r m p




The Same Old Story

 Robert M. Price


Recent events including the return of Hal Jordan to the role of Green Lantern and the dissolution and reformation of the Avengers serve to raise a question that has long interested me as a comic book reader since the late 50s. I cherish the old comics, and then I find myself dismayed at changes. But then I take a closer look at periods when less creative hands seemed to be trying to continue the old and it just wasn’t working. They were beating a dead horse. The Bronze Age offers plenty of examples. The writers were trying to carry on the original glory days of their titles, and it had run out of gas. The strips became slightly or overtly self-satirical. Lois Lane had to give up her sickening pining over Superman, and Superman had to stop treating Lois like a doormat. But a feminist-chastened Superman comic seemed somehow a parody. Worse yet, Iron Man becoming a drunk? Henry Pym a wife-beater? If that’s that all you can think of to juice up the characters, it is time to retire them.

            New characters appeared frequently in the Bronze Age, but they seemed to me (reading them only years later, which admittedly skews my perspective) to coexist on the page only uneasily with the more familiar iconic characters. Thor and Star Fox? Spider-Man and Moon Dragon? Ah, excuse me, this is my stop. The newer characters, I suspect, needed to be liberated from the shadows of the greats, as well as from the mere shadows the greats had become. Hal Jordan was wasted pathetically in those stupid Justice League comics of the nineties before Grant Morrison took over. They just couldn’t decide what to do with him. He was a great character being wasted because his time, seemingly, had passed.

            The “new” X-Men worked so well because it was largely a fresh bunch of characters (though I confess, looking back at some of those old “new” issues, it is hard for me to understand what all the shouting was about). It would have been interesting to just drive a stake into the Silver Age and start over with Wolverine, Nova, Iron Fist, Moon Dragon, She-Hulk, etc. I mean, with no overlap from the Silver Age.

            But of course, the iconic characters are too valuable to retire, so the next best thing was to revamp them. The Byrne rebirth of Superman in 1986 was a great idea. The new elements were pretty good and generated their own now-venerable tradition. Replacing Thor with Thor 2, who became Thunderstrike, seemed to work pretty well, too: the old legacy did carry on into a new generation, but you weren’t left lamenting that this didn’t seem like the same old character you knew and loved.

            Some revamps worked better than others. Heroes Reborn, for instance, both succeeded and failed. I loved Liefeld’s new version of Captain America and am sorry it did not continue with him in the driver’s seat over at his own Awesome label as the originally-envisioned Agent America. (Trying to link him up with Fighting American, and then mixing him up with the other Awesome heroes made a mess of it.) Liefeld’s Avengers, on the other hand, seemed hag-ridden to recapitulate most of Silver Age Avengers continuity in fast-forward mode, and it didn’t work. Things should have been allowed to progress at their own pace. We are seeing the same problem in the current Avengers mini-series Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, which appears to redo the early issues but too quickly and set in the twenty-first century. It is evident, too, that this title is trying to bring the classic Avengers retroactively closer in mood and feel to the ultra-realistic style of yet another Avengers revamp, The Ultimates. Too much of a very good thing, I think.

            The Ultimates succeeds fabulously in my opinion because of the total boldness of the reconception. Nothing half-assed. Amazingly brazen! This sort of reboot may be the way to go, if you are still stuck to the old characters. You can have one foot in the old, one in the new. I like that. And New Avengers, still another rejuvenation of the Avengers, employs the same strategy by significantly reshuffling the team. Not that it hasn’t been done plenty of times before, even ad nauseam. But this time the secret is that, basically, writer Bendis has gone back to the original concept of collecting iconic heroes, not expanding the team by adding new characters and also-rans (Justice, Firestar, Silverclaw, female Captain Britain, Triathlon: a Who’s Who of Nobodies). Yes, I realize, Spider-Woman may not exactly be considered an icon, but think about it: there have been some three or four Spider-Women and or Spider-Girls since her debut a quarter-century ago. So maybe she does qualify. And she’s not the core of the team, anyway.

             The return of Hal Jordan represents another strategy of rejuvenation: the neo-classical approach. Grant Morrison used this tactic in his JLA in the nineties (at least up through the marvelous story arc “Rock of Ages,” after which everything, I think, went to hell). You go back to the roots, but with some, not all, differences. Readers are so tired of the new that they welcome the old with a sigh of relief. I know I do. But it is not quite the old familiar Orthodoxy. Rather it is Neo-Orthodoxy. We are too sophisticated to accept the campiness of the old in the pages of the new.

            I used to grouse about the “new-fangled” developments befalling some of my old favorites until one day I read a simple insight from some fan or other on some letters page or message board. Who cares what they do with so-and-so character now? Let the writers experiment. After all, you’ve still got your old comics, don’t you? Nothing will ever change them. Why don’t you just leave it at that, and then move on to enjoy the new if you can. Don’t cheat yourself by blaming the new for not being the old.

Look, I’m more than willing to admit my sad degree of arrested development. I’m a big kid. But I don’t want to be so immature that I’m like a toddler demanding that the old story be retold verbatim every darn time!           


Copyright©2004 by Robert M Price
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