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The 17 best comic book TV shows, ranked

Counting down the classics, from Marvel to DC and everything in between.

By Benjamin Bullard
Batman The Animated Series PRESS

No chicken and egg conundrum here: From the TV Superman of the 1950s to The Boys and The Umbrella Academy of today, if you’re into superhero tales on the small screen, there’s probably a corresponding comic book somewhere in the deeper past to thank.

Elevating Caped Crusaders and alien invaders to the top pop-culture billing of the present day might seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, but on TV, the comics have been inspiring sensational serialized stories since all the way back in the black and white era. And ever since George Reeves donned the Man of Steel’s cape in 1952’s The Adventures of Superman, there’s pretty much been no stopping the momentum of TV shows based on comic books.

That, of course, brings us to the matter at hand: Grappling with the impossible task of cherry-picking the ones we like best. With 70 years’ worth of super-powered TV to comb through, narrowing down a list of our top comics-inspired shows is an ever-changing endeavor; one where the pecking order seems to shift more than all the times Clark Kent ever ducked into a phone booth through his entire world-saving career.

But that’s no excuse not to put our best foot forward and try. After all, we’ll probably never all agree on TV’s all-time greatest comic book-based TV shows (heck, we might not even agree with ourselves by tomorrow.) But at least it gives us the chance to take an illuminating walk through the hallowed halls of page-to-screen superhero history… while maybe even uncovering some new, old favorites along the way.

17. Batman (1966-1968)

Fans of Gotham City’s shadowy protector could cram a whole lot of Batman history without ever cracking open a comic book, all simply by taking in the iconic TV series that brought Batman and Robin right into America’s 1960s living rooms. Airing on ABC from 1966 to 1968, Batman turned star Adam West into a household name not just for one generation, but for legions of Bat-fans right up to the present day.

It’s easy to jest like the Joker about all the spandex and swingin’ ‘60s kitsch that, in hindsight, dates the series. to date the series. But that stylistic choice has done nothing to ding Batman’s reputation as a rightful claimant to a place of prominence in DC’s small-screen pantheon. If anything, West and costar Burt Ward (as Robin, aka Dick Grayson) helped demonstrate just how durable and adaptable Bob Kane’s original caped comic book creation would prove in the years to come — on screens both big and small.

16. The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982)

Before Mark Ruffalo and before Edward Norton — long before the MCU version of the Hulk, in fact — there was Bill Bixby. CBS television’s late-1970s incarnation of Marvel’s anguished green good guy bypassed today’s comedic trappings of Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, favoring instead a more brooding and earnest take on Bixby’s Dr. David Banner. It also featured strongman Lou Ferrigno as the raging, car-tossing Hulk, which earned him a devoted fanbase. 

Thanks to the MCU’s popularity, movie fans take the Hulk’s backstory for granted when they head to the theater these days. But one of the great things about The Incredible Hulk as a comics-inspired outlier on the late-‘70s TV dial was the way the series didn’t presume that the audience possessed that same level of lore insight. The Incredible Hulk aired more than 80 episodes on CBS between the show’s 1977 premiere and its 1982 finale, putting Bixby’s buttoned-down scientist through endless permutations of stress and monster-sized transformation. In just about every one of them, the stakes always felt super-serious, and the show dove deep inside Banner’s inner turmoil to make sure that viewers knew why.

15. Smallville (2001-2011)

Depending on the day of the week, we might just as easily put Smallville near the very top of this list. Spanning the transition from the old WB network to today’s The CW, the small-town adventures of Clark Kent enjoyed an incredible ten-year series run, while in many ways perfecting the early TV formula that would eventually launch The CW’s Arrowverse on the path toward runaway success.

There’s no way in Krypton to summarize all of Smallville’s superlatives, but one of its key achievements was the way it really humanized Clark Kent (Tom Welling) and, for all his near-omnipotence, made Superman’s Earth-stranded predicament feel personal and real. Christopher Reeve and director Richard Donner had forever cemented a vivid image of Superman’s iconic and idealized goodness in moviegoers’ minds with the classic Superman films of the 1970s, but it was Smallville that transformed Clark Kent’s superhero aloofness on the big screen into an accessible  and human personality; one that still resonates with fans today, just as much as when the last episode aired in 2010.

14. Arrow (2012-2020)

What can you say about the series that lifted a DC comics character out of relative obscurity and into an entire extended TV universe — one that’ll forever bear its hero’s name? Arrow firmly established The CW as the TV place to be if you’re a DC Comics fan, while signaling the start of co-creator Greg Berlanti’s long and productive tenure as the creative steward for all the subsequent Arrowverse superhero series that we still can’t get enough of to this day.

