WoQW: When Makeovers Go Wrong

Words of Questionable Wisdom
When Makeovers Go Wrong
By Paul Sebert

We’ve already talked about the worst DC movies and the menace of comics on shiny disks but this week I decided to talk about makeovers.

Much as purists like to protest, the medium of comics must periodically reinvent itself or die. Keep in mind that the Silver Age was born when editor Julie Schwartz commissioned Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino to create a new version of the Flash, rather than simply dusting off Jay Garrick for another go around. After the success of this character all new versions of Green Lantern, The Atom, and Hawkman soon followed. In addition to these re-imaginings of previous characters over the years we’ve also seen established characters being changed and revised over the years.

Spider-Man's Black Period These changes may vary from a simple costume change, to putting an established character in a radically different role. Perhaps the most successful example of such a change was Nick Fury’s transition from war hero to swinging Steranko-cool secret agent which helped character persevere while other military themed characters went into decline. Other times tweaking a character might temporarily boost his popularity. Spiderman’s black costume was initially created to attract attention to the Secret Wars toyline, but the look proved so popular with fans that the outfit remained a fixture in the comics for several years. Thanks to such excellent stories as “The Death of Jean DeWolf,” “The Mad Dog Ward,” and “Kraven’s Last Hunt” the ‘black’ period remains one of the most beloved parts of Spider-Man’s career.

Alas more often than not when an established character is given a revamp, it’s usually a sign of desperation on the part of the editors and creators. In some cases these merely aesthetic changes used to try and mask dated concepts. Other times these are spectacular miscalculations; acts of total misguided nature that wind up failing in a spectacular nature. The resulting are comics that not only serve as bizarre footnotes in the history of the medium, but serve as fascinating pieces to study as examples of what not to do.

These are just a small handful of the character revamps that have popped up over the years. If there’s one that particularly sticks out in your mind that you think I missed please drop me a line.

The New Blackhawk Era(1967)

Yes the man's costume was a pair of blue pajamas covered in ears

Created by Will Eisner and Chuck Cuidera for Quality Comics, Blackhawk was one of the most popular books of the Golden Age. Alas by the mid-60s the book’s concept of a multi-national team of nazi hunting pilots was showing it’s shelf life. DC tried several tricks to reinvigorate the books; giving them new red uniforms and setting them up with a Man from U.N.C.L.E style spy organization. Various wacky gimmick covers were also employed using all of the tricks in Mort Weisinger’s playbook; weddings, false deaths, gorillas, and even cavemen on flying jet skis with heat rays took center stage. Alas none of these tricks really improved the books sales. So DC Editor George Kashdan decided to employ one of the boldest moves in the publisher’s history…

He decided to turn the Blackhawks into Superheroes…

Think about it for a moment. Imagine if you will what it would have been like if someone had decided to put Sgt. Rock and the crew of Easy Company into brightly colored spandex costumes to make them seem more timely.

It sounds like an awful idea doesn’t it?

Well even with DC’s “campy” period at it’s peak and Adam West’s Batman on television it proved to be an awful idea. Particularly because the execution made the “new” Blackhawks to be the most ridiculous and stupid looking team of heroes this side of The Super Globe Trotters. In the legendarily bad storyline “The Junk-heap Heroes” Bob Haney subjected the venerable team to humiliation after humiliation as The Justice League asked the Blackhawks to retire while their employer Mr. Delta placed them through a series of tests designed to see if the heroes can keep up with modern super villains. The tasks involve fighting a robot named “The Champ” and trying to catch a new villain named Jolly Roger (who turns out to be Mr. Delta in disguise.) After failing these challenges spectacularly the group disbands so they can develop new crime-fighting alter egos. Meanwhile a new villain named The Emperor decides he can take control of all the criminal underworld by killing the Blackhawks. (Even though Haney repeatedly stated that the Blackhawks were now washed up.)

So just what kind of superhero identities did the team take up? Well the team’s elder sharp-shooter Heindrickson put on a purple jumpsuit picked up a big gun and declared himself “The Weapons Master.” French ladies man/mechanic Andrea started carrying around a lot of gadgets and called himself “M’sieu Machine.” Swedish strongman Olaf put on a wacky rubber outfit that made him look like the Michelin Man and declared himself to be “The Leaper.” Chop-Chop meanwhile put on a tuxedo and some metal punchy gauntlets which presumably aided his martial arts skills as “Doctor Hands.” After the final battle Stan simply claimed the Emporer’s armor for his own, taking on the name “The Gold Centurion” essentially becoming a ersatz Iron Man.

