Outdating Origins II: Attempts to Revise
Let’s talk origins some more, shall we? All superheroes have their genesis—not their birth, not their creation, nor their conception—what I refer to is the character’s in-story motivation to be a hero. This is a story that usually we can pinpoint to an issue #1 if a character is being launched and not spun off of another storyline or title altogether, though often characters get their start in minor or passing roles in storylines and become immensely popular. Characters and groups such as Wolverine, Deadpool, Cable, (Cable and Deadpool!), X-Factor, (well, actually any character associated with the X-Men has at one point or another had their own title, spinoff, or mini), Supergirl, Robin, Magog, The Justice League, Black Cat, Mary Jane (I mean really do I have to continue after Mary Jane?!?)—the list goes on. The issue here is, as discussed in an earlier blog, that sometimes origins have an expiration date—or at the very least a perceived expiration date.
Marvel has a generally good attitude about this sort of thing—generally they weed out their story continuity by simply omitting many or just -ahem- One Moment In Time and keep it moving. Often times these omissions are simply erased from existence without another mention or at least faded to a point of reference with no clear context. For example in the 1970’s Captain America became “disillusioned” with his government and discarded his mantle in lieu of the identity of “Nomad” (a man without a country). This was done in reference to a high elected U.S. government official resigning in disgrace. Of course the official in question was in the real world none other than President Richard Nixon. This of course becomes exceedingly anachronistic as a careful look at timelines puts the Marvel Universe’s current origin sometime in the year 2000-2002.
Before I continue I feel that it is necessary for me to explain my timeline claim. In my previous entry “Outdating Origins” I explained the crucial role of Magneto to the timing of the Marvel Universe vis-a-vi bridging World War II to the current era. Within that current era of time Spider-Man is the crucial timing lynch-pin, and also important to examine in this discussion (and also awesome). At the age of 15 Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and despite all known science surrounding radiation, spider bites, and any permutation thereof was endowed with spider-powers and abilities allowing him to fulfill his fate as The Amazing, Spectacular, Sensational, Peter Parker: Spider-Man. Peter Parker, however, did not remain 15 for very long.
As a matter of fact Spider-Man is only a high school student for the first 28 issues of Amazing Spider-Man. While Spider-Man is perpetually defined as being a young super-hero, he is in fact the first successful non-side kick teenaged superhero, his time spent as a high school student spans only his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 in August 1962 to Amazing Spider-Man #28 in September 1965. Mind you, these are the golden times of the Marvel Universe; while Stan Lee was scribing Spider-Man he was also writing, creating, and spearheading the birth of the entire Marvel Universe (and presumably his corporeal children ) creating or re-creating such iconic characters as featured in/with: Fantastic Four, X-Men, The Hulk, Iron Man, Daredevil, and the Avengers to name a few.
The distinct and defining difference between Spider-Man and almost all of these other characters lies in his age; with the exception of the original roster of X-Men they are all adults. While the X-Men have aged considerably since their debut and have had several generations of “new recruits” that has catapulted Cyclops, Jean Grey, The Beast, et al into, presumably, their mid-thirties Spider-Man holds the bench mark for timing. Until very recently the Marvel Universe’s Age of Superheroes on Earth-616 could be considered to about 15-16 years old as measured by the length of Spider-Man’s career.
This number is an estimate based on the happenings of Peter Parker’s life: graduating high school and college, the death of Gwen Stacy, droppi
ng out of graduate school, getting married, having several different jobs including high school teacher, being separated from his wife a few times, losing a baby to a miscarriage, and working for Tony Stark. For these events to transpire we would have to assume some time had passed. Graduating College: 21. Dropping out of Graduate School: 23 or 24. Getting Married: 25, 26, 27. Other: 28-31,32 maybe.
It is arguable that many events have happened to other heroes over the decades long span of their serialization, and this is true, but few characters have had this span include age-defining milestones. The Fantastic Four debuted a full year before Spider-Man, but their milestones aren’t the same, nor do they have the lifecycle impacts of Spider-Man’s. Peter didn’t graduate early from high school or college—nor was he left back—which places him at an age of approximately 21 or 22 depending on his birthday. Spending a reasonable amount of time in graduate school right after college places him at about 23 or 24, depending on the amount of time he spent accruing monumental debt. The rest of the events are conjecture, but as an educated, married, man in his mid-twenties I I feel comfortable making some such conjectures. Likewise, up to this point in our discussion the X-Men aged at an equal-if-not-comparable pace.
