It’s a story as old as time itself—or at least as old as ongoing, in-universe superhero stories. A writer whose run on a book is either seminal, or at least considered the defining one for the characters or title. He leaves—either as a result of executive meddling or the creator getting bored and running out of ideas—and ultimately you’re left with two negative results: First, the guy who takes over is nowhere near as good; and second, any dangling plot threads left by the maestro vanish completely into oblivion. Sometimes, though, the stars align, the readers’ voices are heard and the writer in question gets back on the horse and takes another shot at the story. It doesn’t always work, particularly when the same factors that forced him out in the first place are still in effect at the publisher…but sometimes you strike gold.
[Note: Since this story discusses dangling plot threads both resolved and unresolved, please not that SPOILERS ARE ON. And since not all comebacks yield the results the creators want, I’ll be editorializing a bit on whether or not these stories worked. Remember that your mileage may vary and try to remain calm when commenting. And last but not least, remember that I’m only considering creators who were gone from the books for at least a few years. That means Brian Michael Bendis’ relaunch of Ultimate Spider-Man doesn’t count, and neither does Marc Andreyko’s on-again, off-again relationship with Manhunter. This list is in no way meant to be complete or comprehensive, but instead a representative sampling prompted by the recent conclusion of arguably the most fully successful such stories—my first example below.]
One such example is Mike Grell, whose DC Comics title The Warlord ran for more than 130 issues between 1976 and 1988. Considering some of the titles that came and went while The Warlord endured, that’s pretty impressive, and given that he was an original character without any existing connection to the larger mythology of that universe…well, those numbers start to stack up against titles like Savage Dragon, eclipsing fan favorites like The Walking Dead and Birds of Prey along the way. Even in all that time, though, he never got to resolve the primary conflict of Travis Morgan’s heroic career—the apparent death (actually a kidnapping) of his son by his archenemy. Even a miniseries by Grell during the nineties didn’t tie up this (relatively major) loose end, or bring the series any closer to what Grell has recently said was always its intended conclusion—for Tinder (the son) to step into Morgan’s role as The Warlord. A 2006 miniseries by Bruce Jones and Bart Sears completely revamped the concept, starting over from Morgan’s arrival in the underground world of Skartaris, but the book was greeted with hostility from many longtime fans and indifference from everyone else. Not entirely unlike the next year’s Countdown [to Final Crisis], the story was forgotten and retconned more or less before it was even over. The summer of 2009, however, gave Grell another shot, and he took it with gusto. During the 15 issues it took for the book to get canceled again, Grell managed to wrap up the Joshua/Tinder storyline, much to the delight of longtime fans (and Grell himself).
Grell himself discovered a young artist in the early eighties who has not only gone on to become one of the most recognizable names in the comics industry, but who has had his share of comebacks. Dan Jurgens, the creator of Booster Gold and the writer/artist behind 1992’s best-selling Superman #75 (The Death of Superman), has actually come back to one character over and over again over the years—Booster Gold. After a 25-issue run that cemented Booster as an important part of the DC Universe, introduced Jurgens as a creative force to be reckoned with at DC and gave readers a very different kind of superhero (at least for its time), the title was canceled—but that wasn’t the end of the story by a longshot. Toward the end of the series’ run, Booster had been introduced as one of the characters on Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ Justice League International, a series that is remembered fondly by many twenty years later, and lives on infamy for almost as many others. When Giffen and DeMatteis left the title, Jurgens picked up Justice League America and, other than a few minor roster tweaks, left the Giffen/DeMatteis squad more or less intact—meaning that he got to write Booster again. Elevating Booster and Blue Beetle Ted Kord’s relationship from the jovial, jocular thing it was under the previous writing team and adding some real depth to it (particularly when Kord was rendered comatose and Booster powerless during the aforementioned Death of Superman storyline), Jurgens was working toward reclaiming his creation only a year after the departure of the team that had reinvented him as a bwa-ha-ha character had gone. From there, Booster’s “powers” (really a specialized, high-tech battle suit from the future and a floating robot sidekick) would be returned to him during Jurgens’ and Ron Frenz’s run on Superman (a place where Booster was no stranger already, having featured somewhat prominently in Jurgens’ popular Time and Time Again storyline).
Years later, after the character had experienced another series of changes and setbacks, Jurgens was brought on board to draw the series written by Geoff Johns and Jeff Katz. When the pair of superstars left, Jurgens was given charge of his creation once again—only to have the reins taken from him by Giffen and DeMatteis once more when DC called upon him to work on a series of other “high-profile” stories (such as DC Universe Legacies, and the upcoming Sony/DC collaboration). Notably, though, even that was short-lived as one of those special projects has turned out to be Time Masters: Vanishing Point, a story that promises to tie up loose ends not only from his run on Booster Gold, but also to revisit many of the themes and issues raised during Superman’s time-travel adventures during Jurgens’ run on that book.
