There are comic book characters that have successfully been reinvented over the years, like Superman (originally couldn't fly), the X-Men (originally sans Wolverine) and Batman (originally a cricket-themed adventurer). In all those cases, however, the writers and artists were always respectful to the core of the character, since that's what made them popular in the first place -- changing that would be stupid, because then you might as well create a new character.
Which isn't to say that it hasn't happened. Like in ...
#6. Groovy Kung Fu Wonder Woman
Even though her creators gave her a horrible sexist superhero weakness, Wonder Woman is still a pretty big deal -- if this were a list of the 10 most recognizable superheroes ever, she would not only be there, but also be the only woman.
If this were a list of the superheroes whose live action TV shows we've masturbated to, it would be her and Batman.
Part of the appeal is that the Wonder Woman concept is pretty straightforward: She's a powerful Amazon sent to the world of man to fight crime. It's that simple. Also she owns a magic lasso and an invisible airplane.
The WTF Reinvention:
All that stuff was tossed aside between 1968 and 1973, when DC Comics decided to update Wonder Woman as a hip kung fu private detective without powers. Or a costume. Or, you know, anything else that might justify the use of the words "Wonder Woman" on the cover.
Wonder Woman #201 (1972)
"You dig this diggity dig diggeroo, hepcat? It's the '70s, by the way."
Though DC was probably trying to cash in on that whole "feminism" thing with this move, it all happens because of a guy: In Wonder Woman #179, her boyfriend Steve Trevor (the male Lois Lane) gets in serious trouble and she has to help him -- meanwhile, the Amazons announce they are leaving for another dimension and that Wonder Woman must come with them if she wants to keep her powers. Knowing that Steve would die within two days if left to his own devices, WW gives up her costume and Amazonian abilities to stay with him.
Luckily, she's not helpless for very long because she immediately runs into a blind guy called I Ching who teaches her kung fu.
Wonder Woman #179 (1968)
"The secret to kung fu is -- holy shit why is my left arm Caucasian?"
A short training montage later, the new Wonder Woman is ready to go back to helping Steve ... but then Steve dies anyway, because let's face it, he was a moron. Even though her dead boyfriend was the entire reason that she didn't go with the Amazons, Wonder Woman doesn't even think to follow them into the other dimension. Instead, she opens a mod boutique, becomes a part-time private eye and starts traveling the world with her kung fu master.
Wonder Woman #189 (1970)
"I've forgotten why I decided to become a superhero!"
In one adventure, she fights a gang of lesbian hippie child-slaving jewel thieves, probably as a result of the editor asking for a story "ripped from the headlines" and the writer literally combining several news items together. It's like they were so desperate about doing topical comics that they completely forgot about the "doing Wonder Woman comics" part. In most of these issues the name Wonder Woman isn't even mentioned outside the cover, since the whole time she went by her alias, Diana Prince.
Ironically, the same feminist movement that DC had clumsily been trying to appeal to was responsible for Wonder Woman going back to normal five years later, when an offended Gloria Steinem began a public campaign to reinstitute her classic costume and powers. DC quickly printed a story where I Ching is killed and Wonder Woman gets hit in the head and loses her memory of the past five years, soon wandering back into Amazon island and into her old duds. Presumably her martial arts expertise was reverted at this point as well, because none of this was ever mentioned again.
Wonder Woman #202 (1972)
Sadly, the secret to Fafhrd's man-girdle is forever lost to time.
#5. Angel Punisher
Just about every superhero has some kind of strict moral code, usually regarding murdering their enemies (they're against it). Comics writers put the moral code in to keep our heroes likable, and to prove that they're better than the murderous, costumed villains they fight.
But comics writers were allowed one guy. One hero who was going to look and act like a villain. A guy whose only power was that he was crazy and had lots of guns. No code. No moral hang-ups. Just a "murder the bad guys" kinda guy. That hero is the Punisher.
The Punisher War Journal, #1 (1988)
"With great power comes great shooting everyone in the goddamn face."
It's the one totally irresponsible mainstream comic where all bets are off and everyone dies. It's awesome.
The WTF Reinvention:
In 1998, to freshen up the character (???), Marvel decided to have Frank kill himself (???).
