We've all heard the arguments about how The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen led to an alarming influence of darkness, joylessness and lack of humor in superhero tales. How the death of Gwen Stacy later influenced the idea of getting rid of co-stars, increasingly for no good reason, and how the Phoenix Saga led to the idea of turning leading ladies into villainesses for shock tactics (or how they regurgitated the storyline ad nauseum in later years), among other horrific things. But until I first read this entry on Comics Should Be Good from 2010
, about how Busiek's Marvels miniseries may have inadvertently led to overabundant nostalgia trips and retcons, I never thought it might've contributed to a largely static, artificial situation in character drama and interactions:
You see, Marvels is nostalgic. Busiek looks back on the “golden age” of Marvel comics, when everything was new. Phil Sheldon takes a journey that many fans of superhero comics take – he begins with wonder and slowly becomes cynical, finally “quitting” superheroes because they don’t dazzle him anymore. The death of Gwen Stacy is a big ol’ metaphor for death in superhero comics in general – Phil gets burned out on the craziness and wants a “normal” life. Gwen’s death doesn’t get covered in the newspapers, because she wasn’t important enough. And Phil’s had enough. In a grand way, Busiek (who still, obviously, loves the superheroes) is showing how we as readers move beyond childish power fantasies and focus on more important things. That’s where the nostalgia comes from. Despite Gwen Stacy’s death, there’s still that wonder about superheroes and the marvelous things they do. Marvels tapped into that beautifully and became a hit. And that’s where the problems began.
[...] Suddenly, retcons became the hip thing. In the years since Marvels, DC and Marvel realized that they could tell stories about their characters that would fit into their already-established histories. They could fill in the blanks, in other words. And people who grew up with the characters would love that. This coincided with the slow graying of the audience over the past 20 years – comics audiences in the past famously turned over every four years, so the companies didn’t care about repeating themselves, but that’s no longer true, as fans stick with comics as they get older and older and remember precisely which nipple Ogre-Man lost in his fight with The Tabloid! in 1977. So Marvel and DC started to tap into that nostalgia of older fans, who remembered when comics were really awesome (as you all know, everything was the BEST when you were 12 – I of course agree with that, because that’s when MOTHERFUCKING MANIMAL was on!!!!!) and wanted to relive those bygone days without actually re-reading the comics they already had. Marvels showed that there was an audience for this.
Retconning became a fairly big trend in comics that has continued to this day. Busiek himself was at the forefront of it, as he did Untold Tales of Spider-Man soon after Marvels, a series that fit stories into gaps in Spider-Man’s old continuity. Marvel has continued to capitalize on this. Off the top of my head, we have X-Men: The Hidden Years, which told stories that picked up when X-Men was originally cancelled back after issue #66; the “First Class” X-Men series of the past few years; Avengers Classic, which told stories from the early years of the team; Fantastic Four: First Family, a different take on the team’s origin; and Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, which added nuance to Matt Murdock’s early years. DC, which has always been a bit more interested in its “historical” characters and, because of Crisis and a lack of emphasis on continuity early on in their publication history, has mined this vein perhaps even more than Marvel. James Robinson’s brilliant Starman (which began not too long after Marvels) is steeped in DC history, and Robinson did some re-writing of the past. DC also began to capitalize on the “Year One” success, as more and more heroes got reworked origins (Green Arrow, Metamorpho, Huntress, to name a few). Superman’s origins have been continually tweaked. DC has also wiped their continuity clean once more, in Zero Hour, and again to a certain degree in Infinite Crisis. Joe Chill, the man who shot Bruce Wayne’s parents, has been dead (in “Year Two”), not identified as the murderer (after Zero Hour), back to being the murderer (after Infinite Crisis), and then a crime lord rather than a simple mugger (in Batman #673). While Marvel seems to attempt to fit all these retcons into their established continuity, DC seems fit to play fast and loose with theirs.
An interesting observation. It never occurred to me that Marvels could've been responsible, even unintentionally, for the decline of quality in superhero comics. It may not be the first of its kind - Roy Thomas already did similar projects with The Invaders and All-Star Squadron, and DC had another book or two in the early 90s built on nostalgia - but Marvels clearly must've precipitated the flood of retcons and overly nostalgia-based ideas that have substituted for meaty drama and personality over the many years. To the point where it resulted simultaneously in the following:
One consequence of this (but not the one I’m concerned with) is the retroactive “darkening” of superhero comics from bygone days. This is most evident in the now-infamous Identity Crisis, in which we see an old rape of Sue Dibny, one which never had any impact on the Dibnys themselves because it never happened in “real” DC time. Rape was also inserted into Felicia Hardy’s past and used as a motivation to her becoming the Black Cat. As ugly as these incidents are, they stem from the “grim-‘n’-gritty” turn comics took in the mid-1980s as much as the obsession with retconning. The other consequence is more far-reaching and serious. The obsession with “filling in” parts of the pasts of these characters has effectively cut off any growth they might have had, and superhero comics have become more and more static as a result. [...]
