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10 Great Comic Book Cliffhangers

Super-hero comics have provided some brilliant cliffhangers over the decades. Choosing 10 of the best, most significant cliffhangers is a tough job, so let's narrow it down to the "Big Two" comic book companies, Marvel and DC Comics. Between them, they have provided some cliffhangers that not only brought us back for more, but have influenced comics, television, and the movies.

1. Crushed like a bug

The Amazing Spider-Man #38, 1966 #31-33, 1966

One of the super-heroes' worst enemies was the Comics Code Authority, the tough censorship body, which even frowned at cliffhangers because the villains were not brought to justice in the same comic where they committed their crimes! Marvel Comics' Spider-Man was one of the first comics to rebel against this, allowing villains to escape until the next issue. But even when he won, Spider-Man could still be left with a great cliffhanger. One of the most popular stories (recently voted the second most popular Spider-Man story ever, 46 years after it was published) finished with a doozy: With his Aunt May in hospital, dying of radiation poisoning (due to a blood transfusion he gave her), he tries to get the antidote, but is stopped by the villainous Dr. Octopus. Angrier than ever, Spider-Man destroys Dr. Octopus's lab. Though Dr. Octopus is defeated, tons of metallic debris falls on Spider-Man, leaving him trapped. As water starts to flood the structure, the serum remains just out of reach. (In the next issue, he frees himself and grabs the serum just in the nick of time.)

2. The coming of Galactus

The Fantastic Four #48, 1966

Afraid that the popularity of super-heroes would not last forever, Marvel editor Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby (who co-wrote The Fantastic Four) upped the ante by creating the ultimate super villain: Galactus, a godlike, 28-foot-high being who survived by consuming the energy from planets. In the first cliffhanger of this story, he announces that the Earth is doomed. The cliffhanger was powerful enough to change story structure in comics, so that countless stories have followed this formula, revealing the villain on the final page of the first issue... then finding a way to stop him over the next few issues. After Galactus, however, villains would rarely seem so threatening.

3. "Prepare for... my ultimate REVENGE!"

Captain America #115, 1969

This one wasn't quite so influential, but it's one of my favorite cliffhangers ever (so there). This comic ended with the hideous Red Skull using the magical Cosmic Cube to transform Captain America into the Red Skull, while the Skull himself transforms into Captain America. The Captain's girlfriend Sharon runs to the villain for protection, unaware that, deep down, he's a monstrous war criminal. The hero himself is stuck with a skull-like visage and a girlfriend who thinks he's an evil monster, but being an altruistic good guy, he's not just thinking of himself. "What will happen to her," he thinks, "and to all MANKIND... while the world's DEADLIEST MENACE can walk among men... as CAPTAIN AMERICA?!!" The idea would later be done in television and movies (like Face/Off), but perhaps the comics did it best.

4. "You're really a junkie?"

Green Lantern / Green Arrow #85, 1971

The Comics Code had decided that drugs were off-limits for comics – so much so that, when Marvel did an anti-drugs story in Spider-Man (at the request of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare), it wasn't given the stamp of approval. (That's another story that can be found here.) After this, the rule was relaxed. The idea of a super-hero who used drugs, however, was unthinkable... until Speedy, the Green Arrow's ward and young sidekick, confessed all to his anti-junkie guardian. Speedy's drug habit came as a shock not only to the Green Arrow, but to his readers as well. He was a respected sidekick, and a valued member of the Teen Titans. Writer Denny O'Neill, who based many powerful stories around Speedy's addiction, later worked for Marvel Comics – writing stories about Iron Man's alcoholism that, once again, did not trivialize the issue.

5. "Now it's MY turn!"

Uncanny X-Men, 1979

A classic cliffhanger leaves our hero in a terrible predicament, making us want to read the next issue for an answer to the question "How will he get out of this one?" Some cliffhangers, however, make us want to read on for other reasons. One of Marvel's best-remembered cliffhangers happened when the evil Hellfire Club ambushed the X-Men, pounding Wolverine under a building, and defeating everyone else one by one. In the last page, when all seemed lost, the savage (and basically invulnerable) Wolverine reappeared from the sewers. "Okay, suckers – you've taken yer BEST SHOT!" he says. "Now it's MY turn!" What did he do next? You would have to read the next comic to find out how he handled those creeps – and, of course, who could turn down such an offer? Soon, X-Men was America's top-selling comic book, and Wolverine was polled as Marvel's most popular character, the guy you can really depend on when the going gets tough. That cliffhanger was frequently imitated – on the comics and on TV. (Memorable example: The famous cliffhanger in Buffy, in which Giles appears as the last hope against the seemingly unstoppable Willow.)

