Comic book fans no longer have to plan a trip to their local comic shop to follow the exploits of their favorite heroes: all they have to do is switch on the TV. On Oct. 26, Supergirl joins the ever-swelling ranks of live action comic book adaptations, a genre that was once looked down upon, but has since grown to superheroic proportions.
So how does the Girl of Steel stack up against her competition? Yahoo TV has assembled a definitive ranked list of all 30 live-action comic book shows produced since 1952. Why only the first episode? Well, for starters, a number of these shows are still on the air, so it would be unfair to qualitatively pit their arc to date against series that have wrapped up their runs. Also Episode No. 1 is the television equivalent of Issue No. 1, which, as comic book fans know, is almost always the most valuable edition in any collection. Some ground rules before we get started:
The pilot had to be followed by an ongoing episodic series. That leaves out Marvel’s history of standalone TV-movies like 1978’s Doctor Strange, 1979’s Captain American and 1996’s Generation X, made-for-TV specials like Legends of the Superheroes, and such failed pilots as 2006’s Aquaman and David E. Kelly’s mercifully abandoned 2011 version of Wonder Woman. And speaking of Wonder Woman, this rules also disqualifies her earliest TV attempts: the never-completed Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince from 1967 and the 1974 TV-movie starring Cathy Lee Crosby.
2) The series has to be based on a pre-existing character (or organization) that originated in a comic book. In other words, don’t except to see created-for-TV comic book shows as Heroes, The Cape or M.A.N.T.I.S. mentioned here. Also omitted is 2001’s Mutant X, a Marvel-backed series built around a team of mutants. Although it may sound like an X-Men spin-off, the series featured no connection to — or characters from — the comic books. Meanwhile, fans of vintage characters like the Green Hornet, Zorro, The Phantom and the Lone Ranger should be reminded that those heroes first appeared in other media (radio, newspaper comic strips, pulp fiction etc.) before finding their way to comic books and television.
Got all that? Strap on your capes and masks, and let’s start the roll call:
30) Superboy (1988-1992, Syndication)
Premiere Date: Oct. 8, 1988
Few shows went through as many creative overhauls as Superboy did during its four-year lifespan, with numerous cast changes (including Gerard Christopher taking over from Season 1’s Boy of Steel, John Haymes Newton) and tonal shifts, as episodic adventures gave way to surprisingly dark serialized runs. Supposedly, those changes resulted in a better show, which sounds plausible because there’s little way that the series could get worse than this laughably bad pilot. With so much awfulness on display, it’s hard to single out the silliest element: Is it the stilted dialogue? Newton’s awkward fighting moves? The fact that the teenage version of Lex Luthor looks and sounds like a Cobra Kai reject? (That last one is obviously the answer.)
29) Swamp Thing (1990-1993, USA)
Premiere Date: July 27, 1990
The show may be called Swamp Thing, but the stars of the first episode are, respectively — and unfortunately — an annoying 11-year-old kid named Jim, and Eurotrash villain Dr. Arcane. The titular creature (Dick Durock, hidden underneath pounds of prosthetics) himself spends most of the half-hour camouflaged in shrubbery observing the uninteresting goings-on in his neck of the swamp. Considering how dull the pilot is, it’s hard to blame him for wanting to remain incognito.
28) Shazam (1974-1976, CBS)
Premiere Date: Sept. 7, 1974
Earnestly moralistic as befit its Saturday morning television berth, every episode of Shazam is basically a Very Special Episode. In the pilot, for instance, young Billy Batson and his adult-aged alter ego, Captain Marvel, teach a bunch of teens why joyriding around in a stolen vehicle is bad news, man. The amateurish acting and stridently lesson-oriented script further lends it the feel of an educational filmstrip you’d be forced to watch in school.
