The American comic book is an enduring form of serialized storytelling. Characters continually published for nearly three quarters of a century remain fixtures of popular culture, and their influence has only grown with their increased presence in film and television. Since their introduction, many of these character have undergone radical changes and emerged stronger for them. Unfortunately, many recent changes have proven temporary, as the tastes of comic creators, the demands of the public, and the realities of managing these properties within the context of multi-billion dollar corporations force them to gravitate toward their most iconic states. I worry that as popular images of these characters are further enshrined in the public consciousness, the industry's predilection toward the status quo will only become stronger.
Although I see the business case for the status quo - there's more money in keeping Bruce Wayne in the cape and cowl than in handing it off to a series of successors - I am concerned that demanding each creator return the toys to the toy box before ending his or her run on a book ultimately harms efforts to move characters forward. Drama emerges not from maintaining, but from disrupting, and when a reader is secure in the knowledge that the status quo will ultimately be restored, his or her investment in the book he is reading is diminished.
In some ways, this is a consequence of serialization in perpetuity. A story needs to move a character from point A to point B, and when the character reaches point B, that particular story comes to an end. But when the story is forced to continue, the next creators have to make choice. They can try to move the character from a point B they didn't select to a point C, or they can contrive a way to return the character to point A and then move him to a different point B of their choosing. Comic creators almost always choose the latter, and over time, doing so prevents their characters from moving forward in ways that matter.
The trend raises an interesting question: do we need an ending for a serialized story to truly matter? I'm not going to say we do, but there are certainly examples that demonstrate how much easier it is for close-ended stories to resonate over time.
Grant Morrison, more than most creators, illustrates this point. Morrison's All-Star Superman, a twelve-issue limited series, remains arguably the greatest Superman story ever told. It allows the character to undergo substantial growth and change, explores the consequences of those changes, and ends on a note of satisfaction that leaves readers fulfilled. This particular iteration of Superman is finished, and no other creator is permitted to touch him. His tale is complete, and as a result, its message doesn't fade over time. By contrast, Morrison's New X-Men, which remains one of the greatest X-Men stories in the characters' history for the ways in which it explores new and substantial themes relevant to their context, has been diminished by a series of editorial decisions. Only two of Morrison's choices remains in effect in the modern Marvel Universe: the death of Jean Grey and the elevation of Emma Frost as a significant player in the X-Men mythos. Nearly everything else, from the corruption and death of Magneto to the emergence of mutant subcultures to the Beast's feline form, has slowly been wiped away. For all of New X-Men's strengths, the book matters less than it should because those that followed Morrison felt a need to return to a status quo with which they were more comfortable - one in which mutants were a small, persecuted sub-race; the X-Men were costume-clad superheroes; and Magneto was a semi-charming, relatable villain with Ian McKellen's face. Now current creators have moved the characters in a different direction, one in which Scott Summers is a villain, Charles Xavier is dead, and Wolverine is the face of the X-Men establishment. Does anyone believe that this will last when the next crop of creators takes over?
The "event book" only exacerbates this trend, as comic companies are forced to hype grand universe-changing stories that more often than not fail to endure. As new creators emerge and reader nostalgia takes hold, there is always a temptation to close the loop on classic stories, which diminishes their importance and their impact on characters. Rarely does closing the loop open new vistas of storytelling. (One notable exception was the resurrection and restoration of Hal Jordan as DC's primary Green Lantern - a development that remains a master's class in not only how to bring a character back from the dead, but also in how to explore the consequences of that transition in a way that establishes a new, enduring status quo, rather than simply restoring an old one.) And as comic readers become more cynical about the impact of individual stories on long-standing characters, comic creators must resort to increasing levels of hyperbole to hook them. For example, the creators of the current Age of Ultron story have promised an "unguessable" ending that will shake up the Marvel Universe. Does anyone genuinely believe they will deliver such an ending? Of course not. We all know that within three-to-five years, we will be back where we are, with none of the characters having learned much of anything as incoming creators return them to the status quo they love - the one with which they grew up.
For these reasons, there is no current comic that fills me with as much trepidation as Dan Slott's The Superior Spider-Man. For those who have not been following Slott's work, he has over the last several years introduced a number of substantial changes to the character of Peter Parker and the world he inhabits. Gone are the days of Peter as a freelance photographer struggling to make ends meet; he's now functionally a super-scientist working for Horizon Labs and living a life of some comfort. His one-time employer and nemesis J. Jonah Jameson has moved on from the Daily Bugle and is now Mayor of New York City. He's a full-time member of the Avengers, with all of the perks that accompany such a position. And most critically, he's not Peter Parker anymore - thanks to a mind-switching scheme, Doctor Octopus now resides in the body of Spider-Man, and Peter Parker is functionally a ghost, still present but unable to exert his will over his own form. Now Doc Ock is redefining what it means to be Spider-Man in new, violent, terrifying ways that alienate those in Peter's personal and professional lives. It's a stunning setup that has given Slott the opportunity to write some fantastic stories over the last few years. And in the end, it's all going to be meaningless.