6. The end of the universe

Crisis on Infinite Earths #4, 1985

DC Comics decided to reboot their whole universe (and improve their sales) in Crisis on Infinite Earths, a series in which the universe (in fact, several parallel universes) were being wiped out by a mysterious wave of anti-matter. The story was meant to last for 12 issues, but in the final pages of the fourth issue, the universe is clearly erased from existence. The final words: "To be continued --?" Of course, they were saved, and a new universe was forged from the wreckage. (This universe lasted until 2011, when the world was reset yet again. Once more, starting afresh was good for sales.)

7. "I did it 35 minutes ago."

Watchmen #11, 1987

Many consider Alan Moore's super-hero series Watchmen to be the greatest super-hero comic ever. It certainly ranks among the most intellectual, discussed in university courses and even appearing (as a graphic novel) among the New York Times bestsellers. Fittingly, the main "villain" (though it's too simple to call him that) was Ozymandias, a former super-hero. While he wasn't as strong as some others, he had a far more dangerous power: super-genius. In one issue, in his hideout in Antarctica, he revealed to some of his former allies that he had created an "alien being" that he planned to teleport into Manhattan, killing half of the city in the process. It was a classic situation: a bad guy gloating about his terrible plan to the heroes, so they have time to stop him. "When were you planning to do it?" asks Nite Owl. But that's where it gets interesting: "Do you seriously think I'd explain my MASTERSTROKE if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its OUTCOME?" says Ozymandias calmly. "I did it thirty-five minutes ago." In the next issue, half of New York was destroyed (a scene that was changed slightly for the film), and it was clear that Watchmen was not your average super-hero comic.

8. "Can he possibly be alive?"

Batman #427, 1988

DC Comics wasn't sure about Jason Todd, a.k.a. Robin. Since ha had become Batman's sidekick (to replace Dick Grayson, the original Robin), he had not been popular, so they tried something new: they left his fate to the readers. Writer Jim Starlin and artist Jim Aparo prepared two stories for publication – one in which he was killed by a bomb, one in which he survived – depending on the readers' votes. Result: he was killed. In 2005, the hit TV show Law & Order took DC's lead, using audience votes to determine the fate of child killer Nicole Wallace (Olivia D'Abo). Though she was a villain, the viewers spared her life. Robin, one of the good guys, was executed by comic book readers. Perhaps Batman fans are more bloodthirsty than Law & Order fans? Whatever the case, Robin returned to life years later (as super-heroes tend to do), so the readers' dastardly plot was foiled after all.

9. Clark Kent reveals his identity

Action Comics #662, 1991

One of the essential parts of the Superman legend is that few people know that he is Clark Kent – not even the woman he loves. Even 54 years later (in reality, not in the comic book world), with Lois Lane finally engaged to Clark, she was still unaware of his double life. On the final page of one comic, however, he revealed the truth to a startled Lois, leaving us to wonder "How will she take it?" She was surprisingly happy to find that her fiancé was actually Superman. Readers took slightly longer to get over their shock – and the proof that even Superman, after all these decades, can still try something new.

10. Unmasked

Thunderbolts #1, 1997

With other Marvel super-heroes presumed dead, the Thunderbolts were introduced as a new team to fill the gap. Soon they had their own comic, promoting them as "all-new heroes" and "the next Avengers." But at the end of the first issue, after a successful day's crime-fighting, their patriotic leader Citizen V revealed in the privacy of their HQ that he was actually Baron Zemo, a Nazi villain from the Captain America comics. His teammates were also revealed: members of the Masters of Evil, who had fought the Avengers on many occasions. Their plan: win everyone's trust (which they were already doing), then rule the world. It was considered one of the great twists in comics. Of course, the real heroes returned soon enough, and Zemo was defeated (though some of his pals liked playing hero so much that they changed sides).

*

Thanks to commenter Kendall for pointing out the error in the Master Planner Saga issue numbers! #38 was great, but it was no #33.

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Netflix's Most-Binged Shows of 2017, Ranked
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Netflix might know your TV habits better than you do. Recently, the entertainment company's normally tight-lipped number-crunchers looked at user data collected between November 1, 2016 and November 1, 2017 to see which series people were powering through and which ones they were digesting more slowly. By analyzing members’ average daily viewing habits, they were able to determine which programs were more likely to be “binged” (or watched for more than two hours per day) and which were more often “savored” (or watched for less than two hours per day) by viewers.

They found that the highest number of Netflix bingers glutted themselves on the true crime parody American Vandal, followed by the Brazilian sci-fi series 3%, and the drama-mystery 13 Reasons Why. Other shows that had viewers glued to the couch in 2017 included Anne with an E, the Canadian series based on L. M. Montgomery's 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, and the live-action Archie comics-inspired Riverdale.

In contrast, TV shows that viewers enjoyed more slowly included the Emmy-winning drama The Crown, followed by Big Mouth, Neo Yokio, A Series of Unfortunate Events, GLOW, Friends from College, and Ozark.

