Ten Memorable Squandered Opportunities in Comics, Part 2

While the Clone Saga arguably takes the cake as the most obvious example of a comics story that had promise but failed to deliver so completely that we remember it years later as an embarrassing disaster, it's far from the only example. Yesterday we looked at five such stories, and today we'll wrap up with five more that are arguably just as bad.

The Dark Knight Strikes Again

What it had going for it: Frank Miller, widely regarded as one of the great talents in American comics, hadn't done a mainstream superhero book in years, opting instead to focus on his own creator-owned projects like Sin City. In 2001, though, he was working on Batman again. And not just Batman--he was working on a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns, Miller's best-known and best-loved work and, along with Watchmen and Crisis on Infinite Earths, one of a trio of awesomely ambitious projects DC took on in the mid-'80s that paid off big time in terms of both sales and credibility.

The premise: Set some years after The Dark Knight Returns, Batman is still playing dead, having reverted to his "urban legend" status while operating a kind of franchise for young vigilantes out of the Batcave. Lex Luthor has taken over the country, though, and it's run like a police state that uses former superheroes as slave labor.

Why it failed: Making a sequel to something as beloved as The Dark Knight Returns is always a dicey proposition, especially when the work has been given more than a decade to build up a mystique around itself among fans and critics. There was never a lot of confidence that Miller could capture lightning in a bottle a second time and turn out a sequel that was as good as the first. What many were unprepared for, though, was Miller turning out a story that was just flat-out not very good. The backlash that resulted from a Dark Knight sequel that not only failed to live up to its predecessor but wouldn't even have passed as a great story in its own right was substantial.

The fallout: The comic was a sales success but a critical flop and not even well-liked by most of those who bought it. This impression worsened when, shortly after it was published, Miller began All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder--a kind of Batman Year One for the Dark Knight universe--which was lambasted when it treated Batman like a lunatic, other superheroes like incompetent thugs and failed to hit nearly every one of its deadlines. The series, nominally an ongoing but frequently discussed as a 12-issue series a la its far superior cousin All-Star Superman, was aborted after 10. Later, it was rumored that the story would be retitled as Dark Knight: Boy Wonder and run for another six issues in 2011, but that, too, seems to have gone by the wayside. Meanwhile, Miller's other Batman project--Holy Terror, Batman!--was dropped by DC and picked up by Legendary Comics (without the Batman part). The book was pretty terrible, and now its strange and paranoid themes seem like a precursor to his controversial online rant in which he attacked Occupy Wall Street protesters by attempting to link them to Islamic terrorists.

Spider-Man: Chapter One

What it had going for it: Spider-Man fans were desperate for a leg-up after the spectacular implosion of the Clone Saga and John Byrne was there to catch them when they fell. Byrne, an industry legend whose work on the X-Men titles is still one of the great runs in the books' history, had become something of a fix-it guy for characters with impermeable continuity after his well-received Superman revamp, Man of Steel. It seemed like a match made in Heaven to have him fill the gap in Marvel's lineup left by (the then newly-canceled) Untold Tales of Spider-Man, which covered the early days of Peter's career and told well-liked, canonical stories which happened inside and around the original Lee/Ditko tales of the '60s.

The premise: Marvel felt that Spider-Man's origin and early years needed cleaning up, and superstar Byrne needed a big project to make his splashy re-entry into the Marvel Comics fold with. Going back to Square One was a good place to start from, being that in the present day Spidey's life and continuity had become something of a disaster following the serpentine and never-ending Clone Saga.

Why it failed: Spider-Man's origin story really doesn't need cleaning up. The Lee/Ditko stories are beloved by nearly everyone who's ever picked up a comic book, known and understood by all. And if the Spider-Man films taught us anything with their silly dialogue and flat characterization, it's that fans would rather see a version of the character who is more, not less, like the Stan Lee version.

Byrne and Marvel were also never completely clear on the mission statement here, according to Wikipedia. Byrne described the story as something more akin to Heroes Reborn, where the stories would take place in a different universe but then elements of them may be brought over to Marvel 616 as desired. Marvel editorial saw this as a Man of Steel-style reboot that would replace the Lee/Ditko versions of the stories with Byrne's versions of essentially the same stories but with Byrne's stamp and a more contemporary feel.

