3 embarrassing attempts at making DC heroes "modern"

One of the problems with long-running characters is that what was cool in the 1930s, like bathtub alcohol and Klan rallies, won’t always look so hot a few decades later. Now, you can’t always blame the original creators, because frankly, a lot of the changes in consumer tastes have been completely ridiculous (why did we think pouches and shoulder pads were so cool in the ’90s?), but it’s still rather jarring when a publisher decides to try and appeal to younger readers by putting a legacy character in a new, humiliating costume like some bizarre fetish.

Sure hope smartphones and hipster jackets are bulletproof.

Here, I’ll be talking about the times when the publishers went all in on fads, rather than writing stories that were actually relevant for a new generation, because that would require actual effort, and most of these were written by people who only see teenagers when they’re getting shot by police on the news.

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1. ’90s Batman

The ’90s were a dark time for superhero fans. The surprise hits of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in the late ’80s ushered in a new age of dark and gritty superhero stories. Unfortunately, DC decided that what the fans enjoyed wasn’t the social commentary and subversions of standard superhero archetypes, bur rather that they were super violent and needlessly dark and poorly proportioned.

This is what Frank Miller used to draw before he started yelling about Islam and millennials.

As part of their misdirected focus on showing readers that these were no longer their granddaddy’s comic books and whatnot, DC decided to overhaul their two most iconic characters, Superman and Batman. And by overhaul, we mean they killed one of them and wrapped the other around his own spine like a horrifying Stretch Armstrong.

I don’t know what’s more painful, the broken spine or the unsightly back/shoulder hair… It’s the broken spine.

With Bruce Wayne suddenly qualifying for those convenient parking spaces at the grocery store, a new Batman was needed. Luckily, Batman had a long-time partner who had grown up as his sidekick, and thus already knew all the intricacies of protecting Gotham City, someone who had spent the majority of his life as a crimefighter and had long since earned his place as successor. Unfortunately, they didn’t use him; they used some random jackass they had introduced a few months before.

So, Iron Man as designed by an 8-year-old Japanese boy?

The successor ended up being Jean-Paul Valley, a character who had been introduced as Azrael, a brainwashed vigilante under the control of a religious order. As it turns out, putting an unstable maniac in charge of protecting Gotham wasn’t the best idea. Valley decided to turn the Batsuit into what was basically a walking arsenal, like he’d mistaken an army depot for a tailor. While he arguably had some success as a crimefighter (most criminals will generally give up when confronted by a man whose pants are covered with missiles and spikes), Valley’s tenure as Batman was disastrous and ended up alienating Robin, Commissioner Gordon, and Catwoman, something the real Batman hadn’t managed to do in 50 years of emotionally abusive behavior.

In the end, Bruce Wayne had to retrain himself after his spine healed (yeah, turns out having a fractured spine is something you can just walk off in a few months) and forcibly take back the Batman identity from Valley, who promptly returned to looking like a rejected Spawn toy design.

Tremble at my ’90s Bullshit Design and faux-religious symbolism, villains!

2. Trenchcoat Dr. Fate

One of DC’s oldest characters is Doctor Fate, who dates back to before the Justice Society, of which he was one of the founding members. The character gains his power from the Helmet Of Fate, which hosts the consciousness of a magical being known as a Lord Of Order, imbuing the host with various magical abilities. Though, Justice Society being a comic book from the 1940s, Fate had to constantly forget the fact that he was one of the most powerful beings on the planet or else each comic would only be two pages long with all the non-powered team members looking like they were kept around as mascots.

“Sure, I got more magic powers than Jesus, but punching is just so much more satisfying.”

Part of Fate’s character was that, technically, it was the helmet that was Dr. Fate, and not whoever the host currently was. The original, an archaeologist named Kent Nelson who found the helmet in an Egyptian tomb (never mind that most Egyptian graves had been looted down to the wall paintings before Western society was a gleam in Rome’s eye), eventually succumbed to old age, which in comic books is as rare as getting crushed by a chunk of frozen airplane sewage. The helmet passed through several hands, before eventually making its way to a smuggler named Jared Stevens. Unfortunately, by this time it was 1994, and Stevens immediately succumbed to ’90s antihero AIDS.

“Eat Quiche” was a super popular phrase in the ’90s, if you were a DC writer and had to try to sound badass while still trying to market to 10 year olds.

When Stevens got hold of the helmet, a bunch of contrived plot nonsense turned it into a set of knives (because godlike magic powers weren’t edgy enough), as well as turning Fate’s cloak into a shiny bandage for his injured arm. Oh, and his amulet exploded and gave him a magic face scar (XXXTREME!!). He also added a trench coat to his outfit, because capes aren’t hip enough, I guess. This was a Fate for the ’90s, who had to keep it real. On the streets and whatnot. Notably, he also refused to go by “Doctor”, only calling himself Fate, because ’90s kids were too cool for school and also multi-syllable names.

