These days every major comic book character has had about a dozen reboots in an attempt to combat declining sales and the inevitable staleness that comes with a character frozen in time by their success. I’ve compiled a list of the first major reboots of comic book heroes and the covers that heralded the “New” Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, on and on. This is by no means a complete list, just my favorites.
The earliest reboot I can remember was Superman #233, cover date January 1971, news stand date October 1970. It was actually pretty cool as they promoted Clark Kent from the Daily Planet to working for the evil Morgan Edge as a TV newscaster. They also attempted to eliminate Kryptonite, which had by now become the fallback cliche for every story, while limiting some of Supes’ powers. The reboot effectively petered out within a couple of years.
Batman #227 cover date December 1970 wasn’t exactly a reboot, but its cover made clear that Batman was no longer the shiny, camp Adam West edition. The change had been coming gradually for a couple of years, but with the influence of Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams, Bats went solo and dark in the first ever comics retro act recalling the short lived pre-Robin Batman of 1939 as they redid Detective Comics 31
In many ways, this Brave and Bold 81 cover was the first retro Batman, cover and interior drawn by Neal Adams as Bats faced down a savagely realistic dock worker named Bork. Unlike Superman, Batman never regressed to his pre-reboot self, but continued only growing ever darker with the passing years.
Wonder Woman was undergoing her own change, awakening her sixties Women’s Lib feminism with issue 178 from October 1968, making her perhaps the first ever reboot. Gone was the red, white and blue bikini, replaced by Emma Peel of TV’s Avengers style pants suits, mini-skirts and knee boots. But never fears fans of skimpy costumes, the old suit was back by issue 204 in late 1972.
In early 1970, DC was about to cancel Green Lantern, but Denny O’Neill talked them into letting him and Neal Adams attempt to pump new life into the magazine. The result was the groundbreaking Green Lantern-Green Arrow 76. The new GL-GA team went in search of America ala Easy Rider giving kids like myself a glimpse of the cultural change that was shaking the country. Sound familiar? The book was cancelled with issue 89, but returned years later, sans GA and the social consciousness.
The DC push to make their heroes more relevant was inspired by their upstart rivals over at Marvel. As such, Marvel was many years away from its first reboots. But the rebirth of Captain America, after lying dormant for more than a decade, was a rebirth of sorts in Avenger 4 in early 1963.
Cap was portrayed as a man out of time after literally being on ice since 1945. By issue 113 of his own mag in early 1969, Cap literally killed off his old secret identity of Steve Rogers in an attempt to remake himself. Never fear, Stevie returned shortly, but the angst Stan Lee and Jim Steranko imbued Cap with was worthy of a major reboot.
Marvel’s first reboot of its sixties heroes came in 1975 with the X-Men. The original title had been cancelled in 1970. Len Wein and Dave Cockrum reinvented the book, dumping some of the cornier characters like Iceman and the Angel and adding Storm and Wolverine. The rest, as they say, is history in what was perhaps the most successful reboot in comics history.
By the 1970s, the Fantastic Four and most of Marvel’s classic lineup had gone stale. The original creators, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and a host of others, had all moved on or retired. Young John Byrne took over both the writing and drawing of the FF and breathed new life into the comic with issue 232 in the spring of 1981 beginning a 60 issue run. Byrne didn’t remake the FF so much as brought them back to their roots.
Next up was Thor. After years of shamelessly rehashing Jack Kirby’s monumental work on the book with an ever changing cast of writers and artists, a young Walt Simonson was given the same free reign as John Byrne had on the FF, both writing and drawing the title beginning with issue 337 in the fall of 1983 for a nearly 50 issue run that remade the book spectacularly.
Virtually every comic book under the sun has undergone several reboots in the last three decades, but these were the iconic firsts. Feel free to suggest more and we’ll add them to the roster.