As Oliver Queen (aka the Green Arrow), Stephen Amell brought Bruce Wayne levels of vigilante commitment to righting wrongs, whether personal or otherwise, in his own west-coast Gotham of Star City. Over its eight sprawling seasons, Arrow proved that comics-based TV fare could aspire to cinematic measures of set piece action and storytelling, and it did it with respect for its ever-growing audience.

There’s a reason that Marvel is expanding the MCU into Disney+ TV territory, and some key clues can be found in the Arrowverse’s winning formula. In innovative ways, Arrow struck a novel new small-screen balance, developing its own in-series mix of complex characters and deep lore while maintaining a strong nod toward the comic books for longtime Green Arrow fans. In the process, it ended up carving a path for the biggest, most ambitious comic book universe — make that Arrowverse — that the small-screen has ever seen.

13. Legends of Tomorrow (2016-present)

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow is the first show on this list that’s still on the air, which means it’s tough to frame it in static, frozen-in-time terms. But that’s a testament to everything it’s gotten right through its first seven seasons.

Assembling its time-traveling cast out of characters from an array of DC comics (and introducing others as Arrowverse first-timers) has lent Legends its own unique, go-anywhere vibe; one that stands apart from shows that owe their origins to comic books. With no single comics franchise to inspire the series’ story beats, its creators are unfettered to take the Waverider pretty much wherever their creative impulse leads — and that’s exactly what they’ve done through the show’s first seven seasons.

We’ve come a long way from Rip Hunter’s Season 1 quest to avenge his family’s murder, making it easy for even longtime fans to forget that Legends — which debuted as the fourth Arrowverse series in 2016 — is technically a spinoff from Arrow and The Flash. Think of it instead as the kind of comic book show that’s able to craft its own, brand-new time-hopping lore with every new episode — and a playfully courageous TV take on the very idea of what superheroes and villains really get up to when they’re not busy saving (or scheming against) the universe.

12. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-2020)

Now we’re getting into that zone where you don’t even have to be a comics or sci-fi fan to get completely engrossed: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is just that good.

Agent Phil Coulson’s cool, competent presence on the periphery of the MCU’s big screen always suggested that Coulson (Clark Gregg) had more tales that needed telling, but through seven seasons at ABC, S.H.I.E.L.D. transcended his supporting role (as well as his apparent death in 2012’s The Avengers) to create a Hydra-fighting force that knows how to carry a story all on its own.

Until S.H.I.E.L.D., most Marvel-connected series, including the then-concurrent Netflix shows like Daredevil, merely acknowledged the MCU without going out of their way to join it. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took the opposite approach. Not only did the ABC series react to seismic plot developments hatched by movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it also forged new ones that made their own ripples in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Nick Fury even showed up for a key episode early in the series' action-packed run). S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t just owe its shared Marvel DNA, or its success, to having a co-creator (Joss Whedon) who’d directed an MCU movie or two: It satisfied a growing fan hunger for expanding the MCU beyond the big screen, while delivering a master class in how slow-boiling episodic television could explore deeper Marvel territory than a movie ever could.

11. Legion (2017-2019)

Like its distant X-Men movie cousin Logan, Legion isn’t for everybody; it’s just for comic book fans who enjoy a high-concept character exploration of one of the most interesting mutants in Charles Xavier’s sphere of telepathic influence. The short-lived series only ran for three seasons on FX, but that was more than enough time to demonstrate just how distinctive and convention-breaking a serial comic book TV series could be.

With series creator and showrunner Noah Hawley at the helm, Legion set out from the start to craft a different kind of dark sci-fi fantasy for David Haller (aka Legion, played by Dan Stevens), and anyone who followed the show on its schizophrenic ride got to peer through a reality-skewed kaleidoscope into an entirely new wing of Marvel’s X-Men universe. It’s hard to convey the full impact of Legion’s trippy visuals, or its innovative take on how fragile mental health can affect even the supernaturally gifted. But more than just about any other series we can think of, Legion invites fans to ponder what it must really feel like to view the world through a mutant’s eyes…and then it totally nails the answer.

10. Daredevil (2015-2018)

Three years after its Netflix run ended, fans are still clamoring for Daredevil to return with actor Charlie Cox behind the blindfold — that’s how much of an impact the short-lived Marvel series made, even without the benefit of Disney’s more recent small-screen linkup with the wider MCU.

