MIND MELD: Comic Book Characters Who Deserve Reboots
The recent announcement of the Falcon taking over Captain America, the announcement of a female Thor, Miles Morales’ Spider-Man, the new Ms. Marvel, the various incarnations of Green Lantern…there is opportunity in rebooting comic book characters to reflect our diverse society, or to cast new light and new angles on old characters.
Here’s what they said…
I came to comics late. Instead of being an enthusiastic, shy, insecure girl, I was an enthusiastic, shy, insecure 20-something. In other words, I was perfectly ripe for Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ Alias. (No. It has nothing to do with the J.J. Abrams spy thriller tv show, though I admit I liked that too.)
Alias was something I didn’t expect from comic books. I’d already seen they could be deep and literary and silly and Very Not Silly. (I started with Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.) And I knew they could be gritty and dirty and shamelessly bold. (I also read quite a bit of Hellblazer.) But I’d never read anything with a woman as the primary, title character. I’m ashamed to say at that time in my life, it didn’t even occur to me that could or should happen. (Yes. I am shaking my head at my past-self. Still, we all start somewhere.)
The mere fact that Jessica Jones, the star of the book, was a woman, blew my mind a little. But that’s not what hooked me. It was the fact that she was such a completely believable, real, fleshed-out woman. She was tough! She was talented! She was flawed! Flawed? Heck, she was a mess! (I’ve since come to realize the Marvel universe is known for featuring excellent flawed, three-dimensional characters.) She was like nothing I’d ever seen. She was something I didn’t know comics could *do*. She made such an impression on me, I based one of my tabletop RPG characters on her, and my recent contribution to Flying Higher: An Anthology of Superhero Poetry was a poem called “Alias”.
I know we’ve come far since the day I discovered Jessica Jones. And I know, even at that time, there were other kickass female comic characters I hadn’t discovered. And there are even more now. However, I also know there aren’t *enough* great lady-helmed comic series. I don’t think there will *be* enough until it’s finally no big deal to have a female hero on the front with her moniker as the title. There are still plenty of girls out there who are just like I was–who haven’t felt welcomed into the world of comics because they don’t see enough of themselves in the pages. Girls who would fall directly down the rabbit hole if they had the right character to drag them in. For me, Jessica was that character. I think she’s a character who can still do that.
So that’s my roundabout way of saying I’d positively love to see a new, updated Alias run (though perhaps with a different, more specific, non-Abrams-ey title). Yes, Jessica Jones did continue in the Marvel universe (to become somewhat softened and maternal, if I’m not mistaken). And yes, she’s getting her own Netflix series, which I couldn’t be happier about. But I still haven’t heard which part of her life we’ll be seeing on screen, and frankly, it doesn’t matter. I want more of the Alias timeframe. In comic book form. (28 issues was not enough!) A Jessica Jones comic with an even more current angle than just the fact that she’s female. Maybe she’s Asian, or Native American, or trans* or something other than pretty and white. I’d love to see any of those possibilities play out. Heck, maybe it could even be written/drawn by a woman. Imagine that.
Jessica Jones joined the Marvel universe as a woman who’s not-quite-a-hero, who doesn’t have everything figured out, and who’s really just putting one foot in front of the other to get through the day. Sound like anyone you know? Sound like almost everyone you know? That’s the kind of character I want to read about today. And sure, this may be playing right into the somewhat-annoying trend of rebooting properties that are barely old enough to have gathered dust, but A) Jessica Jones isn’t currently a well-known player in the Marvel universe, and B) You asked what I wanted to see, and this is it!
I love a good reboot, though I’m also enough of a traditionalist that they wound me, sometimes. I love the rebooting of superhero characters to reflect diversity and to add a sense of generational time to the superhero universe – as a long term DC reader, I love a good legacy character.
But there’s a tiny voice inside me that is still desperately sad that Ted Kord isn’t Blue Beetle any more, so, you know, there’s that.
I think the best reboots of legacy characters are not only those who put someone very different in a long-standing superhero identity, but also those where the original holder of that identity is still around to view, comment on and assist the newbie. I loved the use of Barbara Gordon as Oracle with the later Batgirls (though she was very mean about Helena Bertinelli’s attempt to be the Bat) especially in the Stephanie Brown era of the character. I am sure I could come to terms with how awesome everyone else says Jaime Reyes is, if only Ted Kord was THERE to play mentor and sulk about not being young or fit enough to wear the suit any more. There was an episode of Batman The Brave and the Bold which teased at this possibility, with Wil Wheaton playing ‘elder Ted’, and I never quite forgave the show for not continuing with that idea.
Hawkeye is one of my favourite examples of a rebooted legacy hero done well – when Clint Barton was dead, Kate Bishop took up the mantle and the bow, but then he came back from the dead as superheroes so often do – and he not only let her keep the name without adding a ‘girl’ or anything to it, but shared the identity with her, enjoying the fact that it was sometimes confusing for people. He never pulled rank or let his ego insist on precedence despite her being female and much younger. The current fantastic run on the comic now alternates between the two protagonists – it has to be the most successful current comic with a titular female character, and no one has noticed that she shares equal billing, because HAWKEYE.
A downside to legacy characters is that over the decades, you build up quite a lot of them. One of the really heartbreaking aspects of DC’s New 52 was the way they compressed and chucked out so much of their ‘middle’ history, keeping the most traditional versions of their superheroes and many of their most recent legacies, but leaving out all the interesting stories from in between. So Donna Troy and Wally West and Cass Cain and a bunch of characters who defined the comics reading of a generation have just disappeared. WE MOURN.
The best thing about legacy/reboot superhero characters is the effect they have on the originals, or their friends and family. Emotional ramifications, people.
Picking my own character to reboot is hard, because my mind goes blank about what characters haven’t actually been messed with or rebooted in any way. Given the power, I’d reboot Dinah Laurel Lance properly back to the version I love best, and I’d bring Ted Kord back from the dead (because SERIOUSLY), and I’d fix a whole lot of other problems in comics first.
But I’d love to do a new Black Canary, using the proper Birds of Prey era Dinah as a mentor having to cope with someone else wearing the fishnets. And I’d love to write a Catwoman story about some punk kid stealing her modus operandi. I think Maria Hill needs a turn in her own Iron Man suit. She can be Iron Hill.
Also, though we don’t need more male superheroes in the mix, I’d really like to see a story about a boy who has a female legend as his hero, and constructs his super-identity in response to her, because that’s a story we NEVER see in comics, and my godson still thinks Wonder Woman is the best, and why the hell is it so controversial for young men to see women in a heroic light?
PS: if the Arrow TV series doesn’t end with Diggle getting the Green Lantern power ring, then nothing makes sense and nothing matters.
Here’s the funny thing about re-casting a character – it’s not new. It’s often been said that Marvel Comics truly began with debut of the Fantastic Four in 1961, as imagined by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Among that quartet, which is said to define the Marvel Universe, is Johnny Storm, the Human Torch — a recasting of a character that first appeared in 1939 as an android named Jim Hammond. In a very real sense, Marvel Comics was founded on the premise of recycling and reimagining characters, so the recent hubbub about the African-American Sam Wilson, best known as the Falcon, taking over as Captain America is probably overstated. Set aside the fact that around a dozen characters have worn the Captain America uniform — to say nothing of the fact that Wilson himself isn’t even the first African American to don the star-spangled chainmail and shield — and I find myself summarily unperturbed by the idea. So long as the story is good, I fail to see how any of this is a betrayal or a corruption of the character or universe.
The same goes for the new Lady Thor. Thor has been alternately transmuted into and/or replaced by a frog, a horse-faced alien named Beta Ray Bill, and a mullet-sporting architect named Eric Masterson. And that’s just the shortlist. And, lest we forget, Spider-Man just spent the better part of a two years replaced by his old archenemy Doctor Octopus, which was a story far better received than that awful time when Spider-Man was replaced by his own clone, Ben Reilly.
(Heck, over in the DC Comics Universe, their Silver Age heyday was initiated by recasting the Golden Age Flash and Green Lantern with newer, sci-fi-inspired versions that have almost completely overtaken their predecessors in the public consciousness. Most fans consider police scientist Barry Allen to be the “original” Flash, not college athlete Jay Garrick who appeared 16 years earlier. Fighter pilot turned space cop Hal Jordan is the “real” Green Lantern, not mystically empowered engineer Alan Scott who debuted almost 20 years earlier. And that’s before we get to the opinion of “young” 30-something fans raised on Flash Wally West or Green Lanterns John Stewart and Kyle Rayner.)
Comic book incarnations are a lot like rock & roll — whatever version was popular when you were 12 becomes the “best” version, regardless of objective merit. And, just like when there were record stores (yes, I’m old), there are at least as many 50-year-olds as 15-year olds browsing the stacks in comic shops. The difference between comics and records is that in record stores, the 50-somethings and the teens were each looking for the latest albums from the their separately favorite bands. In comic shops, they’re both picking up X-Men, Avengers, Spider-Man, Batman and Green Lantern and simultaneously complaining that the characters aren’t as good as when both readers were 12 years old. (Or, as is painfully common, the 50-somethings have run the teens out of the shop for not being “real fans.”)
And the ugly truth is neither DC Comics (owned by Time Warner) or Marvel Comics (now owned by Disney) are really all that interested in what comic book buyers want out of comic book characters. Printed comics are basically story research and development labs for intellectual property that can someday be turned into movies, TV shows, video games and toys. There are literal millions of Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men fans out there today who have never read a comic book and never will. They became fans via very popular ’90s-era (and later) cartoons and 21st-century live-action movies. So long as Batman looks and acts like the Bruce Timm animated version and Wolverine swaggers like Hugh Jackman, that larger-than-comics-readers-ever-will-be fan demographic is fine.
What’s different now about past comics recastings is that, because of their popularity on movies and TV, a lot more people know who Thor and Captain America are, so Marvel can drum up publicity with these changes in ways that weren’t possible before the Avengers movie made a billion dollars. This, in turn, means more people notice when comics fans rage about someone betraying the version of the character they froze in carbonite as “perfect” at age 12. These complaints have always been there; they’ve just got more attention now.
If you’re asking me what character I’d reboot and why, I’d love to see an African American Batman. One of main tenants of Batman is that Bruce Wayne is descended from the landed gentry who were shocked – SHOCKED – when two of their own were gunned down like common peasants. That even rich white people could be affected by crime in Gotham was proof that the city was lost, and is one of the key reasons why Batman is “justified” in becoming a vigilante. Clearly, if two rich white folks can die, it’s time for drastic measures that ignore due process and civil rights in favor of hitting thugs in the face with bat-shaped boomerangs. That’s kind of a horrible concept.
I’d love to see a Bruce Wayne who is the son of two wealthy African Americans who reached the top of Gotham society through hard work and merit – but were gunned down in the very ghetto they refused to ignore after making it out. That’s a more interesting tragedy to me – Thomas and Martha Wayne still being killed by urban violence despite the fact they had the means, motive and opportunity to leave it behind. They stayed to save the worst parts of Gotham, and they died for it.
It also makes Bruce more interesting, because in his civilian persona he can clearly fail to live up to his parents’ example, and force us to confront all our racially tinged notions of a “young black punk” because he’ll have to consciously wear that disguise. And as Batman, he’s resorting to the same gang violence – though perhaps without guns – that his parents worked to stamp out. Is his vengeance honoring their memory, or betraying it?
Throw in a Latino Robin and you’ve got a MUCH more interesting commentary on urban violence in America than “rich white guy gets his kicks beating up ghetto thugs.” But I doubt DC Comics is ready to tell a story that complex and interesting anytime soon. I’m glad Marvel Comics is.
With regard to the first, it is inevitable with any long-running series. Continuity made sense back in the 1970s when Stan Lee & Co had recently popularized the idea of story arcs in comics. We liked the fact that the characters we were reading about grew and changed with each month’s issue. But you can’t keep that going forever. When I was a teenager I was fine with Jean Grey and Scott Summers having a rocky relationship. Forty years later I expect them to have grown up and sorted it out. I also expect them to still be older than I am. Neither of these things appears to have happened, so the story arc no longer makes sense.
And yet the comics franchises have a whole lot of iconic characters. What are they going to do with them? What’s wrong with telling their stories again, in a slightly different way? After all, people are always re-telling the story of the Trojan War, or the adventures of Robin Hood or Sherlock Holmes. We can do the same with more modern heroes.
