Friday, June 20, 2008

Erase the mistake

Way back when, Plok wrote a post about the achievement of Roy Thomas in codifying the Marvel Universe. While Stan Lee made up stuff up without consider its consistence with his other work, Roy went around the MU with a tidy brush, building a set of links between characters which made it possible to conceive of the Marvel Universe as one entity. From that time on, it became important to link each new innovation into that central whole.

I don't know if that's the whole story. The horror comics made no attempt to integrate, except maybe with themselves. Dracula could do a turn in Werewolf-by-Night, but his appearance in Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men was just fundamentally wrong. Chris Claremont, of course, loved any amount of magickal weirdness, and his talent for assimilation carried on way after Thomas' time.

This codification, by the way, is nothing new. Homer - the Greek version 1.0, I mean, not the portly suburban version 1.1 - took a load of characters - mystical Mycenean heroes, local deities, maybe even one or two genuine historical figures - and created a mythology. Athena and Area fight wars through proxies on the Hellespont because he thought it made a great, coherent story. He was codifying, in other words, and they built a religion out of it.

No, let's not call it a religion, as that just get people's back up. Call it a mythology. Marvel, and DC for that matter, have created a mythology. And the problem is that, where the Greeks had old stories to be embellished and changed as required, at the heart of our mythology is a company which has to make a profit, and therefore has to issue new updates of these figures on a monthly basis. As it does, the characters and plots grow convoluted, bad decisions get made, and these mistakes get amplified over time.

I'm tempted to use the Spider-wedding as an example, but I've done that already. Let's take another: the proliferation in the number of mutants. In the beginning, of course, mutants were few in number. There was only one comic, for a start, so that placed a practical limit on the number which could be around at any one time. The X-Men were shunned outsiders, which made sense and made for good stories. Then came New Mutants and X-Factor and X-Men and all those other spin-offs. Mutants went mainstream. By the mid 1990s, Marvel superheroes, which in 1980 had meant Marvel, were a side-event. Marvel threw money and talent and more money at the X-Men and everything else started to wither. Then Grant Morrison went into overdrive. There were thousands, then tens of thousands, then million of mutants. Take that to its logical conclusion and the whole of the Marvel Universe, Spider-Man and Rocket Racer and Man-Thing and all must eventually become embroiled in the X-men's race war.

That multiplication of numbers made for good X-Men stories, but at the expense of the Marvel Universe.

Which is where 198 comes in. Erase the mistake. Ditto the Spider-marriage. Erase the mistake. Whether you agree with those decisions is one matter. but there's a clear logic here. Erase the mistake.

But what does this do to the mythology?. After so much continuity-mining and reverse-gearing and retconning, is there a clear understanding of what's mythology and what's not. Quesada, of course, would claim the right to change it as and when, and given he's Editor-in-Chief, you have to concede that's some authority. But people believe in this stuff. Not believe in an I'm-a-stupid-fanboy-with-no-life-and-this-really-happened way, but believe in the sense of having an involvement in a story. A belief no different to people watching soap operas. Or reading The Great Gatsby. It's called suspension of disbelief, and that's why we have stories at all. If people are reading this because of their fascination with the entire Universe, then tinkering with it risks undermining the suspension of disbelief in the reader. And once that goes, the story is gone.

So am I arguing against myself here? If we concede the importance of mythology, then Peter Parker did marry Mary Jane Watson, right? Quesada can issue retcons to his heart's content, but if that mythology is living in the minds of his readership, they can just refuse to accept it. Are the MJ lobby right after all? I'll concede the point. Retconning the marriage damages the mythology. But married Spider-Man = bad stories. Twenty years have proved that. You pays your money and....