“The best stories are always populated by the worst characters.” So says the Eat Your Comics intern as an explanation as to why he's always so horrible to everyone. He says he's simply making the story of our lives better. When we tell him the bad guys usually get their comeuppance in the end, he says he's hoping to be written into one of those dystopian novels where nothing ends quite right and the bad guy turns out to be the hero. We remind him this is real life, and that usually gets him to shut up.
I heard it said recently that you can't tell whether or not you truly love a thing until you see it at it's worst and don't change how you feel. I was curious if this applied to comic books as well. Basically, what are some of the worst stories for some of the best characters, and will I remain a fan by the end?
I don't know if that truism is true or if it's just an -ism, but we can certainly check out some horrible stories with some beloved characters. First up is a miniseries within one of the best reworked origins since Batman Beyond. Marvel's Ultimate Universe told stories that were outside of the main continuity and had consequences. Supposedly, if you died in the Ultimate Universe, you stayed dead. (That didn't always pan out to be true, but it was true more often than in Marvel-616.) It was a smash success. After we look at where it turned like bad milk, we'll check out some of the best bad stories from Spider-Man and Batman, two of the most famous orphans in history.
Ultimatum—The ultimate universe was meant to be more realistic. It was meant to be set in a world very much like ours, one that even included some of the same public figures. This is why Ultimatum gets to be very disturbing. Not only did it kill off a large swath of heroes, and civilians by the millions, through a terrorist attack perpetrated by Magneto, it also features such details as the Blob eating the Wasp alive and Hank Pym getting revenge by doing the same to him as Giant Man. Written by Jeph Loeb, a man responsible for some of the best miniseries in the past twenty years—Batman: The Long Halloween, Spider-Man: Blue—this story was written while Loeb was still grieving the loss of his son, which helps explain some of the darker elements. Even Mark Millar fans think it goes too far.
One More Day—Ask any Spider-Man fan who's been following the wallcrawler for longer than a minute or two, and this is the story they cannot talk about without cringing. Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson-Parker have been married for a good number of years by this point, but the editorial board at Marvel didn't like it. They wanted to go back to the single, down-on-his-luck Spider-Man that is, admittedly, how most people best remember him. However, they didn't want him to get a divorce like a normal person, so instead the story that comes of this is Aunt May on her deathbed, again, but this time for real. No really. She was shot by a bullet meant for Peter, who's secret identity was public knowledge since Civil War, and the only way Peter could think to save her was to make a deal with (Marvel's version of) the devil, Mephisto. He save Aunt May and allows Peter's identity to go
Sins Past—Despite OMD being so reviled, the characters themselves are still arguably acting true to form. The same is not true of Sins Past. As the story goes, J. Michael Straczynski penned thought up a story centered around Peter finding out that Gwen secretly gave birth to twins, a boy and girl, who, because their father was genetically enhanced, aged more rapidly, allowing them to be full-grown adults with super powers confronting Spider-Man/Peter. Originally, Straczynski wanted Peter to be the father, but editorial didn't want to go with it, so he switched to Norman Osborn as his fallback. The Green Goblin should never be a fallback for anything. What makes this especially horrific is not that Gwen Stacy, one of the most beloved comic book characters of all time, was impregnated by Norman Osborn, but that she was a willing participant. Not only is it out of character for her, but somehow Osborn doesn't make sense, either, and he's insane.
The Clone Saga—The '90s were a hard time for comic book fans. Not only was there a glut of special covers and limited edition prints designed specifically to sell to collectors, an effort that only succeeding in flooding the market with books nobody wanted, but storylines ran on forever and a day. The Clone Wars is the prime example of that. Cutting between five different ongoing Spider-Man titles from October 1994 through December 1996, the story itself wasn't too ridiculous, except where it was drawn out simply for the sake of lasting longer. At a certain point, “building tension” turns into “stalling.” The premise was to continue the story set in motion twenty years early with the death of Gwen Stacy and the cloning of Stacy and Peter Parker by their former biology teach, Miles Warren, a.k.a. The Jackal. While the original saga made it seem as if the clone and the Jackal had been killed, we find out through years of comics that he's actually living under the name Ben Reilly (a portmanteau of Ben Parker and May Parker née Reilly).
No Man's Land—This is DC's version of the Clone Saga, though this event only last a calendar year. Even so, it took over every single Batman title from January through December of 1999. However, the lead-up to this began the previous March. Gotham is hit by a magnitude 7.6 earthquake and the U.S. government decides the best course of action is to simply abandon the city as a no man's land. Not only that, but they destroy all access points into and out of the city and let the citizens fend for themselves; they literally cut off Gotham from the rest of the United States. It's basically New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but with supervillains and superheroes and national leaders who are actively working against rescue and reclamation rather than simply being incompetent.
All Star Batman & Robin—It's not always hack writers that tell bad stories. Frank Miller's most famous for writing two characters, Daredevil and Batman. His The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and Batman: Year One are considered classics, even if they weren't always very good. All Star Batman & Robin was the origin of the Dark Knight and Boy Wonder relationship that ultimate leads to TDKR, but this Batman is quite possibly psychotic. Even Jim Lee's art couldn't save this catastrophe. (At one point, Batman antagonistically confronts Green Lantern by meeting him in a bar where everything is painted yellow, including Batman, Robin, and their respective costumes. This miniseries was originally slated for sixteen issues, but only ten were released.
Batman: Odyssey—Neal Adams is considered one of the best Batman scribes of all time, but if this is the only book by him you read, you'd question quite a lot of things about it. The story is quite convoluted, but it includes dinosaurs and pre-historic man living in an unground world that conforms to the hollow earth theory, Ra's al Ghul's previously unknown son attempting to kill Batman, and a lot of jumping back and forth in time due to a confusing story-telling convention. It's the silliness of the Golden Age of comics but the seriousness of the '80s, despite being published in 2013. If this doesn't ruin your interest in Batman, it will certainly ruin your interest in Neal Adams.
Bonus Trivia: In one of the most meta moments in comic books, there is a discussion in Ultimates 1 about who would play each of the characters in the movie based on their adventures. Direct of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, flat out states that the only actor who could play him would be Samuel L. Jackson. This might be a simple nod to the realism Marvel was going for with this universe, except this version of Nick Fury was based on Sammy L. himself. The 616 version of Fury is white. (Except when now he isn't, but that's a whole ‘nother mess.)