Are those abs or utters? And how is his leg attached exactly?

Surprisingly, fans didn’t “bite”, and Stevens was eventually killed off by the supervillain sorceror Mordru. Today, his tenure as Fate is mostly treated as a mass hallucination, because if we ignore it enough, it’ll go away, like the Boogeyman or Donald Trump.

3. Ultimate Warrior Guy Gardner

Have any of you ever read those horrendous comic books published by former (also now dead) WWE wrestler Ultimate Warrior? You know, the ones that are basically a drive-by of steroid-laced insanity about forcing Santa to wear a BDSM suit and long, incoherent philosophy rants? Well, that’s basically what happened to Guy Gardner in the 1990s.

Why yes, those swords did pop right out of his forearms with a “SLURPK”. Why wouldn’t they?

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Guy Gardner started out as one of three Green Lanterns stationed on Earth, alongside Hal Jordan and John Stewart, but unlike those other two, Gardner’s career as a superhero was mostly spent jumping between identities like an indecisive college student. Aside from being a Green Lantern, he’s also been a Red Lantern, a Darkstar, and finally, “Warrior”. Yeah, that was seriously his name at the time. Gardner received shapeshifting powers from drinking something called Warrior Water (which really just sounds like a gross Ultimate Warrior license), which he used to shift his body into weapons. The only way to make it more ’90s would be if he shot out Ecto Cooler and awful comic book movies.

Ohoho, a violent Santa, how droll, this won’t ever become incredibly overused.

Part of Gardner’s background was rewritten so that he had DNA from an alien race named the Vuldarians in him, which is what caused the Warrior Water to give him his powers, because without that detail we might have called bullshit on his gun arms. Gardner’s stint as Warrior lasted until the alien DNA giving him his powers was overwritten during the Green Lantern: Rebirth storyline in 2005, restoring Gardner to a slightly less ridiculous power set when he was given a new Lantern ring. But at least we’ll always have the storyline where they turned him into a comically disproportional woman for some reason.

The villain’s entire evil plan is to force him to participate in a sexy lingerie fashion show and THAT IS NOT A JOKE THAT IS WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS IN THIS ISSUE.

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  • GreenLuthor

    I don’t think you can quite count Azrael Batman there, because he was intended to be terrible. With all the 90s excesses, there were calls for Batman to be “updated” and more violent and whatnot. So DC decided to give them what they wanted, to show why it wasn’t a good idea. (Hence why they used a new character; using Bruce or having Dick take over would’ve ruined them as characters, but who cares if you ruin a character you just introduced specifically for that story?)

    • Cristiona

      As Popehat says, even if you’re ironically fucking goats, you’re still a goatfucker.

    • Deneb T. Hall

      Also, whether or not you like AzBats, I think most people would have to agree that, at any rate, the Knightfall storyline that introduced him was epic, in my opinion one of the best Batman stories ever. It gave us Bane, showed the original Bats at both his weakest and his strongest as he had to reclaim his mantle in the face of heavy odds, spun off the excellent, long-running Robin series as Tim Drake had to learn how to be an effective solo crime fighter, and overall was immensely tense, gripping and well-written in ways that few such stories these days are. Even if the bit in the middle with the crazy armored Batman wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I’d say the beginning and the end were well worth it.

    • Adam Bujas

      Isn’t that the same reason that Superman came back to life with a mullet, a black costume, and brandishing guns?

  • Greenhornet

    Sure, BATMAN cures his broken spine and kicks ass like nothing happened; but Barbara Gordon has to suck it up, put on glasses and become what’s basically an office worker. And people sneer at Wonder Woman being the JLA’s secretary.
    Am I the only one who feels compelled to LAUGH at these “badass” heroes who are supposed to be so intimidating?

    • Thomas Stockel

      Excellent point regarding Batman’s curable disability and Batgirl’s.

      I was just thinking that Jean Paul’s introduction to the DCU mirrors Marvel’s Riri Williams in that instead of introducing somebody qualified to wear the Iron Man outfit (if I recall Pepper Potts was Emergency?) they give it to this neophyte introduced a few scant months before. I realize the reasons was a combination of attempting to draw in new readers as well as I am assuming perhaps pushing a social agenda, but it makes zero sense from a storytelling perspective. It doesn’t help that Riri is written as being pretty much perfect, yet another super genius child prodigy.

      • Greenhornet

        Strange but true. Long-time readers of a comic series will often be thrown a curve ball at some point.

        Take the Archie comics and the couple of issues where the gang have grown up. *VERONICA LODGE: history buff, athletic, knowledgeable in art, world traveler who speaks four or five languages and has been on a few archeological digs. What sort of career would she have?
        Archeologist? Museum director? Antique dealer?
        NOPE!
        Bitchy playgirl, same as before.

        Sometimes you have to wonder if the writers and editors even READ their own product.

        *That’s in canon, from several stories.