Monthly Archives: February 2018

No More Retcons and Reboots: Rules for a Good Comics Universe

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, I was as avid a comic-book reader as you could find. In grade school, I begged my parents and grandparents to buy me comics every time we went to any store that carried them. I was mostly a Marvel fan, though I followed the biggest names in the DC pantheon—the Justice League, Flash, Batman, Green Lantern, and to a lesser extent, Superman and Wonder Woman. In those days, I lacked the funds or the influence to purchase every issue of every title, but I tried my best. Once I was old enough to earn an allowance, I spent most of it on comics. As a teenager, I would take the money I got weekly—some earned, some provided by my doting grandmother—and buy my comics first, worrying about concerns like how much I could spend on dates later. Somehow, this did not impede my social life. I guess I was lucky.

From my late teens to mid-20s, I bought dozens of titles a month—nearly everything Marvel produced, the Batman and Justice League family of titles, the various Green Lantern-related books, the one-shots and annuals and crossover specials and multiple-cover cash-grabs, the mature titles from DC like Sandman, Hellblazer, Shade the Changing Man, and more. I hoped that writing comics would one day be part of my professional life.

But then, something changed.

First came the crossovers—at first occasional multiple-title events that felt special and universe-shaking, then like annual and cynical attempts to boost company-wide sales, storytelling be damned. Then came the cover variants. Again, this aspect of comics publishing started out as a cool way to grab a very special issue and quickly devolved into a rush to snag every variant of 3-D foil-stamped die-cut foldout art you could imagine. Then it seemed that every popular character had to have at least three titles dedicated to their monthly adventures. Then both major companies started killing off or replacing their major characters—the death of Superman! Batman broken by Bane! Captain America disenfranchised! Thor banished! And on and on. Then came the constant parade of deaths and resurrections, many of which were trumpeted on the comic’s (variant, unusually expensive) cover—“This issue—someone DIES!!!!!!” Of course, later resurrections completely undermined the impacts of the deaths, rendering the whole exercise as the storytelling equivalent of running laps in gym class—tiring, repetitive, even boring.

For me, the final straw came when Marvel replaced Peter Parker with Ben Reilly. See, way back when, a mad professor cloned Peter Parker, and a big to-do ensued. Allegedly, the clone died, and Spider-Man disposed of the body in a smokestack, but not before wondering if he was, in fact, the real deal, or if he might be the clone who only believed he was the real deal. The storyline was a very effective head-scratcher. The mid-90s storyline, though, posited that the “dead” clone was very much alive and not the clone at all. The Spider-Man we had been reading about for twenty years was now supposed to be the clone, and, understandably freaking out, he stepped back from the superhero world. In effect, Marvel was telling us that the past twenty years had been a lie, that we had invested in the wrong character.

I quit. I resigned. I walked away. Oh, I stuck with the Vertigo titles for as long as I could, especially Sandman, but I had come to realize that, in the world of superhero comics, nothing mattered. There were never any stakes. What one writer created, another scribe erased in twenty years, or even just a few months. No one ever died; they just took vacations of varying lengths. No story was ever canon; nothing was sacred. Bucky? Still alive. Norman Osbourne? Still alive. If a story touched you, you had best forget it, because the companies sure would.

Now we’re in the era of constant universe-wide resets. In my comics-buying life, we experienced exactly one universe reset—Crisis on Infinite Earths, a story whose purpose was to simplify what had become, over fifty years or so, a labyrinthine continuity of parallel universes and character histories and retcons that often made little sense. Okay, fine, fair enough—a reset after fifty years, one that did not ignore or erase past continuity but streamlined and simplified it, seemed understandable, even effective. Since then, though, the Big Two companies have continued their interminable retcons, meaningless deaths, resurrections, and resets, reducing the shelf life of any universe by as much as four-fifths.

Why do I want to read stories today that will be meaningless tomorrow? Why do I want to read about characters who might be replaced, killed for a few months, resurrected, killed again, changed beyond recognition only to be changed back again, ad infinitum, ad nauseum?

Still, the major comics companies control a ton of characters that meant a lot to me. I have therefore been thinking of how I would run a comics universe, partially because I would like to start my own (if only I knew artists!) and partially because I hope someone at these companies will somehow stumble across these ideas and think about them in the future.

  • Characters’ creators should always get paid when their creations are used. If I create or co-create a character, I should get a set royalty rate for every issue with which I am directly involved. If I turn the character over to other writers/artists, I should still get a residual for use of my character. When or if my character and/or storyline is adapted for film or television or the stage or a novel, I should get paid for that, too. If I am not the creator of the character but my storyline is used in some adaptation, I should get paid. The same goes for reprints, video game rights, and so forth. Exactly what those rates should be and how/when they are distributed is debatable and negotiable, but no creator should have to sit by and watch while other people get rich off of his/her creation.
  • Second, the company should commit to its titles and its creators. Few reading/viewing experiences are more frustrating than when you get invested in a character and story, only to have the comic or show cancelled before the writers can bring the storyline to a conclusion. Writers would be required to map out story arcs for a certain number of issues, which seems to be industry practice anyway. Then, even if sales tanked, the company would keep publishing the series until those arcs were completed. If sales look promising in the midst of a storyline, the company can then offer the creative team additional issues. In no case would the fans get shafted by having a title cancelled without any resolution—unless the lack of resolution was an intentional decision by the creative team.
  • Third, we come to the first of several storytelling rules—when a character dies, he or she stays dead, period. Deaths should have consequences. They should not be written into stories haphazardly or with impunity. Apparent deaths don’t count. If a character is supposedly in a burning building when it blows up, or if he/she falls from a high place and we assume he/she is dead, writers can bring them back. Those sorts of things can be explained away. If we see the body, though, and it is positively identified as the character, then he or she should be gone for good, barring a) some story element that we already know about (a second character who can control others’ perception, for instance—making up this character after the fact feels like a cheat and so is disallowed), or b) a supernatural event of world-shaking proportions. Speaking of which….
  • Supernatural events of literal world-shaking proportions should be used sparingly. Think of Anton Arcane’s resurrection in Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing and the titular creature’s subsequent visits to Heaven and Hell, or Lucifer’s abandonment of Hell in Sandman’s “Season of Mists” storyline. These were major events with worldwide consequences. They did not occur in every third issue, which would have diluted their impact. Should a potential apocalypse occur every week? You can get used to anything. This rule also applies to full-scale alien invasions and/or dimensional rifts (though not from lower-key visitations), natural disasters that affect more than a small region, wholesale destruction of major cities, global pandemics or famines, and the like. It always bothered me when Marvel or DC characters could pop in and out of the Afterlife as if it were a convenience store just down the street. Smaller-scale events involving any of these story elements are fine, as long as they do not violate the dead-is-dead rule.
  • Also related to dead-is-dead—clones should never be used. Ever. They have become go-to crutches for writers who want to explain a character’s resurrection from verified death. Sometimes they are even used to explain why someone acted out of character, which seems like a way to excuse bad writing. So no clones, period. Also, no using any other form of the clone device—perfect robot replicas of a character, Life Model Decoys, and so forth. Clones have been so overused in comics that they usually just muddy the continuity to little good storytelling effect. Again, we want our stories to have consequences and for those consequences to last beyond the storyline in question.
  • Creative teams should avoid time travel stories. See above re: muddy continuity. With a few exceptions, such as X-Men’s fantastic “Days of Future Past” storyline, most time travel stories only serve to confuse us. They often ignore the potential effects of time travel on the timeline itself or serve as yet another crutch to undo some other writer’s work. Any writer who wants to introduce time travel should have to work with editors to determine that the story makes sense, that it is not gratuitous, that it makes good sense from a scientific perspective.
  • There should be no minor villains. Again, there are exceptions. If you’re writing a superhero story and the point is to have your protagonist quickly dispatch his or her opposition so that you can, say, tell the story of a bystander, then it’s fine to create a one-shot minor antagonist or one whose bumbling will occasionally serve as comic relief. Otherwise, don’t waste the reader’s time with throwaway tales of easily dispatched, dull, silly villains. It’s pretty tough, for instance, to take Marvel’s Stilt-Man or DC’s Crazy Quilt seriously.
  • On a related note, major antagonists should be used thoughtfully. The best use of such a character would be in a multi-issue storyline that establishes clear motivations for their actions and the seriousness of their threat. Many of Batman’s major villains are insane and obsessed; otherwise, it would be hard to understand why, say, Two-Face keeps pulling jobs in Gotham after Batman has kicked his ass two hundred times. Each subsequent use of an antagonist should build on the character’s previous appearances. If we reach a tipping point where it no longer makes sense for the antagonist to operate in a given location or fight a certain foe, we need to change something about the character or retire them for good.
  • Characters, including the supporting variety, will not be kidnapped, tortured, sexually assaulted, or killed gratuitously. If it is necessary to drive the story, that’s one thing, but we will avoid the “Robin the Boy Hostage” and the “Love Interest Found Dismembered in a Refrigerator” syndromes. Overuse of such certain storytelling devices—for instance, horrible abuse heaped on a straight male character’s wife or girlfriend by bad guy after bad guy after bad guy—begins to look like misogyny in disguise.
  • We should not replace our main characters with other versions of same unless the original version is absolutely, positively never coming back. If I ran DC, Bruce Wayne would always be Batman unless we are willing to deal with the consequences of losing Bruce Wayne forever. If I ran Marvel, Peter Parker would always be Spider-Man. There are exceptions; Marvel’s “replacement Captain America” storyline back in the 80s actually made sense, as it was a way to explore the nature of the character and his relationship with/responsibility to the government. But unless a writer could convince me that there is a legitimate dramatic reason for doing so, we would not rotate people in and out of the same costume just to shake things up. That’s lazy.
  • We should avoid thinly disguised marketing gimmicks, whether we’re talking about a company-wide crossover in which creators are forced to stop their own stories and crank out a tie-in to the macro story or the old multiple-cover scam. Every single thing we do should serve the narrative and the reader’s emotional investment in our dramatic situations and characters. If we have a company-wide crossover, we should have a good narrative reason, and we should use them sparingly.
  • We will not constantly cancel and bring back titles. If a title gets cancelled, it stays cancelled for at least five years. We will not constantly start our numbering system over in what amounts to another thinly disguised attempt to woo collectors.
  • And finally, much like with DC back in the day, we are allowed one universe reboot every fifty years if it is absolutely necessary for storytelling reasons. We will not render years of fan investment moot because we wrote ourselves into a corner after just a few years. Our job is not to write ourselves into a corner in the first place. The fifty-year rule allows for the fact that having multiple titles of varying genres in one universe, all written by ever-changing creative teams, might eventually muddle continuity to the extent that streamlining is necessary. If we’re having to do that every few years, though, we’re just lazy and careless. Our job is to tell good serialized stories that make sense and fit together. If we can’t do that, we shouldn’t be writing comics in the first place.

Serial stories in comics are supposed to invite readers into a longstanding community with its own history and its own internal logic. These are some of the ways I would maintain that history and logic without alienating the readers who have invested in the stories we have already told. I quit reading comics in the mid-90s because I felt my trust had been betrayed, my intelligence insulted. I would not want my own readers to experience that. Neither should Marvel or DC. Audience is an artist’s lifeblood. Let’s not cut our own throats.

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