Ken Hart (ken_of_ghastria) wrote,
Ken Hart

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Comics: Retrospectively reappraising reboots, Part 1

DC's New 52: The Justice LeagueWhile I don't regularly read many comics these days, the industry trends are still fun to track. That's particularly true now, with superheroes and other comics properties jumping back and forth between print, film, TV, and digital media, and even stirring the mainstream news feeds. One year ago, DC Comics made an arguably bold move with "The New 52," in which it rebooted its superhero universe, flooding comic-book stores and threatening fans' wallets with 52 new #1 issues (yep, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Justice League, etc.) and resetting all those characters' timelines.

Why "arguably bold"? Because rebooting the universe isn't as impressive as it might sound, since DC had rebooted the universe several times before over the past three decades, starting with the classic Crisis on Infinite Earths (1986) and rinsing/repeating with the not-so-classic Zero Hour (1994), Infinite Crisis (2006), and the misnamed Final Crisis just two years later (2008). (OK, yes, its Legion of Three Worlds tie-in series kicked ass.) Rebooting the timeline can be a shrewd business move when you're talking about characters that have -- in DC's case -- been around since the 1930s and '40s. Continuity started becoming a must-have for fans in the late '60s; since then, the attempt to reconcile many characters' histories has turned into a full-time job for editors and a part-time exercise in masochistic joy for some comics geeks.

Here's the main issue for publishers DC and Marvel: For the ever-elusive "New Reader" interested in checking out a comic book after seeing, say, a successful movie based on that comic, those knotty histories can be major turnoffs. (I talked about the modern-day poster children for brain-hurting histories here three years ago. Read the juicy comments, too.) So, if you're DC Comics and your parent company, Warner Brothers, wants you to generate publicity and sales at a time when rival Marvel's heroes are scoring big time on the silver screen, "The New 52" and a refreshed timeline makes a lot of sense. 

How has "The New 52" done? Pretty well. Certainly, sales were dynamite for the first few months. A slew of new #1's will do that, as will the pairing of great creative teams with titles (e.g., Geoff Johns and Jim Lee on Justice League). After a while, though, sales dropped, as fans were financially unable to support ALL those titles and as some of the touted creative teams dropped off -- sometimes surprisingly or loudly -- after the first few issues. See Newsrama's list of the best and the worst of the reboot. (I'll give kudos to Brian Azzarello for his different, interesting, horror/action take on Wonder Woman. I'll add my "Ptui!" to the critical phlegm aimed at Scott Lobdell and the emotional lobotomization of Starfire in Red Hood and the Outlaws.)

Now it's Marvel's turn. Historically, Marvel hasn't done a widespread reboot. The closest it has come is the creation of the "Ultimate" line of comics -- a separate universe that takes place in a more "reality-based" world than Marvel's main line, featuring younger, updated versions of many of the Marvel heroes. (Life-Imitates-Art note: For the Ultimates comics, of the gruff, cigar-smoking, and definitely white super-spy Nick Fury was reimagined as a bald black man bearing a striking resemblance to actor & comics fan Samuel L. Jackson. The new Fury proved so popular that when the cinematic Fury was introduced in the post-credits scene of 2008's Iron Man, he was portrayed by ... Samuel L. Jackson.) Amusingly, the Ultimate line itself was relaunched just last year.

Granted, there have been individual reboots at Marvel, mostly notably several years ago with Spider-Man. In the controversial "Brand New Day" storyline, Peter Parker's Aunt May was about to die because she took a bullet meant for Peter, who had earlier revealed his secret identity to the world. So what did the stalwart hero do? Make a deal with the Devil. Literally, or at least with Mephisto, Marvel's version of the Devil. Mephisto agreed to tweak reality so that Peter's identity as Spider-Man would again be secret and his aunt would be saved. The price? Peter's marriage to Mary Jane Watson -- and their love -- would also be wiped away. Marvel made this move because it felt that the tales of happily married Peter Parker were getting, well, dull. It chose to reboot the character so that Spidey would again be the highly agitated and highly single swinging superhero. Regardless of how the tale played out (I was NOT a fan), there's no disputing that the succeeding years have proven to be enormously successful, critically and financially, with now-longtime writer Dan Slott earning praise as the best Spidey scribe since Stan "The Man" Lee. 

Now, Marvel and its corporate boss, Disney, wonder what to do about that ephemeral "New Reader" who -- having been one of the millions to see the blockbuster Avengers film -- is considering buying an Avengers comic book. Is it finally time for a widespread reboot to wipe the chronology slate clean? Marvel's answer: a potentially clever Yes and No.

Next: The proposed "Marvel NOW" titles! The future of comics crossovers! Movies and money money money! Excelsior!
Tags: comics

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