There is going to be a big reveal this week in the world of Marvel Comics. There is even talk that a main character is about to die (in fact, by the time you read this, you may know what the big news is). Age of Ultron, a series written by the star comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis, reaches its climactic issue #10 tomorrow, and the ending is so secret that the comics themselves are going to be shipped in poly bags to prevent unauthorized peeking. Apparently only five people, all of whom work for Marvel, know the final pages.
For the uninitiated, the surprise involves something very simple: several Marvel characters (Wolverine, Spider-Man, Sue Storm, and others) have been traveling back in time to prevent the creation of Ultron, an artificial intelligence robot that winds up replicating itself and taking over the world. It’s all very Terminator. My own guess is that Age of Ultron is an elaborate way of letting Marvel “reboot” its universe—that is, restart Marvel history with a blank canvas. In other words, the characters go back in time and prevent Ultron from being created, then return to the future where they find they are all twenty years old and about to get their powers for the first time. That way, modern day comic book creators can retell the stories of characters who are fifty years old and put a modern spin on it. It sounds dumb, but trust me, comic book marketers have done worse.
The reboot angle would be a shame because we don’t need yet more retellings of the origins of Spider-Man, Hulk, and Captain America. The other option is what fanboys have been speculating about—that at the end of Age of Ultron a main character in the Marvel universe is going to die. To which I reply: Marvel, go ahead and let a character die. In fact, let a lot of them go to that great comic con in Asgard. Creativity is a virtue, and sometimes in order to create fresh stories that speak to the times we live in now, it’s necessary to let the old soldiers fade away. We may have reached that point with certain comic book icons.
The comic book or “graphic novel” will always be a wonderful form of storytelling, and future generations will produce their own versions of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. To be sure, superhero movies are still huge these days—witness the inhuman haul the Superman movie Man of Steel has taken. But most of these films are living off of the stories told by writers years and even decades ago. It’s not like they’re breaking any new ground.
Spider-Man has been around for fifty years. Superman for seventy-five. At some point, every alien and near-death experience has been explored. Thus their creators have to resort to endless reboots, time travel, graphic realism, and other gimmicks to try and keep readers interested. For a while, it has worked. But the 20th century superhero may be reaching his event horizon. No matter how immortal they seem, and how crucial to the psyches of fanboy everywhere, there does come a point when the character is played out. Remember, before Frank Miller rejuvenated him with his 1986 masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns, Batman comics were selling so poorly that DC Comics was thinking of ending the book. Let me repeat that: less than thirty years ago Batman, now a billion dollar corporate icon, was so unpopular he was almost ended. Miller changed all that, but his book depicted Batman as an elderly man, part Clint Eastwood and part psycho, and many of the main characters—including the Joker—wind up dead. Miller seriously depicted what would happen to this characters if they lived in the real world.
This kind of going-for-broke can be great for creativity. It’s important to remember how Spider-Man was created. In 1962, the Amazing Fantasy comic book was selling so poorly it had been discontinued. Young comic book writer Stan Lee was given a free hand to do whatever he wanted, and for issue #15 he created what seemed at the time like a silly idea: a teenager who is bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes a skinny, neurotic hero name Spider-Man. What made Spider-Man doubly interesting was that, like the rest of the characters in Marvel comics, he lived in real time and in the real world. DC Comics’ heroes Superman and Batman fought the bad guys in Gotham and Metropolis, fictitious cities. Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and others all lived in New York City in the 1960s. These characters were created because Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were given a blank canvas to work with.
Marvel’s realism led to a problem that perhaps the company didn’t foresee: if Spidey, the X-Men, and Iron Man are all characters living in America and contemporaneously as the rest of us, then they too will get old. In fact, this was what made the first one hundred issues of The Amazing Spider-Man so compelling. You actually got to see Peter Parker go from high school geek to college student. He fell in love, his Aunt May had health problems, one character even got sent to Vietnam. And in what many fans still consider a grave mistake, Peter Parker’s love interest Gwen Stacey was killed by the Green Goblin.
So what do you do decades later when the character, whose popularity it’s doubtful Marvel could predict in 1962, becomes a sensation? You have to appeal to the history of the character, but that means keeping a foot in a time when John F. Kennedy was the president. But you also want to attract new fans. So how do you pull it off?
Reboot, that’s what. You can’t change the character too much, but you also can’t have a fifty-something Spidey swinging around Manhattan. The big ending of Age of Ultron is going to be a beginning, using some time-travel hokum to yet again relaunch stories and characters we’ve seen many times before. Same Marvel Universe, but all the characters get to start from the beginning, and creators get to toss new villains at them and even bring back the fan favorites. Given the money these characters bring in, it’s not hard to understand.
But imagine if Marvel really showed some guts and ended Age of Ultron with a wipeout of all the old icons (hey, its comics; they an always bring them back based on some tear in the fabric of the multiverse etc). Stan Lee announces that the age of the old Marvel heroes is over, and they would now only be publishing stories about new characters who are right for 2013. Some of them would be the offspring of the original 1960s Marvel favorites, so you could still have a Spider-Man. Now that is an amazing fantasy.