Most of the biggest comic titles in the world have attracted different creative teams over the years. How do you follow greatness and emulate genius? It must be one of the most thankless jobs in the entire comics business.
It's usually the original creators that set the benchmark on a mainstream superhero comic, one that every subsequent creative team do their best to follow. It's pure logic, as nobody really should know what a character is like more than the person who dreamed them up.
Nobody who has ever worked on the Fantastic Four since Stan and Jack moved on to Hollywood and the Infinite have ever said that their work was as good as those first hundred and something issues. And they would be right. Anybody who signs on to have a crack at the World's Greatest Comic Magazine is working in their shadow, and will always face comparison. It has got to the point where master self-promoter Mark Millar actually toned down his hyperbole, and managed to suggest that even his and Hitch's recent run is not up there with the Lee/Kirby run. Although it was still meant to be the best thing ever in the last ten years or something...
Across the hallway, Ditko Spider-Man is also a definitive version, even if the smoother Romita version is the one which become a ubiquitous marketing icon. Lee and Ditko were on a roll with Spidey for those first three dozen issues, and despite numerous attempts to recapture the fire, neither creator has had that much success in the years since.
Out in the independent world, creator ownership has not only ensured that a particular vision of a creation will be a definitive one, but that it will also invariably be a singular one. It's hard to imagine other creators having a go at concepts such as Cerebus, Sin City or Love and Rockets, outside the odd pin-up and rare collaboration. The ownership of the concept has served these creators well, and has frequently lead to some of the most stunning comics in history.
Being first doesn't always guarantee that a definitive high point in a comic has been reached. Just as often, a new creator with a different eye will come aboard, reinterpret it into something new and see nothing but pale imitations for years to come.
Nobody who has ever taken on the writing duties on Swamp Thing in the last couple of decades has ever been able to avoid the shadow of Alan Moore's run on the comic. There were certainly the odd high points, such as a young Millar's sweetly apocalyptic run and Veitch's filthy and mucky meanderings, but the ideas and concepts Moore (and, to a slightly lesser extent, creator Len Wein,) brought to the table are rarely transcended. The problem is, these ideas are now more than a quarter of a century old, and it's more than a little depressing that nobody has come up with anything better since.
Back over at the House of Ideas, Frank Miller's work on Dardevil still define that comic. There have been several notable runs on the title since, but even Bendis' mammoth efforts are following the crime-noir pattern established by Miller. Any attempts to bring a lighter touch to the series have been seen as relative failures, despite some quality work. Karl Kesel and Cary Nord's mid-nineties run is one that refused to let Matt Murdock mope around the city as he bounced from flagpole to flagpole, and was a refreshing breath of fresh air on the title, but failed to find much of an audience.
Fortunately, there are still a ton of comics that have never really had something that raised the bar impossibly high. A comic like The Avengers, which has been running non-stop for decades, has a large amount of very good runs, including the Kree/Skrull war, the Korvac saga, the mansion siege, Busiek and Perez's return to basics and Bendis' current bombastic blockbuster style, but nothing that has ever pushed the book into strange new directions, nothing that has raised the quality to a level that will be almost impossible to beat.
Even Superman, the godfather of the entire superhero concept, hasn't really had something that stands as the definitive take. Mort Wesinger's iron grip on the franchise set the standard for decades, but apart from magnificent cover concepts, that standard wasn't that hard to beat. There have been sparks of pure genius in the odd reboot and one-off projects, but no definitive run that rules over all.
Batman has also hard to nail down in this respect, and while the character has been modelled on the Dark Night Returns and Neal Adams versions of the Caped Crusader for the past few decades, there are still heights to be reached with the character that are rarely seen, or even attempted at.
There is the possibility that the World's Finest, and even The Avengers, are just too big to be given a definitive version. The Great Superman Story may be just as elusive and impossible to create as the mythical Great American Novel.
Still, that shouldn't stop us all from trying. Creating unbeatable runs of comics leaves us with an inevitable comedown, but the highs are so wonderful, it's worth the drop. The nostalgic yearnings and desires to keep constant with core concepts that permeate modern mainstream comics mean that the likelihood of somebody matching the Lee/Kirby run on Fantastic Four is remote, but there is always the possibility.