Top Ten Flabbiest Superhero Franchises in Comics HistoryA column article, Top Ten by: Danny Djeljosevic
This week, Avenging Spider-Man #1 comes out from Marvel Comics. To be honest, I don't think the world needs another Spider-Man title. It seems fun, but superfluous. Then again, there are lots of popular superhero books that have had way too many cash-ins and spinoffs. So, in honor of Avenging Spider-Man, I've taken it upon myself to point out the excesses in comic books, most of which come from the 1990s. Because, in general, there were way too many comics in the 1990s.
As much as I like the Hulk, I'm hard-pressed to see the need for more than one Hulk series. Marvel currently threatens that stance with Jason Aaron's Bruce Banner-focused The Incredible Hulk and Hulk, Jeff Parker's take on the surprisingly compelling Red Hulk, but before that there were pretty much two books focused on the same big muscly green guy who punches things, and that's one too many.
Marvel occasionally flirts with expanding the Hulk franchise -- a short-lived Rampaging Hulk series in the '90s, the late 2000s Incredible Hulks/Hulk divide, a Skaar: Son of Hulk spin-off -- but it seems like too much for a simple clear-cut premise. I'm pretty sure you can say what you need to say about the Hulk in monthly, 22-page bursts, and it would be most wise to keep it that way.
9. Teen Titans
Similar to the Hulk, you pretty much only need one Teen Titans book. Scoop up all the young superheroes in the DC Universe, pick out the rotten ones, throw the remaining characters all in one book and you're done! Recipe for success, especially if it's got a few recognizable characters (say, Robin, Wonder Girl) as well as a few new characters (Cyborg, Starfire).
Every so often, however, you get an ill-advised spinoff of Teen Titans. As a response to Marvel's X-Force, 1992's Team Titans was born as a mission-based strike force (get used to that phrase) which had a "Days of Future Past" style "travel back to our time to save the future" goal and Terra at the forefront.
More recently, in 2008 we had Titans, which focused on ex-Teen Titans like Wally West, Nightwing, Beast Boy and Cyborg, who were all too old to be considered Teen Titans -- which is kind of sad, if you ask me. That's like if the boys ousted out of Menudo formed a group called Men.
Popularity often means wealth, and wealth means overindulgence. Just look at our rock stars, heiresses and genocidal dictators. It's also true of comic books. Take Todd McFarlane, founder of creator-owned pillar Image Comics, whose series Spawn was hot shit back in 1992. And with good reason: it's goth Spider-Man for '90s kids who weren't old enough to cut themselves to The Crow. Todd was onto something there.
Then, like many popular characters Spawn got overexposed. I'm not talking the toys, cartoon or movies. That shit's to be expected. I'm talking needless spinoffs: Curse of the Spawn, Spawn: The Dark Ages, Hellspawn, Spawn: Godslayer and Sam & Twitch. I'll allow Sam & Twitch because it's a cop drama set in the Spawn universe (and features some pre-fame Brian Michael Bendis scripting), but Spawn isn't exactly a character that warrants multiple. You may not know it looking at him, but he's not Batman.
7. The Punisher
These days, Marvel smartly publishes two very distinct Punisher titles (well, as distinct as a comic about a guy who shoots people can be). The Punisher is set in the Marvel universe and has a fairly broad appeal, while the adult-friendly Punisher MAX has all the gore and fucking. Back in the days of economic prosperity known as the 1990s -- by the way, how does one exactly go bankrupt during the Clinton Administration? -- Marvel published three Punisher ongoings.
After testing the waters with a miniseries, Frank Castle starred in his own ongoing Punisher series in 1987, which proved popular enough to warrant a second series a year later called Punisher War Journal. Then, in 1992, we got a third, Punisher War Zone which boasted John Romita Jr. art but was still one of three concurrent ongoing comic books about a guy who shoots every criminal in sight.
And let's not forget that there were also dozens of miniseries, one-shots and other errata publications that focused on Frank Castle's one-man war against crime. There's a one-shot where Frank goes to space. There's a 10-issue series where Frank just talks about his weaponry. There are a few "Back to School Specials." There are team-ups with Spider-Man, Batman and Archie. If you thought Marvel was trying to suck your bank account dry with Dark Reign tie-ins and Fear Itself miniseries, just try to imagine being a Punisher fan in the early '90s.
6. The Avengers
It's easy to come up with multiple iterations of generic superhero teams because you have a lot of guys to work with. Logically, the dynamic of Avengers would be distinct from that of the West Coast Avengers, and in the names alone you can tell what the point is -- the Avengers are the main team, and the West Coast Avengers are the guys with the building near the Pacific Ocean. Simple enough.
Lately, however, I'm having trouble discerning what the purpose of the various Avengers teams are. Sure, the Secret Avengers are the mission-based strike force version and the Avengers Academy are the teenage version, sure, but let's compare the summary blurbs of the two main Avengers comics.