The flat-out silliest looking New Blackhawk was Chuck who donned a blue set of pajamas covered with ears as “The Listener” using various electronic devices to spy on people. Finally Blackhawk himself proclaimed himself to be “Big Eye” surveying the world from a giant satellite shaped like a two-headed hawk! At least he had the sense to keep his snazzy red & blue team uniform. As for Lady Blackhawk, she having wrapped up a regrettable stint as the amnesiac villainess Queen Killer Shark decided not to partake of such silliness, not making her superhero debut until Gail Simone’s run on Birds of Prey.

The new Blackhawk era was not long for this world. After one year the book was canceled and the team returned to their original uniforms blue uniforms for their final two issues.

Why it failed: While the new superhero alter egos created by Bob Haney and designed by Dick Dillin were patently absurd, the real blame goes on to editor George Kashdan who in attempting to emulate Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino’s Batman revamp wound up turning the book into something that didn’t even vaguely resemble it’s original concept.

The Original Iron Lad(1996)

No it's not Kang

In the early to mid-90s Marvel was taking a bloody beating in terms of sales from DC and upstart publishers like Image. Venerable titles like Fantastic Four and Avengers took the heaviest hits as only the Spider-Man and X-books retained their popularity. Marvel responded by buying out successful competing publisher Malibu and managing to mismanage it completely into the ground. They also bought out Heroes World in a devastatingly ill-conceived attempt at streamlining sales, inadvertently setting in motion a chain of events that gave Diamond a legal monopoly on comics distribution and driving many comic shops out of business.

Clearly something drastic had to be done. One man would set into motion the new direction that Marvel would take as he made a drastic suggestion during a backroom meeting regarding the future of one of Marvel’s biggest franchises.

That man was Terry Kavanagh.

And his suggestion was “Why don’t we bring back the Spider-Man Clone.”

Management was pleased. So much so that editor in chief Tom Defalco decided to put Terry Kavanagh in charge of two more of Marvel’s biggest franchises: The Avengers, and Iron Man. What followed was “The Crossing” a massive crossover storyline co-written by Kavanagh and Bob Harras which attempted to revitalize the Avengers franchise by making it more palatable to fans of Image books while introducing a new teenage superhero to compete with DC’s newly successful Superboy, Robin, and Impulse titles.

I’ll save the full details of “The Crossing” for another column but in short a bunch of D-tier Avengers you never heard of died (Gilgamesh, Marilla, Yellow Jacket II), the Avengers all got gaudy eye-sore new costumes designed by Mike Deodato, Wasp mutated into a wacky Digimon-looking thing, and most shocking of all it revealed that Iron Man was really a mole working for Kang all along. Oh and that new teenage superhero? Iron Man. See the Avengers pulled a younger version of Tony Stark out of the past to confront his more evil adult self.

Really…

Taking over the artistic duties on the pages of Iron Man was Jimmy Cheung who you now know as the artist of Young Avengers. During the course of his run as Ironman Teen Tony dealt with his freshmen year of college, while battling new bad guys like Frostbite and Stockpile; a team of mercenaries lead by Tony’s cousin Morgan Stark (who had seemingly died in Iron Man #292.)

This new Iron Man (sometimes referred to as Iron Teen, Iron Boy, or Iron Lad) was a spectacular bomb leading the long-running series to be canceled after seven issues. After this and the revised Avengers failed to catch on the management at Marvel decided to drop Kavanagh in favor of an experiment called Heroes Reborn. After that an adult Tony Stark was brought about for the Heroes Return relaunch. Teenage Tony’s fate would be abruptly written off in Kurt Busiek’s Avengers Forever as The Crossing was revealed to be a hoax by Immortus.

Why it failed: While Jimmy Cheung’s redesign of the Iron Man costume was actually pretty neat and in some ways ahead of it’s time the art couldn’t compensate for sloppy writing on Kavanagh’s part and a pretty hair-brained idea. Replacing an established character with a rich history with an adolescent version of himself is a pretty tall order for fans to accept. However to go as far as to say that the version of the character that fans knew and loved for decades was evil all along was just too much to swallow. Incidentally some rumors suggest that Kavanagh’s real motivation for this radical change was actually political as he didn’t want to portray a capitalist in a positive light. While I can not comment on Kavanagh’s beliefs, I can say with the decision to outright replace the adult Tony Stark was a bad one, and had simply kept Tony around while introducing an original spin-off character he may have had a success.

