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Taking a sentimental journey

I don’t think it’s any secret that I am terribly sentimental.  Yes, it’s true.  I can think of few things more excellent than cruising down the highway in a convertible with the sun sinking low behind me and my woman by my side while Styx’s Paradise Theater plays on the 8-track.  Come on, sing along: “We’ll take the best, forget the rest, and someday … we’ll … find …”

But what, pray tell, has this to do with comics?  Well, that’s a fine question.  Before you all run off to play your own copy of Paradise Theater (doesn’t everyone own that record?), I will explain.  First, by saying I recently bought a copy of The Sword Is Drawn, the first Excalibur trade paperback, collecting the special that launched the team and the first five issues of the monthly series.

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How can you not love this book?  Claremont before he got sucky, Alan Davis’ gorgeous pencils, warwolves, the Technet, the Juggernaut, the Crazy Gang, Arcade … all kinds of comic book goodness!

But that’s not what got me thinking of sentimentality and how it refers to comics.  What got me was this sequence, early in the special:

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Kitty has just had a dream about the X-Men (the absolute excellent group, with Rogue, Psylocke, Dazzler, Longshot, Havok, Storm, Colossus, and Wolverine – what a freakin’ great assemblage) and when she wakes up, she recalls that they are dead.  Remember that?  When the Marvel U. actually believed the X-Men were dead?  Good times.  She, of course, is on Muir Island, because during the Mutant Massacre she was injured to the extent that she was phasing almost all the time – it was only with intense concentration that she could remain solid.  So the X-Men sent her to Moira’s to recuperate, and while she was there, the X-Men went to Dallas with Forge and … well, died.  But not really!  But at this point, everyone else thought they were still dead.  Alles klar?

I read this book years ago, but haven’t read it in a while, and this scene, in conjunction with other parts of the book, especially after Kitty hooks up with Kurt and Rachel to eventually form Excalibur with Brian and Meggan, made me sentimental.  And then it made me think of why comics can be such a wonderful art form.  And then it made me think of a shared universe.

Now, this isn’t some rant about continuity and how it must be respected above all else.  I don’t really care one way or another if continuity is respected or not.  Sometimes it bugs me that writers and editors are too lazy to go back and read something that happened in the past and not blatantly contradict it, but sometimes it doesn’t bug me all that much.  If the story is good, I’m willing to overlook a lot of continuity errors.  It doesn’t bug me that nobody hears Charles Foster Kane’s final word, after all.

But I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about something that has been largely lost from both the Marvel and DC Universes, and that’s an idea that the characters have a history.  Today, if writers do like continuity, that’s fine, but they seem to use continuity as both a crutch and a bludgeon.  It becomes a crutch because they try to fit every little aspect of the character’s history into their story at the expense of the story, and a bludgeon because they beat us over the head with it to make sure we know that they know far more about the character than we ever could and nyah-nyah-nyah!  To be fair, fans do this as well – I’m amazed and a bit daunted by the ridiculous knowledge that many of our readers possess about the comics they love.  So the fans and the writers become trapped in a vicious cycle of one-upmanship, and the books themselves suffer.

What I am talking about is something that Claremont, when he was lord and master of every X-book in the land, was very good at.  The characters grew and remembered their past and it influenced their decisions, even if only slightly.  Claremont didn’t allow their pasts to get in the way of a good story, so he only brought it up if it helped the plot forward, but the point is: the X-Men and the ancillary books were all part of a big family, and if Illyana got peeved at Professor Xavier in the pages of New Mutants, the next week in Uncanny X-Men she might drift by and mention that she’s still pissed.  A reader of the latter book but not the former might be confused momentarily, but it wasn’t all that essential to the plot, plus it was a reward for those who did read both.  The books didn’t cross over with each other, and you could be perfectly happy reading only one, but the idea that these events were happening at the same time and that the characters would act consistently was comforting.  And it’s largely gone by the boards.

