13 Attempts to Reboot, Revamp or Re-Energize a Comic-Book Franchise That Could Have Gone a Little Bit Better
1. The Spider-Clone Saga (1994)
By the mid-1990s, DC had put its A-list heroes through the wringer in one overwrought “event” storyline after another, and fans responded by buying their comics in droves. Never a company to pass on a parade, Marvel commissioned an “event” storyline for its own flagship character, whose sales had slipped a bit since fan fave Todd McFarlane jumped ship in 1991 to start his own comic empire. The idea of reviving the “clone” Spider-Man character from a then-obscure mid-’70s story arc — a character that supposedly died at the end of said arc — was an audacious one, and it may have worked if the writers had been left alone to do their thing. But interference from Marvel’s marketing department turned what was intended to be a small, multi-issue storyling into a sprawling, 200-issue quagmire that hardly anyone could keep straight (it also didn’t help that Marvel’s then-current business woes meant several key staffers were fired halfway through the storyline). And when it was revealed that “Ben Reilly” (the name taken by the new Spider-Man) was in reality the original Spider-Man — and that the Peter Parker that fans had been following for the previous two decades was in fact the genetic knock-off — outraged fans did everything but lynch Stan Lee in response. With sales numbers plummeting faster than Gwen Stacy off a bridge (too soon?), Marvel resurrected Norman “Green Goblin” Osborn to assume the role of “shadowy figure responsible for everything bad that ever happened to Parker, including this entire storyline.” But that quick fix annoyed the fans who favored a little coherence in their stories even more; as one online poster noted at the time, “So, to fix the mess caused by bringing back a character that died 21 years ago, they’re bringing back a character that died 23 years ago?” To this day, the Clone Saga has become a running gag among Marvel writers, and even Marvel tried to get in on the joke with its tongue-in-cheek 101 Ways to End the Clone Saga one-shot in 1997… but in truth it took a long time (and several Kirsten Dunst close-ups) for the franchise to fully recover from that debacle.
2. Justice League Detroit (1984)
It was right there on the cover: “The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes.” While Marvel’s Avengers team was more often seen as a mentorship program bringing seasoned pros and newer heroes together, DC’s Justice League of America was always about the best of the best taking on the major-league threats that no one hero could face alone. But by the early 1980s, the formula was wearing a bit thin and, sensing a need to revive the series (and hoping to capitalize on the popularity of The New Teen Titans and other youth-oriented series of the day), the powers that be took a page out of the Avengers handbook and staffed DC’s premier super-team with a mix of B-list veterans and brand-new heroes. The new team consisted of previous Leaguers Aquaman, Zatanna, Martian Manhunter, and the Elongated Man, along with the vivacious Vixen (previously introduced in Action Comics) and a trio of brand-new heroes named Gypsy, Steel, and Vibe. Oh, and they moved the team’s headquarters from their orbiting satellite to a Detroit bunker because… well, because. It was a complete and utter fiasco, both artistically and financially. As it turned out, fans weren’t clamoring to follow the adventures of a muy macho Latino breakdancer, a dull-as-dishwater tin man, and a wallflower who literally blended into the woodwork (Vixen at least lasted long enough to score a recurring role in the Justice League Unlimited animated series), and not even 11th-hour appearances by Batman and other former JLAers could keep the series from circling the drain. DC cut its losses, killed off Vibe and Steel in a “shocking” multi-issue storyline, and started fresh with a brand-new Justice League title in 1987 — still a little light on the major-leaguers, but at least this time the new team was in on the joke.
3. “Emerald Twilight” (1993)
The challenge with revamping or updating a superhero franchise, especially one that has been around a long time, is that you have to take into account the immense sense of ownership that longtime fans tend to feel for their favorite characters. For instance, let’s say you have an aging superhero on your hands and you want to give his name and title to a younger, less experienced character as a way of renewing interest in the franchise (and perhaps attract a few younger readers who may not be into the whole “middle-aged crisis every five issues” thing). You could go the Flash route (give the mentor a suitable send-off by having him fall heroically in the line of duty, then promote his former sidekick to A-list status)… or you could do what was done to Hal Jordan: driven insane with grief by the destruction of his home city, he destroys the Green Lantern Corps and attempts to remake the universe with his stolen power. Meanwhile, a Guardian who escapes Jordan’s rampage gives the last Green Lantern ring to Kyle Rayner, a young artist who just happens to be in the right place at the right time. As Wikipedia (in its typically understated way) put it, this turn of events “caused great consternation among comic fandom,” mostly because it turned one of DC’s most stalwart and upright leading men into a raving homicidal lunatic and gave his mantle to a guy whose only qualification for the job was literally showing up. Over the course of many years, Hal Jordan died, became the Spectre and found himself back among the living to once again dispense emerald-hued justice, just in time for his silver screen debut in 2011. So maybe the fans that formed H.E.A.T. (for Hal’s Emerald Advancement Team) and letter-bombed DC’s offices demanding Jordan’s return were on to something, after all.
4. “The Death of Superman” (1992)
In all fairness, this storyline probably doesn’t belong on this list because it did accomplish what it set out to do; it’s the law of unintended consequences that gives us pause to wonder whether this storyline was, in retrospect, such a good idea. As the legend goes, some smart aleck was always shouting “Let’s kill him!” every time DC’s writing staff sat down to plot out the Man of Steel’s upcoming year, and one year someone shouted back: Hey, why not? DC editor Mike Carlin once said the world was taking Superman for granted and his team wanted to show what it would be like to literally live without Superman, and issues depicting Superman’s death and eventual return to duty remain among the top-selling comics in history. So from a commercial standpoint, one could argue “The Death of Superman” delivered the goods. On the other hand, no one seriously believed DC would allow Superman to stay dead despite all trappings proclaiming as such (get your commemorative black armbands while they last!), and the whole death and resurrection thing — not to mention the slightly hamfisted way in which the storyline introduced four ersatz Supermen at the same time — screamed “publicity stunt” to many critics. (Some have even gone as far as to blame this storyline for the massive comic speculating crash that nearly crippled the industry in the mid-’90s, as thousands of fans clutching their copies of Superman #75 simultaneously realized they would never get rich from selling a book that millions of other people already owned.) Then, after Superman was properly resurrected and back fighting for truth and justice, there was the question of “Well, where the hell do we go now?” that lingered over Superman’s many titles for years to follow… because really, how do you top the ultimate feat of super-survival?
5. Sword of the Atom (1983)
I’m not sure whether to file this under “character reboot” or “temporary diversion until we can figure out what to do with the character,” but I’ll go with the former for now. Never a major mover-and-shaker in the DC Universe, the Silver Age Atom was nonetheless a reliable Justice League member whose scientific mind and size-altering abilities always came through in a pinch. For no discernible reason, in the early 1980s writer Jan Strnad and artist Gil Kane collaborated on a four-part mini-series in which Ray “the Atom” Palmer crash-lands in the middle of the Amazon rain forest and encounters a miniature tribe of yellow-skinned alien warriors. Trapped at his six-inch size (making him conveniently on par with his new alien friends), it only stands to reason he would then pick up a sword, wear a loincloth over his superhero costume and save alien damsels from rats and alligators instead of, you know, figure out a way to get back to civilization. No sane person passes up the chance to enjoy some fine Gil Kane art, but the idea of turning the super-scientific Atom into a pint-sized Conan knock-off seemed too oddball for most fans, and “Atom the Barbarian” appeared in only a handful of one-shot specials before he was brought back to active superhero status in 1988’s Power of the Atom.
