Sagas in Panels #1

Jeff Hargarten

Comic books and their many adaptations are a hot commodity right now and have been the last several years. Films like Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight” trilogy (based on the company’s D.C. properties) and Marvel’s “The Avengers” raked in billions worldwide, broke records and captured the hearts and minds of longtime fans and genre newcomers alike.

Those commercial and critical successes sparked a frenzy of new comic book-based projects on film and television, ushering in what is arguably a golden age of comic book adaptations, long after the industry’s own Golden Age in print.

Comics are ultimately a storytelling medium, each panel a window into different worlds grown from seeds of imagination and reality. Each week, I’ll delve into the best comic book print series, recent episodes of comic-based shows and new developments in upcoming superhero flicks.

In the Pages

Since 2014 is brand-spanking-new, suggesting the best comics and issues of the year thus far is kinda futile. But 2013 was an incredible year for comics. Both the Comics Alliance and The Onion’s A.V. Club have detailed lists of great 2013 series spanning many different publishers and story genres, featuring both the mainstream and the obscure.

Some of these giants loom larger than the others.

Ask a comic fan what their most recent favorite series is, and there’s a good bet they’ll blurt out Marvel’s “Hawkeye.” In the aftermath of Marvel’s crushing box office hit “The Avengers,” writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja guide the reader through this incarnation of Clint Barton’s everyday personal struggles — crises that make Peter Parker’s world seem teeming with good fortune by comparison – and it’s fantastic. Chris Sims at Comics Alliance puts it best: "Fraction and Aja gave [readers] a comic book that was basically ‘The Rockford Files’ with an off-duty superhero. When everyone got used to that, they switched it up to being ‘The Rockford Files’ with an off-duty superhero who was also a teenage girl, and the way they pulled off the switch was by a story told by a dog." Gotta see it to believe it.

Writer Mark Waid's and artist Chris Smanee's three-year run with “Daredevil” spins astonishingly personal tales about Marvel's "man without fear.” Mark Waid manages to put the reader straight into the characters’ heads. Our assumptions are their assumptions, which allow the stories to constantly spring new surprises from seemingly nowhere. When we’re basically Daredevil’s headmates, it’s hard not to live and die with his victories and failures.

Continuing the string of Marvel titles, Brian Michael Bendis' “All-New X-Men” is among 2013’s biggest surprises. Bendis somehow made a convoluted time-travel plot where the original five X-Men are sucked into a future where Cyclops is Public Enemy #1 into a fascinating character-driven story arc. Who would have thought that mutants encountering their future selves would be interesting instead of cringe-worthy?

Across the shores at the Distinguished Competition, D.C.’s controversial New 52 reboot of its titles has not pleased everyone. But one of its best books, “Batman: Zero Year” was a gutsy move that deserves kudos for its riskiness. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have retooled Batman's mythic origin story, pulling in the best elements of its previous incarnations, including Christopher Nolan's films, the iconic “Batman: The Animated Series” and the work of Frank Miller. It feels less like a reboot and more like a modern revitalization of a decades-old origin story that's well worth the read for both newcomers and Batman purists alike.

It would be possible to yammer on forever about countless different 2013 series, like Dark Horse’s “Hellboy in Hell” and an epic “Star Wars” run – but why read about them here when you could just read them yourself?

On the Screen

This is an exciting era to be a comic book fan. Not only are the print titles engrossing and blockbuster films featuring comic characters springing up like wildfires, but new television shows are in the works and current big-time network series are ratings magnets.

“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” started off to strong ratings based on mad anticipation and high expectations. And why not? Geek god Joss Whedon (“Buffy,” “Firefly”), fresh off directing one of the highest-grossing films ever, has the creative reigns. Whedon is famous for his quirky dialogue, deeply character-driven stories and shocking character deaths (leaves, wind, you get it). He’s also famous for having his shows cancelled – a lot – despite his ability to build rabid fan bases around his work. “Angel,” “Firefly” and “Dollhouse” were all put down well before their time. People mourned those losses and it made success for Whedon’s new project ever more important to his fans. Adding to that pressure was ABC’s need for “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” to be a hit as the Marvel Cinematic Universe grows and grows.

Yet the show has struggled. Fans of the comics expecting a show about superheroes have been disappointed to find a show about normal, everyday non-super-powered secret agents of the Marvel Universe. Fans of the films expecting deeper tie-ins to the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe have found those connections to be superfluous as best. Whedon fans expecting to see his blend of diverse, interesting characters and bouncy dialogue have found most of the protagonists to be flat, run-of-the-mill and lacking chemistry. Ratings steadily fell for a while before finally stabilizing as the show’s inaugural season has plodded on. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a show still finding its legs.

ABC, instead of bailing on the project, has announced some major changes and promised a strong finish, with upcoming cameo of Lady Sif from “Thor” and “Thor 2: The Dark World” and there is further confirmation that Deathlok will make an appearance on the show. And for the Whedon faithful, it’s important to note that shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” stumbled through their first seasons too, only to transform into cult hits as they found their stride. So it might be unwise to count “AoS” as a failure just yet.

Other comic-based shows are also in the works, with FOX green-lighting “Gotham”, a show covering the origins of Commissioner James Gordon and various villains that plague Batman’s city. NBC is getting into the act too by developing a show based on Alan Moore’s chain-smoking, Sting-look-alike occult detective John Constantine. And Disney, Marvel’s parent company, is teaming up with Netflix to bring four new shows to our home theaters: “Daredevil,” “Luke Cage,” “Iron Fist” and “Jessica Jones.”

But the king of comic-based television is still the CW’s “Arrow.” Already deep into its second season, the show, featuring D.C.’s Oliver Queen/Green Arrow (portrayed by the brooding Stephen Amell), continues to amaze as its flashback “Batman Begins”-style origin story arc continues to tightly tie-in to the present-day storyline in surprising, satisfying ways.

If you’re not watching “Arrow” but are thinking about starting, you can expect some stumbles in the first half of its first season and a bit of the CW’s infamous melodrama, but it quickly picks up steam as the characters get deeper, the plots get darker and twisty-er and the writers continue to empty the comic pages with characters like Firefly, Count Vertigo, Deadshot, Arsenal, Dodger, Barry Allen (hint, hint), Malcom Merlyn, Shado, Yao Fei, China White, Amanda Waller, Shrapnel, Dollmaker, Doctor Ivo, Bronze Tiger, Solomon Grundy, Black Canary, Huntress, Brother Blood and even heavy-hitters like Ra’s al Ghul and fan favorite Slade Wilson (aka Deathstroke, played with convincing badassery by Manu Bennett).

If you’ve noticed the preponderance of Batman villains, that’s not necessarily an accident. The show is rumored to be casting Nightwing and might be tied into the fledgling D.C. Cinematic Universe, whose next chapter will be 2015’s “Batman vs. Superman."

Bottom line: if you’re a comic book fan, you’re unlikely to be disappointed watching “Arrow,” a show that, unlike its predecessor “Smallville,” respects and decently portrays its source characters while being unafraid to kill characters wholesale and tell a sophisticated story. It’s event television at its finest.

Next time: making sense of all those budding cinematic universes and film project rumors, the highs and lows of Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and more comic series suggestions.

As a famous man once said: “Excelsior!”