After dominating the comic industry for nearly a century, both Marvel and DC have produced some incredible stories and characters. Their characters have conquered print, games, cinema and tv, and have delved into a variety of topics, from drug abuse, to terror attacks to why you just shouldn’t let German scientists anywhere near babies (it rarely, if ever, ends well) and how some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.
With epics like the Nolan Batman trilogy and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, triple-A games and massive cross-media promotions, the creators are returning to comics four colour origins for fresh new material, recasting stories as needed and digging deeper into lesser known stories for hidden gold.
Unfortunately, with stories running as long as these, there are going to be a few duds. But even duds are forgivable, to a point. For example, even though the Clone Saga was generally awful and ran entirely too long, it gave us Ben Reilly and Kaine. These are not that kind of story. These are missteps that did huge damage to the characters, inspired internal bickering between editors and staff, and angered fans, with petitions, threats of boycott and furious message board posts from fans from all around the world.
Most of these are best forgotten and are rarely, if ever, brought up. But others have had massive ramifications for the comics and characters for years after and even up to the present day, popping up in alternate media portrayals and for a few unfortunate characters, became defining moments.
10 Batman: The Widening Gyre
In one of the most important moments in the definitive Batman origin story, Year One, a young Bruce Wayne carries out a daring attack on the corrupt, wealthy and privileged elite of Gotham. Forcefully invading a mansion, evading hired guns and rigging explosives in key areas for maximum theatricality, you can tell that it was a carefully planned out event, designed to scare and terrify white collar criminals. “You have eaten well. You've eaten Gotham's wealth. Its spirit. Your feast is nearly over. From this moment on -- none of you are safe.”
With Frank Miller at his hardboiled best, and David Mazzuchelli handing in career defining art, this was a clean break from Adam West and the camp extremes Batman had been crippled by. So of course director Kevin Smith had to make a joke of it, with his Batman admitting to wetting himself at the climax of the event.
To his credit, Smith has a very impressive career in comics alongside his numerous achievements in film. His Daredevil and Green Arrow are often cited in “best of” lists, the comicbook equivalent of Clerks or Red State. Batman: The Widening Gyre is more of a Jersey Girl.
9 Even a Doom Can Cry
Dr Doom is a dictator who ruthlessly oppresses his people and has consistently murdered men, women and children who dared speak out against him, even murdering the love of his life so he could use her skin for sorcery. The only thing keeping him from ruling the world, or even the universe, is his own ego and inability to get past his childish, one-sided rivalry with Reed Richards. He is an arrogant, murderous super-genius with an army of robots that will continue to oppress his slaves should his daily round of executing protestors get in the way of blaming Richards for everything.
In a move that was tasteless even then, Marvel comics produced a Spider-Man comic that dealt with the 9/11 terror attacks, that casts a merciless, unrepentant, mass murderer who laughs in the face of human rights as tearfully mourning the deaths of “American peasants.”
8 Scarlet Witch Disassembles
Proudly serving on (and even leading) The Avengers since the 60s, Wanda Maximoff is the daughter of Magneto who cast aside her heritage aside in favour of being a hero. Despite her beginnings, her record was flawless, despite some truly tragic events in her life. After marrying The Vision, an android with the mind of a man if not the biology, her attempts at having children drove her to Chaos Magic. Very few births featuring forbidden magic end well, and to spare her the grief of losing her two children, her memories were wiped.
An off-handed remark by Wasp brought all the memories back. Rather than confronting the team about it, turning to other mystics for assistance, or even simply accepting that she has lost two children, she instead embarks on a roaring rampage of revenge, ending in the deaths of three Avengers, the hospitalisation of several more, the removal of The Avengers UN clearance and more property damage than a small war.
It’s always the quiet ones.
7 Teen Tony
Nineties Marvel was notorious for bizarre ideas and weird experiments. We had an army of Spider-Men clones, legions of chrome 3-D covers, and Liefieldian art as far as the eye can see. It was a magical time.
One of the weirder aspects was their attempts to see how far they could twist characters to see how far they’d bend before breaking. The most notorious was Tony Stark, who turned evil and murdered a few people. Eventually it was decided that the only thing that could defeat an evil Tony Stark was a less-evil Tony Stark, and one time machine later, teenage Tony Stark was fighting old Tony. After old Tony’s death, teen Tony took over the main book for a while, pottering around in his own custom-made armour, before dying in the Onslaught crossover. Regular, heroic Tony was later resurrected, and teen Tony was largely forgotten.