6. Teen Titans (1996)
By 1995, DC’s New Teen Titans had come a long way from the team’s first appearance in 1980, in the sense that a person jumping off a cliff has come a long way from where they once stood at the top. The book, now called The New Titans to acknowledge the original team members’ advancing years, had drastically changed over the years to include some truly ludicrous members within the team’s ranks (see also: Pantha, Danny Chase, Baby Wildebeest), and fans registered their disapproval by allowing the series to sputter to an end. Writer/artist Dan Jurgens wrote and penciled a revival, now just Teen Titans, in 1996, and while it’s admirable that Jurgens tried to chart new territory with the franchise, fans just weren’t ready to accept this previously unseen group of young heroes as worthy inheritors of the Teen Titans franchise (and the less said about 1992’s Team Titans book, the better). It also didn’t help matters that the team was led by an Atom de-aged to a teenager by methods too silly to detail here; also, DC’s Batman editors vetoed the use of Robin in the series, despite him winning a letter-column contest in which readers were asked whom they most wanted to see on the team (the much less requested Captain Marvel Jr. was inserted instead). With little support from either fans or head office, the title was cancelled after 24 issues, but at least some lessons were learned: the original Titans (more or less) returned in 1999 in The Titans, and Robin was finally allowed to sign on with another team in 1998’s Young Justice.
7. Captain America to the XTreme! (1996)
In 1996, Marvel launched a bold — some might even say foolish — experiment in which it halted production of four of its biggest titles and released four new versions of those series under its “Heroes Reborn” banner. In 1996’s “Onslaught” crossover event, the heroes starring in those four series (Fantastic Four, Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America) supposedly died while battling a cosmic threat, but in actuality they were shunted into a pocket universe where they were “reborn” as more up-to-date heroes (which in the ’90s meant perkier pecs and serious pouting from all concerned parties). The creative work for these titles was outsourced to former Marvel artists who had previously left the company to form Image Studios, and hopes were high that the star-studded books would be huge hits at a time when Marvel desperately needed a few. It didn’t quite work out that way. While all four issues were initially big sellers, Marvel pulled the plug on the project a little more than a year later, citing disappointing sales and contractual disputes with the very people who left Marvel over money matters just a few years before (and boy, who could have seen that coming?). Of the four, Rob Liefeld’s Captain America was especially egregious in the way it completely missed the point of the character, transforming the embodiment of the American spirit into a brainwashed sleeper agent with an android for a wife and fourth-rate neo-Nazis as villains — but the story’s logical inconsistencies were nothing compared to the atrocious artwork, which featured (among other blunders) Cap’s iconic shield shrinking and expanding from one panel to the next. It was the beginning of the end of Liefeld’s wunderkind image, so in that sense it wasn’t a completely wasted effort, but there was no mistaking the cries of relief among fans when a third Captain America series debuted the following year.
8. The New Blackhawk Era
Lest anyone think that backfiring revamps and reboots are solely a modern-day occurrence birthed by the unholy minions of corporate marketing departments, here’s an example from 1967 of how not to do this kind of thing. An elite team of pilots that hail from different countries but answer to no one nation, the Blackhawks debuted in Quality Comics’ Military Comics during the Second World War, and like many other veterans they had problems adjusting to postwar life. After years of battling monsters and would-be world conquerors who just weren’t up to Nazi standards, the Blackhawks were on the verge of being put out to pasture (even Batman, the hepcat, says “they just don’t swing” when asked his opinion by a government flunky) when the team leader pounces on the idea of remaking his men into modern-day superheroes, complete with new costumes and super powers. Keep in mind this happened at the height of Bat-mania, so of course the team’s mechanic became “M’Sieu Machine,” the gunner became “the Weapons Master,” and the formerly stereotyped Chinese cook became the martial-arts expert known as “Dr. Hands.” The golden figure in the centre is the Golden Centurion, whose super power is coating anything with quick-hardening liquid gold (handy, that). Oh, and the communications expert became the Listener, and his costume consisted of blue pyjamas with images of ears all over them. Let me repeat: The man wore blue pyjamas with ears all over them. Even at the height of the Silver Age, when no idea was too silly for DC to run with, this makeover, akin to tarting up Nick Fury in a tutu and giving him the power to make marigolds fall from the sky, was just beyond bizarre, alienating DC’s war comic fans and attracting precisely none of its superhero fans. The new costumes lasted just 12 issues, and the series itself just a little longer than that before officially going on hiatus until 1976 — and despite numerous attempts to update the team for the modern era, a book starring seven military-minded men wearing leather uniforms and living alone on a deserted island just hasn’t found its niche.
