By Jeff Jensen
January 08, 2011 at 09:15 PM EST

In the new superhero drama The Cape premiering this Sunday on NBC, David Lyons plays an honest cop named Vince Faraday living in a crooked metropolis terrorized by a masked villain named Chess (True Blood’s James Frain) and freakish thugs like the reptile-skinned Scales (X-Men: The Last Stand’s Vinnie Jones). Vince is a family man, too, and he shares with his son a passion for a comic book superhero named “The Cape.” When he’s framed for murder and accused of being corrupt, Vince goes underground and finds safe harbor among a group of circus performers/not-so-bad bank robbers that go by the knowingly threatrical handle “The Carnival of Crime.” They hook him up with a seemingly magical cape that allows him to fight crime in Palm City (with assistance of the mysterious anti-corruption crusader Orwell, played by Summer Glau) and hopefully clear his good name as the superhero that both he and his son love, and in this way, weekly adventures will ensue.


The Cape isn’t adapted from an existing comic book, but it is downright “comic booky” in its embrace of old school superhero comic book storytelling, from its heightened reality fantasy world to its arch villains to its floridly written chapter headings. Some critics have described The Cape as “cartoony” or even kitschy, especially when they choose to compare it to popular grim and gritty superhero fare like The Dark Knight. But the show comes with a provocative perspective on the current state of superhero pop, and more, finds a sly way to announce and articulate that point of view via a geeky little Easter egg hidden the bedroom of Vince’s son. It’s a comic book–not a fake one like “The Cape”, but one that you can probably find at your local comic book store… provided your local comic book store is still the kind that’s well stocked with sealed-in-plastic back issues and hasn’t replaced those bins in favor of graphic novels and trade paperbacks.

The comic is Mystery Incorporated. It was published in 1993 by Image Comics and released at a time when superhero stories were trending “adult” (read: more violent, more sex) and sardonic about the whole idea of heroism. Why? Because of the influence of landmark eighties works like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight that aspired to deconstruct superhero archetypes and reconstruct them (or not) with deeper psychological nuance and prickly political relevancy. What was unusual and artful about those attempts had become standard operating procedure for the industry in the nineties, with gratuitous edginess and quirkiness posing as “sophistication.”

Mystery Incorporated was created as a response to–and a sly apology for–this increasingly uninspired creative direction by its writer, none other than Alan Moore himself. The comic was the first issue in a limited series called “1963”, written and drawn in the style of early Marvel Comics–the big bang of modern superhero comics, distinguished by greater realism and character angst, yet fun with wild ideas and outrageous drama and full of sunny optimism. (Unless you were The Hulk.) Mystery Incorporated was a loving riff on Fantastic Four. Other installments warmly winked at other Marvel characters, including Spider-Man and Thor. These were comics that unabashedly embraced the fantastic, even ridiculous conventions of superhero lore–the costumes, the powers, the villains. At the time they were published, the comics left me more bemused than amused. The mission statement was more intriguing than the execution. Homage or parody? Ironic or sincere? It was tough to know, tough to trust, tough to appreciate. Regardless, Moore’s “1963” project was never finished as intended; for the backstory, you can read the Wikipedia summary here.

So what exactly is The Cape doing making an allusion to an obscure and failed comic imbued with an agenda to comment upon and even redeem the genre to which it belongs? How about making the same exact point about our current moment of superhero pop, bleak and cynical and fixated with reminding us (perhaps rightly) that you have to be deeply disturbed, perpetually pissed-off and wantonly lawless to be a costumed vigilante. Yes, there can be exceptions; Iron Man, for one, is glib but not gloomy. But can’t there be more? Tom Wheeler, the creator of The Cape, thinks so. A comic book fanboy who digs stuff like Kick-Ass and The Dark Knight, Wheeler nonetheless wanted to cut a different path when he sold his superhero opus to NBC. His show expresses more of a Silver Age sensibility–“Silver Age” being a term given to the period of comic book publishing when Marvel burst on the scene and when chief rival DC Comics was reviving and revitalizing older, “Golden Age” heroes like The Flash and Green Lantern.

“I’ve had an idea for awhile–I didn’t know if it was a TV show or a movie–about the father taking on his son’s favorite superhero,” says Wheeler. “In fact, before I had kids, it was more of a Kick-Ass kind of idea: What would really happen if a normal guy put on a costume and tried to be a super-hero? But having kids changed my perspective. I knew I had an interesting emotional hook–but I no longer had the superhero and needed to invent one. I wanted him to be unique, but I also wanted him to be classical and iconic. The idea of “The Cape” and integrating the cape itself into the hero’s identity emerged amid that brainstorming. It felt pulpy and interesting and embraced the kind of stuff I grew up with. Things have become so deconstructed. I’m a big fan of all of it. But I wanted something that embraced Silver Age values yet with a 21st century awareness of what’s out there.”

The Mystery Incorporated reference? “I’m a huge Alan Moore fan,” says Wheeler. “It was meant to symbolize a return to a certain classical sensibility. Tonally, I’m trying to keep The Cape grounded in reality but still fun. I’m trying to give it a sense of humor without having it make fun of itself. I would say it’s not dissimilar in tone to a James Bond movie or an Indiana Jones adventure.”

The Cape expresses its perspective by unabashedly embracing many of the conventions of superhero pop that many other shows or movies either run away from or feel they need to overly rationalize in order to attract the largest possible audience (or to attract quality actors terrified of looking goofy), or because their creators didn’t really “get” or love the genre as much as they claimed they did. The title of Wheeler’s show all but rubs our faces in the most conspicuous and riskiest of these conventions: the superhero costume. TV shows like Heroes and No Ordinary Family kept them/keep them in the closet. Smallville, arguably the most successful superhero drama ever, has slowly warmed up to funnybook threads, but still hasn’t put its budding Superman in his iconic pajamas.

The Cape, on the other hand, isn’t afraid of playing dress-up. But the process of figuring out exactly how The Cape should be dressed was an evolution. Hundreds of different looks were considered by Wheeler and the show’s pilot helmer, Simon West (The Mechanic, Con Air). As you can see from the concept art provided by NBC, the final vision of the costume doesn’t include a mask–but that will change as the series pushes beyond the pilot (the first hour of Sunday’s two-hour premiere).

“From the beginning, there was a lot of discussion about whether or not The Cape should have a mask,” says Wheeler, adding that he was initially anti-mask. “I personally loved the idea of just going with the cowl. It was very monk-like, very reminiscent of the Dark Riders from The Lord of the Rings. I thought that would be a cool look and could take the place of a mask. We tried it out throughout the pilot, and there were things we found out. How can he possibly look around a room wearing that hood? He needs peripheral vision! So we realized we needed to give him a mask. But I couldn’t just plop it on him. I wanted it to become a story point. I wanted him to deal with it, just as we were dealing with it. I think the training of the superhero never ends, and should be explored through the show. So we integrated the idea of adopting of a mask into the story.”

Wheeler says that the cape in The Cape also has its own backstory, and it will be explored throughout the life of the series. “In episode three, you get a big chunk of it,” he says. “One of our writers is getting his doctorate in mythology, and one of the things we talk about is the cape has a lot of primal symbolism. There’s the blanket you tie around your neck as a kid. That’s your first contact with being a superhero, so as a symbol, the cape connects you to childhood. But there’s also the cape in Jungian mythology/psychology that represents the shadow. So we are setting up a history for the cape that is quite dark. Even though the cape has no supernatural ability to do something to the wearer, we do get into what it means to embody your shadow; we explore the question ‘Do you wear the cape or does the cape wear you?’ That becomes an issue. We will be planting clues and mysteries along the way about the cape because there’s a big story to be told about the cape and what Vince is destined for.”

Another aspect of the superhero mythos that The Cape indulges is the super-villain. We’re not talking garden-variety crooks–we’re talking diabolical masterminds and high strange baddies. Wheeler’s ambition is to give The Cape a large rogues gallery, though Vince’s ongoing conflict with Chess provides the narrative spine of season 1. “Chess is a psychotic James Bond and we deal a lot with him and his alter-ego, Peter Fleming,” says Wheeler. “But we will see that while Peter is awful, he has a complicated life. In total, we’ll introduce seven new villains in the first season, including one that’ll be the center of a two-parter in the middle of the season.”

Wheeler says viewers can expect a show that will span a range of genres. There’s an episode that’ll be more sci-fi. There’s an episode that’s more “gothic” and scary. He believes non-geeks will be able to connect with emotional heart of the show–a story of a husband and father trying to reconnect with his wife and family. For all its old fashionedness, Wheeler believes The Cape is as entertaining as other state-of-the-art superhero action fantasies–even the ones of the grim and gritty stripe. “I think there’s a thirst out there for something that can marry the old and the new, something everyone to sit down and watch together as a family,” he says. “But we are very aware of the other entertainments that are out there and we believe we can be a compliment to them. God willing, we can be considered a branch on the tree of the great things Chris Nolan is doing or Zack Snyder or Jon Favreau have done–all the great adult stuff that’s out there.”