Sunday, January 13, 2008

I suppose a lot of the furor has died down about "One More Day" reboot stunt, and it's just as well- soon, another controversy of this sort will pop up, and people need to recharge their outrage batteries. But I've been thinking about this, and the whole nature of comics that are and aren't beholden to the sort of continuity that we're accustomed to now, not to mention the cyclical nature of comics in general, and I thought perhaps it might be of some small value to somebody to write them down. So, here those thoughts be, and bear in mind my opinions and reflections are made without actually having read the issue in question, relying instead on what I've read all around the 'Net. And be warned that this is gonna ramble like a ramblin' thing listening to the Allman Brothers that loves to ramble.

Let's call a spade a spade; that was as clumsy and contrived a reboot as you would ever want to see. I mean, honestly- is that Faustian scenario the best they could come up with? Surely there were other more down-to-earth scenarios that they could have cooked up without resorting to Stan Lee's spandex Lucifer, who worked very well, once, back in the day when the Comics Code Authority wouldn't let him use the "real" Satan- in a story set up to demonstrate how Christlike Stan's Silver Surfer was. What better way than to give Surfy his very own tempter? Mephisto/Satan was given a presence, depth and reason to be by Lee and John Buscema in that long-ago Silver Surfer #3, and as it turns out should probably have never been used again. Trying to make him into the standard issue Marvel Comics archfoe just has never worked, because pitting him against the Fantastic Four or X-Men, outside the context of the re-enactment of the Temptations of Christ that Surfer #3 essentially was, robs the character of his menace and mystery, and makes him look just like another spandex badguy buffoon, one of a rotating "fight of the month" group of supervillians for whatever hero. It cheapens the character. He might as well be Baron Mordo, or the Red Skull, the Purple Man, or the frigging Porcupine.

Of course, the creative braintrust felt that the only way to achieve this reboot was through supernatural means, since as all Dr. Strange fans know, it's the easiest way to do anything that requires a complete do-over with no possible chance of referral to times past. Well, that, or the jerry-rigged comic-book sci-fi employed in Zero Hour.

Apparently, the main reason why this was done is why many are up in arms- the mercenary, insensitive rationale behind it: "...marriage ages the characters, making them less appealing to young readers, and lessens the dramatic, "soap opera" possibilities" (Quoted from Wikipedia). Whether this is or isn't true is debatable- I can't believe that there are hordes of readers, kids or adults, out there that haven't been picking up any Spidey titles because he's not single. That's kinda insulting to kids' intelligence, seems to me. It's not like Pete and MJ have been portrayed as Ward and June Cleaver...

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that marrying them was the smartest thing to do in the first place- it's the classic sign of clutching at straws to come up with novel story ideas in order to keep publishing exploits of exhausted characters that have been in existence for decades. If your character is established as a harried, down-on-his-luck but plucky and likable everyguy, it's not especially believable or even appropriate in terms of ongoing story that he would have a longtime girlfriend that's a fashion model/actress, let alone marry her. But it's a wish-fulfillment not only for longtime readers (who say "Gosh, let Pete have something good happen to him for once..."), but also by those who wish they could have such a girlfriend/wife/partner.

That's the problem with practicing the kind of ongoing continuity that most mainstream superhero comics providers have been striving to provide since Uncas Stan and Jack & Co. helped popularize the concept of a shared experience aka "Universe", in which all the superguys and their archfoes inhabited the same planet, indeed city, and were aware of and in a lot of cases friends (or at least allies with) the others. DC/National had done this already with their Justice Society stories, but it wasn't quite the same- you never really got the feeling that the Atom and Dr. Mid-Nite, for example, would ever hang out together or even appear in each other's comics. They were like Venn diagrams, overlapping only in the pages of All-Star Comics and nowhere else. But Marvel did it differently, and this provided many exciting stories in which Daredevil could join forces with Spidey, for example, or Iron Man, in the pages of The Avengers, could send a holographic emergency transmission to Professor Xavier and his X-Men, and both would be aware of the other. Even as a little kid, this sort of thing was cooler than cool, and opened up a world in which Captain America could be enjoyed as a solo star, but also could be buds with Nick Fury and interact in an adventure with him.

Of course, continuity not only meant interaction between books and their characters but interaction between the characters themselves- once the initial premises were established, Stan, Roy Thomas, and others spent the next four or five years just going from there. That said, the really early tales weren't quite so interrelated in linear time, even though Spidey did try to get a job with the FF and fought Doc Doom, the FF and Avengers teamed up to apprehend the Hulk, etc. At some point, a linear sort of timeline began to develop in all Marvel books, spurred in part by continued stories such as those in Fantastic Four in which events that happened in the previous issue would not only be referenced, but sometimes also have a direct bearing on what happened in the current issue...and that opened up another can of worms.

DC? They really didn't try to do this sort of thing very much at all until the mid-late 1970's. Most DC stores were self-contained, with character awareness and interaction (and even the occasional cross-comic guest appearance) but the tales were mostly one-and-done single events, and had little or no bearing on the next issue, unless perhaps a character would mention meeting or battling another. Very neat.