9. The “Mod” Wonder Woman (1968)
Recent news about Wonder Woman’s updated wardrobe has caused some concern among fans, some of whom are old enough to remember the last time anyone attempted to monkey with Princess Diana’s wardrobe. Beginning in issue #178 of her original series, Wonder Woman was abruptly transformed from super-powered heroine/invisible plane pilot to a go-g0 boot-wearing, Diana Rigg wannabe in an apparent attempt to cash in on the Avengers/Man from U.N.C.L.E./James Bond super-spy fad that was just starting to wind down around the time this book came out. Now bereft of her god-given powers (thanks to the Amazons retreating to another dimension to get their groove back), Diana opens a clothing boutique and partners up with a blind and wizened Asian gentleman named — God, this hurts — “I Ching,” who teaches her karate while she saves the world from international terrorists and… boot-stomping lesbians in New York City? At any rate, Wonder Woman’s non-superhero adventures continued as such for just over four years (give or take), and few agreed with writer Denny O’Neil’s assumption that fans would find this more down-to-earth Wonder Woman a more empowering figure. Even noted feminist and Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem (who placed the classic-version Wonder Woman on the cover of the first issue, in 1972) waded into the controversy, musing why it always seemed to be the women in comics who were de-powered or made less distinctive whenever someone wanted to drive a story forward. Why, indeed…
10. Iron Man: The Wonder Years (1995)
Picture it: a Marvel editorial conference, circa 1995. “Okay, so it turns out Iron Man is actually a traitor because he’s been manipulated by the evil time-traveling Kang, and he kills a bunch of female heroes on Kang’s orders because, let’s face it, who’s gonna miss ’em? So the Avengers go back in time to recruit a teenaged Tony Stark to help them fight his big bad grown-up self, and the sight of his younger self shocks the older Stark just enough to make him sorry for what he’s done, and he sacrifices his life to stop Kang. But it’s all good because the younger Stark builds his own suit to become the new Iron Man, and gains legal control of Stark Enterprises, and now he’s the richest teenager in the world with all of Stark’s toys to play with. Cool, right?” Shockingly, fans didn’t react well to the notion that their hero had been retconned into a brainwashed, murderous henchman, and Teen Stark’s career lasted only about a year before the aforementioned “Onslaught” storyline brought an adult Iron Man back into the Marvel Universe. But hey, at least they didn’t do something really stupid, like… oh, I don’t know, turn Stark into a power-mad tool of the ruling elite that uses a tragic event as an excuse to detain all super-heroes who don’t immediately fall in line with government orders. I mean, that would be crazy.
11. No “Doctor” — it’s just “Fate” (1994)
Doctor Fate is one of DC’s more enigmatic heroes, in the sense that it’s hard to get a handle on what precisely he brings to the table other than being DC’s resident sorcerer and all-knowing mystic (at least Doctor Strange gets a funky Greenwich Village address and loyal manservant; Fate’s tower doesn’t even get a frickin’ door). Despite appearances in Superman: TAS, the live-action Smallville series and the Super Powers action figure collection, he’s never been a character with much of a Q rating outside of DC’s hardcore fanbase, in part because different characters have worn the helmet over the decades. But even obscure super-mages have their followers, and Fate’s fans were none too pleased to pick up 1994’s Fate or 1997’s follow-up, The Book of Fate — a pair of titles in which the familiar blue-and-yellow-clad sorcerer is replaced by Jared Stevens, a surly and mulleted grave robber who fights mystical threats with a dagger and throwing darts created from the melted remains of Doctor Fate’s magic helmet. The character was so far removed from the original concept — and so very much a part of the tiresome grim-and-gritty tide of “heroes” that defied parody in the ’90s — that Doctor Fate’s few remaining fans could only cheer when Stevens was killed off (and the Doctor Fate name passed on to yet another character) in an issue of 1999’s JSA.
