Storytelling Failures – Marvel’s Illuminati

This is an odd hybrid rant.  One side of the mash-up is the utter failure of the stories involving Marvel’s Illuminati (thus far) and the other side is the mash-up is that this is a retcon that I, were I tyrant-in-chief, would have not allowed under any circumstances and probably would have chewed out the writer(s)/editor(s) who suggested it.

By the way, this is spawned because the company that runs Marvel’s subscription service is fairly terrible and this is the third time my friend with the subscription has received a comic he is not technically signed up to receive.  Third.  In two years.  Yeah.  So this time instead of Ultimate Spider-man, he got New Avengers #1, which is misleading on pretty much every level.  It’s not #1; according to the recap page it’s actually #16.  It’s also not the New Avengers that I’ve discussed before and the group is not in fact even Avengers but the Illuminati.  It’s also not even new because this set of comics is up to issue #3.  That’s a lot of fail, especially considering this is not even the comic my friend subscribed to!

So, time for some backstory.  There are reasons I dropped Marvel, and this dumbass retcon was one of them.  Oh, yes, while I usually try to be measured in my criticisms and often regret being too sharp (still sorry about the Superior Spider-man thing, but how was I supposed to know the end goal was to bring Peter Parker back?), this is not one of those times.  I find the concept of the Illuminati to be so detrimental to the characters, the stories, hell, the very fabric of Marvel’s 616 continuity, I will be much less than measured…  Also, this will be long.  Long and ranty.

So anyway, a bunch of things tend to happen in Marvel that should attract the attention of certain people and never seem to.  This is both a plothole but also a fact that is almost necessary for suspension of disbelief.  Apparently, people who write comics picked up on the obvious plothole of people not talking to each other and apparently didn’t understand that is not a plothole to pick at.  They should have watched the ST:TNG episode “Tapestry;” it’s not a perfect analogue, but sometimes picking at loose threads in the continuity causes the whole damn thing to unravel, which is kind of what happened here.  While I do indeed complain that an alien invasion in the Fantastic Four should damn well get the Avengers involved, for many of the stories the fact that such groups tend to not talk to each other is the only way to believe the outcome.

Anyway, long story short (too late) Marvel writer Bendis (whom I normally like but wow do good writers sometimes make horrendous mistakes), got the task of fixing the universe, which in this case meant explaining why the hell Reed Richards never talked to Charles Xavier who never talked to Stephen Strange and so on despite the fact they logically should have.  Via a retcon in 2005, suddenly the Illuminati, a group consisting of Prof X, Mr. Fantastic, Iron Man, Blackbolt, Dr. Strange, and Namor, had existed since right after the Kree-Skrull War (abouts 1971-1972 in real time).  So this means over thirty years of comic book history was suddenly retconned to have had this group existing all the time and doing whatever it is that they do.  And what did they do?  F*#k up royal is what they do.  Here’s a brief summary of events that actually impact Universe 616.

1) They meet and decide that such men of power and benevolence should try to talk to each other and prevent another war like the Kree-Skrull War, but in secret, because that’s in no way what villains do.  Initially Black Panther is invited, but he basically tells them they’re being self-righteous [Denis Learys] and that heroes totally do not meet in secret to decide the fate of the world.  He leaves, and the others continue to secretly meet because clearly they are not villains, right?

2) They decide to go to the Skrull Empire and show off how badass they are to convince the skrulls to never invade Earth.  They promptly get themselves captured, tortured, and experimented on, until they finally escape, leaving the Skrulls with much more intelligence on the defenses of Earth than they had before that little stunt.  Spoiler alert!  This did not turn out well.

3) Tried to stop the Beyonder and the Secret Wars II.  Spoiler alert – it totally did not work.  Also, the writers of that set of stories apparently couldn’t be bothered to read the original Secret Wars II and consequently had numerous continuity errors.  Spoiler alert!  This is a trend with the Illuminati.

4) Tried to convince Marvel Boy, a Kree warrior, to protect Earth instead of take it over.  Shockingly, this worked.  It’s pretty much the only thing that did, and honestly it should not have taken Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Dr. Strange, Prof X, Blackbolt, and Namor to convince this kid to be a hero.

5) The Sentry is retconned into existence and they discuss the matter and Iron Man decides the Avengers will take him into their fold.  Spoiler alert!  This does not turn out well, although I concede this may not have been their fault.

