There’s one foe that all comicbook adaptations, bigscreen or small, have to face, one that is immensely powerful, supremely picky and hard to win over: the fans.
Springing from the mythos of Superman, the first and most famous comicbook superhero, “Smallville” drew skeptical looks from those fans when it launched in 2001. The series had to compete with previous TV and movie incarnations of the Man of Steel and was being brought to life by producers who had no history with comics either as fans or as filmmakers.
“We were vilified. They (the fans) thought it was a terrible idea,” says Al Gough, who co-created and exec produces the skein with partner Miles Millar. “Until the show aired, the Superman fans were extremely skeptical, as Superman fans are.”
Most of the trepidation came from making a series about Superman in which he neither flies nor wears his signature blue-and-red outfit. Those who knew the ins and outs of the Superman and Superboy mythos had further complaints about Clark’s arrival amid a meteor shower of Kryptonite; having Clark and Lex as friends in their youth; and new characters such as Chloe Sullivan.
“It was such an interesting angle on the show to begin with — that you’d do a series on the early years of a superhero but you’d never get to the point when he’d get into the costume,” says Gareb Shamus, publisher of top-selling comicbook fan magazine Wizard. “I think it was a little overwhelming for the fans.”
Gough says he and Millar worked hard to get the basics right. “We’ve tried to stay very true to the sort of core Superman canon,” he says. “We’ve just rearranged some of the other elements.”
In addition to working closely with Superman’s publisher, DC Comics, Gough and Millar brought in as producers and writers Jeph Loeb and Mark Verheiden, both of whom have written Superman comics, to bring some of the comicbook elements to the show.
Characters such as Perry White and Lois Lane have shown up, as has Red Kryptonite and a few actors from previous Superman projects, including Christopher Reeve. Aquaman showed up in a recent episode to test the waters for his own “Smallville”-like skein, and future episodes promise to bring in more DC characters.
“The sincere respect for the character and the underlying mythos really comes through,” says Paul Levitz, president and publisher of DC Comics. “Anything that introduces new generations of people to our characters has to be good for us. There’s a lot of people who love Clark Kent and Lex Luthor who didn’t four or five years ago, and we think they’ll be fans for generations to come the same way those who saw the George Reeves show way back when did.”
The show’s ability to reach a large audience has given “Smallville” a shot at becoming the longest-running live-action superhero comicbook series in history: It’s about to surpass the 104 episodes of Reeves’ “Adventures of Superman” skein and looks likely to top the 120 episodes of the 1960s “Batman” next season.
While some fans may still not like that the show deviates from the comicbooks, that group is relatively small, Levitz says. Still, the show has used more elements from the comics as it goes on, which Levitz says enriches the show for both comicbook fans and the general audience.
“It shows that this show is taking place in a rich universe,” he says.