The fallout: The story finished its run but was almost completely forgotten by fans and other writers, with almost nobody ever referencing any of the changes that Byrne had made to the established canon. For the most part, the book is remembered more for its controversy and for being disappointing than for anything that happened inside of the pages (although a collected edition of the entire story is coming soon--but don't read too much into that. Marvel also recently reissued the Clone Saga). Of course, shortly after this, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley tried once again to tell stories of a younger Spider-Man early in his career, and Ultimate Spider-Man, which launched in its own universe and didn't have continuity issues to deal with, has been a massive success for more than ten years.

Countdown (to Final Crisis)

What it had going for it: Coming off the success of 52, which shocked the comic book world by having a gaggle of superstar creators involved and not missing any of its deadlines, it was assumed that all the Countdown staff had to do was to duplicate that effort and keep printing money for DC right up until Final Crisis hit.

The premise: Countdown was supposed to bridge the gap between the well-received 52 and the then-upcoming Final Crisis event. Like 52, it would take a handful of second-tier characters and strive to elevate them, using complex and intertwining plots and big-name creators to do so.

Why it failed: This is, arguably, another case of "It just wasn't as good as it was supposed to be," with only one or two of the seven subplots really engaging most fans. There was also more to it than that, though; with 52, DC had trotted out four of the best and most popular writers in the industry (Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid and Greg Rucka) and allowed them to cherry-pick the characters they were going to try and "elevate." With Countdown, Morrison and Johns came up with the premise and characters, then walked away, leaving a team of writers who were good, and popular, but who could neither compare to their predecessors nor relate to the seemingly random choices of characters in many cases.

Also, it's rumored that the constantly-changing nature of Morrison's in-development Final Crisis was forever throwing monkeywrenches into the Countdown machine. Conflicts between Morrison, editorial and other creators were well-documented during this time, particularly as it related to Jim Starlin's The Death of the New Gods, which was almost immediately declared non-canonical upon its completion. Creative changes were the norm, not the exception, for the series. Paul Dini reportedly masterminded the larger plot but had different collaborators on almost a weekly basis and Keith Giffen, who had done breakdowns for much of 52 and was widely credited by those writers as being the glue that held the series together in trying times, was announced to be playing a similar role for Countdown but was reportedly off the book before it ever saw print.

Lastly, many of the characters simply didn't seem to have much in the way of direction. 52 sometimes felt like things were inevitable, that characters were moving from Point A to Point B without much in the way of logic or motivation, but at least their destinations made sense in terms of the characters' larger narratives.  Countdown seemed to just allow the characters to walk around being themselves until something happened, and many of the subplots had their best or most significant moments in the first few issues and then just settled into their new status quo until Final Crisis came along to shake things up.

All of this contributed to a sense that the book just didn't matter that much to DC, who were already focused on the Next Big Thing.

The fallout: Following on the heels of the apparent failure of Countdown and disappointment in Final Crisis, DC had to seriously re-evaluate their weekly comics model. Wednesday Comics, their next such story, was non-canonical and featured superstar creators working on characters of their choosing with few restrictions on content since they weren't stuck in the DC Universe. This was critically beloved but not a huge sales success, and DC returned to the Countdown mold a bit with Brightest Day and Justice League: Generation Lost.

Justice League: Cry for Justice

What it had going for it: James Robinson, beloved writer of Starman and The Golden Age, returned to mainstream DC Comics shortly after Infinite Crisis with a brief but well-liked run on Detective Comics. It was shortly thereafter rumored that he would take on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, and fandom rejoiced. Soon, that project was announced, but under a different title: Justice League: Cry For Justice.

The premise: Justice! Robinson would be taking on a more serious, thoughtful and real-world approach to the Justice League featuring Green Lantern and Green Arrow prominently. Taking the death of Martian Manhunter (killed by Libra during Final Crisis) to heart, they break away from the Justice League of America and start their own Justice League bent on, well, "Justice." Which mostly looks like revenge.

