As of this writing, half of the internet is yelling at the other half of the internet over the controversial ending of "Man of Steel." It’s far from the first time a controversial plot decision has provoked a lot of heated arguments in comic book stores. Here are ten of the biggest and most divisive events in mainstream comic-book history, not counting the time the Punisher went to Archie’s prom and somehow didn’t kill everybody.
SUPERMAN KILLS GENERAL ZOD (1988)
This panel from Superman #22 “The Price” has been making the rounds lately for pretty obvious reasons: Superman kills General Zod in apparently cold blood, establishing a precedent for many who would like to argue that Superman killing people (or at least killing Zod) wasn’t technically out of character.
Most people are unaware of the context of this decision, however. Superman had been transported to one of those pesky parallel universes only to find an Earth devoid of life except for Zod and his lackeys, who are pretty smug about having committed genocide, and even though Superman’s decision is arguably just, for a year afterwards his comics were all about Superman being so eaten up with guilt and shame that he goes half-crazy and exiles himself from the planet.
This was also the last issue of renowned artist and writer John Byrne’s run on the series, and it served as a sort of creative mic drop that few other comic writers have managed to equal.
MARVEL MANGAVERSE (2000-2002)
“Manga” is a uniquely Japanese interpretation of American sequential art that was first born during the postwar occupation of the Japanese homeland by American troops—Japanese comic books that owed their heritage to Siegel and Schuster as much as they did to Meiji-period graphic design.
The “Marvel Mangaverse” is a uniquely American attempt to glom onto the extremely lucrative manga market of the late nineties and early oughts by reinventing the Marvel universe in pseudo-Japanese fashion.
The Mangaverse aped the most clichéd aspects of manga art (huge eyes, tiny noses, and sexy schoolgirls) and instead of adopting the real creative innovations that manga writing could bring to American comics, Marvel chose to relaunch its flagship characters as borderline racist Japanese stereotypes.
Iron Man was a foxy young girl commanding a kaiju robot, Wolverine was Cyclops’ brother and wielded inexplicable energy claws, and the Punisher was a sexy lady school principal who punished villains with erotic bondage.
After a second year plotline that many characterized as a ripoff of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Mangaverse was mercifully allowed to die.
HAL JORDAN, SUPERVILLAIN (1994)
In 1994, DC Comics decided that all-American straight-arrow 1950s test pilot Hal Jordan wasn’t really resonating with the hip youngsters of the Nineties, so the decision was made to kill off the character that many regarded as the definitive Green Lantern.
While the death of Hal Jordan would’ve been enough to stir up fans and boost sales, for some reason DC decided that the best way to get rid of Hal was to turn him into a deranged psychopath.
After his home town of Coast City was obliterated by one of the DC universe’s many evil alien warlords, Jordan went nuts in bizarre and spectacular fashion, murdering dozens of fellow Green Lanterns and all but one of the Guardians of Oa as part of a convoluted plot to alter time and prevent Coast City from being destroyed.
Given that previously the worst thing Hal Jordan had ever done was “not care about black people” (a major Denny O’Neil plot point), his sudden transition to cosmic mass murderer was not received well by Green Lantern fans.
After a final heroic act where he sacrificed himself to reignite the Sun, Hal spent ten years as a particularly obnoxious spirit of murderous revenge before Geoff Johns’ 2004 Green Lantern: Rebirth where his time as a supervillain was explained away as a parasitic infection by a yellow cosmic entity that embodied fear, which also handily explained the old Green Lantern vulnerability against yellow things.
Hal enjoyed another eight years as the prime Green Lantern before DC’s “New 52” relaunch event somehow made everything even more complicated.
THE DEATH OF MAGNETO (2004)
Like many comic-book characters, Max “Erik ‘Magneto’ Lehnsherr” Eisenstadt has apparently died off-camera a number of times, only to reappear with a more-or-less convincing story of how he escaped death.
For example, at the beginning of Grant Morrison’s acclaimed “New X-Men,” it very much looks like a gigantic flying robot fist punches Mag’s ticket during a genocidal Sentinel assault on the mutant sanctuary of Genosha, but at the end it’s revealed that the Master of Magnetism had been hiding in plain sight all along as “Xorn,” a Chinese mutant that the X-Men had welcomed into their ranks as a healer and teacher.
Long story short, Magneto cripples the X-Men, conquers Manhattan, and kills Jean Grey for the nth time before Wolverine chops his head the hell off in a way that absolutely could not be retconned or explained away… or so we thought.
