Ten Comic Book Gambles (That Paid Off)

With DC's New 52 relaunch shattering sales expectations for months now, it seems safe to declare the relaunch a success, at least in the short term. While we've already recently looked at big gambles that failed to pay off and resulted in notoriously-squandered opportunities, it seemed like a good time to talk about the other side of that coin--what of the big gambles that have paid off for creators and publishers, resulting in more readers, a richer storytelling experience or long-term changes for the better? There have certainly been some.

The New 52 would certainly make the list, except for the DC's universe-wide reboot and digital day-and-date move are what inspired the list--so other than that, what are our picks?

10. The DC Universe Comes to Smallville

Years before Iron Man ushered the Marvel Universe into film, characters like Green Arrow and Impulse were appearing on the small screen, courtesy the WB/CW's Smallville (the adventures of Superman when he was a boy). Over the years, everyone from Aquaman to Zatanna would appear in the show, which would introduce millions of viewers to characters like Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, some of the greatest heroes they'd never heard of. Those viewers, often, fell in love with those characters, even making Green Arrow an intrinsic character to the show's success in its later years and arguably raising Cyborg's profile to the point where he could be considered as a replacement for the absent Martian Manhunter on the new Justice League series by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee. And with a failed Aquaman pilot and a Booster Gold script in development, the move seems to have paid off for DC Entertainment.

9. Savage Dragon: This Savage World

Erik Larsen has been writing, drawing and reinventing the adventures and backstory of The Savage Dragon since he was a kid, but never as publicly or dramatically as he did with This Savage World, a story in which Dragon finds himself in a dark, desolate, dystopian alternate timeline he inadvertently created by killing a time-traveling villain. After 75 issues in which Savage Dragon had been a solid and entertaining (but not overly ambitious) superhero book, this dramatic change to the status quo set off a series of stories that have left many readers fumbling for years to find their footing, and set up an overall vision for the series whereby every so often, the rules go completely out the window. The book has been stronger for it. It also laid the groundwork for the last couple of years of Savage Dragon stories, which saw the world destroyed (again) and saved (again), only to have Darklord (the villain whose death set off the whole sequence of events) apparently kill Dragon and then restore him to life--in space.

Yeah, there's no such thing as a status quo in that book anymore. And it's awesome.

8. Francine's Wedding

In a wildly divisive move among the readers of his hit indie book Strangers In Paradise, Terry Moore decided (ten years into the series' run) to marry off Francine Peters, one of the two women at the heart of the story and arguably the most relatable character in the book for many fans. The move was controversial not only because it isolated her from Katchoo, David and most of the rest of the supporting cast--and not just because of the notorious flash-forward sequences showing a potential (and profoundly depressing) future for Francine and the rest--but because at the heart of much of the Strangers in Paradise fandom was a deeply-felt belief that Katchoo and Francine belonged together. And given Francine's often conservative, even provincial moral code it was difficult for many readers to see a situation where she would be the same character coming out the other side of a divorce--if one was even in the cards.

The rift between the characters lasted for nearly twenty issues--much of the remainder of the series' run--and Francine's disappointing marriage became the catalyst for much of what happened from the moment she realized "I'm running out of time" to have children until the end of the series.

7. Man of Steel

No, not the upcoming movie (although hopefully that will be good and we can talk about it in a future list). We're talking about the 1986 miniseries in which John Byrne revamped the Superman mythology to fit DC's post-Crisis on Infinite Earths editorial philosophy. Wildly controversial from the time it was published all the way to today, Man of Steel features a stripped-down Superman who's still one of the most powerful beings on the planet--but who may not be able to juggle that planet and two others. A more human, relatable approach to Superman proved a success for years, and set the stage for massively popular stories like The Death of Superman.

Even after more than two decades and a number of revamps, restarts and reinventions, elements of Byrne's take on the Last Son of Krypton remain vital and interesting, and it seems likely that we'll see more of this particular iteration of Superman when Dan Jurgens, who wrote and drew the character for years following Byrne's departure, takes over as co-writer and penciler on the Superman monthly in March following the departure of George Pérez.

6. The Golden Age

James Robinson's reinvention of Golden Age heroes may have been nominally an Elseworlds story (DC's "What If...?" line), but it had ramifications that were felt throughout the DC Universe and the comics economy for years to come. Many credit the story--which shows older superheroes who retired as a result of the McCarthy trials and have trouble adjusting to modern, civilian life--as the kickoff for JSA, the popular Geoff Johns-written series that incorporated elements of the story into it and which has made not just the Justice Society but several of the lower-tier Golden Age characters into viable properties in the years since.

A terrific story in its own rite, this comic would fall into the Kingdom Come or New Frontier territory--great, but not necessarily a gamble--except that the characters used here were not really marketable. Attempts to revitalize the Justice Society had been made time and again over the years, and never met with any sustained success, so a prestige-format miniseries featuring a number of characters unrecognizable to readers as well as some who had even fallen into the public domain was a chance DC took in hopes of paying off big.

It would also give Robinson, Johns and others opportunities to explore a number of Golden Age characters and their younger counterparts as "legacy" characters, something we'll get into a little bit more in a minute.

5. The Ultimate Universe

While it's not as ambitious as some of DC's relaunches, which have actually removed beloved characters, concepts and titles from the shelves and replaced them with the revamped versions on a permanent or at least semi-permanent basis, The Ultimate Universe was a big investment of capital for a Marvel Comics that didn't have a lot of it to go around, and it was far from a sure thing when it launched. The comics industry was slumping following the deflation of the collector's bubble in the 1990s and the remaining readership was largely composed of die-hards who had been around for years and didn't really need an introductory course in Spider-Man as told by the guy who wrote Torso.