Another notable issue of Dan Jurgens’ Superman run was #86, which featured Superman squaring off against a crazy old man called Rik Sunn. Sunn, it turns out, had been chasing a villain through space and time for decades, and now that both of them were withered and old, he was finally ready to kill Karvis Khun until Superman got in the way. Who are these people, you ask? Sunn was the central protagonist, and Khun the main villain, of Sun Devils, a little-known DC maxiseries from the early ‘80s that featured Jurgens’ first job as a writer-artist on the same title. When the story ended after 12 issues, it resolved the major plot points—but left just enough of an opening for a sequel if sales and/or critical response warranted it. They didn’t, which is pretty unfortunate for the title’s fans—or rather, fan, since when I told Jurgens I enjoyed the book a few years ago he told me that he wasn’t sure he’d ever heard anyone say that before. Still, the dangling plot threads, as well as some of the series’ smaller character beats, were resolved in the Superman issue, even if the characters—who were from Earth’s future in the original series—ended up stranded in the mid-‘90s at the end.
Jurgens was the creator of one of DC’s most successful fifth-week events of the ‘90s: The Tangent Universe. Unfortunately for another ‘90s comics mainstay, when editorial decided to bring back the Tangent Universe for a third round (after stories in 1997 and 1998), they did so at the expense of what was meant to be his comeback. Ron Marz is best known among most comics fans as the guy who drove Hal Jordan crazy, killed almost all of the Green Lanterns and created Kyle Rayner to fill the gaping hole left in the DC Universe by Hal’s sudden absence. As polarizing a figure as his creator, Kyle Rayner was (is) both loved and hated by many, and the debate over which character is the more interesting to follow is more or less DC’s version of the Coke-Pepsi debate. People just get stubborn and entrenched, and you’re never going to win anyone over to your side. That said, Marz wrote about 150 issues of the Kyle Rayner/Green Lantern monthly, an absolutely epic run by today’s standards, especially for a title he didn’t start at #1. Still, when he left the book there were a few niggling things he didn’t get to do and the writer was given a chance to revisit his most well-known creation in a 12-issue Ion maxiseries spinning out of the events of Infinite Crisis. What happened there? Well, Ion became little more than a launching pad for Tangent: Superman’s Reign (by Marz and Jurgens—in itself kind of a comeback story) and The Sinestro Corps War, with bits of Countdown thrown in for good measure. In what truly has to be one of the more frustrating returns to a character he helped to define, any sense of direction that Marz was meant to give Kyle through this story seemed completely lost by about halfway through the book, and only Kyle’s (or Marz’s) die-hard fans actually read the whole thing, which ended on a depressing and seemingly arbitrary cliffhanger so that Kyle could play into The Sinestro Corps War, his unique identity as Ion stripped from him and his personal life and supporting cast now completely swallowed up by The Borg that is Geoff Johns’ epic Green Lantern mythology.
If the Ion maxiseries was disappointing, though, it was nothing next to Chris Claremont’s much-ballyhooed return to the X-Men titles around the time of the first feature film in 1999. While Claremont and John Byrne crafted some of the most memorable X-Men stories of all time, and created many of the characters fans associate most with the title, his return to the X-Men monthly in 1999 and 2000 was poorly received by fans and critics, and lasted only about 20 issues. That might not be a bad run by the standards of most modern-day X-writers…but after Claremont’s previous fifteen-year, history-making run with the characters it seems a little anemic. He returned to Uncanny X-Men again in 2004-2006, and while the run was a little longer, the readers’ perception of it was pretty much the same. Without clearing up any of the myriad X-mysteries he’d set up during his first epic run (many of which, in fairness, had been run so far into the ground by other writers at that point as to make them basically impossible to clear up), he seemed to want to build and build on his own mythology until it became bigger than the story itself, creating the kind of bizarre, confusing mess that made the last few seasons of the X-Files so difficult to watch. Luckily, his recent X-Men Forever stories seems to have largely redeemed him in the eyes of many fans, as he returned to the characters and era that he made famous, with a top-notch art team, and told some solid, entertaining stories.
