Comedian Demetri Martin has this great, short bit about how he loves digital cameras because they allow you to reminisce instantly. That we can take a picture and immediately look back with clarity and fondness at something that happened only seconds before — “We were so young!” — is essential to current comics culture. The world so quickly and drastically changes for readers that events that happened just last month can feel oh, so long ago. Characters die and return, sometimes within months of our grieving. It seems like only yesterday when we were still under the threat of the Phoenix, because it was only yesterday, relatively speaking.
This week sees the ends of five titles, and each one takes a final bow with all due gravitas for its moment in history. Invincible Iron Man #527 says goodbye to Matt Fraction and Salvador LaRocca, who began their run when the first Iron Man movie was hitting theaters. Ed Brubaker relinquishes his Captain America writing duties with Issue 19; not exactly an illustrious numbering to leave on, but when you look back at all the work he’s done and how it’s changed the common reader’s understanding of Steve Rogers, it’s a remarkable career. Kieron Gillen leaves Journey Into Mystery with #645, after which the whole title gets a new face to focus on, a new creative team and a new mystery to journey into. And Jonathan Hickman leaves FF, a book he created to serve a beautiful purpose for Marvel’s First Family, and I dare anyone not to get a little misty eyed after turning those final pages.
These are all weighty doors closing on eras that changed the face of our comics, and we may never see their like again. Times, they are a-changin’ … but are they, really? This moment with these books written in such a way is over, but Captain America lives on. Iron Man will fly again, as will Fraction, both just moving in new directions. Heck, Loki isn’t even leaving Gillen’s hands; they’re just moving into a new apartment with different roommates.
So why do we mourn? Why do we read these books as the final issue of Captain America when we all know logically that Captain America will continue next month with a new issue? What exactly are we losing when so many things stay the same? I’ve got an idea; see if you agree.
WARNING: we’re talking about this week’s comics listed above but might spoil some Avengers #32. So grab your copies (and a couple hankies because man, FF is a tearjerker!) and follow along!
Each of the issues that ends this week quietly pack up its toys and put it all back in the box for the next creative team. The future selves of the Richards’ children are sent off on new adventures, Iron Man says goodbye to this version of the supporting cast and gets a new reason to delve into new sets of armor, Captain America gets back out on that lonely road in service to the symbol he’s always been, and Kid Loki comes full circle in the machinations that Gillen has woven around him. Everyone gets an ending, but nothing is really ending except one chapter of a larger, never-ending story. Writers put away what they’ve accomplished but their mark on these titles doesn’t really leave. Brubaker’s vision of Captain America has left its mark and can’t really be set aside completely. But for now we will salute the work he’s done and prepare the way for Rick Remender as best we can.
As these eras are ending, we also have a weird rebirth of stuff that seems completely incongruous. To the point, Avengers #32 brought Janet Van Dyne back (so far). The Wasp was killed in two books and mourned extensively in the 616. In the aftermath of Secret Invasion, Hank Pym has lost so much dealing with his ex-wife that, for a time, he even tried to take her name as a way to honor her memory. This taught him that the best way to honor Jan was to be himself, something he really did have the best grip on when she was alive. Then he tried to save her from infinity in the pages of Avengers Academy and again learned to let the past go and accept her loss. Sure, the universe could recover her at any time because, hey, comics. But these stories were about her effect on one man and what he struggled with as far as who he was and what he left behind. Hank Pym has become a stronger character in her absence and now, comics’ revolving door of death and rebirth turns again in the microverse to find the Wasp alive and not as infinite as we saw in Avengers Academy. What does that mean for the stories that dealt with her death? Were they in vain?
We’re also getting Jean Grey back in the upcoming All-New X-Men, a character that has been sort of the cosmic joke of comic death for quite some time. This time, she returns as the teen she started out as, a fresh template clean of all the history we’ll most likely shoulder her with as soon as she hits the page. We can reminisce about all the things Jean Grey has been through, despite the fact that this character has nothing to do with that yet. Or might ever. Or will eventually lead into. And if this Jean Grey dies under Brian Michael Bendis’ watch, what exactly will we have lost? You can see how this all becomes confusing.
Why does the end of these historic comic book runs that finished this week feel so definitive when we all know logically that nothing is comics is truly “definitive”? Books may end, but the stories continue. Writers may leave one book but move on to the next. Characters can die but for how long? Serial storytelling is forever, it’s a song that never ends. It can change tempo and pitch, the words can change but it remains the same. We feel the weight of these last issues because the writers and artists are honestly that damn good; given the time they had, we became comfortable together. As Capt. Picard tells Cmdr. Riker in Star Trek: Generations, he believes “that time is a companion who goes with us on the journey and reminds us to cherish every moment, because it will never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we’ve lived.”
A particular era of Marvel comics has ended. Writers and artists may return, but this one moment is over to make way for something new. Now is a perfectly reasonable time to reminisce about.