Man, Tony Stark was Marvel's bitch for a while, huh?

Mikester put up an interesting post today about big comics event stories, the “big changes” they always promise, and how said changes never really amount to anything that lasts for more than a year or so before it’s back to the status quo. I’m not going to recap his point here – it’s a thoughtful, intelligent post*, and you should read it yourself – but I do want to add my two cents to the discussion.

The big thing with long-term, serially written comic books is what somebody (I think it was Stan Lee) once called “the illusion of change.” In other words, you have to include events in the lives of the characters that make it seem like the narrative is moving forward, but for the most part, everything really remains more or less the same. For instance, over the years, Peter Parker has moved from high school and college into “real life,” got married and joined the Avengers, but a Spider-Man comic book story now isn’t all that different from one written in 1966 – Spidey has crap luck, fights a bunch of animal-themed villains, and sells pictures of himself to the Daily Bugle.

It’s a simple system, and for the most part, it’s worked pretty well through the decades, but it does have some drawbacks. For one thing, it’s vitally necessary to introduce some changes, however cosmetic, over the years, or else the book in question really begins to stagnate. Weisinger-era Superman stories are a lot of fun, sure, but if you read a bunch of them together, you see that they were basically telling the same 5 or 6 stories over and over again for a couple of decades. It’s no wonder Marvel seemed so revolutionary when it burst on the scene.

The second problem, the really big one, is the desire to top whatever was done last – you know, “if they thought the last thing was huge, wait’ll they see what’s next!” And this was the attitude that took hold with the dawn of the event book in the 80s. Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths sold well, so Marvel and DC understandably started to get that “well, what do we do to top this?” mentality. And so change begat attempt at bigger change begat attempt at even bigger change, setting in motion a big ol’ four color Domino Rally set, with brief stopovers at the status quo in between events in order to set up even bigger domino sets each time.

And of course, it played havoc with the lives and stories of the characters involved. There are plenty of examples I could name – a few dozen from the X-Men books alone – but for argument’s sake, let’s look at Iron Man:

  • Iron Man battles alcoholism and loses control of his company.
  • Iron Man battles alcoholism (again), loses control of his company (again), turns over superhero identity to irrational replacement character, who he later fights to regain said identity.
  • Loses control of his technology, goes on one-man war to regain it, alienates friends and government, has to fake his heroic identity’s death to restore good name.
  • Whatever happened in Armor Wars II.
  • Paralyzed. Eventually gets better.
  • Dies. Eventually gets better.
  • Acts increasingly irrational, becomes a murderer, and is revealed to have been under control of powerful temporal being. Dies.
  • Replaced by teenage doppelganger from a parallel universe. Dies. Actually shunted to yet another parallel universe. Returns, but is somehow his old self again.

I could go on, but intentionally remembering this stuff caused a small part of my brain to explode just now.

Somewhere along the line, a simple thing like the illusion of change gave way to increasingly ridiculous one-upsmanship. You can blame the 80s, you can blame the companies themselves, but the fault for most of it falls squarely on us, the readers. We bought this stuff (I know I sure bought my share of it back in the day), so they kept feeding it to us. People say they’re tired of this sort of storytelling, but they still buy The Other or Civil War or Infinite Crisis (guilty on that last one myself!), so we’ll keep getting it handed to us.

My point here is this: I’m not saying “urrrrrr, event comics bad!, because big event stories can indeed be very entertaining when they’re written well. I wouldn’t be buying Infinite Crisis if I wasn’t thoroughly enjoying it, I assure you. I’m just tired of them acting like the kid on the school bus who tries way too hard to impress everyone. I’d prefer they stop showing off and focus on telling me a good story.


*This, of course, is Mike's shtick - intelligent, well-written pieces on comics and Swamp Thing-related ephemera (see also: "I'm Chalk!"). My shtick is posting nearly incoherent mumblings about comics, stuff about my kid, the occasional iPod playlist, and pictures of vikings armed with anachronistic weaponry.

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