Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fixing Comics

This week we're taking a critical look at some of our favorite flawed fandoms. We're proposing one change to each installment or aspect of the fandom in question that we feel would provide the most improvement.

The worst thing about comics is that inevitable moment when someone unfamiliar with the hobby asks that question. You know the one.

"So, what's the origin of Wolverine?"


"Well, you see, he's a mutant, but he' old and he wasn't always a mutant. Actually, wait. Yes, he was always a mutant."

"And his mutant power included him having a metal skeleton, right?"

"Yes. I mean, no. It's--ah--it's adamantium, actually, and--"


"Yeah, but--but that's not important. What is important is that Logan had his--"


"Logan--Wolverine. That's his real name. Well, hang on. I gues his real real name is James Howlett, Where was I?"

"Ada-something skeleton."

"Right. Yeah, see, this government program, Weapon X, they experimented on Logan--"

"You mean James?"

"I mean Wolverine. Anyway, so this government program experiments on him and they lace his bones with this unbreakable metal."

"Oh. Well, I guess that's kinda cool. I didn't realize the U.S. government was part of Wolverine's origin."

"Oh, right. They're not. He's Canadian."


We've all had a similar conversation with a newbie, and we've all gotten the same, utterly perplexed and a little bit questioning of our friendship look. They never ask what Superman's origin is, because that one is simple and easy to remember and perfect. Same thing with Batman. I've heard Batman scribe Denny O'Neil explain that Batman's origin is the only logical event that could have propelled someone to become Batman.

And there's no need to tweak it, or add to it, or change it in any concievable way.

The same can't be said about many other characters' origins--especially some of the more modern ones. What's worse though, is the fact that so many characters' current state of affairs can't be described without some level of confusion.

"Tell me about Jean Grey."

"Oh, she's dead. Um...again. Give it a few months, though. She'll be back. And, um, probably evil."

"I see. I think. That sounds complicated. How about Batman? What's Bruce Wayne up to these days?"

"He's in a cave. I think. Drawing bat symbols. And he has a beard."


"Oh, and he's not Batman anymore. And he might be dead."

"Wait, who's Batman? Is it the old Robin?"

"Yep! It's Dick Grayson, and Damian is the new Robin. And Tim Drake is the Robin."

"Hold on. I thought you said Batman was in a cave?"

"He is! But everyone thinks he's dead."

I could literally do this all day, but I'll spare you all that burden. Instead, I'll just complain, sans the dialogue. One of the biggest problems with comics is accessibility. It's a hinderance that has always, and will always, plague the industry.

Because comics are, by definition, an ongoing serialized story, people who have followed a certain character for a number of years (or decades) expect to be "rewarded" for their loyalty. In other words, longtime fans don't want to invest time and money (oh, the money) into a year-long, company-wide crossover event just to have the whole thing erased from continuity a few years later.

Personally, I don't care. If the story happened, and I liked it, great. If the story happened and I hated it, that's my opinion. I'm sure someone out there loved it. Just because an event (or a character, for that matter) is written out of continuity doesn't mean that the event didn't happen or the character never existed.

That's the beauty of comics. Somewhere, either in a dusty longbox or in a beat-up trade paperback, that story still exists, and is viable, and is there for anyone who wants it to go and read. And enjoy, or hate.

But Continuity Hounds (and I honestly believe there are many working in the comics industry today) want things to tie in and connect and, sometimes, never really change from their own personal favorite runs on a book. Which is fine, but that also means that more recent continuity needs to sometimes be tweaked in order for older continuity to make sense in a character's world again.

Let's say you read comics in the 70's and 80's. And you fell in love with Chris Claremont's and Jon Bynre's legendary run on X-Men. They made that book a must-read for anyone in and around comics back then. Let's say you stopped reading after Byrne left the book. Flash forward to today. That same person picks up (one of the couple dozen) X-books Marvel produces today, and has no idea what the heck's going on.

Well, you can argue that they've missed two decades-plus worth of stories, so a lot had to happen. Good argument. However, the problem with that argument is, if you were to pick up an X-book a year after Byrne left the book, you'd be just as lost. I'm picking on the X-Men because they're the best example of a far-reaching, in-depth, and frankly, confusing string of continuity.

There are so many titles, so many characters, and so many different takes on the characters that, in order to dive in to an X-book for the first time, you really need to do your homework.

And a newbie is not going to want to do that. And why should he or she?

Of course, there's another side of the coin to consider. Say a 13 year old walks out of X-Men 3, loves all the punching and exploding, and wants to go read some X-Men comics. Great! A new reader! Well, sure, but only if the book that kid picks up is incredibly streamlined and doesn't require any prior knowledge of the characters.

And if an X-book is written that way, with all the cookie cutter characters from the movie franchise, then what about the fans who have followed the complicated lives of these characters for years and years?

And there's the problem. Comics, somehow, need to fall somewhere in the middle. A book needs to be written so that a newbie can pick it up and follow it, which means it can't be steeped in decades-old continuity. But, at the same time, the book needs to have some reverence for what's come before it, and it cannot be insulting to the tried-and true Wednesday Warriors.

Stan Lee always used to say that every comic book is someone's first. And if that book is incomprehensible to that someone, then comics loses a potential reader. Likely forever.

This makes me think of the first comic I read before I really got into this crazy culture. It was Batman, issue 613, right smack in the middle of the "Hush" story arc. Jeph Loeb wrote that book in a way that past events in the series were explained, and he used familiar characters. And the characters acted in ways I could relate to, because his interpretations of the characters were very much in line with the traditional takes on them.

Still, Loeb managed to bring new stuff into that story, and Hush and Jason Todd play huge roles in the DC Universe today. When I first read it, sure, I didn't get every reference or reveal, but I was still able to follow the mystery and enjoy the heck out of the ride.

And it made me want to go back and learn about some of the characters I'd never heard of before. Like Jason Todd. You mean, there was another Robin after Dick Grayson? What happened there?

And I have to believe that, if that one, single issue of Batman was way beyond my grasp, and, say, Bruce Wayne was drawing symbols in a cave instead of being a detective, I may not have continued to read comics. I might not have gone back to the shop the following week to check out what Superman was up to. I might not have picked up that weird-looking Dark Horse book with the big, ugly guy and his bug-eyed sidekick, shooting at zombies.

And that would have been a shame.


Scott said...

I think your explanations tended to exaggerate the problem by trying to explain them, not in chronological order, but in the order YOU personally learned the facts through the story. I mean, you could do the same thing with Superman.

"He's uh, this guy who stops bank robberies... but he's really a reporter named Clark Kent from Smallville... but wait, he's not really named Clark Kent, his real name is actually Kal-El, and he's from another planet... and his powers, well he's not normally powerful, it's just the sun... and he doesn't spend all of his time saving banks, he also saves the world because he has all of these enemies... some of them are from other planets..."

But we didn't personally read the stuff in that order (since it was ages ago), so we got the "digest" form and use that for explanation. In that vein, you could just say something like this for Wolverine:

"He was born in the 1800s in Canada and his name was James Howlett. His power was his healing factor and claws; the healing factor also slows his aging drastically. Because of this, the Canadian government decided to use him in a project to make him indestructable by covering his skeleton with a metal called adamantium."

And there, you have the basics...

AJG said...

I agree to some extent, BUT, by origin I mean, specifically, "how did he become Wolverine?" Being Wolverine means, how did this guy end up in a costume, fighting alongside the X-Men?

With Superman, it's much simpler--Home planet explodes, parents send him to Earth where he finds he has extraordinary powers.

Same with Batman--Billionaire doctor and wife killed in front of their son, who uses his vast resources to become a vigilante.

Grant Morrison, in his excellent All Star Superman series, was able to "tell" Superman's origin in three panels, without any words necessary.

It literally took an entire mini-series to explain Wolverine's origin!

Scott said...

It took an entire mini-series to complicate Wolverine's origin, you mean. I liked it more when his "real" origin was that he was an immortal drifter with a healing factor. :-/

AJG said...


Good point!