Everyone understands the comic-book reboot, right? A comic (or an entire line of comics) is getting too bogged down in old continuity, making it less accessible to new readers and difficult to get people to try. So, the thinking goes, let’s start everything over again! A new beginning, from square one, looking forward to a fresh start and attracting a whole new audience with its fantastically new newness! (Did we mention “new”?) The reboot is all about erasing the slate and starting fresh.
Except that by definition, it doesn’t work. Far from being the new beginning that it’s intended to be, I would suggest that by definition, a comic book reboot is inherently nostalgic…and that in fact, reboots delay any kind of “fresh and original” stories for several years.
Because as I have commented elsewhere, a comic book is more than just its main character. It sounds like a nice idea to start over at the beginning; just retell Batman’s origin, and you’re good to go, right? But setting aside that you’ve just begun a “fresh start” to a character by retelling the one story about them that probably everyone even remotely interested already knows, you’re nowhere near finished. You also need to introduce Gotham City, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, the Batcave, Robin, and every single member of the rogue’s gallery…which means a story retelling the origins of the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, Catwoman, Killer Croc, Mister Freeze, the Scarecrow, Ra’s Al-Ghul…
And where does the writer go for inspiration on every single one of these stories? They look back. They go back to the original story the character was introduced in, and they retell it. Sure, they add their own inventive spin on it. They retell it in a way tht makes sense to modern audiences, and that resonates with our time and our culture. But they retell it, nonetheless. And until they’re done retelling old stories, they can’t tell new ones.
But it gets worse. Because sometimes it’s not enough to retell the origins of characters; sometimes, specific stories and events make so much of an impact on the character’s history that they’re just not the same without that chapter in their history. The “essential” elements of Jean Grey include the Phoenix saga, her love triangle with Wolverine, and a host of other aspects that didn’t show up until years after her introduction. The death of Lightning Lad is so fundamental to the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes that it’s hard to imagine not including it in some form or another. So the “fresh start” version of the comic book has things like “the Hellfire Club story, as told by Mark Millar!” or “the Clone Saga, as told by Brian Michael Bendis!” or “the Galactus saga, as told by Warren Ellis!” And your new beginning winds up going a hundred issues without ever getting to any really new stories. It’s just a fresh coat of paint over the old ideas that made the original continuity too convoluted to begin with. (Seriously, did anyone need Ultimate Stryfe or Ultimate Onslaught?)
In some ways, a reboot is like a mild sickness that has to be gotten over before the writer can start really working on the title. Some reboots get it over with quickly–the post-Crisis Lex Luthor is so radically different from his pre-Crisis counterpart that there really isn’t a whole lot to recap–while others take longer. (*cough* Ultimate Universe *cough*) And unfortunately, as Lex Luthor shows, there’s always the danger of a relapse. The current DC editorial team seems determined to retell every single story that was ditched in the reboots, one by one if need be.
In the end, that’s the real problem with reboots; not only do they not really give the title a fresh start, they don’t really make it any more accessible. Within a year or two, the new continuity has its own backstory to wade through, and a few years after that, it’s just as convoluted and messy as the old one. (And that’s assuming Geoff “Legion of 3 Worlds” Johns doesn’t decide to try to bring back the old continuity, too.) And how does the publisher decide to deal with that? “Hey, this is too convoluted! Let’s do another reboot!” Which just dooms the series to five more years of rehashing its old plotlines. (This is why the Legion of Super-Heroes hasn’t been successful since 1985.)
So what’s the solution? It’s easy to say, but hard to do, which is probably why it’s not tried more. The solution is to make the series more accessible by writing it more accessibly. Introduce new bad guys for the heroes to fight, ones that are just as fresh to the characters and the old fans as they are to new readers. More importantly, remember the new reader when writing the story, and explain things to them as you go. Expository writing is one of the least noticed, most neglected, and hardest things for a good writer to do, but it pays off in getting new readers involved in your comic. (Or novel. Terry Pratchett, among his many other talents, is an expert at writing expository passages that explain things to new readers without boring old ones.) It takes hard work and discipline, but it’s the only real answer.
That, or make a deal with Satan. Deals with Satan always pull in the readers.