Ah, redesigns. Taking a famous pop-culture character and giving them a new appearance. They’re pretty damn common in the arbitrary craft known as “fan-art”, but it is interesting to take a character and see how much can be changed while keeping said character’s spirit.
It’s also pretty common in comic books and comic book-inspired media, and it’s not hard to see why. Batman and Superman, their supporting casts and rogues’ galleries are flexible enough to appear in a number of scenarios, but since their comics have been running so long, the characters gradually change to reflect more modern attitudes, and when those comics are adapted into movies, the characters’ appearance also tends to change to work better on the screen. In the Watchmen movie, Rorschach may have looked pretty much the same as he did on the page, but Nite-Owl’s costume changed from blue spandex to a more Nolan-inspired suit (I even think Snyder said he wanted to make fun of superhero movies the same way Moore made fun of comics).
I’ve always found redesigns (official or otherwise) intriguing, so I’d like to bring up five redesigns of comic book characters I’ve found to be fitting, and five others, mmm…not so much.
The Five Best Comic Book Redesigns
5) The Prankster
For all his power and might, Superman hasn’t exactly had the best luck when it comes to villains. Case in point, one of his most prominent villains of the Silver Age was a fat little douchebag called the Prankster. Yeah, Superman, Batman has a better rogue’s gallery than you, but that doesn’t mean you can rip his off. Prankster would engage in stupid schemes like try to drive up business for a sweet-themed amusement park, or fucking copyrighting the alphabet so people would have to pay him every time they spoke. That’s comics for you.
Thankfully, though he still wasn’t a top-tier villain, Prankster was improved when he appeared in the modern comics. He could actually stand toe-to-toe with Superman due to improved technology and a leaner body. It’s one of the better examples of comics ‘getting with the times’, really. Ur-Prankster has a vaudeville feel about him with the checked suit and bow tie, while Nu-Prankster resembles Jeremy Beadle or Andy Parsons or just about any TV comic. More importantly, while the old Prankster was very prominent, the new comics found a more fitting role for him; serving as a distraction to Superman which would allow bigger villains’ plans to go unabated.
However, the less said about the New 52 Prankster, the better
4) The Riddler
The Riddler has gone on to be one of the most famous comic book villains of all time, but like the Prankster, he began by having a similar title and gimmick as the Joker but none of the style. I mean, Joker had that snazzy purple suit from the get-go, but Riddler’s first appearance saw him straddled with a ridiculous leotard. Thing is, the Riddler is only famous because of Frank Gorshin’s portrayal of him in the 60’s TV series; without that, he may have become yet another obscure Silver Age baddy.
Another thing the 60’s TV series brought to the table when it came to the character was a new outfit: a smart green suit with a bowler hat, since Gorshin disliked wearing the spandex. It made Riddler fit in more with the likes of Joker, Two-Face and Penguin, who all dressed formally when committing their crimes, and it also brought out his personality more. What differentiates Riddler from Joker is that while Joker thinks that life is just a big comedy routine, Riddler take himself too seriously, striving to prove himself smarter and more intelligent than the Dark Knight. A smart suit certainly reflects that more than a question-mark-sprayed circus uniform. His spandex tells us about his gimmick, but doesn’t tell us much about his character.
3) Mr. Freeze
The DC Animated Universe (made up of Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League Unlimited etc.) has been considered one of the finer comic book adaptations, mostly because they knew what worked and what didn’t work with each of DC’s characters and adjusted them accordingly. Their Joker could naturally go from Silver Age goofy to Modern Age creepy at the drop of a hat. Their Toyman (who almost made this list) was a terrifying doll-faced manchild who wouldn’t look out of place in a slasher movie. There was even a Justice League episode reimagining characters from Superfriends.
Their most successful reinvention is that of the once-goofy Bat-villain Mr. Freeze. Not only was he given a richer backstory –that was then incorporated into the comics –but got a smoother, more striking design created by none other than Hellboy’s Mike Mignola. Red eyes rarely work for supervillains, but this Freeze truly looked like the emotionless creature he was. Gone was the noisy green of the Silver Age, replaced by a cool, yet cruel blue. Equally impressive is the design Freeze received for the game Arkham City, blending modern machinery with Abe Sapien from the aforementioned Hellboy, even if his boss fight was the most frustrating of the game.
2) Nolan’s Batman Villains
I’m not sure whether to look at Nolan’s movies as real-for-real adaptations of the comics, or more as ‘what-ifs’ akin to the Elseworlds comics; what if Batman existed in our world? A challenge all live-action superhero movies must overcome is bringing some of the more flamboyant characters to celluloid without making them too over-the-top or jarring. Nolan has met that challenge and succeeded – and nowhere is that more apparent with his renditions of the Joker and Bane. He did justice to both characters but added his own twist to them. He and Anne Hathaway did well with Catwoman, and Cillian Murphy was a delight in all three movies, but it’s Joker and Bane that really shined.
Say what you will about his voice, Tom Hardy was magnificent as Bane, and he looked like a real powerhouse too. With his Luchadore mask and 90’s outfit, comic Bane was always a bit hard to take seriously, but Nolan’s Bane, with his authoritative coat and mask with tubes resembling skeleton fingers, looked large and in charge. Well, he wasn’t really in charge, but still. Ledger’s Joker had elements of Joker from his first appearance and the iconic Killing Joke story, but was his own character. The Joker wearing makeup was a diversion from the comics but the way it was applied on Ledger’s face, and how it seemed to rot as the film went on, gave the impression of what his psyche was like and his filthy clothes reflected his sociopathy. This was a more out-of-control and mentally ill Joker than we were used to, so his style was dirtier, grimier than the spiffy Joker of comic and animation lore.
Time to leave the Batman villains for a moment and go to Superman’s arch-enemy. The problem with Superman’s rogues gallery for quite a while was that while Superman was basically God, his enemies were normal humans like the Prankster we just went on about. Lex Luthor is a regular human, but he’s Superman’s arch-enemy as well and remains so to this day. How can he keep that title with so little physical power?
Well, in his original incarnation he was a mad scientist. All fine and dandy. Guess weird machinery and stuff is one way to go toe-and-toe with the Man of Steel. Marv Wolfman, however, came up with a better idea that surfaced in John Bryne’s Man of Steel: Lex as a businessman. He became as powerful as Superman, just in a different way. As Wolfman said, Luthor’s power was his mind. He needed to be smarter than Superman. Superman’s powers had to be useless against him because they couldn’t physically fight each other and Superman was simply not as smart as Luthor. He truly became to Superman as the Joker was to Batman: the hero’s opposite. Superman was the example of truth and justice humans should strive towards, while Luthor was the embodiment of human sin. Clark Kent was a humble farmboy and always would be, Lex dug his way out of poverty into riches and corporate power. The old Luthor was pretty typical, but new Luthor is unique, the supervillain version of Francis from House of Cards.
Man, Superman Returns was a wasted opportunity.
And now, because I hate the world, the five worst redesigns of comic book lore.
The Five Worst Comic Book Redesigns
5) Alex Ze Pirate
Yes, Dobson again. He is pretty clueless when it comes to the art of comic books, and this can be seen in his magnificent octopus Alex Ze Pirate. Hell, the presence of a ‘Ze’ in the title tells you what you’re in for (and yes, Alex has been printed in physical form, so this counts as a ‘comic book’).
The title character is a female pirate whose main trait is that people keep thinking she’s a dude. Yeeup. Well, not only does Alex’ original design make her look more androgynous, but like she actually could, you know, be a pirate. Her later design makes her look more like some sort of 50’s sitcom housewife in spandex (or Captain Syrup) thus meaning the joke about her being mistaken for a guy makes less sense and is thus even less funny, and she looks out of place in the eighteenth century nautical setting the comic is trying to create. I don’t want to go off on a big Dobson rant again so here’s a link that explains this all in more detail.
Comics are a visual medium, and since the pictures aren’t moving, people have more time to appreciate them. I say this because the Golden Age version of Superman’s iconic foe Mr. Mxyzptlk was a good example of a comic taking advantage of its format. While the people around him were stylised and kinda resembled real people, Mxy was the stereotypical cartoon character, with big head and bowler hat. This not only signified he was from another dimension, his cartoony features reflected his sense of fun and the way he dressed perfectly complimented his smug attitude. This design was used again for Superman: The Animated Series and it worked just as well there as it did on the page.
Sadly, Mxyzptlk’s more mainstream appearance is not as effective. The orange jumpsuit signifies that he’s from another dimension, sure, but it doesn’t say anything about who Mxy is, and coupled with the bowler and hair, makes him look a complete eyesore. Or maybe that’s the point, so that he’s as annoying to us as he is to Superman? No, when we read comics, we want to look at the pictures, and that’s hard to do when a character has a design that makes our eyes sting.
3) Harley Quinn
Harley Quinn, invented for Batman: The Animated Series before being added to the comics, had pretty much a perfect design that said everything you needed to know about her. She was the Joker’s sidekick, so her costume evoked both clowns and playing cards at the same time, and she was extremely immature, reflected by her big goo-goo eyes and bulgy pouty face.
Sadly, this outfit has been redesigned numerous times to make her look more ‘sexy’, which wouldn’t be as bad if the outfits she wore weren’t so baffling. Her number in Arkham City wasn’t too bad – it worked for the game’s grimy urban dynamic – but both outfits she bore in Injustice: Gods Among Us made no sense, showing skin randomly and telling us nothing about her. They weren’t as bad though, as the abomination she became in the Ne w 52 comics, with a needlessly altered backstory, her distracting corset and her hair, geez, her hair.
2) Dennis the Menace
I’m putting Dennis from The Beano down, since he’s an example of how a redesign can change so little, and yet feel so wrong. OK, Dennis has spiky hair and a Freddy Krueger jumper, and looks like he could beat your ass from here to Australia. He’s a naughty kid, and in old days, he looked pretty damn naughty. The Dennis of 2009 has the hair and the jumper, yet he feels like a different character altogether. Not only did he gain four-fingered Simpson hands, he kept smiling with his teeth out, making him look like he had a lobotomy. It was fucking creepy. Never mind the fact that around the time the redesign hit, he got a horrendously shitty new cartoon.
‘Superman is toooo powerful, he’s boring!’ say the Batman fanboys, leaving Superman writers racking their brains on how to make Superman more interesting. Some of his rogues gallery may have been reimagined with success, but considering how iconic Superman is, most of his redesigns fall flat. We have him combined with dull teen drama in Smallville, and then we have…Electric Superman.
Yes, Superman once had electric powers. Yes, he looked like he belonged on a rave poster while he had said powers. And yes, he did split into a red Superman and a blue Superman, both Supermen fighting over Lois Lane. Electric Superman deserves the No. 1 spot because he is comic book idiocy incarnate.