By Erik Grove
Last week I waded into the deep end of comic book controversy with my defense of DC’s Identity Crisis. The reader response was predictable with some agreeing with me and others strenuously disagreeing with it. The dialog that resulted got me to thinking about the lightning rod stories in comics. I’m talking about plots or events that have divided comic book fans like nothing else and are all but guaranteed to elicit strong opinions whenever mentioned. Identity Crisis is certainly one but not the only one and not the most incendiary. With all of that in mind, this week I’m turning the controversy dial to 11 (well, 8) and exploring Essential 8 Comic Book Controversies!
The Night Gwen Stacy Died
What many of us now take for granted as a classic story that changed Spider-Man, Marvel Comics and perhaps all of comics forever was not instantly greeted with enthusiasm. When Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and John Romita Sr. decided to have the Green Goblin kill Peter Parker’s true love Gwen Stacy in 1973 they had to know that it would upset a lot of fans and it certainly did. A user on Reddit posted a scan of the letters column reacting to Stacy’s death in Amazing Spider-Man #121. My guess is that the Bullpen got a lot more responses than this letters column could contain, many of which were probably unsuitable for print. My favorite letter in that page is also one of the shortest and epitomizes a certain kind of fan response to a comic book controversy: How DARE you kill Gwendolyn Stacy?! You are a pack of soulless, mercenary sadists. I am no longer a True Believer. Replace some of those words with something a bit more profane and throw it up on Twitter and you might mistake it for a contemporary fan.
In in the early 1990s with Superman killed and Batman broken, DC decided to shake up another one of their classic franchise characters, Green Lantern. Following the destruction of his home town, Coast City, Hal Jordan was driven mad with grief, killed all of the other GLs (and the Guardians) and became the villainous Parallax. Kyle Rayner, an unlikely rookie was made the last Green Lantern. Unlike Superman’s quick resurrection and Batman’s miraculous recovery, it took over 10 years for this radical change to be fully undone. In the meantime, fans responded to this controversy by getting organized. United by their anger at DC editorial’s indifference to their demands to restore Hal Jordan as Green Lantern and leveraging the early networking capabilities of the World Wide Web, H.E.A.T. (Hal’s Emerald Advancement Team) formed. This vocal group of fans kept up the pressure on DC for years and remains somewhat active today. From the site FAQ: In a broader sense, we stand for quality comic books, responsible storytelling and respect for traditional comic book characters and their preservation for enjoyment of future generations of fans. This seems to be a common theme when it comes to controversial comic book stories – some fans feel that it is their responsibility to preserve “traditional” characters for future generations. While I don’t share this sense of responsibility I do understand the motivations that can drive it. I do wonder however about the irony of advocating for a “traditional” character that was a reinvention of a Golden Age character (Alan Scott, the blond guy with the cape) for the Silver Age. I suppose “traditional” is in the eye of the beholder.
In the mid-1990s during a time of financial and creative stress that saw Marvel Comics at one of its lowest points, many of the publisher’s one-time flagship books were outsourced to superstar artists Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee. After the death of these heroes in the finale of the X-Men skewing Onslaught crossover, Lee and Liefeld launched 4 books bringing the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America and the Avengers into the “modern” millennial age. It was not a successful experiment and after a year, the Heroes Reborn universe was retconed into a fantasy world created by Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman’s son, Franklin and the characters were brought back into the Marvel Universe with fan-favorite creators like Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid. Looking back on these comics now with the benefit of hindsight, I see a lot of interesting business and creative ideas that mostly seem to have misfired though there are some things I remember fondly. I think Lee’s reinvention of the Fantastic Four especially was well-done and seemed liked a great template for a movie. I also agree with Liefeld: the letter “A” is not a symbol for America and I never understood the uproar about swapping it out for a stylized eagle. Either way, this comic book controversy was mercifully short-lived and has mostly been relegated to Wikipedia pages and rare moments of 90s era nostalgia.
It’s hard to imagine now with the Avengers as a cinematic and comic book dynasty spawning more spinoffs than I can keep track of, but it wasn’t always this way and the turning point from mid-range respectable, classic comic book to top-selling megahit comic started when Brian Michael Bendis ruined everything 10 years ago with the four month crossover Avengers Disassembled. In quick order the story saw Scarlet Witch turned into an accidental supervillain that killed Avengers mainstays like Hawkeye, Ant Man, Vision and Jack of Hearts while Thor and the Asgardian pantheon all died in a parallel story that saw the coming of Ragnarok. This cataclysmic shakeup was followed by the launch of New Avengers that featured the very non-traditional Marvel superheroes joining the Avengers like Spider-Man and Wolverine. It’s hard to criticize this storyline in business terms now as it was a tremendous success and dramatically increased the profile and readership of the Avengers but it remains a divisive event with many fans complaining that characters acted “out of character,” continuity was not respected and that the so-called New Avengers strained the Avengers concept past the point of recognition. While this is a debate that continues on message boards and comic shops, it seems unlikely that Marvel will ever go back to the traditional Avengers from pre-Disassembled.
The Rise of Arsenal
Meanwhile, Green Arrow’s plucky sidekick Speedy has trouble sexually performing after the death of his daughter and smokes a dead cat in an alleyway. Or something like that. Justice League: the Rise of Arsenal is not the first DC book to deal with mature, gritty subject matter but it does seem to be a high-water mark for what’s been seen by many fans as the coarsening of their characters and line that arguably started with Identity Crisis led to further death and dismemberment during the Infinite Crisis event and then went for the jugular with the Cry for Justice limited series that immediately preceded the Rise of Arsenal. It doesn’t help the comic that many of its dramatic scenes seem to have the subtly of a jackhammer blow to the face. This comic remains a rallying cry against the creative direction that plunged DC’s traditional “Saturday morning cartoon” characters into greater, more extreme violence and depravity. There’s certainly a lot of sincere intentions in the Rise of Arsenal and it’s possible that if it had been released in a different context it would have been considered an innovative exploration of grief and anger but it’s hard to imagine what context could be.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen is a comic book classic and when DC made the decision to revisit that classic with a series of prequel miniseries called Before Watchmen against Moore’s wishes there was no way it wasn’t going to be a major controversy. Questions were instantly raised about creators’ rights and work for hire and the commercialization of art. Many fans were galvanized against Before Watchmen before the first issues saw print. The response to the books was muted with very modest critical and commercial success and unlike Watchmen, Before Watchmen will probably not be enshrined as a masterpiece and discussed fondly for decades to come.
The New 52
Not surprisingly, many controversial comic book stories start out due to financial pressures more than creative ones. Not long ago, DC struggled in sales against Marvel and needed a big sales boost. Small gestures to reinvigorate their line had not generated the hoped for success so something bold was called for. So, in 2011 after at the end of the underperforming Flashpoint event, everything was rebooted and every single DC comic relaunched with a new #1. Mostly. There were popular storylines and bits of continuity that carried over and there were some bits that were stripped to the studs and reimagined with varying degrees of success. This bold move did not go over without the expected amount of fan backlash. While the initial sales were very strong (with slow attrition following), there remains a vocal cadre of fans that insist that this isn’t their DC universe anymore. In fan communities lines are drawn. There are those that support and like many of DC’s moves and find explanations and nuances to mitigate some bumpy creator relationships and less warmly received character revisions. And then there are those that remain enflamed by the controversy and eagerly antagonize the other fans. The controversy of the New 52 has overshadowed the New 52 since the beginning and even going into 4 years since the relaunch of the line the arguments have not settled and the intensity has not diminished.
One More Day
This is the 800 pound gorilla of comic controversies. This way lies raw, hurt feelings and arguments between even the most level-headed comic book fans. In 2007 Joe Quesada and J. Michael Straczynski set about angering thousands of comic fans and putting one of Quesada’s “genies back in the bottle” by wiping out Spider-Man’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson. Right now, there are teeth grinding and fists clenching just reading that reading that sentence in the diehard comics community. But wait, there’s more. Not a stranger to controversy, Spider-Man is the only character with two entries on this list (and there could be more, trust me) and is also the character that seems closest to many fans. As I’ve read many times in many forum rants, they related to Peter Parker, they may have even grown up with him and this editorially mandated story gutted them like no other. What makes it worse is that the story involved a literal deal with the devil, Marvel’s infernal analog Mephisto, and was predicated on a trade for the life of Peter’s elderly Aunt May. There’s a lot there to get your hackles up about. For many fans this storyline was the Rubicon they swear never to cross again. For others (myself cautiously included), the Brand New Day that followed with the “swinging single” Spider-Man was more accessible and felt more traditional. There’s that word again.
A fan-favorite character is changed and it’s an affront to traditional characters. A fan-favorite character has a change reverted to a more “traditional” state though and that’s a controversy. When does a character become “traditional?” What is the critical mass that determines if a change can and cannot be made? Gwen Stacy was killed in the entry that started this list because nobody at Marvel wanted Peter Parker to get married and live happily ever after and then in another controversial story, Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson got married. Is undoing that also controversial? The answer is certainly yes because controversy is an emotional reaction, not a logical one. Controversies cannot be thought of as rational things and to try to engage on those terms won’t get you very far. Trust me. I’ve been down that road before.
On that note, we come to the close of another column. Essential 8 will be going on hiatus for a little bit while Bleeding Cool covers the San Diego Comic-Con. Look for an all-new #1 column. I’ve asked for a holofoil cover. Cross your fingers!
Erik Grove is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. You can follow him on Twitter @ErikGrove and visit his webpage www.erikgrove.com. 4 out of 5 dentists agree that www.erikgrove.com as part of a dental hygiene regimen is good for you gums and teeth!