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Dead on arrival: plotlines that went nowhere in superhero comics

The US superhero comic book industry is built for the most part around monthly pamphlets: 22-24 page comics which build into a longer story arc in the periodical chapter tradition of Charles Dickens. When contracted writers leave a publisher-owned title upon the conclusion of their contract, they generally try to tidy things up before departure and close out an arc.

But not always. Sometimes writers leave in a hurry, in disinterest, or for personal reasons. Plots can be left incomplete, half-painted landscapes featuring enormous holes in colour and outline. Here is a list of both prominent and the obscure stories which were never finished.

1. Warren Ellis – New Universal (Marvel Comics, 2007-2009)

Warren Ellis is a writer we have expressed much admiration for over the years. But there can be little doubt that Mr Ellis tires of concepts and has little inhibition about doing so in a very public way.

The most obvious example of this was the wonderful story Planetary (Wildstorm / DC Comics). This title, concerned with archeology of pulp and pop fiction embodied in a global conspiracy, started existence in 2001-2003. Mr Ellis then became unwell and the series stalled. It then spluttered to life in 2004, and the final issue was published some years later in 2009.( Wikipedia amusingly describes the publishing schedule as “erratic”.)

More recently, for Marvel Comics, Mr Ellis started a revamp of the 1980s alternative dimension storyline New Universe, re-branding it as “newuniversal”. The story was commercially successful, and ran for six issues from 2007-2008. Mr Ellis then wrote a mini-series called “newuniversal: shockfront” and two one-shot issues. On 5 November 2009, Mr Ellis reported on the website Whitechapel that “I think this is basically dead, Marvel have me under contract and are not pressuring me to return to this.” The entire story has numerous loose threads and no end ever in sight. (For whatever reason Marvel Comics have not deployed another writer to finish the story.)

2. Sonic Disruptors (DC Comics, 1987-8)

A twelve issue series published by DC Comics and written by Mike Baron, Sonic Disruptors was a strange melange dubbed as “The United States Army v The United States of Rock.” It sold so poorly that the title ceased publication issues with issue 7. The ending is unknown.

3. The League of Forgotten Superman Villains (DC Comics, 1987-1999)

Between 1987 and 1999, DC Comics published four monthly Superman comic book series (plus assorted miniseries and specials) telling a single, continuous story overseen by editors Mike Carlin and his successor, Joey Cavalieri. Plotlines could develop for months or even years before being resolved, and for the most part, they did just that. The most dramatic exception involves Doctor Stratos, a rich man with a weather-controlling machine who believes he is a Greek god. At the end of his first and only appearance in Adventures of Superman #431 (1987), the presumed dead Stratos emerges from the sea transformed into a massive, grotesquely muscular being who dramatically declares his intentions to murder Superman. The implications are that 1) Stratos’ god delusions were not delusions after all, and 2) he could use more practice with his newfound divine powers, since he has made his head look comically small in comparison to the rest of his body.

Despite his enormous size, Doctor Stratos was never seen again, suggesting that perhaps he couldn’t swim. Writer Marv Wolfman did recycle the general look and personality of the character for Lord Chaos, the despotic time-displaced son of New Teen Titans member Donna Troy, introduced in 1991.

A similar anti-climax takes place in Superman: The Man of Steel #13 (1992), in which Superman encounters a long-teased criminal mastermind named Cerberus. “Cerberus” is revealed to be the collective name for a series of artificially preserved heads who take turns occupying a single monstrous body (although, in a massive wasted opportunity, none of the heads is a talking dog like the Cerberus of Greek myth). Perhaps the most distinctive of the heads was the one known as “Dragon Lady,” who stood out from the rest by being female and actually having a name. At the end of the issue, all of the heads appear to be destroyed along with Cerberus’ headquarters, but the final panel shows a very much alive Dragon Lady peeking from under some rocks.

Readers hoped that Dragon Lady’s inevitable return would shed some light on Cerberus’ origins, an impression aided by the fact that Superman himself ends the issue wondering if he’ll ever learn how something so bizarre came to exist. However, Dragon Lady never resurfaced, while the Cerberus monster body only made one unexplained cameo appearance in the 2001 crossover series Joker: Last Laugh (most likely the result of a DC Comics editor searching for unused villains to use as cannon fodder).

Slightly less frustrating was the sudden exit of Bloodthirst, another much-hyped yet short lived villain mastermind. In Superman: The Man of Steel #29 (1994), Superman finally confronts Bloodthirst, who had been employing other villains to cause strife in Metropolis during the previous months. Bloodthirst claims his goal is to challenge humanity in order to prepare them for “the bad times that are coming,” and once he feels he has challenged them sufficiently, he simply disappears. The exact “bad times” Bloodthirst was referring to were never revealed, but considering the number of catastrophes befallen on the DC Comics universe on a daily basis, there are a number of humanity-threatening events from that year alone that could fit the bill.

Another intriguing example of this phenomenon takes place during the long storyline in which Superman suddenly becomes an electric being (complete with a new, cape-less costume). In Adventures of Superman #554 (1997), authorities track a monstrous serial killer down to Metropolis’ sewers, where they find what appears to be its signature: the creature has defaced a wall with the word “RIPPER.” Perhaps spurred into action by this appalling act of vandalism on public property, Superman faces the monster the following week, in Action Comics #740. During this issue, the monster is clearly trying to communicate something to Superman, but is unable to do so due to having a poor grasp on the English language and, by the end of the issue, being dead.

It later becomes clear that the “RIPPER” scrawling was not actually a word but a sort of math formula predicting the future:

The formula depicts a man with a cape (“R”) being divided (“/”) into two cape-less people (“PP”), and finally returning to normal again (“=R”). This prophecy was fulfilled months later with the “Superman Red/Superman Blue” storyline, which saw the electric Superman being split into two color-coded beings and eventually restored to his traditional, caped, non-electric form. But how did the monster know this would happen? Who created it? Are there are more kill-happy precognitive beasts living under Metropolis? Does any of them know how to draw an equal sign properly? And how exactly did Superman turn electric, again? None of these mysteries was ever resolved.