Guest Blogger: Mike Discusses The Problem With Comic Books
You would often see a character from another comic passing someone like Peter Parker or Tony Stark on the sidewalk. A little footnote below would exclaim "What is the Human Torch doing in Queens? Check out this month’s Fantastic Four for the scoop!" These characters lived in a connected world. Often a character would not be present in the book he guest-starred in because he was busy in his own comic or off teaming up with another hero. The writers seemed to realize and care about continuity, about what was happening, and when, in the world of Marvel Comics. And I was an addict.
In the last few years, this has all changed. The current head of Marvel Comics, who was hired around 10 years ago now, issued a new decree for the formerly continuity- heavy Marvel Comics: "Continuity can be ignored for the purpose of a good story." It was, for Marvel at least, a revolutionary concept. Suddenly, Spider-Man and Wolverine were EVERYWHERE. The problem is that while it worked for sales, the overall quality of the writing suffered once continuity was no longer respected. "A good story" seemed to be confused for "A story that sells like hotcakes."
Along with this sudden freedom, the comic industry also learned something evil. They realized that any time they changed the status quo, their sales picked up. Phrases like "The end of an Era!" or "The beginning of a new legacy!" began gracing the covers of more and more comics. You had Team and Roster changes, heroes donning new names and costumes, heroes dying in big, publicized events and then returning, triumphantly resurrected, having fought their way back from the grave to defend their homes. These days, heroes die all the time, and their resurrection may only be months hence.
When Captain America died a few years ago, it was a pretty big deal. The entire Marvel Universe was shaken, with every hero talking about it, going to the funeral, and dealing with the reality of emotional loss. There was an incredible mini-series published at the time--Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America--which shows different heroes, such as Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Wolverine, each dealing with a different aspect of the grieving process. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are explored in a single issue, and it’s truly an emotional and moving book.
About a year after Cap’s death, Thor used his great power to summon the spirit of Steve Rogers and visit with him. Moved by the Captain’s sadness at the use of his death for political agendas, Thor flies into high orbit, and uses lightning to silence every satellite broadcasting coverage of the anniversary of Cap’s death for one minute. One full minute of peace for his fallen friend. Again, the story was emotionally fulfilling and moving. It brought real weight to events of a fictional world. These comics not only made me miss the Captain, but also truly appreciate what the world had become after his loss.
And then, they brought him back. "Cap isn’t dead!" they told us. "He was just lost in time! See his return in the new mini-series, 'Captain America Reborn!'"
And suddenly, those wonderful, emotionally moving, and incredibly well-written books reflecting the death of Captain America lost all significance. They were rendered obsolete. Why would someone read a reflective piece on the life and death of an individual that’s still alive?
Death in comics has become a revolving door that nearly every character will pass through, disappearing for a short time before returning completely unscathed. It’s hard for a reader such as myself to really care much these days when a traumatic event comes to pass for a beloved character. They died? Aw, they’ll be back in a few months. No big deal. The most glaring example of just how bad things are in the world of comics is that even Spider-Man’s Aunt May and Batman’s butler Alfred have both died and returned. Let’s consider this. Aunt May. Really.
I think the main problem is this: If an event has no lasting impact on the life of a character, then it is of no importance to the reader either. Continuity must not only exist, it must be respected. If an event takes place, its consequences must be real and lasting. When you remove the consequences, you remove the meaning of the event.
For continuity to truly work, and for the life, adventures, and tragedies of a character to truly matter, there must be a clear beginning, middle, and end. Not only must the end be clearly defined in relationship to events, it must be defined in time as well. When that cycle comes to an end, you can begin another. Maybe it’s a new character; perhaps it’s the child of the hero. But the life of a fictional character, especially that of a comic character, cannot continue indefinitely as it has in the past and have any credibility or structural stability.
One of my favorite comic runs in the last few years was Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. Completely free of the continuity of the X-Men comics that were being printed at the time, Whedon's comic explored a wonderful story that touched on many classic moments of the X-Men’s past. The series, while amazing, exemplifies both the problem and the solution to Marvel's continuity chaos. The series did rely on the pasts of the X-Men featured, but while there was a clear beginning, middle and end, it did not have a clear place in the overall continuity of the X-Men timeline.
Furthermore, while the comic featured emotional growth for many of the characters, some events were spoiled by story-line ramifications appearing in other comics published before those events happened in the main series. Many events featured in the series, such as a long awaited relationship between two characters and the "death" of a hero, have since been undone; the relationship ended, the dead resurrected. Again. Perhaps most problematic is that the series actually featured the resurrection of a long missing character. (However, the character had been out of print for some time, and his resurrection did not undo what his death had accomplished.)
Unfortunately, when continuity does appear in the Marvel Universe these days, it has no real weight. Sure, if it will help sell a comic; a hero might cross over into the big company-wide story. But often, events are written and then ignored or undone according to what the sales figures dictate.
Any event that happens in the life of a character must be true to what he has experienced before and effect what he does in the future. The story must be the most important consideration. What does this story say? What did the character learn? How did he learn or grow? Once the sales of a series outweigh the importance of the story itself, the reader suffers, and the work suffers. Strong characters deserve not only strong stories, but a strong history and complete timeline. Without these things, comics will continue as literary garbage heaps, continually piling and piling yp until the audience is drowned in useless waste.
It’s time for Marvel Comics to change. And not just another reboot like DC’s "New 52" that graced shelves in the last couple months. Restarting continuity from scratch may resolve past problems, but it will still leave writers open to future problems. Soon this new, fresh slate will become as muddled and confusing as it was before. The future of comics, and other continuity-based entertainment, lies not in it's perpetuity, but rather in its end. By introducing complete character timelines (ending with death/retirement), and perhaps redesigning each story arc to function as its own graphic novel, the integrity of the characters and the stories being told would be strengthened and reinvigorated. Instead of following a character doing the same thing over and over for years without end, future comic readers can have complete epics featuring heroes whose lives are worth caring about, remembering, and, who knows, inspiring others.