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Comic Theme Time – Making Comic Book Lemonade Out of Lemons

Comic Theme Time is a twist on the idea of a “Top Five” list. Instead of me stating a topic and then listing my top five choices in that topic, I’m giving you the topic and letting you go wild with examples that you think fit the theme.

I was thinking about this when I was writing my most recent TV Legends Revealed, about how the prop designer for the original Star Trek TV series re-used items he procured for one reason for a whole other reason. That got me thinking about how we see that happen in comics all the time. Writers come on to titles and don’t always know what to do with the cast given to him or her. A lot of the time, they’ll just get rid of the characters they’re not interested in (sometimes they just kill the previous cast). But sometimes they’ll try to get a handle on the cast that they’ve inherited and come up with an interesting new take on the cast, which quite often means re-purposing characters. For instance, I don’t think anyone expected what Grant Morrison would end up doing with the cast he inherited on Doom Patrol, but it ended up being quite good.

So today’s theme challenge is to come up with instances where an incoming writer surprised you with what they did with the cast members that they were more or less “stuck” with when they took on the title.

Some examples are Warren Ellis on Stormwatch and the aforementioned Grant Morrison on Doom Patrol.

46 Comments

First thing that pops into my head is Bendis taking over Avengers. The first storyline was him destroying the team that was in place.

The classic example is Peter David taking over Hulk. John Byrne had jumped ship after his brief run, having established a new (and arguably uninteresting) team of Hulkbusters, splitting the Hulk and Banner in two, and marrying Bruce and Betty. Al Milgrom came on as a replacement, re-merged the Hulk, still couldn’t figure out what to do with the Hulkbusters, and turned Rick Jones into the Hulk instead. (Milgrom’s run wasn’t bad, but a bit under par following Byrne.)

Peter David comes on after Milgrom’s year, cleans up the Rick Hulk situation, reintroduces and reinvents the Leader, re-establishes the grey Hulk as a crafty brute, turns two of the Hulkbusters into interesting Leader pawns (and dumps the other members), and rebuilds Bruce and Betty’s relationship.

I do wish PAD’s legendary Hulk run had a cleaner start. Rather than starting with a fresh first issue, he’s really resolving all the old plot threads that went back two years before. Anybody who wants to collect PAD’s Hulk run really needs to go back to the Byrne issues to get the full picture. However, his start really was a radical overhaul which led into the great “Ground Zero” story.

Does Geoff Johns and the Green Lanterns count? I for one didn’t care about any of the GLs until Rebirth. But I guess this was in instance in which he actively pursued the role instead of just inheriting the characters.

One of the first DC titles I bought regularly (outside of the Superman books) was the Zero Hour spinoff “Primal Force.” As writer Steven Seagle tells it, he’d originally wanted to do a series with a handful of particular characters, but he kept getting told that they were already taken and off-limits to him.

So his response was utilize characters he was certain NOBODY had plans for. Thus the team included Jack O’Lantern, Claw the Unconquered, Doctor Mist, and the Golem from “Ragman.”

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing.

bluedevil2002

May 21, 2013 at 9:56 am

I guess the whole Hobgoblin mystery would count, especially after the clues from several writers still all led to a clean resolution years later.

Walt Simonson’s FF was pretty great considering he was stuck with She-Thing and a human Ben Grimm for most of it.

Not quite the same thing, but the Giffen/Dematteis JLI came out of them not being able to use most of the big gun heroes.

Andrew Collins

May 21, 2013 at 10:49 am

Someone mentioned Peter David’s Hulk and I think PAD is the perpetual example of making lemonade out of lemons. So many of his big writing assignments, including X-Factor, Supergirl, Hulk, and Young Justice were victims of near constant editorial mandates where he was having to write in and/or write out characters based on their usages somewhere else in their respective shared universes. Or sometimes change/drop complete storylines. And he always made the changes seem organic to the story, which is a true talent in and of itself…

– Considering what Zero Hour had done to the JSA, the Robinson/Goyer/Johns revival series did a lot of good work updating the concept and finding good ways to revive lost characters for quite some time.*

— A long-forgotten example, but Roger Stern’s (and later Tom Peyer’s) Power of the Atom series basically rebuilt Ray Palmer as a superhero after the experimental “barbarian hero” had required the jettisoning of his entire supporting cast and status quo. Plus, Stern made story material out of Ray going public and leaving the world behind.