As to how you do it, whatever your feelings about diversity and social justice, you can’t deny that there’s an economic case for broadening appeal. Marvel and DC are now worldwide industries with huge followings from movies and comics sold digitally. Comics can’t just sell to the same group of white men that have been fans for decades. They need to sell to women. They need to sell in India and Brazil. You could argue that they should create new characters to do this, but if they have existing ones in desperate need of a reboot, why not breathe a new lease of life into them? Besides, it’s not as if Marvel were the first people to tell the story of Thor, is it? Why should the Lee/Lieber/Kirby version suddenly have become canonical?
As to my own character re-boot, well you did ask. Here’s my 21st Century version of the X-Men, which takes them back to being teenagers. Some of them are pretty much the same, some are very different.
Scott is a black street kid from Detroit. Outwardly he’s calm, sensible and responsible; inwardly he’s seething about the injustice he sees around him, and because he Dare Not Get Angry. The fact that the Professor admires his maturity and dedication only makes him more conflicted.
Jean is from a wealthy Boston-Irish family. She’s passionate about social justice, but is very judgmental and condescending until her developing mental powers help her learn that the world is far less black and white than she thought. She has a big White Savior thing going for Scott.
Warren Worthington: still winged, still stupidly rich, but now a cute gay boy. The face that will launch a thousand fanfics. He’d rather party than be a superhero.
Hank McCoy is a software genius from Silicon Valley. The other kids tolerate him because he can run rings around any security system the Professor uses to enforce curfew, but he spends most of his time playing online role-playing games in which he is anything but a fat, nerdy boy with Hobbit feet and glasses.
Iceman is no longer Bobby Drake, he’s a Muslim kid from New York. He can rap, he’s a skilled DJ, he is very much Mr. Cool. Of course his parents don’t like this Western music he loves, and then there are some shady relatives who want him to go “back home” and “help his people”.
I want a bit more gender balance, so I’m drafting in Storm, Rogue and Polaris.
Ororo is pretty much the same except younger, and more stylish than a dozen Beyoncés. She’s always giving the Professor lip, and she doesn’t understand why Scott is so passive when it comes to civil rights.
Anna Marie has run away from her lesbian foster parents because they were too strict and having two moms caused her to be bullied in school. She has found God, partly because of guilt about her powers, and partly because being a homophobe seemed like a good way to get back at her moms. And yet, much to her embarrassment, she’s developing a bad case of the hots for the red-headed Yankee girl.
(Jean is politically bisexual, but privately thinks lesbians are icky. Besides, she’s holding herself back for a wedding to someone really rich, like Warren, except he’s gay, but he’ll grow out of it, won’t he?)
Lorna is the youngest of the team and also an orphan. She is Magneto’s daughter, though neither of them knows this, but not Magda’s. She has been raised Jewish and is serious about her faith, though she hated her foster parents insisting that she keep her green hair dyed black. She looks up to Jean and tries to emulate her, but often only succeeds in copying Jean’s less admirable habits.
Finally I want to bring back Thunderbird, because the poor guy deserves a second chance. He’s strong, handsome and athletic, but he’s a country boy and feels very much out of place with all these big city kids, especially the gay boy who keeps making eyes at him. Only Ororo seems to share his love of nature, but a sophisticated girl like that…
Oh, and the Professor. You know, Xavier isn’t a white guy’s name. So: Carlos Xavier, Colombian, scientific genius with first class degrees from a bunch of top universities but never any tenure because racism. The FBI knows how secretive he is, and suspects he must have made his money in the drug trade. One day we’ll learn how he got the bullet wound that severed his spine.
I can’t believe that I did that to Jean. She gets better, honest.
Which sounds like the choice of least resistance, I know, but listen: a young woman in the 1880s with bone claws, cast out of her home to wander. A woman in the trenches of World War I. A tough, strong, small woman with a healing factor from hell, who’ll fight harder than any man, despite all of the sexist bullshit she’d be living with the same time. A female Wolverine (not Wolverina, she’s just Wolverine) being the person you call in to take care of the situations no one else on your team has the guts to handle. A female berserker fighter with that much longevity, that much history – think of the opportunities to explore the changes in gender politics over that span of time. (Seriously, I could write this book for years.)
And not just that. Because I wouldn’t genderswap any of her romantic interests. Lesbian relationship with a Yakuza daughter – you can add a lot of layers to that plotline.
And how does Wolverine’s mentorship relationship with the younger X-women change and deepen with this shift? This would be a great opportunity to show intergenerational female friendships and mentorships among the X-Men.
What does it mean when it’s a woman who’s the best she is at what she does, and what she does isn’t very nice?
I have loved comic books for as long as I can remember, and the X-Men are the team of my heart. They’re a long-running, tight-knit ensemble with an ever-changing cast, which illustrates the dangers of reboots beautifully. For my example, I give you Emma Frost, also known as the White Queen. Introduced as an antagonist and member of the Hellfire Club, she has evolved into a staunch supporter of Xavier’s dream, and has served as headmistress of various incarnations of the school he founded for the betterment of mutantkind. She is a complicated, brilliant, ruthless woman, and many people are surprised when they realize that she’s been on the side of good much longer than she was on the side of evil. She is a hero, not a villain…but all anybody ever seems to remember is evil Emma, tormenting sweet, innocent Kitty Pryde.
Female characters especially seem to get “locked in” with their earliest selves, and have a difficult time breaking free. Psylocke only managed it through a literal physical transformation which left her marooned in someone else’s body. Everyone else…slips back.
If I got to do a full reboot, and make a character someone else created completely over as my own, it would be Blink. Clarice never had the chance to become a true hero in the 616 timeline, and while I love Judd Winick’s Exiles version of the character, I feel like I could do something unique and awesome with her. Or with Megan Summers-Frost. Or with Ruby Summers. Or with…
Oh, to hell with it. Just give me the X-Men. I’ll rebuild the whole thing, and it will be glorious.
It is inevitable that a franchise gets rebooted for every generation. And a successful relaunch tells you something new about the concepts involved – Miles Morales (Ultimate Spider-Man) and Kamala Khan (Ms Marvel) both take the elements that made the original Spider-Man a success fifty years ago, but bring them up to date for a 21st century audience.
It is easy to get cynical about some of these changes; after all, eventually Steve Rogers will be Captain America again, just like he has come back from the dead. But what matters is the journey and the story.
