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Dark & darker: Fun characters who got depressing remakes

By Staff | May 28, 2015

Photo from cover of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”

Some comic book characters and stories really emphasize the “comic” part of the phrase with lighthearted, fantastical adventures.

Others go the “grim-and-gritty” route, with more mature, dark and realistic stories.

Many straddle the line, with elements of each, depending on the creative team and the story.

In the last 20 to 30 years, the needle has moved decidedly in the darker direction, sometimes sweeping up characters who never should have turned the dark and brooding factor up to 11.

Take Speedball. A late ’80s Marvel character introduced by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, Robbie Baldwin generates a field of kinetic energy that protects him from harm and allows him to bounce around, with colorful bubbles floating in his wake. His garish costume and sense of humor often made him a humorous character, but writers gave him serious moments in the original “New Warriors” series.

The landmark “Civil War” event kicked off when the villain Nitro killed hundreds of people during a confrontation with the New Warriors. Robbie was the only surviving member of the team, and the explosion altered his powers so he could generate energy, but only when he was in pain. He had someone make him a costume with spikes on the inside – one for every person who died in the explosion.

Apparently someone felt the Punisher, Wolverine, Hulk, Ghost Rider and most of the X-Men weren’t dark or tragic enough. So they took goofy Speedball and made him Penance, a guy who literally gets his powers from agony and crippling guilt.

Fortunately, Robbie has taken up the Speedball identity again and is becoming more like his old self.

DC’s Impulse was a humorous character I met and enjoyed in Peter David’s “Young Justice” series. The grandson of second Flash Barry Allen, he wound up traveling back to the present day as an enthusiastic young hero in some really fun stories.

Then DC revived the Teen Titans and Bart decided to get serious after being shot by Deathstroke. He took up the mantle of Kid Flash and lost a lot of what made him unique.

In the New 52, writer Scott Lobdell took him down an even darker path.

This Kid Flash had a mysterious background that was eventually revealed in the pages of “Teen Titans” – he was the orphaned son of space missionaries. Their murder eventually drove him to become a mass-murdering rebel terrorist.

Cartoon characters many fondly remember from childhood aren’t safe either.

In 2005, DC published a “Space Ghost” limited series, reimagining the classic Hanna-Barbera character who starred in kid-friendly cartoons and found new life as a late-night talk show host on Cartoon Network’s bizarrely wonderful “Space Ghost Coast to Coast.” Writer Joe Kelly told the painfully serious story of space cop Thaddeus Bach who became the vengeful superhero after his wife and unborn child were brutally murdered and he was left for dead.

Remember Cringer, the humorously cowardly and constantly hungry pet of Prince Adam who turned into He-Man’s powerful sidekick Battle Cat? Did you ever wonder why Cringer was such a scaredy-cat?

Me neither.

But in a DC limited series rebooting the Masters of the Universe for a more grown-up audience, writer Mike Costa decided to tell us.

Apparently, Cringer’s pride (or pack or whatever a group of green-and-orange-striped tigers is called) was slaughtered by a group of rival big cats, including Skeletor’s Panthor. Cringer was the sole survivor, and essentially, has PTSD.

I’m not opposed to bringing real-life parallels into sci-fi and fantasy. But to go grim and gritty on, essentially, the feline Scooby-Doo hardly seems the way to take it seriously.

Evan Bevins is the writer of the webcomic “Support Group,” www.supportgroupcomic.com