Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Definition of Change

Just the other day, Jim wrote here about the illusion of change and how it’s killing comics.

He noted the drastic changes that happened in the early years of Marvel on titles like Spider-Man and Fantastic Four. However, if Jim wants an example of a mainstream superhero title committed to lasting, actual change, he’s barking up the wrong tree.

Stan Lee has explained what happened here. When they were creating those first titles, they simply did not expect for them to last for 40, 50, 60 years. They thought they were working on stories for a couple years, and then they would move on to something else. Once they realized that these characters could become cultural institutions like Superman or Batman, they adopted the approach of the illusion of change, in lieu of actual change.

But the one modern mainstream superhero book that was committed to real, lasting, long term change was Chris Claremont’s X-Men. Yes, really.

Eventually, the X-Men became the premier franchise in comics and it became a static parody of itself that recycled the same plot lines over and over (Will Gambit and Rogue ever get together? Check back next year). However, until the book became a victim of its own success, it took more chances than any mainstream superhero book I can think of.

From Giant Size X-Men #1 until the time that Marvel created the X-Factor spinoff (which was somewhere in the early 200s of Uncanny X-Men), this was a book that had a roster constantly in flux, with relationships that were constantly changing. If you look issues that are a year apart, it’s shocking how much would be different. It is clear that after the Dark Phoenix saga that Cyclops was intended to be written out of the book and only used as an occasional guest star in the future. Magneto was evolving into possibly a hero. Villains were reformed. Punk Storm was totally unrecognizable from the character’s first introduction. Xavier was slowly being nudged out of the book. Swashbuckling Nightcrawler was also deeply religious. The team faked their death and moved to Australia. Even a character like Wolverine, who we are all sick of today, had evolved dramatically, from some Canadian scrapper into this noble savage/warrior with ties to feudal Japan and almost a team leader.

If you read X-Men #200, featuring the Trial of Magneto (which culminated in Magneto becoming headmaster of the New Mutants), it is incredible how far it had come and changed since Giant Sized X-Men. Only when Marvel sought to fully exploit the value of that franchise and create spin-offs did it start to grow stale. Years of development were undone in an instant to justify a new creative team’s take or a new book’s premise.

FF and Spidey were filled with so much change because Lee and company thought they were writing finite stories, or at least over a finite period of time. Claremont deserves a lot of credit for writing a book that, until Marvel started capitalizing on its success with 800 spinoffs, radically changed over long periods of time. What he shared with the early Marvel creators was the ability to do long term story telling with a group of characters and relatively little interference.

Today, creative teams do far more limited runs on titles, which, alongside a heavy dose of nostalgia for the comics of their youth, invariably lead to focusing on the strengths of a character or concept. Typically, this means a back to basic approach that ignores the years of development and creates a sense of constant reset. Let’s call this the “Johnny Storm effect.” Every FF run starts with him as immature and ends with him as a responsible adult. And the next run, no matter how good the creators are, always resets it.

Of course we still get changes in comics, like new heroes in old identities, but more often than not, these changes are sudden and abrupt, instituted by a new creative team with little set up or development. Even Morrison’s switch of Dick Grayson into Batman, which I have largely enjoyed, was barely set up before hand in Morrison’s run on the Bat books.

In today’s ADD audience, I’m not sure if we have the patience for something as long and developed as Claremont’s X-Men run. And if we did, I’m not sure if the companies have the self-restraint to allow those books to change naturally.


  1. Good point. That run from Giant X-Men #1 to about #200 was the heydey of my X-Men reading. It did have that air of impermenance. You really believed things that happened to the characters were going to last. Thunderbird stayed dead. Phoenix, too, for almost all of that time. I suppose it was her revival that really signaled the end of the significance of the X-Men as a title that was going somewhere.

  2. I agree with you about reviving Jean Grey.

    Its hard to read any story about Cyclops and Madeline Pryor before X-Factor got relaunched and not see it as Scott Summers' ride into the sunset. Then Jean comes back and he dumps her and their kid to go hang out with his dead ex.