6) After the Hulk smashes up a whole bunch of stuff (as he is wont to do), including Las Vegas, Iron Man tells the group (minus Prof X) that they should shoot the Hulk into space and maroon him on a deserted planet.  Namor is the only person who dissents.  Namor.  Yeah, Namor, the guy who periodically decides to destroy/conquer the surface world.  Namor, the anti-hero, is the only one who thinks it’s wrong do this action and he stands by his principles and leaves over it.  NAMOR.  Well, the others shoot the Hulk into space.  Spoiler alert!  This also does not turn out well, and it is absolutely and completely their fault.

7) Despite dissolving the group over Iron Man starting Civil War, for some reason Mr. Fantastic, who has been collecting Infinity Gems (don’t know how the Infinity Watch felt about that), gives them to his former best buddies to protect them.

8) Hey, remember that time the Illuminati shot the Hulk into space and marooned him on a deserted planet?  Well, it wasn’t deserted because the geniuses couldn’t get the shuttle to hit the right planet, and after some contrivance, Hulk heads back to Earth for revenge!  Because that’s totally what heroes do!  And instead of you know, taking responsibility for being totally unheroic douche-bags, the Illuminati end up in a big fight that managed to destroy everyone’s characters.  Except Namor, because he told the Illuminati where to stick it in the first place.  (Note – I think “World War Hulk” is an epic fail of storytelling too)

9) Hey, remember that time the Illuminati decided to preen and posture and warn the Skrull Empire that they were total badasses and instead got their idiot selves captured like chumps?  Yeah, well, with all that extra intelligence the Skrulls invaded Earth, secretly.  It sucked.

10) Hey, remember that time when Mr. Fantastic gave all his best buddies the Infinity Gems to guard?  So, naturally, someone came after those gems.  It sucked, especially since the baddie was a C-list arcanist (I don’t care who was possessing him) and shouldn’t have been a real problem.  This set of events ended with Captain America being given custody of a gem.  That actually was a good idea.  Sadly, one of the few this brain trust has come up with.

11) So in the issue I just read, apparently a bunch of universes are colliding and this could be the end of 616.  Black Panther (remember, the guy who wisely said “screw this!” at the beginning) loses all common sense (or is subject to a dumbass “creative team”) and decides to get the band back together!  You know, the one he was part of for like five minutes before he realized how stupid the idea was.  And he gets all of them, even Namor.  Well, except Prof X, since he is dead and has had his brain eaten by the Red Skull, so he’s replaced with Beast.

I’d like to pause a moment and point out of this group (Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Namor, Blackbolt, Mr. Fantastic, Beast, Black Panther), five of them have been or are Avengers, but they’re still not Avengers!!!

Anyway, to try to prevent the worlds from colliding, they try the Infinity Gauntlet, which doesn’t work (because the Living Tribunal said it would never work again, but apparently the writers didn’t actually know that because who could be bothered to read up on the continuity and just declared it didn’t work or else there would be no plot).  All the Gems are destroyed (which they can’t be) except the Time Gem and Captain America is rightfully upset about the whole existence of the Illuminati.  Naturally, as perhaps the only hero (big damn or otherwise) left in the Marvel universe, Cap attempts to convince them that they are wrong and so Iron Man asks Dr. Strange to wipe Cap’s memory of meeting the Illuminati, and Dr. Strange is totally okay with that, because heroes absolutely wipe the minds of other heroes to hide the existence of their secret and totally not villainous club.  Based on my knowledge of narrative structure, and the history of the Illuminati thus far, I predict this will not go well, and it will be their own damn fault.

12) And then there’s all the stuff the Illuminati didn’t do, which if not spelled out is implied by their very existence.  Every major event that occurred between their retcon and the present that they utterly failed to prevent – The Korvac Saga, the Phoenix Saga, the Dark Phoenix Saga, Inferno, the Nefaria Trilogy, Days of Future Past, the Trial of Magneto, Avengers Under Siege, Acts of Vengeance, the Phalanx Covenant, Operation: Galactic Storm, and so on and so forth.  All those major events happened despite, in theory, the Illuminati existing and, you know, talking to each other to prevent such things from happening.

Intermission – I’m going to take a moment here to quell my rage by slamming my forehead into something hard until the pain goes away or slamming back shots until the pain goes away.  Either way, I should feel better, by which I mean not on the verge of a Hulk-like rampage, not that I feel better about this [expletive] mess.