Punisher (vol. 4) #1 (1998)
"I've just killed everyone already. Got shit else to do."
And things just went downhill from there. All because someone thought it wouldn't be that much of a stretch to turn Punisher into a gun-slinging angel.
In this miniseries, the Punisher is brought back to life by Gadriel, a guardian angel who decides to give this mass killer a shot at redemption -- which in this case means handing him angelic weapons and sending him off to kill demons. His new job also gives him invulnerability and heightened senses, at which point he stops being the Punisher and becomes a male version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The Punisher: Purgatory #1 (1998)
"Anyone else getting a migraine?"
While Frank's magic glowing guns can kill common criminals, during the course of this series he mostly uses them to fight the hordes of hell in order to fix his karma and have a chance of seeing his family again in heaven. This is the sort of bullshit premise that could have only come from the mind of a coke-fueled TV executive pitching a toy-friendly Punisher animated series where they don't actually show him killing people, and yet it was written and published by Marvel Comics themselves.
At the end of the miniseries, the Punisher winds up as a sort of guardian angel himself, drawn to helping out people who need it instead of just blowing the heads off of criminals. And when he does come across criminals, he now gives them a chance to repent and walk away before dispatching them, the most blatantly out of character part of the whole mess.
Punisher (vol. 4) #4 (1999)
Why would angel guns need horns?
Apparently being some twisted, angelic disciplinarian with guns was supposed to make the character more likeable, but again, that's not what the Punisher is about. This run completely undermined the intent of the character who had the simplest goal of any superhero ever ("Kill all the things"). After one more miniseries of this same shit (this time guest-starring a very confused Wolverine), Punisher was brought back to normal. Thankfully it only took the next writer a few panels to fix all the damage.
Punisher (vol. 5) #1 (2000)
Punisher (vol. 5) #1 (2000)
#4. Professor Hulk
From his inception, the Incredible Hulk has always been about a normal man (Dr. Bruce Banner) struggling with his inner demons, which are represented in the form of a green monster with a fondness for purple pants.
We'll discuss the levitating, double-amputee Hulk another time.
Central to the story was Banner being forced to live like an outcast while hiding from the military, which proved tricky given his tendency to grow large and smash things whenever he became upset. It's that paradox that made the stories interesting -- that and all the cool mindless violence.
The WTF Reinvention:
In 1991, however, Marvel did a story where Banner gets his shit in order and, through hypnotherapy sessions, cures himself of his anger issues ... leaving him as an 8-foot-tall green-skinned science professor. So not only can the Hulk form coherent sentences now; perhaps most offensively, he also wears full clothes.
The Incredible Hulk Online
Stan Lee must be spinning in his $100 bill Jacuzzi.
But such a dramatic reversal of the character's very core couldn't last for long, right? Actually, it went on for eight years, with Banner staying in his Hulk form the whole time since there was really no reason to turn back into a skinny little nerd anymore. Not only that, Hulk also turned into a full-fledged superhero, joining a philanthropic organization called the Pantheon and eventually becoming their boss.
Obviously, Hulk's new social status required him to class up his act even more:
Incredible Hulk #402 (1993)
Thirty tailors died constructing that suit.
Incredible Hulk #405 (1993)
So yeah, he wasn't really the Hulk anymore in the traditional sense. He could still smash a tank pretty good, but preferred using his brain before his massive fists. More importantly, he no longer found himself in that sort of situation as often as he used to. One storyline was completely centered on Professor Hulk dealing with the fact that a close friend had contracted AIDS -- which was a great way to raise awareness and all, but not exactly the kind of drama you picture when you pick up a comic with a giant muscular abomination on the cover.
Incredible Hulk #420 (1994)
"KIDS BUY HULK COMICS FOR TENDER PATHOS!"
But wait, if he's that muscular giant when he's feeling calm, what happens if he gets really, really angry? Well ...
Incredible Hulk #425 (1995)
Why are his pants torn?
Eventually Professor Hulk was revealed to be just another split personality (which they seriously called "Professor Hulk"), meaning that Banner was never really cured at all. It took his savage version 15 minutes to ruin all his good work and punch things back to normalcy.