The latest announcements from Marvel have stirred up a hornet’s nest – just how far should writers be able to change a comic book character? Two legendary comic creators, John Byrne and Dan Slott, have entered into heated debate...
When Marvel began publishing characters such as Spider-Man, they had absolutely no idea how successful they’d be. To the amazement of even the great Stan Lee, there was something about the characters and concepts that just endured. The combination of character and context was perfect, and created a milestone character who could flourish.
But here’s the problem: when you’re writing a character like Spider-Man, you can’t simply stick him in a cryo-tube and miraculously preserve him. Life is change, and art reflects life; and so comics, as an art form, must have a form of change within them. And the risk is simple: what if you change the wrong thing? What if you make an irrevocable change in the status quo that ruins Spider-Man’s winning formula?
Stan Lee’s answer was ‘the Illusion of Change’. Over on MahMuseComics, I summed it up like this:
[The Illusion of Change is] The idea that a writer is never more than a custodian of a character, that whatever plot-twists the story goes through, the status quo will always prevail. Why? Because the writers want the next comic to sell just as well as this one did.
Spider-Man was, for years, the poster boy for the illusion of change. In Comic Buyer’s Guide #1285, back in 1998, Peter David expressed it like this:
Over the years, Stan and Steve (and later John) put him through changes. But when you get down to it, they satisfied the concept of illusionary change. Peter went from high school to college… but he was still a student. Betty Brant and Liz Allen gave way to Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson, and nemesis Flash Thompson stepped aside for nemesis Harry Osborn. Otherwise, though, he was pretty much the same guy. Sure, he got a motorcycle, which was the ultimate in cool… but he wound up having to sell it, thereby bringing the money problems back to the forefront. It was evolution, but 360 degrees’ worth. Same old Spider-Man, same old Peter Parker, same old problems at the core.
And so, whenever a writer has toyed with actual real change, there’s always been resistance. Take the marriage of Peter Parker and Mary-Jane Watson. As the 1990s progressed, it became clear that this permanent change in Spider-Man’s status quo meant that the writers couldn’t tell the same old story. Marvel had committed to personal growth, but then began to realise that personal growth meant a change both in character and, as a result, in market.
Another change commonly toyed with? The death of Aunt May. Marv Wolfman catered to the concept of the illusion of change when he had Peter told Aunt May had died, but it was all a trick. She was actually killed off in the 1990s, but that – along with the idea that Peter had been a Spider-clone – was undone as a trick of Norman Osborn’s. And her death became the instigation for “One More Day” and the subsequent Spider-versal reboot.
“One More Day” is, at heart, the ultimate fulfilment of the illusion of change. Joe Quesada felt there were several key mistakes in Marvel history; the Decimation was a correction of one (a dramatic reduction in the number of mutants); “One More Day” was the fix for another, the Spider-Man marriage, which he felt wasn’t suited to an ongoing Spider-Man universe. Over two summits, Quesada and his team pieced their plans together, and the only real debate was over whether or not to bring Gwen Stacy back as well as Harry Osborn.
Ironically, “One More Day” became the basis for Dan Slott’s run – and Dan Slott is most definitely not a supporter of the concept of illusion of change. In fact, in the wake of the All-New, All-Different Marvel announcements, Slott had a run-in with none other than the great John Byrne on this very subject.
John Byrne began the debate like this:
Slott, of course, expresses the all too common fannish position the Change Is Good! And a quick review of the last forty years or so shows us how well that has worked out!
Throughout the debate, Byrne consistently argued that the core element of the characters should always remain unchanged. For example, he asserted that the marriage to Mary-Jane had been a mistake; and, when Slott praised his run on She-Hulk, which Slott had tried to honour, he retorted:
I remember the effort you put into restoring the character to who she'd been before I changed her.
Oh, wait. You didn't. Because I hadn't.