— Paul Jenkins taking over from Howard Mackie on Peter Parker: Spider-Man and using single-yet-not-single Peter Parker in some fun introspective character studies undergirded with melancholy. He also managed to do something with the revived Norman Osborn other than make him an omniscient, sadistic schemer; I think Jenkins’s Osborn really informs what Ellis and Bendis did with him later. And he turned the Sandman’s awkward re-villainization into a more tragic sort of story.

— Grant Morrison’s JLA, picking up from the disastrous Gerard Jones era, basically made the whole concept work again.**

— Dan Slott’s Mighty Avengers played very well off of a new status quo that had simply gutted the initial premise of the book, making this Avengers team play against Dark Reign in some clever ways.

— Seeing as it was recently featured, how about Titans/JLA: The Technis Imperative as a way of bringing the characters and franchise back from both the “Team Titans/Lord Chaos” mess and the failed experiment of the Dan Jurgens All-New All-Different era?

— Jonathan Hickman coming onto the Fantastic Four and using Millar’s leftover stuff about Superintelligent Valeria and Nu-Earth as a way to expand the “freaky unknown science” parameters of his own work. He did an especially good job showing why the mind of Reed Richards paired with the egocentrism of a toddler would not be an unambiguously *good* thing. He also took Doctor Doom’s recent debilitation from “Fall of the Hulks” and using to to do some character-based work with him.

– Paul Dini did a lot of work reinventing Hush so that he actually worked as a recurring villain after Loeb had used him as a plot device while A.J. Lieberman simply misused the villain. The Riddler as a consulting detective stands out to me as well, since it reset the character with a good status quo after Loeb having him learn the ID followed by the bizarre reinvention of the character as a straightforward, rather indistinguished mastermind type in a godawful Legends of the Dark Knight story and an even less-comprehensible arc of Judd Winick’s Green Arrow.

* Most fans will argue, somewhat convincingly, that the Namorization of Black Adam in JSA was also a case of lemons-to-lemonade; my own take on the matter is that it was good for Black Adam as a main character, but bad for the heroic Shazam! characters, who have suffered through endless efforts to either grittify them so they can fit with the Black Marvel Family or have simply been marginalized s that the new and improved Black Adam can be the star.

** I take a “rule” from Morrison’s run: you can play a Giffen-DeMatteis League of mostly B-listers and below for fun, or the Big Seven for epic drama, but in-between approaches tend to give you either the Gerard Jones League or the Detroit League.

— Jonathan Hickman coming onto the Fantastic Four and using Millar’s leftover stuff about Superintelligent Valeria and Nu-Earth as a way to expand the “freaky unknown science” parameters of his own work. He did an especially good job showing why the mind of Reed Richards paired with the egocentrism of a toddler would not be an unambiguously *good* thing. He also took Doctor Doom’s recent debilitation from “Fall of the Hulks” and using to to do some character-based work with him

It’s funny, when I was reading through Hickman’s FF books and writing them up on my blog (http://theidiolect.com/category/comics/ff-friday-comics/ ), I was fascinated with most of it, but whenever he’d go back to the NuEarth stuff I kept thinking, I have no idea why we’re bothering with this or what it has to do with anything. And in the end, indeed it seemed to have not much to do with any of the rest of the story that Hickman was telling. His use of Valeria was pretty great, though.

Derek Handley

May 21, 2013 at 11:31 am

If I understand correctly, it should be examples where a) the writer didn’t just get rid of all the members he or she didn’t like from the previous writer’s run or reboot in some other way or b) couldn’t get the characters he or she wanted and couldn’t just bring them back from the dead or reboot immediately.

I can’t think of as many examples as I thought I would. I may not have liked the cast that Scott Lobdell inherited when he took over the X-Men books after Chris Claremont left, but Jim Lee clearly did and who’s to say that Scott Lobdell didn’t like them? After all, Gambit, Bishop and 90s Psylocke were popular choices.

