It’s a common axiom that nothing is an overnight success, but for some properties, it takes a little longer than others. At DC Comics, this is as true as anywhere, and some popular heroes have grown tremendously from truly dreadful debut stories. While not every character can have a smashing debut like Superman or Batman, that doesn’t mean they can’t grow to become beloved favorites as time goes on.
Where characters start isn’t always where they end up. New writers and artists come to DC every year, and some of them love the challenge of reinventing a character for a new generation, turning a lackluster debut into something special.
10/10 An Iconic Golden Age Good Girl Art Character, Phantom Lady Only Got A Story Much Later
Police Comics #1 By Arthur Peddy
Early on, superheroes often didn’t receive much of an origin in their first published story. Despite wearing no mask, using only a blacklight, and never explaining why she’s doing anything, Phantom Lady made her debut by saving an atomic scientist and leaving some saboteurs to die.
Though a character under the Quality Comics umbrella when created, DC acquired Phantom Lady in 1956 and made her a member of the patriotic team the Freedom Fighters in 1973. Never a household name, Phantom Lady wasn’t forgotten despite that lackluster first story in Police Comics #1 from 1941.
9/10 Elongated Man Stretched Out From His Lackluster Debut
The Flash #112 By John Broome And Carmine Infantino
If only getting superpowers was as easy as it is in the origin story for Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man. As a child, Dibny became obsessed with contortionists and managed to make a concentrated extract from the fruit in a soda all contortionists drank. Ingesting this made him so flexible he could stretch his body to insane lengths.
The ridiculous story charmed fans enough that Ralph returned again and again in the pages of The Flash. He found love and married his wife Sue, and the two became fan favorites during their time as members of Justice League Europe.
8/10 Catman Started As A Joke, But Became A Beloved Hero
Detective Comics #311 By Bill Finger And Jim Mooney
Though Catman was originally intended to be a joke villain, most readers would probably say that joke didn’t land. Catman drove a Cat-Car, made his headquarters in a series of catacombs, and had a large “CM” on his chest. An obvious parody of Batman, Catman mostly disappeared.
Catman will never be as popular as Batman, but he had his moment in the sun when Gail Simone and Dale Eaglesham shocked everyone by revamping the character as an antihero in the pages of 2006’s Villains United. Depicted him as a man discovering purpose after soul-searching, Catman’s redemption story struck a chord with readers.
7/10 Created Entirely By Accident, Donna Troy Stole Readers’ Hearts As Wonder Girl
The Brave and the Bold #60 By Bob Haney And Bruno Premiani
Sometimes, comic book writers make messes for others to solve. In 1965, DC rushed to capitalize on sidekicks to their popular characters and, reportedly, either writer Bob Haney or editor George Kashdan looked over covers to identify sidekicks without reading the comics. Wonder Girl was simply Wonder Woman in a time travel story, but was mistaken for a sister that didn’t exist. Haney wrote Teen Titans that way, accidentally creating a new character.
The New Teen Titans story from 1983 titled “Who is Donna Troy?” attempted to clear all this up. For quite some time, nobody had an answer to that question. Presumably unconcerned, fans liked the character and that was that.
6/10 Jay Garrick Birthed The Flash Family Thanks To A Smoke Break And Hard Water
Flash Comics #1 by Gardner Fox And Harry Lampert
Superhero comics have always had an odd relationship with science, even more than most science fiction. The origin of the original super-speedster Jay Garrick, the Golden Age version of the Flash, tested that stretch. When he knocks over a beaker containing hard water while smoking a cigarette, Jay inhales the fumes and gets super-speed.
Hard water is just H₂O with a high amount of safe mineral traces. People drink it from their home taps often. How inhaling hard water as evaporated steam could give someone the ability to move faster than the speed of sound didn’t seem to bother readers, though, because the Flash has become an entire legacy of characters who are still in publication eighty-three years later.
5/10 Jason Todd Started Out As A Blonde Dick Grayson
Batman #357 By Gerry Conway And Don Newton
Most fans think of Jason Todd’s debut as the 1987 post-Crisis story in which a streetwise Todd steals the Batmobile’s wheels, but that’s not the truth. His real debut was years earlier in 1982 and is almost identical to the origin of the first Robin, Dick Grayson. It’s full of awkward foreshadowing ahead of the boy trapeze artist getting orphaned, too.
Jason Todd’s second incarnation is killed in the famous “A Death in the Family,” but resurrected as a hard-boiled vigilante in the mid-2000s. He’s proven popular enough to feature in several Batman animated films and video games.
4/10 Hitman Was The Only Success To Come Out Of Bloodlines
The Demon Annual #2 By Garth Ennis And John McCrea
Created as part of “Bloodlines,” a storyline transparently designed to infuse DC with fresh characters, Hitman ended up among the most successful new DC characters of the ’90s. Tommy Monaghan was an ex-Marine turned professional hitman who gets bitten by an extradimensional alien, giving him x-ray vision and telepathy. That’s extremely simple as comic book origins go.
Tommy’s gritty nihilistic sarcasm was shocking but endearing to readers. Garth Ennis and John McCrea launched extremely well-regarded careers in America on the success of the 60 issues of Hitman, and fans still speak highly of its quality. It’s nothing short of remarkable to go from such weird side-story origins to success.
3/10 Golden Age Aquaman Has So Much Less Gravitas Than Aquaman Does Today
More Fun Comics #73 By Mort Weisinger And Paul Norris
The Aquaman film may have grossed a billion dollars at the box office, but his 1941 Golden Age comics premiere was not too well-thought-out. Arthur Curry eventually became the half-Atlantean king readers know, but in his short debut story, he might not be “Arthur Curry” at all because he has no name and was created through “a hundred scientific secrets” in a 4-panel origin flashback.
In 1959, Aquaman’s origin was redone for the Silver Age, making him the character fans know today. Over the decades since, the character has found many fans in comics, animation, and on film as portrayed by Jason Momoa. Among the most popular superheroes DC publishes, Aquaman sure has come far.
2/10 Wally West Became Kid Flash By Repeating Barry Allen’s Origin
The Flash #110 By John Broome And Carmine Infantino
In the case of the Flash’s sidekick, lightning does strike twice. Wally West is the nephew of Iris West, Barry Allen’s girlfriend. Barry Allen is better known as the second man to fight crime at super-speed under the Flash name, who gained his powers after a wall of chemicals struck by lightning splashed onto him. When Wally mysteriously gets the same powers from a sudden similar accident, he becomes Kid Flash.
To reuse a story is one thing, even to replicate one sidekick’s tale to create one for another hero wouldn’t be too bad. In this case, writer John Broome literally gave a sidekick super-powers in the exact way the main character’s one-in-a-million accident did. It’s a miracle Wally became so beloved.
1/10 Batwoman Went From A Creation To Stop Homophobic Rumors To Becoming A Gay Icon
Detective Comics #233 By Edmond Hamilton And Sheldon Moldoff
Many different characters have worn the mantle of Batwoman, but the first, Kathy Kane, appeared in 1956. Most people thought of this character as a completely unneeded addition to the stories spurred by accusations that Batman and Robin’s partnership was a thinly-veiled gay relationship.
An entirely new and popular version of the character debuted in 2006. Now going by Kate Kane, this Batwoman is a lesbian kicked out of West Point under the American military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policies around LGBTQ people, a kind of poetic justice considering the birth of the character.
NEXT: 10 Ways Jay Garrick Was The Greatest Flash