Readers of this blog who share the my interest in comics already know that today is a “big day”: DC Comics, home to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern (&c) “ends”. Then, immediately “begins” again. In the contemporary language of comics, the “DC Universe” reboots. The Heroes, et al., who appear in DC comics after today won’t (necessarily) have lived the world chronicled in DC comics since 1938.
The idea behind the reboot is to gain new readers. Comics readership is in decline. This may surprise you, given the seemingly endless number of movies based on comics, but the monthly paper issues sell fewer and fewer, the readership gets older and older, and publishers grow more and more desperate. DC determined that what repels “new readers” – the Golden Demographic of comics publishers – is “too much continuity”.
I doubt very much that this is accurate.
I belong to the first generation of obsessives who prized comics continuity. I started on comics in 1983, age 9. I’d bought them – had them bought for me – off spinner racks in drugstores before that, but in 1983 I became a collector. I was an obsessive reader, and I was mad for serials. I was perfect mark. I found, in my grandparents house, a copy of some comic, probably left behind by a cousin, that referenced, as they did in those days, the events of some other comic. They had little boxes in the corner of the panel: see Adventures of BLANK #__.
I was hooked. I needed to know. The events of this other issue, hinted at in the issue I had, took on a huge importance, an almost magic feeling of permanence and reality.
I prized in those days, above all, books, records, or magazines left behind by older relatives, as this comic surely was. Back issues were in my future. Comics from the 1970s seemed ancient artifacts. My local shop was spacious, most of it given over to long boxes full of back issues, through which I combed for hours. Important to recall, in those days there was no other way to know what happened. No reprints, no internet. You could ask the dude at the counter. You might get your hands on a handbook/encyclopedia the companies printed now and again. Or you bought the back issues. You went to the shop to get the new ones and, if you’d save $1 instead of only $.50, you bought an old one too.
You moved forward and backward in time.
Prior to roughly then, it didn’t occur to comics companies that people might keep their products, and by and large it didn’t occur to the readers to keep them. Hence the scarcity (and the high price) of many comics that came out in the 1960s, after all not that long ago. Disposability was one of the main features of the medium: cheap enough to read and then throw away, trade, or slice up and paste into your own scenes. Comics companies also believed, or were resigned to the idea, that their audience was disposable: it would be ever comprised of teenagers who would outgrow comics, and make way for new teenagers. This didn’t worry the companies because there were always new kids. Marvel, for example, simply reprinted chunks from the first 66 X-Men comics as issues #67-93, assuming the people who wanted an X-Men comic from 1970 – 1975 hadn’t read them from 1963 – 1970.
Comics always had continuity, of course. The issue-to-issue cliffhanger was a staple of the form. But in the era of the Marvel’s huge hits – the 1960s saw debuts of Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Hulk, The X-Men, Spiderman, and more – continuity grew in both importance and in the number of issues it might encompass. This was probably for the simple reason that what happens to a character is that character, and if you believed you were creating “characters”, you needed continuity. A less artistic reason was that multiple issue storylines could really, really hook a reader: the kind of reader who didn’t pick up an issue when he passed it on a spinner rack, the one who went to the comics shop monthly, or even weekly.
By my time, continuity was unquestioned, and it was a large part of what attracted me. The X-Men were reeling off 30 issue arcs. I was dredging back issues out of the long box to fill in my knowledge, placate my suspicions, and – I suppose – to think about the world before me. 1983 – 1985 was my own personal golden age of collecting.
But I was collecting mostly Marvel, and Marvel was a manageable age. DC was different. And in 1985, DC tried their first re-boot.