Peter David on Incredible Hulk (not simply removing all the elements but using them in a variety of interesting ways for a year or so), Grant Morrison on New X-Men (not getting Colossus or Moira McTaggart but finding ways to make it work), and Giffen/DeMatteis on Justice League (International) (not getting any of the big characters but turning out a brilliant and fondly remembered work) are the three that immediately spring to mind. That said, I don’t know if Peter David ever actually came out and said he didn’t like the Hulkbusters concept. Maybe he did!

Everyone forget Justice League Task Force? It was a great rotating cast title, but then Priest got stuck with using a regular team when he got the series. He told me in an e-mail he was particularly “stuck” with Despero.

What about PAD taking his ideas for Supergirl and turning them into Fallen Angel when DC went a different direction with the character?

Just off the top of my head, I thought what Bill Messner-Loebs did with Mike Baron’s characters in ‘the Flash’ was pretty interesting.

Seems like Morrison working with Superman Blue and making a legendary moment out of it (fighting the angel and pushing around the moon) is a pretty good example for this category.

Heck, I’d say anyone who’s managed to tell good stories in the New 52 qualifies, although we can reasonably disagree on which series are the good ones (just that they’re few and far between).

I would say Chris Claremont with Wolverine is the best example. When Claremont took over X-Men, Wolverine had appeared in all of about 4 total comics, and absolutely nothing had been established about him beyond that he was Canadian and had claws & a temper. Over the course of ten years, Claremont (with the help of Byrne, Cockrum, Miller, Smith, and Windsor-Smith) slowly developed him into one of the most compelling and popular characters in all of comics.

And to a lesser extent, you could say the same about Storm.

Peter David’s first run on X-Factor is kind of a textbook case of this. Marvel literally handed him the mutants nobody else was using, and he made them into a team that actually worked, and made the book a bizarre, captivating series.

Alan Moore and Alan Davis’s work on Captain Britain comes to mind. They took a relatively vanilla and ill-defined knock-off and turned him into a kind of Green Lantern Corps-type guy, introduced a multiverse for Marvel to play with, and created a cast of characters that ended up playing big roles in Excalibur and the X-books.

Jeff Parker’s Thunderbolts and Dark Avengers work also comes to mind. All the big writers took away the cool characters and left him with supervillain dregs that he has done wonders with. Those are some of the most enjoyable Marvel comics of recent years, IMHO.

I’d also throw Marvelman/Miracleman into the mix. Moore took a pretty blantant Captain Marvel rip-off and did all kinds of interesting things with him without totally ignoring the source material.

Speaking of Marvelman, I have to say that Marvel incorporating a blatant Captain Marvel ripoff into its universe, right after DC’s foolish decision to give up the name of the original Captain Marvel name and just let Marvel have it outright, just feels like adding insult to injury. I love the Moore/Gaiman series, but that’s all the Marvelman Family ever had going for it.

I guess I’ll never understand how or why the Detroit League is less well-regarded than the IMO vastly inferior Giffen-and-Maguire JL that followed it…

in any case, the Detroit League was nothing if not a bold exercise. It took chances.

What, the topic? Uh, yeah, I vote for PAD’s X-Factor. The guy is almost alone in his ability to deal with the interference from other writers and editors all the while still giving engaging tales.

Travis Stephens

May 21, 2013 at 7:38 pm

Didn’t Todd McFarlane do most of what was credited to PAD? I think PAD’s biggest contribution was Marlo and Mr. Fixit.

Les Fontenelle

May 21, 2013 at 8:38 pm

It may have been already mentioned, but I’m reminded of Alan Moore’s superior use of Supreme and the other Liefeld copycat heroes.

He never was taking over from a previous writer, but Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe is filled with this kind of thing. He was stuck using all kinds of characters that he didn’t necessarily want to use. And for the most part he was able to still come up with good stories using them.

Sometimes, not so much, like the Eco-Warriors. Luckily he was able to keep Cobra-La our of the series.

Les Fontenell- I was thinking of the same thing. You’d probably have to create a whole new category for Alan Moore, really.

Personally I found John Byrne’s Hulk run to be exceptionally written and drawn. As a big Doc Samson fan it was great to see his open up a can of whup-ass on the Hulk. Prior to that I also found Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema’s Crossroads run to be excellent as well.

