by Jeff Strabone
In 1977, when the Stranglers asked the immortal question, 'What ever happened to those heroes?', they were wondering not about super-heroes but, rather, more earthly characters like Leon Trotsky and Lenny Bruce. Today, I want to ask about that other group of heroes, the ones being strangled by the corporations who control them: Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, Captain America et al., all now owned by a pair of global entertainment companies, Disney and Time Warner.
As reported everywhere last week, DC Comics has 'rebooted' its entire universe of characters. If you are not a comic book collector, you may have wondered what this news means. How can the Man of Steel, for instance, be rebooted? I am going to tell you exactly what it means and why it matters to everyone who cares not just about imaginary men in tights but about serious questions of culture, corporate ownership of national treasures, and the decline of a great American institution: the super-hero comic book.
Most people enjoy serial narratives of one sort or another. A serial narrative is an ongoing fictional story written in segments over time.
The longest-running serial narratives known to mankind are all soap operas, the record being held by The Guiding Light (1937–2009). Each episode of a soap opera builds on what came before, so much so that newcomers have a hard time understanding who's who and what's what. Before home-recording of video programs became a commonplace, people who missed their soaps for a few weeks might be stunned at how much had changed in their absence: new characters, new affairs, new divorces, and so on. Each episode incrementally continues a story begun many years earlier.
Another genre known for serial narrativity is the super-hero comic book, which, like the soap opera, traces its history to humble, lowbrow origins in the 1930s and faces an uncertain future in the twenty-first century. Unlike soap fans, the audience for comic books is broader today and may have higher expectations taste-wise than in the past. This is one explanation for the rise of terms like 'graphic novel' for non-super-hero comic books like Art Spiegelman's Maus (1972–1991).
Graphic historical narratives notwithstanding, the super-hero is the bedrock of the genre and the source of some of our most famous characters and our most retold modern myths. People who have never read a comic book in their lives know the story of how hapless, bookish Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider in high school and became the angst-ridden, guilt-driven crime-fighter Spider-Man.
The most important formal feature of the super-hero genre is serial narrativity, or, as comic book readers call it, continuity. This is not a feature of all famous characters that have appeared in comics. Mickey Mouse, for instance, has zero continuity. Mickey has appeared in animated shorts ('Steamboat Willie' in 1928), animated features ('Fantasia' in 1940), in comic books, and as corporate mascot. But Mickey, unlike Spider-Man, has no ongoing, continuous story that develops over time and that accretes history that each succeeding writer must grapple with. As Mickey and Minnie get older, they don't ponder the vicissitudes of their relationship over the years, they don't fondly recall good times spent with Goofy and Pluto: essentially they do not grow.
The great comic book super-heroes grow. That is what they do, and that is why people like me continue to care about them decade after decade. They age more slowly than real people—Spider-Man was in high school when we first met him and is now a grad-school dropout in the sciences—but they do age, grow, and deal with change.
Sometimes writers feel constrained by history and decide to rewrite it. Such a rewriting is called a retcon, short for 'retroactive continuity'. Perhaps the most famous example comes from the pages of the Uncanny X-Men. In 1980, the X-Men's Jean Grey, then known as Phoenix, died in issue 137. Five years later, not content with this history, a new set of writers and editors decided that they wanted Jean Grey back, so they wrote a retcon. In the revised version of history, Jean Grey did not really die because she never became the Phoenix. What really happened instead was that a malevolent alien force took Jean's form and deposited her, unconscious, in a pod at the bottom of Jamaica Bay. The person we saw die in Uncanny X-Men 137 was thus not Jean Grey but the Phoenix itself. Hallelujah, Jean is still alive.
Retcons may sound silly to people who don't read comic books, but we who love the genre get used to them and sometimes, though certainly not always, appreciate them. Some retcons are worse than others, like the one in Amazing Spider-Man in the last decade that claimed that Gwen Stacey and Norman Osborn had had a pair of kids together. My blood still boils when I recall that stupid piece of retconned rubbish.
Most super-hero stories are produced and owned by two comic book companies: Marvel Comics and DC Comics. The characters published by each company only interact with that company's characters and not with the other company's characters. When they do have the occasional inter-corporation crossover, the stories essentially don't count. They are sort of like pre-season exhibition baseball games: they don't show up in the standings, and no one has any memory of them.
Today the comic book super-heroes face a perilous future, not because the villains have become more powerful but because of declining sales and corporate misgovernance. The characters themselves are still wildly popular and beloved. Go to the cinema and you will see hordes of people buying tickets to any comic book-themed movie, no matter how bad. This summer alone, we've had movies of Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America, and a fifth installment of the X-Men. The revenues for the more successful of these films are in the hundreds of millions. Why then are the comic books withering while the Hollywood adaptations are thriving? After all, the comic books are the REAL stories of the super-heroes: the movies are just adaptations. And, as every comic book reader knows, no movie can ever get the hero's voice or the fabric of his costume right.
Some blame the super-hero comic books' decline on changing times, lower attention spans, and so forth. I believe it has more to do with corporate control of the characters and the bad decisions made by executives who care more about rebranding and rebooting than about art and culture. The great comic book super-heroes are national treasures, yet they are regarded nowadays as 'properties' owned by global media companies whose short-sighted greed is sucking the characters dry.
Marvel and DC do have to adjust to changing times, but their recent decisions are driven more by the iron hand of the boardrooms of Disney and Time Warner than by the choices we would expect from creative professionals who grew up loving comics and wanting to create them. The inherent problem with comic books as a business is that the audience is constantly getting older and outgrowing the habit. (Those who do not outgrow comics are alternatively known as connoisseurs or geeks.) Obviously, this is not a new problem but a perennial one, and previous generations of writers and editors were able to manage it without sinking into oblivion.
The problem, from the publishers' point of view, is usually framed this way: As readers grow up and stop buying comic books, how do we get new, younger people interested in buying a comic book series whose issue number is now in the hundreds? This is a valid question. As someone who will not watch a television series unless I start at episode one, I certainly understand this concern. The publishers' go-to answer, since the mid-1990s, has been to keep stopping and starting the numbering. Thus, one aspect of the new reboot of the DC characters is that all 52 monthly series that they publish will have a new #1 issue this month.
Of course, there are only so many times they can do this before readers catch on and get sick of it. But DC has now gone way further: they have erased all the prior history of all of their characters and started the stories over. That's right: they pressed a giant reset button and now it's all gone.
This kind of move has been done a few times elsewhere. The television series Dallas wrote off an entire season as a dream when actor Patrick Duffy returned to play his killed-off character Bobby Ewing. More extremely, the 2009 movie known simply as Star Trek, directed by J.J. Abrams, created an alternate universe totally separate from the legacy of the five Star Trek television series and the ten previous Star Trek movies. Unwanted new directions in long-running serial narratives can really piss off longtime fans. (As you might expect, I am also a Star Trek fan and will never forgive this gigantic fuck-you to forty-three years of Star Trek history.)
DC did a reboot of its characters once before, but most readers at the time welcomed it as a creatively necessary decision. After fifty years of publishing and haphazard editing, the DC Universe had become cluttered and contradictory by the mid-1980s thanks to multiple versions of the same characters on multiple Earths. The solution: a twelve issue mini-series called Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985–1986) that had the salutary outcome of bringing order to a chaotic situation. Post-Crisis, there would only be one universe, one Earth, and one version of each character—at least until later writers and editors started mucking things up again. The important thing to realise about Crisis that made it different from the 2011 reboot is that the Crisis storyline was produced not to erase history but to save it. And it worked: DC was revitalised in the 1980s both creatively and commercially.
(Marvel and DC also do this other thing where they allow their writers to cook up alternate-universe versions of their characters, as in the case of Frank Miller's blockbuster mini-series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 or the new black and Latino Spider-Man of 2011, but these imaginary stories are always clearly marked as such and stand wholly outside canonical continuity.)
What DC has done now is to destroy all of its characters' prior history. The comprehensive reboot of 2011 wipes clean the slate of every character in the DC Universe. As a publicly-traded corporation, parent-company Time Warner believes that rebooting its 'properties' will draw new readers and boost sales. They are wrong.
Super-heroes are the richest sources of mythology in the postwar era. To squander that legacy for the sake of something New & Improved is bad business and bad art. The reason that people, young and old, continue to read super-hero comic books is precisely because of their history. The aging, loyal readers like me don't want rebooted versions of the greats, nor do the young readers who will become the aging, loyal readers of the future. It is fitting that comic readers use the word 'continuity' to describe the serial narrativity that they enjoy because following these long-running tales provide continuity in the readers' lives as well. It is a shame that the publishers don't take the concept of continuity to heart as the readers do.
What are people inside the biz saying about the reboot? Here are excerpts from a September 2 blog post at the DC Comics website by Brian Cunningham, editor of the Flash:
The Flash is a single man. He's a bachelor who has never been married. […] If that upsets you, sorry about that. […] But in the realm of fiction, I feel strongly that this change to Barry opens up fresh, new creative directions and exciting new storylines.
The older reader who returns to the Flash after years away does not want a new Flash. He or she wants the same Barry Allen (or even Wally West) that we knew when we were kids. And the new readers? I have always thought that the thing that draws them to a character like the Flash in the first place is his decades of history. This new, rebooted Flash is not the one who appeared in the epochal issue 123 in 1961, nor is he the one who heroically sacrificed himself in Crisis issue 8 in 1985. Thanks to the reboot, none of that ever happened. The Flash has no wife, no encounter with Jay Garrick, and no history worth recalling. He is just another piece of corporate-owned intellectual property to be rebooted whenever sales or stock prices dip too low.
Maybe this is how it all ends. Superman and Batman won't be killed off by Lex Luthor and the Joker. They will be killed off by corporate acquisitions of national treasures, by shareholders, accountants, and marketing villains.
The Stranglers whom I mentioned above were not villains but a British punk band. Who could have known that their refrain would one day sound prophetic: 'No more heroes anymore.' What ever happened to those heroes? They got rebooted into irrelevance by a corporation with no respect for culture or history.