My impossible dream wouldn’t be just to reboot a single character; but to truly reboot an entire universe; the closest example I can think of is Marvel’s Ultimate line. Most of the time universe-wide reboots still hold on to elements that were “too successful to give up” — which is one of the weakness of both DC’s post-Crisis reboot and the new 52 reboot. But one thing that I’d do that was different from any of the other elements is that I’d state up front that at some point down the line the universe would get refreshed again. I’d perhaps do a decade of “real time” — so you really could explore and do the long form story telling across a character’s life span — to use a DC example, a “year one” Batman story is different than a “middle” Batman story and an “end” Batman story. (See the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, for example)
You get this a bit in films, and it’s possible that’s what we’ll end up seeing with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as actors age out of being plausible Superheroes — but so far that sort of thing has only happened across a single character. The true power of the DC universe or Marvel universe in comics is that they are universes, and a large shared world. One of the reasons why that sort of larger reboot — but one with an admitted “end point” is you could have an entire lifespan of a character. One of the greatest stories in comics is Watchmen, which was in part a reboot of the Charlton universe; but that was a single title across a single year with a single creative team. It’d be fun to see that sort of story telling told with multiple creators across several years in multiple titles — but give the freedom to explore things with everyone well aware that the particular universe really could change.
And at some point, you’d have a whole separate universe start again — so Spider-man could once again be a teenager; you could once again tell a First Contact story, or once again tell the story about how Batman first met Commissioner Gordon, retelling the stories again to be relevant to a new generation, with the changes to make it fit in a new era.
I believe that humans retell stories over and over again that we might transmit vital cultural information to new people. As the audience changes, the message needs to be re-spun into a new narrative cloth. Rebooting a character gives a creative team a chance to pick out the core, essential characteristics of said character and dress them in a fresh idiom. Rebooting is functionally identical to AU fanfic in that way.
I’m not even sure how to defend this position; it is manifestly self-evident, as much so as gravity, or oxygen, or the need for feminism to combat a toxic culture of misogyny.
Were I given free reign to reboot a long-standing comic book character I wouldn’t know where to start. I hold in my head so many AUs, and character replacements, and characters who were doubled or cloned or brought back from the dead — it’s really almost entirely been done before.
The fact that these changes — having Sam Wilson take on the title of Captain America, having a female character take on the mantle of Thor — cause a ruckus doesn’t say anything about the way comics are telling stories, or have been telling stories for the last thirty years. It says something instead about the cultural moment of racist, misogynist trollbags masquerading as “comic book fans,” and their insecurity-based fear of anything that they deem threatening to their privilege. And, much more interestingly, it says something heartening about the comic book creators who refuse to cater to such whinging sorts. The creators who insist that the power of heroes and the plight of villains are themes that belong to everyone, and who are writing the professional AU fanfic that proves it.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that nerds hate change. I think the reason for this is more understandable than people give it credit for, particularly in comics—these are characters and stories that have existed for decades, and generations of people have imprinted on them over the years. It’s a special thing to fall in love with a character as a child and still have new stories to read about that character as an adult, which is why people are so protective of said characters. They don’t want to lose them.
That said, this protectiveness often rears its head in ugly ways, as we’ve seen with the announcement of the new Thor. Combatting that kind of virulent nostalgia is, I suspect, one of the bigger challenges in doing a reboot of this nature. Now, ultimately those sorts of complaints are really about the complainer and not the creators, and I don’t think that creators need to worry about jerkfaces on the Internet. However, they shouldn’t completely discount the power of nostalgia, either. Like I said, the long-running nature of comics is what makes them so special, and so it’s important not to cast out that history.
The Falcon-as-Captain-America announcement is a great example of doing this correctly. The core of Captain America is not Steve Rogers the guy, but rather a certain type of intrinsic morality that can distinguish right and wrong in a morally complex universe. Sam Wilson represents the core of Captain America as much as Steve Rogers does, while bringing both diversity and a new angle to the character (as comic Sam isn’t a soldier, nor was he thawed out from the 1940s). Personally, I’d love to see the Captain America mantle get cycled through a variety of characters of all different races, genders, religions, sexual orientations, and so on. America is a hugely diverse place and the superhero bearing its name ought to reflect that.
Another thing I’d like to see comics do beyond the typical legacy reboot is a reboot of the concepts that we see so frequently in comic books. Most of these characters have their origins in the middle part of the twentieth century, and while it is possible to rework them to reflect the first part of the twenty-first century—as with Captain America! And Thor! And Spider-man!— I’d love to see what those ideas about bravery and responsibility and kindness might look filtered through someone totally new. Rebooting old characters is a fantastic way to bring more diversity to comics, but I also think comics shouldn’t be afraid to introduce new characters that better reflect the reality of our world. One of my very favorite comics characters right now is Agent Emily Preston, who was created in 2012 for the new run of Deadpool. She’s a perfect example of how the new and the old can work side by side, for great justice (and awesomeness).
Well, first of all, you have to remember that a reboot is always temporary. Jean-Paul Valley isn’t Batman anymore, Eric Masterson is no longer Thor, and even Batgirl is once again Barbara Gordon and in possession of a complete spine. That’s the whole point of a reboot: create some energy twice — once when the new version comes in; once when the old version comes back — and, if you’re lucky, create a new piece of profit-generating IP that the parent corporation can live off for another few years. But the original always comes back — always. The new characters sometimes can live alongside the originals — Miles Morales in his alternate Ultimate universe being the best example of this, or John Stewart as the best-known Green Lantern to a generation of kids — but they’re never the “real” ones when it comes down to it.
Rebooting is an inherently cynical, bottom-line-driven activity. If there’s a current burst of reboots with diverse themes, that just means that the moneymen think they can lure in more suckers that way than with their usual endless parade of tall handsome men. It’s not coincidence that all of the examples of reboots are of corporate-owned characters: those are the most malleable, since all they have to do is make money. Bill Willingham is not going to reboot Fables; Masashi Kishimoto is not going to reboot Naruto — those are creators who own their work, and control it. Reboots are for corporate icons, the ones that “stand” for whatever sells the most units this month.