Daredevil didn’t need much of an MCU assist to weave its own gripping narrative of corruption inside the seedy criminal underworld of Hell’s Kitchen. Instead, it got a huge boost from its stellar cast, which surrounded Matt Murdock with killer support from best-bud law partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), intrepid novice sleuth Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) — the night nurse of choice for vigilantes in New York’s shadowy, hidden war of good versus evil.

The villains (and almost-villains) were just as great, too. Vincent D’Onofrio took demented crime lord Wilson Fisk (aka Kingpin) beyond his comics-based bad guy origins, while Jon Bernthal’s antihero The Punisher and Élodie Yung’s sociopathic Elektra held up sobering mirrors that reflected the more sinister side of Matt Murdock’s tightly-wound, extra-legal vigilante code. Daredevil remains a great Netflix binge, even for people who aren’t into superhero stories.

9. The Walking Dead (2010-present)

How do you even begin to summarize a series as big as The Walking Dead? Comics creator Robert Kirkman’s zombie saga took on a sensational life of its own as a graphic novel before AMC turned it into appointment television for horror fans. And for all the series’ twists and turns, it remains one of the most influential crossovers ever to appear on the small screen.

Even as the flagship show winds down with a sprawling, three-part final season, the larger Walking Dead universe continues to expand at AMC, with Fear the Walking Dead and two-season newcomer The Walking Dead: World Beyond. Fans will always wage neverending verbal skirmishes over the relative quality of each of the main series’ eleven seasons, but as the critically-favored World Beyond and recent installments of FTWD show, there seems to be plenty of creative life left in The Walking Dead’s extended exploration of post-apocalypse America. There’s also a bigger picture: Universal Pictures is working on a movie trilogy that follows the adventures of fan favorite Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), while two more AMC spinoff series — one featuring Daryl and Carol (Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride, respectively) — have been announced as followup AMC arrivals in the wake of The Walking Dead’s 2022 series finale.

8. Marvel's Jessica Jones (2015-2019)

Like Daredevil, Marvel’s Jessica Jones mostly held its MCU connections at a Netflix-appropriate arm’s length. But, like Daredevil, that didn’t detract from series creator Melissa Rosenberg’s adaptation of a comic book hero who was seriously due for some small-screen appreciation.

Krysten Ritter slipped on the black leather jacket to play the tough-as-nails side of Jessica Jones’ post-heroic career as a hard-living, hard-drinking New York P.I. Brutally realistic about the sorry state of the world (as well as her own inner demons), Jessica Jones on Netflix served up just the kind of world-weary, noir-ish hero that the urban warrens of Hell’s Kitchen called for. Fans may not know it, but Jessica Jones got a lot of love from critics over the course of its three-season run, earning an Emmy (for its title theme music) alongside a slew of other awards for standout performances (including a Hugo for Season 1 finale “AKA Smile,” which wove Luke Cage and night nurse Claire Temple into a climactic standoff with David Tennant’s Kilgrave.)

Like the other Marvel series that ran their course at Netflix, Jessica Jones has retained a loyal legion of fans who hold out hope that the character might someday reemerge, with Ritter once again in the role, in a future MCU storyline. Only Marvel and Disney know whether that’s part of the actual plan, but it doesn’t diminish what’s already there: Jessica Jones remains available at Netflix as part of the streamer’s Marvel Collection.

7. Tales From the Crypt (1989-1996)

Tales from the Crypt (1995) PRESS

HBO struck early genre gold when it decided to mine the distant comic book past for a horror anthology series that still stands out as one of the edgiest TV adaptations, especially for its time. Based on EC Comics’ corpse-strewn terror tales from the1950s, the TV version of Tales From the Crypt mixed the comics’ pulpy page-turning shock factor with the emerging possibilities provided by an evolving visual effects industry. Together, they made for a seven-season sensation whose delightful dives into grotesque imagery and archetypal plot twists have resonated with fans (and a new generation of scary storytellers) to this day.

Alongside Miami Vice, Tales From the Crypt at HBO holds the unique TV distinction of featuring an unbelievably huge all-star class of guest actors, who each took their turn playing a part in the series’ evil vignettes. From its start in 1989 to the British-produced final season in 1996, Tales From the Crypt welcomed a rotating guest cast that included Brad Pitt, Christopher Reeve, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ewan McGregor, Tom Hanks, Steve Buscemi, Brooke Shields, Demi Moore, Kirk Douglas, Teri Hatcher, and Lea Thompson — just to name a select few.

If there’s a downside to so much creepy creativity, it’s that Tales From the Crypt can’t currently be found on HBO Max or any other streaming platform. Repeated attempts to revisit the Tales franchise have fizzled in the years since the series ended, including talk of a proposed TV revival, back in 2016, from M. Night Shyamalan. For the time being at least, it looks as if the Crypt Keeper has put the series under a gravely gripping curse.