Storytelling Failures:
The two biggest failures with this whole concept are character and plot.
Character – I know that people have different character amalgams, but the Illuminati does not fit the character of any of the men involved, except maybe Namor.
a) This is NOT heroic – Yeah, so heroes don’t typically get together for secret meetings to discuss the fate of the world.  That’s kind of a Legion of Doom or Masters of Evil sort of thing.  So the only person that makes any sense to be in this kind of shadowy and morally ambiguous group is, well, Namor.

b) Dumbass! – For this to exist, all of these men would have to exercise the kind of poor judgment more typical of a caffiene-addled, hormone-crazed teenager, and that’s a bit insulting to caffiene-addled, hormone-crazed teenagers.  Sure, let’s barge into the homeworld of the Skrull Empire to show off what kind of badasses we are!  That’s totally a good idea!

c) Incompetent! – Not only are they all arrogant, terrible people, they are utterly, completely, and unbelievably incompetent!  These are people who regularly save the world and yet apparently can’t prevent terrible things from happening and cause more terrible things to happen.  Their incompetence is so complete I’m left wondering how the hell they ever saved the world to all!

Plot –
a) Unraveling the tapestry – This concept only creates plotholes.  Huge, gaping, universe-breaking plotholes.  For example, it is the job of the Sorcerer Supreme to stop magical, extra-dimensional incursions into the universe.  But for those of you unfamiliar with the Inferno, it was, briefly, a magical, extra-dimensional incursion into the universe.  The X-men stopped and Dr. Strange was nowhere to be found.  The cause of the problem was the demon-sorceress Magik.  Now, by the tenuous logic of the universe before the retcon, which is that these people don’t talk to each other, a reader could assume Strange was absent for an event he obviously should have been present for because he was off tending to some other magical, extra-dimensional incursion (so, you know, Tuesday).  But once it has been established that Xavier knows Strange, there is no logical reason why he wasn’t involved.  Because, logically, Xavier should have called in Strange for help the minute he realized Magik was a demon-sorceress.  Whether or not this would have actually prevented Inferno I don’t know, but it does make a giant gaping plothole that this was never even addressed.  And that’s just one of many examples.
b) Been there, done that – Also, heroes acting like villains?  Ooooo!!  That’s so original and has never been done before and I hope the sarcasm is screamingly obvious.  Was that really the best they could come up with in 2005?
c) Made it worse – They caused huge, earth-shattering, terrible crises!  The retcon of the Skrull Empire bluff just made the skrulls more determined to take over Earth.  Flinging the Hulk into space directly led to World War Hulk!  Did Marvel really think it needed the heroes to f@#k up this royal to create drama?

1) What narrative possibilities are created with the retcon of the Illuminati?
a) Retconning events that were unexplainable, or merely unexplained.
b) New stories featuring them.

2) What narrative possibilities are eliminated with this retcon?
a) The ones already presented for the 30-some odd years of events.
b) Closing up loopholes without this retcon.

3) What are the consequences in the larger universe?
a) The members of the Illuminati are no longer heroes.
b) The members of the Illuminati are $#*&ing idiots who cause huge problems like World War Hulk, do not even try to prevent problems like Inferno, and basically fail at every effort to improve the world.  They didn’t even prevent another alien invasion!

4) How does this retcon effect all events subsequent to the Kree-Skrull War?
a) The members of the Illuminati are no longer heroes.
b) The members of the Illuminati are #@$!ing IDIOTS.

In short – Is this narratively necessary?  NO!  No no no no no no no no NOOOOO!  The universe was fine without the Illuminati, plotholes and all.  This retcon actively made the universe worse!

I-I just don’t understand.  I see the kernal of an idea that someone thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”  But the execution is an utter failure.  I can see this working if the Marvel Bullpen had come up with it in 1972.  Was this an effort to address the obvious plothole that these people should have been talking to each other all along?  Trying to shoehorn in a retcon of this magnitude is ridiculous, and the result is ridiculous, and I have difficulty understanding how the “creative team” didn’t see the obvious pitfalls of doing this.  I can also see the appeal of the idea of all these heroes turned villain even if that’s overdone.  But the Illuminati are incompetent.  Why take some of the most important people (and generally competent heroes) and turn them into bumbling morons?  The way these stories play out is almost more of a farce or satire of the idea of Illuminati.  Is there a joke here I’m just not getting?

This isn’t a failure like One More Day.  That was a self-contained story with fairly minor ripples in continuity (although oddly it also made a whole bunch of otherwise awesome people impotent failures).  But the idea of the Illuminati is a Pandora’s Box of fail.  As shown with the brief summary that’s been presented in this rant, there is no end to the damage that can be done.  With the Illuminati in theory existing since 1972, and incorporating characters from every major Marvel title, nothing that’s been written is safe from further meddling through this mechanism.  Any story that has already been written can be modified or completely undone.  And the result of trying to use the Illuminati to write a new story is equally problematic as evidenced by “World War Hulk.”

