Wonder Woman trades her skirt for slacks. Superman can now travel the globe through 56K modems. The Punisher becomes an avenging angel under God's employ. Tony Stark's armor secretly harbors a pastry compartment. Wolverine evolves adamantium saliva.
60% of these were real plot points, and an additional 20% were a Hostess Twinkie ad. Of those actual character developments, all were met with varying quanta of reader consternation and ultimatum-containing letters to the editor. ("I will never look at a Marvel Comic again because I have stuffed my eyelids with pumpernickel and am stumbling to the neighborhood duck pond WITH PURPOSE.")
And it's easy to snark away gripes like these as the mewling of fanboys-and-girls who'd bellyache even if Batman's new costume was embroidered Matthew Lesko-style with the next decade's worth of winning Powerball numbers. It's equally effortless to pish-posh this entire discussion as "just comic books. (Subtext: Merciful heavens, I do believe there's a monocle napkin convention in a fortnight!)"
But let me commiserate with you, reader who was annoyed when Dr. Strange got hammered and made Spider-Man grow antlers.¹ And you too, reader who was outraged when Spider-Man drank the Fantastic Four's anti-antler aromatic sixty-six issues later.² At the core, you're not being irrational when you're miffed that someone futzed with your favorite superhero.
Sure, your methods of voicing this displeasure may need work ("Dear editor, I have yelled into this Hulk piñata, smash it to hear my laments") and the actual content of your complaint may be downright regrettable ("Dear editor, since when is Batgirl A WOMAN?") but this is an instinctual itch that every superhero fan shares.
Face it, superhero narratives — with their decades of backstory and official canon — can be a fucking chore unlike any other (save soap operas). When you read Lolita, you didn't have to trundle through forty years of Humbert Humbert perving it up to maximize your literary experience. And like reimagined Shakespeare performances, the essence of the modern comic book superhero stays mostly immutable.
But the presses pumping out Hamlet paperbacks don't pause for rewrites every time a blackbox theater company dumps Elsinore in the San Fernando Valley and forces the protagonist to soliloquize The Great American Challenge (don't click on that). The myth of Heracles went through multiple iterations over the centuries, but nowadays there are no authors sanctioned by the National Archaeological Museum of Athens to shoehorn in an official thirteenth labor (such as The Great American Challenge, sample Amazon review: "The type of silicone seems to attract dust and fuzz from everything so wash before every use.") Batman and Spider-Man have yet to grow as Olympically static, thanks to status-quo-resetting events like the New 52 and Marvel NOW.
Furthermore, we've reached such a historical watershed that different generations possess nostalgic affections for different moments in the same superheroes' histories. For example, the Last Son of Krypton resonated with my mother in the early 1960s because she was a half-Jewish girl whose name ended in a "Z" growing up around a gaggle of Betty Drapers in Rhode Island. (Death of Superman — with its unfamiliar Nineties trappings — made no sense to her, but she got a kick out of All-Star Superman.) Conversely, my dad was more of a Batman fan in the late 1950s because he grew up in Stamford, Connecticut and had easygoing Kansas relatives who afforded him access to firearms, automobiles, and other grown-up totems before he hit middle school. (As for me, my upbringing dictates that my write-in candidate for the 2012 election will be "Captain Haddock.")
The biggest superheroes are more than characters to be reinvented and remixed ad infinitum. For many of us, they provide an iconographic shorthand to deep-rooted emotions and memories. We can't help but feel proprietary of them, no matter how damn ridiculous and trivial the change. When Superman loses his red underwear for blue Kryptonian battle-trousers, it's a repudiation of our very history, a subconscious betrayal of our halcyon, briefs-on-the-outside past. Whether or not you fart in a FedEx envelope and mail it to DC Comics, well, that's up to you.
Panels are from the most important Batman comic ever written.
¹ This never happened.