We´ve said it before and we´ll say it again...it must be very, very hard to keep a comic book/character/franchise fresh over the course of time. Not an impossible task, of course...As we all know, Superman, Captain America, Wonder Woman and Batman date way back to those war-infested 1940´s...Spider-Man, Hulk and Iron Man to those swinging sixties...Wolverine and the New X-Men during the disco 70´s, Harley Quinn, Hellboy & Spawn fresh blood from the crazy 90´s...
As a matter of fact, most of the characters we have seen and continue to see on the silver screen, comic books, small screen and video games were created a long time ago, yet continue to be reimagined, reinvented, rebooted, rejuvenated. And of course: killed, brought back to life and so on. The possibilities are endless and we explored a litte bit of this in our "Just Stay Dead" post. Yet today we want to go further. Prove me wrong if you will, but how far were some authors willing to go in order to keep their franchise fresh? Or in layman´s terms...What the hey were they smoking?...
Apparently the earliest of all gimmicks was to mess with the character´s size, weight -not gender, but pretty close sometimes- and even place in the animal kingdom. For some reason the 60´s saw a variety of stories featuring our favorite crime fighters as...Lions! Zebras! Tigers! Why!
If you were lucky enough waaaaay back in 1958 to score Action Comics No. 243, you could have read the classic "The Lady and the Lion". What was it that had scores of youngsters running to the local soda shop to buy this comic, with a totally normal Lois Lane gasping in fear at a dramatically droopy Superman in full outfit but...as a speaking Lion! Kudos (not!) to Jack Miller and Wayne Boring (no pun intended!) for this masterpiece. How did Kal-El get to share DNA with the feline community? Well, as it turns out, no good deed goes unpunished! Who knew saving a woman in trouble in the Mediterranean (who, of course was an alien from another planet) would lead to unwittingly drinking an animal-transforming potion that...(What? Really???) Turns out he wouldn´t marry her so he gets stuck as an MGM movie-opener lookalike until (no shocker!) he finds the antidote somewhere in the great ole Fortress of Solitude, giving him a second lease on looking like a human...even though you´re still a Kryptonian, dude.
Apparently the idea caught on and over the years we have been stuck with a whole bunch of animal (and insect) based variations on our superidols. Always temporary fixes -Thank God- but fixes nonetheless. How to top "Super-Lion"? Well, how about "Bat-Tiger"?
Back then in February 1969 it would have cost you just 12 cents to get this gem, so shame on you because $115 buckaroos (M/NM) is what this comic will set you back if you are still set on widening your animal-themed collection. Frank Robbins & Carmine Infantino share the claim to fame (or shame) on this one, and though I was busy being born that same month so didn´t have time to go out and read it...I am pretty sure Batman must have made it OK back to his pink-skinned self by the end of that issue or couple of issues. Otherwise, boy did I miss out!!!
Please don´t forget other unavoidable gems!!! Spider-Man actually turning into a living Spider (well, just the four extra arms) thanks to new super villain Morbius. When did this unusual development take place? Well, let´s go back to 1971...the end of the Stan Lee era on Amazing Spider-Man (No. 100...What a way to celebrate the anniversary issue!) with beautiful artwork by Gil Kane actually.
It did take him a couple of issues to lose them with the help of Curt Connors. Maybe he should have kept them! Imagine how many pictures he could have taken for the Daily Bugle? Also, pretty handy in the lab with those test tubes. Doc Ock would have never had a chance!!!
More recently (well, 1992 that is) Mark Gruenwald & Rick Levins took a page off the ole Werewolf stories and turned Captain America into a Wolf (Wait for it, wait for it..."Capwolf"! Come on, THAT´S what you went with?) in Captain America No. 405.
Apparently, this must be some sort of hazing or practical joke the Avengers play on any new Cap, because just recently, the "All-New-New" Captain America (Sam Wilson, one of two exchangeable freedom fighters) was also turned into CapWolf for a few issues. Points for originality? Zero.
And last, but not least...the Ultimate Prankster (Loki) playing the ultimate prank on his step-brother Thor by turning him into a frog! Say whaaat...I guess you had to be there. In his defense, back then Walter Simonson took credit for turning Thor into a dying lukewarm franchise on the verge of cancellation into the hottest thing since Witchblade´s costume. He killed Donald Blake. He gave the hammer to an alien (Beta Ray Bill). He made Thor a construction worker. So basically...with the monthly sales Thor was getting after No. 337 broke through the comics world, this talented writer/artist could have practically gotten away with murder and walked out of the police station. Still...I´d rather get murdered than be turned into a frog. Then again, that´s just me.
My guess is we could go on forever on these "Zany Takes" on our favorite superheroes (there will be a second column on this discussion point...it´s way too much fun!) but is there a point to all this craziness? Basically, these gimmicks used in order to catch reader´s attention would vary depending on the decade. The 50´s and 60´s were all shapeshifting them, turning them into aliens, animals or other unlikely situations that would shock the reader into buying the comic by its cover shock value. The 70´s and 80´s were all about breaking the rules: characters can die (Jean Grey, Supergirl, Gwen Stacy, etc.), turn into other characters (Nightwing, Nomad), separate personalities (Hulk) and even pull off a total reboot of the genre ("Crisis on infinite Earths"). The 90´s were all about being cool (Ghost Rider, long-haired Superman, New X-Men, Witchblade, Spawn, Savage Dragon). What´s left for millenials, many of which never read all of those comics and never suffered (thank God) so many of those gimmicks? Rehashes of the same gimmicks...new gimmicks...way too many deaths and instant resurrections...heroes turning into villains and viceversa...Funny thing? Best sales ever just came up for DC...by going back to their basics. The big guns at the Distinguished Competition asked the creators to get back to the usual "meat and potatoes" and guess what? It worked. "DC: Rebirth" sales are over the top and even though Superman from another world has a son, Wally West is back from Limbo and the Watchmen are ready to team up with the DC Universe...maybe these guys are on to something.