How Kurt Busiek (unwittingly) ruined Marvel and DC superhero comics!
Come along with me, as I generalize like crazy! It’s what you love, right?
I’ve thought about this for years, and have never gotten around to writing about it. Of course, it took years for Busiek’s true influence to reveal itself, so Marvel and DC superhero comics had already been ruined by the time we figured it out. So sad!
So, the hypothesis: Kurt Busiek, marvelous writer and obsessive continuity geek, ruined superhero comics. One must prove such a contentious hypothesis if one is to remain in the good graces of one’s readers, but first one must explain how the hypothesis was arrived at in the first place. I mean, heck, I love Busiek’s writing. Why would I say such a horrid thing?
One word: Marvels. You remember Marvels, right? A four-issue mini-series that came out in early 1994 and made the careers of both Busiek and its artist, Alex Ross? Good stuff, right? Well, yes. Marvels is a brilliant work, actually. So brilliant and so popular that, like other brilliant and popular works, it spawned imitators. And therein lies the problem. Much like the brilliant Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns spawned imitators to the detriment of superhero comics, so to did Marvels. Interestingly enough, though, Marvels seems to be even more influential than those two seminal works. Odd, that.
So what is its influence? In case you haven’t read Marvels (shame on you!), it’s the story of Phil Sheldon, a reporter for the Daily Bugle who watches the birth of the Marvel Universe, from 1939 through the death of Gwen Stacy. Busiek does a masterful job bringing all the major plots of the early Marvel U. together into four issues, and his “man-on-the-street” approach to superheroes served him well in his creator-owned follow-up project, Astro City. His obsessive knowledge of Marvel history has also served him well, as in Avengers Forever he attempted something even grander: reconciling every thread of the Avengers’ convoluted past. What Busiek does in Marvels (and in other works, to be sure) is create a good protagonist whom the readers can relate to, making us experience the way superheroes must look and feel to those without powers. And while many people hate Alex Ross, I’m not one of them, and his painted work in Marvels is very keen and unlike almost everything we had seen in mainstream comics prior to that. It’s not terribly surprising that Marvels was such a hit. And that’s the problem: Marvels began a trend that has persisted until this day, which we must call, for lack of a better term, “nostalgia porn.”
You see, Marvels is nostalgic. Busiek looks back on the “golden age” of Marvel comics, when everything was new. Phil Sheldon takes a journey that many fans of superhero comics take – he begins with wonder and slowly becomes cynical, finally “quitting” superheroes because they don’t dazzle him anymore. The death of Gwen Stacy is a big ol’ metaphor for death in superhero comics in general – Phil gets burned out on the craziness and wants a “normal” life. Gwen’s death doesn’t get covered in the newspapers, because she wasn’t important enough. And Phil’s had enough. In a grand way, Busiek (who still, obviously, loves the superheroes) is showing how we as readers move beyond childish power fantasies and focus on more important things. That’s where the nostalgia comes from. Despite Gwen Stacy’s death, there’s still that wonder about superheroes and the marvelous things they do. Marvels tapped into that beautifully and became a hit. And that’s where the problems began.
The success of Marvels spawned imitators, naturally. What the people producing comics realized is that they were missing a huge market: the nostalgia market. Until Marvels, comics had been largely forward-looking. Consider: when the Golden Age ended, most of the heroes were put into mothballs. When DC wanted to revive superheroes, they didn’t simply bring the old heroes back, they created new heroes using the old names and pushed on. When Marvel got into the superhero game in the early 1960s, they created a bunch of new heroes, even though they brought back a few from the World War II era. As comics moved into the 1970s and 1980s, they still looked forward. Villains might return again and again, but not many people fiddled around with what became known as “retroactive continuity,” which has become known as a “retcon.” The origin stories of the heroes were good enough. DC, in fact, decided that their universe had become too convoluted, and instead of trying to go back and fix everything, they simply destroyed the entire thing. What a ballsy move. So comics kept moving into the future.
Busiek didn’t invent the “retcon,” of course (Marvels itself isn’t one, as we’ll see below). Before Marvels, some writers had begun to mess with characters’ histories, changing them a bit. After Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC was free to re-invent their characters, and they did so. Wonder Woman had never existed – she first appeared in Legends. John Byrne gave Superman a face-lift. In the boldest “retcon,” Frank Miller gave us “Year One” in Batman #404-407, which gave us a Caped Crusader who was completely unsure of himself and made Catwoman a prostitute. (This was followed by “Year Two” and “Year Three,” of course, neither of which were as successful, but which shared a crucial similarity with “Year One” – they were told within the course of the two main Batman books.) Hal Jordan got a drinking problem and a jail term. But that was DC, and Crisis had been a massive “do-over” for them, so it still didn’t tap into the nostalgia market too much. Over at Marvel, where they “got it right the first time,” such retcons were seen as unnecessary. I wasn’t reading comics too much in the 1980s, but I recall only one rather famous retcon – Uncanny X-Men #268, in which we learned that Wolverine had met Captain America during World War II (and that Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, was a girl in the war, significantly screwing up her age). I seem to recall John Byrne doing some things with Reed Richards pre-Fantastic Four during his run, but it wasn’t a big event. That’s a bit of the point – Claremont in X-Men didn’t build a huge storyline around Logan meeting Cap, he just did it and moved on. Then, of course, came Marvels, which was a big event.
Suddenly, retcons became the hip thing. In the years since Marvels, DC and Marvel realized that they could tell stories about their characters that would fit into their already-established histories. They could fill in the blanks, in other words. And people who grew up with the characters would love that. This coincided with the slow graying of the audience over the past 20 years – comics audiences in the past famously turned over every four years, so the companies didn’t care about repeating themselves, but that’s no longer true, as fans stick with comics as they get older and older and remember precisely which nipple Ogre-Man lost in his fight with The Tabloid! in 1977. So Marvel and DC started to tap into that nostalgia of older fans, who remembered when comics were really awesome (as you all know, everything was the BEST when you were 12 – I of course agree with that, because that’s when MOTHERFUCKING MANIMAL was on!!!!!) and wanted to relive those bygone days without actually re-reading the comics they already had. Marvels showed that there was an audience for this.
Retconning became a fairly big trend in comics that has continued to this day. Busiek himself was at the forefront of it, as he did Untold Tales of Spider-Man soon after Marvels, a series that fit stories into gaps in Spider-Man’s old continuity. Marvel has continued to capitalize on this. Off the top of my head, we have X-Men: The Hidden Years, which told stories that picked up when X-Men was originally cancelled back after issue #66; the “First Class” X-Men series of the past few years; Avengers Classic, which told stories from the early years of the team; Fantastic Four: First Family, a different take on the team’s origin; and Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, which added nuance to Matt Murdock’s early years. DC, which has always been a bit more interested in its “historical” characters and, because of Crisis and a lack of emphasis on continuity early on in their publication history, has mined this vein perhaps even more than Marvel. James Robinson’s brilliant Starman (which began not too long after Marvels) is steeped in DC history, and Robinson did some re-writing of the past. DC also began to capitalize on the “Year One” success, as more and more heroes got reworked origins (Green Arrow, Metamorpho, Huntress, to name a few). Superman’s origins have been continually tweaked. DC has also wiped their continuity clean once more, in Zero Hour, and again to a certain degree in Infinite Crisis. Joe Chill, the man who shot Bruce Wayne’s parents, has been dead (in “Year Two”), not identified as the murderer (after Zero Hour), back to being the murderer (after Infinite Crisis), and then a crime lord rather than a simple mugger (in Batman #673). While Marvel seems to attempt to fit all these retcons into their established continuity, DC seems fit to play fast and loose with theirs.
One consequence of this (but not the one I’m concerned with) is the retroactive “darkening” of superhero comics from bygone days. This is most evident in the now-infamous Identity Crisis, in which we see an old rape of Sue Dibny, one which never had any impact on the Dibnys themselves because it never happened in “real” DC time. Rape was also inserted into Felicia Hardy’s past and used as a motivation to her becoming the Black Cat. As ugly as these incidents are, they stem from the “grim-‘n’-gritty” turn comics took in the mid-1980s as much as the obsession with retconning. The other consequence is more far-reaching and serious. The obsession with “filling in” parts of the pasts of these characters has effectively cut off any growth they might have had, and superhero comics have become more and more static as a result. “But Greg,” you might argue, “superhero comics have always been about keeping the characters the same! That’s kind of the entire point of holding onto copyrights and trademarks and other shit laymen don’t understand!” I would disagree. Yes, characters in comics stayed largely the same for decades, especially at DC. The lack of long-term readers made this possible, because new readers didn’t care if the characters didn’t change over the short period of time they read comics. But the Silver Age, despite some poor storytelling, also featured writers who were unafraid to throw any- and everything at the wall to see what stuck. And characters actually changed. This was more evident in Marvel, which began with the idea that it was more “realistic” than DC, but it happened with both companies. For the first 25-30 years of Peter Parker’s existence, for instance, he went from high-schooler to college student to grad student to ex-grad student to married man making some coin off that book of Spidey photos. This happened in many Marvel comics. Reed Richards and Sue Storm got married and had a son. Scott Summers got married and had a kid, then ditched his wife in a pseudo-mid-life crisis to take up with an old flame, whom he then married. Even DC wasn’t immune to this. Dick Grayson grew up and went to college, paving the way for two new Robins. Wally West grew up and got married. Oliver Queen became a “grandfather” when Roy Harper, whom he considered his “son,” had a child (who, of course, was recently killed). Hal Jordan became older and got gray hair at his temples (which was, of course, later retconned as the influence of a giant yellow bug alien, because Hal couldn’t have gotten older, right?). Heroes were replaced by younger versions, which is what happened in the 1950s. As poorly done some of the exits of older heroes were (Hal Jordan’s, for instance), there was no reason why Wally West couldn’t be the Flash, or Conner Hawke Green Arrow, or Kyle Rayner Green Lantern. The characters in the Marvel Universe are a bit harder to replace (you don’t find many radioactive spiders running around), but there’s no reason why the X-Men couldn’t retire and be replaced by different or younger ones – as happened in 1975. So characters could and did change. Then came Marvels, from which Marvel and DC took the wrong lesson. Busiek didn’t retcon anything – he simply dropped a new character into the old stories and used continuity expertly to tell his story. The lesson was that the rich histories of these characters could be used to tell stories, but nothing really needed to be changed. The lesson that Marvel and DC took from Marvels was that readers were hankering for stories set in the old days because they themselves were getting older. So the idea of going back and tinkering with origins and older stories that, frankly, didn’t need to be tinkered with became more attractive. Marvel always claimed that they “got it right” with regard to their characters’ origins. Apparently, they no longer think that, because tweaking origins has become a favorite pastime in comics. An unintended consequence of this is that growth of characters is no longer that important. Because the older characters are the ones that fans remember and relate to, and because they stick with characters much longer, it becomes easier and more profitable to simply go back and tell stories of Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent or Oliver Queen or Peter Parker or “James Howlett” or Tony Stark that “update” their origins, because that gives older fans a shot of nostalgia by using those characters and also by winking at them with references to comics they read when they were growing up. It’s a win-win!
Except it’s not. What this does is simply recycle old ideas even more and more, not allowing these characters to grow and change. This has led to dubious editorial decisions, like Peter Parker making a deal with Satan to destroy his marriage. Characters that occasionally changed and struck out on their own (Scott Summers leaving the X-Men after Jean Grey died, for instance) are now locked into their positions, calcified and stagnant. The flip side to this is that new characters get strangled in the crib. After the first initial burst of creativity of DC (in the 1930s and 1940s and even the 1950s) and Marvel (in the 1960s and 1970s), this is of course going to become a problem for any number of reasons, but people rarely blame Marvels for it. Well, I’m doing it! This reliance on nostalgia as a selling point makes it even harder to create and sustain new characters. Into the 1980s, DC and Marvel created new characters that, while perhaps not huge icons like the oldies, have at least been sustainable into the present. It’s become an increasing problem in the last fifteen years or so. There’s no reason why Wally West, Conner Hawke, Kyle Rayner, Dick Grayson, or even Artemis couldn’t work as the iconic heroes for whom they’ve substituted in recent years, but they’re not allowed to be by a fanbase that wants their childhood heroes right where they’ve always been. As comics have become increasingly backward-looking, new series not only fail miserably, the characters rarely show up in other characters’ books to give them exposure. It’s bad enough for characters who are somehow connected to older DC heroes (Blue Beetle and Manhunter both had decent runs, even though they were constantly threatened with cancellation), but for new characters, it’s almost impossible to get any footing. Some people fondly remember Major Bummer, Young Heroes In Love, Xerø, Xenobrood, The Next, The Brotherhood, Livewires, or The Order, but hardly anyone actually bought them, and what’s more, the characters rarely, if ever, show up elsewhere in the respective universes (I made a joke about The Next when the first issue came out about how the next time we’d see the characters was when DC needed cannon fodder for one of their big events, because they like to slaughter random heroes in those). Writers want to play with the big shots in the sandbox, so these characters, who are just lying around not doing anything, get neglected. Many people have made the point that writers these days “save” their characters for creator-owned stuff, which might be the case, but not enough attention has been paid to the “Marvels” factor. These two opposing trends – looking back to a comic book golden age and its complement, the lack of new characters – has meant that superhero comics have become increasingly insular and tailored to a narrow and aging audience. Marvel might sell 100,000 issues of a big-time book, but the law of diminishing returns kicks in as they load up on books that tie into that big event. Marvel and DC are so obsessed with making sure that they sell more and more to a smaller and smaller audience that they don’t realize that many people are not only skipping those events, they’re giving up on ALL superhero comics that the companies sell. We’ve all heard stories about how kids love comics, and that’s true, but they’re not buying superhero comics in the magnitude that they once did. And older fans aren’t going to live forever, even if the characters they love do!
Do I blame all of this on Marvels? Of course not – I just liked the provocative title of the post. But I think Marvels had a great deal to do with it. Perhaps it was the zeitgeist and the timing of Marvels just happened to be coincidental, but I don’t think so. The success of Marvels showed the Big Two that there was a market for stories set in the past starring characters that the audience had grown up with. That Busiek is a fantastic writer who can push characters into the future even while tying everything into older continuity (as he did in Avengers Forever) was largely ignored. All the Big Two saw were dollar signs in stories about the past. Naturally, they went too far in one direction, and now we’re inundated with these kinds of comics. It’s not Busiek’s fault (hence the “unwittingly” in the title), but he definitely pointed the way. Unfortunately, I don’t think Marvels has had a positive influence on comics, as good as it was. The question is, how can Mr. Busiek live with himself?!?!?!?!?