Shortly after Morrison finished his run, Marvel execs had veteran X-Men writer Chris Claremont write a story where Magneto essentially just popped up out of nowhere to say “hey guys, that dude who said he was me and looked exactly like me and had incredible magnetic powers was actually just some weirdo, I am totes still alive.”
In interviews, Grant Morrison had made it clear that Magneto’s death was meant to be a symbolic rejection of the old X-Men vs. Magneto dynamic and the beginning of new creative possibilities; the reversal of Morrison’s climactic achievement was so insulting that he never worked for Marvel again.
SPIDER-MAN’S SECOND CLONE SAGA (1994-96)
DC saw great sales from major “event” issues like 1992’s “Death of Superman” and 1994’s “Knightfall” (both of which were fairly controversial in their own rights), but Marvel’s writing staff was having trouble thinking of a plot element as dramatic as Bane breaking Batman’s back or Superman getting killed by a spiky grey guy in short pant.
That is until writer Terry Kavanagh brought up the idea of a follow up to 1973’s Clone Saga with a remarkable twist: a lost “clone” of Spider-Man that would be revealed to be the “real” Peter Parker.
This new Spider-Man, Ben Reilly, would allow the writers and editors to simplify and reboot the series with new villains and supporting characters, but fans bitterly resisted the change and the new characters were largely condemned as stale retreads of the original Spider-Man pantheon.
Despite this, the series was such a success that the story arc (which was originally intended to last only a few months) was extended to a full two year span packed with questionable ideas: new clones of old characters popping up out of nowhere to do nothing, the death of Aunt May, the resurrection of Norman Osborn, the revelation that the dead Aunt May was actually a doppleganger hired by Norman Osborn, and the rigging of the real Aunt May with world-shattering bombs by Norman Osborn, who was apparently making up for lost time from when everybody thought he was dead.
After a number of resignations, firings, and a near-mutiny by the Marvel writing staff, Ben Reilly was killed off and the Spider-Man universe returned to as close to normal as it ever was.
THE VOTED-IN DEATH OF ROBIN (1988)
After Dick Grayson left Batman to lead the new Teen Titans, he was replaced by Jason Todd, who by odd coincidence was also the orphan son of murdered acrobats, and apart from that detail was generally accepted by the fans.
That changed after DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, a company-wide reboot that dramatically changed Todd’s origins: the post-Crisis Robin was the orphan of a drug addict and a hired gun, and was taken in by Batman after attempting to steal the tires off the Batmobile.
He was also, in the opinion of many fans, an obnoxious little douchebag, so when editor Denny O’Neill came up with the clever-albeit-ethically-questionable scheme of setting up a .50-cent 900 line for fans to vote on story decisions, DC decided to entrust Todd’s life to the voting public in a storyline where Robin is brutally beaten by the Joker and left to die in a flaming warehouse.
Dead Robin beat out Alive Robin by just over seventy votes, and the death of Jason Todd became a crucial piece of the Batman mythos… until 2005’s Hush storyline, where it is revealed that he somehow survived and became the lethal vigilante Red Hood.
Fans of Robin being an annoying little prick who dies a horrific death can take solace in the recent events of Batman, Inc., where Damian Wayne (long story, don’t ask) is impaled by his artificially aged clone (long story, don’t ask) during a battle against his mother Talia al-Ghul (seriously, don’t ask, we’ll be here all night).
SPIDER-MAN: ONE MORE DAY (2007)
After Aunt May was shot during the events of Marvel’s Civil War event (and it was determined that she wasn’t a clone or a doppelganger or a Skrull or whatever), Peter Parker finds that in a universe of incredible magic and fantastic technology, nobody has yet invented a cure for bullets.
After consulting everyone from Doctor Fate to Doctor Doom, Peter and his wife Mary Jane find themselves making a deal with one of the many demon lords that are just hanging around New York: Mephisto, generally considered the closest Marvel can get to actually using Satan as a comic book character without violating copyright.
Mephisto can save Aunt May, but not in exchange for the Parkers’ souls—he wanted their apparently mystically perfect marriage to disappear from continuity, which by a strange coincidence was also what Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada had been wanting for years.
Writer J. Michael Straczynski disagreed so strongly with this demonic deus ex machine he almost had his name taken off the final product, and fans had understandable objections to one of comics’ greatest heroes making a literal deal with the devil even if it was to save a nice old lady, with IGN reviewer Jesse Schedeen referring to the One More Day arc as “undoubtedly the worst comic Marvel published in 2007.”
On the other hand, no less than Stan Lee himself praised the “courage” of the decision and compared the fan reaction to the backlash when Peter and MJ got married in the first place—right before he used the Spider-Man newspaper comic to mock OMD with one of the oldest clichés in the book, suggesting the whole affair was just a bad dream.
IDENTITY CRISIS (2004)
Depending on who you ask, Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis limited series was either the best or worst thing to ever happen to the DC Universe. Although from a sales standpoint, it was a considerable success.
Without going too much into the rather involved plot, it was an attempt to inject more “adult” or “dark” elements into the sunnier parts of DC in general and the Justice League in particular.
This was accomplished by having popular supporting character Sue Dibny (non-superhuman wife of stretchy detective Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny) killed, set on fire, revealed to have been pregnant, revealed to have been raped, and generally having a pretty bad time even during her happy-go-lucky past as a close associate of the Justice League.
Critics called out the storyline for its treatment of women (the rape in particular was singled out as part of a troubling trend in comics where it seemed the only way for women to have some kind of dramatic development was to be sexually assaulted), while fans decried the destruction of a character and a relationship that to many represented a welcome relief from comics that were increasingly dark, violent, and less fun to read.
Ralph was finally reunited with Sue, not in the usual manner of Sue’s resurrection but by getting killed himself during a fairly satisfying one-on-one duel with DC’s Satan stand-in Neron.
ULTIMATE MARVEL: ULTIMATUM (2008)
Marvel’s Ultimate Universe was launched in 2000 as a way of revitalizing popular Marvel characters and properties that were weighed down by confusing plotlines (e.g. Spider-Man), outgrowing their original identities (e.g. Spider-Man), or just seemed like somebody the kids would relate to better as a teenager (e.g. Spider-Man).
Even though one of the universe’s ground rules was an emphasis on “realism” (usually taken to mean that deaths will be mostly permanent and George W. Bush would occasionally show up to say hi to Captain America) the launch titles were full of goofy summer-blockbuster-style fun and action, none more so than Mark Millar’s “Ultimates.”
It was a take on the Avengers that was such an obvious outline for the later film that on one particularly meta page the characters sit around talking about who should play them in the movie.
Incidentally the only one of them that gets it right is Nick Fury, mostly because the way he was drawn he was basically already Samuel L. Jackson. Things took a turn for the dark during “Ultimates 3,” however, after Millar’s poor health led to a substitution by comics and TV writer Jeph Loeb, and things got oddly meaner and angrier.
Years later, Loeb was at the helm for Ultimate Marvel’s Ultimatum, a universe-wide crossover where a really startling number of people get eaten alive, so many that the Ultimate Universe was rebooted a few issues lately mostly because there wasn’t anybody left in it.
Critical reaction was almost entirely negative, as along with the shock value element of everybody getting eaten, the storytelling was jumbled and confused, with several plot threads that go nowhere and a total lack of any actual ultimatums delivered by any character.
Critics even complained about the plausibility of Magneto shifting the earth’s magnetic poles even though that’s basically something he talks about doing every other week.
Next: Epically Hilarious Photos
CRISIS OF INFINITE CRISES (PERPETUAL)
It’s safe to say that 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths event changed mainstream superhero comics forever. A year-long company-wide crossover where dozens of characters died both on and off-screen and the old conceit of the Multiverse was dropped, allowing DC to radically simplify and rationalize their fictional universe.
Criticized both outside and inside the comics (Grant Morrison’s Animal Man ended with a storyline that was essentially an elegy for all the crazy superheroes of the Multiverse), the Crisis eventually became solidly established enough for DC to reference it with 1994’s Zero Hour: Crisis in Time! where Hal-Jordan-as-Parallax decided to up his supervillain ante by attempting to destroy and remake the universe in order to “fix” things.
The next major reference was obviously Identity Crisis ten years later, but this lead into Countdown to Infinite Crisis (a world-shaking crossover event) and The OMAC Project (a world-shaking crossover event) and naturally Infinite Crisis (another world-shaking crossover event which actually reversed most of the changes of the original Crisis) and fairly soon there was no event taking place in the DC Universe that was not somehow related to the original Crisis, the Infinite Crisis, the Final Crisis, or any of a number of massive changes to the core storyline, many of which required careful reading in careful order before anything made any sort of sense.
Eventually, DC succumbed to crisis fatigue and reset the entire universe yet again after the Flashpoint crossover, relaunching everything as The New 52 in the hopes that people can go back to reading comics without everything exploding and altering history all of the time.