Ahoy-hoy! Spoilers abound in this post, so proceed at your own risk.
Years ago, during my ill-advised and ultimately unsuccessful time at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art — an excellent institution, by the way — one of my instructors compared writing for comics to writing for sitcoms, in that the characters are constantly undergoing false growth.
One of the major tenets of fiction is that the characters should come out of the story differently than how they went in. They should learn from and be changed by their experiences, but sitcoms and comics alike defy this principle constantly. Classic sitcoms would in any given episode present the illusion that a character had grown and changed, when in fact nothing had changed — so much so that when a similar situation rolled along later, characters apparently suffered amnesia…
FONZIE: Yo, Cunningham, I’m sacred I’m losing my cool.
(FONZIE illustrates this by striking the jukebox. Nothing happens.)
FONZIE: See? Nothing! …amundo.
RICHIE: Gee whiz, Fonz, what are you going to do?
POTSIE: Hey guys! I won some free tickets to the circus! Who wants to go? They have clowns and tightrope walkers and a cage filled with man-eating lions…
FONZIE: That’s it! Potsie, you’re a genius!
RICHIE: What are you going to do, Fonzie?
FONZIE: I’m going to prove to everyone I’ve still got it by jumping my motorcycle over the lions’ cage!
RICHIE: But Fonz, you kind of did that already.
FONZIE: What are you talkin’ about, Cunningham?
RICHIE: The time we were at the beach and you jumped a shark on water-skis?
POTSIE: Oh, yeah, that was cool! A little silly, but…
RICHIE: And there was the time you jumped a bunch of cars in the parking lot.
FONZIE: When did I do that?
RICHIE: Long time ago, back when Mr. Miyagi owned Arnold’s.
POTSIE: Hey, whatever happened to Arnold? Or your brother Chuck for that matter?
RICHIE: My what who?
For younger readers: See, there was once a show called Happy Days, and it starred the guy who directed The DaVinci Code the guy who played Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development…
Point is, The Fonz was always losing and regaining his cool, Ricky was constantly letting Lucy perform at the club to disastrous results, Homer continues to overlook Lisa…the characters’ core remains constant and never changes. Even when something earth-shaking occurs like a marriage or a pregnancy or a death, the characters do not change. Their behaviors, quirks, flaws, they’re all firmly in place.
Sitcoms have since grown up a little, abandoning compartmentalized and extremely short-term character arcs for series-wide continuity and, yes, character growth. It’s usual incremental and almost invisible, but look closely and you’ll see it.
Comic books have yet to follow suit, which is ironic considering how, during the 1990s, the media was glutted with stories about how comic books have grown up (biff pow zok).
While classic sitcoms effectively hit the reset button with the start of each new episode, comics play the long con: a title will present a storyline that changes everything you know about (insert character here)! and then, after some time, backtracks to re-embrace the status quo.
Superman? Died, reborn; powers became energy based, got old powers back; revealed identity to and married Lois Lane, Clark Kent is single and Lois thinks Superman is a totally different guy.
Batman? Had his back broken by Bane, handled mantle of Batman to Azrael who later lost it to Dick “Nightwing” Grayson, got better and took it all back; got killed by Darkseid, Dick Grayson becomes Batman (again), Bruce Wayne returns from the dead and becomes Batman again.
Spider-Man? Got an alien black suit, went back to classic red-and-blue suit; Green Goblin dies in a fight, turns out he never really died; discovered he was a close, discovered no, he was the real Peter Parker all along; marries Mary Jane, never married Mary Jane.
Captain America, Green Lantern, Iron Man, The Flash, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Iron Fist, Dr. Strange, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, Phoenix, just to name a scant few, they’ve all died and/or given up their costumed identity to a successor and then returned.
The problem here is multi-leveled. Readers love these institutional characters just as they are and lose their shit whenever a major change is made. Couple that with the fact creative teams on corporate-owned characters — which said corporations want to keep recognizable to the masses and therefore marketable — are always looking to put their own fingerprints on a title, it’s inevitable characters will return to the status quo, no matter what kind of crazy crap happens to them.
The most unfortunate drawback of this is that there is an invisible, unspoken safety net beneath every story, giving readers a subconscious reassurance that in the end, everything and everyone will be okay and, given time, it will all go back to normal. As a lifelong comics fan, I just roll my eyes when I read mainstream news stories announcing that “Marvel Comics will kill off the Human Torch in an upcoming issue of The Fantastic Four” or the industry publications tease “A major change is coming for Superman” because I know damn well that in a year or two, all the changes will be undone.
In mainstream comics there are no stakes, there is no character growth, there is no such thing as a permanent condition. In other words: mainstream comics are dull and predictable.
There are exceptions all around, but they are few and far between in mainstream comics’ major players. Dick Grayson assumed the Nightwing identity in 1984 and never looked back. Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman got married in 1965 and have remained husband and wife. Gwen Stacy? Still dead.
Both Marvel and DC are more willing to muck about with secondary and tertiary characters, but the closest either of them have come to throwing all the conventional rules out the window is Marvel’s Ultimate Marvel line, where no one is safe. The Ultimate Universe has introduced — and killed off, permanently — its versions of Daredevil, Doctors Doom, Octopus, and Strange, Magneto, Spider-Man, and Wolverine — and even then, a few of these characters have made a return of sorts as others have assumed their identities.
If mainstream comics is going to continue to play it safe, they should at least abandon all pretenses that any given issue will offer readers something so monumental that it “will shake the Marvel/DC Universe to its very foundation,” because it won’t. Any comic reader worth his salt knows that.
Personally, I’d love to see Marvel and DC truly shake things up by throwing all the time-honored cliches out the window. Make death a permanent thing, for the big guns all the way down to the minor supporting characters so that it has meaning again. Let the characters develop and change, organically and realistically. Let their actions have permanent consequences, for themselves and the people and world around them.
I know that none of this will ever come to pass, but the thought that a storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man or Justice League of America could sucker-punch me with as much fearlessness and ferocity as a single issue of The Walking Dead or move me emotionally like the finest issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — that comics could once again be as thrilling as they were when I was a kid — makes me tingle.