“I hope this noble sacrifice of mine inspires many to greatness. I guess I’ll find out once I get better.”
To start things off, let me say that this post was directly inspired by this excellent blog from Josh Costella. Josh’s analysis of why Bruce Wayne should be expected to die at some point really resonated with my psyche, because it reminded me of a broader topic connected to it: Why the Big Two comic book companies (that’s Marvel and DC to those who actually may not know in this day and age) greatly limit what kind of growth and change they allow with their most popular and iconic characters by almost always eventually reversing any major alteration to their mainstream status quo. That’s because it’s a question I’ve often pondered myself, considering how enamored I am with the concept of legacy and the generational approach to heroes and villains. That is due to my extensive interest and work with the Wold Newton Universe concept: Simply have new individuals take over the roles of mortal costumed identities as the originals eventually become too old to continue, or meet the tragic but often noble end that some heroes will inevitably experience (think: Barry Allen… until he eventually got better). So why didn’t they ever consider this way of doing things? And would it work if they did?
I. To Embrace Change… Or Not
Josh makes a good argument specifically in regards to Batman, his fav super-hero of them all (and of many, many other people too, including my cousin Gene), as to why DC should allow someone other than Bruce Wayne to eventually take over the identity of his crime-fighting alter-ego on a permanent basis. Yet DC adamantly refuses to allow anyone other than Mr. Wayne to wear the exalted Mantle of the Bat for more than a year at a time (if that!). Even Dick Grayson himself–who took over the mantle twice–was soon booted back to his duds as Nightwing by DC to allow Wayne to take back the suit. And we all know that following the epic “Knightfall” storyline from the early ’90s which introduced mega-popular Bat-villain Bane–where Bruce Wayne had his back broken until he got better–successor Jean-Paul Valley (the former Azrael) was set up to fail as the new Dark Knight from the get-go.
This also begs the question as to why Marvel and DC explicitly refuse to adopt the generational method of explaining the longevity of their characters within their mainstream continuities, instead preferring what my colleague Kevin Heim has referred to as the time-crunching phenomenon. This method is to constantly posit that stories in comic books that were published 40 years ago actually took place only over a time frame of 5-15 years as we reckon time in the real world, with all the resulting anachronistic clothing styles, slang, pop cultural references, etc., from stories published long in the past now explained away as having been nothing more than topical license on the part of the writers and artists. And if that doesn’t preserve the status quo, particularly the static or artificially slow aging of the characters to keep them forever in a certain age group and/or life situation, then DC, at least, will resort to its now famous reality reboots. That entails publishing a mini- or maxi-series where a cosmic event of epic, universal proportions re-sets the timeline from the very beginning, de-aging many characters and restoring certain previously ended status quo elements across the board (their latest such “Crisis” event, Flashpoint, having occurred as recently as the summer of 2011).
So, why this powerful loyalty to the status quo and resistance to truly fundamental change in the Big Two’s mainstream universes? Why does it seem that the fan base itself seems to prefer, as Stan Lee once famously said, not actual change but simply “the illusion of change”? My theory is that it’s a bit more complicated than simple, stubborn adherence to a certain specific status quo, though I certainly agree with Josh that the human psyche’s strong comfort with the familiar plays a strong role.
II. What, Me Change?
I think part of the reason the Big Two comic book companies will never permanently let anyone but Bruce Wayne wear the costume of Batman, or Peter Parker wear the costume of Spider-Man, respectively, etc., et al. has much to do with merchandising requirements. I’m far from the first fan to point this out, so this should come as anything but a “light bulb” moment to anyone, and more akin to a “duh!” However, I mention it here because I think it’s a very accurate and important explanation that anyone discussing the resistance to change phenomenon in comic books would be remiss in not mentioning. This is also the reason we won’t see other merchandise-unfriendly changes to “stick” for good, such as costume alterations that are a radical departure from the image people have been used to for so long.
For example, as popular as Spider-Man’s way cool black costume introduced in the ’80s was, we all knew it wouldn’t be long before the powers-that-be at Marvel would order the writers and editorial team to bring the old one back. The black costume has returned from time to time, but a reason is always found to put Spidey back in the classic outfit, no matter how contrived. Whether Peter has to give up the black suit out of deference to Mary Jane now becoming unnerved by the sight of it due to a horrific encounter with Venom, or simply the new suit getting torn to shreds in battle and Peter not having enough time on his hands to knit a new black suit (or maybe red and blue thread is a lot cheaper in his universe; I dunno, as I don’t live there), Marvel simply has too much money invested into the classic costume to try and grow an acceptance of a new one, no matter how cool and well-received by the fans. The fan base is not the bulk of Marvel’s or DC’s bread and butter, and the need for recognition value outside our geeky niche audience is of very strong consideration to a corporate enterprise. How often has artistic preferences ever trumped financial concerns in this business-centric world of ours? (If that came off as yet another potshot at capitalism from me… well, that’s because it was. Boo-yahh!)
Artistically stunning, it really did the Web-Head justice, and the fans loved it! They were never going to let him keep it.
III. To Change Or Not to Change… That Is Never the Question
So, yea, this insistence on certain aspects of the status quo always remaining static is built into the overall business mindset of the corporate overseers of the Big Two. Now don’t get me wrong, the Big Two love how their media announcements of major, game-changing events in their popular comics bring a lot of short-term attention and added profits to their comics. Perhaps the best example is the death of Superman stunt by DC back in 1992, but the powers-that-be never had any serious intention of letting one of the four new characters who briefly appeared in the wake of this death to fill his shoes remain the Superman permanently. The intention from the get-go was always to bring Clark Kent back from the dead to fill the mantle, and you didn’t even see DC denying it (even they had too much respect for their fans’ intelligence to claim otherwise).
Don’t you love when they ask rhetorical questions on these event posters?
As more examples, a lot of fans really like Miles Morales in the Spider-Man costume (I’m among them!), but he will never be allowed to completely replace Peter Parker within the context of Marvel’s mainstream continuity (yanno, the stuff that takes place on Earth-616, for the more geeky amongst my readers). Publishing the stories featuring Miles exclusively within the bounds of an alternate reality, i.e., the Ultimate Universe, is Marvel’s way of having their cake and eating it too, while insuring that Peter remains the main filling (but lately Peter’s counterpart in the Ultimate Universe seems to be back too! Is this just a gimmick–like a clone, android, or shape-shifter imposter–or did the “real” deal really get better after his ill-fated “final” encounter with the Green Goblin?).
And yes, we got some major success with an older Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker acting as protege’s to their familial* successors, Terry McGuiness and May “Mayday” Parker in Batman Beyond and Spider-Girl respectively, but these two were “safely” sequestered outside the mainstream continuity in alternate futures. Would DC and Marvel have embraced such good characters as Miles, Terry, or Mayday taking over the iconic roles on a permanent basis in the present of their respective mainstream continuities? For that matter, how long did Bucky Barnes remain in the Captain America suit, with Steve Rogers graduated to head of S.H.I.E.L.D.–which I thought was a way cool idea with many story possibilities promising potential growth for both characters in a logical direction–until Bucky was relegated back to his clandestine Winter Soldier role, and Steve back to his familiar gig so soon after he got better from his gimmicky, attention-seeking “death”? The short answer: Not long at all.
*Terry McGuiness was revealed in the Justice League Unlimited episode “Epilogue” to actually have been conceived by Bruce Wayne’s DNA. Not the fun way, thought.
IV. Not All Change Is Good
Of course, we’ve had our share of really bad attempts at shaking up the status quo of top-tier characters. Two notable examples hail from the 1990s, which I personally consider a nadir decade in the comic book industry despite the important growth of creator-owned characters finally finding a huge audience during the Clinton years.