Seriously, what is even the hell?  What the @#$%ity #@$% was the Bullpen thinking when this idea was approved?  Where did it start and how did it end up this parade of failure and suckitude?  How could nobody see the damage this was inflicting on legacy characters and the continuity of the universe (which already has as many holes as Swiss cheese)?  What was the benefit supposed to be?  New stories?  Then tell NEW stories goddamn it and quit retconning old ones.  And tell good stories, not ludicrous revenge fantasies starring a villain Hulk as a God-mode Gary Stu.

There is not enough *facepalm.*  There is not enough *headdesk.*  There is not enough booze.  I have no words to describe how much of a failure the Marvel Illuminati is from a storytelling standpoint and from a retcon standpoint.  When a writer lacks the words to describe something, that demonstrates how serious the problem is.  I can think of words – fail, incompetent, stupid, dumbass, [expletive], waste, moronic, idiotic, poorly thought-out, ill-conceived, terrible, awful, illogical, inconsistent, horrible, contrived…

But all of these seem inadequate.  Frankly, I find this kind of thing to be symptomatic of a larger issue in the two big comic book companies – a complete lack of respect for internal logic and story consistency.  In other words, this was badly written.  And while I know there were ways to write the plot of OMD in a way that wouldn’t have been a complete failure (although I would have still hated it), I don’t think there was any way this could have worked.

In short, I think the Illuminati was an unworkable, bad idea from the start that was made worse through bad writing.  I also think no amount of good writing could possibly make up for the bad premise.

Hey, I just found the right word to describe this: UGH.

Yeah.  Just… UGH.

A Comic Book Entry – Was It Always Like This Yesterday?

I have thrown around the term “retcon” a lot and assumed everyone knows what the hell I’m talking about.  However, it occurred to me that may not be the case and it also occurred to me since I generally rail against retcons (and as Tyrant-in-Chief said I wouldn’t allow retcons) maybe I should explain why (buckle up, this is a long explanation).

What is Time:
First, “retcon” is short for “retroactive continuity.”  Second, any superhero has two timelines.
1) Real time – the published history of the superhero.
2) Relative time – the superhero’s timeline relative to the universe’s timeline.
Third, the two timelines rarely coincide.  Even despite the compression or extension of a superhero’s real timeline versus relative timeline (that is, the real timeline is say, 70 years, but somehow the relative timeline is only 10 years), the real timeline rarely proceeds in an entirely linear fashion.  That brings us to retroactive continuity.

For illustration purposes, I’m not going to use an actual superhero.  I have a lot of preconceived notions about retcons as I’m sure my audience does, and we probably don’t agree.  Let’s consider Captain Otaku, who is more or less an expy of Captain America and stands for truth and accurate information.  Let’s say his debut comic was Nerdly Comics #25 produced in 1960.  A brief origin story is presented along with a brief adventure to show off the powers of Captain Otaku.  That’s his real timeline.  In one comic, a relative timeline has already been established – Captain Otaku gained his powers in high school and decided to become a superhero (Event 1).  Events happened between him gaining his powers and the adventure presented to us (Event 2) but those events have not been published yet or possibly even thought up yet.  Captain Otaku is a hit and gets his own book and his adventures proceed linearly from Event 2.  But then Captain Otaku #144 is published 1972 and tells a story about a Captain Otaku adventure between Events 1 and 2.  Technically this is retroactive continuity.  Event 1.5 now is and has always been part of Captain Otaku’s relative timeline.  As far as allowing a retcon, the real timeline has no significant bearing on the relative timeline except possibly as societal influences.

Reason to Retcon:
This process is not necessarily bad.  Many times this is used to fill out details of a back story or origin story, such as who was the mysterious professor tutoring Captain Otaku?  What was his fate after the event that gave Captain Otaku his powers?  How did Captain Otaku go from awkward teenager with powers to the hero presented in Event 2?  Who is that woman in the picture frame in Captain Otaku’s apartment?

I have only one criterion for changing a superhero’s past (or indeed their future):
1) Is this narratively necessary?

However, there are a lot of factors to consider with that single criterion:
1) What narrative possibilities are created with the retcon?
2) What narrative possibilities are eliminated with the retcon?
3) What are the consequences in the larger universe (such as interactions with other superheros) of including the event?
4) How does writing Event 1.5 effect all subsequent events in Captain Otaku’s relative timeline?