“Crisis on Infinite Earths” was this attempt. The title hits the ear with Saturday-afternoon bombast and absurd, stoned ambition. That’s essentially what we Marvel kids thought of DC. Marvel was “real”; DC was comic-y. DC had been running since 1938. Even though comics run on a “floating timeline” – the characters age slowly, maybe a day an issue – DC faced some real discrepancies with newer characters, altered powers, a different backdrop to events. And, as now, they wanted new readers. “Crisis” introduced the idea of an, well, infinite number of earths, all vibrating a different frequency. For example, on one earth (say, Earth 5) it was still WWII; thus, all the WWII-era DC comics were actually chronicles of Earth 5. This managerie of worlds was watched over by The Monitor – the ultimate continuity know-it-all – who presided from an orbiting space ship in infinite orbit. However, his great enemy the Anti-Monitor caused all the universes vibrate on the same wavelength. If he succeeded, he would destroy them all.
This plan was foiled by, among other things, the deployment of a cosmic treadmill.
The Anti-Monitor failed, but the storyline achieved its goal of reducing infinite earths to one earth, with the favoured remnants of the other earths (the old Superman, the WWII heroes, etc.) stranded on the single remaining earth, where they could appear in new stories. Voila, a “single” continuity threaded out of many. It blew my mind, though not for the same reason it does now: they wrote the editorial and sales imperative into the storyline. The Anti-Monitor’s sketchy plan to establish the “anti-matter” universe (i.e., destroy the continuity) ended by creating a stronger continuity, killing off the Monitor in the process. He wasn’t needed anymore, after all. DC, in 1985, was ready to start over, with hugely popular characters like the Superman and Batman, and shot of 30 years of baggage.
New fans welcome! But the teens of 1985 never left, and the new ones soon stopped coming.
Some left, of course. I did. Sometime in 1987, comics for me ended with whimper, not a bang. I’ve gone back through and found the last month I bought comics, August 1987. I was 13, entering 8th Grade. Leaving comics made no vivid memory to match the ones attached to finding them: my grandparent’s house, the smell of the old comics’ shop on Chicago Drive with the summer light coming through the big windows, the time I saved the astronomical sum of $5 to buy a copy of the Death of Phoenix issue (X-Men #139), hands shaking at the cash register. I mean, I knew Jean Grey died: it was referenced often in the current (1983-7) comics. But until I bought that issue, I didn’t know that it happened.
But as I said, the post-1987 comics meant nothing to me. I vaguely noticed prices and sales going through the roof during the 1990’s, the era of “collectible” editions. And I certainly recalled my comics obsession fondly as my “youth”. By the time they made an X-Men movie in 2000, it felt distinctly “retro”. I believed comics stopped without me.
It is a truism that comics hit a a bubble in the 90s. The stories are largely forgotten or have been explained out of existence – retconned, or retroactive continuity, in the parlance – and the massive sales’ numbers were largely the product of gimmicks. The companies tried to re-create the rising prices of the original issues – prices that were high because no one thought they would be worth anything – with the opposite tack: the classic bubble strategy of trying to make assets valuable because everyone thought they were worth something. They were, I guess, then they weren’t. Comics hit the movies big, and most of them were lousy: predicated to cash in on leftover nostalgia from the oldsters. Because that was the thing about the bubble: it wasn’t kids that rang up those prices. I mean, it was kids: but it was the kids of 1985. 10 years older, with more money to spend.
The DC reboot starts today with the issue that ends the old universe, the concluding issue of a travesty of a miniseries called Flashpoint (#5) and a new cornerstone issue of the new one, Justice League of America (#1) (each $3.99). Flashpoint is a disaster. Nothing whatsoever has happened in the first 4 issues. Insultingly, the main series is accompanied by something like 50 tie-in issues (all $2.99 or $3.99) which take place an “altered continuity” created by the Flash’s arch-nemesis, Professor Zoom. Why he created this alternative universe, or what unifying principle animates it, is not evident. It is possible Flashpoint #5 ties it together, but it seems extremely unlikely. Instead, we got a cynical ploy of under-thought “alternative realities”, and probably an ending not unlike we got in 1985’s Crisis: a villain’s attempt to wipe out the continuity is mostly defeated, except in simplifying the continuity. September brings Justice League and 51 other new #1 issues to explore the “new” continuity.
Now, you’ll notice that when DC gets in a bind and decides it needs new readers, it hatches an editorial edict and sends a super villain to do its work. In both instances, the villain attacks the continuity. Which is to say, the villain attacks the old fans. Now, it is true that old fans will likely enjoy the new DC Universe. I have heard not one mention, on line or in shops, of someone signing off DC because they feel betrayed. (Unlike the rash of drinkers who quit Strohs when they changed from the gold to blue can also c. 1985…indicating, perhaps, comics fans are more addicted than beer drinkers?) But it stands true: if continuity matters to you, its because you’ve been there or want to go there (the past of the universe); and if this is you, DC will eventually send some bad-ass to wipe you out.
What is continuity? No one cares about characters who don’t experience, grow, and change. So, continuity is vital. Continuity is probably an artifact of film and television, for which it is the name of a position: the job of making sure the out-of-sequence filming looks in sequence when put together, mostly be keeping the inanimate objects (including extras) in the frame constant from shot-to-shot. It is a narrative compulsion, but it is also true that if “real life” was a narrative, it would have perfect continuity.
So what does it mean for a story not to have happened? I’m speaking somewhat archly about DC “attacking” continuity. They are actually showing it amazing respect: to be able to ignore continuity, we must do this. But what does it mean to ignore the continuity, and why do you do it? In what other narrative form is an excess of narrative so anxiety-provoking that it must be attacked by villains? Is it a literal version of Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence, being experienced by a corporation?
It is possible, of course, that the writers will be able to tell better stories because they won’t be treading on the same ground as their predecessors, but it is unclear that removing an event (or even 500 issues of events) will change a character very much, especially if he is cherished specifically because of his iconic powers / back story / mantra. Indeed, I am almost certain that the newly continuity-free writers of DC will actually use mostly (if not all) pre-reboot supporting characters, just in different ways than they were used the first time. Which reminds us that the simplest way to change “continuity” would be just to make up new supporting characters. Have Superman move from Metropolis to New York. Perry White gets the sack, Lois Lane the heave-ho. Keep all the old stories and all he continuity, but Superman decides to move on and have new experiences.
If DC did this, they’d be burned to the ground.
Continuity, it turns out, is a complicated thing. Obviously my departure from comics in 1987 didn’t last. In 2008, I returned. Comics are now collected in glossy, paperback books. The internet has all of the back story you’d ever need. Comics are wildly expensive; they have car ads. I only see adults in my shop, but we’re in SF, where there aren’t many kids.
Getting back into comics meant reading a lot of those collected editions of back issues to bridge the continuity gap between 1987 and 2008. And some of the stories, especially those from the comics renaissance starting approximately 2000, are great. But I freely admit the “every Wednesday” is a big part of my enjoyment, as is the connection to my own childhood, and even the remembered yearning of my own childhood for the world before my own childhood. Tomorrow I will buy Flashpoint and Justice League for these same reasons, the same reasons DC isn’t “rebooting” by making up a bunch of new characters. You are able to play with continuity on the surface because you keep sacred a continuity that runs deeper.
But this bargain is a melancholy one. We are nagged by worry that our continuity has gotten so long that we require grave measures to contain it. 1938-2011 is a lot of stories. A kid who read Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman) at the age that I started comics is 100. And if the situation is dire now, it will only get worse. More stories come every week. The stories pile up, but this is not the worry. The worry is that, eventually, the continuity will need to end. This isn’t just a worry; it’s an inevitability.
New fans don’t want new stories, and they barely want new stories with old characters. They want stories anchored in time – the specific time of our lives, and of American life – that promise the eternal. They want the Monitor: the high-wire act of near impossible complexity that wears the guise of manageable and coherent continuity. The new fans who buy, starting tomorrow, into the “new” DCU have a wealth, an abundance, a near-infinity of stories available to them. But those that come, they come because they want these old ones. They’ll start their own continuity, or so DC hopes. They’ll indulge in the childish excitement of pretending that what they know can’t go on forever, will go on forever, and go on forever because someone is keeping track.
More: a good take from Grumpy Old Fan at CBR