There are plenty of reasons for this, and I’m not saying it’s the worst thing in the world, but occasionally it bugs me.  This is one of the reasons I wish comic book characters would age, however slowly.  With the X-Men (I know, I’m using them as an example, but it could refer to any character), we always had a sense that these people were slowly growing up, and occasionally they even moved on.  Back then it was a big deal for Cyclops to leave the team in issue #138, because it felt like a watershed event in the lives of the X-Men, a true “graduation.”  Now, characters show up almost randomly, because Writer X happens to want to use them.  The proliferation of the number of mutant titles mean that there is very little coherence between them.  The hiring of “superstar” writers with only a passing knowledge of Marvel or DC history means that editors are pushed aside, and we get stories with characters we’ve known for years acting completely unlike they have ever acted (this was my main objection to Identity Crisis, if you’ll recall – not that the story was bad, but that the story was bad because it starred DC icons).  After all, we musn’t insult the talent!  One of the biggest problems I have with the atrocious Scott-Emma pairing is not that it’s dumb (although it is mind-numbingly stupid), but the way it played out (and this is Morrison’s fault, since he obviously had a big hard-on for Emma).  Scott “cheats” on Jean.  Okay, I get that.  I don’t like it, but I get it.  Then Jean dies.  Does Scott mourn?  At all?  This is the great love of his life – he’s been with her pretty much since they were both 17, except for when she was, you know, dead.  But he doesn’t mourn her – he just jumps in bed with Emma.  And Jean is forgotten.  Yes, we had that horrible mini-series about the Phoenix, but essentially, it’s as if she never existed.  In “real time,” it can’t be more than a few months since Jean died.  Yet we’re supposed to believe that Scott would simply jump in bed with Emma and never mention his wife again.  I don’t buy it.

Again, this is not to say that every writer should be slaves to continuity.  But there is a balance, and it seems, too often, that either the history of characters is ignored or, at the other extreme, wallowed in.  There’s very little in mainstream superhero comics that is comforting.  What’s that, you say?  We shouldn’t be comforted when we read mainstream superhero comics?  Why not, say I?  There is something very comforting about reading a book that has been published for years, and you read it when you were a kid and can pick it up again 20 years later and say, “Hey, these are old friends.”  That’s not to say they shouldn’t change.  But just like a friend you had in high school and you might not have seen in 10-15 years, they should be recognizable, and they should remember their past.  In this trade paperback, Kitty, Kurt, and Rachel have lost good friends, but Brian and Meggan have lost someone too – Betsy, who is Brian’s sister.  And you don’t need to know that Claremont is using old Captain Britain foes – whether he created them or Alan Moore or even Davis, when he was writing the book, I don’t know – to enjoy these stories.  If you do know about them, that’s fine, and you can smile about it.  But it’s not necessary.  The connections between the various characters in the Marvel and DC Universe are what I miss, occasionally, and I don’t think it would be too hard to acknowledge those connections every so often.  (And no, what Whedon is doing doesn’t count.  There’s very little emotional development in the book, at least from what I can tell.  I could be wrong.)

This is, of course, what our Other, Probably Cooler Greg was talking about last week. Well, to a certain degree. He wondered why the Big Two pander to people like him, while it appears I am saying they don’t pander enough.  But that ain’t so.  Yes, this would be pandering to the hard core fan base, but it a much more subtle way than what he was talking about.  At least I think so.  And this points up a much more interesting point about mainstream superhero comics in general.  There is certainly a way to draw in a new audience, and it isn’t with the sprawling, everyone-knows-everyone kind of thing I’m talking about.  Runaways is a good example.  It’s a kid-friendly book where one doesn’t need to know everything about the Marvel U., but it’s still set firmly in the Marvel U. (well, in vol. 1 one didn’t need to know everything or anything about the Marvel U., despite the presence of Cloak and Dagger, but that might have changed with vol. 2).  A couple of my favorite mini-series from last year, Livewires and Gravity (don’t laugh – they were both entertaining and heroic), are other good examples, despite being a bit more tied into the Marvel U.  These are the books that Marvel should be pushing to kids, because they are very entertaining books all on their own.  Marvel should not be pushing any of the core titles on kids, or even ones that are part of, say, the X-Universe subsection, because there is too much continuity there.  However, the glorious thing about comics is – they’re addictive.  And kids have addictive personalities.  If they read Gravity and see Spider-Man, they might buy a Spider-Man comic.  Yes, it might suck, but they might get sucked in, because it might contain a scene that’s cool.  Then they might seek out other Marvel titles, until they are ensconced in the warm embrace of an all-consuming continuity trap.  Then they can’t escape!

That’s all just speculation, however.  My point (and I do have one) is that mainstream superhero comics present the readers with a remarkably unusual phenomenon.  Many people decry continuity, and they point to “real” literature and say you wouldn’t want Sherlock Holmes showing up in Dracula, because that’s stupid.  Well, sure.  But comics are unique in that regard, and that’s what makes them cool.  These days, when I read a Marvel book or a DC book, I judge it on its merits, and that’s fine.  Rarely, however, do I get the sense of it fitting into the grand tapestry that these companies have built up over the years.  If it does (like Infinite Crisis), it’s a mess.  There’s nothing wrong with Bruce Wayne stopping for one panel and remembering Vesper Fairchild and having a look of sadness cross his face.  He does it all the time with Jason Todd, after all.  The X-Men just fought some Skrulls in the latest issue.  Someone could recall that weird late-1990s run with Alan Davis on both books in which something happened with the Skrulls (you’ll have to excuse me, as I have blotted those issues from my memory).  Scott could weep about Jean once in a while.  Flash Thompson could show up and say hi to Peter Parker.  I’m not talking about super-heavy continuity, just random nods to the past.  It wouldn’t be difficult, and it would be a nice hat tip to the people who love the whole shared universe concept.

Of course, I’m old.  And sentimental.  So I probably should shut it.

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16 Comments

I am sure that I am going to be shot down for this by the real comic book readers (I am a dabbler at best), but this is one reason I have really enjoyed the Ultimate line. Every once in a while you see an off-hand comment made or a small detail that refers to things going on or long past in the other books. The way that the charters interact with each other tends to reflect world events as well as other known relationships.

An example might be in the current Ultimate Spider-Man storyline where the Fantastic Four are making a minor gust appearance. When Reed Richards decides to call Nick Fury with a problem, not only does the dialog and setup reflect Peter’s shaky relationship with SHIELD (as it should, it’s his book after all) but it also reflects Reed’s relationship with Fury.

Actually, Ryan, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. The Ultimate line is still small enough that the writers can do that sort of thing, but there’s no reason it can’t be done in the “real” Marvel U. It’s just that the writers and editors are lazy.

I’m with you for the most part. I loved Excalibur from it’s start until Davis left for good (after that, it has it’s moments, but it’s just not the same). That era of X-Men was pretty tight, and cohesive, they obviously thought about things and coordinated to some extent.

However, I am not with you on the Scott/Emma front. I thought Morrison did a really good job on this front. Scott didn’t jump into bed with Emma after Jean died. He abandoned her, to mourne for his true love, Jean. He regretted cheating, and would have left Emma forever. Jean made him go back with her. She screwed with his head. He would not have done it on his own. The other characters even bitched about how he’d jumped in bed with her so quickly, so it was even acknowledged in-comic how that was out of his character. Because Jean made him do it. The cheating was all him, but the decision to stay with Emma was not.

Dear Greg,

I am betting that a lot of people would like to see Sherlock Holmes show up in Dracula. I have a novel coming out next month which does exactly that. In “Sherlock Holmes and the Plague of Dracula” I fit the events and characters of “Dracula” into the Holmes universe, and I stay strictly within Sherlockian continuity to the best of my ability. I also explain what really happened at the Reichenbach Falls, what Holmes was really doing during the Great Hiatus, and even delve into the true nature of vampirism. I have been told that one particularly hard to please critic liked it a lot, so I am hopeful the general readership will, too.

I well understand how you can be of two minds regarding continuity. The last time I read “X-Men” it had been a while since I picked the book up and they were drowning so much in old continuity I just couldn’t follow what was going on. However, I will probably skip the next “Star Trek” movie if they try to get away with Kirk and Spock being fellow students at Starfleet Academy: it just didn’t happen. Spock is about 15 years older than Kirk and they first met when Kirk was given command of the Enterprise. In this case, the issue is more than continuity. It’s history.

In my own book, whenever a small point of continuity in the Holmes canon or in “Dracula” got in the way, I did what I felt was best for the story. In the end, I think you’re right: if the story is good enough, then old continuity points can safely be laid aside.

Here’s the link if you want to learn more about my book:

http://www.mountainsidepress.com/mystery.html

–Steve Seitz
Springfield, Vt.

That paplable sense of “people with history getting back together” was one of the things that was so great about the Formerly Known as the Justice League mini-series and its followup in JLA Classified, from the expressions on the team’s faces on the first issue’s cover to Power Girl and the Blue Beetle talking about the old days. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There was far more emotional and character realism in those series than there’s been in however many years of Johnuckannikzer snuff comics we’ve gotten.

I thought Stephen Seitz was doing some entertaining satire of your post (and of the “shared universe” mania that’s made so much of the superhero genre unreadable) until I saw the URL and realized he was serious.

Stop picking on Stephen, Moose! The whole pastiche thing with old characters has become more of a trendy thing these days – didn’t Sherlock meet Jack the Ripper in a movie or book somewhere? – and I, for one, enjoy it. I am NOT one of those people who bashes it, if it’s done well. Sherlock Holmes meeting Dracula sounds interesting – we’ll have to see how the execution is!

Jordan, I don’t remember Jean screwing with his head. I remember her telling him to be happy, but I wasn’t sure how much she messed with him. I suppose the whole thing makes me grumpy because I still don’t like the fact that Scott “cheated” and I don’t like Emma as a good guy (and I assume someone can let me know if she still is, as I don’t read Astonishing X-Men). Morrison did an okay job of trying to explain it, but it felt like he just loved Emma so much that he was jamming her into the story without really thinking about it. In other words, I didn’t buy his explanations, and felt he could have done a better job on it.

Stephen Seitz is the third or fourth guy to do it. My personal favorite is Loren Estleman’s The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count, but I am also quite fond of Fred Saberhagen’s The Holmes/Dracula File. I think it was done in comics, too, in the early 80’s, from one of the black-and-white outfits. Holmes-Dracula is well-trodden ground at this point, it’s almost as common as Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper; that’s the pastiche that EVERYONE tries.

I don’t know about the rest of it. I’m mostly of the opinion that it’s time for the pendulum to swing back the other way, that “continuity” as we talk about it in comics is really out of control at this point. I still think JLA #1 was pretty damn unfriendly to new readers but I had nine or ten people telling me in comments that it wasn’t THAT bad, and they clearly regarded it as similar to your Excalibur experience.

So who knows? The REAL problem, which is what I probably should have explained better last week, is that Marvel and DC are betting the farm on guys like us now who ALREADY KNOW THINGS, instead of trying to go in a different direction and after different markets with their main characters. There’s no INTRODUCTORY mechanism in any of these books… for characters that are routinely creating interest for new readers through movies and TV. That’s frankly idiotic. And everyone in comics knows it but rather than step aside for a newer generation we insist it all be for us. Fans always are like that, they were when Excalibur came out; but that goes beyond idiocy into some kind of a death wish when it is coming from publishers too.

I do have a test “new reader,” actually: my wife Julie is not up on superhero continuity AT ALL, and I can hand her something like Rebirth and say, “Do me a favor and see if this makes sense to you, if it actually is a story you can follow.” She’ll struggle through it but later she’ll say that it seemed way too wordy for a comic, or something like that. Sometimes she’ll add a rider like, “Gee, the Justice League sure aren’t acting very nice, I thought they were the good guys. And why is everyone clenching their teeth?” I keep telling her she should really sit down and write some of these first-impression, outside-looking-in things down, it’d be a nice guest column. But she is too shy.

Ryan H said …

I am sure that I am going to be shot down for this by the real comic book readers (I am a dabbler at best)…

Ryan, we’re all dabblers. Carrying on about comics like we do here, it’s SUPPOSED to be recreational. If it isn’t, than we’re not doing it right. You never need to apologize just for HAVING an opinion.

Not only did Jean coerce Scott into being with Emma, Emma coerced Scott into being with Emma. This is another example of something that Morrison set up for the next writer that just got abandoned, and as you exemplify, made things more confusing by not being used.

Notice the fact that Scott still hasn’t done any mourning, or even considered that this might feel wrong in some way. That has to do with other writers dropping the ball and not dealing with the obvious conclusion, where Scott gets pissed and leaves the X-Men for good. Period.

I’m a continuity nut. I get hung up over the removal of little panels or a small detail, or whatever, unless there is a good enough explination for it. And usually, retcons translate to bad stories. USUALLY.

I think continuity is a good thing. I love the idea of a past history. I love superheroes interacting with one another and making it meanwhile. I love the universal resets and the idea of a malleable reality. But that’s just me.

I’m not sure what you mean about DC losing its sense of history though…Marvel yes, DC, not really.

“Flash Thompson could show up and say hi to Peter Parker.”

Flash has actually been back in Peter’s life for the last few months in the pages of Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. He’s a gym teacher at Peter’s school, but has amnesia, and so he still thinks of Peter as “Puny” Parker.

Actually, Greg, I’m pretty sure someone did hear Kane’s final word. It was the butler-type guy that our man talks to at Xanadu, for memory.

I think the whole “noone hears the final word” thing is a quasi-urban legend that built up because a guy who was under that impression asked Welles about it one time, and Welles forgot for a second that the guy was wrong, and said to him, “… and let us never speak of it again”.

Which is the awesome answer that should be given to just about any continuity blunder, really.

You’ve got me wanting to watch Kane for about the trillionth time to check now…

Oh, incidentally, now that I’ve responded to the Kane thing… how cool was it that Simonson’s Fantastic Four got around in a time-travelling sled called ‘Rosebud II’?

Ah, Rohan, but in the reflection of the snow globe, we see someone (the maid? the butler?) enter after Kane is already dead! The butler SAYS he heard Kane’s final word, but there’s nobody in the room when Kane says it. Of course, that’s without having looked at it again. Now I’ll have to go back and check.

Go to know that Flash is showing up these days. I loved it when Peter had a big cast, especially when a writer knew how to make it work. Before I stopped reading JMS’ Spider-Man, I was struck by how small Peter’s world seemed, even when he went to work at the high school. I kept thinking, “Doesn’t he have any friends?”

And Matthew, I think DC has gone too far to the other extreme, where their sense of history is too obsessive so that it interferes with the story. I don’t mind the continuity-heavy story every so often, but, as I mentioned, Infinite Crisis was a mess because, it seemed, they tried to fit everything into it. But that’s just my opinion.

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