The above are lyrics from a favorite Weepies tune of mine, a song that delves into how much of our happiness depends on forging ahead -- not starting over, but starting something completely new.
That idea has been much on my mind since DC Comics announced they'll be rebooting essentially their entire line of comics and characters in the fall. This is not new territory for the company; they restarted their characters' lives, exterior and interior, back in the mid-1980's, after Crisis on Infinite Earths. At the time, storylines for their characters had become so convoluted -- in terms of who was who, what had occurred in reality versus what was going on in a fantasy, etc. -- that they had to start fresh, from their heroes' origins, lest they lose all sense of narrative structure within their writers' work. The Crisis reboot came from a place of editorial control. As I've read about the changes coming concerning this reboot, I can't help but wonder if this reboot has come about in the interest of the artists' work, or in the interest of the almighty dollar.
According to any free online dictionary, reboot means to "boot up a computer again." On Merriam-Webster's site, "re-" as a prefix cannily means the following things: 1) again; anew [retell], 2) back; backwards [recall]. Taking both these definitions into account may explain my worries about DC's decision to reboot their characters. Beginning again is not the same thing as just plain beginning something, and it seems to be the death knell of originality if the "re-" becomes the operative syllable in this reboot.
Back in the 1980's, the company seemed to be serving readers it already had when it restarted its franchises. They used the clay these characters were made out of to reshape into more modern beings, so readers who grew up in the 1970's would see something new in their favorite characters, while still understanding where Superman and Wonder Woman were coming from. Many thought Clark Kent turned into a yuppie during this reboot, but I'd argue the nerdish reporter only became the focus of his own comic, a daring move for a series entitled Superman. Readers grew to understand Big Blue in a new context, as his secret identity became a personality unto itself, and actually drove the hero's actions. Revealing the humanity in a flagship superhero must have been a risk at the time, and maybe it even foreshadowed the flawed, anti-heroes to come in the 1990's. (My boyfriend made an excellent point to me the other day; if The Flash hadn't died during the events of the Crisis, would the rise in violence depicted in comic books have ever occurred? Permanently killing a major character was not an option prior to DC cleaning house in the 1980's, and as meaningless as death is these days, I think Barry's death is a telling influence -- something that allowed endings as well as beginnings to have their place in the narrative canon of comic books.)
I don't want to spend more time speculating about the lasting influence of reboots, because I think Nick Philpott already explored how those can be helpful and harmful in his earlier guest post. Plus, most of the people reading this could probably care less about comics' narrative history. Frankly, I hate event comics and the narrative hoops I need to jump through in order to understand why characters make certain decisions based on events from twelve years ago. Drama for me lies in the present, not the past -- so I won't spend more time dissecting the Crisis and the billion other events it spawned in DC's larger continuity. I'll only say it shows how the first major comics reboot was done in the interest of the reader and editorial control.
So far, this new reboot feels like it's being done to court uninitiated readers, who will check out the first few issues of a given character's continuity-free story, then decide whether or not they like comics, and then continue reading, or give up on the whole proposition altogether. I wonder, though, how DC can revamp its franchises without alienating longtime fans, who might enjoy characters as they are. Marvel Comics accomplished a feat when they launched the Ultimates line of comics back in 2000. They created a separate universe where writers could explore their heroes' origins and adventures from scratch, all set in contemporary times, with no impact on mainstream continuity. Some comics in this pocket dimension were more successful than others; The Ultimates (aka, The Avengers) is the ultimate in stupidity, gore and ill-defined concepts (turning Captain America into a quippy abuser for no thematic purpose, etc.), and two pages displays this. Sorry in advance for all the following gross:
But that's not what they're doing. No, they're restarting things within their mainstream books. They're destroying Superman and Lois Lane's marriage. They're making Dick Grayson go back to being Nightwing, instead of Batman. They may be completely cutting Wally West out of continuity, who rated the highest of The Flashes on IGN's recent Top 100 Heroes list. Maybe the worst thing they're doing is giving Barbara Gordon her legs back.
That's right; after years of sensitively crafting a character based not on her limitations, but based on the opportunities such limitations gave her, DC is erasing their only disability-centered storyline/character. There are multiple reason I find this tragic, not least because it invoked this passionate op/ed from a concerned reader. But what irks me most about this decision is that it shows a complete lack of compassion for readers. I grew up with a Babs who worked from a wheelchair. And I watched her grow into her role as the most important information gatherer in the heroes' world. Now that'll be erased from the record books. Or will I watch her lose the use of her legs all over again? Watching tragedies repeat over time is not meaningful -- it's crass, and at worst, boring and meaningless. Either way, that seems a cruel choice by a company that longs to introduce characters to fly-by-night readers who may not even stick with their efforts.
