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What is Old is New: 5 Times Classic Character Revamps Ignored Status Quo

The term “status quo” simply means the existing state of affairs. For comic book readers, it is used often to mean “same old, same old.” You do not have to look too long to find fans vocally decrying status quo in comics. These fans express dismay at the fact that no matter what trials and tribulations the hero of a series goes through, things never really change for him or her.

As vociferous as these fans can be about their point of view, those fans who want the status quo of their heroes maintained can be just as loud. These fans will close their wallets and post nasty comments if a hero so much as changes clothes. For the most part, regarding the Big 2 shared universes in comics, the latter group usually gets their way. Even after a major continuity rewrite or a crossover event that shakes things up, the leading characters are still familiar and little-changed from their beginnings.

When it comes to licensed or public domain characters, however, fans can be more accepting of creative teams trying something new. On that note, here are 5 times comics threw status quo to the wind when interpreting classic characters.

1. DC’s FLASH GORDON

Alex Raymond’s space-faring hero first appeared in newspaper comic strips in 1934. Since then, Flash Gordon has appeared in nearly every entertainment media there is or was, and has influenced genre adventures as diverse as Superman and Star Wars. The character has passed through numerous comic book publishers over the decades, and you can still find Flash Gordon in the comic shops today.

As many different media and publishers that have handled the character, things rarely changed much. Sure Flash’s background as a polo player was sometimes swapped for that of a more popular sport, the love interest Dale Arden became a much stronger female lead at times, and the villainous Ming’s unfortunate yellow-face appearance was altered to reflect changing racial attitudes. Beyond that, Flash was still the twenty-something year old noble hero on the exotic planet of Mongo, fighting a tyrant with a loyal lady-love at his side and said tyrant’s daughter making eyes at him.

In 1988, DC Comics gave us a wildly different kind of Flash Gordon in a 9-issue mini-series by writer/artist Dan Jurgens with inks by Bruce Patterson. Far from being the all-American sports hero, this Flash Gordon is a former basketball player in his forties who has been chewed and spat out by the world of professional athletics. He is divorced, bitter, and not as noble as we usually know him. In fact, he is kind of a jerk. Dale Arden is a gutsy TV reporter who is in journalism for all the wrong reasons. No she does not fall for Flash at first sight. For most of the series, she cannot stand him. The planet Mongo is blighted by pollution and poverty in its urban areas.

If all that sounds too dire for the character, fret not. Jurgens’ Flash Gordon is still a tale of high adventure with exotic locales and flamboyant costumes. Among all of the dangers on Mongo, Flash has to overcome himself and find a purpose for his life on this alien world that he never found on Earth. This may not be the most famous interpretation of the character, but it is one of the most intriguing and should not be overlooked.

2. TARZAN THE WARRIOR

Just as influential on comic books as Flash Gordon, and probably going through as many comic book publishers, is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan. The jungle lord first appeared in novel form in  All-Story Magazine in 1912. He would go on to star in more than 20 novels and has appeared in numerous other media.

Tarzan comics are always easy to find in the back issue bins. Looking at those published up until the middle of the 1980s, you will likely find that they all seem pretty similar to each other, no matter what publisher they come from. Colorful and fun as these comics are, the creators never left a discernible mark on the character or his world and ultimately Tarzan’s comic book world was shades more tame than in Burroughs’ novels.

In 1992, Malibu Comics boldly brought Tarzan back to comics in a way no one expected. Written by Mark Wheatley, with art by Neil Vokes and Marc Hempel, the 5-issue mini-series Tarzan the Warrior featured alien spacecraft, shape-shifting soldiers, and parallel dimensions. Though Tarzan’s creator started out writing adventures set on an alien world, he kept his ape man’s exploits set on Earth and comic book interpretations followed this example.

Despite the non-traditional story elements, Warrior was truer to Tarzan’s roots in more ways the one. Eschewing the Comics Code Authority seal, the series was able to put its hero into the kinds of sanguine action that Burroughs freely wrote but was typically watered down in other Tarzan comics. Wheatley and company were clearly fans of the Burroughs’ novels as the continuity the author wrote is thoroughly mined for this series. Though later Tarzan comics were more open to doing stories that went beyond the confines set by comics before them, none have been so daring as Tarzan the Warrior.

3. Omaha Perez’s HOLMES

Sherlock Holmes is probably not a character that people think of appearing in comic books. First appearing in the novel A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation would star in 3 more novels and 56 short stories by the original author. Since then, numerous other writers have written new stories featuring the master detective, and the character has made his mark in other media. In comics, Sherlock has influenced various other detective characters including Dick Tracy and Batman. His comic book appearances have included adaptations of Doyle’s stories and original mysteries. Though comic creators were sometimes inclined to feature Sherlock in the sorts of tales Doyle never did, they typically stuck with the mold regarding the title hero himself. Sherlock Holmes is the brilliant detective capable of seeing the solutions to the mysteries that no one else can.

In 2008, writer/artist Omaha Perez tossed all of that into the dust bin. His audacious graphic novel Holmes, printed independently and later collected and published by AiT/Planet Lar, gives us a Sherlock Holmes that does not live up to the reputation his chronicler and friend Dr. Watson would have us believe. Watson is flat out lying (or fooling himself) when he praises his friend’s deductive abilities and skills at disguise. Holmes is, in fact, a drug-addled lunatic who sees his arch nemesis, Moriarty, practically everywhere. Obviously not for purist Sherlockians, Holmes is a hilarious take on the famous sleuth that makes great use of the character’s vices often glossed over or ignored by other versions.

4. THE BLACKEST TERROR

source: emecomics.com

source: emecomics.com

The Black Terror debuted in 1941 in Exciting Comics #9 published by Nedor Comics. Sometime along the way, the copyright for the character was allowed to expire, putting the Black Terror in the public domain and leading to more than a few versions of the hero existing at different publishers. Most of these Black Terrors have slightly changed the character’s look and back story, but otherwise they differed little from the original. Then the writer/artist team of Eric M. Esquivel and Ander Sarabia created their own version that is more than slightly different.

Published in a one-shot by Moonstone in 2011, The Blackest Terror is the first version of the character to be an African-American. He stands apart from the other public domain Terrors for more reasons than his skin color and the addition of “est” to his name. With The Blackest Terror, Esquivel brought the idea of the superhero back to its roots. The hero here is a rogue figure who has no faith in conventional law enforcement. Not only is he fighting for the people he feels the law is ignoring, he encourages them to fight for themselves. He is, unapologetically, a terrorist and a revolutionary.

The character appeared once more in Esquivel and Sarabia’s second one-shot with Moonstone, Thor: Unkillable Thunder Christ. There was talk for a time of a Blackest Terror ongoing series, but nothing yet has come of it. But, with ongoing racial injustices and more readers calling for better representation in media, the Blackest Terror and his message are even more relevant today.

5. TRANSFORMERS/G. I. JOE

source: tfwikia.net

source: tfwikia.net

Transformers and G. I. Joe started out as toys from Hasbro. Both franchises became big hits in comic books from Marvel in the 1980s, and in animated TV series during that era. In 1987, the two franchises collided for the first time in the Marvel mini-series G. I. Joe and the Transformers. The two Hasbro giants crossed paths again in G. I. Joe #139-142. Since the Marvel years, the two franchises have been through different versions in comics and animation with varying degrees of success and adulation from fans. Though some of these versions only dimly resembled the ’80s prototypes from which they sprang, the overall tone and feel of the stories was much the same as they ever were.

In 2004, Dreamwave Productions, already having produced more mature Transformers comics than had existed before, gave readers a Transformers/G. I. Joe crossover unlike any other. John Ney Rieber scripted this story of alternate history with art by Jae Lee and character designs by Don Figueroa. The year is 1939 and it would be the dawn of World War II. But, before a little man named Hitler can start making noise, another tyrant hits Europe with deadly weapons that make him and his army virtually unstoppable. The United States hastily assembles a team of soldiers for a suicide mission to stop Cobra. Figueroa was clearly inspired in redesigning the characters to fit the time period, giving the Transformers different alternate modes and actually figuring out their transformations without the benefit of toys to reference.

The core concepts of both franchises are basically intact: G. I. Joe is a team of the best soldiers assembled from the different armed forces to oppose the threat of Cobra, while the Transformers are two factions of giant robots from another world who awaken on Earth after millions of years to continue their ages-long war.  This crossover changes more than the time setting and character designs, however. This is a truly gritty war story with believable danger where characters suffer genuine loss. No one had better dare dismiss this as a toy commercial.

Status quo is something that will probably never disappear entirely from comic books. Fortunately, there will always be those creators whose love of  classic characters does not stop them from getting creative and doing something unexpected, whether this delights or dismays readers. It is important to note that any one incarnation of a character does not destroy nor invalidate other incarnations that come before or after it. The 5 examples here are not necessarily better or worse than other versions of the characters. They are simply different and can be enjoyed right alongside any earlier or later versions.

________

Jean-Pierre Vidrine hails from the small town of Ville Platte, Louisiana. He started collecting and learning about comic books at the age of 9. After receiving his Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Louisiana State University, he now lives in Chicago with his wife and cat.

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Categories: Comics, Lists and Editorials

Author:Jean-Pierre Vidrine

Jean-Pierre Vidrine is a Chicago transplant whose interests include comic books, nostalgia, tattoos, drag, just plain being allowed to be himself. He does his best to be a thoughtful writer.

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One Comment on “What is Old is New: 5 Times Classic Character Revamps Ignored Status Quo”

  1. 12/21/2014 at 12:57 AM #

    Wonderful stuff; I’m checking out most of these for sure (especially the Holmes one). Please tell me you’ve read the current Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe comic because it is awesome

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