As I write this, the DC universe is being remade. Next month, fifty-two comic book titles are going have their numbers set back to “Issue #1.” The origins of the heroes will be changed a little. The costumes will be different. Superman and Lois Lane won’t end their romance. Rather, the romance will never have happened. Or at least it won’t have happened yet.
This is just the latest in an apparently endless line of familiar stories that the entertainment industry has decided to try again. Consider JJ Abrams’ new Star Trek, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and Steven Moffat’s modern remaking of Sherlock Holmes. Over and over we see the sense of history thrown out, the audience who have invested their time and energy (sometimes for decades) in a story told that none of that was real. Spiderman didn’t really marry Mary Jane after all.
Why do they do this? Why do the creators throw out all the old story, just to start over again?
I have a theory. I think they do it because it’s a really good idea.
Long-running fiction wants time to pass differently than it does in the real world. History tends to be slower in imagined universes. As writers and readers, we resist changes there because we can, while change in the world defies us.
I remember reading that Robert Parker’s Spenser aged twelve years in the thirty-six years following his appearance in The Godwulf Manuscript. At Comicon this year, George RR Martin talked about liking Spiderman because Peter Parker was a teenager when he was, that Parker went to college when he did. But Parker took eight years to graduate, while George took four.
Kal-El appeared full-grown as Superman in 1938, making him a little older than my own grandfather. His most recent incarnation, Brandon Routh, is ten years my junior.
Like a tectonic fault, the tension from this slipping builds up over the course of many issues or episodes or books or films. Slowly, it corrodes our suspension of disbelief, and it starts demanding a release. There are, as far as I can tell, only three options.
The first is the most honest: let our heroes age and die the way we do. If Bruce Wayne were a man, he would be past his century mark. There would be something noble and human and important in the story of a Batman wracked by age and dementia, of a hero who has outlived his enemies and suffering the ravages of joint damage from decades of violence . I can imagine a last issue of Batman Comics in which Wayne suffers the last of a long series of small strokes and dies in his nursing home bed, a hospice nurse at his side. While it would be a human and recognizable story, I can’t say I’d find it satisfying.
The second option is a cultivated and willful obliviousness. Spiderman is in his early twenties because he always is. Unlike a real person, he drags his past behind him at a certain length. Peter Parker was always in high school less than a decade ago, no matter when you see him. We make ourselves forget that Spenser served in Korea. We don’t ask how old Lois Lane is. Slowly, the sense of history warps and becomes inauthentic. The characters limp apologetically into a place outside time, with author and audience agreeing not to look too closely at how they got there.
The third alternative is to retell it.
There is a betrayal that comes with restarting a story, especially when the details aren’t the same as the time before. When you see someone arguing against rebooting, phrases come up like “none of it mattered” and “it didn’t really happen.”
Something that people creating narratives – authors, directors, game designers – ask is that the audience believe something is true that isn’t. The bedrock answer to questions like “Was the Joker really Joe Chill?” or “When did Ma and Pa Kent find Superman?” or “How did Spock and Kirk meet?” is that the questions are meaningless. There is no Joker. No Superman. No Kirk or Spock. Gwen Stacey never fell to her death. To ask what really happened is to assert that the fictional universe in which the characters exist is as constrained and consistent as our own. We, the storytellers, have asked our audience to pretend that it is. It isn’t.
And when we let ourselves shrug off the idea that a story exists only one way – when we abandon continuity – something interesting happens.
Take the Joker. We’ve had Alan Moore’s sympathetic Joker from The Killing Joke. We’ve had the camp Cesar Romero version from the 1960s television series. We’ve had Nicholson’s Jack Napier. We’ve Mark Hamill’s madman and sometimes-lover of Harley Quinn. We’ve had Heath Leger’s icon of chaos with nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. No two of these versions could exist together in a rigorous historical continuity, and yet they’re all the Joker.
Or Sherlock Holmes. The consulting detective of Baker Street can be the original Conan Doyle invention, but my favorite versions of Holmes come from Nicholas Meyer’s novels and Steven Moffat’s A Study in Pink. And to my money, the best Holmes of all time wasn’t even named Holmes, but Daryl Zero. These characters remain recognizable.
When the sense of historicity goes, the stories still have boundaries. Batman is always Bruce Wayne whose parents were killed in front of him. Spiderman always loses his Uncle Ben and learns that with great power comes great responsibility. Sherlock Holmes is always accompanied by his Dr. Watson.
I would love to see Star Trek’s pilot episode The Menagerie remade with a script by Alan Moore. I imagine it becoming a reflection on identity, reality, and confinement. I would love to see it retold by Howard Waldrop, where I think it would be comforting, involved with grief and nostalgia and – knowing Waldrop – Tennessee Williams. I want to see it remade by Karen Joy Fowler. And Spike Lee. And Christopher Nolan. With every version, the story would become deeper, wider, and more interesting.
So yes, DC should go ahead. They should tell me the story again of how Kal-El came to earth and was raised by two decent people to be a good man. How Diana Prince came to be Wonder Woman, or vice versa depending on how they do it. See what they can do with Aquaman. Maybe they’ll come up with something interesting. Maybe they won’t. We’ll see.
In the larger scheme, though, I am generally in favor or reboots and retellings. It’s how stories become larger and richer than any one version. It’s how they become more like myths or folk tales.