So I don’t want to reboot any character: I want to de-boot them. Give them back to the men and women who created them, the Len Weins and Bill Mantlos and Steve Ditkos and Louise Simonsons, when those creators are still alive. Or, if not, cut them loose into the public domain, so that there will never be a single rebootable version for a corporation to kill this year, bring back next summer, and turn into a woman for 2017. Kill the entire idea of a reboot.
There’s no such thing as a reboot of Sherlock Holmes, even though there are half-a-dozen recent versions, all mutually exclusive, because Sherlock belongs to all of us now. The same should be true of Mickey Mouse and Superman and Namor and Archie and Captain Marvel (the real one, the Big Red Cheese). Reboots are the last gasp of a system of exploitation of IP that’s run through every other trick in the book, and needs one more fix to keep the money train running.
With Marvel now fully utilizing its slate of movies, cartoons, and a live arena show to sell merchandise from, it is naiveté to think any of their recent changes will remain status quo. At least no more than Cap’s death, Thor’s death, Thor being replaced through history by the Celtic Thunder god, or the thousands of other shake-ups the Big Two companies have executed over the years.
A number of people have worn the mantle of both Captain America and Thor. In fact the first recipient of the Super Soldier formula was black (a staggeringly effective story you should go out and read.) But comic properties were not always the news-cycle clickbait they are today.
Yes, it’s a gimmick. But ALL such storytelling is riddled with gimmicks. TV shows do gimmicky episode for sweeps. Comic book companies do big splashy crossover events. Ongoing, serial stories are the ideal place for such tactics. Sometimes they are experimental, other times they are stunts supporting movies. They can be done well or just be gruesome trainwrecks. And that’s okay. No sixty year-old contiguous universe ever stood a chance of maintaining flawless continuity.
There is a huge difference, both narratively and developmentally, between an actual reboot (creating new continuity, rewriting the origin of a character, and erasing previous iterations) and placing a new character in the mantle/title/role of an existing franchise. Just about every banner character has had a “replacement” version. Even more esoteric protagonists like Grimjack and Morpheus ended up replaced by successors. Generational heroes like Zorro, The Phantom, and Grendel have had numerous people behind the mask.
In very broad strokes, I am not a fan of reboots hinging on altering the sex, race, or orientation of a character. It strikes me more often than not as a form of pandering. I sigh each time DC or Marvel bleat out a press-release which states, in effect, “Dear Women/Ethnic Group/Gay People, we are too busy impaling our heroes and pointlessly retconning our universe to be bothered with crafting new and dynamic characters from underrepresented backgrounds. So we’re taking this B-list hero who’s already undergone numerous tiresome re-iterations and try squeezing some licensing profit out of him by making him one of YOU. Aren’t we great?” It is a lazy workaround. A true commitment to diversity in a comic book universe requires effort, not a paintjob.
The risks of are myriad. Even a well-done reboot like Galactica could not help but fundamentally alter the root components of an iconic character. Dirk Benedict’s Starbuck was a shallow, risk-taking, egotistical, opportunistic manwhore whose motivation in EVERY EPISODE (go back and watch them) was to employ his roguish skill-sets to get laid and make money. Reboot Starbuck was a damaged soul-scarred military brat carrying around a lifetime’s worth of trauma and survivor guilt while nursing a significant drinking problem. She was a great, nuanced, well-written, compelling, and (on every meaningful narrative level) far superior character. But she wasn’t Starbuck. Not even close.
But at least we got a good character out of New-Starbuck. Too often comic writers fall back on the safety net of giving a “reimagined” character emotional baggage,unhealthy compulsions, and psychological damage to spice things up (Anyone remember when Harley Quinn was fun?). We end up with five pages of combat with an Omega-Level threat, followed by ten pages of moping about life-choices. The entire DC Comics “New 52” reboot was designed around this central idea. The result has been an entire line of dismal, unreadable comics.
The reality with recasting a character for a Big Company is that some degree of comfortable formula will always be adhered to. The hurrahs thrown at the casting of a Muslim teen in the role of Ms. Marvel were well-deserved. But the story, in my eyes, brought nothing new to the done-to-death teenage outsider coming-of-age tale. I understand that they are trying to attract young readers with new properties (Marvel is owned by Disney, after all), and I am happy when any comic manages to fly off the shelves, but in an age where staggering numbers of middle-eastern and Asian women are sacrificing everything (to extents most Western comic readers could not possibly comprehend) to pursue technical careers and professions in the US, making the protagonist a spoiled fangirl with a clichéd family dynamic feels, at least to this aging white male, like another form of pandering. Compare and contrast with Jenni Dakkar, Faiza Hussein, Sooraya Qadir, Monet St. Croix, Salima Baranizar, or the unforgettable Aisha.
No A-list characters leap to mind in need of retooling, though I would love to see a new take on Space Cabbie. You could tackle allegories on private spaceflight, immigrant taxi driver stereotypes and Uber/Lyft outlaw ride-providers.
I’d prefer to see Brother (now Doctor) Voodoo, Static, and the awesome Misty Knight brought back to good use. What happened to the new Captain Universe? Where the hell is Amadeus Cho? Or, and I know this is a crazy idea, create new characters relevant to the times: mutants coping in the volatile climates of modern Iraq or Putin’s Russia; heroes trying to maintain their humanity while protecting citizens from the despotic regimes; super-powered immigrants refusing to relinquish their “great responsibility” in societies openly hostile to them.
Marvel has gotten better about their portrayal of female characters. In the past two years they have released two titles will all-female line ups: Fearless Defenders (which featured Misty Knight, and was cancelled with issue 12), and the adjective-less X-Men.
Superhero titles still have work to do. But for currently-published characters brimming with agency, ethical intent, courage, and a quantity of kickassery, I point you to my current favorite book Velvet, Brain Wood’s Leia–centric Star Wars, (worth noting: the fact that she was made the central protagonist of the flagship SW book received zero buzz or media outrage) Rocket Girl, Ghost, Red Sonja, the female cast-members in Caliban, Godzilla: Rulers of the Earth, Trees, The Wicked + The Divine, Saga,Fables, Fairest, Starlight (Tilda to the rescue!), Astro City (the recent four-part Winged Victory story deserves your attention), and Legenderry: A Steampunk Adventure. No, these are all not “mainstream” comics, or iconic properties supported by merchandising juggernauts. But they are solidly-written, effective characters driving exciting stories. That used to carry some weight with fandom.
As for Thor, I have implicit trust in writer Jason Aaron. His native-American crime drama Scalped still ranks among my all-time favorite comics. His residency on Thor: God of Thunder has thus far given us glimpses of the Odinson’s distant past and far future, a new SHIELD agent significant-other who has learned the joy of killing trolls, and Thor’s incendiary side-of-a-van-worthy flying goat-riding granddaughters. If his approach to a woman wielding the hammer delivers even a fraction of the impact of his work to date, it will still rank far above most of the big name books currently on the shelves.
I think there are more challenges than perils – from the point of view of a writer, at least. When we start growing stronger in our diet of fantastika, be it either on literature or comics, we also begin to create in our heads an enormity of scenarios, a plethora of “What Ifs”. There comes a point when, even though we love our favorite characters, we’re not satisfied with what we’re getting fed – that’s one of the reasons why fan fiction was born, after all. You want to read the adventures that your heroes never lived, either because the original creative team never thought of them, or because the times were different, and you couldn’t have a gay/lesbian character, or a muslim character – that is, you couldn’t have any character outside the very narrow spectrum of white Christian Anglo-Saxon heteronormativity.
This is not new: I remember a story from the World War II era [http://thanley.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/wonder-woman-secretary-of-the-justice-society-of-america/] where Wonder Woman is accepted as an honorary member and relegated to a secretarial role just because…. well, the reason, apparently was because her creator, William Moulton Marston, didn’t accept that other writer wrote her, and demanded that her role was kept as short as possible, hence this decision. But other solution could have been found so it didn’t too much like a patriarchal decision, couldn’t it? Maybe not in the 1940s, alas.
That said, I believe you can reboot virtually any character you see fit – as long as you can create a good origin story for her/him. In my case, I think I’d like to be given a chance to reboot Iron Man, exploring not Howard Stark’s legacy, but Maria Stark – after all, does Stark have or not a Latino ascendancy? I’d like to know more about Maria Collins Carbonell (her maiden name) and what she could bring to his life. (In fact, I sort-of already did it – I just wrote a proto-steampunk story called The Iron Ensign, featuring a character which might have been Tony Stark in one of the Brazilian revolutionary wars in the 18th Century).
In mainstream superhero comic books, there’s a long legacy of passing a mantel or name onto another character. Sometimes it happens when a character dies, sometimes it’s bestowed by the latest character, and other times, it’s completely random. Typically, these characters followed generations of comics and fall back to the idea that superheroes can and do age. For example, Ryan Choi became DC Comic’s fourth Atom character when the second one, Ray Palmer died/disappeared and Ryan replaced him both as the Atom and also in his university job.
It’s challenging for superhero movie franchises — with the exception of Marvel’s current line of movies — that have rebooted themselves over and over to explain the legacy character. Green Lantern was a terrible movie in part because it didn’t spend the time explaining that Hal Jordan isn’t the only Green Lantern in a meaningful way to the audience. It assumed you cared or informed yourself. Which isn’t going to be true of most of the movie-going public. You can’t even get to a Robin storyline when everyone still shudders remembering Batman & Robin.
I also bring up the movies because most comic book fans aren’t shocked when characters take up another’s name. Now, don’t get me wrong, everyone has their favorite incarnation — including writers — and everyone has their biases. In April 2007 when Steve Rogers as Captain America died in the “Civil War” plot, it did make headlines in major news outlets. In fact, my manager at the time “spoiled” me that this was happening as he’d read it in The New York Times.
What didn’t make as big of headlines was that Bucky Barnes, who’d come back from being dead since the 1940’s, took Steve’s place. Perhaps this didn’t matter because Steve had been replaced before or perhaps because Bucky is another white man. Or maybe Sam Wilson aka the Falcon stepping up is now notable because we have gotten to know Steve, Bucky, and Sam via the movies. Or it matters because when the greater public thinks about superheroes, they only see white men and they only respond to legacy characters and Sam contradicts that.
How we see ourselves reflected in media helps us dream of what we can be in life. Superheroes are a dream of a better world, a better type of person. And if we can’t see ourselves — literally see our gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, etc — reflected in them, what does that say about us? And of who we as a society see with super potential?
That’s why Sam as Captain America is powerful. Why Kamala Khan is amazing and why the strong fandom group, the Carol Corp, grew up around Carol Danvers becoming Captain Marvel. Diversity isn’t about tokenism or being politically correct; it’s about reflecting back what the world really looks like. Most superhero origin stories are either random genetics or random coincidences. If these happened in the real world, there would be far more diversity among superheroes than there is in comics today.
As far as a character I’d love to see rebooted: Batman. I should say that I’d love a real reboot, and one where it’s not just another white male replacing Bruce Wayne. In the comics, Dick Grayson, aka Robin and Nightwing, and Azrael do pick up Bruce’s mantel when needed. However, both replacements were a bit gimmicky to sell books and both only lasted a few months. (Batman’s Wikipedia article doesn’t even mention Azrael putting on the cowl.)
Because Batman is a character extremely picky about who he trusts, I’d love to see someone who grew up under his mentorship step into his boots. My nominees would be any of the three Batgirls: Barbara Gordon, Stephanie Brown, or Cassandra Cain. It would be extra subversive just to have her call herself “Batman.” There’s already two Batwomans after all.
Since the New 52 reboot in the entire DC universe, Babs is no longer in a wheelchair and her Oracle skills of super computer genius have been sorely underused. Seems like Batman could have a stronger position within Gotham and utilize sidekicks better if she spend more time investigating in a modern way. Not to mention, Babs has been a wonderful mentor in the past. Particularly to troubled youth, which Batman also has a history of training.
If you went the Stephanie Brown route, it would pretty much be a classic Batman dies and his Robin graduates into the role. Stephanie is one of only two women who’ve been a Robin. She would also probably be the least experienced for the role. We might see a Batman who messes up. Or a writer could do with more of a sitcom/fun feel and harken back to older Batman books and the ’60s Batman TV show. Plus, she could hang out with her best friend Supergirl, who perhaps is now Superman.
And if the current darker angle to Gotham sticks around, Cassandra Cain would fill the cape nicely. She’s also half Chinese, and both of her parents are famous assassins: David Cain and Lady Shiva. Cassandra could twist the Batman mythos in that instead of avenging the death of her parents, she’d be making amends for their crimes. She also has an interesting backstory in that when Batman first meets her, she’s mute, illiterate, and has poor social skills. Cassandra’s father raised her to be an assassin and didn’t teach her to talk, read, or have interpersonal relationships. This would make some great flashbacks to explore her bond with Bruce, Alfred, and the rest of the gang. Cassandra coming into her own as Batman could be very much like the solo outings of a younger Bruce.
The comic book world is ripe with dreams and plenty of characters to kick around. It makes me really hopeful to see characters reflecting the world around us.
Beloved comic book character reboots are particularly tricky because there’s so much history, baggage, and terrifyingly convoluted continuity attached. And every reader’s going to bring in their own baggage as well. I know the words “That’s not my [character]” have come out of my mouth at least once—and okay, fine, probably more than that.
But I’m particularly excited about this new batch of reimaginings we’ve got going on right now—Thor, Ms. Marvel, and so forth, because they do seem to be taking a step in the right direction as far as more accurately representing our world as it is today. And even if there are a few old school, stuck-in-their-ways fans grousing about different characters taking on iconic mantles, it also opens these books up to entirely new readerships. I’ve had friends who don’t usually read comics become totally obsessed with Kamala Khan, because for the first time, they feel like they can see themselves in a superhero book. I think that’s awesome. And really, every kid should believe they can become a superhero.
As a mixed race Asian girl, I never thought I could be Batgirl until I saw Cassandra Cain. (Though in high school, a friend and I shared custody of a pretty rockin’ cape we found at Goodwill and kept trying to get everyone to call us “Bat Adolescent,” I guess because there was no one in the existing Bat-family we truly related to. Shockingly, this never became a thing.)
Cassandra Cain is absolutely who I’d bring back/reimagine/reboot/what have you. Given all she’s been through, I have a burning desire to place her in a more…cheerful environment than usual, where the characters around her are of a more sunny and quippy variety. I know the “incredibly deadly assassin in a tiny girl body who doesn’t talk very much” thing might not immediately scream GOOD TIMES, but that contrast is precisely what I’d want to deal with. I’m picturing her as the reluctant leader/mentor to a rag-tag group of girls. Like a posse of Sailor Scout cosplayers. Or a gang of impressionable Brownies. Or an all-female class of freshman Creative Writing students. Or hey, maybe those awesome BOOM! Studios Lumberjanes would want to do a crossover? What in the Joan Jett do you say to that, Cass?
Reboots in comics are a most contentious topic. Sometimes they go over well with the fandoms, sometimes not so well. There are any number of examples of reboots in recent years. The most famous of course being the fact that DC rebooted its entire comics line-up in 2011 and launched the New 52, which began a completely new timeline for all of its characters and pretty much reset them all to zero. This has allowed the company to tell new stories with the same characters and often retell the origins of its heroes and villains. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work so well, especially in the case of the Bat-family, for whom 70+ years of history and relationships have all been condensed down to just a mere five years, five years in which all of the major events have happened, such as the maiming of Batman by Bane, and the death of Jason Todd and the maiming of Batgirl by the Joker and the birth of Damian Wayne and Dick Grayson becoming Nightwing and so on.
But I digress.
For my own part, I started reading comics back in 2006 but I read a very, very small slice of the pie at the time, mainly just the G.I. Joe comics from Marvel and some odd Superman, Batman and He-Man stuff from DC. It wasn’t until 2012 that I got back into comics, and consistently at that. For me, it helped that DC had rebooted its various comics for it all gave me a good point to get into those comics, and I started off with the major titles, eventually going off into the lesser known titles. Along the way, I’ve had the pleasure to read some really great stuff, and I’ve found that I really love all these characters, my previous major experience being only the Crisis on Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis events.
The same applies to Marvel comics as well. The plethora of titles that they had, with many of them in double digits and even triple digits IIRC made picking a point of entry really difficult. I started off with the relaunched Thor comics, and then slowly moved on into the other titles as Marvel launched wave after wave. Today, I read as much Marvel as I do DC, and that’s saying something considering all I was reading just a year ago.
Where I am concerned, reboots are an excellent thing in that they allow new readers to get interested and take a chance. A fresh number one issue can do wonders in drawing in a hesitant crowd. But, if the reboots are too frequent, then it all loses its luster and that’s the downside. Whether Marvel or DC, or any of the other publishers, they really need to balance their objectives right when they want to do reboots.
A great case in point is Dynamite’s Red Sonja comics. Dynamite has been doing Red Sonja comics for a number of years, and all fairly successfully. Along the way they did several one-shots and crossovers as well to draw in a different crowd or just plain do something different. But the main comics weren’t as high on people’s radar as they could have been. And then last year, writer Gail Simone and artist Walter Geovani relaunched Dynamite’s Red Sonja franchise, and to spectacularly great success. A new number one issue began a new phase in Red Sonja’s life that didn’t depend on something that had come before and which was all fresh and unique.
Sadly, it is the nature of superhero comics that reboots happen, and titles like Dynamite’s Red Sonja or Dark Horse’s Conan have much more leeway in that regard. Or even IDW’s G.I.Joe franchise, where they’ve launched and relaunched the comics multiple times. Reboots are a fact of the industry and also a part and parcel. After every few years, you have to do something different, and that something needs to have a good reason and a good environment to thrive in.
Case in point, Marvel’s relaunch of its Ms. Marvel line of comics. Before the publisher relaunched its titles in 2012 under the Marvel NOW! banner, Carol Danvers was Ms. Marvel, a legacy hero to Captain Mar-Vel who has been dead for a number of years in the comics world. But with the new banner, Carol Danvers was “promoted” to Captain Marvel by Captain America, and that left her former identity open for a new character. The publisher couldn’t very well “demote” her or anything in the future, because the new Captain Marvel had proven to be a great success in the fandoms, albeit not so great a success financially. And then, this year saw the launch of a brand-new character Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel. The daughter of Pakistani immigrants to America, Kamala has gained a great amount of popularity on her own, and has done something in comics that I’m not sure has happened for a while.
A brand-new teenage superhero who is female, Muslim and has brown skin. Speaking for myself, Kamala Khan has become one of my favourite characters of the year, with Ms. Marvel being one of my favourite new series of the year. She takes me back to the early days of Peter Parker, and it reminds me that comics can indeed be funny and cliche but also socially and culturally relevant. With Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, Marvel Comics has registered one of its greatest successes to date.
I only wish that other characters had proven to be as popular.
In October, Marvel is going to change the equations in several ways where its superheroes are concerned. Iron Man is changing his costume and moving to San Fransisco. Thor will soon prove to be unworthy of his mantle and a female Thor will be taking his place. Sam Wilson aka Falcon is going to become Captain America, leaving Steve Rogers in an uncertain place. And so on.
Reboots, reboots, reboots. October is going to be an exciting time certainly.
Bit again, I digress. The central question of this mind-meld asks which character I would like to reboot and why and how. My answer would be, Black Canary from DC Comics.
In 2011, when DC launched New 52, Dinah Lance aka Black Canary became the founder of the Birds of Prey, with the initial cast of this awesome all-female team consisting of Dinah herself, Starling, Batgirl (Barbara Gordon!), Katana and Poison Ivy. An interesting mix, yes? Under the pen of Duane Swierczynski, the Birds of Prey became a really great comic that was a great successor to Gail Simone’s incredible run pre-New 52. I loved all that Duane did on the title, and all the things that he had setup. His Dinah and Starling (a brand-new character) were excellent. But then, in late 2012 Duane went off the title and a new writer, Christy Marx, was brought in, and everything went downhill from there. Instead of being smart and intelligent and focused, Dinah became, essentially, a cry-baby. Her characterisation became terrible with each issue and the plots kept getting ever more ludicrous until I gave up on the title altogether just over a year ago.
In Gail Simone’s own current run on Batgirl, Dinah’s few cameos have been superb, and they remind me very strongly of the Black Canary from both Gail’s run on Birds of Prey pre-New 52 and Duane’s run during the New 52. That is the Dinah I want to see once again in the comics, because right now she is anything but. And what I really want is for the comics to take the lead from the television show Arrow, which has become one of DC’s greatest television successes, especially in the wake of Smallville. In the television series, the character of Black Canary is quite different from that in the comics version, and I want to see the comics version become more like the television version, in that I want to see Black Canary be strong, beautiful, kickass, smart, and intelligent, like she has always been.
It isn’t actually all that big of a reboot, quite small in comparison to what DC has done recently, or will be doing soon, but it is something that I consider very important, especially as a fan who loves reading about female superheroes in comics. Given the character’s popularity in television, I think the time is ripe for DC to once again let Black Canary be one of its premier heroes and give her a series of her own and to bring the Birds of Prey back to their former incarnation where they weren’t a bunch of misfits or some such.
A Black Canary solo title would have an uphill battle sure, but I think that the character’s popularity from Arrow is going to drive a lot of readers to it. And you can’t ignore the fact that some of the biggest successes in comics in the last 16 months have been female superheroes, whether we talk about the all-female X-Men team from Brian Wood’s X-Men, Red Sonja, Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, Tomb Raider, Lazarus, Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Elektra, Batgirl, Harley Quinn, Velvet, Vampirella and Transformers: Windblade. It really is incredible how well this subgenre (well, not exactly a subgenre) is taking off and the market is most definitely ripe for a solo Black Canary title. Alongside heroes like Wonder Woman and Batgirl, I think that Black Canary can well hold her own, especially since she has been such a prominent character since her creation.
Take Black Canary back to her roots, establish her relationships with her friends (Batgirl, Huntress, Green Arrow, etc) and take her to a new city. Yes, I know the last is a cliche, but I think that Gotham is just too jam-packed with superheroes these days to be a good, fertile ground for growth. DC can introduce her to a brand-new fictional city, somewhere where the writer and the artists can let loose with their imagination and their creativity, and really get the chance to tell some great new stories. My pick to write this title would of course be Gail Simone since I think that she is just perfect for something like this, but I wouldn’t mind seeing writers like Ashley V. Robinson, Nancy A. Collins, Corinna Bechko, Amanda Conner, Mairghread Scott or others working on the title. And as for the artists, well, that’s an even more fertile ground for the imagination, given awesome artists like Nicola Scott, Becky Cloonan, Amy Reeder, Rachel Dodson, Renae de Liz, Laura Allred, Sara Pichelli, Fiona Staples, and others.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Writing this, I feel like there is so much more that could be packed in, such as the particular styles of the different writers matched with different artists, all depending on what kind of a direction a Black Canary solo could go in, and I sit here thinking that “man, I could do an entire blog post on this!”
Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny and Sue Dibny are often referred to as the “Nick and Nora Charles” of comics, because they are a happy couple that solves mysteries together, as in The Thin Man films. They have not yet been introduced in their own title in the New 52. DC, right now, is the land of grim grimdarkness. We think that the Dibnys would be a great antidote to the relentless grimdark, having fun and solving mysteries together. There aren’t a ton of examples of happy couples out there having adventures together, saving each other from peril, especially in comics. To update them properly, Sue needs powers in addition to Ralph’s. Ralphs elongating powers come partially from drinking gingo soda. Sue could develop some powers in the same way. With her facility for languages, perhaps the ability to speak to animals would be appropriate? Cats are witnesses, too!
Given that Disney Channel and Nickelodeon have a glut of superhero kid shows, to see it done intelligently again in comics would be great. In Marvel, Power Pack needs a reboot. With the popularity of Teen Titans! Go! and the wealth of Middle Grade/YA readers out there, there’s clearly an audience for intelligent superpowered kids that don’t take themselves terribly seriously until they need to do so. Power Pack could easily be effective in this mold. Power Pack (as opposed to, say, Runaways, in recent memory) would also allow a focus on healthy family dynamics, as the Powers are not supervillains trying to kill their own children.
In short, we’d like to see the comics industry move towards acknowledging that grimdark storytelling doesn’t automatically lead to better stories.
Tagged with: Abhinav Jain • Andrew Wheeler • Cassandra Rose Clarke • Cheryl Morgan • erica mcgillivray • Erika Ensign • Fabio Fernandes • Jay Garmon • Jeff Patterson • Lynne M. Thomas • Michael Damian Thomas • Michael Lee • sarah kuhn • Seanan McGuire • Shira Lipkin • Sigrid Ellis • Tansy Rayner Roberts
Filed under: Mind Meld
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!