Making established heroes into teens proved to be a running theme in 1996. Incidentally Tony wasn’t the only superhero to undergo a major age change at the time. During DC’s Zero Hour time-altering villain Extant decided to turn the venerable Silver Age hero the Atom into a teenager just for laughs. In 1996 DC launched one of several failed attempts at reviving it’s the Teen Titans franchise in a new series written and penciled by Dan Jurgens. This version of the book featured Ray Palmer leading an entirely new group of characters with no real connection to any earlier version of the team. While the book managed to tread water for a couple of years, fans just never really established the new team, and after 24 issues Ray Palmer was returned to his proper age. Still Joto (later renamed Hot Spot) and Argent managed to land cameo roles in the Teen Titans Cartoon. Risk meanwhile managed to go on to greater fame as the poor sap who got his arm ripped off in Infinite Crisis #4. Roy has meanwhile thankfully retained his proper age.

The New Wonder Woman (1968)
Denny O’Niel (script) Mike Sekowsky (Pencils)

Wonder Woman does her best Emma Peel impression

Perhaps no “iconic” superhero has had more of a troubled history than Wonder Woman. Diana’s Golden Age adventures were very peculiar, loaded with somewhat jarring bondage imagery and downright creepy subtext. This was most likely because her creator Dr. William Moulton Martson (writing under the pen name Charles Molton) was one of the most eccentric figures in the history of comics, with many odd theories on sex. Later on during the Silver Age writer/editor Robert Kanigher’s long run with the book seemed to one of absolute desperation as he rapidly tossed every gimmick out of Mort Weisinger’s playbook at the character. Ridiculous villains were also the flavor of the day as the book reached it’s absolute nadir with the introduction of Egg Fu. (It’s impossible to bring an established iconic character any lower than Wonder Woman fighting Egg Fu. Not that Terry Kavanagh hasn’t tried.) This was followed by a period of WWII-era stories trying to reclaim a “Golden Age” that the character never really had.

The late 60s/early 70s were a bizarre period of change for DC comics. Following the backlash to the “camp” image of comics brought about by the classic Batman television series, DC suddenly found itself as a company with an image problem. This lead to movement within the publisher to make their characters more serious and more timely. Though it was short lived, perhaps the most influential of this was the legendary Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Another character that O’Neil had attempted to update was Wonder Woman.

Debuting her new look in Wonder Woman #178, Diana Prince opted to lose her powers stay in our world, while the rest of the Amazons left earth for another dimension to restore their own magic. Diana found herself running a mod boutique and learning martial arts from a guru named I Ching while going on lots of espionage adventures. The most obvious influence for this take on the character was Emma Peel from the Avengers. The cult British television show was at it’s peak popularity in the U.S. at the time. Like Ms. Peel, this version of Wonder Woman didn’t have a set costume but instead wore a variety of different slinky costumes.

This incarnation of Wonder Woman, was more successful than the other revamps we talked about earlier, sticking around for about five years. Alas it totally failed to connect with the audience it was aimed at. The this “new” Wonder Woman was created in part to respond to the Women’s lib movement, but many feminists blasted the take on the character. The most notable critic was feminist writer/publisher Gloria Steinem the founder of Ms. Magazine who launched a nationwide campaign to bring back the character’s costume and powers. After receiving a lot of bad press DC caved in and in 1973 the “original” Wonder Woman returned.

Why it Failed:Perhaps the biggest problem with this take on the character is that the staff didn’t quite understand how to make the character seem relevant and the decision to take away her powers offended the very people they were trying to speak to. People didn’t want a “new” Wonder Woman. They just wanted to see the original one who was not going on weirdo bondage adventures or battling giant evil Chinese eggs.

Still this is a somewhat interesting period in the history of the character, and it would be kind of nice to see DC publishing a collection of stories from Wonder Woman’s “mod” days.

The Punisher: Avenging Angel (1998)

Christopher Golden & Tom Sniegoski – script
Bernie Wrightson – Pencils.