6 Ms. Marvel and Marcus
Carol Danvers was inspired to become a hero after seeing the Kree hero, Captain Mar-Vell, fight with The Avengers. After gaining her own powers, she took up the name Ms. Marvel and served with distinction on The Avengers. Unfortunately, most writers didn’t know what to do with her, leaving her a loose end in most stories. So Jim Shooter gave her one, and it is a doozy.
After waking up heavily pregnant and strangely okay with that, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Marcus. Within a day, Marcus had grown to adulthood, and explained what was happening. He came from another universe, but although he could observe other worlds, he was unable to enter them. He fell in love with Ms. Marvel, and “with a subtle boost from Immortus' machines,” used advanced science make her fall in love with him and impregnate her with himself.
The Avengers were okay with sending her off with the roofie-master from another world and waved the happy couple off into the sunset of married bliss. Marcus then died and left her trapped alone in an alternate dimension until she was able to escape somehow.
5 Zatanna Lobotomy
In his first appearance, Dr Light was a formidable foe, almost defeating the entire Justice League. In every appearance after that, he was downgraded to a goofball goober, with a room temperature IQ. Something changed, and the controversial Identity Crisis showed us what really happened.
Light somehow broke into the Justice League’s satellite, where he brutally raped Sue Dibny, wife of the Elongate Man. Zatanna then erased his memories, also giving him a lobotomy and reducing himself to an idiot. Bear in mind, up to this point he was best known as a gag villain, and throwing this into his past, along with his ranting and raving about his numerous other victims, really threw most readers off. Zatanna’s involvement in breaking his brain sealed the deal. Most would rather forget the whole thing.
4 One More Day
Everyone knows Spider-Man. Brightly coloured, friendly, a universal kids mascot known around the world as a stand-up guy.
During the Civil War storyline, he was persuaded to unmask by Iron Man for political reasons. Obviously, his enemies came after him hard, especially when he changed his mind and turned against Iron Man. Elderly Aunt May was caught in the crossfire of one such attack and was left near death. Despite Peter’s many efforts to save her, from typical medical science to medical super-science to magic, he kept hitting brick walls, told “sorry, but it can’t be done.” Even God Himself stepped in to tell him to accept the inevitable and move on.
Then he made a deal with Satan to save her. All he had to give up was his marriage, and in return, history was re-written in many ways, some subtle, some not. Oh, and his future child was removed from existence.
Generally speaking, letting Satan rewrite your personal history is a bad idea, and it took the comics years to build the audience back-up after the story.
3 Civil War
A two-fer this time, Captain America and Iron Man in Civil War is what could best be described as an “editorial misfire.” On one side, Iron Man is pro-registration and government regulation on superheroes, especially after an accident where a young team of heroes accidentally killed 612 people in a battle that got out of control. On the other, Cap believed that this could lead to unnecessary governmental interference and endanger innocent people. There are arguments for either side, but ultimately Tony was deemed “right” in the main series written by Mark Millar.
The other writers didn’t get the memo. Politics got involved. No one seemed able to agree on the right way to go forward, so the whole event turned into a mess. Cap went from being Jesus to an old man blinded by his refusal to accept defeat. Mere minutes after surrendering and admitting he was wrong in Civil War 7, he was screaming bloody revolution in The Confession. Iron Man went from being written as a hero making difficult decisions to Hitler to a weeping, overly emotional teenager. No one was helming the ship, resulting in everyone looking terrible.
2 Captain Marvel/Shazam
When he speaks the phrase: “Shazam!” young Billy Batson becomes Earth’s Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel. After having the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury gifted unto him by the great wizard Shazam as a reward for his good heart and gentle soul, Captain Marvel maintains a childish naiveté in the face of overwhelming odds. He and his “Marvel Family” are a shining beacon of light in an increasingly dim world.
With the New 52 relaunch, Billy was recast as a street tough orphan who immediately uses his powers to try to make money after convincing the wizard that good people don’t exist.
After starring in Teen Titans, a popular children’s cartoon where teen heroes team up to have wacky adventures which occasionally venture into darker, but still kid-friendly territory, DC decided to promote the characters more. Although Robin was already fairly well-known, Cyborg got promoted to the Justice League and appeared in Smallville, and others like Raven were moved to more prominent roles in crossovers and other stories.
Starfire, an alien princess known to children around the world as a ditzy airhead who loves her pet moth larvae, Silkie, was recast as an absent-minded blow-up doll who has sex with multiple characters to relieve her boredom and steals Dick Grayson’s clothes to build a small shrine to him in her room.