t be afraid to innovate and embrace the riskier and more untested properties, and each of these Universes proved rich opportunities for new takes on what is rapidly becoming a very familiar genre.
Here’s hoping we all get treated to some of thees characters and their rich worlds sooner rather than later.