What Does It Matter? Stories and Comic Book Readers

How much does the past matter, really?

Do the events in your past shape your life, or is it the way you interpret the events in your past that shape the way you live today?

In comic book terms, do you need to have read More Fun Comics #1-899 to understand issue #900?

As we found out last week, DC will relaunch its entire superhero line with 52 brand-new #1 issues in September, perhaps breaking ties with its own past to reach out to the audience of today. But is that what’s really going on? Do the old stories still matter? Have they ever really mattered to begin with?

The DC press releases (and clarifications from DC Sales VP Bob Wayne) indicate that the new #1 issues represent a relaunch, not a reboot. A reboot would imply a new start, untethered from past continuity, like we saw with the J. J. Abrams Star Trek or the Joe Carnahan A-Team. The DC relaunch images show a much younger-looking Superman, redesigned costumes for many characters, and some of the solicitations talk about characters who are substantially changed from what we know, yet DC insists it’s not a reboot.

It’s a streamlining, with changes.

I haven’t seen it clarified in quite this way, but from what I understand, and what I know about DC Comics and the people involved in the relaunch—namely, the way Geoff Johns thinks of these superheroes and wants Hollywood and every potential new reader to think of these characters—the New DCU will not so much redefine the past of the superheroes as it will clarify who they are and what they are all about.

Can you describe the current role of Aquaman in the DCU in terms of why anyone should be interested in stories about him? How about Hawkman? How about Wonder Woman? Probably not. Those characters, as iconic as they are, have floundered when it comes to defining themselves through their stories.

Green Lantern? Not so much. He’s clearly defined: space cop who protects the universe through his magic ring, powered by strength of will. And the Green Lantern family of titles is undergoing far less creative change than the other comics announced so far. No surprise.

In streamlining the DCU characters who are not as clearly-defined as Green Lantern, the relaunch will cause some changes to be made, surely. There’s no way DC is sticking with the current J. Michael Straczynski continuity where Wonder Woman fights crime in the streets because her island blew up and all of a sudden she’s never met Superman before. That continuity can’t be boiled down into a character concept that even makes sense to hardcore readers, never mind the general public. The same is true for Aquaman, Hawkman, and dozens of other DC characters who will no doubt play a role in the relaunch.

Because some readers fear these changes, they have hit the comic book message boards (or shouted loudly in the back corners of local comic shops) and said things like “I will never buy a DC Comic again,” and “it’s incredibly disrespectful,” and “none of the old stories will matter any more.”

Meanwhile, other readers, and even some creators, have scoffed at these reactions. The two sides basically boil down to this conversation:

  1. “This sucks. Now my comic book collection is worthless to me, because all these stories in these boxes no longer count.”
  2. “Are they good stories? Then enjoy them! If they’re not good, then don’t worry about it! They’re ALL just made-up stories anyway. None of them really happened.”

The thing is, I can see both points. It has to do with the perspective on the past rather than the actual events of the past.

Reader #1, who argues that his or her comics no longer matter is a reader not of individual comics or individual creators, but of the Grand Narrative. For that reader, the DCU is one big story that has been going on for decades, and every comic is a piece of that overall story, even if the reader hasn’t read the comic, or even if the reader purposefully ignores comics he or she doesn’t think should fit into the Grand Narrative.

I’ve never met a Grand Narrative reader who has read every single comic ever published by DC throughout its history, and I’ve never even met one who admits that every comic her or she has read must fit perfectly into continuity. Yet the Grand Narrative reader wants things to fit, basically, into the overall, decades-long story.

Reader #2, reacting to Reader #1, can’t understand the idea of the Grand Narrative, because this second type of reader is a believer in isolated stories. Runs by particular creators or eras. Maybe individual stand-out issues. These things matter far more than the Grand Narrative. The Individual reader is not superior to the Grand Narrative reader, but just happens to have a different perspective about whether the superhero comics game is one of short-form storytelling or large-scale, multi-generational storytelling.

Honestly, DC has always seemed to want to be all things to both kinds of readers. They pander to Grand Narrative readers by hyping major changes to the status quo and making those kinds of readers feel that certain comics are more important to the Grand Narrative than others. And DC targets the Individual readers by promoting particular creative teams, and talking about comic book runs in terms of who was involved with the writing and drawing rather than what happened in the issues.

Fundamentally, the two different kinds of readers are different in buying habits, attitude, and critical perspective. They are looking for different things from the DC relaunch. And in neither case do the old issues of a series really matter as much as the reader memory of those older issues. Grand Narrative readers will ignore contradictions in the large-scale of story as long as they like where the story ends up going.

So when they say, “those old stories no longer count,” they’re really saying, “sure, I want these old comics to count, but as long as you don’t completely contradict everything, and as long as you head in an improved direction, I’m okay with it.” And the Individual readers really mean, “yeah, I like it when comics fit together smoothly with other comics I like, even though I mostly buy comics just because of certain writers or artists.”

If DC handles the relaunch right, and emphasizes clarity of character and concept without purposefully denying or radically removing the essential details of a superhero’s past, they shouldn’t have any problems satisfying current Grand Narrative readers. As long as the creative teams are strong enough, they will keep Individual readers around, too.

Then again, the relaunch is really poised to interest that mythical third audience: the New reader. And that is a wild and mysterious beast that few have ever seen in their lifetime.

Maybe the New DCU is just what they’ve been waiting for.

Tim Callahan is a Reader #2 who tries really hard to be a Reader #1, when no one is looking. He hasn’t been a New reader since at least Atari Force #1.


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