This year marks two of comics’ biggest anniversaries, as fans celebrate 45 years of the rebirth of the X-Men, and 40 years of DC Comics’ New Teen Titans. Both super teams were originally conceived in the Silver Age of the ‘60s, but never got much traction in their original incarnations. And by the early ‘70s, both were canceled by their respective publishers. But their eventual reboots made these comic book series their companies’ biggest sellers, as well as two of their most enduring brands to this day. Most importantly, they set the template for how you reconfigure a team comic that was a good concept, but didn’t quite land the first time.

How X-MEN and TEEN TITANS Invented the Modern Super Team Reboot_1

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The First Attempts

X-Men was launched in the summer of 1963, in the middle of a prolific period for Marvel’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. They had already created instant hits with comics like Fantastic Four, and no doubt X-Men was seen as another sure-fire success story from Lee and Kirby. Sales figures for that time are nearly impossible to find today, but Lee and Kirby successfully churned out issues for two years. Once the pair left the series, sales went into free fall; it became among the lowest selling of Marvel’s superhero books by 1969, and was soon thereafter canceled.

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Over at DC, the Justice League’s kid sidekicks got their own series in 1965 with Teen Titans. While X-Men was progressive and daring for the time, Teen Titans was definitely written with younger readers in mind. The characters used trendy ‘60s slang in nearly every sentence, albeit ‘60s slang as written by 45-year-old men. Still, the comic was popular, with sales likely benefiting from the fact that the ‘60s Batman TV series aired right as Teen Titans hit newsstands. The Titans even got a short-lived cartoon series as well. But by the early ‘70s, the gimmick had worn off, and the comic was canceled.

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try Again

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X-Men was eventually revived, mostly as a way for Marvel to make traction with foreign markets. In 1975, Marvel’s EIC decided to make a more international group of superheroes to engage foreign audiences, and so they decided to use the X-Men concept as the vehicle for that. After all, it was a somewhat known brand that was just sitting there gathering dust. Creators Lein Wein and Dave Cockrum decided to create a whole new cast of mutant students for Xavier’s School like Storm, Colossus, and Nightcrawler. And most importantly, they added in newly created Canadian hero Wolverine.

But they also wisely kept what did work from the original concept. Things like the idea of persecuted mutants, Professor X and his school for the gifted, and the robotic mutant-hunting Sentinels all remained. Plus, two of the original students, Cyclops and Jean Grey, got upgrades. The writing and characters were miles ahead of what anyone else was doing, thanks to the work of writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne. Slowly but surely, X-Men became a hit. By 1980, it was Marvel’s biggest selling title.

DC Comics

Someone at DC had to have noticed. Despite having been canceled years prior, Teen Titans was thought to be viable for a similar reboot in 1980. Granted, creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez deny any X-Men influence on the creation of The New Teen Titans. But the formula was the same as Marvel’s revival; keep a couple of core heroes from the original run but fill out the book with new and exciting characters and make them the focus. And, as with X-Men, it worked. By the mid ’80s, DC and Marvel’s biggest selling heroes were team books that had been canceled due to low reader interest just a decade prior. The two teams would even meet for a crossover event decades before the Avengers and the Justice League ever did.

When The X-Men/Titans Reboot Formula Worked, and When It Didn’t

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DC would find similar success using this same reboot formula with another second-tier team book from the ‘60s, the outcast heroes called the Doom Patrol. Although other Doom Patrol revivals had been tried before, none of them clicked. But the 1989 reboot of the book by writer Grant Morrison kept some key characters, and introduced several new ones that became fan favorites. But they kept the core concept—a team of the world’s most bizarre heroes—and just dialed up the weirdness.

More recently, in the mid 2000s, Marvel Comics took a fairly obscure cosmic adventure title called Guardians of the Galaxy, about a motley crew of outer space heroes, changed the entire line-up, and… well, we’re pretty sure you’re aware that the rest is history. The Guardians are now household names, while Doom Patrol is one of DC Universe streaming service’s most acclaimed series.

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But what worked like gangbusters for X-Men and Titans wasn’t something that could be applied to every ailing team book. By the mid ‘80s, fan enthusiasm on comics like Justice League of America and Avengers was not what it once was. In 1984, DC decided to try the Titans reboot formula on JLA. After nearly 25 years, they removed the most iconic heroes from the line-up. No more Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. They were replaced by brand new heroes, all seeming to represent an aesthetic you’d see on MTV music videos. It’s fair to say most fans rejected this new JLA completely, and it was canceled in two years.

Marvel’s Avengers lost several of its key characters during this same time period, though less drastically. No Iron Man, no Thor, etc. The Avengers had a bigger history of big line-up changes going back to their earliest years, so the backlash wasn’t quite as bad. To make an analogy to another ’80s piece of pop culture, when it came to the JLA and the Avengers, fans wanted Coke Classic, not New Coke. After years of ups and down for both titles, both JLA and Avengers found incredible success in the late ’90s by once again showcasing their biggest heroes. What wasn’t broke, it turned out, needed no fixing.

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So what’s the ultimate lesson here? In short, a great premise with a flawed original execution always deserves at least one more try. Especially if the creative teams behind them are passionate. If those two revivals in particular hadn’t clicked, you would have never had the now-classic animated shows, much less any live-action incarnations. A lot of our modern superhero media today would be altogether different had Marvel and DC not taken a leap of faith and given two old failed titles a second chance.

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