6. Lucifer (2016-2021)

Who knew the devil could be redeemed? When Netflix stepped in to rescue Lucifer from cancellation purgatory at Fox, it did more than revive an already-great series. With star Tom Ellis in the titular role, the Neil Gaiman-created character raised fresh hell at its new streaming home, unleashed at last with a less-censored free rein for the Prince of Darkness to live his best eternal life here on Earth.

The setup’s pretty sweet: Bored with his interminable existence as the Lord of Hell, Lucifer Morningstar (Tom Ellis) throws it all away to go meddling around with the affairs of humans, choosing Los Angeles as the debauched backdrop for his extended earthly stay-cation. Things get delightfully complicated from there, both on the mortal and immortal fronts, with L.A.’s cynical denizens proving the ideal human foils for a demon who takes devilish delight in stirring things up.

With the full six-season series recently concluded at Netflix, Satan’s full body of work is now behind us for good. What remains, though, is a Lucifer legacy that shows the character, originally introduced in Gaiman’s iconic The Sandman comics, proved endlessly adaptable in the long journey from page to screen. Lucifer expanded into its own heavily-populated story-verse on the small screen, mixing lowbrow comedy and high-concept fantasy into an addictively pulpy stew of soul-stealing fun. It’s a series worthy of Old Scratch himself, and we’re eternally grateful that it found salvation at Netflix.

5. The Flash (2014-Present)

If Arrow gave The CW a name for its extended DC comics universe, it’s The Flash that in many ways proved to be the durable tentpole that still sustains the larger Arrowverse from one season to the next. Barry Allen (aka The Flash, played by Grant Gustin) is charging through his eighth season even as we speak, though there’s no word yet from the network on when, or even whether, a Season 9 is on the way.

In the meantime, it’s impossible not to appreciate what series creators Greg Berlanti, Geoff Johns, and Andrew Kreisberg have left in the show’s speedy wake. The Flash is about as close as it gets to perfect comic-book television, serving up exactly the right balance of popcorn-munching sci-fi heroics and plot-heavy melodrama that, unlike a lot of shows on this list, consistently pays recognizable homage to the deep DC Comics lore that’s inspired it.

In the process, it’s also introduced us to a constellation of awesome characters who’ve gained fervent fan bases of their own — from Killer Frost (Danielle Panabaker) to Vibe (Carlos Valdes), to the plain old humans who anchor (and sometimes complicate) Barry’s double-identity life. After almost a decade on the air and a half-dozen crossover event series, Barry Allen may not quite be the Arrowverse’s version of the MCU’s Captain America. But The Flash has matured into a legit small-screen superhero leader, and it’s hard to envision an Arrowverse that doesn’t have him somewhere near its very center.

4. Loki (2021-Present)

Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still in its early days, and it’ll be a long time before we arrive at the kind of “aha!” payoff moments whose foundations are no doubt being laid in Disney+ shows like Loki. But we don’t need to know where the breadcrumbs will lead to marvel (pun intended) at what’s already there: Loki is so good, you’d better clear your schedule before you dive in — because once you start, it’s hard not to binge the entire limited series like it’s an extended five-hour movie.

We’d have welcomed any excuse to put Owen Wilson (Agent Mobius) and Tom Hiddleston (Loki) together on the same screen, but Loki manages to wrest the very best from each actor’s unique gifts. As Kang the Conqueror, Jonathan Majors chews the scenery with a wonderfully offbeat performance that captures the ennui that comes with being a literal know-it-all. And Sophia Di Martino (Sylvie) brings a killer Asgardian edge to her role as a variant version of Loki. She serves as a kind of mirror for the God of Mischief to glimpse his own nature, and if he seems like a bona fide good guy by the time the credits roll, that’s probably because her ice-cold cruelty is beginning to scare him straight.

Where WandaVision toyed with format and style to shake things up from one installment to the next, Loki goes straight for continuity in its six absorbing episodes, weaving an audacious story of time manipulation that points the way toward some truly epic MCU conflicts in the not-too-distant future. Even if the finale leaves us with tons of questions about how the Time Variance Authority (TVA) can worm-hole its way out of the temporal mess that Kang’s created, there’s no questioning the Marvel-ness of it all… and we mean that in the best possible way.

3. Agent Carter (2015-2016)

Avengers: Endgame put a final, bittersweet bow on the decades-long romance between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter, in the process giving fans of ABC’s short-lived Agent Carter a whole new reason to revisit one of the coolest comics-based shows there’s ever been.