I love Peter David – particularly his Captain Marvel and Star Trek: Excalibur work compelling BUT I never cared for his Hulk at all. It just didn’t seem to be the Hulk to me. I didn’t like his Aquaman run either which was a pastiche of Tarzan and Wolverine.

Alan Moore’s Youngblood.

Chris McFeely

May 22, 2013 at 3:22 am

They may not quite be lemonade-from-lemons, but the way that Christos Gage could always, ALWAYS make a crossover event work for him on Avengers: The Intiative and Avengers Academy, folding the events into his ongoing story, using them to their fullest for the development and furtheration of his characters, and in the best cases, making it feel like they were always intended to happen from the outset was a source of consistent amazement to me.

Similarly, the way Keiron Gillen did the same with Journey Into Mystery – a book that’s destined to appear on many “Best of the 2010s” lists years from now, yet which more than a full half of is part of a crossover with some event or another. In many ways it goes even further than Gage’s work by actively bending the crossover to its will.

Chris McFeely

May 22, 2013 at 4:47 am

(Compare with Bendis, whose approach to crossover tie-ins disintegrated into “do a series of one-shot fill-in issues that have no importance or continuing or interlinking story to pad for time until the crossover is over.”)

Morrison’s Animal Man was not mentioned yet? Taking a C-lister hero and twisting out a great comic out of that while incorporating what little background he had and throwing in also a crossover event or two in the book without seriously missing a beat (in a similar way, wasn’t Crazy Jane’s superhero origin also connected to a crossover event?)
Now I am quite curious about his early work Zoids, which was apparently a toy line tie-in…

Another shout for Moore’s Swamp Thing and Captain Britain (and in a way also to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, though he probably wanted to use those characters…)
And PAD’s Hulk.

Sam Robards, Comic Fan

May 22, 2013 at 10:18 am

I’d agree with those that mentioned Peter David’s Hulk.

Another one I think bears mentioning is Kieron Gillen on Uncanny X-Men. When he first got the book, it seemed like he was having to clean up after Matt Fraction and Joss Whedon (not to mention having to tie in to Fear Itself) and couldn’t really go where he wanted to go with it until the debut of the Extinction Team in his Uncanny X-Men #1. It was so frikkin’ great when he got there, though.

Sam Robards, Comic Fan

May 22, 2013 at 10:25 am

I think Jeff Parker taking over Hulk after Jeph Loeb also qualifies.

Loeb left a few things on the table that Parker used to go in interesting new directions. Let’s face it, when Loeb had Red Hulk punch Uatu in the face, we had no idea that Parker would spin that off into the great story that the Omegex was.

Mike Loughlin

May 22, 2013 at 11:02 am

I’ll add:

– Greg Pak taking over Hulk after the title was in freefall for a few years (Bruce Jones’ run started great and ended poorly, Peter David’s comeback was okay but not memorable, and the issues following his brief return were bad). All of a sudden, we had the modern classic “Planet Hulk.” I liked the rest of his run as well, particularly Incredible Hulks 601-611.

(And I’ll second Sam Robards’s assessment of Jeff Parker making Red Hulk a good read after Loebs’s run.)

– Alan Davis taking back Excalibur after a lot of crappy issues. He even incorporated the “Possessed” special while taking it apart.

– After 17 issues of bland art and boring stories, Bill Sienkiewicz transformed New Mutants into a visual tour de force and made the comic vital.

– Jack Kirby on Jimmy Olsen. Wait, I wrote that wrong: JACK KIRBY ON JIMMY OLSEN!!!!!

– The previous run wasn’t terrible, but I think Mark Waid & Mike Weiringo on Fantastic Four represents a major upgrade.

– Shockingly, I’ll add Mark Millar & JR Jr. on Wolverine. I wasn’t a fan of Rucka’s run, but thought “Enemy of the State” was good shlock.

– Wildcats had a few; Claremont & Lee was better than Choi & Lee, Robinson & Charest topped them, and Alan Moore & Charest et al was vol. 1’s best creative team. With vol. 2, Joe Casey & Sean Phillips made me forget the frustrating, aimless (but mostly pretty) Lobdell & Charest issues without sacrificing any of the cast.

