The Subtle Art of the Reboot

Swamp Thing Reboot WingsLong-term comic readers, at least those who read the superhero output from Marvel and DC, will be used to the ground shifting under their feet. New readers are vital to the industry, bringing in new money, but the long-term readers reliably provide cash as well, and have huge emotional and financial investments in the characters and universes they enjoy. Surely there must be a way to satisfy these new readers, with a cursory notion of the characters and a need for a gentle introduction to a complex, long-running storyline, and still keep those older fans and their prolonged engagement with those characters, stories, and creators? Not really. But there are reboots. Some better than others. In the tussle between art and commerce, art doesn’t often come off well.

In the 80s, Marvel’s then-editor Jim Shooter decide to introduce the New Universe, an entirely separate continuity and set of stories. It was never great, and it was cancelled after 170 issues across a range of titles. In the 90s they decided to reboot their main characters into a bubble universe called ‘Heroes Reborn’ in a bit of narrative wrangling designed to get former Marvel stalwarts (and highly popular artists) Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee back onboard. This continued from where the stories were at the time, but reset everything to a new beginning via some genuinely torturous logic. It ran for a few years, but then everything quietly got shuffled back into the main continuity again via the same hand-wavey non-logic that started it in the first place (that Lee and Liefeld were as late with their art as they had been as full-time Marvel employees probably played a part). Possibly the most egregious attempt to reboot a character was the Spider-Man story The Clone Saga, a story designed to wipe out Spider-Man’s marriage by revealing that a clone from a storyline in the 70s was the real Spider-Man, meaning that he was still single, carefree, and far more commercially viable. And if that makes your skin crawl it’s not your Spider-Sense tingling. That this attempted reboot and simplification was just overwhelmingly complicated and long-winded was the final insult (until the One More Day storyline wiped out Spidey's marriage again a few years ago).

Like, whoa. Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, art by Steve Bisette

In the early 80s, Alan Moore effectively rebooted the third-tier character Swamp Thing when it was handed to him to write. He took what was a character born out of the horror movie culture of the 70s and 80s and made it something far more interesting, converting the character from a confused monster into an avatar of all plant life on the planet. He kept a lot of the horror tropes, but introduced philosophical and psychedelic elements that broadened the series from a story about monsters punching each other into something much more interesting. It told the sort of dark, smart stories that formed the foundation of the DC’s Vertigo imprint. A few years later Grant Morrison pulled the same trick with Animal Man, taking a character that had never really been popular and creating a critically and commercially-successful comic by rewriting a goofy superhero story into a weird metatextual story in which the author and main character frequently interacted, even argued. Neither of these takes was the original, but they were huge improvements on how the characters had been used before, and both proved more commercially successful as well.

Since then there have been various Crises and other cataclysmic events bringing changes and refreshing the publishing lines of the big two publishers, but 2012 was notable for bringing two big relaunches near-simultaneously, with DC’s complete line revamp, The New 52 and Marvel’s Marvel Now! comics designed to bring in new readers.

Now both Swamp Thing and Animal Man have been re-rebooted as part of The New 52. These titles used to be second-or-third stringers, but now they're beloved representatives of what mainstream comics can be, and the early works of two of comics' most-lauded creators. And yet both reboots have been (great) critical and (moderate) sales successes. Swamp Thing is handled by Scott Snyder, a proven horror writer who knows how to get to the Southern Gothic notes that work so well for the character. Yanick Paquette brings a more mainstream illustration style than normally used with the character, but it works.

Animal Man Jeff Lemire

Animal Man takes a character that was never as well thought-of after Grant Morrison's run ended, and turns it into something it had never really approached before - Cronenbergian body-horror. Jeff Lemire has plenty of experience with weird horror in titles like Sweet Tooth, and this was well matched in ghoulish illustration by initial artist Travel Foreman.

Both series do something new, are well-written and play to the strengths of their respective writers and artists. "Take the characters, give them to good writers and artists, and let them take creative risks" might seem like an obvious bit of advice to give, but the execution is the hard part. Gail Simone turned an enormous backlash at the rebooted Batgirl into a massive outpouring of support when she was removed from the title. Conversely, Grant Morrison on Action Comics / Superman should have been a sure thing, but it fizzled out impressively. Still, the bold reinvention seems to be the closest thing to a formula for success when a character is absolutely going to be rewritten - Marvel have seen similar success with bold reboots of Hawkeye and Captain Marvel.

Much as it would be great for every writer and artist to be working on brand-new trailblazing ideas, an old character well-written is still an enjoyable and frequently interesting thing to read. And frankly, as long as Batman and chums get people into the comic shops, it's helping to keep the whole industry healthy.