27) Gotham (2014-present, Fox)
Premiere Date: Sept. 22, 2014
More like, “Boredom.” Gotham’s uncertainty about whether it’s a procedural or an extra-long origin story results in a tedious first hour dominated by dull casework and lame references to the larger Batman mythos. The one bright spot is Jada Pinkett Smith’s slyly comic take on gangland chief, Fish Mooney, contributing the one splash of levity to an otherwise dour hour. At least the show eventually learned from its mistakes; with its “Rise of the Villains” story arc, Season 2 has a clearer grip on the kind of show Gotham wants to be.
26) Human Target (1992, ABC)
Premiere Date: July 20, 1992
The first of two TV series starring DC Comics’ ace bodyguard, Christopher Chance, Human Target has exactly two things going for it: Rick Springfield as the titular target —always putting himself in harm’s way by adopting his clients’ faces (via advanced synthetic mask technology) and identities — and the sweet high-tech plane he and his crew fly around in. But there’s also a pronounced creepiness in watching Springfield so thoroughly embed himself in the lives of others. He’s more like a stalker than a superhero.
25) Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-present, ABC)
Premiere Date: Sept. 24, 2013
Marvel’s agents stumbled badly out of the gate, with a Joss Whedon-directed premiere that piled on witty Whedonisms and elaborate action sequences in order to distract from the barely-there characterizations. The common consensus now is that S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t really begin until the titular organization was dismantled in a mid-season episode that tied directly into the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Subsequent seasons have mostly consigned this lackluster pilot to the dustbin of TV history where, frankly, it belongs.
24) Constantine (2014-2015, NBC)
Premiere Date: Oct. 24, 2014
Too many cooks spoil this particular supernatural broth, as the first episode pulls veteran Hellblazer, John Constantine, in a number of different directions. First he’s casting out demons in mental institutions, then he’s fraternizing with winged angels and then he’s guarding/educating a paranormal noob. The busyness of the pilot clouds the strong performance Matt Ryan delivers as Constantine, finding the right mixture of world-weariness and rebellious cynicism. It’s good to hear he’ll be sticking with the character, even if the show itself is six feet under.
23) Blade (2006, Spike)
Premiere Date: June 28, 2006
Full credit to David S. Goyer: his stab at translating Marvel’s vampire hunter into an ongoing television series has grander ambitions than any of the Blade movies. Kirk Jones is a decent-enough Blade, but he’s routinely upstaged by the show’s most interesting character, Krista Starr (Jill Wagner), a military vet who is vamped while investigating her brother’s suspicious death at the hands of bloodsucking royalty. One gets the sense that Goyer would rather be making a vampire family drama, but this Blade guy keeps getting in the way.
22) Birds of Prey (2002-2003, The WB)
Premiere Date: Oct. 9, 2002
It’s tempting to bump Birds of Prey up a few more notches, because it establishes such a strange premise for a series. Set in a Batman-free “New Gotham” sometime in the near future, the pilot partners the Dark Knight’s crimefighting daughter the Huntress (Ashley Scott) up with ex-Batgirl Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer) and telepathic newcomer, Dinah (Rachel Skarsten). In between battles with various bad guys (including a pre-Breaking Bad Aaron Paul!), the trio trade bicker-banter and wrestle with the legacy of a certain pointy-eared vigilante. Birds of Prey isn’t “good” in the conventional sense (or any sense), but it’s compulsively watchable as an Elseworlds-style peek into one of Batman’s possible futures.
21) The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-1979, CBS)
Premiere Date: Sept. 19, 1977
You will believe a man can scale walls! Actually, you won’t. The camera tricks the crew employs to replicate Spider-Man’s wall-crawling, web-swinging heroics wouldn’t fool a five-year-old. Those same five-year-olds will also be scratching their heads about the oh-so-‘70s choice of bad guy: a New Age guru whose real mission is mind control. Nevertheless, there’s a certain retro-charm to this pilot. With no Uncle Ben-sized tragedy propelling him forward, Nicholas Hammond gets to play the character as lark-seeking adventurer who (very, very slowly) climbs buildings and fights ninjas in what resembles a pair of Spider-Man pajamas.