To Byrne, the problem has come because fans have become the writers and the artists. He looks back with a sense of nostalgia to the early days of comics:
During this period -- roughly a quarter century -- although comics experienced steadily diminishing sales, that decline had little or nothing to do with the characters. A series of bad business decisions had been made (among them, reducing the page count in order to keep the 10¢ cover price), and comics as a medium suffered for them. But the characters remained the same. The talent was largely anonymous -- we recognized artists by their styles, not their names -- and all focus was on the characters. Characters who were kept "on model," so that the constantly changing audience would find the same product, "generation" to "generation". The notion that these characters would (or should) "change and grow" was not even considered. Superman was always Superman. Batman was always Batman. Et cetera.
Now, for the record, Byrne isn't alone in this perspective. Gerry Conway has made similar statements; back in the '80s, he was interviewed by The Comics Journal, and observed:
Superheroes, in fact any series character, they aren't supposed to change. They're supposed to have the ILLUSION of change. The trouble is there was me and all these other guys who came into the business in the 70's and we were all excited about the potential of comics and we were all radical and we made the mistake of actually instituting REAL change.
Conway should know; he's the guy who killed off Gwen Stacy.
Slott, on the other hand, insisted that he could see real changes in Byrne's own work - Sue changing her name to the Invisible Woman after her miscarriage, for example. (Amusingly enough, Peter David mentioned that the last real change for the Hulk before his run was the marriage of Bruce Banner and Betty Ross - by John Byrne.) In Slott's view, some changes are essential;
In an age where every phone has a camera and where newspapers are dying, it doesn't really make sense to have Peter Parker be a newspaper photographer anymore. It just feels wrong in the book...
As much as there are elements that (I feel) should always be there for each and every generation (for when THEY discover the characters), there are also elements that should have the freedom to change, so that Marvel Comics can stay relevant and reflect "The World Outside Your Window"... today!
And... sometimes... messing with the concepts that we feel SHOULD be immutable CAN shake things up and provide some really fun stories! Treading on forbidden ground is something that can really keep the reader on edge and interested. If comics ever feel the need to play it too safe, that is as sure of a death knell than anything.
We all know that Slott has been willing to put his money where his mouth is; he received death threats when he dared to have Peter Parker's body taken over by Doctor Octopus and launched SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN.
So here's the question - who's right?
Well, the first problem I have with Byrne's argument is that, historically, there are several key issues with it. He's right that, after decades of comics, the fans were entering the publishing house; of course he is, he was there at that point in time! But he's wrong that no changes had happened to characters and concepts before those days. Take Superman as an example. In a recent article, I've discussed the Man of Steel's history, and shown how even ideas such as the power of flight - so iconic to Superman - were added decades after the book was first published. In fact, Perry White and Jimmy Olsen were created by a Superman radio show. The famous phrase "truth, justice and the American way" only became iconic during the Cold War, and has recently been questioned. The mythos had continued to evolve, and had absorbed changes into its' status quo in a natural, organic way.
This has always been the case. When Byrne and Claremont penned the classic "Dark Phoenix Saga", they added to the mythos of the X-Men universe - and made fundamental changes to the fabric of that universe. Ironically enough, the most drastic and jarring moments have been when writers, artists and editors have attempted to 'reset' continuity, to undo a change rather than accept it and move on from it. In Spider-Man terms, the classic examples were the ret-conning of the Spider-clone, the discovery that Aunt May was still alive and her death was a hoax plotted by the Green Goblin, and "One More Day". Now, I'm not going to argue in favor of all those original concepts - the idea that Peter was the Spider-clone was a bad one from the start. But the 'fixes' put in place to restore the status quo were drastic and damaging. I mean, what kind of hero makes a deal with the devil? Just a few years before "One More Day", Nightcrawler had been presented with the same choice as Spider-Man - and his response had been telling:
Now, if the illusion of change were so important, you'd expect all fans to have the fondest memories of that kind of story. However, the opposite is the case. In 2012, CBR celebrated Spider-Man's 50th anniversary with a fan-vote for the best Spider-stories ever told. The results are almost uniformly the stories that actually dared to make a change. The era where the illusion of change pretty much ruled the roost in Spider-stories is dramatically under-represented. Unwittingly, I think fandom has made its voice heard on this one.