Why it failed: The project seemed plagued from the beginning, with nobody really seeming to know what the idea behind it was. Hints dropped at a Green Lantern/Green Arrow series gave way to an announcement that there would be a Justice League ongoing launched by Robinson and artist Mauro Cascioli, which was then amended to become the announcement of the miniseries.

The premise seemed sound but the execution strained for fans from the beginning. Hal Jordan gave Superman a holier-than-thou speech in the first issue that set readers a bit on edge (trying to preach ethics to Superman is a bit like starting a  war with Captain America, isn't it? But we'll get to that...) and later sequences involving torture and a climax that seemed needlessly brutal. Characterization seemed all over the map with the one consistency being that most of the characters didn't seem to act like themselves.

Also, "Justice!" was so overused in the first couple of issues that it quickly became a catch-phrase/drinking game/joke on the Internet and it was hard to find anyone talking about the title that didn't preface their statements with the phrase, or at least pepper it needlessly throughout.

The fallout: The climax of the story led to the notoriously-awful Rise of Arsenal storyline, and both were so widely disliked by fans that Robinson's nomination for an Eisner (for Cry for Justice) and Rise of Arsenal's receipt of a Prism Award both drew widespread criticism in fan circles. Both stories appear to have been removed from continuity as a result of the New 52 relaunch.

[caption id="attachment_9486" align="aligncenter" width="225" caption=""JUSTICE!""][/caption]

Civil War

What it had going for it: Fantastic art and a big-name writer came together for the first truly epic Marvel event in years, and one which promised to have long-term impacts on its characters, take on real-world issues and unify the Marvel Universe going forward.

The premise: A superhero reality show gone wrong kills a bunch of kids and results in the introduction of a super-human registration act that essentially outlawed superheroes (even the cuddly ones like Captain America) if they didn't register their identities with the government. This is basically the Mutant Registration Act that the X-Men have been fighting essentially since their creation, but on steroids because it applies not only to mutants but to heroes who get their powers other ways, and non-powered heroes. Different superheroes lined up on different sides of the issue, and things escalated.

Why it failed:  This is the one where I have to admit that "failure" is a very relative term. The comic sold well and, in spite of a great deal of negative fan response, its spin-offs and tie-ins did the same. The resultant change to the status quo continued to impact the Marvel Universe all the way through Secret Invasion years later. Still, in hindsight even people who read and enjoy this comic make fun of it, and it's been years since I can recall talking to an actual living human who will stand up for the thing.

The controversy at the story's center was touted as a selling point, in the hopes that fans would line up behind the "side" of their choosing. Instead Marvel seemed to load the dice, telling the readers throughout the story which side was "right" (the pro-registration side) all the while making the heroes who supported that side (most notably Iron Man, who had a movie coming up) act like jerks.

Longtime readers knew that many of the series' more shocking moments (such as the well-publicized unmasking of Spider-Man) would be done away with sooner than later, which took some of the seriousness out of the entire endeavor, and it turned out they were right, with Marvel's next major affront to fandom (One More Day, which could make this list if not for the fact that it never really showed any promise to begin with) removing the events from continuity for all intents and purposes.

The awesome action sequences and high-minded promise of the first issue got completely lost along the way and by the end, fans were divided not by who should win, but mostly by what part of the ridiculous story, terrible ending and awful characterization they hated the most. And, unlike his counterpart in the Ultimate Universe, the Steve Rogers of Civil War proved that the "A" on his forehead does, in fact, stand for France.

The fallout: With enthusiasm on the wane toward the end of the project and many fans very angry about the way the whole thing had gone down, Marvel kicked Civil War when it was down by having a reporter grill Captain America with a series of nonsensical questions that essentially questioned his identity as a representation of the American people. Could the same idea have been done well and carried some weight? Of course. But instead Paul Jenkins etched himself into the Bad Comics Hall of Shame with the rather preposterous exchange at left which, along with "I'm the God------ Batman!" and "Justice!" will likely be remembered as some of the worst parts of the last decade's legacy in comics.