20) Witchblade (2000-2002, TNT)
Premiere Date: Aug. 27, 2000
When a cop on the edge (Yancy Butler) inherits an armored gauntlet with magical powers, she embarks on an adventure that’s part NYPD Blue and part Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The pilot blends those narratives more successful than you might expect, though, and tosses in some Matrix-inspired fight sequences as the proverbial cherry on top. If only Butler made for a more dynamic heroine; there’s a haunted quality to her performance that fits the character when we meet her, but it starts to read as distracted boredom as the episode progresses.
19) Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997, ABC)
Premiere Date: Sept. 12, 1993
As a kid, I remember the Man of Steel’s “new adventures” being a lot of fun. But maybe the fun starts in the later episodes, because Lois & Clark’s protracted 90-minute pilot is super-stiff; the chemistry between Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher isn’t quite there and Clark’s ennui about his secret powers (material that’s largely borrowed from John Byrne’s Man of Steel comic book series) doesn’t carry a lot of dramatic weight. Things pick up considerably when Cain finally puts on the blue-and-red suit and leaps into action. Even Lois is noticeably relieved to be acting opposite stalwart Superman rather than mopey Clark.
18) Powers (2015-present, PlayStation Network)
Premiere Date: Mar. 10. 2015
Powers gets some things right, primarily the mordant humor and compelling conceit — a police division tasked with investigating superpower-related crimes — that comic creators Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming sketched on the page. Unfortunately, the show’s choice of leading man isn’t quite as spot-on. While Sharlto Copley has shined in other roles, he doesn’t possess the right presence or temperament to portray superhero-turned-cop, Christian Walker. (At least they did right by his partner, Deena Pilgrim, expertly played by Susan Heyward.) That miscasting throws the first episode slightly out of whack; it’s got so many great scenes and ideas, but it needs a stronger center.
17) Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996, HBO)
Premiere Date: June 10, 1989
The horror comics of yesteryear are brought to gleefully gory life in HBO’s anthology series, which borrows the title (and many of the storylines) of the '50s era comic book, published by EC Comics. That pay cable pedigree helped attract some top talent to the show as well; the first episode, for example, is ably directed by veteran filmmaker Walter Hill and stars ace character actor William Sadler as a prison executioner who takes his job public after getting a pink slip. (Future installments were helmed by folks including Robert Zemeckis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael J. Fox, and featured actors like Demi Moore, Patricia Arquette and Tony Goldwyn.) There’s a reason why, until Tony Soprano came along, the Crypt Keeper was HBO’s biggest star.
16) Arrow (2012-present, The CW)
Premiere Date: Oct. 10, 2012
Arrow has since become ground zero for The CW’s ever-expanding DC Comics universe. But in the beginning, it was a lean, mean vigilante story pitting a lone man against a big, bad city. Whether glowering intensely or scaling that infernal salmon ladder, Stephen Amell is the pilot’s best special effect; the rest of the episode struggles to be as sure-footed as its star.
15) Adventures of Superman (1952-1958, Syndication)
Premiere Date: Sept. 19, 1952
It would be churlish to complain too much about the primitive special effects and mannered acting styles that are part and parcel of almost every show made during television’s early decades. Instead, appreciate the way that the writers strive to preserve the mythic nature of the Man of Steel (played by the sterlingly square-jawed George Reeves) despite their limited resources. In that respect, Adventures of Superman is one of the most faithful comic book-inspired shows ever made, bringing the Golden Age version of Superman to walking, talking and, most importantly, flying life.
14) Human Target (2010-2011, Fox)
Premiere Date: Jan. 15, 2010
Take two on the Human Target comic book results in a slickly made action series that boasts superior fight sequences, a cooler mission (one that unfolds aboard a speeding train) and Chi McBride…though not as Christopher Chance, sadly. Instead that role falls to Mark Valley, who models his relentlessly driven, hyper-efficient version of Chance after Daniel Craig’s James Bond. The storytelling is serviceable at best, but the relentless pace keeps the episode mostly on target.