Plus, both teams have Wolverine and Spider-Man in them. I don't really understand the distinction, unless "New" means "excuse for Brian Michael Bendis to put out two years of Avengers stories in the span of one."
5. Green Lantern
When I was 10 years old, there was only one Green Lantern title. In fact, there was only one Green Lantern -- Kyle Rayner, the hapless Gen Xer who happened to be puking in an alley when the last remaining Guardian of the Universe gave him the last remaining Green Lantern ring. I loved it, but I kind of wished there was still a Green Lantern Corps, because all those guys Hal Jordan murdered looked kind of cool.
I would later get my wish, but long after I stopped caring. Now, there are four Green Lantern titles -- Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Green Lantern: The New Guardians and Red Lanterns. Really, there should only be two of them. I'll let you guess which ones.
We should never be too harsh on Rob Liefeld. After all, he helped birth Deadpool, the court jester of Marvel Comics. Originally debuting in New Mutants (after Liefeld showed writer Fabian Nicieza a new character design that Nicieza immediately identified as a rip-off of Slade Wilson, a.k.a. Deathstroke the Terminator), Wade Wilson became a minor character in X-Force and then matriculated into his own miniseries followed by a pretty well-regarded ongoing.
In the late 2000s, however, what was once a character with cult popularity ascended to a state I like to call Austin Powers Syndrome (later Family Guy syndrome). First there was a regular Deadpool ongoing, then Deadpool: Merc With a Mouth, then Deadpool Corps and then Deadpool MAX, not to mention a handful of miniseries.
The idea of four Deadpool ongoings happening around pretty much the same time is hilarious to me -- as if it were some elaborate commentary on superhero overexposure -- but I highly doubt that Marvel (a company whose primary goal, like all companies, is making money) decided to spend money to pay creative teams and print comic books as a meta-joke. If they really wanted to do that, they'd have released four Deadpool titles at once with different covers but the same exact interior pages.
Submitted without comment, in alphabetical order:
- Batman & Robin
- Batman: Odyssey
- Batman: The Dark Knight
- Birds of Prey
- Detective Comics
- Penguin: Pain and Prejudice
2. Justice League
After some regrettable roster changes in the '80s (Justice League Detroit, or "The Vibe Years"), the Justice League of America got a much-needed revamp into Justice League International, where Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire turned the concept into a hybrid of superhero and sitcom -- basically, they turned a comic book that had become a joke into a comic book with jokes. The risk paid off, and resulted in a pretty good spinoff, Justice League Europe, with the same writing team and a different roster of characters, and Justice League Quarterly, which featured various characters from the franchise in short stories. The best part is that Justice League International became a hit despite the lack of heavy hitters in the book -- the lineup had Batman, sure, but otherwise the most famous characters on the team were Martian Manhunter, Captain Marvel and Guy Gardner.
Once the original creators left the franchise, however, Justice League got really shitty. Many of the following writers were unable to figure out how to make the lower-tier characters work and the franchise was diluted by even more spinoffs: in addition to International (renamed Justice League America) and Europe (confusingly renamed Justice League International), we soon had Justice League Task Force and Extreme Justice -- the latter being the one where some angry Justice Leaguers decide to form their own splinter team (confusingly, also called the Justice League) and the former being a mission-based strike force with variable members (and, for a long time, variable creative teams).
What I'm trying to say is that the '90s era established the Justice League as the #1 employer of superheroes in the DC Universe.
One of the great things about the X-Men franchise is its ability to sustain a whole lot of distinct titles -- which, I suppose is one of the benefits of having a superhero franchise where centered on an entire race of human beings. As a result, the '90s brought us the run of the mill X-Men (Uncanny and adjectiveless), the mission-based strike force X-Force, the government stooges of X-Factor and the teenaged students of Generation X. That trend has continued to this day, with an X-Force, an X-Factor and two young X-Men titles (Generation Hope and New Mutants), amongst myriad others.
It's with the X-Men-specific titles that the overexposure begins to happen. At this very moment, there are five non-Ultimate Marvel books bearing the name X-Men. First, we have the flagship books: Uncanny X-Men follows Cyclops' Utopia-based "extinction team" with Storm, Namor, Magneto, Colossus and other powerhouses while Wolverine and the X-Men follows Wolverine and the X-Men. The simply titled X-Men has the mutants taking part in Marvel Universe affairs, fighting vampires, teaming and quietly doing other things that don't bother other X-Books.
Then there are the leftovers: Astonishing X-Men, launched to give Joss Whedon's run the spotlight, then kept around by talent like Warren Ellis, Christos Gage, Daniel Way and Greg Pak because, hey, X-Men titles sell, and X-Men Legacy, which seems to collect characters like Rogue and Gambit that the writers of the main books don't care to use. There are lots of X-Books with distinct premises; I don't think we need three that deliver slight variations on the main titles.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery.