I recently finished reading Grant Morrison’s run (1988-90) on Animal Man, and was struck with a particular scene in issue 19. Animal Man goes on a soul-searching peyote trip with Native American physicist James Highwater, and part of his hallucinations is a recap of his origins done Who’s Who in the DC Universe style:
Buddy Baker, while on a hunting trip with his buddy, stumbles upon a crashed alien spaceship. The ship explodes, incinerating his body in the process. Two mysterious extraterrestrials – the spacecraft’s engineers – proceed to reconstruct his body from scratch. They include special grafts into Buddy’s system that allow him to tap into the Earth’s morphogenetic field and utilize the evolutionary energies of its creatures. As a result, Buddy can now mimic the abilities of any animal he targets; he can fly like a bird, charge with the force of a rhino, and replicate himself like bacteria, among countless other possibilities. He now fights crime as the amazing Animal Man, with the (mostly) full support of his loving wife and two children.
Only, that’s now how it happened in the character’s original incarnation, way back in 1965. What happens next in Animal Man’s trip is a chilling encounter with his past self:
(Images from Animal Man 19, Jan. 1990, pages 8-10)
Grant Morrison’s Animal Man was a running commentary on the creative repercussions of Crisis on Infinite Earths, one of DC’s biggest reboots. In a nutshell, the Crisis was DC’s attempt to de-muddle its convoluted continuity by eliminating all of the parallel universes they deemed necessary, and then fusing the important ones into a single plane of existence. Since the new singular reality needed to make sense of the existential mish-mash, a lot of characters’ histories were altered. Some of the changes were significant. Lex Luthor, for example, went from being a crazed overweight scientist to the ruthless corporate executive we all love to hate. Some changes, like those of Animal Man’s, had less of an impact, due in large part to the characters’ status as B-listers.
The Crisis, for all its noble intentions, ended up generating more questions than it had hoped. When a wigged-out post-Crisis Buddy meets the pre-Crisis Animal Man, the latter assumes the voice of the readers who had read of – and fallen in love with – the superhero’s previous iteration. “Wasn’t I good enough?,” he asks, desperate to cling on to his existence. “What happens when the continuity changes?”
What happens, indeed? Lives change. In the case of Luthor (and most of the Superman mythos, for that matter), for the better. For others, such as Animal Man, the changes are largely inconsequential. Others still, like Hawkman, become wildly confusing to follow because of the merging of multiple previously-established identities. Regardless of how good or bad the changes are, however, there will always be the pre-Crisis Animal Man, the voice of the reader who clings on to history on the verge of being erased.
This, however, is not the product of stereotypical fanboy rage. This is an effect of something much deeper.
We, as people, are shaped by our histories. Continuity is the one thing we can viably claim to be proof of our existence. I know I am real because I know how I got here. I get interested in people not only for the shell of the personality I encounter in the present, but also for the foundation it was built upon. I manage to stay in love with someone because I get to forge a series of memories I can recall with her, to serve as a basis for what comes tomorrow. Continuity gives us identity, depth, and reason.
Comic book readers learn to associate with the characters as though they were real people because for the most part, the characters are powerful archetypes for the human identity. Think of the X-Men, who are reviled just for being different. Think of the Hulk, who is the beast we all fear will run rampant if we don’t keep ourselves in check. The characters may not be real, but the emotional attachment we feel with them is.
Continuity plays a large role in defining that sense of attachment. It helps the characters grow and in effect, reflects ways in which the reader himself could develop. Peter Parker may have always been a wisecracker, but his marriage to Mary Jane boosted his self-confidence far more than a show of bravado in the face of death could ever achieve. How many times was she there for him when his responsibilities stretched him to the breaking point? Where would he be without her strength to prop him up? Weeping. Sulking. Pining over the dead girl.
His relationship with Mary Jane had changed the man he was. He transformed from a superhero primarily motivated by the guilt of a monumental failure to someone who always got up the next morning, regardless of how bad his yesterday was. Her consistent belief in him allowed him to move past his inability to protect his uncle and become a greater hero than he could ever know.
Then, with the clack of a keyboard and the laugh of a devil, the marriage was completely wiped from existence.
All of a sudden, that entire identity had vanished. Peter had become someone else. The core characteristics might have remained the same, and he might still be recognizable, but his history had changed. His story had changed, and with that, the identity that was formed out of it. He isn’t the Peter who had grown alongside a companion soul, but one who blames himself for losing her.
A character’s identity is intimately tied with his continuity. It’s true that some developments don’t always work out – Hal Jordan getting possessed by Parallax, for example – but it at least makes the person more compelling. Hal’s characterization had taken a plummet to a two-dimensional wasteland, but he eventually overcame his demons. He learned the value of responsibility and of redemption. He earned a facet of heroism that few others will ever even conceive. He became a much more interesting character than cocky ol’ Highball. Without the massive degeneration of events that had occurred in the past, without the mistakes we wish we could forget, we wouldn’t as invested in Hal today as we are now.
Because we are spending on books about personas, the act of reading becomes a relational investment, whether it’s for fantasy, escape, or reflection. We might live vicariously through the characters totemic of our personal natures, or we could just find their personalities entertaining. We stick with the books because the developments the characters see through captivate us. If Batman remained a flat character month after month, with no real continuity to tie the issues together, he wouldn’t be a bestseller. We support Batman because his accumulated experiences have led him to the next logical step on his war on crime, building an international peacekeeping force – and that is just downright fascinating.
It’s a major part of what sets comics apart from traditional books. Novels often establish a character for as far as the pages go, and that’s it. It’s a dedicated read for a couple of days, and then it’s over. If the book is part of a series, you wait years for the next development, and by that time, your connection with the character is somewhat weakened because of his absence. In comics, the emotional resonance is reinforced on a monthly, even weekly, basis. You are constantly reacquainted with the identities within and see their developments occur more frequently. Books are the summer flings that may or may not be rekindled every so often, invariably leaving a lasting impression. Comics are the people you date on a regular basis. For those who read and appreciate comics, this is the reason we feel something for them, whether it’s love, hate, or a bittersweet middle-ground.
The upcoming DC reboot is nothing new. It’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. It’s Zero Hour. It’s Infinite Crisis. It’s the same old story, only with a few slight tweaks. Unfortunately, that’s what we get with the characters as well.
We will be plunged headfirst into a brave new world, and led on an exploration on how familiar faces have changed after the cataclysm. We will read, once again, how an infant refugee becomes Superman, only this time suited to the tastes of another creator. We will discover how a group of the world’s finest heroes band together to create a peace-keeping force for the ages, albeit in a different way.
Critically speaking, the writing might be excellent. For all we know, the DC reboot might be the company’s re-emergence into stratospheric heights of prominence. What I fear, however, is the effect this might have on the comic book as a literary form.
The first big comics boom occurred because the books had successfully resonated an emotional response in their readers. Wonder, joy, excitement, fear – the adventures of yesteryear presented it all. Today’s comics fan, however, is a more sophisticated reader. He reads the books for the characters as much as the action – one need only see the trends in book titles. Whereas in the old days, it was enough to name your book after a genre (Detective Comics, Amazing Fantasy), comics at present are mostly titled for the personalities contained within. We buy Daredevil comics because we want to read about Daredevil.
When you reboot a character, you essentially rob him of all those personality-shaping experiences. Animal Man asked the man who overwrote his identity, “What happens to all those lives?” If a life is the culmination of the events that transpire in the course of an individual’s existence, then the “lives” of the comic book characters are lost with every reboot. They return to an altered state of creative infancy.
All these re-imaginings, unless as wildly different from the source material as Neil Gaiman’s version of the Sandman was, are simply reconstructions of something previously established. DC’s fondness for reboots is the violent uprooting of developing identities in exchange for the more profitable tried-and-tested ones. The characters will grow for an indeterminate period of time, shape their personas, and then watch them vanish the next time DC hits the reset button. What we’re stuck with is fanfics of the same old story. What we get is an infinite number of identities that all somehow return to a singular basic form. What we have is an industry that’s afraid to evolve.
Alan Moore may be an angry curmudgeon, but he’s a damn perceptive one. Perhaps his opinion on the DC reboot rings true, at least in regard to the art form:
What this kind of results in is a kind of – in terms of the art form, it’s a kind of incest, a kind of inbreeding, where we – when I dropped out of comics, this was the case anyway – you have stories that are only capable of referencing other stories from five, 10, 40 years before. The point is sorting out bits of continuity that most of the readership that is currently around have never heard of and have no interest in. […]
[…] I suppose my basic feelings about the comic industry as it stands are that I just hope its final death rattle isn’t too humiliating or too desperate, because it’s deserved. If the industry is incapable of coming with new ideas and a future that it can evolve into, then it really doesn’t deserve to survive.
If the death knell of comics is the sound of creative stagnancy, then perhaps the best way DC can salvage their plummeting sales is by sticking with Flashpoint as the final reboot. Let the characters evolve. Let them grow and build their identities organically. Let the reader get attached to those identities through love and hate. Find a way to get new readers interested in past events, and help them appreciate the characters more. Make people care about continuity. If something goes wrong, rely on the talent of the creators to fix things instead of brutishly turning back the clock. More importantly, find a grand new idea instead to retreating to what’s brought past acclaim.
Challenge the art form.
Tell a new story.