13) iZombie (2015-present, The CW)
Premiere Date: Mar. 17, 2015
Rob Thomas uses the cult Vertigo comic book as an excuse to more or less remake Veronica Mars with a zombie twist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I’m rooting for a crossover episode where iZombie’s brain-eating gumshoe Liv (Rose McIver) journeys south from Seattle to Neptune to crack a case with ace P.I., Veronica. They could bond over their mutual love of sarcasm, hatred of snobs and frustration with clueless boyfriends.
12) The Flash (1990-1991, CBS)
Premiere Date: Sept. 20, 1990
The '90s version of the Scarlet Speedster is made in the image of Tim Burton’s blockbuster 1989 Batman flick, right down to the dark 'n’ gritty production design of Central City and Danny Elfman’s Gothic score. And as the Flash, John Wesley Shipp has some of the same everyman quality that Michael Keaton brought to the Dark Knight. (Of course, he far outweighs Keaton in terms of muscle mass.) At the same time, it dials down Burton’s eccentricities and visual flourishes, which gave Batman much of its kick. This Flash is as solid as its leading man, but it lacks a certain…well, flash of personality.
11) Supergirl (2015-present, CBS)
Premiere Date: Oct. 26, 2015
The Girl of Steel takes flight in a pilot that offers an exciting (if somewhat overstuffed) mixture of action, comedy and mythology. It’s a particularly strong showcase for Melissa Benoist, who gifts Kara Danvers and her costumed alter ego with distinct but equally appealing personalities. If the writers remember to lead with character, rather than combat, the elements are there for a good run.
10) Smallville (2001-2006, The WB; 2006-2011, The CW)
Premiere Date: Oct. 16, 2001
Superman gets the Dawson’s Creek treatment, with young Clark Kent’s romantic yearnings taking precedence over any costumed derring-do. It may be a soap opera, but it’s an expertly-made soap opera, with the creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar cleanly establishing the relationship dynamics amongst the main characters — Clark (Tom Welling), his parents (John Schneider and Annette O'Toole), his pal, Chloe (Alison Mack), and his crush Lana “My Parents Are Dead!” Lang (Kristen Kreuk) — before introducing wild card Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) into the mix. If anything, the numerous not-so-subtle Superman references are actually the weakest elements of the pilot, needless reminders of what the series isn’t rather than what it is.
9) Supaidaman (1978-1979, Japan)
Premiere Date: May 17, 1978
While it won’t win any points for faithfulness to the source material, this Far East version of Marvel’s resident web-slinger is a fascinating case study in cross-cultural translation. Endowed with spider powers courtesy of alien blood rather than a radioactive arachnid, the Japanese Spider-Man can still spin webs and stick to walls, but he also has a flying car and a giant transforming spacecraft that he uses to battle a series of robot monsters. With its wild flights of fancy and daffy mixture of opponents, the series replicates those free-for-all playtime sessions you had as a kid where Spider-Man and Optimus Prime teamed up to fight Megatron and Darth Vader.
8) Agent Carter (2015-present, ABC)
Premiere Date: Jan. 6, 2015
Marvel ventures into Mad Men territory with a period piece that’s as attentive to the gender politics of America’s past as it is to fisticuff-driven set-pieces. And where the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. struggled to establish their personalities in the beginning, Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter arrives fully formed, relatable and charismatic even to those viewers who didn’t witness her backstory in the first Captain America movie. While Marvel’s movie division is still struggling to get a female-led superhero movie off the ground, it’s TV arm boasts one of the studio’s coolest heroes of either sex.