A process that gradually became more common by the end of the century. But I would just disagree that stagnation of growth is more awful than the grim-and-gritty turns superhero comics have taken. Making the pasts of the heroes and villains so repellent is much worse, and drives away potential audience a lot more easily than lack of growth or character depth.
The post slips, however, when it gets to a part about passing mantles to younger generations:
[...] As poorly done some of the exits of older heroes were (Hal Jordan’s, for instance), there was no reason why Wally West couldn’t be the Flash, or Conner Hawke Green Arrow, or Kyle Rayner Green Lantern. [...]
Here we go again, not making distinctions between what's done well and what's not. "No reason"? But he hinted at one! Turning Hal Jordan into a crazy mass slayer of Lanterns out of the blue in one of the most rushed editing jobs ever is why Kyle's ascension can't be viewed tastefully. Crisis on Infinite Earths may not have been so great, but the silver lining is Barry Allen's heroic ending. Oliver Queen's seeming demise in Green Arrow may not have been that great either, but he remained a hero till the end of the 1995 story where this took place, and that's why Connor's ascension, much like Wally West's, worked a lot better than Kyle's too. The key to passing a mantle effectively is to keep prior heroes as heroes till the end, and not insult the audience's intellect by turning them into something that doesn't look good alongside the earlier, much better material from the Silver Age.
At the end, it's said that:
All the Big Two saw were dollar signs in stories about the past. Naturally, they went too far in one direction, and now we’re inundated with these kinds of comics. It’s not Busiek’s fault (hence the “unwittingly” in the title), but he definitely pointed the way. Unfortunately, I don’t think Marvels has had a positive influence on comics, as good as it was. The question is, how can Mr. Busiek live with himself?!?!?!?!?
I think he already answered that question when he indicated circa 2008 he's got no problem with Spider-Man making faustian pacts with Mephisto. Here's a blogger who made an important note
regarding the Spider-marriage:
I don’t think that the writers, fans and editors who prefer a single Peter Parker are wrong to have a preference. Kurt Busiek and Ed Brubaker, two of my favorite active comic writer, said they prefer a single Spider-Man.
And yet so many writers were more concerned with ending or ignoring the marriage than they were in exploring it. There were two significant attempts to end the Married Peter status quo before One More Day, so it’s not like writers and editors were enthusiastic about it. And yet the writers who DID work with it wrote some really good books.
Whereas the writers who wanted to end it turned out some of the worst slop imaginable. Worst, they wouldn't do it organically, nor would they be patient. It's like they were so vindictive and obsessed they were willing to shatter all plausibility just to reach their childish grudge goals. And they wouldn't thank Stan Lee for all the hard work he did to create these characters. By refusing to explore the story potentials in the marriage, you could say the editors and other contributing writers were shunning the concepts of character focus, personalities, growth and development that folks like Lee spent a lot of time etching out years before. So what do they really think of Lee's ideas, for example?
The whole topic of Marvels made me think quite a bit. Could it have hinted at Busiek's real view of Mary Jane Watson years before Joe Quesada pulled the artificial act erasing the marriage instead of dealing with it realistically? He's certainly one a bundle of writers who doesn't question whether this was a bad way to go about it. And for a miniseries that's supposed to be about moving past fantasies and growing up, the laughable irony is that Busiek doesn't practice as he preaches, what with all his horrendous left-wing politics (Alex Ross, the artist on Marvels, has similar standings). He also once noted
how a lot of the characters he wrote up for Marvel didn't stick (considering how awful Marvel's storytelling became in this era, it's probably for the best), yet he still maintains such a chummy connection with pretentious editors like Tom Brevoort who haven't done much to ensure they will, long after they stopped employing him on an official basis. And I can't say Busiek's ever sounded disappointed they're now going to jettison much of the history he says he likes after the new Secret Wars.
Whether Marvels had any negative influence on character focus, it's a fascinating subject that most definitely shouldn't be overlooked.
Labels: dc comics, golden calf of death, Green Lantern, marvel comics, misogyny and racism, Spider-Man, violence