Over the weekend we’ve seen one of the perennial problems that plagues superhero comics rear its head again, with one of comics elder statesmen lamenting the existence of a ‘vocal minority’ that is apparently being unduly pandered to, particularly when it comes to redesigning the costumes of female characters. Leaving aside the use of the classic ‘silent majority’ argument, it highlights a problem with superhero comics.
The majority of superheroes have a lengthy history. That’s not a problem. A large number of fictional characters and properties in other media have long histories too. The difference with comics is that those histories are continuous. Even if a character hasn’t had their own comic for a while, chances are that they’ll have appeared elsewhere, creating narratives that stretch back over decades.
This gives rise to to readers, and creators, having favourite periods for different characters, and with that comes a definitive look for each character. That fixes an idea of both what the character should be about and how they should look in order to be ‘right’. Anything that steps outside of that is meddling, being a comics hipster or pandering to some kind of imagined outside influence. After all, all ‘true’ fans want to maintain the status quo. right?
Whereas in other media we’ve seen successful reboots and reinventions of characters and properties, some of which have surpassed the source material, it’s less common in superhero comics. The direct line of connection to that source material gives rise to the idea of some interpretations being ‘wrong’, and arguments that change is bad. Often this is seen as something that must be stopped or undone, which leads to changes being reset over time, returning the character to an earlier status quo.
The problem is that society and the wider world has changed with the passing of the decades. We’ve seen equal rights movements for different groups, seen political shifts, seen rapid changes in technology and have seen a demographic shift in comic readership. The idea that we should be beholden to a fixed point in time that dictates how a story should look and be written is inherently ridiculous, particularly when you consider that each passing generation of of both creators and audience has less and less of a connection to that period.
Look at the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s taken what’s good about the characters, distilled it down and given us great interpretations of the source material, one which isn’t simply a slavish adaptation of what has gone before. It shows that superheroes have a wider audience, one that doesn’t care if a costume has been updated to look more modern or that outdated plot points have been removed. Things have been changed and the world hasn’t ended.
I wouldn’t advocate removing continuity from comics entirely. The continuous shared universe nature of superhero comics is unique to the genre, and is something to be celebrated. But surely a genre that is predicated on the idea that there can be a better world can accept that change is necessary. Change is good. Change shows where we’ve come from and where we’re going to. Change allows us to reflect the audience that we have now, not the one that we had fifty years ago.