A good while back, in my first real post for MGK, I talked about the problems with reboots and how they rarely work from a storytelling standpoint. (There’s also an argument that they rarely work from a sales standpoint; for every high-profile success like the Silver Age relaunch or the Ultimate Universe, there’s ten failures like the post-Zero Hour Fate and Manhunter.) But that leaves us a question that seems more relevant than ever this week, what with DC announcing that they’re relaunching the entire DC Universe except for the bits that Geoff Johns likes because they’re so awesome. If reboots are rarely critical successes, and they’re rarely commercial successes, why do people keep doing them?
The answer lies in the world of being a comic book writer…or more relevantly, a comic book editor. The world of a comic book editor is a never-ending pressure cooker nightmare, like being trapped on a treadmill that never stops while angry chihuahuas constantly bark at you and nip your heels. (Yes, I did just compare comics fans to angry chihuahuas. I feel, after reading the comment boards on comics websites in the wake of DC’s announcement, that the analogy fits.) Every month, the book must get out the door. It doesn’t matter if the artist has chlamydia, if the writer has been washing down LSD and amphetamines with whiskey and beer for three weeks and still can’t come up with a good idea for a story, if everyone hates each other and the editor has to route all communications through him because he’s the only one on speaking terms with any of the creative team and that only because he signs their checks…the book still has to come out.
And worse, these days people aren’t just expecting a comic story. We’ve been trained to spot fill-ins and reset buttons and retcons and similar tricks to bring out an issue without actually moving the story, and such things are quickly derided. The metastory is what counts these days, and it’s not just about bringing the book out, it’s about changing the main character’s life forever while still leaving it in a condition that can sustain a monthly book. Which means that it’s not like being on a treadmill after all, not anymore. Now it’s like being stuck in a car that’s got no brakes with the angry chihuahuas in the backseat and every turn is an opportunity to slam headlong into a brick wall going seventy-five miles an hour. (Which is what more or less happened with Aquaman.)
What with all that, even the best creative teams eventually pile up a gradual accumulation of mistakes. Things that seemed like a good idea at the time now seem like the thing that cost you about twenty percent of your reading audience, and not all of the changes are as easy to reverse as a costume change. You can do stories that undo other stories to a limited extent, but eventually audiences get sick of contrived deals with the devil and hokey memory erasures and you wind up stuck in a corner, telling stories about a teenage version of your old character who’s from a parallel universe created when a time-traveling supervillain set a trap for his enemies using pocket-dimensional copies of a superhero who’s no longer in continuity thanks to…
You can start to see why the idea of sweeping it all under the rug and starting over from the point when your characters still made sense sounds like a good idea, right? Reboots cut away, at least in theory, all of the detritus that piled up over the years, all the Spider-Mobiles and deaths of Doctor Octopus and Grim Hunters and teen Iron Men and missing hands and Jewel Kryptonites, and leave the character iconic and sensible again. To a desperate and semi-sober editor, it’s got to start looking like a pretty attractive idea. Even if it doesn’t work, it’s not like the amazing adventures of the one-handed, dead, wifeless, childless, kingdomless Aquaman is going to sell anyway.
So once again, we see another reboot. Once again, it’ll probably fail. But when you’re reading that new Justice League #1, complaining about how we’re seeing the origins of these characters for the fifteenth time instead of getting a new story…remember that poor, drunken editor, okay?