One of these was the attempt to throw a monkey wrench into Superman’s long-secure status quo (despite his then-recent marriage to Lois Lane) by radically changing his look and powers. This idea grew out of the semi-intriguing “Superman Red/Superman Blue” story arc–which was actually inspired by a better take on this concept from an old “Imaginary Tale” of Supes from the Mort Weisenger editorial era, not the jingle popularized a long time ago by the Good Will (it’s a lot more appealing when the Whoniverse’s Amy Pond says it). Yes, the Man of Steel became the Man of Energy by having his vast superhuman physically-based powers totally replaced by the power to convert his form into living electricity and put the shock effect on his enemies in place of the punch effect. And let’s not forget (or, maybe we should try to forget) his blue skin and the oddball blue and white costume he acquired while in “super” mode during the too-long period of time that this gimmick was carried out (even a mere year was far too long, as far as moi is concerned). Even worse, this less-than-stellar change soon followed the Super Guy into the recently revived JLA comic, putting something of a damper on Grant Morrison’s highly applauded run on the series.
Hell, even Superman’s equally famous logo font style was altered with a less-awesome one to reflect this less-than-awesome change. DC certainly went all-out for this one! Meaning, DC was grasping at every possible straw during the mid-’90s to find a gimmick to elevate the sagging sales of their (at one point) five Superman titles after the novelties of the John Byrne reboot and the “Death of Superman” event and follow-up events had sufficiently faded from the public consciousness. After all, the late 20th century sales slump of the once super-selling Super Dude’s titles is one familiar aspect of the status quo that DC does not want to maintain.
Some attempts at cool change… just aren’t.
All discussions of such ill attempts at change would be incomplete without mentioning the infamous, overly-long, convoluted “Clone Saga” in the Spider-Man comics of the 1990s that replaced Peter Parker in the costume with his clone Ben Reilly for an extended spell. Ben wasn’t a bad character, and he had lots of potential as the Scarlet Spider, but things took a turn for the worst when Marvel gave one big mac (I prefer that over “whopper”) of an ill-conceived attempt at a status quo shake-up by presenting the contention that Reilly was actually the real Peter Parker, and the Peter that the fans knew, loved, and followed for the past 25 years was the true clone. (That is, two decades in regards to what we fans experienced as “real” time; it was just a few years in “crunched” time for Pete and Ben, but still long enough even for them!). Ben then took over as Spider-Man in all of the webbed guy’s multitude of titles, with Peter mostly being written out by way of a contrived means of losing his powers.
Is there such a thing as a rhetorical revelation? If so, the above cover blurb gave us one.
Had he remained the Scarlet Spider, Ben may have ultimately worked as a character, and achieved a following apart from the Spider-Man mythos. But due to Marvel’s use of him in a shake-up attempt that that played too much with the fans’ collective head, the readership lost whatever affection they may have had for Ben, and Marvel felt it necessary to kill him off and do their best to forget he ever existed (his identity of the Scarlet Spider has since been taken on by a cool but much less likeable Parker clone, Kaine). Peter was back in the costume after a year (again, in “real” time) of having lost his powers, now having regained them along with the union suit. And, of course, the familiar status quo was now back to appease both the fans and Marvel’s bottom line. Isn’t it nice how things always work out in the end for corporations? (Another potshot against capitalism! Is this socialist on a roll or what? Wah-hoooo!)
Sorry, Ben, but your genetic sire has you outmatched via corporate support!
At least Peter was still married to Mary Jane when he was divested of his powers and the spider suit. But that happy marriage was another “violation” of the cherished status quo that Marvel would eventually decide had to be dealt with…
V. At Least Good Changes Are Spared, Right? Wrong!
We may be satisfied when a bad change that we perceive as impeding the growth of a character or legend is reversed… once we get over being pissed that it was ever enacted in the first place, of course. But how pissed do we, the fans, get when genuinely good changes in the status quo that many of us loved are reversed? The short answer again: Very, especially considering that it happens often enough.
This adherence to the status quo by the Big Two remains the case even with the likes of their second-tier but still greatly popular and iconic heroes like the Flash and Green Lantern.
Cases in point: Many people loved Wally West and Kyle Rayner filling those respective roles, and they were in many ways more interesting as people than their predecessors, Barry Allen and Hal Jordan, not to mention easier for the readers to relate to. Both them weren’t “born” for these roles like typical idealized hero types–which Barry and Hal initially were for a long time–but grew into the roles, doing an admirable job of personal growth and character development over the long haul. Yet even though it took many years in both cases (nearly 25 years in Wally’s!), eventually Barry Allen and Hal Jordan were brought back, each getting better from heroic, self-sacrificing deaths; and Hal eventually redeeming himself from a massive fall from grace in the process. Hal subsequently continued his need for redemption after death by having his soul become the human part of the Spectre, resulting in a version and series run of DC’s literal avenging wrath of God that was much more interesting than the previous Jim Corrigan iteration. But DC couldn’t conceive of anyone other than Barry and Hal in these costumes, so both had to circumvent the meaning and lessons wrought by their respective selfless sacrifices–as well as appreciation for the finality of death that is all-too familiar to those of us who do not inhabit a universe like theirs–by returning from beyond.
Wally and Kyle were thus the inheritors of a legacy no longer. DC became the ultimate “Indian Giver” to both of these good characters.
Kyle was graciously left around, albeit now more or less shunted to the sidelines, even though at this writing he’s still the main character of the ongoing Green Lantern: New Guardians series. At least the then recently revived concept of the Green Lantern Corps. team allowed space for him to retain the ring and the general name, even if he was no longer considered the Green Lantern as far as DC and the fans were concerned, but conceptually demoted to “a” Green Lantern. His evolving saga as a character striving to be worthy of the ring could at least continue, but he was no longer the main focus of the Green Lantern sub-mythos within the greater DC Universe (wait, that’s Multiverse again this week, right?).
Wally, in contrast, didn’t fare as well as Kyle. After so many years of proving himself worthy of the scarlet uniform (over two decades as we fans in “real” time reckon!) after spending many prior years (again, over two decades of “real” time!) in the sidekick role of Kid Flash, he was completely thrown to the wayside. The central focus of the growing “Flash Family,” which both Wally’s loins and capacity for inspiration had largely contributed to, had to be given back to Barry in DC’s eyes. When it came down to it, despite a whole generation having grown up with Wally and Kyle in these roles, DC still decided that Barry and Hal were more immediately recognizable in the scheme of things, and that the next generation should pretty much forget about what Wally and Kyle had been to the previous one for perceived marquee and brand value.
Also, this was made so despite the fact that Wally and Kyle have proven to be much more interesting people than Barry and Hal on any day of the week, despite a rather unsuccessful attempt to make Hal more interesting for the first cinematic effort at bringing the Ring Guy to the big screen. I’m not trying to say that truly interesting stories cannot be told with Barry and Hal in the outfits, because we have a few decades of such stories to demonstrate otherwise. I’m simply saying that Barry and Hal do not have to be in those uniforms in order to tell good stories or achieve widespread iconic name recognition, and this has also been amply demonstrated. I think the generational, legacy-based method of story-telling has a lot of merit that the Big Two are averse to fully embrace or explore no matter how much potential that concept has. Again, this is largely due to business concerns.
VII. It’s Not Just About Who Wears the Suits, Though…
Even life-altering changes in their personal lives do not last permanently, despite how much support, character growth, and media fanfare each of these may receive. For example, let’s consider how the marriages of Superman and Spider-Man to their long-time lady loves were each milked for lots of publicity and sales, and both lasted a long time (over two decades each in “real” time). However, both were eventually eliminated by reboots; Spider-Man with a god-awful “personal” reboot courtesy of a literal deal with the devil, and Superman courtesy of one of DC’s periodic universe-wide timeline upheavals. Now both of them are not only single again, but “always have been.” If only 50% of real people had this nifty “retcon” option!
A marriage made in Heaven, but annulled by the ruler of Hell.
“Lois, I thee wed… until a reality reboot does us part.”
I think these frequent reversals mentally condition the fans to prefer the status quo more than they normally would, and to embrace the familiar rather than support truly dynamic, lasting change. This is because the powers-that-be of the Big Two give fans the additional comfort of knowing they can count on the corporate overseers and their editorial lackeys to provide this for them. We may have no choice but to accept lasting change in real life, but we often have a nostalgic yearning for what Barbara Streisand elegantly referred to as “the way we were.” The fictional lives of the characters we follow in books need not adhere to this stringent law of the universe we know all too well, so the expectation of always seeing a youthful Peter Parker in the spider suit the way we’ve always remembered him is something our emotions cling to like… well, a fly trapped in a spider’s web (sorry, couldn’t resist such a relevant metaphor). The end result is a lack of impetus for investing time and effort into nurturing a dynamic status quo that grows and changes with the generations. Consequently, our acceptance of change in the comic book universes is only enthusiastic if we know, deep down, that it won’t be permanent.
For another example, let’s recall that the Iron Man story arc from the early 1980s that had James Rhodes don the metal suit, taking over from an alcoholism-debilitated Tony Stark, was a great idea that was destined to go the way of too many great ideas in the worlds of the Big Two (hint: that would be the way of the dinosaur, peeps). We all rooted for Tony to recover, but we couldn’t count on him taking a new positive direction in his life that wouldn’t entail him taking the suit back from Rhodey. We had to be content with the two years or so we were given to follow Rhodey’s memorable struggle to fill the iron boots, because the real-life people in the suits would never let it go on indefinitely. We knew right from the onset that the most this could lead to would be the Rhodester eventually being fitted for a new armored suit and code name once Tony got off the sauce and fulfilled his fiduciary obligations to the Marvel executives… er, the Stark Enterprises executives (Anti-capitalist Freudian slip! Woohoo!).
“What do you mean I have to give this suit back to Tony after such an inspired run of stories? You’re gonna let him just steel back the glory from me? Yeah, that was a bad pun you heard, since it’s not like you deserve a good one!”
Then there’s the matter of certain supporting characters who are so prominent that they can never be killed off for good. Not even when doing so after a long and distinguished career results in a heartfelt and highly respectful send-off. Undoing and undermining such a send-off seems to be the decision of choice for the powers-that-be if a certain big change begins looking too permanent.
Back in the ’90s (when new #1 issues and bank-breaking gimmick covers were as common as chlamydiae on college campuses… well, almost, anyway), one of the best Spider-Man stories produced during a truly lackluster decade was the latest death of his Aunt May. I’ll never forget that story, because it was poignant and beautiful to behold. May Parker was treated with dignity and with great respect for her intelligence (finally!), when she revealed to Peter during a brief recovery from a life-threatening coma that she knew he was actually Spider-Man for a long time, as it was impossible for her to live in the same house for so long and not know (yanno, like you can’t expect your mom not to know about that sexual orientation you’re afraid to reveal to her). When she was soon back on her deathbed, she explained that her strong will wouldn’t let her just fade away like that without first telling her nephew the truth, and how she was always proud of him, despite being in denial over the dangers he constantly faced. She told him how she accepted that it was her time, and then quietly expired while in the loving presence of Peter and Mary Jane, who then held each other and shared tears to an endearing quote from Peter Pan (actually Peter and Wendy; and it was the same quote used by the newly de-commissioned Captain Kirk at the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, btw) .
It was a hard story to forget… until a few years later, when a new creative team on the Spider-titles decided that they wanted us to do just that by revealing that Aunt May never actually died in the first place. No need for a resurrection when you can always rely on that little contrivance, right? Well, at least we can still say that the dying actress disguised as Aunt May and secretly placed into Peter’s life by Norman Osborn to only make him think his aunt died gave a poignant and beautiful final performance (I wish I was making that up). The explanation given for another Aunt May death turning out to be false (yes, there was another one in the late ’70s) was given in the letters page as, “… we felt that we lost more than we gained.” Well, whatever they gained by bringing May Parker back, it sure as hell wasn’t credibility or respect for either the readers’ or May’s intelligence; the latter due to the fact that she was revealed as not knowing her nephew’s secret for real, which made the lady seem as dense as lead to those who remembered her actress imposter’s dying words.
“Cheer up, dear… you know I never die for good. So no need to make another deal with the Devil the next time I’m on my deathbed, okay?”
VIII. Why Not Do the Generational Thing, Then?
I’ve read other writers, including a well known comic book writer/artist, say that there is actually a good reason why the same person is kept in the most famous hero suits forever. This, they say, is because the origins of these individuals have stood the test of time, and that simply having their children take on the role would result in a bland genesis sans the huge emotional impact of the original’s origin.
I don’t really buy that justification, however. I think there are many ways to give the familial successors interesting backstories in their own right. This, in fact, was done with Mayday Parker, whose efforts to live up to her father’s lessons made for the only book in Marvel’s now defunct ANext line of ongoing alternate future titles that had enough lasting power to outlast the entire line. I also thought John Byrne’s depiction of Bruce Wayne’s successor son Bruce Jr. in his Elseworlds mini-series Superman & Batman: Generations made for a compelling character that may well have paved the way for such successors to take over the Mantle of the Bat on a permanent basis had DC chosen to go the generational route instead of doing the time-crunching thing a few decades before the reality reboot option came into vogue. Thanks to that, in fact, nearly the entire concept of legacy that DC did so well for a while was wiped off the face of the cosmic map thanks to the recent Flashpoint event.
Ah, What Might Have Been…
Not only that, but this defense of the perpetual retention of the same person in the costume overlooks the established fact that not all successors would need to be in any way related to the original. This includes the likes of the previously mentioned Miles Morales, along with popular characters like Miguel O’Hara, the Spider-Man of 2099 (another one safely confined to a distant alternate future). They both had very compelling backstories, and proved as worthy of the suit as Peter Parker did. There are no end to good, tragically compelling, and emotionally riveting origin stories which can make for a good successor to Batman or Spider-Man, etc., to set up a similarly driven motivation for fighting crime. And that’s not to say that a different motivation altogether can’t be used: Just look at the popularity surrounding the recently introduced character of Kamala Khan, a.k.a., the new Ms. Marvel. She has proven a likeable character with great (if currently not fully realized) potential, and this despite her backstory being quite distinct from that of Carol Danvers, the classic Ms. Marvel (and now the new Captain Marvel… don’t confuse her for the DC guy of that name in drag; they’re now simply calling him “Shazam” nowadays anyway).
“Watch me fill this uniform as good as Carol Danvers ever did! Um, calm down, I didn’t mean it that way…”
My closing contention is this: The generational approach could have worked had writers during the Golden Age chosen to try it. But since the ancestor of comic books, the comic strip features, had already taken the path of ignoring the passage of time, creative teams of the era probably considered this an indelible aspect of illustrated story telling. They were likely already used to it, and simply believed that doing things this way was a given. They were hardly thinking about anything related to “realism.” The parallel universe concept introduced into the comics by DC in the early 1960s was an early semi-attempt at addressing this issue, but even that weak pretense of concern was abandoned as another decade passed and it was obvious that the Silver Age characters weren’t getting any older, and the aged Golden Age heroes weren’t getting any older than that (rare exceptions like Dick Grayson reaching college age and leaving the cave… er, the nest notwithstanding).
Hence, after seven decades of doing things this way, the Big Two likely now view themselves as having too much invested into their respective mainstream lines–in every conceivable way–to change this policy.
So, though we can always count on major changes and upsets in these two comic book universes, we can’t expect the biggest ones to stand the test of time. How much they may catch on with the fans will also be mostly irrelevant to the corporate force of change-reversal. The most we will get is tantalizing insights into what could have been by way of alternate futures and parallel realities carefully tucked outside the mainstream continuities of the vaunted Big Two. C’est la vie.
Don’t get too comfy in that costume, Mr. Wilson.