Items 1), 2), and 3) are questions that should be asked before including any event in a superhero’s timeline, even if Event 234 just happened and the writer is working on Event 235.  It’s 4) in the list above that is the most important.  It’s also 4) that is most often ignored.  I’ll clarify that as Tyrant-in-Chief what I wouldn’t allow are any retcons that do not meet the single criterion listed above (but I also wouldn’t allow linearly progressive stories that don’t meet that criterion either).

Let’s continue the tale of Captain Otaku:
He took to the world to rectify all errors concerning comic books so none would ever feel the burning shame he felt in displaying easily avoided ignorance, that same shame that drove him to commit himself to science and eventually led to the laboratory accident that gave him the Power Comic(book).  By Captain Otaku #144, he is a well-established hero and recently acquired a sidekick, Fanboy (with the power of nerd rage), just ten issues ago (we’ll call this Event 57).  Fanboy is an expy for all eager young sidekicks who got powers (such as Jimmy Olsen or Rick Jones).

Scenario 1 –
The big reveal of Event 1.5 is that Fanboy is actually Captain Otaku’s second sidekick, and Event 1.5 tells the story of the fate of Captain Otaku’s first sidekick, Snark Girl (Fanboy’s distaff counterpart).  Captain Otaku faces a villain called the Mythos Mangler (think Silver Age Lex Luthor), who is unaffected by the Captain’s attempts to use the Power Comic(book) to rectify the misconceptions about Wonder Woman’s origins.  However, Snark Girl, with her power of cynical observations and ability to identify fridge and chomper logic, thwarts the scheme of the Mythos Mangler, but so great was the battle Snark Girl lost the will to continue what she saw as a hopeless fight.

Let’s review the factors for narrative necessity:

1) What are the possibilities created by this retcon?
a) The creation of Mythos Mangler – where did he come from?  How did he get his power?  Where did he go after his defeat by Snark Girl?  Why hasn’t he come back?  Will Mythos Mangler ever come back?  If he does, will he seek revenge?  Will he just seek power?  Will he go after Fanboy specifically?
b) More backstories with Snark Girl (i.e., continuing the retroactive continuity) – how did she join Captain Otaku?  How did she get her powers?  What happened to her after the fight?  Will she return?  What happens to Fanboy if she does?
c) Fanboy’s relationship to Captain Otaku – did Captain Otaku tell him he was the first sidekick?  Why hasn’t he mentioned Snark Girl before?  Why did Captain Otaku agree to take on another sidekick?

2) What are the possibilities eliminated by this retcon?
a) Captain Otaku training his first sidekick.
b) Fanboy as the first sidekick.
c) Captain Otaku loses some of his uniqueness as a paragon of virtue, so any stories that focus on that aspect of his character are eliminated.

3) What are the consequences in the larger universe (such as interactions with other superheros) of including the event?
a) Other heroes may feel sympathy for Captain Otaku because they too have lost sidekicks.
b) Other heroes may distrust Captain Otaku for not telling them about Snark Girl and Mythos Mangler.

4) How does writing Event 1.5 effect all subsequent events in Captain Otaku’s relative timeline?
a) Captain Otaku is now more flawed than he was.  He kept a secret and deliberately mislead Fanboy into believing he was his first sidekick.

To Allow Or Not to Allow:
Overall as Tyrant-in-Chief, I’d probably allow this kind of retcon.  I think on balance there are more narrative possibilities created than eliminated.  The effects on the timeline are minimal and make Captain Otaku a more flawed and perhaps relatable hero.  You may be wondering why I included the loss of uniqueness under 2).  I am the Tyrant-in-Chief, and therefore I am concerned with marketing these stories.   Too often, various media producers are all too eager to copy someone else’s success (and even more often the result is a shallow imitation at best).  Saturating the market with carbon-copy knock-offs and stories dulls the senses of the media consumer.  What was once unique is now boring.  Boring does not sell.  I also think that the two major comic book companies are all too eager to ditch their legacy to hitch their wagon to the hot new thing (DC is in my opinion especially bad about this).  Letting legacy characters grow and develop is important, but that does not mean turning legacy characters into other characters.

Scenario 2 –
Captain Otaku now has a very long-running comic book indeed, running into the modern day with Event 167.  Fanboy has become his own hero (leaving in Event 105) and Captain Otaku has mentored one more sidekick in that time and has just started mentoring Geek Girl.  He’s had numerous adventures with the Snark Knights, reconciled with Snark Girl over Event 1.5, tangled with Mythos Mangler repeatedly, and never compromised his principle to use the Power Comic(book) to correct misinformation and never use his powers for revenge.  Now a writer wants to retcon some backstory that would have occurred prior to Event 81 (so quite some time ago).  The big reveal of Event 80.5 is that Captain Otaku actually stripped away Mythos Mangler’s identity, leaving him destitute and homeless.  The villain previously showed as Mythos Mangler is now someone else pretending to be the original villain.  And Captain Otaku threatened to strip away Fanboy’s identity if he ever told anyone what he did.

