Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Illusion of Change

The story goes that after Marvel became number one in the industry Stan Lee told all the staff no more change, just the illusion of change. This happened somewhere in the seventies I believe, which means nothing has happened in 4o years. Whether the story is true or not that is essentially what happened with Marvel comics. I have talked ad nauseam on this topic, but I keep hoping some editorial high up will read my missive and have an epiphany.

I guess what drives me crazy is that I have been a fan since the very early years of Marvel. I was a kid of six years old (or maybe five) when I started getting into comic books. At that age I enjoyed some DC stuff, but Marvel comics were the bomb. DC comics were episodic in nature and each issue told one or maybe two stories about the hero. You could miss an issue and never notice it because the stories were all stand alone with only the barest hints of any continuity from issue to issue. Marvel comics were the exact opposite, each issue lead into the next issue and the changes to the characters were coming fast and furious.

The Fantastic Four went from a group of freaks to having a headquarters in New York City. Within three years Reed and Sue were married and Johnny Storm was growing up. They went from a group of adventures to a group that was a family first and foremost and their identities were known to everyone. The fact that they had no secret identities was a big deal, I can’t think of any other super hero who operated so openly. The family aspect was also very strong and we had Reed and Sue get married, the Thing has a steady girl and Johnny Storm has a true love with Crystal of the Inhumans. Heck Reed and Sue have a child together. It was a great time to be a fan; I couldn’t wait for the next issue. Now forty years later Johnny Storm has supposedly been killed (give it a year) but he is still about 20 years old. Reed and Sue have two children, but Franklin is still around five to seven years old after 40 years. The Thing is still dating the same girl and we have the series re-launching as the Future Foundation with Spider-Man filling Johnny’s spot. The illusion of change, but no real change, because the Torch will be back and they will go back to being the Fantastic Four and renumber to hit issue #600. Jonathan Hickman is certainly trying to reinvigorate the FF as have others, but they are all handcuffed because it is only the illusion of change. We can’t have the kids get older, we can’t have Johnny become an adult of 30 plus, so it is all sleight of hand.

Spider-Man is the most egregious of all the characters because in the span of his first 28 issues he finished high school and headed off to college. He went from wimpy Peter Parker, to a more confident young man and became a heck of a hero. Spider-Man #31-33 will always be one of the great stories of all time as Peter does whatever it takes to save his Aunt May, regardless of the personal cost it takes on his life. He grows up, goes to college and graduates, ultimately even getting married (and that is after the seventies). Still 40 years later Peter appears to be in his 20’s with a steady girl-friend and right now has a great job, but stuck in this stage of his life forever. I say Spider-Man is the most egregious since recently they magically erased half of his life. Now Spider-Man is still single Peter Parker, with his Aunt May still around, Flash Thompson still there and again differences, but all just a twist or a turn, nothing really changing.

Iron Man is still Tony Stark, Thor is Dr. Donald Blake, Giant-Man is Hank Pym, Hulk is Bruce Banner and Steve Rogers is within a hair’s breadth of taking back the mantle of being Captain America. When you look at the X-Men we still have Cyclops, Iceman, the White Queen (filling in for Marvel Girl), the Angel and the Beast floating around in the MU. It is like growing facial hair or changing your hair color is the extent of any changes allowed to “franchise” characters.

It is sad because the fan base continues to shrink, especially for print versions of these characters, and effective lasting and permanent change and growth could be a panacea for comics. DC is a better at creating the next generation of heroes, but still are stuck in ruts. Heck, Dan Didio wiped away much of the progress in moving forward. He rolled back and killed momentum that they had on a lot of characters (has anyone seen Connor Hawke?) pleading that the iconic version is the only one that should be allowed or featured.

Now I’m enjoying Spider-Man again, but it is vastly different than it used to be. Before I was invested in the character, now I’m following it for a little while as light entertainment knowing I can drop it and never really miss anything. The illusion of change has caused this long time fan to have less and less vested in these characters. As the economy, digital media and other changes continue in the real world we can always check in anytime and still find the same characters in the same costumes from Marvel, forever.

Well maybe not forever, as ultimately sales may fall off the cliff and then they will try for real change.


  1. I think you've hit on the "appeal" (to Marvel) of the illusion in your second-to-the-last paragraph: You can always come back to the familiar, which is sort of comforting in a hypothetical way and potentially what people want. Why did we have 20-odd James Bond movies and the one with real significant change and emotion is considered the worst (On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- IMO one of the best. The only visible reference later to his marriage is the opening sequence of For Your Eyes Only)? If things get too far away from the established formula, well let's do a hard or soft reboot.

    When they brought Aunt May back right before the end of ASM vol 1 -- that was the cord that cut continuity. Just the renumbering afterward and (Chapter One) was a slap in the face for longtime fans -- long before JMS screwed around with Gwen Stacy's purity. I guess Onslaught and the Heroes Reborn story could also be a primary cause. Over the years I learned I could cut out whenever I wanted to.

    Ironically, the best way for fans to see characters grow and change is in alternate realities. Unfortunately, no one accepts that it's a legitimate story. But the dirty secret is that the mainline story you're following isn't the "real" storyline EITHER! Not for us "old-timers" anyway. Remember after Crisis, when we learned it wasn't Earth 1 with some of Earth 2, but a totally new Earth! Most people (I never followed it regularly) enjoyed Ultimate Spider-man -- that's another reality.

    I like to see change (sometimes), but really Hal Jordan didn't need to be a mass murder and I'm glad that's been expunged, especially since I've now enjoyed his early Silver Age adventures. For a change to stick, it needs to be a decent change. Don't make a character turn evil in the mainstream book or change the essence of who the person always was (I'm talking to you JMS!)

    If I follow Spider-man again for a year -- great, but like you I can drop it in a heartbeat. Every now and then we'll stumble on one of the truly great, enjoyable story arcs, one that we'll want to reread again or share with others. I think that's the best we can hope for.

  2. Look, the Big Two have niche. They have the nostalgia, of course, for a core of readers, but they're the gateway for most people starting to read comics. After awhile, though, aside from nostalgia, there's no good reason to read either of them. You're not going to get anything that sticks with you for the long term because they've done it all before and, regardless of what's done, a reader with even a modicum of intelligence knows that it's all going to re-set at some point in any case.

    A reader who wants character development in comics has to read somewhere else. Look at The List. Seldom is there a Big Two book on the top end. Secret Six is an exception, largely because there are a bunch of expendable characters involved and it's protagonists are doing something different than the usual hero fare. Instead, The List is usually Vertigo and Image with a few others thrown in on occasion. What DC is on The List right now is on the edge of being cut or free stuff.

    If the industry is to grow it's going to have to appeal to broader reading tastes. DC has at least made headway in that with Vertigo, producing reliably good books under that banner. Relying only on the heroes isn't going to work unless they suddenly become more like Invincible and evince a willingness to have actual change.