I have ranted before on how much I dislike comic book reboots and retcons, especially because neither DC nor Marvel do it right. A hard reboot or retcon basically changes the fundamental nature of a character or the universe. Soft retcons are actually done all the time and usually with just a hand wave from the writers to the readers. Here’s how that generally plays out:
Reader – Hey, was this always X’s origin?
Writer – Of course it was! Been this way for years.
Reader – Yes, but was it this way for years last issue?
Most soft retcons are tweaks to characters that are necessary because no one in comics ever really dies ever, especially uber-popular characters. For some characters, that’s not a problem because they are functionally immortal (Captain America), but for others this is a problem because they should have aged and died a looooong time ago (Batman, Nick Fury, Iron Man, just to name a few). How writers deal with this varies.
1) Make ’em immortal:
This problem arose with Captain America and Nick Fury. Both of them have an origin of fighting Nazis. Well, Captain America got shot up with super soldier serum and frozen for 20 years. He hasn’t aged, however, and with a oh-so slight soft retcon, it turns out that the super soldier serum not only enhances his physical attributes, it slows down the aging process. The movie universe just chose to have him frozen for 70 years, although it’ll be interesting in the sequel to figure out how long Bucky Barnes has been running around, but I digress. Now look at Nick Fury. Same start, still alive, but not the product of an experiment to produce a super soldier. And frankly, Nick doesn’t look much older than he did in the original Howling Commandos comics. So what did the writers do? They had a soft retcon in which Nick Fury got his hands on a completely different experimental super soldier serum that made him functionally immortal.
The problem, of course, is making everyone’s favorite character immortal leads to a crowded universe and makes those special super soldier serums a lot less special when it seems any writer’s favorite can get their hands on it.
2) Time Jump
This is common for characters whose origins are based in an event linked to some historical context. If I recall, Hal Jordan was originally a test pilot in WWII. Tony Stark was originally nearly fatally wounded in the Korean Conflict. Well, obviously that doesn’t hold up or they would both be very very very old men. So Hal’s origin got bumped to a fighter pilot in Vietnam and Tony’s got bumped up to having been captured in Afghanistan (actually very similar to his movie origin). Even Captain America got this treatment; originally he was frozen for 20 years but now it’s closer to 40 years. However, time jumping happens for characters who don’t have historical origins. For example, the set of “X-men: First Class” which was telling previously untold stories of the original five X-men (originally set in the 1960s) was bumped up in time so far that Cyclops had a cell phone.
One problem is that there won’t always be a convenient event to hang the origin on. On the other hand, writers can eventually disassociate the origin from a specific event. For example, they could, in theory, just make Hal’s origin as a test pilot/fighter pilot and leave out the specific conflict he might or might not be involved in. The other problem is that older readers will know better. Hal was a WWII fighter, darn it, and the first X-men certainly didn’t have cell phones.
3) Time Compression
DC went whole hog with this one for their New 52 series. They cut out many background stories but not all of them and then shoved them into a five-year time span. This moves up the origin of many superheroes to about the 1970s or 1980s (i.e, modern day). I can’t help but wonder if the editors saw how successful Nolan’s modernized “Batman” was and said, “Hey, let’s do that!” Then of course they realized they couldn’t do that just for Batman so they brought everyone else along for the ride because Batman. Anyway, reasons aside, the new universe is compressed into a very short time span which avoids the issue that Bruce Wayne should be a very very very old man (his original origin [ha!] being in the 1930s).
There are a few problems with this. One, five years is not a lot of time to cram in all the backstory the DC editors decided was relevant, especially for Batman, so it’s not quite as realistic as they were going for. Two, a whole bunch of characters just disappeared because old favorites were re-taking their capes. And three, well, some of the origins just don’t make any sense in a modern setting. I actually thought about this when I first saw Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne watches his parents get murdered and is left in the custody of the family’s butler. In the 1930s, no one would have batted an eye at this odd custodial arrangement, nor would anyone have suggested perhaps the child should see a psychiatrist to work through the horrible trauma he just went through because only crazy people went to see shrinks. But in the 1970s/80s leaving a child to the custody of a non-family member who would stand to inherit a huuuuge fortune if the child died would raise some eyebrows and notice. And while sadly there still is a stigma against seeking help for mental illnesses, it would have been negligent on Alfred’s part not to take young Bruce to a mental health professional of some sort because the kid watched his parents get shot!
4) Ignore It
The most popular method of a soft retcon is ignoring the problem of time and aging. How old is Peter Parker again? When did Spider-man debut? Exactly.
The problem is that readers do notice this sort of thing. Ultimately though I’m not sure which variety of soft retcon presents the most problems. Readers know they have to suspend disbelief for comics, so maybe the fact that Aunt May was always a very old lady and still is a very old lady is just part of that suspension. Maybe older readers just learn to sigh to themselves when their favorite characters of the 1960s are time jumped to be more relevant. At least by ignoring Peter’s actual age and debut, the problems of a modern origin are avoided (for Peter, it would have been the attitude towards the bullying he endured).
On the whole, though, it’s just symptomatic of a larger issue in comics, which I have touched on before. I love the medium, but it’s really not very dynamic. Soft retcons and reboots are easier to take in a lot of ways (although not the New 52 because it retconned/rebooted the whole universe) but don’t really contribute to making better stories. And in some cases, the constant soft retcons and reboots make it harder to reconcile a character’s origin with a modern view.