DC Comics is enjoying its most prolific period on television ever, with no less than six prime-time television shows based on DC characters currently airing on major broadcast networks (those would be Arrow, The Flash, Gotham, Supergirl, Lucifer and of course, the company-branded, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow). But while Marvel has only just recently dominated the cinematic super hero landscape, DC has always had a strong presence on television, leaving pop culture footprints that lead all the back to the 1970s with Wonder Woman, the 1960s with Batman and even to the 1950s with The Adventures of Superman.
However, for all the iconic DC Comics-based series, there are a number lesser-known, but still worthy, series that flew under the radar. And right now I’m going to shine the spotlight on of a few them – think of them as DC’s TV Legends of Yesterday.
(The Adventures of) Superboy 1988-1992 (Syndication)
Well before Smallville, the live-action adventures of a young Clark Kent were brought to the small screen in Superboy (later retitled The Adventures of Superboy in its third season). Faced with the diminishing returns of their cinematic Superman/Supergirl franchise, executive producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind turned their attention to the small screen and set about launching a series based on the teen hero. However, instead of being high schoolers in Smallville, Kansas, Clark Kent and childhood sweetheart Lana Lang (played by John Haymes Newton and Stacy Haiduk) were university students in Florida (which was helped location-wise by the fact that Superboy was the first weekly series to be produced at Florida’s Disney/MGM Studios and later Universal Studios Florida)
Newton’s portrayal offered up a more confident, less-nerdy version of Clark Kent and after initial 13 episode order, the show was given the green light to produce 13 more. It was after this second batch of episodes that the producers of the show and Newton began having issues with each other (Newton’s demand for more money along with a publicized arrest for DUI didn’t help matters) and as a result, Newton was asked to leave the show.
Now, usually you would think that recasting someone who was not only the lead actor, but the title character of a show, would signal the beginning of the end – especially for a relatively new series that was trying to build an audience. But that turned out to be not the case here. The show went on to run for another three seasons, with Gerard Christopher swooping into the title role of the young Kryptonian at the start of season two, eventually appearing in a total of 74 of the 100 produced episodes.
Birds of Prey 2002-2003 (The WB)
The now-defunct WB network had already tasted success with a female-driven action/genre series with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so Birds of Prey seemed like a perfect fit. At the time one of DC Comics’ standout titles, the comic book Birds of Prey centered around Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl, now crippled by the Joker and fighting crime from behind her computer screen as Oracle. To do her legwork on covert missions, she enlists the help of some of her super-powered friends, which mainly consisted of Black Canary and then later, the Huntress. This was the first thing the TV version switched up a bit – choosing to make Huntress (Ashley Scott) the main partner of Oracle (Dina Meyer) with a not-quite Black Canary, Dinah (Rachel Skarsten) joining them later.
Now, usually a big stumbling block for comics that make the transition to the small screen is conveying their premise and backstory easily to the audience so they can get onboard as quickly and painlessly as possible. And as a comic, Birds of Prey was already carrying some big baggage, especially for those people who only knew of Batgirl as the bouncy redhead from the Batman series and animated shows. So, it’s a real head-scratcher that the WB opted to take that premise and make it even MORE confusing – tweaking characters, locations, histories and well… sometimes it’s better to show than to tell, so just soak up this one very expositional voice over that introduced the show each week.
That said, the show was still well done and it brought in the biggest ratings for a premiere episode on the WB at the time. However, it wasn’t able to sustain those numbers, and as the show was quite expensive to produce, it wasn’t deemed profitable enough to continue beyond its initial 13 episode order. But, even though it was a bit misguided, the series is still well-remembered by many BoP fans (especially since it included Mia Sara’s role as the big bad of the series – the first live-action version of Dr. Harleen Quinzel aka Harley Quinn)
Legion of Super Heroes 2006-2008 (The CW)
One of the oldest super hero teams in comic book history (they first appeared in 1958) the Legion of Super Heroes have been a fan-favourite team for decades. In 2006, following the smash successes of the animated Justice League and Teen Titans series, the futuristic team of super-teens finally got their due with their own series.
Legion of Super Heroes ran for two seasons as part of the Kids WB lineup on the newly-formed CW network. It introduced viewers to the young and vibrant team of heroes from the 31st century who take the young Superman from the 21st century under their wing to give him the training and experience he’ll need to become the legend they know him as in their era.
Legion of Super Heroes was a fun and exciting show that proved there was a way to take decades of continuity, characters and backstory and just filter it down to necessary elements that would appease fans of the comic while not alienating new audiences. And with the cues DC Entertainment has been taking from Marvel’s cinematic universe, I’m surprised that they haven’t realized that they already have their own answer to the Guardians of the Galaxy in Legion of Super Heroes…and it’s just been left sitting there, waiting for the live-action treatment. Oh well, until then we can always enjoy the rather awesome LSH opening credits and theme: