Comic books have come a long way since their inception. But with an issue of the latest adventure to churn out every month for each superhero (never mind companion magazines, one-shots, spinoff series, etc), it’s not surprising that there are plenty of bad issues out there. However, the following collection is something worse: it’s when, for the best or worst of intentions, comic book writers committed themselves to a story so horrible, its effects would be felt for years to come (or at least until the next creative staff had the cajones to scrap what came before).
1. The Clone Saga (Spider-Man: 1975-1996)
Unlike many of the storylines covered in this article, what became the Clone Saga began with the best of intentions. Sure, the premise was a tad wonky and contrived, but put yourself in the shoes of writer Jerry Conway. In The Amazing Spider-Man #121 (June 1973) he kills Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, in a dramatic fashion. Unfortunately fans didn’t take to it, and Conway was forced to bring her back somehow.
The solution Conway came up with was to make a new villain called the Jackal (in actuality Stacy and Peter Parker’s old teacher, Miles Warren). After Stacy died Warren realized he had feelings for his student (creepy I’m-old-enough-to-be-your-father feelings) and jumped at the opportunity to clone her. The Jackal also pitted Spider-Man versus another Spider-Man clone, and in the ensuing fight the Jackal and the clone appeared to die. Simple enough, problem solved, loose ends tied up, right?
Things got wonky with a succession of writers, coming to the head in the 1990s. Turned out the cloned Spider-Man actually survived, living under the assumed name Ben Reilly and later the costumed identity of the Scarlet Spider. Spider-Man and his less-fashion-trendy clone team up, and in performing a test eventually come to realize that Reilly, not the mild-mannered Peter Parker people had been reading about since the Clone Saga for twenty years, was the original. Unsurprisingly, nerd hackles got raised that the character they had loved for years had retired and an unwelcome replacement arrived, and eventually Marvel made the whole thing a massive conspiracy controlled by the Green Goblin, killed off Reilly and half the other clones that cropped up, and made Spider-Man the original Parker after all. If this made sense to you, congrats, but you have to remember that readers would have been forced to learn the story spread over multiple Spider-Man comics at the time. All in all it was a story-quagmire-induced injury that did much to tarnish Spider-Man’s reputation in the ’90s. At least they learned, right?
2. One More Day (Spider-Man: 2007-2008)
…Wrong, friendo. As evidenced by the Clone Saga, over thirty to forty years Spider-Man had become a morass of conflicting storylines and tangled plot threads. When Joe Quesada took over Marvel as Editor-in-chief in 2000, he was assuming the mantle of a company that had essentially run itself into the ground amid an industry-wide bust in the 1990s. Looking at Spider-Man, Quesada disliked Mary Jane Watson–Spiderman’s wife since 1987–and felt that the only way to refresh the character was to ditch the female. He finally got his chance with the 2007-2008 One More Day story arc, which had one of Marvel’s best-known characters literally make a deal with the devil, trading his marriage (and unborn child) for the life of Aunt May.
Critics and fans alike were pissed that it seemed out-of-character, reprehensible, and a break from reality (rather than actually going through the adult and real pain of divorcing the characters, Quesada opted for a childish magic wand-wave.) But, come, on, Spidey… you gave all that up for Aunt May? An annoying character who picked at Peter for years about every little thing, making him guilty as hell, and then (according to an unfortunate last-minute retcon) apparently knew his secret identity for years but continued making his life a living hell. At least she had the decency to die in the 1990s, but… you guessed it, she kept coming back through various ways (at one point, the “Aunt May” that died was in actuality some genetically-altered actress. I kid you not.) Is this the kind of character that you want to trash half your continuity for?
3. Death of Superman (Superman: 1992-1993)
The problem with killing off a major hero or villain is simple: if you want it to be effective, you better not bring him or her back any time soon. DC Comics decided to throw its tentpole hero off a tall building with Volume 2, issue 75 in 1992. It was a sales stunt pure and simple, but one that only really works well once.
With that in mind, DC milked it for all it was worth, having no less than four new claimed Supermen take the original’s place. In the end, the real McCoy had been catching some Z’s in some regeneration chamber somewhere, and when he came back he was more powerful than ever (and had shoulder-length hair, for some reason.) Comic book retailer Chuck Rozanski went so far as to blame the Death of Superman hype for the decline of comics in the 1990s, and called it the greatest catastrophe in comics since 1955. Nice, one, Man of Steel!
4. House of M (X-Men/Crossover: 2005-2006)
Marvel has its fair share of crossover comics, but the problem with these tales is that they’re primarily a way to try and force loyal readers to pick up a new comic book for the crossover, in addition to the separate tie-ins for each superhero’s magazine. Many comic book writers don’t want some big story interrupting their own, leading to entire plotlines often being forgotten by the next issue.
Then, of course, there are the problems with the story. House of M starts by goosing the mutant Scarlet Witch‘s powers to the point that she can alter the very fabric of the entire planet or, judging by the presence of extraterrestrials in her rewritten mutant-covered world, the entire universe. First off, it begs the question of why she hadn’t already obliterated every person who so much as looked at her funny during that time of the month. Secondly, the more Marvel jacked up the power levels of their mutants, the more sensible readers came to sympathize with the “evil” government that was trying to regulate the freaks. Why would you leave the fate of the world in the hands of a woman with a bordering-on-incestuous attachment to her brother and daddy issues?
The final result of the storyline was intended to be a shocker: the loss of most of the world’s mutants. Of course, this loses resonance when only the unpopular mutants lost their powers, or the more popular ones got back their abilities shortly thereafter. The final result was the resurrection of a few old enemies and virtually no change in the status quo. Way to take big risks, there, Marvel.
5. The Dark Knight Strikes Again (Batman: 2002)
Frank Miller has enough clout to get what he wants, but his actual output varies dramatically in quality; you’re never sure if you’re getting a Sin City/The Dark Knight Returns Miller, or a Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder/The Spirit Miller. The Dark Knight Strikes Again falls into the latter category.
For younger readers, it’s hard to realize how much stories like The Dark Knight Returns had on a disaffected comic industry in the 1980s and on Batman in particular: it was stories like Miller’s that influenced the original 1989 Batman film and the successful film reboot of the character a few years ago.
Coming off that unqualified success, The Dark Knight Strikes Again was an amazing disappointment. The artwork was rushed and poorly done. Not only was Miller’s story convoluted and dismal, but Batman is presented as a grade-A jackass who might as well just carry a gun to waste his enemies, since he’s beating them to death anyhow.
6. Deathmate (Image/Valiant Comics crossover: 1993-1994)
Let’s break up this list with something that isn’t from DC or Marvel; even smaller publishers make big mistakes. Image Comics started with a dream: several Marvel illustrators were tired of the small paychecks they were getting and decided to strike out and create a comic publisher that would respect their creative efforts.
What these artists failed to realize is that while they’d been complaining about the business of comic books, they had no real knowledge or experience with how the business actually worked. It’s like a kid complaining about how daddy never spends any time with them, not realizing he’s been working 12 hours a day to buy them those Air Jordans. Or something. Anyhow, Image Comics was created, and one of the earlier crossovers (produced with Valiant Comics) was called Deathmate, a six-part story with issues designated by color rather than number and intended to be read in any order and featuring characters from Valiant and Image.
Perhaps most telling that Deathmate was a bad idea was that half of the Image Comics founders–Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino and Todd McFarlane–didn’t participate. If you know anything about those people, you’d also know that those were the people who made the good comics at Image. As it was, the people involved in Deathmate turned it into a comic-speculators’ dream, heavily promoting the series before they had actually, you know, gotten to any of the work on it. Deathmate turned out to have just-okay art and an equally middling story, surprising considering it took Image more than six months to churn out some of the issues. By the time the final issues came out, readers had stopped caring and comic book retailers were left with piles of unsold merchandise. As it was pretty hard to return those unfilled orders back in the day, we assume that these poor retailers were left to burn the worthless paper to keep warm.
The series was so singularly poor and not worth the tremendous wait, even Valiant Comics then-editor-in-chief admitted Deathmate was an “unmitigated disaster” that had only happened due to a friendship between creators at Valiant and Image. Even worse, it capped off a series of comics speculation that had glutted the market with collectors editions, holographic covers and limited #0 issues. Deathmate was the beginning of the end for Valiant as as the market crashed it would never recover.
7. Civil War (Marvel crossover: 2006-2007)
Notice how Marvel crossovers keep making this list? Civil War was a yearlong, all-Marvel crossover that competed with DC’s own yearlong series 52, but DC won this battle in terms of making any sense. Civil War had all the hallmarks of bad comic books: characters come back from the dead (a cloned Norse God of Thunder? How does that even work?), minor characters get blown up (does anyone care?), and major shockers and plot twists are put forth, only to be undone in short order. Spider-Man unmasks himself, for instance, but everyone forgets courtesy of the One More Day retcon, while Captain America’s death lasted little more than a year. How does a guy with no superhuman powers survive three slugs to the chest? According to Wikipedia, “the gun used on [Captain America] instead transported him to a fixed position in space and time.” Uh, right.
All in all, if there’s anything to be learned by the above, it’s that it seems more likely you’ll get a really bad story if it’s aggressively promoted; almost like the comic companies are trying to distract us from the fact that the story they’re selling isn’t fit to be used as the shredded paper in a hamster cage. So, a simple solution is in order: if it’s hyped, don’t buy it. And if someone’s dead, it doesn’t mean they won’t come back in five issues.