(SPOILER ALERT: While the following is indeed comic book continuity now, if you have not read: Civil War, One More Day, Brand New Day, or One Moment In Time and plan on doing so…well you’ve already boosted my stats for the day so I don’t feel bad about you moving on to another installment of this blog or Letters to Jeremy… and neither should you!)
But this timeline was recently shortened, significantly. Following the events of Marvel’s Civil War, which saw the public self-unmasking of Spider-Man in the White House press room, life became difficult for Spider-Man. With all of his nemesis now aware of his true identity none-other-than the Kingpin puts a hit on everyone involved with his life and J. Jonah Jameson suffers a heart attack and sues Parker for fraud to the tune of millions of dollars. Eventually the hitmen catch Aunt May and the bullet meant for Mary Jane endangers this septuple-octogenarian’s life…again.
Cutting the story short (and saving those of you that disregarded the spoiler alert about $400 dollars worth of comics) Spider-Man and MJ make a deal with Mephisto to erase their marriage in exchange for Aunt May’s continued life, and the nullification of the world’s knowledge that he is Spider-Man. This opened up a new world of stories for Spider-Man in the Brand New Day arc and undid, probably the most definitive move Marvel had made in my life time (besides, maybe, revealing Wolverine’s origin in Origim but the impact is not the same).
In so doing Spider-Man was retconned back to about the age of 23, freshly dropped out of Grad School, having been engaged to but not married to Mary Jane, and basically swinging around not able to make the rent. At what point would it have made more sense to switch to the Ultimate Spider-Man origin? Just change up everything if you feel you need to “free up” some story telling space? Why not just take Spider-Man back to square one of you are going to make him ten years younger?
In making Spidey younger, theoretically, this should have de-aged, or undid quite a bit of Marvel continuity, not the least of which being the original team of X-Men, but it did not. So if we simply assume that the original team of X-Men’s exploits happened at an early juncture it works a little better. And if we remove or shift a couple of other events it works a little better. So on and so forth. As I elucidated upon in “Outdating Origins” in an integrated comic book universe requires quite a bit of lining up in order from there to be the consistency required for crossover to occur. For over forty years Marvel had it down perfectly—until they retconned Spider-Man’s age. (Note: I am not a fan of One More Day—I feel the deal was stupid—but I am a fan of the Brand New Day storyline.) Now you have to do quite a bit of this kind of “continuity tetris” to make things line up and still there are gaps—so they took something perfect and fucked it up a little for no particularly good reason. It also shrinks the events of the Marvel Universe from a 17 year span to an 8 to 9 year span. A significant difference, indeed.
Which brings us back to origins, these origins need to be constantly updated or re-imagined to make characters fundamentally relatable to contemporary times. Captain America cannot have become Nomad in a world where Watergate occurred some 30 years before his reanimation. In fact Captain America’s entire modus operandi would play out differently in the 8-9 year continuity plan because in the world where Captain America woke up 9/11 was either just about to or had just happened. Waking up at the start of Dubya’s War or Terror would have a completely different effect on Cap’s world view than the 1960’s or even the 1990’s (pre-OMD). What difference would it have made to Captain America if he had thawed out in a world where instead of killing Krauts he was massacring Mohammadeans? It wouldn’t. And while I know this argument would eventually shift towards this scenario ten years from now the amount of time between “the present” and “the past” would allow for significant character development and realization to push along the plausibility of Cap’s middle of the road with liberal leanings world view.
This conundrum is much more germane to the Marvel Universe than the DC Universe. Marvel time and again tries to imagine it’s events happening in a “real world”. A real world with Spider-Men, Cosmic Cubes, Galacti (Galactuses?), and rock men called “Thing” instead of “Rockman”, that is. The DC Universe is a bit more flexible with the –ahem- reality. DC also regularly purges their timelines and universes in a much more bulimic way than Marvel. DC has had, at least, four major reboots in the past 25 years—all of which were Crises. Crisis on Infinite Earths purged all alternate realities and merged the major universes of DC’s Multiverse into a singular world, but not singular timeline. Zero Hour: Crisis in Time reordered the main timelines of characters with complicated origins like Hawkman, The Justice Society, and The Legion of Superheroes. Infinite Crisis undid the majority of the unnecessary retcons of the original Crisis. It left, instead of an endless number of multiple realities, one Prime Earth and 52 variations of choice alternate realities. Final Crisis…well it fucked everything up to a very confusing degree that actually opened DC up to have some fluidity to make it up as they go along.