Frank Castle returns from the dead to play with the new Super Soaker XP 450

In the period between 1988 and 1995 the Punisher went from one of Marvel’s hottest characters to comic equivalent of box office poison. At the height of his popularity Frank Castle was starring in three books a month, plus semi-weekly mini-series, 1-shots, and guest appearances. The problem was with all of this over exposure is well, for all of his popularity The Punisher isn’t exactly the deepest character. He’s a man with nothing to lose who shoots mobsters and that’s all there is too it.

To compensate for the fact that there’s only so many ways for Frank to shoot people writers began resorting to some pretty outrageous measures. They gave him a sidekick in the form of Microchip. Castle began fighting mutants and supernatural bad guys. They tried to give him a rogues gallery even though the core concept of the character goes against having reoccurring villains. In one story Frank resorted to dyeing his skin black to go undercover. There was even ridiculous story conceived by Chuck Dixon modeled after D.C.’s the “Reign of the Superman” in which Frank was thought to be dead and would be successors to the name came out of the woodwork.

When all was said and done the over exposure, the gimmicks, The Dolph Lundren movie, and bad writing had all done their toll; not even the greatest crossover of all time could save all of Frank’s titles from cancellation. Marvel tried their first attempt at a revival in 1995 with a new series written by John Ostrander which found the Punisher was approached by a gangster named Mario Geracy asking Frank to take over his family and with the venerable vigilante surprisingly accepting. The logic behind this move was Frank came to the conclusion that only way he could permanently win his war on organized crime was to for the moment become the very thing he hated. An interesting concept, but it never quite panned out. Midway through the series this aspect was dropped and Frank found himself wound up in the Onslaught storyline before returning to business as usual. This series was cancelled after all of 18 issues, ending with The Punisher’s apparent death.

Flash forward to 1998 as Marvel just barely started to crawl it’s way out of bankruptcy. One of the first successful initiatives was a new imprint edited by Event Comics head Joe Quesada. The Marvel Knights line was an instant success as Joe Q. brought about Hollywood talent Kevin Smith to the pages of Daredevil, while the talents of like Paul Jenkins and Christopher Priest made the Inhumans and Black Panther into suddenly red hot characters.

The only chink in Quesada’s armor was the first Marvel Knights Punisher series which was an absolute bust. Not that this really impeded Joe Q’s journey to editor in chief. Still this is the editorial equivalent of shooting three distant three point shots in basketball and then blowing an easy foul shot.

So just what was the ill-fated first Marvel Knights Punisher series? Well sensing nothing to lose with a character who has seemingly run it’s course Quesada turned the Punisher over to the writing team of novelists Christopher Golden and Tom Sniegowski. This bold new series took place right after the end of the last series and we learned that Frank really did die at the end of the last series. Called forth by Angles, The Punisher was sent back to earth as an agent of god to slay demons with GLOWING WHITE GUNS (and holy hand grenades.) We also learned that the Punisher’s true origin was the result of a demon named Olivier who had arranged the death of his family and was gaining power from every evil soul that Frank had sent to hell.

Despite some lovely art work by Bernie Wrightson fans were outraged by this change. As angry letters and even death-threats flooded Marvel’s office. The initial four issue mini-series was followed up by a mini-series in which this new Punisher teamed up with Wolverine with art by Pat Lee whose pencils felt terribly out of place.

Within a year this revision was scrapped fans would have to wait until the year 2000 for a new 12-issue Punisher maxi-series written by Garth Ennis and penciled by Steve Dillon. Franks death and divine return were only briefly mentioned in the opening issues of “Welcome Back Frank” and has been ignored ever since.

Why it failed While being drastically off the beaten path from the character’s previous adventures the ill fated “Avenging Angel” period actually had a lot in common with what brought about the character’s decline. Like the adventures that had Frank fighting cyborgs and mutants this mini-series took what was a gritty street-level character out of his element. Like the introduction of Microchip, Frank’s angelic period was designed to humanize and redeem the character. The thing is comic fans don’t want to see Frank Castle humanized. One of the reasons that the Punisher character became popular was that his cold ruthless nature and violent tactics made him stand apart. As the market began to be filled with gun toting brooding vigilantes in the 90s, Marvel should have tried to amp up the aspects of the character that made him popular rather than water him down. Garth Ennis’ decision to take the violence of the character to the next level lead to a revival of the character’s popularity that continues to day.