Welcome back, true believers and fellow travelers! I know it’s been a long time but your intrepid author is still on the case, dropping science on those four-color and/or black and white narratives you love so well.
First off, some definitions which will be useful to know for this installment’s conversation:
- Canon, in comics, is the official body of stories that are considered to be the “true” history of a fictional character, team, or world.
- Continuity is the accumulated history of a character or shared universe that is accepted by the publisher and the community of readers. It is often coherent in the way that a life story seems to be. This means that there may be odd stories or character quirks that exist but are explained or ignored in favor of consistency.
- Copyright (defined by the U.S.P.T.O.) is “a form of protection provided by U.S. law to the authors of original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”
- Legacy characters are ones who take on the identity of a previously established character. Often this is due to the age, disability, or death of the original character.
- Reboot (or Continuity Reboot) is when previously established continuity is ignored in part or completely. Some feel that rather than the old continuity being destroyed, the current run simply recounts the tales of an alternate universe version of the same characters (however this interpretation is generally not accepted by the publisher as the new comic is now put forward as the “true” continuity with the older version ceasing to exist).
- Rebrand (or Retool) is when a character changes without the rest of the continuity itself changing. It may be as simple as a costume change, more general as a new set of powers, or as complicated as a total change of the character’s identity. There may be no good reason for the change, other than for marketing purposes.
- Retcon (or Retroactive Continuity) is the changing of some past event in a comic by a current plot line. It typically involves some kind of alteration or nullification of the previously understood continuity. However, a clever retcon will fit seamlessly with the past continuity though the understanding of events will change.
Let’s look at continuity using the case of everyone’s favorite friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. The character has been either in high school, in college, in the adult world, married, unmarried, a journalist, a billionaire tech innovator, a clone (yes, a clone!), bonded with an alien symbiote, et cetera, all while remaining in copyright and under the control of one publisher, Marvel Comics. Spidey has stayed primarily in his late teens or early 20’s for most of that time, though in August it will have been 60 years since his first appearance (Amazing Fantasy #15). Spider-Man’s many changes are not that unusual for the comic business (for instance, the Barry Allen version of The Flash clocks in at 65 years since his debut, 23 years of which he was canonically dead).
OK, let’s talk about the function of narrative. Narrative is the pithy way to say, “how a story is told,” or “the way in which meaning is conveyed from author/publisher to audience/consumer.” In order to do so, narrative takes many possible pieces of information and compresses them in a way that can be (relatively) easily translated. Typically, there are five elements of narrative: setting, characters, plot, conflict, and result (some would say “resolution” but one possible outcome is just that something happens and nothing is truly wrapped up tidily).
Disjunctures in narrative are where the various issues surrounding continuity arise. These innovations, breaks, or interruptions may eventually be enfolded into the ongoing mythology of a series (oh, wait, there’s Pink Kryptonite, too) or may lead to larger adjustments (so, uh, Thor Odinson isn’t worthy to wield Mjolnir? But Jane Foster is? Ok, let’s roll). Or more drastically, there is no connection between two versions of a character in the same fictional universe (ex: Jack Kirby and Neil Gaiman’s versions of Death*). As well, another creative team may decide that they just need to start from scratch but use a cool name that is too good to pass up (I’m looking at you Kamala Khan). Many times, the characters will be linked in some manner (most common is a passing of the mantle) and so a legacy character is born.
Keep in the back of your mind that copyright often makes this complicated in the case of older comics. This is because once copyright protection expires (or if it was not appropriately established in the first place), a different publisher or creative team can swoop in and do what they want with the character. This sometimes means there are competing versions of the same character at the same time on the market. That’s not a problem when you are enjoying the stories (or collecting) contemporaneously but can make it a nightmare when trying to delve into the history of a long-standing property.
A perfect case in point would be British comic Marvel Man (alternately named Miracleman), made popular in later years by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman stories. Originally, the title was published from 1954-1963 by L. Miller and Sons, a British producer of comics, magazines, and cheap paperbacks. Mick Anglo, the creator of the character, who left employment with L. Miller and Sons, also published some tales on his own in 1960-1961. L. Miller and Sons went out of business altogether in 1966 and the character languished for almost 20 years.
In 1982, Quality Publications put out a new version of Marvel Man with Alan Moore as writer and Garry Leach (and later Alan Davis) as artist. After two years and complaints from Marvel Comics, the character’s story ended abruptly without being resolved. Quality then licensed the character to two indie publishers in succession, Pacific Comics, who quickly went out of business, and Eclipse Comics. When Eclipse got ahold of the character, they changed the name to Miracleman to avoid legal action by Marvel Comics and hired Neil Gaiman to be the writer.
It gets pretty murky after that because Eclipse went out of business in 1986. Todd McFarland, a popular creator at the time (his most famous creation being Spawn), purchased the rights to the catalog of Pacific Comics in 1996. Neil Gaiman disputed McFarlane’s ownership, contending that as the name had changed and he had crafted a completely different version of the character, he was a co-owner of Miracleman and had not surrendered his interests at the time of Pacific Comic’s sale.
After years of legal action, the original creator, Mick Anglo, was deemed the true owner of the character in 2009. That same year, Marvel Comics purchased the rights from Anglo. Eventually, they released the entire series in an oversized trade paperback edition, retaining the title Miracleman. And finally, just this past year, Marvel decided to bring the character into the mainstream Marvel Comics continuity in their new Timeless series, the trade paperback of which is scheduled to be released this February.
Along the way, the character was distinctly different under each era of publication, though subsequent incarnations did incorporate elements from the previous iterations. The comic has had six publishers, some in the UK and some in the United States. It was its own independent universe for most of its run but now is a part of a larger multiverse. It has been released in multiple sizes, carried different numbering, and two separate names over the years.
As you can see, totally a nightmare but totally worth reading (*ahem* LFPL currently owns volume 1 of the Marvel reprints).
Reboots and rebrands are more controversial. They may well be the thing needed to give a shot in the arm to a flagging character or group. The new direction or new look can also come with new artists or authors, spinning exciting new stories. Sometimes it is a small thing, such as a character with a goofy or outdated costume gets upgraded into a much cooler outfit. But the changes involved often are met with resistance by the regular readers, who have a vested interested in the continuity they have come to know and love.
The modern issue with rebooting is that (in a market that has seen a noticeable downturn in sales for individual issues over the last decade or two) reboots are becoming very common. The reason for this is that — due to collectors’ habits — a new first issue for a title generates a big bump in sales. But the practice also leads to burnout on the part of regular readers and contributes to attrition of those readers over time as they drop titles or even whole publishers.
Despite all that, I do love new takes on old characters, especially a well-done retcon. One in particular that I enjoy is the Captain America storyline, The Winter Soldier, by Ed Brubaker. I don’t want to spoil it for you but I will tell you that this run is the basis for several of the MCU blockbusters that have come out and for The Falcon and Winter Soldier television series.
*Both denizens of the DC universe, Kirby’s Death is known as the Black Racer, who, hilariously, is just a guy using skis to zoom through the air while Gaiman’s Death is the cute GGF (Goth girlfriend) that generations of fanboys have lusted after.
– Article by Tony, Main Library