There's a dark side to this data, though: While the company isn't around to judge your sweatpants and the chip crumbs stuck to your couch, Netflix is privy to even your most embarrassing viewing habits. The company recently used this info to publicly call out a small group of users who turned their binges into full-fledged benders:

Oh, and if you're the one person in Antarctica binging Shameless, the streaming giant just outed you, too.

Netflix broke down their full findings in the infographic below and, Big Brother vibes aside, the data is pretty fascinating. It even includes survey data on which shows prompted viewers to “Netflix cheat” on their significant others and which shows were enjoyed by the entire family.

Netflix infographic "The Year in Bingeing"
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14 Fascinating Facts About Saturday Night Fever
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

We can tell by the way you use your walk that you're a fan of Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 blockbuster that made John Travolta a mega-star and brought disco into the mainstream. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.) To enhance your appreciation of what was the highest-grossing dance movie of all time until Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) beat it, here's a groovy list of facts to celebrate the film's 40th birthday. Put on your boogie shoes and read! 

1. THERE WAS A PG-RATED VERSION OF IT, TOO.

Saturday Night Fever was an instant hit when it was released in December 1977, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. What's especially impressive is that it did this despite being rated R and thus (theoretically) inaccessible to teenagers, the very audience that a disco movie would (theoretically) appeal to. And so in March 1979, the film was re-released in a PG version, with all the profanity, sex, and violence either deleted or downplayed. This version took in another $8.9 million (about $30 million at 2016 ticket prices), bringing the film's U.S. total to $94.2 million. Both versions were released on VHS and laserdisc, though the R-rated cut didn't become widely available on home video until the DVD upgrade. 

2. IT WAS BASED ON A MAGAZINE ARTICLE THAT TURNED OUT TO BE SEMI-FICTIONAL.

"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," a detailed look at the new generation of urban teenagers by British journalist Nik Cohn, was published in New York Magazine in June 1976. The central figure in the article was Vincent, "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge," whose name was changed to Tony Manero for the movie. But years later, Cohn confessed: "[Vincent] is completely made-up, a total fabrication." The styles and attitudes Cohn had described were real, but not the main character. Cohn said he'd only recently arrived in Brooklyn, didn't know the scene well, and based Vincent on a Mod he'd known in London in the '60s.

3. THE BEE GEES HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

Most of the film had already been shot when music producer-turned-movie producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to write songs for it. The brothers, only modestly successful at that point and hard at work on their next album, didn't know what the movie was about but cranked out a few tunes in a weekend. They also repurposed several songs they'd been working on, including "Stayin' Alive," a demo version of which was prepared in time to be used in filming the opening "strut" sequence. (You'll notice Travolta struts in sync with the music.) So if the movie's signature songs didn't come until later, what were the cast members listening to when they shot the dance scenes? According to Travolta, it was Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. 

4. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM BROKE ALL KINDS OF RECORDS.

With 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, Saturday Night Fever was the top-selling soundtrack album of all time before being supplanted by The Bodyguard some 15 years later. It's also the only disco record (so far) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and one of only three soundtracks (besides The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to win that category. It was the number one album on the Billboard charts for the entire first half of 1978, and stayed on the charts until March 1980, long after the supposed death of disco.

5. THE MOVIE EXTENDED DISCO'S LIFESPAN BY A FEW YEARS.

Disco had been popular enough in the mid-1970s to land multiple disco tunes on the Billboard charts, but by the end of 1977, when Saturday Night Fever came out, the backlash had started and the trend was on its way out. But thanks to the movie (and its soundtrack), not only did disco not die out, it achieved more widespread, mainstream, middle-America success than it ever had before.

6. IT HAS SOME ROCKY CONNECTIONS.


Paramount Pictures

First connection: It was supposed to be directed by John G. Avildsen, whose previous film was Rocky. Ultimately, that didn’t work out and Avildsen was replaced with John Badham a few weeks before shooting began. Second connection: Tony has a Rocky poster on his bedroom wall. Third connection: Saturday Night Fever’s 1983 sequel, Staying Alive, was directed by ... Sylvester Stallone.

7. TRAVOLTA WAS ALREADY SO FAMOUS THAT MAKING THE MOVIE WAS A HASSLE.

Saturday Night Fever made Travolta a movie star, but he was already a teen heartthrob because of the popular sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, where he played a delinquent teenager with the hilarious and timeless catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose." Still, nobody was prepared for how Travolta's fame would affect the movie, which was to be shot on the streets of Brooklyn. As soon as the neighborhood found out Travolta was there, the sidewalks were swarmed by thousands of onlookers, many of them squealing teenage girls. (Badham said there were also a lot of teenage boys holding signs expressing their hatred for Travolta for being more desirable than themselves.)

