I’d been reading superhero comics for less than a year when I stumbled into Crisis on Infinite Earths. I didn’t know most of the characters, had no familiarity with the intricate continuity that went into shaping DC Comics’ definitive event series. And yet the sheer scope of Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s epic was awe-inspiring; I wanted to know everything about these heroes. I spent my allowance on back issues at the flea market, scooping up classic tales of Green Lantern, New Gods, Justice League, Blue Beetle, and more.
This isn’t the typical reader reaction to coming up against a story that assumes expert-level knowledge of decades of comic book stories, I know. Continuity is seen as a barrier to attracting new readers, and very often it is. But you can’t have a story like Crisis without something to build on; you can’t develop a rich character like Wally West unless he has a meaningful legacy to inherit and surpass.
You also can’t, if you’re planning serialized storytelling that may extend 20, 50 years into the future, do things like give Superman a son, or have Batman marry Catwoman.
So much of the conversation around the continuity of superhero universes and reboots has focused on attracting new readers and the merits of honoring characters’ histories. These are important conversations to have. But DC’s post-Rebirth universe has unveiled a hidden benefit of having full-scale relaunches on the table: it allows risks that would have previously been unthinkable.
There’s a sense that, in comics, no matter how earth-shattering the latest event, things will eventually return to the status quo. That’s certainly been the line folks have used in defending the HydraCap storyline running through Marvel’s Captain America and Secret Empire — we all know that Steve Rogers will eventually be returned to his heroic stature. There are holes in this argument for this particular scenario, but for the purposes of the current discussion, it will serve. Captain America will be a hero again. Good will win out over evil. But for situations where you’re not dealing with good guys versus bad guys, when stories get into the more human aspects of superhuman life, changing course can be extraordinary difficult.
Look at the knots Marvel twisted itself into to nullify Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson. In the much-derided “One More Day” arc, Spider-Man and MJ sells their marriage to Mephisto — the devil — to save Aunt May’s life. It was implausible. It was not heroic. In interviews and at convention panels around that time, Marvel Chief Creative Officer (then Editor-in-Chief) Joe Quesada said that he felt Peter Parker as a married man was too settled, that it cut off too many potential storylines and conflicts. The supernatural angle was preferable to divorce, he maintained, because, “I think Peter getting divorced to me says that they gave up on their love, that their life in love together was so awful, so stressful, so unfulfilling that they had to raise a red flag and walk away from it. They quit on their marriage and even more tragic, the quit on each other… Plain and simple, that’s just a Spider-Man story I don’t want to tell and it’s not something that I would like to have associated with Peter Parker and MJ. ” That’s a defensible position, though there’s plenty of room to argue the details. In short, faced with no good options to make Peter single again, Marvel chose a particular course that would give the publisher the status quo it desired, and took its lumps for the story at hand.
DC, meanwhile, negated Superman’s marriage to Lois Lane by scrapping the entire universe.
The New 52 was not without its problems and controversies, among them the tension between DC Comics’ rich history and its bold new future. But as the New 52 gave way to still another universal reconfiguration in Rebirth, something curious happened: DC got daring. Not with the sort of shocking deaths and heart-stopping revelations that have been the staple of action-packed superhero comics, but on the human side — the part that makes us root for these heroes, that allows us to invest in them, to care whether they win out in the end.
Not only are Lois and Clark married again, they now have a son, Jon. Eternal loner Batman has proposed to his adversary and lover Catwoman, and they may even wed. In this event, Catwoman would become Robin’s stepmother, creating another intriguing dynamic.
DC’s embrace of the family is a much greater change than it might appear at first, because it’s so much harder to reverse in-story. Batman can recover from a broken back, but as we saw with Spider-Man, erasing a marriage is another matter. And it’s important because it allows new stories to be told with these characters. Outside of “imaginary” stories, Elseworlds, and alternate Earths, until recently we had never had a sustained, prime-continuity look at Superman as a father; if Selina says yes, we will for the first time get a view of Bruce Wayne as a married man. This is a seismic change, because these stories, with these characters, have never been done. This is inherently more interesting and more exciting than the perpetual teen-angst sexual tension that publishers have previously assumed is what keeps readers invested.
And it’s all made possible by narrowing the scope. By putting reboots on the table.
Because if you’re shepherding a superhero universe for five years, ten years, even twenty years worth of stories, you can take this sort of risk much more easily than if your eye is on “forever.” If creators really do exhaust the story possibilities of the Batman-Catwoman family, if fans are clamoring for a return of playboy Bruce Wayne, then, when that time comes, push reset.
Does having kids overly “age” the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight? Push reset.
This approach is not without its dangers. A phrase that’s often used in discussing continuity is whether a story “matters.” Going back to the well too often risks not only diluting stories by making them not “matter,” but also stopping readers from investing in the characters moving forward. Because what fans are really talking about when they talk about which stories “matter” is, is the character I’m reading the one I care about? Is this a story about my Batman, or some other Batman? The willing suspension of disbelief will allow us to believe a man can fly, that a dark knight can overcome his own personal tragedy to protect the innocent; but in order to believe in these heroes, we must believe that, superpowers aside, their lives progress much like ours do. That they have a relatively knowable past, that their future, while unwritten, is at least mostly linear. Reboots fundamentally shatter this narrative.
The Batman-Catwoman pairing represents, perhaps more than any other recent development, that DC is entering a new era, and that reboots, once derided by fans, may have provided the foundation for the publisher’s greatest strength. The DC Universe is now a petri dish where truly character-changing experiments can and will occur — with the tradeoff being that it can all be undone in a universe-wide fire sale.