Every so often, the solicitations text comes out for some story that's three months down the road and you sit there and say to yourself, "That could be brilliant!" A pause, a little consideration and you finish the thought: "That could be brilliant! It could also blow up rather spectacularly." The most obvious example in recent memory is DC's New 52 initiative which, three months in, seems to be working pretty well for them, garnering high sales, new customers and critical praise.
In the 20-plus years I've been reading comics, though, I remember quite a number of these things that didn't pay off. When they fail to work, they seem like a gimmick; it alienates readers, disappoints critics and has the exact opposite effect that it was surely expected to when, some months prior, it was first pitched to an editor. In no particular order, let's look at ten such flops to happen in the last twenty years or so...and maybe think a little about why they didn't work.
Superman's Power Crisis
What it had going for it: At this point, the best-selling, fan-and-critical-favorite team of writers and artists who shepherded Superman through the death and return stories of the early '90s were still aboard the titles. Were they beginning to get a little stale? Arguably, yes. Still, DC's philosophy seemed to be that another big, sweeping storyline with long-term repercussions and a ton of mainstream media coverage was all that was needed to bring listless readers back to what was an undeniably solid quartet of monthly Superman titles.
The "power change" story had a roster of writers and artists, then, who ranged from "solid storytellers" to "Hall-of-Famers" and a concept that seemed cool.
The premise:It was an opportunity to take Superman back to square one, without screwing with established continuity or retreading stories which had already been told during the last big change in his status quo after John Byrne's 1986 Man of Steel miniseries. Obviously, given the level of interest in Grant Morrison's Action Comics, this is a concept that hits home with a good number of readers.
Ever since his death, Superman had been plagued with troubles managing his powers; they had massive peaks and troughs that made them difficult for him to use--especially since he's a character who doesn't kill and couldn't just roll with the days that his powers were out of control. They disappeared completely during the Final Night storyline and, following a merely-mortal wedding and honeymoon, Superman returned to action with a new haircut, a sunny disposition--and a brand-new set of problems with his powers. Suddenly, he found reliable old powers like X-ray vision or invulnerability suddenly failing to work completely, replaced by uncontrollable bursts of energy or, troublingly, finding himself suddenly immaterial in the middle of a fight, unable to stop a bullet from striking a civilian in the area.
Why it failed: So, so many reasons. Many readers and writers will tell you that the secret to great serialized storytelling is to make the supporting cast interesting and likable. That's certainly true, if you ask fans of Marc Andreyko's Manhunter or the John Rogers/Keith Giffen Blue Beetle run. But the Superman titles of the '90s fell back on their supporting cast like it was a feinting couch and the result was frequently that Superman felt like a bit player in his own stories. That was amplified here, as Superman's new marriage meant more screen time for Lois and Clark; and a strange creature recently rescued from the Bottle City of Kandor not only took a lot of Superman's action-hero mojo, but also probably baffled the hell out of potential new readers by showing up wearing the traditional Superman costume.
Also, frankly, the writing staff, comfortable in handling Superman as they had for nearly ten years at that point, didn't seem to have a whole lot of great ideas for how he would use his new power set. While Grant Morrison had him utilizing his newfound electrical powers to change the orbit of the moon over in JLA, Superman's own creative teams basically had him flying around blasting stuff and occasionally slowing down bullets by stealing their momentum. It was the S-shield equivalent of using a Green Lantern ring to build nothing but boxing gloves.
On top of all that, it was the '90s. Geoff Johns and Brian Michael Bendis weren't running the show yet and so "quiet character moments" and "big gimmick stories" were, for all intents and purposes, mutually exclusive. The promise of seeing Superman--the world's greatest hero and the man everyone turns to for help--relearning how to BE Superman like a kid who's just taken off the training wheels was one that was never really delivered on; that plot thread was at best an afterthought while the A plot seemed to follow whether Lois Lane's blind sister could date a horned monster indefinitely, and whether the Cyborg Superman's bizarre plot to defeat Superman by splitting him into two different people would succeed.
The fallout: Ultimately, the story was undone with a great deal of fanfare in Superman Forever, a one-shot that reset the status quo to its basic, post-Man of Steel levels and reverted Superman to the look we knew and loved (until September) with little in the way of explanation as to what caused the change, or the change back.
