Jul 28, 2017

Marvel Needs to Reboot

As human beings we have no choice but to grow older, move on, and say goodbye, but one of the great things about comics is that they don’t have to. There are certainly some of us that pine for the days of high school or college or that special workplace, that time or place you look back on fondly. Comics can go back and live in those special times again, and the only thing stopping them is a devotion to a fictional timeline. With that being said...

Marvel Needs to Reboot
Ben Smith

I was reading a comic recently with the Kingpin, and what I assume to be his wife Vanessa was standing behind him. It make sense to have them together, with her being a part of the Netflix Daredevil series, but it made me wonder if she was supposed to be dead, or in a coma, or estranged from Fisk, who can remember. Ultimately, it got me to a reoccurring thought I have, that it shouldn’t matter. Permanent change should really be a rare thing in comics, yet its something the publishers and fans seem to believe they want. I’ve always thought that the Spider-Man and X-Men I read as a kid, should be roughly the same as the Spider-Man and X-Men my kids would read some day.

Marvel had the perfect opportunity to reboot following the Secret Wars mini-series (the Hickman one) but they didn’t do it. They probably should have. Superhero comics, and Marvel in particular, are stuck in this place between comfort food, and an idea factory for multimedia intellectual property. There’s little doubt in my mind that most comic book consumers want comfort food, to read familiar-looking exploits. Yet, lately Marvel has seem determined to discover the next big television or movie property by a massive game of trial-and-error. This is not a veiled knock on their diversity push of late. All-New Wolverine with X-23 as Wolverine has easily been my favorite Marvel book of the last few years. Silk, Jane Thor, and Spider-Gwen are some of my favorite Marvel characters and books. I love Riri and Miles. But too much change at once leaves the landscape too different to be comfort food; it becomes something you’ve never eaten before.

I’ll attempt to explain more clearly by using a specific franchise, Spider-Man, since it’s the hero and comic series I know best. I’ve always believed that a strong supporting cast is one of the keys to a successful comic book franchise-level character. Superman has Lois, Jimmy, Perry, Krypto, Ma and Pa. I think few would argue against the claim that Spider-Man’s supporting cast was at its strongest in the Romita years. You had Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane Watson, Flash Thompson, Harry Osborn, Robbie Robertson, Aunt May, Captain Stacy, and J Jonah Jameson. I’m not sure if Liz Allen, Betty Brant, and Ned Leeds were around at the same time, but include those in the mix too.

Now, after over 50 years of publishing, Harry and Liz got married, had a kid, and got divorced. (Side note, I am completely against fictional babies. There’s almost no situation where they’re an asset.) Harry died for a bit and came back, and then had another kid and left again. Flash lost his legs in combat, and is now wearing an alien super suit and fighting aliens. Gwen died after having the Green Goblin’s love children. Mary Jane and Peter were married and the marriage was erased after a demonic pact. See where I’m going? One of the greatest supporting casts in comics history, is now forever relegated to a memory because of a strict adherence to years of stories that were arguably questionable to even publish. One of the subtle underlying aspects of the marriage is that Peter and Mary Jane were basically the only ones left of the group by that point. Some might see that as inspiring or a natural progression, I found it to be depressing. Why can’t we roll back the clock? There’s no reason Marvel can’t. Instead, we’re stuck with Peter has a billionaire tech mogul overseeing his global empire. (Like my illustrious editor-in-chief told me, Peter having success as a tech genius is the end of his story. It’s fine to explore for a little while, but it’s gone on way too long at this point.)

Pick the franchise, and you’ll inevitably find a golden era of the comic that the publishers refuse to exploit for whatever reason. Teen Titans should never not be a team of Robin, Raven, Cyborg, Starfire, and Beast Boy. Bruce Banner should be trying to find a way to cure himself of the Hulk, with varying levels of control over his green alter-ego. Maybe I’m getting too old and cranky, but they’re classics for a reason. To use a really simplistic analogy, nobody wants to read teenage Charlie Brown and Linus, reminiscing about the good old days before Snoopy died and Lucy drowned in the lake. (It might be interesting for a short time period, as a curiosity, but you’d have to go back sooner than later.)

So, the question becomes should they do a hard reboot, or a bunch of soft reboots. Not every character has the baggage that Spider-Man has that needs to be fixed on a grand scale. Even then, we’re talking about restoring some supporting characters to a simpler time. I think back to when I was reading a comic with Psylocke, right around the time Secret Wars was out and there was some buzz about if Marvel was rebooting. Psylocke is a good example of Marvel’s claim that they don’t need to reboot. In their opinion, nothing was that broken. Psylocke began as Captain Britain’s sister, became a meek telepathic mutant, joined the X-Men after facing Sabretooth and surviving, and then eventually became an Asian bondage ninja. I love every word of writing that sentence. She doesn’t really need a reboot overhaul (unless you want to get rid of the probably problematic race-swapping stuff).

The problem with a linewide reboot, like New 52, is you’re absolutely going to get a few excellent launches, a whole lot of good, and then a whole lot of awful. As an example, Ultimate Spider-Man was pretty great, but Ultimate X-Men was pretty damn mediocre. Good or mediocre or awful isn’t really an enticing option when compared to Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko as the original starting points for your universe and franchise. So, I really do think soft reboots is the way to go, because most of Marvel doesn’t really even need fixing and the fixes they do need are just rolling back some unnecessary history. That’s what the soft reboot was created for.

What’s clear is that Marvel needs to do something. They really have to decide if they’re going to be a story workshop for the movie studios, or a place of familiarity to comic fans that are steadily getting older and dwindling in number. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they can do both with no problem, and I’m completely wrong. I really don’t have the solution. Pundits have been predicting the death of comics for catering to an aging fan base ever since I got back into comics 17 years ago. So either that’s 17 years of more and more aging fans giving up the hobby, or 17 years of an ever-rotating mid-20s fanbase. All I know is that the quality of comics coming from Marvel right now is the worst I’ve ever seen it (I missed the ‘90s) and I want to read great Marvel comics again. All-New Wolverine excluded because it’s already great.

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