We know how this story ends. One way or another, Peter Parker regains control of his body. Doc Ock's consciousness will be expelled into a clone or a robot, and he'll be back in his classic form before too long. Peter's joy at being back in control of his life will quickly give way to the realization that all of the positive changes that have occurred in his life have been undone by Doc Ock's mismanagement of his body, and suddenly our Spider-Man will find himself poor and alone again, back to struggling to make ends meet and out of the Avengers. In short, he'll be more or less the same Spider-Man he was before Dan Slott took over. And then Slott will move on to something else, and a new writer will be able to start fresh at point A. The story, while entertaining, won't have mattered, because in the end, Peter Parker won't have been moved forward. He'll be back to (practically) square one, and someone else will write him with a fresh voice. Will the trauma he endured stick with him? Probably not - after all. If the Clone Saga didn't, why should this? He's been taken from a level point to a high point, and now he'll be returned to his level point. No net change. And if Peter Parker doesn't grow, doesn't change, doesn't have new opportunities and failures, and if those failures don't endure from creator to creator, then what is the point of Peter Parker?
To be fair, there are examples of creators whose changes are more likely to stick. Let's look at a counterexample. Let's return to Grant Morrison, who introduced Batman's son Damien all the way back in 2006. After a turbulent few years, Damien became Robin, first under Dick Grayson's Batman, and then under his father. Damien has been firmly established as the current Robin, and the relationship that has developed between he and Bruce has been wonderful to behold.
Damien was killed in Batman Incorporated #8 (Vol. 2) only a few weeks ago in the climax of Morrison's Batman run, falling in the line of duty as he attempted to rescue his father from the machinations of Damien's own mother. It's possible that someone will bring him back to life down the road. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, the change seems like it will stick.
Some might argue that this constitutes putting the toys back in the box. After all, Morrison introduces Damien, and now he's eliminating him, leaving Bruce Wayne more or less in the same position as he was at the beginning of the run. Status quo.
But I disagree. This is a lasting change, one that should haunt Batman for a very long time. For the longest time, we have known Batman as a child who lost his parents. Now he is also a parent who lost his child. That is a significant change for the character, and the fact that Damien isn't patrolling Gotham City with him anymore doesn't change that the character has undergone substantial movement. He is now at point B, and there is simply no way to move him back to point A without betraying the essence of the character or simply rebooting continuity - both of which may well happen, by the way. But for the time being, this looks more like a change that will stick, because it's a change not just in the character's situation, but also in his context. Bruce Wayne will always be a father who lost his son, and that will color his every action and the way we read them.
How do we bring more permanence to these changes? How do we make them endure? Or at the very least, how do we maintain the resonance and importance of these stories? Honestly, I don't think the economics of the comics industry will allow us to do so. The pull toward the status quo is powerful. Creators want to write characters they know, not characters that others have twisted away from their idealized version. Readers want to read stories that exist within their comfort zone. Studios want the most iconic versions of the characters in their films and TV series. There's no real way around it.
There are, however, two ways I can envision making these stories last a bit longer. The first is to follow the All-Star Superman model - stop writing in a fixed continuity. Let creators tell their stories with definitive beginnings, middles, and ends. Use the canonical version of the character as a starting point and let each creator move forward with him or her, but don't force the next guy to contrive a way back or ignore what the last guy has done. In short, make continuity and serialization matter less, not more, by capping stories and letting them stand alone.
The second is to dramatically reduce the number of stories being told with a particular character. Let's eliminate multiple books featuring different takes on the same character in the same continuity. Let there be only one Batman story or one Spider-Man story being told at a time. Let a creator own that character, drive him, define him, and tell the story he wants. Focus on him. Don't dilute him. And when the time comes to move on, make those changes stick. The next character owner needs to understand that their character is a person whose life has shaped him or her, and that just like in our own lives, there is no undo button.
Until the universe explodes again, anyway.
Serialization that gravitates back to the status quo sells its subjects and its audiences short. Without sustaining change in its characters and scenarios, it loses resonance and lowers expectations. Comic creators - and editors - need to have the courage to move their stories forward and try their damnedest to make their changes stick, because without change, there is no drama, and without drama, there is no reason to read.
I'm skeptical it'll happen. But I can dream.