Do a lot of these count? I don’t think Brian’s criteria is simply “the new writer is better than the last one,” but that the new writer took what the old one did and made something better out of it. To that extent, I’m not sure that Parker’s Hulk counts, since Loeb’s “Hulk” really didn’t have a cast so much as a number of characters who popped up through the story. (I.e., was She-Hulk a cast member? She really just appeared in the first 9 issues, #600, and then the last. Was Rick Jones? Again, he was only in the first 6 issues, #600, #13, and the last.) Parker really added a wholesale new and stable cast when he took over: the robots and Machine Man had never appeared before his takeover.

I would say Jeff Parker following Loeb on Hulk counts. Yes, you can argue the only cast member he got was Red Hulk, but Red Hulk was such a terrible and universally loathed character salvaging him was a bit of a miracle.

I think you could make an argument that Sandman counts. As I understand it, it was supposed to be a “horror” book, which is pretty heavily on display in the first (and, to some extent, second) story arc before Gaiman really found his “voice” in making it a unique fantasy series. Wasn’t the different vision for the character/tone the reason Sam Keith left the book?

Didn’t Todd McFarlane do most of what was credited to PAD? I think PAD’s biggest contribution was Marlo and Mr. Fixit.

I…what? Are you arguing that McFarlane plotted and scripted the PAD issues? Seriously? Because, citation needed.

PAD always made lemonade out of forced crossovers. Especially in Supergirl and Aquaman. Genesis is a good example, the Aquaman issue is a very bright spot in a dismal mess.

Travis Stephens

May 23, 2013 at 6:48 am

Omar

I think McFarland came up with Rock & Redeemer as well as the re-invented Leader. Plus he did claim to be behindsome of the concepts that PD developed.

Travis Stephens

May 23, 2013 at 6:54 am

Did anyone mention Levitz/Giffen on LSH. Legion was absolute dreck for years. Toon! Great Darkness Saga!

* Joe Casey on Wildcats 3.0. Never had any use for the book before his run.

* PAD on X-Factor. He added layers to a bunch of characters that were just supporting cast before. He gave Maddox and Quicksilver depth they never had before. He turned Layla Miller from a plot device into a fully fleshed out character.

* Morrison on Animal Man

* 12 year old me says Leifeld on New Mutants/X-Force. Adult me wants to beat up 12 year old me.

How about John Ostrander creating Oracle?

@Travis: LSH was at least passable for years. Then came Levitz’ golden age and his Magnus Opus, the GDS.

Then it became dreck, albeit slowly. Everything from the Magic Wars up until the coming of SW6 Batch (at least) was rather painful, in many senses.

It is hard for me to think of examples where the incoming creative teams did not just throw everything out (therefore not using the lemons).

PAD’s Hulk is a good one for sure. Mark Wade on Daredevil could be another.

Dezago on Sensational Spider-Man maybe? JMS on Amazing Spider-Man?

@Luis: I liked the Five Years Later series, but thought it started to go down hill around the SW6 time. I would have included the post Zero Hour Legion, except they tossed the lemons and got some oranges.

How about the revitalising of the New Universe when 3 out of the 4 (surviving) series got new writers who brought new life to struggling series.
Top of the list – John Byrne on Starbrand (goodbye Pittsburgh)

Runner-up – Peter David on Justice

Honorary mention – Fabian Niceza on Psi-Force (good but not as impressive as the other two)
—————————————-
Another run which was good and surprising was Eliot R Brown and Bob Sharp on Nick Fury, agent of SHIELD – unfortunately this time Marvel wasn’t looking for good and surprising so kicked them off after only 2 issues.
———————–
not certain if it quite fits but (obviously) DeMatteis and Giffen did good work with the characters they were allowed to use in the Justice Legue

..and straying further…I feel I should mention that Chris Claremont had been required to turn Xaviers’ back into a functioning school (15 or so years after it had blast been one)..which could have been awful.. but, instead, his handling of Kitty Pryde (added for this purpose) proved a major asset to the series

Ellis. Excalibur. Undoing yet another Lobdell mess…

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