Stan Lee called it “the Illusion of Change” – the idea that a writer is never more than a custodian of a character, that whatever plot-twists the story goes through, the status quo will always prevail. Why? Because the writers want the next comic to sell just as well as this one did.
Are the X-Men titles not selling? Well, we need to find a way to get back to the idea that the mutant race is a minority; and so Wanda Maximoff says the magic words, and the mutant race is decimated. A decade later, the status quo is reset once again, courtesy of a Mutant Messiah.
But there are some innate problems with the Illusion of Change.
- Nothing matters, and the readers begin to realise it. I mean, Jean Grey has been gone for a decade, and readers are still assuming she’s going to be resurrected! It’s a foregone conclusion that Wolverine’s death won’t last forever; sooner or later, the Elder Wand of Narrative Magic will be waved, and he’ll be back. Just as he got adamantium implanted back into his skeleton eventually after the events of Fatal Attractions. The fans become jaded, and cease to care. Worst of all here are the Fox movies, where Xavier’s resurrection and the return of adamantium to Wolverine’s claws wasn’t even explained away!
- Everything escalates. Let’s tear the adamantium from Wolverine’s bones. Let’s remove his healing factor. Let’s kill him! In order to reach a jaded audience, the writers have to go to increasingly dramatic lengths to attract their attention. And then they go too far, and the fans struggle to believe the Scarlet Witch is a hero again, or that Bishop isn’t forevermore a genocidal maniac.
- What happens if you reset on the wrong thing? Joe Quesada did that, in my view. He saw the marriage of Peter Parker as a problem rather than an opportunity, and so he made a deal with the Devil to annul that marriage in the most character-damaging way possible. The same happened during the Claremont run, when the original X-Factor were formed. Editorial mandate demanded Scott be part of the team (I mean, you can’t reunite the original X-Men without Scott!), and with Jean back, well, so much for Madelyne and Nathan…
- Nostalgia rules over characterisation. Tying in to the last issue is the fact that a writer can remember when a character was their favourite, and can think they need to do a cosmic reset. In reality, they’re just remembering their childhood. I think that’s what’s happening to Rick Remender; his Rogue had a complete character regression, and now she’s unable to touch anybody again. Oh, and she’s absorbed flight and super-strength… The problem is, that nostalgia has just erased Mike Carey’s whole character arc. So what happens to those readers who loved that arc? Guess we just read and rage. Or blog a frustrated, whimsical blog.
How do we move past this?
Well, the reality is that we need comic book writers to realise that things should matter. Have Wolverine come back, sure; but have his death make a lasting impact on other characters. In the same kind of way, Bucky was radically transformed by the death of Captain America, even though Steve later came back. Have there be consequences, and don’t undo these consequences. For all X-fans moan about it, don’t just undo the Schism; have Scott work at it for years, and leave a handful of characters still wary even when it’s all over.
Pick your resets with care. If the editorial presence is too overtly present, then odds are high that you’re doing the wrong thing. Sure, a good writer could come in and pull the book out of the mire you’ve got it stuck in – Dan Slott, I’m looking at you for your sterling work on the Spider-titles – but an editor’s job surely should be not to get the book stuck in the mire in the first place.
And finally, educate your writers that people change. The Rogue of 2014 is not the Rogue of 1984, and trying to transform her into that is both bad writing and poor characterisation. It’s a disservice both to the character and to the industry as a whole.
Ironically, I reckon the Illusion of Change will soon be shattered forever. With a cinematic universe driving awareness of Marvel titles like never before, the heroes will move on – we may get a new Captain America, or a new Iron Man. And as the fan awareness of these characters increases, the comics will gradually transition to follow suit.
I guess what I’m really saying is: It’s time for comics to grow up.