Still, the publisher went into it with guns a-blazin', putting top-tier talent on art and investing in a number of ongoing titles right off the bat, in spite of having recently been burned by the Heroes Reborn fiasco. The result? Ten years later, the Ultimate Universe is still going strong, and has become a profit center for Marvel outside of the direct market. Ultimate Spider-Man has not only become a mainstay of their publishing line, but it currently being used as a big part of Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet promotional campaign to play up their relationship with Marvel, who is providing Barnes & Noble early access to digital graphic novels not yet available in iBooks or on the Amazon Kindle. And the more "realistic" and down-to-earth design elements of the Ultimate Universe have allowed for easy transition to film, with Hollywood's Thor and Captain America more closely resembling the Ultimate versions than their traditional Marvel Universe counterparts.

4. DC's Legacy Books

Every so often one of these books comes along, but it seems fair to lump them together since, in recent years, they've all been informed by the same source material: Roy Thomas's Infinity, Inc. and James Robinson's The Golden Age.

The two examples that stand out the most are James Robinson's Starman and Marc Andreyko's Manhunter, although the success of properties like this and the "legacy" culture of JSA has allowed for characters like Jaime Reyes (Blue Beetle III) to have their own shot at ongoing, monthly glory as well as characters like The Spectre and The Question getting high-profile reinventions.

The key here, in terms of being a gamble, is that the characters mentioned above aren't Wally West stepping into the Flash's road-worn boots or Dick Grayson putting on the cowl for the first time. Their precursors aren't wildly popular or even entirely recognizable to many readers, and the idea of giving Starman an ongoing series spinning out of Zero Hour (a  high-profile DC event where most of the Justice Society was decimated and Jack Knight acted like a jerk) seemed a lot like giving Steel his own monthly when The Reign of Doomsday began earlier this year: It makes a kind of sense, sure, but that doesn't mean it will last very long.

The success of Starman on both a commercial and critical level shocked everyone, and made titles like H-E-R-O and later Manhunter seem like something the publisher might be willing to try. All it takes is one success out of every five or so attempts and a good pitch can calm the bean counters and convince editorial and corporate that some property they own might actually be worth taking off the shelf.

An upside to these titles even if (like H-E-R-O or Manhunter) they don't last as long as you would hope? Books like this--with great high concepts, fewer connections to the larger universe of stories and a sense of history that makes readers want more--are great, addicting entry points for readers who are a little older and more mature (read: who have more money) but who may not have considered comics seriously in the past after having seen one too many terrible superhero movies. Anything new and clever that can hook readers into the vast and interconnected world of mainstream superhero comics is good because once there, they may find out that they love more about comics, superheroes or both than they ever expected.

3. Crisis on Infinite Earths

Since the beginning of the Silver Age, both DC and Marvel had brought their universes closer together and created a complex and engaging character history within them for years. By the 1980s, fans were fiercely loyal to the characters they had followed sometimes for decades, but comics was becoming an increasingly difficult thing for new readers to wrap their heads around. It's surprising, then, that something like an Ultimate Universe didn't happen back in 1985 but instead, what superstar creators Marv Wolfman and George Pérez gave us was Crisis on Infinite Earths. It fed on and built on the established mythology that rewarded longtime readers, but the goal of the story was to bring down that mythology with a wrecking ball, to reduce it to its barest foundation so that creators could start building again and fans could walk right in on the ground floor, not to belabor the metaphor.

Crisis reinvented the DC Universe by forcing creators to completely re-evaluate what the priorities were in their books. It reinvented the comics marketplace by introducing the idea of the massive crossover event as not merely a storytelling tool but a financial tentpole. It reinvented continuity by taking it from something that rewarded longtime readers to something that held the shared universe of these characters together.

2. Marvel Joins Their Books Into a Universe

While there had been some interaction between Marvel's characters as early as the 1940s, it was one single comic that in many ways set the stage for the DC and Marvel Universes as we know them today: Amazing Spider-Man #1 took the chance of launching a new series based on a character who'd only been seen once before, and which guest-starred the Fantastic Four, Marvel's most popular characters at the time and a group which (it must have crossed someone's mind at some point) could well have stolen the show and put the brakes on Spider-Man as a character before he ever truly had a chance to get his feet under him.

Instead what it did was send a loud, clear message that not only were Marvel's characters sharing a universe, but it wouldn't require the artificial structure of a team book in order to see them interacting together. Yes, we would have The Avengers soon, but here we saw something markedly different: That characters from other Marvel titles could appear in one another's solo titles, creating a unity of their world and great opportunities for cross-promotion that define the two universes to this day.

1. The Image Revolution


When you talk about taking big risks in comics, and then reaping big rewards, can there be any clearer example than that of seven top-tier artists who left big money on the table at DC and Marvel to start their own company and take their chances with unproven characters and an unproven business model in the hopes of getting a fairer shake than they were from their corporate employers? It's the American Dream in four colors.

Like any startup, Image has had growing pains but the fact that not only have many of their characters and properties endured, but many of the original creators are enjoying phenomenal success (media mogul Todd McFarlane, anyone? DC Co-Publisher Jim Lee?) and others (Erik Larsen and Marc Silvestri) continue to have a day-to-day impact on the characters they created almost twenty years ago now.