It’s the age-old problem with successful, long-running properties: how do you shake up a beloved character enough to spur interest, yet do so without changing something core to the character’s appeal?
As the proprietors of such successful comics properties as the Hulk and Superman, of the Avengers and the Justice League, of Spider-Man and Wonder-Woman, Marvel Comics and DC Comics have had to thread that needle for decades. There’ve been hits, and there’ve been misses. But while some revamps are merely speedbumps, here are a few that, in our opinion, qualify as memorably bad comic book train wrecks.
Fairly recent, and largely pilloried already, we’re not sure it’s fair to point out this low-hanging-fruit of an example. But, jeez man, it was just so bad! Long story short — a woman’s slap and accusation that Superman wasn’t there to help her dying husband prompts the big blue boy scout to try to get back in touch with the people in a rather mundane way. J. Michael Straczynski guides us through Superman’s efforts to reconnect with the common man by staying on the ground. Now Straczynski is a fine, even sometimes brilliant writer, and we’re not convinced this was an inherently bad idea; perhaps it fell apart more in the execution than the concept. And even brilliant writers need a readers’ advocate – a.k.a. an editor – to act as a voice of reason. Point is, someone, probably several someones, dropped the ball.
Were we expected to marvel as Superman, who from the very beginning was touted as “being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” took one step at a time across flyover states? It just didn’t work, and another writer ended up trying to salvage the experiment halfway through the planned arc.
John Byrne has had some hits and misses, but one of his coolest characters was Puck, the acrobatic little person associated with Alpha Flight. A man who’d overcome his perceived physical limitations to be a friggin’ superhero. A scrappy dude with a refreshing personality, a penchant for saying “eh,” and a messed up ear that hinted at a rough-and-tumble past.
Then, Mr. Byrne switched titles, taking over The Incredible Hulk while that title’s scribe, Bill Mantlo, took over Alpha Flight. And Puck got something of an origin. Seems that he houses a great evil, the “Black Raazer,” inside his body, which inexplicably makes him quite short and sort of ageless. Duh.
Not to judge his entire run – in our opinion, it was a mixed bag with some bright spots – but his decision to make Puck’s dwarfism a result of being host to some sort of demon, rather than a physical limitation he’d had to overcome, eliminated much of the romanticism and aspirational appeal of the character.
Staying with that theme, why let a cool ground-level character stay true to his roots when you can make him super boring with a dash of magic? Look at what they did to good ol’ “no face.” The very first incarnation of the Question, as written and published by Charlton Comics, was from the beginning a hard-hitting investigative journalist. DC comics acquired the Charlton properties, and the Dennis O’Neil written/Denys Cowan drawn series that started in 1987 brought the character to an even grittier, yet surprisingly philosophical place. Most of the subsequent incarnations stayed on this path, even with Renee Montoya taking the mantle from Vic Sage during some DC crossover event.
And then, the New 52, in which the Question is some kind of mystical dude, chilling at the beginning of time with the likes of Pandora and the Phantom Stranger. He’s to be punished for some unnamed sin by the wizards at the Rock of Eternity (tying him into the Shazam mythos, because why not), but rails against them and threatens to get revenge. They strip him of name and face and identity and let him wander, dealing vigilante justice through the centuries.
Is this interesting to anybody that has a history with the character? To anybody without a history with the character? Let’s just say we’re glad DC has a chance to rectify this dullness via its Convergence event.
Okay, so this happened: The Punisher, noted scourge of the criminal underworld, Vietnam vet, about as gritty and street-level as a character in the Marvel Universe proper can be, gets ruined with a dash of magic.
Do we see a theme here? In any case, in a 1998 miniseries, Frank Castle, apparently dead from suicide, comes back as an avenging angel, with mystic powers that include “access to all the weapons in heaven.” His motivation: he’s bound for hell, and will never be able to see his heaven-dwelling family in the afterlife. Serving as a weapon of the man upstairs may help him acquire better real estate in the afterlife. Not quite as captivating as his original origin as an engine of destruction hellbent on revenge, no?
Thankfully, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon righted the ship in the “Welcome Back Frank” story-line a while later. Though they did mention his sad circumstances as an angel. You know, because continuity.
The original sidekicks to the Super Friends on TV — predating the Wonder Twins + Space Monkey Gleek — were Marvin, Wendy, and their pooch Wonder Dog. Okay, maybe Wonder Dog isn’t a household name, and maybe before his brief stint in Teen Titans hadn’t been seen outside of odd Super Friends comics and the TV show. But when a harmless character from a kids’ cartoon — basically an Easter egg come to the comics pages — mangles the other Easter egg refugees from the same show, it’s not grim or gritty or shocking. It’s just gratuitous. Especially because Wendy (left paralyzed) and Marvin (dead) had, for the first time, been rendered interesting. Twin scientific geniuses recently allied with the Titans, Wonder Dog was just a stray, or so they thought — but he turned out to be a servant of the Greek god Ares, and part of a plot against Wonder Girl.
After Convergence, we expect a mangy, lice-ridden, rabies-carrying version of Gleek to go ape on Zan and Jayna.
Images: DC Comics, Marvel Comics