Now, linear and interrelated continuity was a fresh, new, wonderful thing when it fully came into flower in the late 60's- it gave an air of things having weight and consequence, as when Scott Summers' brother Alex was introduced, his powers discovered, they fought the Sentinels, then, seeking help for his out-of-control abilities accidentally get him mixed up with the power-draining Sauron, all in the space of four or five issues.

But there was one problem- time marches on. And after a while, when it became apparent that years and years had gone by in Marvels pseudo-real time, it was pretty much unreasonable to keep characters in the status quo. Since I started with Spidey, I'll use Peter Parker as an example: He started as a harried adolescent high school science nerd, but he couldn't stay that way longer than 2-3 years (assuming he was a high school, oh, sophomore when he received his fateful spider bite), so they began to tinker. Sent him to college, had him move out from Aunt May's, hook up with Gwen Stacy then Mary Jane Watson. Gave him a full-time job with the Bugle. And that got Pete through another decade and a half, but then another problem reared its ugly head: entropy. As the Entropic Cult in Man-Thing chanted, "Entropy, entropy, all winds down." You can only show Spidey fighting Kraven or Electro or the Shocker so many times before, frankly, you run out of new, fresh scenarios in which to put them in, and each new issue brings more by-the-numbers superhero battles and outlandish, contrived developments with the characters and their relationships. Stan and Jack didn't help matters when they had Sue Storm give birth in that Fantastic Four annual; while it was a great story in and of itself, afterwards they were stuck with a character that either had to grow up in "real" time as his parents and uncles aged as well, or suddenly revert to the one-and-done, no-continuity stories of the early days. They chose the former, and Franklin Richards has since become one of the most convoluted and pointless in a long line of pointless and convoluted Marvel characters, only working well within those fairly recent Calvin and Hobbes-style solo stories, which I assume takes place out of what passes for continuity with Marvel these days.

And so, as DC found out first by the time of Crisis on Infinite Earths and then, when that didn't take, Zero Hour, things get so distended that the only recourse when publishing characters that have been around for four decades is to declare a do-over. So far, Marvel has only really tried to do it once, with the whole "Heroes Reborn" thing, even relaunching titles with #1 issues all around, and reaction was so bad that they eventually recanted and quietly rebooted again. Subsequent reboots have been more low-key, a la the cancellation of Daredevil's ongoing, which was up in the 400s by the time writers got so desperate for ideas that they had tricked him out in body armor. When he was relaunched with the Marvel Knights imprint, the basic story details remained the same but there was rarely the feeling that this DD was the same DD which once assumed the identity of Mike Murdock and battled the Matador in tales done by Stan and Bill Everett and Wally Wood.

This is what Quesada and Co. are trying to do with Spidey here- it's a do-over, but a qualified one- sure, Pete has no memory of being married to MJ and vice versa, Harry Osborne is back, etc.- but I wonder how much of the last 40 years will be referenced? Is Venom/Carnage/Black Cat/blah blah blah still a part of Spidey's world? Will we get new versions? In short, will the writers now have free hand to recycle the same crap that's been recycled for decades? Guess we'll see. I know none of this is any consolation to the fan who only began reading comics at about the time Pete and MJ got married- this is "their" Spider-Man, they like it that way, and see no reason why it can't continue that way indefinitely. Part of this may also be a desire to sync Spidey comics with the movies, in which the two are not yet man and wife.

"So what are you trying to say, Dave?" I hear you asking, along with "Do you really think I don't know all this?" I don't really know. I'm just articulating thoughts here. I don't have a solution. You can't really go back to one-and-done in mainstream superhero comics completely, because you're robbing yourself of the opportunity to really enhance your story- plus readers today, or at least mainstream superhero comics readers today, are conditioned to enjoy and expect a "real-time", linear ongoing narrative with events that overlap the next and impact subsequent stories.

Continuity is a double-edged sword- it can really enhance not only superhero comics, but other kinds of stories as well. It's only the passage of time that makes this element unwieldy. And Marvel/DC have this problem- as long as people seem to want to read, or are still aware, of iconic characters like Batman or Spider-Man, then they'll feel the need to continue to publish periodicals with the adventures of same. It's also a fine line to walk- writers want, in most cases, to depict events that have lasting impact and make changes, but you can only change iconic characters so much before you risk confusion among those not familiar with the ebb and flow of comics stories. I think it will be interesting, though, to see what effect, if any, this constant upheaval and change (especially DC's apparent insatiable desire to screw around with their characters) will have on comics- how many times can the Big Two rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic before people say to hell with it and get off the boat?

ETA: One other thing that I meant to add and forgot in my posting mania the other day was that perhaps Spidey fans should at least give Joe Q and co. a chance to see what they can do. They might be surprised. But then again, if they hate it and just can't face life without Pete and MJ hooked up, well, they have their back issues and can make their displeasure known by dropping the book.

No comments: