Secret Wars and the Death of Superhero Comics

I blame everyone who ever bought a New 52 comic.

Back in January Marvel announced it would be launching a new Secret Wars event, 30 years after the original, except this one would be far more than a diversion for some superheroes to jump to a faraway planet, come back, and see all the battles that happened in the interim play out over the next year. This one would be the closest thing to a Crisis-style reboot Marvel has ever had – and Crisis on Infinite Earths is, from a story perspective, a rather apt comparison.

Come May, some sort of “incursion” that has been wiping out universes will strike the main Marvel universe, which will be reduced to a Manhattan that is merged with its Ultimate universe equivalent and plopped down on “Battleworld”, this version of which is made up of shards from many different universes, many of them inspired by various tales from various continuities from Marvel’s past.

What happens after all the dust settles, what the new status quo is going forward, isn’t entirely clear; Marvel’s powers-that-be are being understandably tight-lipped to avoid spoilers, and considering that Secret Wars #0 is coming out this Saturday for Free Comic Book Day, I’m pretty sure they’ve given out as much as they’re going to give out. But given what they have said – that “Battleworld is the new Marvel Universe“, that “the Marvel Universe is Secret Wars” and “the new Marvel Universe really does start in May” by the time Secret Wars #2 comes out, that “we don’t believe our history is broken”, that we should look for clues in the slogan “when everything ends, there is only Secret Wars”, that Secret Wars, as Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso puts it, “is not an intermission from our regularly scheduled program; it is our regularly scheduled program”, that “all of the series that we’re doing — all of them — are slices of the pie or toppings on the pie“, that the titles that will supposedly be setting up the future of the Marvel Universe (called “Warzones!”) will amount to “events within the event” taking place in individual zones on Battleworld, everything Marvel has done to attempt to reassure fans that no, really, this really isn’t a reboot – I’m left to reach the conclusion that what happens at the end of Secret Wars to produce a new Marvel Universe is… nothing, that the only difference between the Marvel Universe during Secret Wars and after is that Secret Wars is simply the conflict that is going to naturally flare up from kitbashing so many disparate universes together onto one world (although there is some suggestion of the existence of “universes” plural, and Secret Wars has also been compared to the X-Men’s Age of Apocalypse event that was mostly undone by the same thing that caused it at the end), and the Marvel Universe going forward is simply going to be whatever is left of Battleworld after the dust settles, a patchwork of numerous disparate, seemingly incongruous times and genres all smushed together, possibly still divided into discrete zones City of Heroes-style.

If I’m right, well, in one sense Marvel is correct to indicate that this isn’t a full-fledged reboot in the same vein as what DC has carried out over the years; whereas DC has long loved to say “everything you know is wrong”, here Marvel seems to be saying “everything you know is right“, even if much of it might seem incompatible. But in so doing, Marvel is abandoning any claim to have any relationship to reality, something that gives superhero comics so much of their power. Earth is not going to exist in the new Marvel Universe, only an artificial world resulting from a smashing-together of places designed to accommodate writers’ desire to tell whatever kind of story they want, no matter how unlikely it may be for them to coexist.

Ironically, when Marvel started one of the many things that made it stand out from DC and its other superhero imitators, and probably the one way that best encapsulated the others, was how realistic it was – the Marvel universe was so carefully crafted that multiple people who grew up on Marvel comics have attested that they could believe the sorts of things they read were accounts of things that really were happening in New York, in the real world you and I live in, all simply being reported and dramatized by the Marvel staff. Setting the books in a real city like New York was just one way this was accomplished; Stan Lee cultivated a more direct relationship between a comic company and its readership than had ever been attempted, the characters went through trials and tribulations the books’ readership could relate to, many of the books touched on themes that were in the news at the time (the space race, discrimination, nuclear testing and the dangers of radiation, the Cold War), and by and large the characters tended to be less god-like powerful than their DC counterparts. Say what you will about the New 52 (and I’ve said plenty), but at least the books DC is putting out are still set on an Earth that’s at least vaguely like our own. DC will soon be beating Marvel at its own game.

How did this happen? How did Marvel fall so far from the ideals that made it so relevant to begin with?

Some people have called this an elaborate, highly-publicized way to introduce Miles Morales, who became Spider-Man in the Ultimate universe several years ago following the death of that universe’s Peter Parker, to the mainstream Marvel universe. (Considering I once suggested that comic companies use Ultimate-style universes as a way to continue publishing the adventures of the classic versions of their characters while allowing the mainstream versions to continue to grow and change, the fact the far younger Ultimate universe has proved more conducive to growth and change in the intervening years than the mainstream Marvel universe, where Peter Parker actually backslid, is bitterly ironic.) But this seems like an awful long way to go to achieve that; there are far less disruptive ways to tie a bow around the Ultimate universe and introduce Morales to “Earth-616” continuity, to say nothing of simply introducing a native 616 version of the character. In point of fact, Morales isn’t being “introduced” to the mainstream Marvel universe; the entire Marvel multiverse is being blown up with the surviving concepts being thrown together into an entirely new universe, with even the surviving “Manhattan” zone apparently being a blend of the 616 and Ultimate versions. No, we need to look at the bigger picture.

When Marvel started, and for years thereafter, comic books were far more popular than they are today, and they were popular with a fairly broad cross-section of America. During the 1970s, however, a variety of factors, from recession to continued declining popularity to a distribution mechanism that produced large numbers of unsold copies and placed severe financial constraints on publishers, led to a decline in the presence of comic books on newsstands, the place that had defined the medium since its inception. The rise of the direct market and specialty comic-book stores quickly took its place by the time the 80s played out, saving the comic book industry from collapse in the short term. But in the long term, the direct market would appeal mainly to those that were already hardcore superhero fans, with little reason for potential new readers, especially kids, to wander into them, setting the stage for the reduction of the comics industry to, effectively, the single genre of superheroes.

After the brief, unsustainable burst of the speculator boom, the subsequent collapse of the marketplace, including the Marvel bankruptcy, left a shell of a comic book industry that essentially regurgitated its past successes to the small handful of fans that remained, feeding on itself indefinitely. About the only thing it has going for it is a claim to continuity with the far more popular, and influential, comics of the Golden and Silver Ages. Since then, the comic book industry has been consumed with trying to lure in “new readers” and recapture the glory of ages past. The only thing that has even remotely worked, though, has been short-term stunts (like Secret Wars) that can pop huge numbers briefly but has done little to ameliorate the industry’s slow decline. The New 52 was credited with revitalizing the industry for a time, but at its three-year anniversary only four comics sold over 100,000 copies, two of them the first two issues of Marvel’s latest sales-inflating stunt, the other two part of DC’s latest crossover – basically the same as it’s ever been since I started following the comic book industry circa 2001. Only one comic that wasn’t a stunt topped 80,000, and that may have been a hangover from that comic’s launch as a stunt. Until the 90s, any comic that sold under 100,000 copies would have been at risk for cancellation.

The truth is, comic books are never going to recapture the popularity they once held, no matter how much Marvel and DC may wish them to. The very nature of their ghettoization to specialty comic stores ensures that any new readers that may come along are pure miraculous coincidence; by and large, superhero comics sell only to the diehards that have stuck with it through the creative, followed by commercial, trough of the 90s and are still interested in the output coming from the Big Two. Recolonizing newsstands isn’t an option; newsstands themselves have declined to irrelevance, as most people likely pick up magazines from racks at grocery stores and other places not wholly dedicated to them. And that’s not even getting into how new technology has constricted the role of the print comic and of periodicals in general, most recently, and dramatically, with the rise of the Internet potentially making the old monthly comic obsolete. To some degree Marvel and DC recognize this even though they may not want to admit it publicly to their diehards; a big part of the New 52 was the simultaneous release of comics in digital format, and Marvel has also embraced the digital distribution of both their back catalog and their current output, but more to the point neither company really relies on the publication of the traditional comic book as a foundation of their business. At this point, both companies, now owned by huge multimedia conglomerates, are really repositories for their characters, really intellectual property or “brands”, to be farmed out for exploitation in other, far more popular, media. Those other media are far more important to the Big Two’s bottom line, and I’d argue are where the real “true” superhero canon is being written these days, especially in Marvel’s growing body of movies as interconnected as any comic book universe that have proven to be reliably critically acclaimed and commercially successful.

Since the comics now exist primarily to serve their eventual exploitation into other media, it has an effect on what the comics are able to do creatively, since whatever big movie is coming out next, or what TV show is huge these days, trumps all. Both companies want to capitalize on the popularity of the movie du jour to attract people to the comics, so they want the comics to resemble whatever the general public is seeing on screen as much as possible. Of course, as before, very few people walk into a comic book store if they don’t already have a reason to, and the relationship between the currently-published comics and the currently-released films is never all that strong anyway; while relevant comics can see a short-term sales boost when their movie comes out, the parade of successful superhero movies in recent years hasn’t had any lasting positive effect on the comic book industry. In the meantime, the desire to match the comics to the movies, the desire to keep characters in their most exploitable, “iconic” form, results in an almost crippling commitment to the status quo: nothing can ever be allowed to change too much from that “iconic” form, and if they do they must always be ready to change back as soon as the next movie comes out, even if the change in question is something as seemingly permanent as death, which comics have turned into a joke.

The result is a paradox: the only way to boost sales, at least in the short term, is to pull off a big stunt, but no stunt is allowed to engage in any real, lasting change to the characters, so any stunt must ultimately be irrelevant. Comic book fans, of course, realize this, so each stunt becomes less effective than the last (and indeed the most effective stunts become those that undo the effects of the last stunt) unless comic book companies keep raising the stakes and promising more impact – or at least the illusion thereof – with each stunt. It’s not surprising, then, that these stunts have reached the point of throwing out continuity on a whim – a way to have a real impact on the line while ultimately restoring and reaffirming the most “iconic” versions of the characters. Secret Wars suggests that Marvel isn’t confident that even that works anymore, throwing out any and all limits on the sort of superficial “change” they want to institute, in the name of allowing them to publish as much material that they can exploit as they can. If being “realistic” is an impediment to pushing out a stunt that can sell, well, away with “realism” posthaste!

Ironically, this commitment to the status quo, in the name of chasing the mythical “new reader” who in reality will probably never actually pick up a comic book, in all probability goes against the desires of those who are actually buying their comics, even if they may not think so. The existence of the shared universes of DC and Marvel carries with them the implicit promise that time will pass in them, even if at a much “slower” rate than real life, and that thus eventually all of their characters, except those for which the absence of these things is explicitly justified, will eventually marry, have children, grow old, and die, and otherwise experience all sorts of growth and change in the interim – growth and change that goes against DC and Marvel’s commitment to the status quo and to exploitable, “iconic” versions of characters. On this front DC, at least before the New 52, was beating Marvel at its own game long before; as much as Stan Lee may have disdained the concept of the sidekick so prevalent at Silver Age DC, preferring his teenage heroes to be heroes in their own right like the Human Torch or Spider-Man, it provided a bank of budding heroes with the implicit “promise”, as Mark Waid put it in his 90s Flash run, that they would eventually grow up and claim their mentors’ mantles if not establish their own heroic identities, as they did in the post-Crisis era. Even with the slowing of time suggested by “comic-book time”, at the dawn of this decade the history of the DC and Marvel universes encompassed many decades’ worth of stories, and it was starting to strain credibility that their “iconic” heroes would not be showing signs of their age.

To be clear, unlike others that have looked at this problem, I don’t believe the answer is to have superhero comics progress in “real time”, with a one-to-one relationship between “comic-book time” and real time. Superheroes, in a unique way, are truly “timeless”, capable of fitting in in any time and place, only tied down to our general, modern technological and semi-urban world that, despite relatively superficial changes in culture and technology, remains fundamentally the same dating back to the aftermath of World War I and the dawn of the Great Depression. The main argument for such a “real time” approach seems to be to allow superhero comics to be rooted in a specific time period, to allow references to the “real world” to stand without being ruined by any future “sliding” of the timeline, but that seems like a fairly minor consideration all things considered – although the argument is a lot more resonant in the case of Marvel, whose Silver Age tales are fairly thoroughly rooted in the cultural milieu of the 60s and the Cold War in general, resulting in the “sliding timeline” ultimately confusing multiple characters’ backstories. Given that a given issue of a superhero comic is not going to take a month to play out, especially in today’s age of “decompressed” storytelling, it would be crazy not to take advantage of this to allow time to stretch out in order to milk as many stories out of your classic characters as possible. But slowing down time does not mean stopping it, and there does come a point where you need to acknowledge the effect of time on your characters – a point that by all appearances may have arrived, and which the New 52 and Secret Wars did not completely succeed in averting.

