Sunday, 31 March 2013


In 2006 a TV show called Heroes debuted on NBC. It became a massive success for the channel incredibly quickly, gaining rave reviews for its first season. Why is this relevant to a blog about comic books? Because the show was about ordinary people finding they have superpowers. The clue’s in the name.

Superheroes are not exclusively found in comic books, but that is the medium in which the stereotypical image of the superhero first rose to prominence. They are strongly linked to comic books thanks to the success and history of both DC and Marvel. It’s where they have found their greatest success. In the last decade or so (starting several years before Heroes appeared on our screens) movie adaptions of the big two’s characters have become popular. A handful of original superhero flicks have even sprung up, such as The Incredibles and the Will Smith vehicle Hancock.

TV shows about superheroes were not a new thing in 2006. There had been numerous adaptions of the Marvel and DC gangs for decades. There was the Adam West Batman show for starters. Everyone from the Green Hornet to the Incredible Hulk got a TV show. 1993 saw Superman get Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman which was followed up eight years later by Smallville, the same year the whilly original creation Mutant X launched.

Kids TV had proven a particularly good place to establish original superhero creations. The Powerpuff Girls, Freakazoid, Captain Planet, and the Power Rangers are just a handful of examples of characters that fit under the broad title of superhero.

While Superheroes weren’t new to television in 2006 the approach Heroes took was. The majority of adaptions and original properties that had come before showed us a world where people with powers were commonplace and working on both sides of the good-evil spectrum. Characters had previously been happy to strut around in ridiculous outfits and displayed ease with regards to power control.

Heroes kept things simple, with the majority of the show’s characters discovering their powers for the first time and ignoring the existence of spandex at all costs. It was a drama show produced for adults, not a cheap, throwaway kids show made to fill air time on a Saturday morning. Cues were taken from the world of comics but Heroes was its own beast, the emphasis firmly on real characters with real problems. The powers were what helped set the show apart, not the focus.

Season one succeeded mostly because it was different and well written but also because of luck. The show came along at just the right time and featured just enough quirky touches to work. Giving a Wolverine-like healing factor to a teenage cheerleader was one such touch. It was familiar enough to be instantly understandable and yet completely alien because the person with the power wasn’t a grizzled, cigar-chomping mercenary from the nineteenth century.

Of course Claire, the cheerleader, spawned another of the show’s great hits: the line “Save the cheerleader, save the world!” Not  only was it esoteric enough to stick but it made sense within the show, a succinct summary of one of the central goals of the plot, to stop Claire’s healing factor falling into the hands of a psychotic killer.

The reappearing motifs of the DNA swirl and the eclipse proved far more popular than seemed reasonable too. People enjoyed tracking their appearances and conjecturing as to what they could mean. There were the mystery of The Man in the Horned Rimmed Glasses, the ongoing threat of Sylar, and the charming story of Hiro Nakamura to entertain too. The show built up a mythos but didn’t revel in it. Not during its first season anyway.

The cast of characters of that first season was tremendous. Thought was put into how a character’s traits would reflect in their power, if they had one. Everyone had a distinct voice and a reason for behaving the way they did. The show embraced its comic book heritage by dropping in little nods for fans, such as hiring artist Tim Sale to provide artwork. It even emulated famous stories: the X Men tale Days of Future Past famously provided the inspiration for Five Years Gone. Heroes also featured time travel as an important plot device. That may seem irrelevant (and it is in regard to comics) but Steven Moffat proved that audiences have an appetite for that sort of thing when he took over Doctor Who in 2010 (arguably earlier if you want to look at Blink, although the popularity of a one off episode isn’t really an indication of a trend).

Sadly the show’s success could not be sustained beyond the opening series. Season two featured a naff plot about a virus being unleashed. Then the writers’ strike hit. In a way that was a mercy. It forced Heroes to wrap things up and get ready for the third season.

Sadly things didn’t improve there, they only got worse. New characters that were introduced failed to be as engaging as their predecessors, and numerous bit part players from the show’s opening years had their parts beefed up, in most cases unnecessarily. In another, unplanned, nod to comics characters proved tough to kill for very long which quickly served to nullify what had been a dramatic and meaningful programme. That was one aspect of comicdom Heroes should have stayed away from.

By the end of the third series it was clear the concept was played out. Bryan Fuller, credited as one of the show’s driving forces during the opening season, had left to make his own show and had been replaced by Jeph Loeb. Yes, the same Jeph Loeb who loves to fetishize Marvel and DC characters and has an unhealthy love of continuity. His arrival coincided with the minor characters playing a more substantial role and a greater interest being taken in the mythos and canon of the programme.

Heroes was cancelled after its fourth season. Spiritually it died much earlier than that. Anything after season one is a disappoint to view. But if you’re interested in seeing a show that inspired and paved the way for programmes such as Misfits, No Ordinary Family and Alphas, or you’re a fan of comics that construct realistic characters, season one of Heroes, and only season one, is definitely worth watching.

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