THE TOP 10 REDEFINING CHARACTER RUNS (MARVEL/DC)

Call it a retcon.  Call it a reboot.  Call it a revamp.  Just don’t call it a comeback.  I asked for your votes a few weeks ago on the writer and/or artist who most “redefined” a character.  The main criterion was that the character had to be someone else’s creation, not their own.  Between e-mail and blog comments I got about forty responses, with a total of about 200 votes for various characters.  Of course, many books got just a few (or even a single) vote.  Some were worthy of more (which I’ll discuss tomorrow in my also-rans/runners up post).  Others . . . Not so much.  (Did “Deadpool: Merc With A Mouth” really reinvent that character?  And Jeph Loeb’s General Ross/Red Hulk?  Really?!?)

To paraphrase Jeff Probst: I’ve tallied the votes.  The votes have been announced, the decision is final.  But feel free to drop a comment about who is missing . . . But you might want to wait.  Tomorrow, I’ll run an also-rans post.  Please come back!  Read!  Stumble!  Digg!

Here’s the TOP 10 CHARACTER REBOOTS!

10.  Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s Dick Grayson (1980-1986). 
Votes: 19 (all votes for Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans were counted here)
Run: The New Teen Titans 1-50; New Teen Titans (oversized, glossy book) 1-5.

It always confused me back when I was a lad that a guy named “Marv” worked for D.C.  But I’m glad he did.  The Teen Titans of the Silver Age were a group of obvious spin-offs and sidekicks, led by their poster-child, Robin.  The reboot included a few original characters (Raven, Starfire, Cyborg), it also took on some of the most cliché characters of the DCU.  It was intended to be D.C.’s response to Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men reboot (and the rumor is that Claremont was offered the project in 1986, right about the time Wolfman was fired from D.C.).

Throughout the course of the book, Wolfman and Perez added depth to these characters—Wally West struggled with becoming a man, and eventually became Kid Flash.  Wonder Girl didn’t struggle against her role as a hero and junior Goddess, but she did struggle with having powers and loving a “normal” guy.  Changeling/Beast Boy rebelled against his own dark past and Doom Patrol roots, which, like his teammate Raven, kept coming back to haunt him.  But nobody grew and changed more than Robin.  Over the course of the series, we saw Dick Grayson go from boy to man, eventually turning into Nightwing.  More importantly, we see how the process of maturing as part of a team makes him a better leader than his mentor, Batman, which has had a clear effect on his relationship with the new Robin in Grant Morrison’s current title.  You won’t go wrong scooping up reprints of these books—I treasure my original, single issues, and have read (and re-read) them
with my kids over and over.  The book is also the inspiration for Teen Titans Go!, one of the best supercartoon series of all time.

9.  Ed Brubaker’s Captain America (2005-Present).
Votes: 22 (for either Cap, Bucky, or Winter Soldier)
Run: Captain America 1-50, Captain America 600-Present.

Whether it is with Steve Epting, Luke Ross, or even Butch Guice, Brubaker’s vision of the flag-waving hero represents the first cynical version of Marvel’s most hopeful hero.  Talk about change: In the first story arc, Brubaker killed off Cap’s greatest foe, the Red Skull, leaving Cap a little rudderless.  Then, of course, he killed Steve Rogers and replaced him with Bucky Barnes, after reinventing the “dead” character as an anti-American agent (Winter Soldier).  So clearly this was a complete reinvention of the hero, down to the molecular level!  Not only has Brubaker’s run redefined the “look” of the series from a star-spangled herofest into a dark, noir-y spy book, but Brubaker’s intricate plotting is evident from issue one.  Careful re-readers, with the benefit of hindsight, can already tell what the future will hold for Steve Rogers.  This was an absolutely brilliant reinvention of a character who wasn’t dark enough for Marvel’s pseudo-realistic universe of the 2000s.

8.  J. Michael Straczynski’s Spider-Man (2007)
Votes: 26
Run: Amazing Spider-Man 544-545, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man 24, Sensational Spider-Man 41.

During his 6-year run, JMS restored The Amazing Spider-Man to its rightful place as one of Marvel’s tentpole comic books.  He started with “The Spider-Totem,” which provided magic as an alternative to radioactivity as the basis for Spidey’s powers, but after that he got good.  Aunt May discovered that her nephew was really a superhero, Mary Jane married him, he got a new suit of armor and was unmasked.  Although I do agree with one voter, who signed his e-mail “Goat Boy,” that JMS’ run wasn’t really reinventive until the final, One More Day story arc, because all the invention that came before it was basically erased.  I have to agree, and described it thusly, above.  I think this got votes because people liked the run, not because it constituted a reinvention of the character.

7.  Garth Ennis’ Punisher (2001-2008)
30 votes
Run: Just get the Punisher Omnibus volumes.  There’s three different series and several one-shots all told.

Let’s get one thing straight: Other than the two-issue Frank Miller “Angel Dust” story in the pages of Daredevil, I never liked Punisher.  He was basically a really pissed off Batman who used guns and wasn’t nearly as smart.  Enter Garth Ennis’s relaunch with (one of my least favorite artists) Steve Dillon on a brilliant maxi-series called “Welcome Back, Frank,” that attempted to explain why there had been no Punisher comics for so long.  The team went on to the darkly comical Marvel Knights series, which was solid as well, during which Dillon left the book.  At was at that time that Ennis moved the book to Punisher MAX, and the true redefinition began.  He took a gritty, dark, cinematic approach to the character, which focused more on the evil-doers than the vigilante himself.  Each story arc got worse, too, moving from drugs to prostitution to terrorism to desecration of Frank Castles’ family gravesite, and each villain grew increasingly evil.  We thus gained an understanding of Punisher’s motivation, and a sympathy for his hopeless, antisocial, violent world view.  These MAX books have been collected in a series of oversized volumes, and even though they’re a little more pricey than the paperbacks, I highly recommend them.  The artwork, by folks like Leandro Fernandez, Howard Chaykin, Richard Corben, and Goran Parlov, is brilliantly reproduced, and the larger size gives the book an even greater sense of drama.  This is probably one of my favorite series of all time.

6.  Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern (2004-present)
31 votes
Run:  Green Lantern: Rebirth #1-6, Green Lantern #1-present

Other than Frank Miller’s portrayal of GL as a patsy in All Star Batman, I have never liked—or even made it all the way through—a Green Lantern story.  This run made me care about him for the first time.  It also wove-in existing legend without leaving new readers (like me) in the dark.  A very good example of renewing old history for the benefit of comic-nerds by creating a story that is full of lore and arcane facts, but still new-user-friendly.

5.  Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s Daredevil (2001-2006)
36 votes
Run: Daredevil #26-81

A no-brainer.  If you haven’t read, or re-read, this run in a while, it’s time to do it again.  I think they’re re-collecting it again this year, so it’s a perfect time to get it.  Even knowing what will happen to our hero at the end won’t spoil the tale.  And not only did they transform Daredevil by focusing more on Matt than the suit, but they transformed a whole bunch of B-listers like White Tiger and Foggy Nelson and Iron Fist and Power Man and . . . The list goes on.  A run that is arguably as good as Frank Miller’s (but not as action-packed), and that was head-and-shoulders above any other long-form story of its decade.  Incidentally, Ed Brubaker’s run got only two votes, and I agree. I loved that run, but all it really did was continue the downward slide that Bendis started.  Brubaker was a worthy successor, but he didn’t change the direction of the character.

4.  Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men/Wolverine (1975-1985)
44 votes
Run:  Giant-sized X-Men #1, Uncanny X-Men 94-192; Wolverine 1-4 (with Frank Miller)

There were many votes for Claremont’s revisions of particular members of the team.  The most common vote was Wolverine, but Cyclops got two votes for turning him from milksop to strategist, and Jean Grey got 5 votes for, well, dying and all.  Quite a few people mentioned runs with specific artists (Byrne/Cockrum/Romita, Jr.).  But I’m collapsing it all together into this one category.  X-Men was perhaps the defining comic book of the early 1980s, and in it Claremont reinvented tired old characters like Cyclops and Xavier; turned Wolverine from a kinda silly character into a samurai/ninja/Marvel-money-making-machine; and turned Jean Grey into Phoenix, one of the most transformative reinventions in comic book history.  And then he killed her.  If you’re going to make a list of iconic recreations of classic characters, this has to be number one.  Period.  Claremont has recently returned to the book with X-Men Forever, which is actually pretty good, but his style (words over pictures, tell don’t show) is harder to translate in the modern, slicker medium.  The art from has grown, but Claremont hasn’t.  Too bad.
3.  Frank Miller, with Klaus Janson and David Mazzucchelli,-Daredevil (1979-1983; 1985-86)
51 votes.
Run: Daredevil 163-191, 227-233.  (Frank Miller did three issues solely as penciler before taking over the writing duties.  I’m not counting those issues, as they do not reflect Miller’s vision.)

Miller’s run begins with a new “look”—something bridged the gap between the sketchy work of Gene Colan (the previous artist), whose characters often seem squat or low to the ground, but with more shadow and movement.  Miller’s pencils are like dances, with the character’s movement from panel-to-panel sketched with ballet-like detail.  Klaus Janson, a brilliant artist on his own, played Dave Grohl to Miller’s Kurt Cobain, allowing Miller to define the look of the book but punctuating the sketches with powerful, bold inks.  Like most iconic runs, Miller’s Daredevil was marked as much by the supporting cast as by the titular star.  Elektra.  The Hand.  Stick and Stone.  The use of Foggy as the perfect foil for Matt Murdock: A man afraid of everything, but highly competent behind a desk.  The repurposing of Bullseye from a pretty standard, one-note enemy to a driven psychopath determined to rise up the hierarchy of the underworld.  And, of course, the complete hijack of Kingpin from a big fat strong guy who could fight Spider-Man to a coldly calculating underworld leader with eyes everywhere.  Oh, and Turk, of course.  Turk, the thug who gets beat up in just about every issue, bounced (literally) off of Daredevil’s hard-boiled, no-nonsense attitude to bring a sense of humor to the darkest comic of its time, but also to show DD’s human side.  DD clearly sympathizes with the minor tough on some level: Turk is an underdog, just as Murdock is really a minor player in Marvel’s “big” New York superhero universe.  Miller also added some depth to Murdock in the classic “Guts” story, in which DD watches over an adventure starring Foggy Nelson, letting his best friend feel powerful while protecting him from the shadows.  It was stories like this that made us feel like we knew Matt Murdock—he wasn’t just some cipher who had to put on a costume to be interesting. Then, after his history-making run, Miller returned to completely break Daredevil down into nothing, dissolving his secret identity and reducing the character into a bit player in his own book.  The second Miller run plants the seeds for Brian Michael Bendis’ run, in which the lines between hero and secret identity break down completely.

Frank Miller’s Daredevil transformed the comic book world, and after it, nothing was the same.  There’s a good reason he’s got two titles in this top 10 list: He may be a pain the ass, but he’s a genius.

2.  Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (1983-1987)
53 votes.
Run: Swamp Thing 20-58, 60-61, 63-64.

I recently did a long piece about Moore’s reimagining of this classic Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson character.  The work wasn’t just good for Swamp Thing—it was good for comics in general.  Moore and a series of artists including Veitch, Bissette and Totleben revolutionized horror comics by taking them away from shock/TnA and revolutionized the anti-hero by making a plant . . . Human.  Through this series, Moore retold the origin (but this time, instead of a human becoming a plant, we saw a plant becoming a human), and took fringe characters like Phantom Stranger, Deadman, and Demon and made them relevant—and, more than that, gave them unique personalities and depth.  He also forced us to reconsider established heroes like the JLA and Batman (who is portrayed as a vicious bully when positioned against the sympathetic, heart-broken, but raging Swamp Thing).  Yeah, this entry is to give credit to Moore’s vision of Swamp Thing himself, but as everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to Kermit the Frog knows, a star is only as good as his supporting cast.

1.  Frank Miller’s Batman (1986-87)
76 votes.
Run: The Dark Knight Returns (inks by Klaus Janson); Batman 404-407 (“Year One”) (with art by David Mazzucchelli); Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

It won’t be clear for a long time—perhaps ever—if the Batman of Miller’s Dark Knight is the Batman of the DCU, but it does seem apparent that Batman: Year One is in the “regular” continuity, so Miller’s Batman qualifies for this list.  Moreover, his vision and revision of the hero received a staggering amount of votes—nearly everyone gave credit where credit is due—to the man made the Batman’s peculiar form of psychosis make sense.  These three stories have been collected and recollected at least a dozen times over.  If you don’t own them, you should be able to get  them pretty cheap on Amazon.  All-Star Batman is pretty damn good, too, but it does not appear to be part of the regular DCU so, like Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe, it’s disqualified under my kind of random rules.

Tomorrow: The Also Rans!!!

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