“Batman, Incorporated”, huh? Well, it sounds like an interesting idea, and Grant Morrison does have a pretty good track record in comics…but I think it might run afoul of the Five-Year Rule. What’s the Five-Year Rule, you might ask? Well, it’s actually more of a guideline than a rule. But roughly, it equates to, “The success or failure of any change to a comic book ‘status quo’ is roughly equivalent to the degree of recognition the book has from a fan who hasn’t picked it up in five years.”
To give some examples: I’m a fan of, say, Spider-Man. I haven’t read the series in a few years, and I decide to step into a comics store and browse the latest issue on the stands. I pick up a copy of “Amazing Spider-Man”…and Spider-Man is a Starbuck’s barista named Ben Reilly, with no sign of MJ, the Daily Bugle, Aunt May, or anything else they recognize. I shrug, and put that comic back on the shelves. Maybe I come back in another year, maybe I don’t.
Or I’m an X-Men fan. I’ve been away for a while, and I pick up an issue…the team is headquartered in San Francisco instead of the X-Mansion, and Cyclops is the team leader. But there are still characters and sub-plots I recognize, and the basic concept–mutants protecting humans from world that fears and hates them–remains more or less intact. I decide to pick up an issue for old time’s sake, and who knows? I might even get hooked again.
Or I’m a Hulk fan. I pick up an issue of the book, and the Hulk is red and smart and uses guns. I roll my eyes, since as an established comics fan I know that it’s probably just a gimmick and the real Hulk will come back soon.
But you get the basic idea. The further away the series gets from that mental snapshot the fan takes of “what the series is like”, the less chance that they’ll come back to it. Iron Man has machine-controlling powers due to a techno-virus called “Extremis”? Um, okay, we can kind of see it. Iron Man as a teenager from an alternate timeline who has to wear the armor to stay alive due to fatal injuries he sustained in battle with his future self? Check, please! The concept of a series has a lot less elasticity than writers, editors, and even established fans think. (Admit it, you all felt a subconscious feeling of relief when Bruce Wayne came back as Batman, didn’t you?)
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You think I’m boring, and my column “eats”. No, seriously, you’re wondering about the Silver Age. Surely, turning Green Lantern into a space cop and the Atom into a shrinking scientist and Hawkman into a different kind of space cop and the Flash into a different kind of scientist…that has to violate the Five-Year Rule, right? But the difference is, back then those characters didn’t have a fanbase to speak of. Comics were a different animal back then, one without a devoted group of long-term fans who would follow a series for years. The Silver Age revamps built their fanbase from scratch, something that comics have a lot more trouble doing these days without a newsstand distribution system. It’s something that comics companies might bear to keep in mind during their next reboot.