Spider-Man: The Clone Saga
What it had going for it: Again, some truly great creators were involved. Also, it was conceived by Marvel as a response to stories like The Death of Superman and Knightfall, which the market was obviously pretty open to at the time. And don't underestimate the value of continuity porn. Having a major event story tied into an obscure one-off tale from the '70s is like catnip to middle-aged comic book readers who remembered the Gerry Conway-Gil Kane days fondly and were buying a dozen copies of anything they thought "might be worth money someday."
The premise: One of the several attempts Marvel made at trying to undo the Spider-Man/Mary Jane wedding over the years, this one revolved around a decades-old story written by Gerry Conway in which a perfect clone of Spider-Man had been created and loosed on the real thing by a villain called The Jackal, for reasons better left undiscussed. When the pair stopped fighting and figured out that it was time to simply beat up the bad guy together, one of them was killed and, reassuring the readers that it was the right one, Spider-Man decided that he had to be the genuine article because of his love for Mary Jane. Years later, the clone reappeared and our story began, with genetic testing proving that the re-emerged "Ben Reilly" was in fact the original Peter Parker and the guy we'd been reading about since 1973 was the clone.
Part and parcel of this story was to set up Spider-Man as a legacy character, with Peter strolling off into the sunset and Ben Reilly replacing him; they also rebooted a number of Peter's classic villains with reimagined, younger versions who would be more specific to Reilly. Anybody seen any of those lately?
Why it failed: The re-emerged "Ben Reilly" was in fact the original Peter Parker and the guy we'd been reading about since 1973 was the clone. When you really examine that last part--the idea that hardcore fans who had been reading this character for twenty years or more would simply be told, "He's not the 'real' one, so he's not important and is going away," the hole in the story becomes pretty clear, really.
Also, it just dragged on forever. With the initial issues of the story showing a ton of sales life, Marvel took what was supposed to be a fairly short story and instructed the writers to make it last as long as they could sustain it, which involved making it more full of logic holes, silly plot twists and half-baked science and characterization than any ten of the early Image Comics stories put together.
Lastly, staffing kept being shaken up. Editors were fired, writers quit in frustration...the behind-the-scenes stuff was pretty ugly and more than one person described it as a toxic environment where the needs of creative people had been totally subsumed by the desires of the marketing department.
Their own people said it best: Spider-Man editor Mark Bernardo said, "The length of the story arc was initially planned to be short, but rapidly spun out of control and ended as a fiasco: Ironically, the whole storyline, which was supposed to simplify Spider-Man's mythos and ultimately bring him 'back to basics' ended up complicating everything beyond what anyone imagined!"
The fallout: Sales on the Spider-Man titles came out of this debacle softer than they had been in years, and that was doubly troubling considering that this was all happening around the time of the Marvel bankruptcy. Many long-time fans were driven to madness by the various reboots, relaunches, retitlings, changes, cheats and takebacks and simply grew to loathe everyone involved. Clones became persona non grata all over the place, with not only Ben Reilly (a character a lot of people actually liked) dying, but DC and Marvel both cracking down on their use for a while after seeing how crazy things could get.
Ultimately, the story has had a few chances at redemption, with "the real clone saga" and the Ultimate Clone Saga garnering some positive responses and the character of the Scarlet Spider is making a comeback this year.
Venom's Series of Miniseries and All His Kids
What it had going for it: Venom was the most popular new Spider-Man villain created in years when he was first introduced in the late '80s by a group of superstar creators. Following on his heels came Carnage, who was almost as popular and whose total lack of a moral compass made a tamer villain like Venom seem like he could step into the mold of DC's Lobo and become an anti-hero.
The premise: If a powerful and dangerous villain you've created suddenly becomes more popular with the fans than the title character in your superhero comic, you give him his own title. Venom, it seemed, was uniquely suited to it because his particular personality was that he wasn't a bad guy, per se, he just hated Spider-Man a lot. So if you subtract Spidey from the equation, there's no obsession driving Eddie and his black oily pal to evil and Venom could be a hero in his own rite.
Plus, after the birth of Carnage, he started to feel responsible for the horrors his offspring had wrought. With power comes great responsibility, and all that.