Co-star Donna Pescow said, "The fans—oh, my God, they were all over him. It was scary to watch." Badham said, "By noon of the first day, we had to shut down and go home." Since it was nearly impossible to keep the crowds away (or quiet), Badham and the crew resorted to filming in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn. 

8. THE WHITE CASTLE EMPLOYEES WEREN'T ACTING WHEN THEY LOOKED SHOCKED. 


Paramount Pictures

In the brief scene where Tony, his boys, and Stephanie are loudly eating at White Castle, those were the real burger-flippers, not actors. Badham told them to just go about their business. He also told his actors to cut loose and surprise the White Castlers in whatever way they saw fit. The shot that's in the movie appears to be a reaction to Joey standing on the table and barking, but Badham said it was actually in response to something else: "Double J (actor Paul Pape) pulling his pants down and mooning the entire staff of the White Castle."

9. THE FEMALE LEAD GOT THE PART THANKS TO A SERENDIPITOUS CAB RIDE.

Casting the role of Tony's dance partner, Stephanie, proved difficult. Hundreds of women auditioned, but nobody seemed right. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Karen Lynn Gorney was looking for her big break into show business. As fate would have it, she shared a cab with a stranger who turned out to be producer Robert Stigwood's nephew. He mentioned that his uncle was working on a movie, and Gorney replied, "Oh, am I in it?"— her standard joke whenever she heard about a film being made. The nephew wound up submitting Gorney as a candidate, and the rest is history. 

10. TRAVOLTA’S GIRLFRIEND DIED DURING FILMING.

John Travolta stars in Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Paramount Pictures

Travolta met Diana Hyland on the set of the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, in which she played his mother. (She was 18 years older than him.) They had been dating for six months when Hyland succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 41, after filming just four episodes of her new gig on Eight Is Enough. Travolta was able to leave Saturday Night Fever and fly to L.A. in time to be with her before she died, then had to return to work. 

11. THE COMPOSER HAD TO SCRAMBLE TO REPLACE A NIXED SONG.

For Tony and Stephanie's rehearsal scene about 30 minutes into the movie, Badham had used the song "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs, going so far as to shoot the scene, including the dialogue, with the song actually playing in the background. (That's usually a no-no, for exactly the reasons you're about to read about.) According to Badham, no sooner had they wrapped the scene than Scaggs' people reached out to say they couldn't use the song after all, as Scaggs was thinking of pursuing a disco project of his own. Badham now had to have the actors re-dub the dialogue (since the version he'd recorded was tainted by "Lowdown"); what's more, he had to find a new song that would fit the choreography and tempo of the dancing. Composer David Shire rose to the occasion, writing a piece of instrumental music that met the specifications, and that’s what we hear in the movie. 

12. THEY MADE UP A DANCE BECAUSE THE CHOREOGRAPHER DIDN'T SHOW UP.

In another rehearsal scene 55 minutes into the movie, Tony and Stephanie do the "tango hustle," which looks like a combination of both of those dances. This was something Travolta and Gorney invented as a matter of necessity: the film's choreographer didn't realize he was supposed to be on the set that day, and the actors didn't have any steps prepared. The tango hustle, alas, never quite caught on.  

13. TONY’S ICONIC WHITE SUIT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

Travolta and Badham both assumed Tony's disco outfit would be black, as men's suits tended to be at the time. Costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein convinced them it should be white, partly to symbolize the character's journey to enlightenment but also for practical reasons: a dark suit doesn't photograph very well in a dark discotheque. 

14. TONY’S SUIT WAS LATER SOLD FOR $2000—THEN FOR $145,500.

Von Brandenstein took Travolta to a cheap men's clothing store in Brooklyn (swamped by teenage fans, of course) and bought the suit off the rack—three identical suits, actually, so they wouldn't have to stop filming when one became soaked with Travolta's sweat. Two of the suits disappeared after the movie was finished; the remaining one, inscribed by Travolta, was bought at a charity auction in 1979 by film critic Gene Siskel, who cited Saturday Night Fever as one of his favorite movies. He paid about $2000 for it. In 1995, he sold it for $145,500 to an anonymous bidder through Christie's auction house.

In 2012, after a lengthy search, curators at London's Victoria and Albert Museum found the owner (who still preferred to remain anonymous) and persuaded him to lend it for an exhibit of Hollywood costumes. It is now presumably back in that man's care, whoever he may be. (P.S. Badham says on the 2002 DVD commentary that the suit is on display at the Smithsonian, a tidbit repeated by NPR in 2006 and Vanity Fair in 2007. But they must be mistaken. The suit’s sale in 1995 and rediscovery for the 2012 museum exhibit are verified facts; the suit isn't in the Smithsonian's online catalogue; and finally, a 2007 Washington Post story about the Smithsonian lists the suit as one of the items the museum director wanted to get.)

Additional sources:
John Badham DVD commentary
DVD featurettes

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