By Matt Singer
When the “Batman” movie franchise had grown too swollen with campy performances and benippled costumes to survive, Warner Brothers went back to the drawing board. But they didn’t just bring on a new director or actor to play Batman; they restarted the entire franchise. And if 2005’s “Batman Begins,” directed by Christopher Nolan, could have been written off as an elaborately reimagined prequel – since Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” did not fully explain how Bruce Wayne became Batman or feature “Begins” villains the Scarecrow or Ra’s Al Ghul – there could be no lingering doubt with Nolan’s new Bat-follow-up, “The Dark Knight,” where we get a totally new take on The Joker, courtesy of the late Heath Ledger.
Starting over a movie franchise based on a comic book from scratch is a fitting move; comic books have been doing the same thing for years. When these lumbering behemoths of backstory become too unwieldy, or sales get too bad (or, most often, a deadly cocktail of the two) then it’s time to start the series over from scratch (or at least to pretend like the old comics never happened and retell them again for a new audience). Here are five notable examples:
Reboot: “The Man of Steel” #1-6 (1986)
Written and pencilled by John Byrne, inked by Dick Giordano
Based on: “Action Comics” #1 (1938)
Written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Joe Shuster
The Classic: Superman’s first origin consumed exactly one of his first published adventure’s thirteen pages. The basic story we all know — last son of a dying planet, rocketed to earth by his scientist father — was already in place then, but there are some omissions (Krypton isn’t even referred to by name), some incomplete powers (Superman can leap tall buildings but not necessarily fly) and some elements that quickly got changed (instead of being raised by Kansas farmhands Jonathan and Martha Kent, the Super-baby is sent to live in an orphanage). The definitive version coalesced over time and not entirely in the pages of Superman comic books; the 1940s radio show contributed major elements of the Superman mythos like Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and radioactive Kryptonite (originally a plot device used to knock Superman out of action in order to give the actor playing the Man of Steel some vacation time).
Time for a Change: By 1986, Superman had accumulated a half of century of bloated back-story and an expansive and not to mention goofy supporting cast to match (Three words: Beppo the Super-Monkey). As part of its golden anniversary, DC Comics launched a year-long mini-series called “Crisis on Infinite Earths” designed to streamline its comics universe and myriad alternate realities. While “Crisis” didn’t work perfectly — and caused almost as many problems as it solved — it did give DC creators a convenient in continuity excuse to revise any characters they wanted.
The Revised Version: Writer/artist John Byrne’s Superman mini-series was titled “The Man of Steel” and his story is fundamentally concerned with restoring the character’s primacy and uniqueness. Gone are the menagerie of super-pets and even longtime DC stalwarts like Supergirl (erased by the Crisis as if she’d never existed) and Superboy (Clark Kent now gained his powers slowly over his adolescence and only adopted his costumed identity at the age of 25). Accordingly, Byrne recasts the planet Krypton itself as a cold, sterile, and borderline hypochondrial place; Superman’s mother recoils in horror when his father shows her a video of Earth, where men “bare their naked flesh” and touch “unprocessed soil!” Clark Kent still works for the Daily Planet with Lois Lane and Perry White but Lex Luthor, formerly a mad scientist, now hounds Metropolis as the most terrifying villain of all: an unchecked capitalist.
You’d Never Read This in the Original: “A simple force-field, Superman. Invisible, intangible. Just like the force-fields used in airport metal detectors.” –Batman.
Another Revision May Be Necessary: to erase Lois Lane’s ’80s-tastic clothes. Byrne “updates” Superman’s girlfriend’s “outdated” look with a closet full of fashion atrocities, including a one-piece orange jumpsuit and a slinky purple dresses with enormous pointy shoulder pads, and a wavy tomboy cut. Someone should have taken some heat vision to the whole wardrobe.
See Also: “Superman: Birthright” (2003-4) by writer Mark Waid and artist Leinil Francis Yu, another rebooted Superman origin story which restored certain elements of earlier continuity that “The Man of Steel” had previously erased and incorporated some others from the popular “Smallville” TV series; instead of meeting for the first time as adults in Metropolis, for example, Clark Kent and Lex Luthor were friends as teenagers in rural Kansas. A dozen years after “The Man of Steel,” John Byrne was called upon to attempt a similar reimagination for Spider-Man with “Chapter One,” a year-long mini-series met with so little fan interest Marvel Comics attempted a second reboot just two years later.
Reboot: “Ultimate Spider-Man” #1-#7 (2000)
Written by Brian Michael Bendis and Bill Jemas, pencilled by Mark Bagley, inked by Art Thibert and Dan Panosian
Based on: “Amazing Fantasy” #15 (1962)
Written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Steve Ditko
The Classic: isn’t much different than the version Sam Raimi presented in 2002, with nerdy teen Peter Parker gaining his powers from a special spider (in the movie its genetics have been altered; back in 1962, the arachnid had been irradiated). He uses his powers as a professional wrestler, then becomes a hero after his uncle is murdered by a man Peter could have apprehended earlier that same day. The only significant change eventually appended to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s masterpiece is the attribution of the moral lesson Lee wrote into the story’s final caption box (“In this world, with great power there must also come — great responsibility!”) to Uncle Ben, which lends his tragic death even more meaning.
Time For a Change: At the turn of the millennium, Spider-Man comics were mired in a years-long slump and still reeling from the infamous “Clone Saga” where Peter Parker temporarily retired as Spidey after a super-villain duped him into believing he was in fact a clone of the true Spider-Man who’d been living a vagabond’s life since the 1970s (Can you believe that didn’t fly with people who wasted all that time reading those stories?). Considering this saga too dense for a child readers, and perhaps the late-twenties Peter Parker, married to Mary Jane, who was pregnant with their first child, a bit too unrelatable, then-Marvel publisher Bill Jemas commissioned a new version of the character, one that placed him back at square one as a teenager in the ’00s.
The Revised Version: Jemas and co-writer Brian Michael Bendis’ version expands the story from one half of one issue (the other stories in “Amazing Fantasy” #15: “The Bell-Ringer!” “Man in the Mummy Case!” and “There Are Martians Among us!”) to seven and the extra room allows for a significant development of the characters, particularly the aforementioned Uncle Ben, whose murder now doesn’t appear until the end of issue four. The extra time with the slightly revamped character — now more of a true uncle than this previous representation as a kindly grandfather — only makes his death even more powerful. Mary Jane, now an overalls-wearing bookworm instead of a knockout (and later a supermodel and soap opera star), is on hand when Peter gets bitten; previously she did not appear on panel until issue #42. Jemas and Bendis also integrate Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis Norman Osborn, a.k.a The Green Goblin. The altered spider is an escaped Osborn test subject in a new experimental drug trial.
You’d Never Read This in the Original: A full-page homage to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” where Peter Parker has a seizure right in the middle of Ben Stein’s “Something D-O-O economics” speech. A cute nod but not necessarily the most apt comparison; Peter’s always been more of a Cameron than a Ferris.
Another Revision May Be Necessary: to edit it out the turn-of-the-century wrestling slang. Repeated references to “laying the smack down” were certainly appropriate back in 2000 when the WWE was enjoying a fresh wave of popularity thanks to guys like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, but nowadays that dialogue looks as dated as Stan Lee’s mid 60s lingo.
See Also: The wild popularity of “Ultimate Spider-Man” prompted Marvel to create a whole line of “Ultimate” books to reinterpret the company’s other veteran properties: The X-Men, The Avengers, and The Fantastic Four. All four series continue to be published this day. “Ultimate Spider-Man” now spans more than 120 issues of its own unique chronology, an indication of its success and perhaps its eventual collapses; the longer it continues, the more intricately laid back story it has, the less it fulfills its purpose as an easy-to-pick-up introduction to the Spider-Man universe.
Reboot: “Heroes Reborn: Fantastic Four” #1-13 (1996)
Written by Jim Lee, Brandon Choi, and Scott Lobdell, pencilled by Jim Lee, Brett Booth, and Ron Lim, inked by Scott Williams, JD, Alex Garner, Tom McWeeney, Lucian Rizzo, John Tighe, Sal Regla, Mark Irwin, Richard Bennett, Mike S. Miller, Homage Studios and Norm Rapmund
Based on: “Fantastic Four” #1 (1961)
Written by Stan Lee, pencilled by Jack Kirby
The Classic: Ordered by his boss to dream up new team book in the vein of DC’s popular “Justice League of America,” Stan Lee, along with artist Jack Kirby, created the Fantastic Four: scientist Reed Richards, his girlfriend Sue Storm, her hothead brother Johnny and pilot Ben Grimm. The quartet travel into space in a rocket where they’re bombarded by cosmic rays which imbue each of them with special powers to stretch, turn invisible, burst into flame and look like a big ugly pile of orange rock, respectively. Their first adventure, which includes the team’s code names but not their trademark costumes (they wouldn’t arrive until the series third issue) is as much a science-fiction and monster story of the kind Marvel was cranking out in books like “Tales to Astonish” as a superhero yarn. Lee’s original two-page outline, reprinted in the book “The Marvel Vault” illuminate a couple of Lee’s original intentions that never made it to the printed page: most notably, the fact that Ben originally agreed to fly Reed’s ship only because he was attracted to Sue, setting up a potential love triangle within the group.
Time for a Change: Though “Fantastic Four”‘s success led to the development of Marvel Comics as we now know it, by the mid-1990s, the series had fallen on hard times. Overshadowed by Marvel’s more popular “X-Men,” the current creative teams had tried all sorts of gimmicks: at one time they even killed off Reed Richards and replaced him on the team with Dr. Doom’s adopted son. Eventually Marvel decided to outsource the book to Jim Lee, a former “X-Men” artist who’d left the series to co-found Image Comics. In a company-wide storyline called “Onslaught,” the FF and the Avengers sacrificed their lives to defeat the titular villain, and wound up inside a pocket dimension in which their early adventures were recreated and updated (hence “Heroes Reborn”).
The Revised Version: This time out, Richards’ spaceship is sent into earth to explore a “stellar anomaly” rather than to beat the Commies in the space race. That anomaly is ultimately revealed to be the arrival of the Silver Surfer on earth (sort of like the second Fantastic Four film). It never quite made sense why Reed would drag his girlfriend with him into space, so Lee and Choi recast Sue as the head of the foundation funding Richards’ research; after their ship has been hijacked (by Doctor Doom, who previously debuted in “Fantastic Four” #5), Sue needs to tag along because she’s the only one who can “initiate the launch code.”
You’d Never Read This in the Original: “Ben Grimm is one of the finest aviators this country has ever produced. If he hadn’t been wounded during the Gulf War, he might very well have been commander of the Excelsior on this mission.” –Reed Richards
Another Revision May Be Necessary: to sharpen the art in the second half of the series. Though Lee co-wrote the entire series, he only drew the first six issues (the serviceable but unexceptional Brett Booth and Ron Lim alternate art chores on the rest).
See Also: The rest of the “Heroes Reborn” books: “Iron Man,” also by Lee and his team, as well as “Captain America” and “The Avengers” by fellow Image founder Rob Liefeld. Though all four series enjoyed an initial bump in sales, enthusiasm waned so much by their midpoint that Liefeld was dismissed and control of his books was given to Lee (which could account for Lee’s disappearance from the art credits on “Fantastic Four”). After a year, all four comics were returned to the rest of the Marvel Universe proper with their original histories restored.
Reboot: “Legion of Super-Heroes: The Beginning of Tomorrow” (1994)
Written by Tom McCraw, Tom Peyer, and Mark Waid, pencilled by Lee Moder, Jeffrey Moy, Brian Apthorp, Scott Benefiel, Stuart Immonen and Yancey Labat, inked by Ron Boyd, W.C. Carani, Philip Moy and Tom Simmons
Based on: “Adventure Comics” #247 (1958)
Written by Otto Binder, illustrated by Al Plastino
The Classic: The Legion, teenage superheroes from the 30th century, were originally introduced as supporting players in a one-off Superboy story. Though their ranks eventually swelled to include dozens of heroes, their original roster featured just three members: Cosmic Boy (magnetism powers), Saturn Girl (a telepath) and Lightning Boy (later Lightning Lad, electricity powers) who travel back in time to meet Superboy and induct him into their ranks after he passes an initiation test. Though the Legion credit Superboy with inspiring the group, their full origin wasn’t revealed until a decade later, in a story where the same Legionnaires save a billionaire named R.J. Brande who decides to fund their heroic exploits.
Time for a Change: The changes John Byrne designed to make the Superman mythos easier to understand wound up making the Legion far more complicated. Superboy could no longer have inspired the group’s creation (or had any of many adventures with the team) because after “Crisis” and the accompanying revisions, Clark Kent had never been Superboy. Byrne himself tried to alleviate the resultant problem by penning a story where one of the Legion’s enemies retroactively introduced the Superboy from a “pocket universe” into the team’s history. Later, this explanation was also abandoned in favor of one that claimed a different hero named “Valor” with suspiciously Superboy-ish powers had spurred the founding of the Legion. These headaches eventually prompted a reboot that was explained away by 1994’s “Crisis” follow-up “Zero Hour” in which the very fabric of time itself in the DC universe is erased, including all of the previous adventures of the Legion.
The Revised Version: begins with the three cores heroes saving Brande who then sets them up as a peacekeeping force within the galaxy’s “United Planets.” Additional members are quickly added, sometimes against their will. Though they’d long been one of the book’s visual signatures, the reboots writers chose not to include the Legion’s famous “flight rings” (at least through the series’ first trade paperback collection). They also reversed the series’ tradition of giving characters “______ Boy” or “_______ Lad” code names; Legionnaires with those sorts of monikers were rechristened (Lightning Lad became Live Wire, Colossal Boy became Leviathan and so on). No mention of Superboy is made whatsoever, though the reboot’s first issue does acknowledge the general influence of twentieth century heroes.
You’d Never Read This in the Original: isn’t quite applicable, since this reboot doesn’t really “update” a musty origin; the stories McCraw, Peyer, and Waid are telling are still set a thousand years in the future so instead of timely pop culture references there’s just occasional “Interlac” slang.
Another Revision May Be Necessary: to alter the 90’s redesigns of the Legion’s futuristic uniforms, which now include fingerless gloves, the occasional headband and lots and lots of belt pouches, an inexplicably widespread fashion faux pas in comics throughout the decade.
See Also: Below…
Reboot: “Legion of Super-Heroes: Teenage Revolution” (2005)
Written by Mark Waid, pencilled by Barry Kitson with Leonard Kirk, Dave Gibbons and Scott Iwahashi, inked by Art Thibert, Mick Gray, Barry Kitson, James Pascoe, Drew Geraci and Scott Iwahashi
Based on: “Adventure Comics” #247 (1958)
Written by Otto Binder, illustrated by Al Plastino
The Classic: See above
Time for a Change: Ten years after their first relaunch, the Legion got an unprecedented “threeboot.” Despite the second Legion’s narrative clarity, every superhero’s true arch-nemesis, flagging sales, reared his head once more. After several different less radical alterations (including a year-long story with a small band of Legionnaires became lost in space), DC scuttled the series and went back to the drawing board once more. This time, the in-continuity explanation was an off-shoot of a crossover with DC’s other adolescent super-group, the Teen Titans, which resulted in the Legion saving the universe at the cost of their own timeline.
The Revised Version: Thought it maintains plenty of the “of Super-Heroes” part of its title, Mark Waid (who helped lay the foundation of the first Legion mulligan) focuses more on the group’s political implications. No longer the sanctioned supercops of the United Planets, the Legion operates outside of the law and sometimes against it, as the future is now a place of perfect utopia and intense boredom. The teenagers of the Legion (and their growing base of followers) still fight what they perceive to be evil but often do so in opposition to the adults in charge. The “Boy/Lad” names are back, though some familiar characters have new appearances or backgrounds; Colossal Boy/Leviathan, for instance, now goes by “Micro Lad” and instead of being a normal sized human with the ability to grow bigger, he’s a giant-sized alien with the ability to shrink down to six feet.
You’d Never Read This in the Original: “Eat it, Grandpa.” –Cosmic Boy.
Another Revision May Be Necessary: to adjust the Legion in the wake of DC’s current crossover, “Final Crisis” yet another universe-threatening, continuity-altering mega-battle. Only time will tell whether this “Crisis” will yield yet another Legion, or perhaps revised versions of any number of DC super-heroes.
See Also: The continuation of Waid and Kitson’s inventive reboot in four more trade paperbacks. In an inventive nod to the team’s roots, they later brought Supergirl (instead of Superboy, who still doesn’t exist in DC continuity) to the 31th Century to join the team.
[Photos: “Batman Begins,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005; “The Man of Steel #1,” DC Comics, 1986; “Ultimate Spider-Man #1,” Marvel, 2000; “Heroes Reborn: Fantastic Four #1,” Marvel, 2000; “Legion of Super-Heroes: The Beginning of Tomorrow,” DC, 1994; “Legion of Super-Heroes: Teenage Revolution,” DC, 2005]