DC Continuity, while often convoluted, is less reliant on single lynch pins in general. DC’s current “Age of Heroes” starts with the appearance of Superman, though Batman was already active, and that happened “10 years ago” or so. Superman might be considered to be the lynch-pin in the same way as Spider-Man because Superman is earnestly an adult in his early to mid 30’s in almost any main-continuity story. Sure, he marries Lois Lane but other than that he has very few life cycle milestones that denote any kind of aging. Also Superman’s appearance is “ten years ago” and his origin is actually his life story. Spider-Man’s origin is much more important to the continuity of Marvel because Spider-Man’s first appearance marks a point where a character starts aging and not where they perpetually remain.
Here’s a sticky wicket for you though—Superman is a newspaper journalist, or rather Clark Kent is. How long is that going to last? At what point does this become an anachronism? Eventually Superman is going to need a different job if he is going to remain a reporter. Either he will have to be a blogger, or internet news reporter which will leave him with a somewhat lessened degree of dual-personality fame, or a television (or other video media) news reporter which will make his disguise even less
plausible than it already is. Also with the state of the American Farming Industry and satellite technology respectively being what they are it becomes less likely for Superman to have been raised on a farm, in secret, without having been found by the government somehow either before or after his ship lands on Earth.
Luckily, DC has 52 Earths in which they can attempt to revamp their character’s histories and characteristics without resorting to making deals with the devil. Enter Earth-One which is, by all accounts, DC’s second or third attempt at competing with Marvel’s Ultimate Universe—which is in a nut shell a reimagining of familiar characters from a contemporary point of view allowing for vastly or markedly different origins and relationships to develop and occur.
(SPOILER ALERT: If you plan on reading Superman: Earth One and plan on doing so…well you’ve already boosted my stats for the day so I don’t feel bad about you moving on to another installment of this blog or Letters to Jeremy… and neither should you!)
In Earth-One Superman is still only 20 years old. He is just starting out in the game, as a matter of fact he doesn’t even know what game he wants to play. He tries his hand
at science, pro-football, journalism, anything he can think of to help people without wearing tights—oddly enough a vocation his earthly parents are encouraging. Being simple farm people his mother can weave unbreakable threads and his father has a significant working knowledge of the nature of humanity and their fear of masks.
As it turns out though, a vast armada has been scouring the cosmos for the last Kryptonian as per some shadowy deal with unknown powers. This armada comes from a race that shared a solar system with Krypton and actually had a hand in the destruction of Superman’s homeworld. Their leader resembles a visual portmanteau of KISS and the Crow and seems to have no personality what-so-ever; in the 90’s he would have had three or four MacFarlane action figures by now.
In looking for a job young Kent finds that he can best service humanity by wearing a brightly colored ski-suit and writing therapeutic journalism where he interviews his two personalities and sells them to failing newspapers—effectively saving the company, and mayhaps the entire industry of print journalism!
Other than the age switch though, this doesn’t do much to alter or change the world of Superman. I think some of Jor-El and Lara’s dialogue might be paraphrased from Mario Puzo’s screenplay and John Byrne respectively. What it does do, however is at least nod at the world of today in respect to the world of 1938. It attempts to bring Superman to a relatable age for readers and makes him less concrete and resolute. His morals are certainly intact but his self-assurance, his confidence are somewhat in flux as he is still essentially a kid; a farm boy in the big city in fact.
This returns me to a question which actually will in the next few years begin to effect all established comic continuities—what to do about outdated origins? How long can Magneto be a Holocaust survivor? How long can Superman be a newspaper reporter? Or Spider-Man a newspaper photographer? When will Colossus no longer have grown up in Soviet Russia? Can Bruce Wayne have a ward? How long can Green Arrow wear that beard? Very soon all of these origins will meet with significant change or become unrealistic. Will Earth-One and Ultimate Marvel eventually phase out the more familiar Earth-Prime and 616? Is that their –ahem- ultimate function? I’m not exactly sure. That might be the case—it would seem like good planning on the part of the creators and powers that be…which is exactly why I doubt it.