I grew up reading comics. Usually just a smattering of whatever happened to find its way into my hands, but the two titles I actively followed in the 90s were Sonic the Hedgehog and X-Men. I know the first one comes as a shocker, but bear with me.
I grew up in those crazy, halcyon days that saw stories like “X-Cutioner’s Song” and “Age of Apocalypse” where any gimmick could become a character, there were teams galore, and it felt like anything could happen. This felt especially true with “Age of Apocalypse” where the entire X-series of books was cut short and rebooted for four months in a storyline where nothing was sacred and no one was safe. I fell off the bandwagon around “Operation: Zero Tolerance” and never really got back on. I enjoyed Ultimate X-Men for a time, but that didn’t hold me as long. And along the way I enjoyed the TV series with the camp of the 90s cartoon, the “remember they were kids at a school?” angle of X-Men Evolution, and moments within Wolverine and the X-Men. And of course there are the movies which launched the current comic-to-movie juggernaut with their hit-and-miss films.
But X-Men falls into the same trap all of these “legacy titles” where nothing can ever really change. There have been numerous approaches to keeping things fresh or revitalizing the ideas behind the various properties: sliding time-scales, soft and hard reboots, the delightfully awful 90s reimaginings (Scarlet Spider notwithstanding), future versions, “Elseworld”/”What If” takes, and so on. None of them really seem to stick, with the attempts to streamline stories and characters to make them more accessible becoming mired in back-tracking to appease the fans who have been riding their particular train since the 60s. (Or the heartbreaking attempts to liven up the cast leading to mass-murder to return the status quo)
It’s off-putting to the layman because they have no idea where to start. Just the question of how much of which continuity they need to know is a turn-off. And when the big publishers have multi-title crossovers, but some titles aren’t as rebooted as others, it only compounds the problem. The entire comics market lost roughly one million readers between April and May of this year alone. Something has to change. And I, being a person on the internet, have an opinion on the matter.
The first is simple: put comics back in grocery and convenience stores. Keep the incentives for the specialty stores, but get these books in front of more people. The second is to get kids reading these big properties again, but that’s a whole other can o’ worms.
The third, and the point of today’s blog, is more experimental. It might even be a terrible idea, but hear me out. I think back to my enjoyment of the X-Men series and what stands out to me the most is the potential for change. In “Age of Apocalypse,” everything was turned on its head. In X-Men Evolution, some of the characters were kids, adding a new spin on the perspective. The movies took their own spin, and so on. It was the same characters, the same settings and themes, but played out in new scenarios. It was the comfort of the familiar and the excitement of the unexpected bundled together. I enjoyed when each series hit the plot beats I was looking forward to and entertained when it went in new and interesting directions. That kind of approach can’t last over the long-term – and I think that’s the key.
So my modest proposal: set a hard time-limit on the legacy books. Get your creative team together and do a one or two year run on Captain America, or Superman, or whatever. Let the creative team and the power of the known property carry the story to its conclusion, and then start anew. Let the casual reader be able to pick up the product, enjoy the ride, and move on because – face it – we live in an age of rapidly consumable media. And if there’s a stand-out hit, let it continue on as its own thing. Did this run of Batman set the charts on fire for its entire run? Keep it going with Batman: Relevant Subtitle and give the main line to a new creative team. Keep it flowing, keep it fresh.
But what of the sprawling, shared universe? Coordinate it as part of one of the cycles. Ignore it for another and let each title showcase who they want, or let creative teams collaborate between a title or two. And what of the die-hard fan who wants to keep the continuity? Well – let’s be frank here – most of them aren’t going to ever be satisfied. The debates over whose run was better, over consistency of theme, over the minutia of continuity details ten, twenty, thirty and even forty years old will always remain. And this limited cycle approach would lose some of those veteran readers. But I think the majority would stick around for the characters and worlds they enjoy. And if they don’t like a particular run? You’ve got a built-in reason for them to try you again. And the casual readership will fill in gaps – perhaps even expand the readership.
“This coming from the guy on a ten year stint with a continuity-heavy title,” I hear you say. One could argue a licensed book like Sonic the Hedgehog is a different beast since it follows material from another medium. Mega Man especially had its narrative laid out from the beginning thanks to the games. But would it have worked bettered as stand-alone stories, set to the individual games, instead of trying to create a single narrative? Or are these books different given that they’re thirty to sixty years younger than the legacy books? I don’t know. I’m not saying that I have the answer, just an answer.
At the very least I’d like to see the Big Two take a crack at the idea with some limited series. Tell an Iron Man story, tell a Wonder Woman story – whatever – just do it on its own. Don’t make it some weird special event or heavy reimaginging, just tell a story about the character in the world we love. Put it out there in front of everyone, not just the comics enthusiast. See what happens. I think it’d pay dividends.