Though it only lasted for two seasons, Agent Carter took one of the most interesting characters in the MCU, and placed her story on the shoulders of one of its most gifted actors. Hayley Atwell already had won fans’ hearts as the surviving half of one of the MCU’s most sweeping love stories after the events of 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. But where the big screen only hinted at the resourceful Brit’s commitment to stopping evils both earthly and extraterrestrial, Agent Carter gave Atwell plenty of room to explore Peggy Carter’s backstory as a post-war operative amid Howard Stark’s world-changing technological innovations in the dawning atomic age.

The first Captain America film stood out for wrapping its sci-fi story in the more idealistic and culturally earnest zeitgeist of World War II. Agent Carter developed that spirit of uneasy optimism with a late-1940s setting (first in New York, before a Season 2 move to Los Angeles) that framed Peggy Carter as a noir-ish good gal whose sixth sense for espionage didn’t detract from her willingness to step into the role of a full-scale action hero. It’s a shame that the series jarred to a halt with a cliffhanger Season 2 ending — but even without the love of her life at her side, it remains the only "L" that Peggy Carter ever took.

2. WandaVision (2021)

WandaVision is sheer audacity. Everything about this series from head writer Jan Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman — the first of the MCU’s small-screen rollout at Disney+ —  feels original and unpredictable, expanding by leaps and bounds what longtime Marvel movie fans thought they could comfortably expect from the familiar mega-franchise.

Coming after a pandemic-induced dearth of theatrical Marvel movies, WandaVision also arrived just when fans were primed for new characters, catchphrases, and stunning visuals to satisfy their neglected MCU appetite. On that front, WandaVision served up too many home-run moments to count, from breakout star Kathryn Hahn’s musical reveal as Agatha Harkness to Easter eggs aplenty as each new episode paid smart homage to iconic sitcoms and their tropes — from the black-and-white TV era all the way to the present day. Best of all, it offered generous insight into the heartaches and emotional trauma at the root of two star-crossed MCU heroes. Paul Bettany (Vision) and Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda, AKA the Scarlet Witch) looked equally at home on the set of a Leave it to Beaver-era living room as they did soaring above the trapped townsfolk of tiny Westview, New Jersey.

Starting with the 1950s sitcom trappings of its very first episode and warping through decades’ worth of pop-culture detritus that swirled near the fringes of Wanda’s grief-stricken mind, WandaVision essentially reinvented itself with every new episode, all while slowly encroaching on the end of Wanda's suppressed story that she simply couldn't bring herself to finish. If the “walls closing in” metaphor ever needed a visual textbook illustration, WandaVision provided it in ways no Marvel movie ever could; and it even let us laugh a little along the way.

1. Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)

When it comes to movies and TV, everybody’s got their favorite Batman. What’s amazing is just how many agree on the one that belongs at (or very near) the top: The grown-up animated version of the Caped Crusader that artist Bruce Timm and writer Paul Dini brought to life in the early 1990s with Batman: The Animated Series.

Through the course of its 85-episode run, Batman: The Animated Series achieved the remarkable feat of playing out like a moving comic book, leaning heavily into a noir-ish, art deco-infused style that vividly evoked both the sophisticated and the sinister sides of Gotham City. With endless syndication in the years following its original network run at Fox Kids, it also cemented Bruce Wayne’s square-jawed Caped Crusader (voiced by Kevin Conroy) as the definitive animated version of Batman for an entire generation of fans.

Even though it was created with a young audience in mind, the series’ themes were gritty enough to earn it an enthusiastic adult following. The character-first writing and the core voice cast elevated Batman: The Animated Series to something comics-savvy grown-ups could appreciate on their own terms, and the huge cast of high-profile guest actors — highlighted, of course, by Mark Hamill’s famous recurring turn as the Joker — populated Gotham with a believable crew of allies and threats who stayed true to their comic book roots.

In a late-breaking bit of bonus Bat-news, members of the original Emmy-winning cast are reportedly reuniting to continue the story — this time in podcast form. Via The Hollywood Reporter, series writer Alan Burnett is developing an audio drama that aims to pick up where the show left off in 1995, roping in Conroy and The Riddler voice actor John Glover to reprise their original roles. Some of the show’s voice actors are also reported to be in the mix, as well as Batman '89 composer Danny Elfman.

There’s no early word on when the podcast might debut, but that just gives us more time to bone up on one of the brightest moments in all of Caped Crusader history. Batman: The Animated Series continues to live on at HBO Max, alongside Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the 1993 animated movie based on the series, featuring the same creative team and cast.

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