TV's next hero

NBC Universal and Virgin are betting that comic books will inspire the next wave of TV shows.

By Stephanie Mehta, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- In the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. television executives mined stand-up comedy for show concepts. More recently, they've turned to European reality shows (Big Brother, Pop Idol) to fill their schedules. Could comic books be the next source of inspiration?

NBC Universal and Virgin Comics, an entertainment company backed by Sir Richard Branson, seem to think so. Earlier this week, the companies announced a joint venture to publish comic books - and develop television programming based on those titles for NBC Universal's Sci Fi Channel.


"The Sci Fi genre has a lot of writers who would like to get a chance to write for television," says Sharad Devarajan, CEO and publisher of Virgin Comics. The joint venture, called SCI FI/Virgin Comics, will give those writers a chance to develop characters, stories and properties that may originate as graphic novels but eventually turn into TV shows, games and other multimedia fare, Devarajan says.

There is, of course, a long tradition of turning comic books into television shows and movies, both animated and live action. And some of the most popular shows airing today, including Lost and Heroes, have distinct comic-book overtones: characters with superhuman powers, protracted battles between good and evil, and random supernatural phenomena. (These shows certainly appeal to the comic-book audience: Columbia Pictures is airing an exclusive clip of Spider-Man 3 during Heroes this Monday.)

SCI FI/Virgin hopes to take the trend one step further by creating comic books from the outset that are potential TV series. This is a formula that Virgin Comics is trying in other genres as well. One of its original comic books, "The Sadhu," is to be made into a feature film starring Nicholas Cage. And the company has published comic books created by film directors John Woo ("Face/Off") and Guy Ritchie ("Snatch"). Those directors, Devarajan says, can use comic books to incubate potential movie characters and build audiences before spending tens of millions on a big-budget film.

Virgin hopes to apply the same logic to television programming, which in recent years has been particularly quick to pull the trigger on underperforming programs. CBC last year pulled the show Love Monkey after just three episodes for poor ratings, even though eight shows had been produced. Ditto Smith, a drama starring film actors Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen. Testing concepts in comic-book form might help reduce such misfires. Comic book readers are a great focus group, Devarajan says, providing candid feedback. "We feel the comic book crowd is a great tastemaker audience," he says.

Coincidentally, there are some comic book writers who already write for television, most notably Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Joss Whedon.

Even if few television concepts emerge from the alliance, Devarajan thinks SCI FI/Virgin has great potential as a comic-book publisher. "Sci fi is a very underserved niche in comic books," he says. "There are plenty of superhero [books] and a thriving horror business. But there isn't a strong publisher focused on the sci fi genre." Top of page