Why it failed: As Marvel learned so often in the '90s, there can be too much of a good thing. The Punisher is really not suited to supporting four monthly titles. More than one guy claiming to be Spider-Man is a device that will age badly over a long period of time. And while Venom is awesome...Venom and Carnage are awesomer...Venom, Carnage and a dozen or more others just felt forced and silly.
The fallout: Luckily for Marvel, Venom never had an ongoing during this period. As each subsequent miniseries started delivering less in the way of sales and enthusiasm and more in the way of unnecessary knockoff characters, they were able to just stop making them, as opposed to having to make the more strongly declarative move of cancelling an ongoing title.
After a series of more and more depressingly-bad stories featuring the character, Eddie Brock was parted from the Venom symbiote. Bunches and bunches of other characters have merged with this or another symbiote over the years, but none (besides Carnage) have had anything in the way of real staying power. That said, the concept of "superheroes fighting lots of symbiotes" hasn't completely faded from the consciousness of comic book writers, serving as a big part of a recent Avengers story. Venom currently has an ongoing series featuring Flash Thompson as the symbiote's host, wherein he works as a black ops agent for the US government; Carnage is the villain in an upcoming story that's recently been teased by Marvel.
Interestingly, Venom played a major part in Spider-Man 3, arguably one of the biggest bungled opportunities in the history of superhero films.
Ralph & Sue Dibny: Ghost Detectives
What it had going for it: Following on the heels of the Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis stories, the old Justice League International had built up a massive well of goodwill on the part of the fans. While Booster Gold certainly benefited, with a new ongoing series that lasted longer than the one which introduced him twenty years before, most of the real mushy feelings were reserved for the characters who had been (unceremoniously, fans thought) killed. Interest in characters like Ted Kord (Blue Beetle II) and the Dibnys skyrocketed, arguably being higher in death than the characters ever enjoyed during their lives.
The premise: Following her murder in Identity Crisis and his death at the end of 52, Sue Dibny and her husband the Enlongated Man would carry on solving mysteries together in the afterlife. This would take established characters with a dedicated fan base and place them in a non-traditional, non-superhero environment, allowing DC to expand the breadth of its line while still playing it safe. It would also give the characters--whose most recent claims to fame had been as supporting characters in Justice League and Starman stories--to have their own identities, independent of a larger DC franchise, for the first time in years.
Why it failed: It simply never happened. Fans ask about it at nearly every convention and Grant Morrison once said that they would appear (as ghost detectives) in his Final Crisis crossover, they never did and nobody seems to have had any serious interest in pursuing their story at the DC editorial level.
The fallout: While the panel at right comes from the last issue of DC's best-selling 52 event, the pair haven't been seen on-panel again since. Traci 13, a supporting character in Jaime Reyes' first (canceled) Blue Beetle series who has since been featured prominently in Flashpoint, apparently was taken in by the couple, back when they were alive and her mother had just died. This presumably leaves the door open for that character (who is supernatural in nature, but alive) to interact with the pair, but only if she (and that history) still exist in the world of the New 52.
Chris Claremont's return to the X-Men
What it had going for it: Arguably the most important creator to write the X-Men since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Chris Claremont was instrumental in creating characters and establishing mysteries, macro-stories and a status quo that still impacts the monthly X-Men titles to this day. The announcement that he was returning to the series just in time for the 1999 big-budget X-Men film put the comics industry on notice and garnered some mainstream media attention.
The premise: Chris Claremont, who had created some of the most beloved X-Men characters of the last thirty years, returned to the book after a long absence to wrap up dangling plot threads and create an entire race made up of original, new characters.
Why it failed: The books were terrible, and the new characters uninteresting.
Any fans who found their way to the X-titles because of Claremont's return were likely sorely disappointed by the poorly-reviewed and poorly-received story. Claremont left the books nine months later.
The fallout: Almost none of the characters and concepts he introduced during his brief return to the X-titles have had long-reaching impact or been used or cited by subsequent writers, although its failure arguably set the stage for Grant Morrison's New X-Men, a game-changer for the series and the only major work Morrison has done with Marvel in years. Claremont himself has returned to the characters more frequently in the last few years than he did in the decade previous.