Let’s review:

1) What are the possibilities created by this retcon?
a) Why did Captain Otaku take away Mythos Mangler’s identity?
b) Why did he threaten Fanboy?  Is this why Fanboy ultimately left in Event 105?  Why didn’t Fanboy leave immediately?
c) Who is Mythos Mangler really?
d) Why did Captain Otaku never use his power this way before?  Did he use his power like this before?  How many times?

2) What are the possibilities eliminated by this retcon?
a) A villain trying to tempt him to that first transgression (wiping out someone’s identity)
b) Any conflict Captain Otaku might have with more ruthless Snark Knights on how to deal with misinformation.
c) Any story centering on the good relationship between Captain Otaku and Fanboy.
d) His character loses more of its uniqueness as a paragon of virtue, and those stories are gone.

3) What are the consequences in the larger universe (such as interactions with other superheros) of including the event?
a) Captain Otaku will be treated with suspicion and may never be trusted again by the Snark Knights.
b) Captain Otaku will be treated with suspicion and may never be trusted again by his sidekicks.
c) Captain Otaku may be thrown off the Snark Knights until it has been proven he’s sorry for what he did.

4) How does writing Event 80.5 effect all subsequent events in Captain Otaku’s relative timeline?
a) All of his interactions with Fanboy are now effectively a lie.  With a threat that great, Fanboy’s continuing association could only mean Fanboy is frightened of Captain Otaku.  This also means the amicable separation of Captain Okatu and Fanboy in Event 105 is a lie.
b) All of his interactions with Mythos Mangler are now effectively a lie.  Captain Otaku would have known the villain he faced was not the same because he wiped out his identity.
c) Actually, all of his interactions with anyone that focus on him being a paragon of virtue are a lie.

To Allow or Not to Allow:
Overall, as Tyrant-in-Chief, I probably wouldn’t allow this kind of retcon.  On balance, there are about as many narrative possibilities created as eliminated.  However, the possibilities that have been created are quite similar to other characters.  Is this to say there would be nothing new or interesting about Captain Otaku going through this kind of arc?  Not necessarily.  But is it worth losing the other potential arcs for a darkening and edgening that’s already been done time and time again?  Well, I am biased, obviously, but again I would say no.  I also take into account that Event 80.5 does effectively render the subsequent events as lies.  I see that as a betrayal to the fans of Captain Otaku.  This does not deepen his character; this completely changes it.  The first scenario, Event 1.5, makes Captain Otaku into a flawed hero, but still a hero (especially as he did reconcile with Snark Girl).  But the second scenario, Event 80.5, makes Captain Otaku into a fallen hero or perhaps even secretly an anti-hero (as the possibilities created would include whether or not he ever used his power in such a fashion other times).  A flawed hero is not the same as a fallen hero or anti-hero.  I would rule out this retcon because it completely changes the character of Captain Otaku.

Ultimately the decision to allow a retcon goes all the way back to the first rule I have as Tyrant-in-Chief – Maintain continuity and internal story logic.  To me, continuity is not limited to just keeping events in chronological order and making sure important cosmological entities don’t just disappear from the universe because someone forgot.  Internal story logic is also not limited to such things as ignoring events or characters because it’s difficult to tell the story otherwise.  Continuity and internal logic are also part of those characters.  To turn Captain Otaku into a fallen hero/anti-hero as presented breaks the continuity and defies internal logic as his character was never shown as so extreme before, and there hasn’t been any event to show his redemption.  In fact, to allow the retcon in Scenario 2 creates plotholes which must be followed up with more retcons.

A retcon can be good or bad, but careful judgment must be exercised when allowing it.  In general, I’d say both big companies are pretty bad about what they allow.  As Tyrant-in-Chief, I probably wouldn’t allow most retcons for the reasons listed above.  I would hear my writers out, of course, but it is much easier to not screw up continuity than try to fix it later.

A Comic Book Entry – Soft Retcons

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.

A Comic Book Entry – Reboot

First, a little addendum. In my ranting on the inevitable resurrection of comic book characters, I theorized the death of Johnny Storm was a ploy to re-start the FF with low and less intimidating issue numbers.  My friend with the subscription informed this didn’t actually happen, which leaves me somewhat confused.  I can only guess it was a ploy to get readers hooked on the whole “Future Foundation” storylines before re-introducing the FF.

Ok, on to today’s rant, but I’m starting with a shout-out to the fabulous itsjustsomerandomguy on YouTube.  He seems to share a lot of opinions I do with some of the awful ways comic books are treated (he HATES the retcon of Spider-man’s marriage).  His current storyline (Zero Hour) very much expresses how I feel about re-boots and is frankly quite brilliant.

Here’s the thing – I HATE comic book re-boots.  I really do.  They never really work out.  Both DC and Marvel have tried this in various forms over the years with I think minimal success.  Whether it’s Superboy-Prime punching reality, or Magneto almost literally nuking the Ultimates universe, the re-boots never seem to last very long.  If the companies are lucky, the re-boots last long enough to pick up a few new readers without completely alienating their old readers.  Outside of the ridiculous cosmic gymnastics writers go through to explain a re-boot, here are the two main problems with a re-booted universe –

1) They changed it; now it sucks
2) They didn’t change it; it still sucks

I will explain.

In the instance of problem 1, the writers change the origin and/or powers and/or personality of a well-known character.  I’m sure this is done so the writers can say, “This isn’t the Well-Known Superhero you used to know!” as though this is a great thing.  I’m sure the writers think this is a great thing or they wouldn’t to do it.  It gives them the freedom to put their own spin on a well-known character without all those years of history to take into account.  It’s a clean slate, a fresh start, and there will be a lot of long time fans who will hate this.  They like those characters just they way they are.  That’s why they are long time fans.  Why make Wonder Woman into an Amazonian refugee with no memory of her home and powers?  I don’t know, but someone at DC thought that was a great idea.  It’s not as though there isn’t precedent for such re-boots.  In the 70s, Wonder Woman was re-imagined as an ass-kicking kung-fu master.  But you know what?  That 70s kung-fu master Wonder Woman disappeared, as did amnesia Wonder Woman.  There are some things fan expect to happen, and when the writers don’t have those events occur, they get upset.  Do you think the Ultimates X-men could have not done a Phoenix storyline?  No, they couldn’t.

In the instance of problem 2, the writers really don’t change much about a character’s origin and/or powers and/or personality.  What they do instead is re-tell the old stories but with their own spin.  This is frustrating for long time fans in a completely different way.  They already know how events are going to unfold, and they get frustrated waiting for said events to happen or are frustrated with the spin the writer is putting on the story.  For example, in DC’s rebooted universe, Sinistro is currently part of the Green Lantern Corps.  Anyone with a passing familiarity with the mythos of the original universe knows exactly how this is going to turn out (spoiler alert – it’s going to end badly).  The details may be different, but the end result is the same.  So for many fans, a reboot is annoying because they have to wait for certain events of the rebooted universe to play out before anything new happens.  It’s not quite like a re-run; it’s more like an OVA.

DC is gamely trying this experiment again.  I expect it will fail, as every other re-boot has failed before.  And here’s my take on this – a re-boot can actually work, but the comic book companies do it wrong.  The reason it never works is because they start over with the same characters and then run into problem 1 and/or 2.  The companies are never brave enough to really start over in which they only problem they would run into is 1.  Marvel is frustrating the hell out of me right now and I’d love to re-boot that universe properly.

First, I will explain why Marvel is frustrating, and I will see if I’m right about the unfolding of events in five months or so.  I have already expressed frustration at the New Avengers because people are not behaving in a logical manner (I.e., choosing to fight the Dark Avengers instead of just outright arresting convicted felon/escaped convict Norman Osborn).  In other words: chomper logic.  The next big event is the Avengers vs the X-men over the return of Phoenix.  This incurs yet more annoying chomper logic and frankly is the result of a previous mini re-boot called “House of M” (in which the writers/editors said, “Whoops, there are too many mutants in the world and it’s painted us into a corner about them being a persecuted minority; what can we do to get out of this?  I know!  A mini re-boot via a deus ex machina!”).  Hope Summers is, I think, the reincarnation of Jean Grey, and supposed to be the Messiah of mutant-kind.  Cyclops has gone so far around the bend that when Magneto said, “Hey, you sound a lot like me,” and Emma Frost said, “This is a bad idea,” which are two giant red warning flags, he totally ignored them.  The Avengers are trying to stop the Phoenix and the X-men are trying to use the Phoenix to save mutants.  This is chomper logic on so many levels.  Iron Man is talking about building a box to contain the Phoenix force.  Cyclops is talking about controlling it.  And Wolverine says nothing.  He was there at the time of the original Phoenix saga.  Why doesn’t he pull Captain America aside and tell him to keep the Avengers out of the way and tell him exactly what he saw the Phoenix do?  Phoenix single-handedly beat the entire Shi’ar Imperial Guard.  Phoenix destroyed a sun.  Phoenix destroyed at least one Shi’ar battle fleet.  In the Endsong mini-series, Phoenix undid a black hole.  The only thing that ever stopped Phoenix was Jean Grey.  So exactly what the hell do the X-men or the Avengers think they’re going to do?  So I predict three or four issues of pointless fighting which will end when Hope accepts the Phoenix force and then promptly kills herself (as Messiahs tend to die) but allows new mutants to be born into the world again, thus saving the mutant race (I.e, the writers/editors said, “Whoops, there are now too few mutants and we’ve painted ourselves into a corner about them being the next evolutionary step; what can we get out of this?  I know!  A mini re-boot via a deus ex machina!”).  It’s supposed to be awesome, but it will only be lame.  If you just want to see your favorite characters fight each other due to an incredibly contrived and unbelievable premise, get a video game (I.e. Marvel Vs Capcom or DC vs Mortal Kombat).

My idea is that Chris Claremont had the right idea back in the 70s – let the characters move on.  Unfortunately, any time someone is brave enough to actually try this, it seems a re-boot inevitably follows.  For example, Bruce Wayne was finally retired as Batman.  It made sense; he’s in his late 40s or early 50s.  That kind of life has got to be incredibly physically difficult.  How many times has Bruce Wayne had bones bruised or broken?  His body just can’t take that kind of punishment for so long.  It made sense that finally Dick Grayson would take over.  I was glad to see some progress in the universe.  But it was not to last.  The re-boot set everything back to just the way it was, and now we’re back to problem 1 and/or 2.  So here’s how you re-boot properly (in my not humble at all opinion):
1) This is not an alternative universe.  This is THE universe.  Comics effected by the re-boot stop publishing.  New comics start.  No Ultimates.  No 2099.  No New Universe.  No Universe-893.  This is the new paradigm.
2) No ridiculous world-changing explanations for how the reboot occurred.  Use the hand wave of, “The world has always been like this.”  This saves the embarrassment of punching reality.
3) Start in the modern day (or close to it).
4) Take the original 60s Marvel characters and figure out their ages when they were introduced.  Peter Parker was 15 or 16.  Johnny Storm was 15 or 16.  Rick Jones was 16 or 17.  Scott Summers was 17. This provides a baseline for the new timeline.
5) Time-jump.  I would start the universe somewhere between 2010 and 2015.  Characters who were between 15 and 18 when the universe started (I.e, the 60s), would now be 44 years old.  Why not make them their actual age?  Well, assuming Peter Parker was 16 in 1964 (I think that’s when he was introduced), makes him born in 1948, so he would be currently 64 years old.  That’s a little bit older than I would want for the reboot, which I will explain in a minute.
6) The characters would be the same, but different.  How?  That’s why I would want Peter Parker to only be about 44.  Here’s the example – there would be an Amazing Spider-man, but it would be the son of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, Benjamin Parker (do you really think Peter would give his son any other name?).  If Peter’s about 44, assuming he and MJ had a kid in his late 20s, then that makes the new Spider-man about 16 years old.  New readers can then start on the brand-new adventures of a teenage Spider-man without trying to learn all of Peter Parker’s history.  Long-time readers don’t have to deal with yet another re-tread of Peter Parker, or a writer wrecking all the stories they already know and love.
7) The universe retains continuity.  The new characters would be logical extensions of the state of the universe at the point of the time jump.  If any writers want to fill in what happened between 30-something single Peter Parker and 44 year-old married father Peter Parker, they can do so with mini-series.  Peter Parker can still have some things to do in the comics, but it’ll be new stories if he is.
8) Some comics will continue pretty much unchanged, like “Thor.”  He’s practically immortal and what happens in Asgard doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with Earth anyway.
9) Characters will age and move on and die.  The problem of course is that action in the comics takes place in a weird extended time frame anyway.  An arc of two months can take one full year of comics. But it also implied that the characters do get some down-time.  The comic re-cap page should just make note of time passing, and if anything of note happens, it gets a mini-series.

This would give the writers freedom to actually try to do something different, but still retain the familiarity of the old universe.  This would finally allow a comic book universe to be dynamic.  That’s really the problem with comic books universe.  The real world moves on, but the characters never do.  They really don’t age, and nothing really changes in the universe.  Someone needs to be brave enough to allow the universe to be dynamic.  I would be grateful if there was a proper re-boot that start up a truly dynamic universe.  I don’t think I’m alone in that opinion either.