Comics 101

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Nothing Will Ever Be The Same Again (Until the Next Writer Takes Over)! One reader's struggle with stagnant superhero comics

Nearly every comics fan my age or older (I'm a hale and hearty 37) can tell you the story of how they first "kicked the habit" as a teenager. I can still remember going through the file boxes as I culled my collection down to a few favorites, keeping things like the X-Men/Teen Titans team-up and selling off the Amazing Spider-Man issue that introduced us to the mysterious Madame Web.


I was 14 then, and yeah, I was determined to stop reading comics for some of the reasons you might think. A shy, unathletic kid with a love for "Star Trek" probably didn't need any further reasons for ridicule. But there was one more reason -- and it's the one that lately has caused me to slash my buying to a bare minimum: It seems that all the stories have been told, and that rather than allowing the characters to grow and mature, creators are content to tell the same stories again and again.

I've read from several comics writers that most superhero comics, following an Act I origin story, are essentially an endless Act II in a three-act play. The third act, which we'll usually never see in mainstream continuity, is the end of the story, in which, presumably, our hero hangs up his or her cape and either dies or lives happily ever after.

Hence, we have the fact that Spider-Man, though he left high school just a couple years into Stan Lee's 1960s run on the title, will never get out of his mid-20s. And, you know what? I'm mostly okay with that. Though, chronologically, he'd never age, at least over the past couple decades, we'd seen the character change and deepen, going through some of the things that I and my friends went through in our mid-20s.

It was OK that this was an endless Act II, because at least as the act went on, Spidey learned things and grew as a character. Was he different as a character than the lovable loser that he started out as? You bet -- in the same way that Luke Skywalker at the end of "The Empire Strikes Back" is a deeper character than he was in the beginning of the film, but is still definitively Luke Skywalker.


But comics are much more malleable than film. Character traits that have taken years to build can be eliminated with the stroke of a pencil, and that's just what recently got done with Spider-Man. The decision to end Peter Parker's marriage to Mary Jane Watson wiped out the most definitive of the ways in which Peter Parker had grown as a character over the course of the endless Act II -- worse yet, it was accomplished with a deus ex machine that told us that what we'd read about since 1987 never happened. Then, in the last month or two, to add insult to injury, Marvel even used the very same pages that told the wedding story, to show how, now, something else had happened.

We can argue all day about whether a "deal with the devil" is something that Peter Parker, in any of his incarnations, would ever pursue. What's more important to me is the argument that Editor Joe Quesada and others at Marvel used to justify erasing the marriage: That he'd grown too far from his roots.

Essentially, it's an argument for dramatic stagnation, and I see that argument taking root across a lot of what the "big two" comics publishers, DC and Marvel, are putting out these days.

I grew up in the 1970s, on the trailing edge of the Silver Age, when DC and Marvel were still at the height of their fabulous freakiness, I guess. Those were the days when guys like Roy Thomas were throwing anything at the wall to see what stuck, and we got everything from Luke Cage, Hero For Hire, to stuff like the '50s hero the 3-D Man and Nova. Now, I ask you, when was the last time DC or Marvel launched a major character with his or her own title that wasn't either already featured in a team book, or was a new version of an old character? Heck, I'd even settle for some interesting new bad guys, rather than having the same stable of villains show up every third issue.

Since the days of the first "Crisis," DC has been well-known for rearranging its universe(s). But lately, the big realignment seems to be toward turning the DCU back into what it was circa approximately 1979 or so. Consider the fact that nearly every single major change to the DCU since 1985 has essentially been undone over the past decade. The Multiverse, which had supposedly mucked up continuity beyond repair, is back, along with scads of the both recently and long-deceased.

We all know that death in comics is often temporary, even when we've seen characters bumming around Heaven or burning in Hell. But there are some deaths that actually meant something, and the reversal of those deaths has resulted in something that makes the DC Universe feel a bit more stodgy than it already did.


The death of Barry Allen in the pages of "Crisis on Infinite Earths" meant something. He saved the entirety of the universe in that one last run. His death was, in essence, his definitive moment. From then on, he was a far greater symbol of the power and dangers of heroism than he ever was alive.

Unlike the death of Hal Jordan, which had betrayed the character's basic principles, the death of Barry Allen was the ultimate embodiment of them. That's why fans had little difficulty in accepting Wally West taking over the role -- which he did for more than two decades.

But now, both Barry and Hal are back, relegating their replacements to second-tier status. In some ways, it's as if the past three decades never happened.

Maybe that's why it's hard to get excited about the "latest and greatest" changes to the status quo. J. Michael Straczynski's new direction for Wonder Woman briefly piqued my interest, until, as I wrote in my weekly newspaper column, I realized that when sales dropped, there would be a "Return of Classic Wonder Woman” story waiting in the wings. At Marvel, they've been hyping "Three," a story in which one of the Fantastic Four dies. In the 1990s, they killed Reed Richards; in the early part of this decade, Mark Waid killed off Ben Grimm, and Sue Richards (albeit in an alternate reality) was killed in a one-shot. I've seen it all before, and can guarantee you that it's all temporary.

Engaging drama comes from the possibility and occurrence of change within a character's life. We care that "Mad Men's” Don Draper's secret life could be exposed because the change it could make in his life would be irrevocable. We care that Luke Skywalker's Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are murdered, because it marks an irrevocable turn in Luke's life.

Unfortunately, though I love comics as an artform, with no possibility of irrevocable change in my favorite characters' lives -- or their worlds -- I'm finding it harder and harder to care what happens. Thus, while most of my collection is in no danger of being sold off as it was 23 years ago, it's certainly not growing with the speed it used to.

Todd Wels is a professional journalist living in Grants Pass, Oregon. He is the author of "Critical Condition," an award-winning weekly newspaper column covering television and pop culture.