Let it be known, I'm not arguing for stasis here. But comic books are cyclical by nature. I accept this as a reader. Nothing can ever change too much. Batman can't give up his quest for vengeance and go to cooking school. Characters can't stop being superheroes. If they did, why would they live in a superhero world? But how they operate can change, and over the years, watching second tier characters grow into fully realized human beings, as well as great heroes, has been really satisfying for me as a reader. Watching Dick Grayson become a warmer, more acrobatic Batman than Bruce Wayne ever was -- that was satisfying to me. Likewise, reading Wally West's adventures as The Flash meant I got to catalog his journey from egotistical loner to self-sacrificing leader and family man. Could I have seen this change in Barry? I'm not so sure. Wally started out as a flawed character, whose powers eventually extended past those of his predecessor (of course, Geoff Johns changed this by stating in a recent issue of The Flash that Barry granted every other Flash his speed powers; thanks, Geoff, for ignoring every post-Silver Age hero, ever). Seeing Wally change made me think about how I've changed over time, how I've grown, what sacrifices I'm willing to make for the love of family.
Which leads me to a question: are comics meant to generate parallels to our real lives? Deep down, I think so. I think they're not just fantasies -- because fantasies are rooted in real concerns. Change is a part of narrative structure; it's a part of life. It's innately WHY we tell stories.
Now, my grad school adviser often reminds me that characters don't change. They simply make choices that change our perception of them. In the best comics, you can register that change. Right now, DC isn't just erasing confusing continuity or bad stories. They're erasing years of valuable storylines that DID show us how to view their characters with fresh eyes. Event comics didn't introduce these changes. Good storytelling did.
What can save DC from losing readers this time around -- they often do once events like Blackest Night or The Death of Fill-In-The-Blank end -- is GOOD STORYTELLING. Here's some advice, boys in the boardroom and creative officers in negotiations over web series, downloadable comics and movie tie-ins: Let editors off the hook when thinking about promos for your Warner Brother's projects. Allow writers to write stories that don't have to match up with eight other books. Let artists take reshape the look and mood of characters. Let authors try crazy concepts out on readers, as Grant Morrison's been doing in Batman (one of the few books getting rebooted with its recent history intact). Don't recycle things in a reboot. Take readers' preconceived notions, then break them -- and don't tell me Superman's origin story AGAIN. (Seriously, you've released four versions of it in the last ten years; updating that story isn't helping his in-continuity writers tell interesting stories. And Grounded is one of the most miserable Superman arcs I've read in years. It's not challenging our hero; it's making him repeat half-remembered Boy Scout mantras from the 1960's.)
Don't repeat story beats I know. Give me new beats, not re-imagined ones. I'd like to believe this is what DC plans to do. But Dan DiDio's talk of "re-examining" things doesn't give me much confidence. Nor does the fact that in Justice League: Generation Lost, one of the better books marching forward in DC's latest event parade, I had to watch a teenaged Blue Beetle get shot in the face, just as the previous Blue Beetle did. Repeating grisly occurrences does not create new meaning, DC higher-ups. It just makes me think you don't respect your audience or your characters. That you're happy creating false drama to sell books. Everything I've seen in recent days makes me feel this reboot is injected drama, rather than solid storytelling built on a solid editorial foundation.
In the end, I suppose the coming reboot ties into a constant social issue for me. In the fight between art and commerce, what wins -- the thing that sells, or the thing makes an impact on the reader? I'd like to think talented, smart writers (like Greg Rucka, Gail Simone, and Peter Tomasi) can look at rewound characters from a new angle. But I have my doubts, given the mish-mash way that DC is announcing changes -- without providing a greater contextual perch from which to evaluate their entirely redone universe. Ultimately, I have no hopes for this reboot, because I don't think it stands for anything, I don't think it has a voice. Crisis on Infinite Earths worked to restore core character traits while scaling back on the ridiculous claptrap. That birthed some truly benchmark stories, involving Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman -- and it gave their sidekicks room to grow into even greater, more human characters.
So. What is the point of this reboot? I've read nothing that tells me its purpose; I worry that the purpose is business -- just when I most want the human need to tell a story to shine through, to generate renewed loyalty to a franchise of books that have had troubled sales in the last few years. I want to be given new reasons to love these icons. I want to see new facets that explore American character, that analyze the challenges of universal human achievement. Will I get that? I don't know. I hope I do. But then, I'm not a new reader, I'm not a target. What I hope for isn't DC's concern.
Ultimate Cap Panel: Mark Millar, Writer; Bryan Hitch, Art; Andrew Currie, Inker; Chris Eliopoulos, Letterer.