DC is planning to rejigger their entire comic book universe with the New 52, which starts tomorrow with the release of Justice League #1. The world of fandom waits with baited breath to see if this bold move is going to turn out good stuff or annoying stuff, as it's often a crapshoot in these cases. For now, though, let's look on the bright side and take a look at five drastic character shifts that really worked.
WHAT HAPPENED: Barbara Gordon was the original Batgirl. The daughter of Commissioner Gordon, she swashbuckled with Dick Grayson's Robin and often showed up the Dynamic Duo in their crimefighting efforts. Then, she got shot by the Joker and lost the use of her legs. But rather than fold up and disappear into misery, she reinvented herself as Oracle, intensely developing her librarian skills to become an immensely useful information broker for the entire DC hero community.
WHY IT WORKED: Because that is brilliant, different and it filled a hole that no one realized needed filling until she wheeled up to the plate to do it. Also, the supreme rarity of any handicapped (I'd say 'physically challenged,' but let's face the semantics: every issue of every comic book everywhere involves physical challenges for the hero) characters in comics, much less big-name prominent ones like Batgirl, made her a unique and beloved hero for those who are too often marginalized.
WHAT HAPPENED: Dick Grayson had been Robin for decades, and kids tend to grow up and realize certain things they used to like are silly. When you come of age and realize you've been dressing up in green panties and elf booties for most of your childhood, you kinda want to make a change. Thus, stepping out from under the shadow of Batman, Dick became Nightwing (and still wore an embarrassing disco collar, but eventually he figured out how to look cool).
WHY IT WORKED: This not only allowed him to grow into a man and have more adult stories (like getting engaged to an orange alien sexpot), but it also allowed a revolving door of Robins to follow after him, making that goofy red and green suit into a sort of Bat-internship, and those Robins are some of the most popular characters DC has. Even if they always forget Stephanie Brown was ever one of them.
3. GREY HULK
WHAT HAPPENED: When the Hulk first appeared in 1962, he was not the Jade Giant, but rather a grey-skinned goliath because Stan Lee didn't want a color that suggested any particular ethnic group, Due to colorist issues, though, that quickly changed to green, which stuck and became the primary identifying characteristic for the Hulk. However, in 1986, Al Milgrom decided to reintroduce the Grey Hulk as an entirely separate personality aspect, and shortly afterward, Peter David ran with that to give Bruce Banner a dissociative identity disorder, and both the Green Hulk and the Grey Hulk were personifications of voices in his head. The green guy was more about repressed rage from the child within him at the abuse of his father, while the grey version was cunning, ruthless and nasty, and neither one of them wanted anything to do with Banner. Basically, the green was the id, the grey was the ego, and Banner was the superego in Freudian terms.
WHY IT WORKED: Two words: Joe Fixit. The Grey Hulk managed to strike a deal with some magic types to let him be completely in charge and never change back into Banner again, and what did he do with his freedom? Moved to Las Vegas to become a legbreaker for a casino boss, calling himself Mr. Fixit and dressing in pinstriped suits and fedoras. THIS IS AWESOME. Also, this later allowed for David to have Doc Samson and the Ringmaster team up and work with psychiatry and hypnosis to actually merge the two Hulks with Banner to make him whole. This resulted in the merged Hulk, aka the Smart Hulk, which lasted nearly 100 issues – until they relegated the merged Hulk into just another personality aspect, called "The Professor."
4. RED HULK
WHAT HAPPENED: General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross was the first and most consistent enemy of the Hulk – he was there at the gamma bomb accident that caused the creature, and he's the father of the woman that milksop scientist loves. He's been obsessed with destroying the Hulk since the beginning. Out of guilt? Responsibility? Fear for his daughter? Patriotism? There's all of that, plus Ross' secret desire to control that limitless power. After his daughter Betty died and the Hulk was exiled to another planet, Ross was bereft of purpose, leaving him ripe pickings for the Leader and MODOK to pull his strings, promise to revive his daughter and prepare him for the inevitable return of the Hulk. The result was that the villains transformed both of the Rosses into red-skinned beasts.
WHY IT WORKED: Well, at first, it didn't. The initial appearances of the Red Hulk came right after the end of World War Hulk, and he was obnoxious, grating and fairly stupid, earning plenty of fan vitriol. No identity had been revealed as yet (and likely none conceived at that point), so it just seemed like this new thing Jeph Loeb was using to beat up everybody in the Marvel Universe for comedy value, even punching the Watcher. Eventually, however, with Jeff Parker and Greg Pak getting involved with creating the Fall of the Hulks storyline alongside Loeb, which introduced the Intelligentsia as possibly the greatest bad guy team ever, things began to change. The identities of both the Red Hulk and Red She-Hulk were finally revealed to us, and great efforts were undertaken to have things make sense within the Hulk mythos. Now, Parker's series has Ross stuck in the form of a Hulk, which he's hated all his life, hounded by a general even more dogged about destroying him than he was against the original Hulk, and his only friends are LMD robots, really bringing the solitude and desolation that Banner had suffered all those years home to roost in the mind of his oldest enemy.
5. FLASH THOMPSON
WHAT HAPPENED: Eugene Thompson was once nothing more than the bully who made Peter Parker's life miserable in high school, while being the number one fan of Spider-Man. Then he joined the army. Then he became an alcoholic. Then he re-enlisted to go fight in Iraq. Then he lost both of his legs to an ambush, winning the Medal of Honor in the process. Now, the military is using him as a part-time super-soldier, thanks to the use of the extremely dangerous Venom symbiote, which not only grants Flash the ability to walk again, but gives him amazing spider-powers to boot – at the risk of losing his mind to the alien's tendency towards rage-fueled madness.
WHY IT WORKED: Some might say it's too early to tell, since Flash's stint as Venom is only on issue #6, but all this unpleasant history has made him perfect fodder for Rick Remender's dark brand of storytelling so far. As Spider Island kicks into gear, Remender's grittiness and Dan Slott's hyperactivity should make a very interesting combination, as two sides of the Spider-Man coin. Plus, come on. Military Venom looks as cool as Snake-Eyes from G.I. Joe, without all the silly ninja baggage – and he can talk. In fact, he can also slobber.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Jason Todd as The Red Hood, Brother Voodoo as Dr. Voodoo.