Meanwhile, the illusion of change has actually caused damage. As Peter David put it:
The illusion of change has raised the threshold of what will grab and hold an audience. Genuine change becomes extremely problematic because in order to make it really stick, you have to do something drastic just to get the reader’s attention.
And, in fact, this leads to a constant escalation that just gets tiresome. Let's tear the adamantium from Wolverine's bones; let's remove his healing factor; let's kill him!
Another key problem with all this is that the writers and editors can choose to reset to the wrong status quo. In my view, this is what Marvel did with "One More Day". I got into the Spider-Man comics when Peter Parker and Mary-Jane were married. That was the status quo throughout my childhood; the older books led me to that status quo as I read them, and the books I was reading continued on from them. Peter Parker represented a man I wanted to be; a good man, happily married, using his gifts responsibly. The desperate attempts to undo the Spider-marriage over the late 1990s left me disinterested in the character, and "One More Day" was a final assault on a status quo that I loved.
Initially, I refused to read "Brand New Day" era Spider-Man as an objection. When I finally did start to pick up the books, Dan Slott's writing drew me in - but, in my view, it was a good writer making the best of a bad context. And Slott's twisty version of the Spider-marriage in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN: RENEW YOUR VOWS #1 has gone down as one of my favourite comics of the year to date.
To me, there's a strong element of nostalgia to all this. I think that Quesada (and Byrne) were not-so-quietly wanting the Peter Parker they'd known and loved to be back to being the man he was - whereas Peter had grown up, and they simply needed to get to know him again. It's like meeting an old friend, and getting that strange sense of discomfort as you realise they're not the same person you knew, mixed with nostalgia as you remember the past.
With that element of nostalgia comes an inevitable element of subjectivity; who decides which are the key components of Peter Parker? As Slott and Byrne prove, even the best of creators can disagree.
The final problem is that the illusion of change is a weaker concept that means writers may be tempted to never tell true tales of change. Byrne is dismissive of writers, claiming they "hide" behind the story - but writers are paid to tell a story, that is the very nature of their job, and stories change characters. Pretending otherwise, constantly resetting to a status quo, makes the characters impossible to relate to in the long run. It makes the issues they deal with feel lightweight, and their heroism - bereft of all risk - becomes as fleeting as the morning mist.
I think that there's actually a psychological aspect to why the illusion of change is so powerful a notion. Although change is an essential part of life, all humans - to some extent - fight against it. Change is the unknown, the uncomfortable, and the uncertain. Change is a risk. And in our reading, when we come to the characters we love, we can feel a sense of betrayal when we find something different to what we've come to expect. The 'same' is like a safety blanket, warm and tender, keeping us comfortable; like an old photograph, careworn but much-loved, that reminds you of yesterday's world.
The counter to this, of course, is that when Peter Parker changes, he leaves a gap in the market - a gap roughly the size and shape of the original Spider-Man concept. Slott's response is to point to new books to fill that void - books like MISS MARVEL and UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL. To his detractors, that's not enough; they want their old Spider-Man back. But they miss the real problem there. If Peter Parker never grows older, never vacates that space, then the potential for new comic book heroes is reduced. MISS MARVEL and ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN can flourish precisely because AMAZING SPIDER-MAN has moved on and given them a chance to do so, for example. What's more, although they fill the niche left by AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, they're also markedly different - MISS MARVEL represents aspects of diversity and youthfulness far better than AMAZING SPIDER-MAN typically does. So do we, as an industry, really want to wind up with a status quo where the only ideas are fifty years old, and where nothing new is ever given room to breathe?
Now, I don't argue that all change is good. Change should be careful and considered; it should be done in a systematic way, with the greatest of care and with a real love for the characters. But change is also necessary, because change is a part of life, and all art - including comic books - reflects life.