12. The Legion of Super-Heroes: Five Years Later (1989)
Speaking of grim and gritty. The Legion is a concept that’s so beautiful in its simplicity (super-powered teens from different planets fight evil in the 30th century!) that one wonders how anyone could possibly muck it up. They’re teenagers! In the future! With awesome powers! Even in these jaded times, that’s a pretty easy sell. But when longtime Legion scribe Paul Levitz left the franchise in 1989 to move into DC’s head office, his spot was taken over by former Legion collaborator Keith Giffen. Now, Giffen’s earlier work on the Legion (as well as in numerous other places) marks him as a man with a great sense of humor… odd, then, how much of that humor fell flat — or was completely absent — in 1989’s rebooted Legion of Super-Heroes series. Set five years after events at the end of the previous LSH series, the story opens with humanity still scrambling to recover from a devastating alien invasion, and the former Legionnaires are scattered far and wide. Kent Orlando, of the sorely missed Cheeks the Toy Wonder site, dubbed this period in Legion history “[t]hat period… during which the various Legionnaires were stumbling, ragged and unshaven (even the women) through the sewers of a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic dystopia, gnoshing on one another’s offal in order to survive.” And that sounds about right. Add to the mix the constant attempts to retrofit the Legion’s storyline into the ever-changing “official” DC timeline, and it’s no wonder that in 1994 DC finally decided to reboot 36 years of Legion history and start fresh. Which they would do several times again over the next decade and a half, each title getting them a little bit closer to the original concept (teens! future! awesome powers!) that really isn’t 30th-century rocket science.
13. “One More Day” (2007)
As we begin, so shall we finish. You have to feel some sympathy for comic writers given the task of, say, writing Spider-Man’s adventures. On the one hand, you have the fervent fans who refuse to accept any story that advances the characters’ lives or deviates from what they consider to be the true essence of Spider-Man; on the other, you have fans who want their heroes to grow up just like them, with marriages and mortgages and everything. The problem is, nobody really wants to see a middle-aged Peter Parker swing into action (coughReigncough)… and when you’ve done something irrevocable, like have Parker announce his secret identity to the world (as he did during 2006’s “Civil War” storyline), then how do you climb back from there to start fresh? Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada believed that taking Spider-Man back to his roots (i.e., single, broke and unburdened by the public knowing his secret identity) was necessary to maintain the franchise, and he gathered some creators to hash out the plot for “One More Day,” which would see Mephisto (Marvel’s Satan stand-in) spare the life of Peter’s Aunt May for the price of one marriage — that is, he would bring Aunt May back from the brink of death if Peter and Mary Jane allowed him to alter history so that they had never married (the world never learning who was under the mask was thrown in as a bonus). Stan Lee praised the writers for having the courage to take on the challenge, but fans, critics and comic creators lined up around the block to slam the reboot, calling it everything from “utterly ridiculous” to “the best example of editorial influence gone horribly, horribly wrong.” Even Wizard joined the dogpile, calling the use of satanic magic in a science-leaning comic like Spider-Man “the biggest cheat since Dallas” (a reference to the television show’s decision to write off an entire season of storylines, including a major character’s death, as just a dream). And when Wizard, for crying out loud, is dissing your story for not making sense… well, let’s just say you’ve earned a rare distinction. Time will tell if it was a smart move on Marvel’s part, but for many Spidey fans “One More Day” proved to be a convenient time for them to call it a day.