Guest Blogger: Mike Discusses The Problem With Comic Books

When first introduced to comic books, I fell in love when Marvel Comics. The series that hooked me was called "What If?" It always explored a variation on the events that had transpired in the Marvel Universe. Story-lines, such as "What if the Avengers had fought Galactus?" or "What if Wolverine became Lord of the Vampires?" were regularly explored and followed to an often tragic end. What thrilled me about these comics was how they played with an established, concrete history. I didn’t know it at the time, but what I really loved about the Marvel Universe was its incredible sense of continuity.

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.


Joe said...

Take one step back and you've highlighted the problem with all superheroes, in comic books or otherwise (and the problem with the show Heroes); namely that if there are no persistent consequences, who cares?

If Captain America can't die then there is no risk, there is no conflict save for brooding, which is faux conflict (something far too many writers fail to grasp) and gets old fast.

(The irony of Whedon is that he clearly knows this, but can't resist, just like he knows that ensemble shows tend to endlessly add characters, but he ultimately can't resist that either. No doubt he would have done it with Firefly had it lasted.)

Kate Woodbury said...

Mike's comment about "revolving door death" made me think of all the books and plays I had to read in high school with tragic endings. Unhappy endings can be used correctly as plot devices; I personally never cared for Romeo & Juliet, but the play is a good one, and I was actually a big fan of MacBeth and books like Lord Jim.

But they (unhappy endings) are also lazy, an easy way to engage (teenage) readers and convince them that a work is profound: look, someone falls off a tree limb! look, someone crashes his sled! look, someone gives up everything for the sake of money, finds it has backfired, and commits suicide! look, someone is forced to die due to lies told by others! look, some kid's head gets smashed by a rock! look, someone gives up his life for his best friend!

Okay, I rather like the last one.

But it's an unending list of bad endings, and all I can assume is educators discovered that teenagers are easily impressed by this stuff.

Which is fine, I suppose, since teenagers are supposedly grappling with the meaning of life, identity crises, etc.

It gets annoying though when "grown-up" literature and television still serves up the same stuff, not because it works in terms of continuity or character development (as Mike has pointed out) but because it is an easy sale. This annoys me whether it is a comic book or a New York Times so-called bestseller.

Tragic endings are not automatically more profound or more realistic or more insightful than non-tragic-endings. And they can be just, if not more, cliche.

But they're easier to write and sell.

Mike Cherniske said...

I agree with you Joe! In fact, that's kind of the point I was trying to make!

I also agree with Kate.... Tragic endings are relied on far too heavily.

In the last year alone, there have been several character deaths, and none of them have or will stick. Cable, Thor, Bucky-cap (Bucky, who stood in for Captain America while HE was dead), and Thor have all died this year, and both Steve Rogers (The original Cap) and Bruce Wayne have both been resurrected recently! Bucky-Cap was brought back within a month, and plans are already in motion to bring back Cable and Thor. Even X-man/Nate Grey, a character I loved as a teenager, but who was killed off on my mission, was recently brought back! At least his death was a little longer lasting!

The Sentry, a pretty cool hero/villain of the last few years was also recently killed, though I haven't heard yet of any plans of his return.

If you want a great mini series that actually touches on, and even makes fun of, all the recent comic deaths, check out Blackest Night, a Green Lantern event that dealt with Black Rings that brought dead characters back as animated corpses! Although, it does end with eight resurrections! One cool moment is when every character that has ever been killed/reborn is possessed by the black rings!

Joe said...

Perhaps someone should do a comic book where the superhero comes back only to be hit by a bill for back taxes and a civil lawsuit over the damages he/she caused.

On top of that you can have the hero want all his stuff back, only to be blocked in court since it's already gone through probate, and thus ending up penniless.

(Am I the only one who, while watching a chase scene in a movie wonders, "who's cleaning all this up?" and usually, "why so few police?")

Kate Woodbury said...

There's The Incredibles. I've always thought Mr. Incredible being sued for whiplash was actually too close to reality to be completely comfortable.

But I must be a product of my time; I often start thinking, "What's the lawsuit here?" when watching TV/movies. Like in Ironman, when Stark is checking out the suit and gets a build-up of ice and then plummets back to earth, only getting the suit's power back at the last moment!

And he shoots through traffic, and I think, "I wonder if the owners of that town car are going to try to sue Tony Stark when they figure out it was Stark in his suit that ran them off the road that night?"

Hey, maybe all those people who claim to be abducted by aliens are really just preparing their potential court cases for when the aliens show up for certain. (Now, there's a Ferengi moment: "Welcome to earth. Peace. Goodwill. Blah Blah Blah. Here's a bunch of Complaints.")