DC and Marvel seem to want it both ways: they want the appeal of a “realistic” shared universe consisting of many, many characters interacting with one another, engaging in complex stories and remembering all their past adventures that all matter to their present, but deep down what they really seem to want is a return to the Silver Age, when they could regurgitate the same stock plots over and over and keep characters frozen in their “iconic” incarnations indefinitely. But the Silver Age is gone and it’s not coming back, and by all appearances the fans DC and Marvel do have, even those that claim a hostility to change, appreciate and value the shared universe and accompanying continuity that necessitates change more than DC and Marvel do. So long as you have a shared universe where past events matter, you have to have the passage of time. At some point, the old status quo you’re so committed to will run dry of ideas for new stories to be told with them, and some sort of change will be necessary to breathe new life into old concepts.

The funny thing is, for all of Marvel and DC’s fear of change and commitment to the status quo, it may be precisely that that is ultimately strangling the comic book industry most of all. Once you’ve run out of stories to tell with a given status quo, you can only regurgitate the ones you’ve already told, and today’s fandom is smart enough and obsessive enough to know that they’ve seen it all before and they aren’t really missing anything. Comic books aren’t just disposable entertainment for the kids anymore; at the same time comic companies try to stick to telling the same stories they’ve been telling for decades, they also republish those old stories, preserving them for today’s readership and tomorrow’s, and invite their readership to consider them part of their history and compare them to their present output. Comic book companies claim that too much continuity is a deterrent to their mythical “new readers”, but between the availability of the back catalog and the advent of the Internet, that notion rings hollow; if anything, if anything has produced “new readers” since the collapse of the speculator bubble it is because of continuity and the curiosity it engenders about the backstory, about what happened to bring us to this point. When stories are allowed to really, truly matter, they can continue to sell for decades to come, their value enhanced, rather than diminished, by what comes after (something comic companies’ dismissal of complaints about retcons by saying “you can still read the old stories” misses). Comic book companies claim that too much continuity restrains the ability to tell whatever stories the writers want to tell, but forcing characters to remain in certain “iconic” forms, without any potential to grow or change, restrains what stories can be told just as much if not more so. Allowing characters to grow and change like real people can open up whole new directions for stories to go in; stories that acknowledge the passage of time have proven time and again to be the most sustainably popular in recent years, critically if not always (short-term) commercially. After all, change is, by some accounts, the very definition of a story.

For that matter, writers may need the restraints of continuity. I once thought that, if DC was going to reboot its universe the way it did with the New 52 it should have gone whole-hog and restart everything from the beginning, but now I think that would have just made the problems with the New 52 worse. Clark Kent’s marriage to, and indeed relationship with, Lois Lane was retconned away by the reboot, and since then Superman has entered into a relationship with Wonder Woman – the lazy approach of fanfic writers who see DC’s most iconic male and female characters and automatically decide to pair them together, compatibility, personality, and character be damned. By throwing out its rich history, DC has given its writers free reign to tell whatever stories they want without having to worry about violating the history of the characters, and with most of the writers that actually understand what makes a good story staying far away from comics except for the occasional stunt casting of geek celebrities, the result is that, more than ever before, DC is essentially publishing glorified fanfic. That is why I disdain everyone who has bought a New 52 comic, even the supposedly “good” comics with respect for the characters’ history: because by buying even a “good” New 52 comic, you implicitly lend your assent to the reboot, that you are fine with DC throwing out all its history and rendering its remaining comics hollow and meaningless, that you are fine with DC setting the conditions that make it possible for Superman and Wonder Woman to hook up or Starfire to become a hollow, slutty male fantasy. Even though by all accounts Secret Wars was in the works even before the New 52 came along (even if only in the mind of a single superstar creator), by contributing to its success, even if all the New 52 product you bought didn’t share in its shortcomings, you helped convince Marvel that engaging in its own effort to turn its universe upside down and hollow it out was the way to go.

I said when the New 52 happened that it potentially represented the slow death of the superhero genre, and Secret Wars looks to be the final nail in the coffin. Both DC and Marvel have thrown out the one thing that made their respective universes at least potentially compelling, that they took place in a world much like the one outside your window that had a rich history that informed their respective characters and the events taking place today, a rich history that could be traced back decades. Without that, superhero comics are just a bunch of people punching each other according to the whims of people who were reading when superhero comics were actually good but never grasped why they were good. Without that rich history, that sense that the universe is every bit as “real” as the one you and I live in, there is no point in following superhero comics. Both DC and Marvel are dead to me at this point. Maybe there are still superhero stories waiting to be told that are worth telling, but it’s become clear that DC and Marvel have no interest in telling them.

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