Running in Circles: The Cyclical Nature of the Comic Industry

This may include spoilers!

Recently, Marvel has released that Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, would be rejoining the Fantastic Four. Why did he leave in the first place? He died. And it was only 10 months ago. Death has always been used in fiction to add emotional pulse to action sequences. It is hard to get excited when you know all the heroes are going to survive. Being able to throw in death makes the threat much more real and the stakes much higher. Unfortunately, over time, readers grow up into writers and they want to revisit the characters they loved when they were kids. That means bringing up insane storylines in order to bring characters back from the dead. Every excuse from “he was never dead” to “literally punching reality” has been used as some kind of device to bring someone back. This results in the revolving door of death nullifying every reason to include death in the first place: to give the characters a finite quality. In other words, death is kind of meaningless in comics at the moment.

I am usually an unabashed comic geek. I started reading them because I loved to draw and I loved the Saturday morning cartoons that were inspired by them. When Hollywood first went comic crazy back in early 2000, I jumped on board again. Since than, I have been drowning in the stuff. The series have become so dense, and they crossover constantly. The two big companies, Marvel and DC, are always planning some big event series that will change every title since they all exist in shared universes. Unfortunately after 70 something odd years of making comics, the history of the characters and events are getting a little shady and a little fuzzy, so these companies usually employ some kind of “retcon.” A retcon is a portmanteau of “retroactive continuity,” and it represents any change to the backstory to help implement forward progression. In the last few years, retconning (along with the death’s revolving door) has become pretty rampant adding to a much bigger problem with the comic industry, its cyclical nature. The status quo is always reset to a distinct point. This trend has slowly but surely transformed a great hobby of mine into a guilty pleasure.

One of the biggest retcons that really upset me was the semi-recent Spider-Man arcs, One More Day/Brand New Day. Leading up to this point, Spider-Man had graduated from school and gotten work as a high school science teacher. He became a varsity Avenger, got himself some nifty new spider powers, and eventually revealed his identity to the public in what he believed to be a show of faith in support of the Superhero Registration Act. Now, the powers at be at Marvel allowed this to go on for some time but felt it was the wrong direction for Spider-Man. Why? Because it wasn’t who they grew up with. They longed to read comics about the bumbling teenage Spider-Man who was able to overcome anything. I get the nostalgia, but why can’t Spider-Man grow up? Years of servitude entertaining kids and eventually growing up with a whole generation of readers seems like a good thing. Plus it only seemed right that one of the tentpole heroes be a part of the flagship team. At least there, Spider-Man has someone to actually listen and react to his one-liners. But what really bugs me is not why they did it, but how. Spider-Man basically makes a deal with the devil (but since it is Marvel, it is Mephistopheles). Instead of selling his soul, he sells his marriage to Mary Jane to save the life of his Aunt May. It seems so silly given he never tried to do the same for Uncle Ben, and even though she did not die of natural causes, Aunt May was still quite elderly. Brand New Day was published in 2008. It is now the end of 2011, and Spider-Man has already revealed his identity to the public for a second time, things are rekindling with Mary Jane, and he now has a big boy career on top of being a superhero. So much for that status quo.

Even more recently (they are literally releasing the third issues this month), DC has decided to reboot its entire line up following the event storyline, Flashpoint. Ok, I am game. Afterall, this isn’t really the first time it happened. The 1980s crossover event, Crisis on Infinite Earths helped revitalize DC back then and attempted to fix the very convoluted backstory of the shared universe. 3 issues in on most of the books and it seems mostly successful. I, for one, have enjoyed a number of the books, but some things are grating on me. For instance, Batman and Catwoman do not know each others identities. They only know each other as their masks, yet they have been carrying on a casually sexual relationship. Their will-they/won’t-they storyline is restarting after feeling like it was coming to a resolution. Meanwhile, the likes of Clark Kent and Barry Allen are just friends with their former wives, Lois Lane and Iris West respectively. The problem here is that all comic readers (I won’t even assume there are those who disagree) have considered these love interests to be the one-and-only to the protagonists. Now, we have to go through the motions all over again. It is like watching How I Met Your Mother and seeing the writers shoehorn the will-they/won’t-they plot between Ted and Robin, even though she is called Aunt Robin to the Ted’s children who bookend each episode. It seems more like a waste than a creative attempt to revitalize sales. Alas, sales are a really big motivator. It is no secret that the comic industry is not doing its best, and if they can get new readers by starting over instead of expecting them to drag through almost 75 years of comic backstory, than I guess I’ll bite my lip and see what happens.

But how can I be expected to go along with it when DC seems to already be putting elements in place to hit the reset button on the entire reboot. If you were looking closely during the last issue of Flashpoint, a strange character appears (pictured at the top). It is an obvious female character with a purple hood. She is there to see The Flash reset the timeline to something that appears almost like our original continuity. She than appears in every first issue of the rebooted line just standing there and watching (pictured in The Flash #1 at the bottom). Is she some kind of cosmic observer taking a record of this new reality? I really hope so. It would be sad to see it go before it even got a chance to really get going. But if she does turn out to be the deus ex machina I suspect her of being, than that is just one more reset button that the comic industry has their itchy little trigger finger resting on. Don’t think it isn’t a possibility. 2013 marks the 75th anniversary of Superman, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they have another status quo altering event in the works to celebrate. Afterall, Crisis on Infinite Earths was published to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the company’s first book.

I hate to say it, but I am starting to feel foolish.