Should Marvel reboot? Exploring continuity and redefining comics

As talk of a Marvel reboot grows, CJ weighs up continuity and assesses whether it’s time to separate comics from graphic novels...

It’s that time again. The issue of continuity is rearing its head with talk over at Newsarama of major changes from Marvel following the close of Avengers vs X-Men and the arrival of ReEvolution this autumn. If the Big Two both reinvent their universes within a year of each other will it spell the end of continuity’s hold over comics?

Details are sparse at the moment but this could be a big deal. Continuity is important to many readers, both for our enjoyment of comics and our understanding of the medium. Yet a similar number of fans are rankled easily by the mention of continuity. Just what is this elephant in the room, and is it really that bad?

Continuity and history

At the most basic level, continuity is the series of actions made by characters that have led to the current situation they find themselves in – their collective histories. Taken to the extreme, continuity can be seen as a dogmatic approach to enforcing interpretations of characters, or even the preferred cosmology of a fictional universe.

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When comics began to be published in a recognisably modern form there wasn’t a slavish attitude to continuity, either within the industry or the readership. We no longer live in the world of Siegel and Shuster, Kirby and Lee, and the comic book industry has changed drastically. As a medium, the expectations placed on comics have metamorphosed in a relatively short space of time.

The changing format

Comics are consumed differently in the 21st century than they were in the Golden Age. The once-dominant monthly paper issue format of comics has diversified in the last few decades to include trade paperbacks, weekly series like 52 and Countdown and, most recently, web strips and day-and-date digital distribution. Above all of these hovers the graphic novel, secure and serene in its interpretation by the non-comics-reading public as the comics world’s form of literary fiction.

Comics and graphic novels are not interchangeable. The former comprises years-long and makeshift collaborations, while the latter more closely resembles the finite structure of film. Regardless of the overt differences, it’s difficult to persuade most people to acknowledge that comics and graphic novels are distinct media.

Their shared tools bind the two sister disciplines in popular understanding, yet the importance of continuity in comics has struggled with its reduced role in the more-respected graphic novel.

Technology

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The hegemony of the Internet has allowed fans – who found it relatively difficult discussing publishers’ output amongst themselves in the last century – to dissect whole lines of comics in minute detail, instantaneously.

As in a lot of media, the mystery has been stripped from comics. That could be a contributing factor to the proliferation of events in recent years, as it becomes more important to promote books above one another and to distract from increasingly muddled character histories.

The concurrent decline of the letters page has led to a reduction in engagement with specific titles and favourite characters for many readers. Editors used to be able to exercise some control over the opinions fans shared about storylines and characters. No longer.

The public

The rise in comic book movie adaptations and the idea of running a comics line as a profitable business, with other media playing a key role to draw in new readers, has further confused the target demographic. Who are publishers trying to convert now: longtime readers, moviegoers, or both?

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Readers old and new complain about boomerang deaths in comics, but the medium itself had a near-death experience during the mid-’90s, thanks in part to Marvel’s bankruptcy and popular speculation on first issues, variant covers, and events like the Death and Return of Superman. Even conventional mass media outlets are asking just how comic book films have become so popular so quickly, like the New York Times here.

Only since this increase in the wider awareness began have issues such as the roles of anyone other than white, heterosexual males in comics been discussed seriously. 2011 and 2012 have seen major changes in the portrayal of ethnicity (Ultimate Spider-Man), gender (Captain Marvel) and sexuality (Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern) in Marvel and DC’s mainstream comics universes. Previous efforts such as the All-New Atom, Asian-American Ryan Choi, didn’t last long, although the lesbian Batwoman has received widespread critical acclaim.

The number of tie-in comics series originating in other media has also introduced new streams of interest and backstory into the comic book medium from outside – and more popular – media. It might be no coincidence that franchise comics publisher IDW is putting out some of the most varied, and best, titles at the moment. Meanwhile, Marvel and DC have turned their attention on revisiting concepts from earlier points in their histories.

The publishers

Publishers have undercut their own shared universes by rebooting or starting competing ‘modernised’ lines and new universes. These have aged too, and resulted in cyclic reboots at DC and the ageing anything-goes Ultimate line at Marvel.

This month saw the first true crossover between Marvel’s original 616 universe and the Ultimate universe, in the pages of Spider-Men #1. Although characters from both have interacted in other universes before, Spider-Men marks the first time a mainstream Marvel character has met their Ultimate counterpart.

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Is this move, in time for Spider-Man’s 50th anniversary and the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man swinging into cinemas, a sign that the House of Ideas has become more like its Distinguished Competition? DC has a track record of meeting and melding universes, from the infamous Flash of Two Worlds in 1961’s Flash #123 to 2012’s Earth-2 and Worlds’ Finest ongoing series.

It could be time that Marvel follows DC’s pattern since Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, and reboots the 616 and Ultimate lines into a single line resembling the company’s successful cinematic universe. Such a controversial move might save the Ultimate universe, or its older counterpart, from the footnote fate of the New Universe of the 1980s.

The creators

The number of successful creator-owned series and independent publishing houses has grown too. While this is a brilliant thing, that has kept graphic storytelling fresh, it’s also had a big impact on the traditional format of comics.

Some of the most popular writers working in comics no longer want to write ongoing series, preferring miniseries, maxi series or graphic novels that can be directed at sections of the market or subsequently adapted for the screen. Writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Mark Millar, talented and prolific as they may be, are not working in the same field as Dan Slott, Peter David, Matt Fraction or Robert Kirkman. These creators share an idiom but can’t be considered in the same breath.

There are also many writers who have chosen to reinterpret the works of earlier creators working in comics: confusing, ignoring or deliberately rewriting the details and histories that make up continuity. Geoff Johns has made a career out of reimagining DC favourites like Green Lantern, Aquaman and the Justice League. It’s some graphic storytellers’ way of keeping alive the aspects of comics that appeal most to them, and paying tribute to what’s long gone.

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The audience

Readership has shifted from a predominantly youthful one to an older demographic, many of whom did not get into comics until a later stage in their lives with books such as Watchmen and imprints like Vertigo and Icon. Until recently, distribution of the issue format had narrowed too, from newsstand and newsagents down to a dwindling number of specialist stores. With the advent of ComiXology and other mobile distribution platforms comics are becoming accessible again.

Comics aren’t a static medium when compared with the more popular cinema, television, books and music. Although they have been largely ghettoised since the end of World War II, the state of current comics is very different from those of the Golden, Silver, Bronze and Modern Ages. It may now be worth christening the Digital Age, preceded by Avengers: Disassembled in 2004 and ushered in by the old guard of DC with their hard-sell double whammy of New 52/Before Watchmen within the past year.

The future

Continuity, a beast that has been burdened with so much criticism in the comic book community, is more a symptom of the changes affecting comics than the cause responsible for any of the problems that face the medium. We may not lose any of the old stories if the House of Ideas does take DC’s decades-old revisionist path to appease fans more familiar with graphic novels, but the merry Marvel magic could still lose its meaning.