Tag Archives: Retcons

Is “Reboot” The Right Word?

After fans learned that the DC Universe would be massively revised after Flashpoint, DC insisted that it was a relaunch, not a reboot. But with a complete line-wide new start, with many characters being reimagined and given new backstories, it certainly falls under the conventional meaning of “reboot” as applied to a fictional universe. It’s at least as much of a reboot as the DC Universe that emerged out of Crisis on Infinite Earths in the 1980s.

But I’m not sure the metaphor’s correct. It comes from the idea that when you reboot a computer, you start fresh…except usually when you reboot, you have exactly the same “universe” (the operating system, the apps, the files, etc.) as you had before. That’s not the case with a fictional reboot, which tends to alter the settings, characters, histories, and more.

A better comparison might be an operating system upgrade. Going from Windows XP to Windows Vista, or from Vista to Windows 7. Lots of things change about the way the system works. Some apps are altered. Some stay the same. Some might not be compatible and need to be removed until new versions are available. You might even lose some of your data (or access to it). Some changes are improvements, but there’s always something you wish they’d left alone.

The New 52 fits this metaphor. So does the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths relaunch, which took characters from DC’s Earth-1 and Earth-2 settings, plus the characters they had bought from Charlton, Quality and Fawcett, and merged them all into a single timeline. Some characters were erased (Supergirl), others were changed significantly (Superman, Wonder Woman), some stayed more or less the same (the Flashes’ history was mostly unchanged). Most of Superman’s villains were reimagined and introduced as if they were new.

Smaller retcons, those that affect a single character or team, can be looked at as patches. The John Byrne Doom Patrol, which quietly relaunched the Doom Patrol as if they were new characters, but left the rest of the DCU unchanged. The Time Trapper/Glorith mini-reboot in the “Five Years Later” Legion of Super-Heroes, and the Threeboot Legion.

Really, anything that could be explained by a “Superboy punch” can be treated as a patch.

In between are the events that retcon a bunch of characters across the line, but only change the distant past and behind-the-scenes events. The DC Universe after Zero Hour was very much like the DC Universe after Crisis on Infinite Earths. The DC Universe after Infinite Crisis were very much like the DC Universe after Zero Hour. Zero Hour…aside from the reboot Legion, most of the retroactive changes were details. Infinite Crisis may have set up the return of the multiverse, but it happened in a way that no one in the main universe noticed for over a year. I’d compare these to service packs.

So in a way, DC’s right: it’s not a “reboot.” It’s a reinstall.

DC’s New 52: Escape Hatches Don’t Matter

DC editorial insisted repeatedly over the weekend that there’s no escape hatch, no trap door, no possible way for the old DC Universe to return after the New 52 establishes itself post-Flashpoint.

This is, to put it mildly, an exaggeration.

If the last decade at DC comics has shown us anything, it’s that a determined writer with a supportive editor (or a determined editor with a willing writer) can undo any change he wants, no matter how set in stone it was before.

There was no back door put in place during Crisis on Infinite Earths to bring back Kara Zor-El as Supergirl, or Krypto, or any of the Silver-Age elements of the Superman mythos that were removed by the “Man of Steel” reboot, but they came back anyway. Emerald Twilight was deliberately written to make it impossible to bring back Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, but we not only got Hal back, we got the Guardians and the entire Corps. Neither the reboot nor threeboot Legion of Super-Heroes set up a way to go back to the previous version, and yet the pre-Zero Hour Legion is back in action.

Marv Wolfman actually did write a trap door into Barry Allen’s death in Crisis on Infinite Earths. The idea was that, since he was running through time at the time he died, he could be plucked out of that run at any point for more adventures, but would live always knowing that he would eventually have to go back and sacrifice himself. It sat there, unused, for over 20 years, and when DC eventually brought Barry back to life, they did it another way, without using the trap door.

Trap doors don’t matter.

What matters is editorial direction.

When Dan Didio, or Eddie Berganza, or Jim Lee stands up there on stage at Comic-Con and says, “There’s no escape hatch,” they don’t mean they’ve set up the premise so that no one can go back. If they really want to, they’ll find a way.

It’s just an “in-story” way of saying that they’re committed to the new direction and determined to see it through.

Why I Don’t Like Barry Allen Generating the Speed Force

Flash: Rebirth featured a number of retcons, some of them explained away by time travel, others explained as new information, and others simply stated with no explanation at all. The most galling one to me was the revelation that the Speed Force is generated by Barry Allen with every step he runs, and that all other speedsters (including those who preceded him like Jay Garrick, Max Mercury, and Johnny Quick) depend on Barry’s existence for their own.

There are two things that bug me about this.

First: it doesn’t make sense. The speed force was introduced to do two things: provide a hand-wave explanation for the impossible physics of super-speed, and tie all speedsters’ origins together. Where do Flashes get their energy? The speed force. Simple, end of story. But now the speed force gets its energy from Barry Allen. So we’re right back where we started: Where does Barry get his energy?

Second: it elevates Barry Allen above all other Flashes permanently.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it were simply a matter of: Barry’s back, and here’s why he’s important now. That would be the same kind of thing Mark Waid did when he had Wally West become the first Flash to mainline the speed force and gain new powers, or that Bilson & DeMeo did when they had Bart Allen absorb the speed force. In those cases, it was still a progression, and you could imagine that whoever came next would follow in their footsteps and become the most important Flash now.

What bothers me is that they didn’t want to take that route. They instead wanted to take the route that Barry Allen was not only the most important Flash now, but that he has always been and always will be the most important Flash ever. It flat out tells us that we’ve been reading about a second-rate Flash for the last 25 years. I know there are people who hold that opinion, but it’s galling for it to be declared canon.

It’s like two kids trying to one-up each other in a bidding war, and one pulls out, “well, I bid infinity!” — and because it’s the author of the series, not to mention the Chief Creative Officer of the company, it sticks instead of getting laughed off.

Adapted from a comment made last year. I was reminded of it by this recent Reddit discussion: What’s your least favorite retcon?

Dead Parents and Super-Hero Origins

One last WonderCon post!

At the Comic Arts Conference panel on super-hero origins, James Robinson and Steve Englehart agreed that one of the key elements to a good origin is that it includes the hero’s motivation and a hook that readers can relate to. Robinson cited the Silver-Age Flash as missing that compelling motivation: Okay, he put on a costume to fight crime, but why? Why keep going?

Robinson also talked about why so many heroes have dead parents in their past: the fear of losing a parent is something that any reader can relate to. In fact, when someone asked later in the panel how one could create a good origin, Englehart flippantly replied, “Kill their parents?”

Later in the discussion, the moderator asked about retelling origins. Robinson said he was always wary of destroying what was already there, and preferred to try to add new detail around what already works. He cited Geoff Johns’ revised origin for Barry Allen, in which his mother is killed and his father framed for it, as a successful example.

Personally I disagree. It drastically alters the character’s history, and raises questions of why his history hasn’t changed in other ways, but most importantly, it introduces a cliche that wasn’t present in the original version of the story. If you’re going to revise a story, it seems better to remove overused elements than add them.

The same weekend, the New York Times published an article on the role of parents in young-adult fiction: traditionally, the role of a hero’s parents in classic literature was to die, or at least get out of the way, forcing the protagonist into his journey of self-discovery: the orphan’s “triumphant rise.” (via Neil Gaiman)

Yeah, writers have been using this trope for a long time.