Another “X”-ample is Peter David, whose recent return to X-Factor has been notable in that it’s returned credibility and energy to the long-languishing and often-mediocre title. He had written some of the team’s best and most popular adventures in the ‘90s, and his return to the book has been met with much rejoicing from fans of the characters. Oh, so much greater, though, is the number of times that David has returned to The Incredible Hulk family of books. As arguably the most well-known and well-loved writer of The Hulk since Stan Lee, David’s run on the title featured the art of some of the most popular artists of the ‘90s, including Dale Keown, whose take on the character remains the definitive work of his career and possibly the most popular Hulk art of the last 25 years. While his current run on X-Factor, though, has dwarfed the initial run that associated him with the characters, any subsequent returns he has made to The Hulk or She-Hulk have been comparably short-lived and, while popular, not exactly standard-shattering or anything—and even more tellingly, have happened in miniseries or one-shots as opposed to in the actual monthly title that he steered for ten years in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
In a Mark Waid-scripted issue of The Brave and the Bold, a group of time-traveling heroes passes through a montage of images featuring characters from DC’s past and future, as well as other time-travelers. In it, Dan Jurgens’ aforementioned Sun Devils are pictured—so as the only other writer to acknowledge those characters in the last 20 years, it’s probably not surprising that Waid himself has had unfinished business over the years. While it stretches the time limits mentioned in the note above, his run on Captain America is fairly notable for this. When he and penciler Ron Garney took on the Star-Spangled Avenger in the late ‘90s, comics magic came out of it. The pair weren’t on the title for long, though, before Marvel decided to seduce a bunch of Image artists back to their fold and Heroes Reborn was conceived. After an X-Men event that killed pretty much every Marvel character who wasn’t an X-Men (or Spidey), Captain America was one of a number of titles relaunched with a superstar artist behind it, and set in an alternate reality. And while Rob Liefeld may have some claim to this story himself, having returned to the Heroes Reborn Universe recently in a miniseries, it’s Waid’s return to Captain America when it re-relaunched that really turned some heads. After a fairly brief initial run, he returned to Cap and stayed on for a couple of years, during which he wrote not only Captain America, but a second Cap title as well, marking the only time I can remember (until Ed Brubaker joined the title recently) that Cap’s corner of the Marvel U has been able to support more than one ongoing. Waid and frequent collaborator Mike Wieringo had a similar experience on Fantastic Four, another title interrupted by Heroes Reborn, but his return to Cap seemed to be met with more commercial success, thus lasting longer, and so it’s the better example.
Probably more appropriate to this conversation, though, is Waid’s run on The Flash. During the ‘90s, Waid brought Wally West, formerly just a kid sidekick, to serious credibility and even prominence in the DC Universe. His almost decade-long run on the title introduced the concept of the Speed Force, reinvented the hero’s rogues gallery and told some of the most memorable and beloved stories featuring any character to be called The Flash. After 100 issues, though, Waid said goodbye to Wally West and his supporting cast, moving on to greener pastures and maintaining that he didn’t really have anything left to say with Wally. Five years later, though, fumbling for a save after a hideously-botched relaunch post-Infinite Crisis, DC brought Waid back to the title and brought the recently-retired Wally West out of retirement, so that he could take the place of his sidekick, Bart Allen, who was killed almost instantly after taking over from Wally. In another example of “maybe I shoulda stayed gone,” his six-part story (The Wild Wests) failed to wow almost anyone, and he lasted only six issues before leaving the title to pursue other interests. Within a year, the creators who took over from him were also off the book, which was canceled to make way for the return of Barry Allen—something that, depending on who you ask, is a signal that either DC really had no damned idea what they were doing with The Flash after Infinite Crisis or sure evidence that they secretly harbored a desire to return the Silver Age Flash to prominence all along.
Another character who got really hosed the last few years was Tim Drake. After supporting his own ongoing monthly as Robin for almost 200 issues, he was jettisoned as part of Grant Morrison’s Batman Master Plan and eventually shunted off to an ancillary title, Red Robin, where he lives on in the kind of quiet dignity usually attributed to nursing-home patients. Toward the tail end of his tenure as the Boy Wonder, though, Tim Drake was handed off to Chuck Dixon—a writer who had previously handled him for more than 100 issues before creative changes were made. Returning at #170 and staying until the end of the series five months later, Dixon’s second departure from Robin was nothing if not loud—the revered creator was ousted when editorial said that he wasn’t toeing the line on the post-Final Crisis Batman status quo (to wit, that his character would no longer be Robin and one of the previous Robins would now be Batman). Dixon responded that he had in fact been quite flexible and that the complaints DC was making public had never been made to him in private. The whole thing seemed pretty shabby on DC’s part, honestly, particularly as the Batman books seemed like kind of a catastrophe at the time, with Batman: RIP taking its sweet time in ending after we’d all, already seen Bruce killed during Final Crisis (and both stories were preposterously behind deadline). It had to leave a bitter taste in Dixon’s mouth, and it certainly put me off checking out Red Robin anytime soon, making it officially the most depressing (though not by a long shot the worst) comeback on this list.
So I leave it to you: What such stories did I miss? I’m sure a few really good ones that’ll make me feel positively stupid when I read the comments below…!