Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The New, New, New, New (We Really Mean it This Time), New DC Comics


Okay, I guess, as a geek girl, I should address this. It's been in the news lately. DC Comics is apparently "rebooting" their universe.... Again. Although also apparently DC doesn't want to CALL it a reboot. Screw that noise, it's a reboot.

This isn't the first time DC has done this. It won't be the last time they do it either I'm willing to bet. And don't think DC is alone in this -- Marvel has had it's share of reboots as well -- it's just now it's DC's turn.

The non-comics initiated among you might be asking "What's a 'reboot' and what's the big deal?" Well, as many comic book writers and fans have said over the years, comic books have the thing that most any ongoing series has -- "history" and "continuity".

"History" is just what it sounds like -- the history of the title. "History" tells us that Batman was created in 1939 and has been published under one title or another pretty much continuously since then. "History" also tells us that Bruce Wayne became Batman when his parents were killed right in front of him as they were walking home from the movies one night. "History" tells us that Batman has a sidekick named Robin and that Robin has had a number of different kids under the mask over the years -- Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, and now Damian Wayne.

"Continuity" refers to internal consistency within the comic book. For example, going back to Batman, originally we were told Bruce's parents were both shot. Later, readers were told that his father was shot and his mother suffered a fatal heart attack in shock. Later still it went back to both of them being shot. That's a lack of internal consistency. If we are told Bruce Wayne is an orphan then we expect him to remain an orphan and not have his parents suddenly pop back up out of nowhere. If we are told a certain character has a law degree then we do not expect to suddenly be told that they actually dropped out of law school before they finished their degree.

Some continuity problems are caused by new writers coming in and not being completely familiar with the continuity of a character. Other times continuity changes are required as a result of changing times. For example, in Iron Man's original origin story Tony Stark was injured and captured by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War and built his first suit of armor to escape and keep his damaged heart operating. Obviously if this origin still stood Stark would no longer be the young playboy of the comic books but rather pushing retirement age. So the basic broad strokes of the origin are kept but the wars being fought and the armies who captured him have changed over the years.

But then there are deliberate continuity changes designed to alter a story or change a character in hopes of bringing in more and new readers. These are known as "Retcons" -- short for Retroactive Continuity. For example, let's go back to our lawyer character above. For years Our Hero (tm) may have been a crusading lawyer by day and a costumed superhero by night. And then, suddenly we learn that he actually never finished law school and that for all this time he's actually been practicing law illegally.

Shock! Surprise! Our Hero's (tm) life is thrown into disaray! He loses his law practice, he is disgraced! What happens next?! Well, that's the hook, isn't it?

I won't completely bash retcons -- some have worked and actually worked pretty well and told very interesting stories in the process. The vast majority of them, however, were what you would expect -- ham fisted, forced, illogical, attempts to change a character that didn't really need changing to begin with.

So what does all this have to do with a reboot?

Well, the thinking from On High -- A.K.A. the publishers, CEO's and Executive Editors -- tends to be that one can have too much history and continuity which in turn make it difficult for new readers to jump on board.

Over the last decade or two it has been a demonstratable fact that mainstream (i.e. not Japanese Manga) comic book readership has been shrinking. Fewer and fewer people buy and read comic books and those who still do are an aging population. Whereas one the average age of a comic book reader was in their teens and then their twenties now the average age is in their thirties. Comic book companies want to hook younger readers to augment this... and also so that maybe those readers who are fourteen now will still be reading comic books when they hit thirty-four.

So the solution to luring new readers on is to basically reset the universe. Most of the time this has been done in the past it hasn't been a complete reset but rather a partial one... although a complete reset HAS been done in the past. This time, however, it looks like DC is going for the complete (or nearly so) reset of their universe. Older characters get de-aged to a younger point in their lives, their pasts -- histories and continuities erased -- it's all a blank slate for writers to basically start all over again and try to lure in new readers.

It's just there's a problem with this. In trying to lure in new readers with promised stories starting out on the "ground floor" they run the risk of alienating their current reader base who have been following these characters for years and enjoying the character developments and have little interest in seeing old plot tropes rehashed.

For example, a personal favorite of mine -- Booster Gold. Booster was a character who was born and lived in the 25th century. When he disgraced himself and ruined his life he hatched a scheme to steal items from a superhero museum, travel back in time to when no one knew him, become a superhero and then parlay that into wealth and fame. Over the years, however, personal problems, tragedies, and friendships have instead led Booster down a different path. He's grown, matured, changed, and given up on wealth and fame in order to do the right thing. He's also found a new calling, not as a traditional superhero but rather as a time traveler who protects the past and the future from those who would change events to suit their own desires. And now potentially all that growth and character development could be wiped out resetting him to the money-hungry bumbler he started out as. Needless to say I am not necessarily pleased at this prospect.

The other problem with the line of thinking the higher-ups are operating from is the idea that history and continuity are stumbling blocks. They aren't. As comic book reviewer Linkara once recently said -- the best way to jump into comic books is simply to find a title or story that sounds interesting and read it. Most of the time nowadays new writers come into titles every year or so and each new writer seems to start fresh with their own ideas many of which are NOT linked to a lot of history or continuity. And if something comes up in a comic which is not clearly explained then there are plenty of places on the internet where one can find the answers without a lot of difficulty. There are also always new #1's being launched with wholly new characters where new readers can jump on and there are stand-alone mini and maxi-series always being published as well. And, thanks to more and more libraries carrying trade collections new readers can often try out a title without any danger to their bank account! Just go to your local library, find a trade that looks interesting and check it out. If you like it you can seek out more or maybe start picking up an ongoing series at your local comic shop if you don't like it you simply return it to your library -- no harm, no foul.

The problems with rebooting entire universes like this is that, in the end, new readers don't necessarily know what's going on anymore (A Superman comic where Clark DOESN'T love Lois Lane?!) and long-time readers find that all of their beloved character development has been thrown out the window (A Superman comics where Lois and Clark aren't married?!). This sort of thing leaves no one happy in the long run.

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