7) The Tick (2001-2002, Fox)
Premiere Date: Nov. 8, 2001
Most actors would look ridiculous strutting around in a big blue bug costume while spouting nonsense. But the outfit (and the role) fits Patrick Warburton like a glove. Adapted by Ben Edlund from his own comic book, The Tick is a half-hour of pure heroic hilarity, with such instantly quotable lines as “Fight fire with Arthur!” and “It’s my sworn duty to defend this bus station from the ravages of evil.” How did this show not run for 15 years?
6) The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982, CBS)
Premiere Date: Nov. 4, 1977
In many ways, The Incredible Hulk’s two-hour premiere doesn’t resemble the series that followed it. For one thing, the pre-Hulk David Banner (Bill Bixby) remains largely in one location instead of wandering from place to place, and he’s largely working to help himself rather than others. The thing that is consistent is Bixby’s impassioned performance as a haunted man attempting to conquer his internal demons, lest he release his inner beast (green-skinned bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno). Thanks to Bixby, The Incredible Hulk is the closest the small-screen superhero genre has gotten to Shakespearean tragedy.
5) Batman (1966-1968, ABC)
Premiere Date: Jan. 12, 1966
Eschewing the requisite superhero origin story, Batman kicks off with its Dynamic Duo (Adam West and Burt Ward) already in action, matching wits with the celebrity villain of the week, The Riddler (Frank Gorshin). The series’ delightfully campy tone is firmly in place from the jump, culminating in the show-stopping sight of West (who remains the best live-action Batman ever) dancing the Batusi in a mod-ish '60s nightclub. Top that, Batfleck.
4) Daredevil (2015-present, Netflix)
Premiere Date: Apr. 10, 2015
You have to get to Daredevil’s second episode, specifically the final ten minutes, to really experience that “Wow” moment that will bring you back for more. Nevertheless, the first hour of Marvel’s first Netflix series is distinguished by subtle, slow-burn world building that helps erase memories of the botched 2003 movie adaptation. If I’m being honest, I kinda prefer Matt Murdock’s original all-black ensemble to the slightly goofy red suit he dons by the season finale.
3) Wonder Woman (1975-1977, ABC; 1977-1979, CBS)
Premiere Date: Nov. 7, 1975
Embracing the humor of the 1966 Batman without going full-on camp, the Wonder Woman pilot is a genuine delight. (Best joke? The grandma with the machine gun. Second best joke? Cloris Leachman as the Amazonian Queen.) And it’s surprisingly kick-ass, too. Although Lynda Carter’s heroine appears to be a wide-eyed babe in the woods — emphasis on babe — she’s never depicted as being anything less than supremely capable of fighting her own battles and deciding her own destiny. When she starts advocating for feminism in the midst of a climactic battle, it’s hard not to stand up and cheer.
2) The Walking Dead (2010-present, AMC)
Premiere Date: Oct. 31, 2010
AMC’s zombie hit boasts a killer feature-length first episode that ranks up there with the great contemporary horror movies. In fact, it may just be the best thing that series creator, Frank Darabont, has ever directed. (Sorry, Shawshank fans.) His use of 16mm film gives the production the grungy, gritty feel of classic grindhouse cinema, and the narrative he’s constructed is a great exercise in experiential first-person storytelling. The viewer watches this post-zombie apocalypse hellscape take shape entirely through Sherriff Rick’s eyes, and it’s a gripping place to spend an hour. Or, for that matter, six seasons.
1) The Flash (2014-present, The CW)
Premiere Date: Oct. 7, 2014
Taking its cue from its turbo-charged hero (Grant Gustin), The Flash’s second lap around the TV track deftly zips through the character’s origin story and his first battle with a bonafide super-villain, the Weather Wizard, while also finding time to flesh out the characters that populate his world and establish the show’s overarching mythology. Heck, it even manages to squeeze in a great cameo from a certain Emerald Archer, not to mention a final scene between the Flash and his father (played, as is right and proper, by O.G. Flash, John Wesley Shipp) that genuinely tugs at the heartstrings. If only all superhero shows could be this fast, this focused and this much damn fun right out of the gate.