For those Ear Holes who tuned in to the Cultural Golem episode, you heard me mention that there are things going on in superhero comics storytelling that created a background radiation where an idea like Hydra!Cap seemed a viable idea if not a good one. These are things that have frustrated me for awhile on a simple storytelling level, but now I see they have broader ramifications. What’s more, as I ponder it, I think a common root is shared among these problems, one that has obviously borne bitter fruit. That common root is Illusion of Change.
PAD And His Pen
I first heard the phrase illusion of change in terms of superhero comics when I read an article by Peter David, a comic book writer of some renown. You can read the essay here and since Mr. David lines it out so well, I’m going to encourage you to read it and then come back.
Just in case you don’t, though, I’m going to focus in on this specific quote:
The problem is, all writing is a magic trick. You try to pull fast ones on the audience so that they don’t look too closely. In this case, it was easy to cast Marvel as Bullwinkle, announcing his intention to pull a rabbit out of his hat, and the fans as a skeptical Rocky loudly proclaiming, “That trick never works!” And it didn’t.
Because fans don’t like to be treated as if they’re stupid.
The example David uses is the Spider-Clone Saga because he originally wrote that essay in 1998. But at this point, we could just as easily assign it to any of a dozen other storylines since. Spider-Man alone has had his powers turn mystical…then quietly return to pseudo-science. He revealed his secret identity to the world during Civil War…then had his marriage eaten by Satan to undo that revelation (two, TWO, TWO retcons in one!). Doctor Octopus took over Pete’s body in order to prove the doctor’s superiority…then eventually gave it back.
And that’s just Spidey! Marvel has just recently pulled a soft reboot on its own universe and DC has done two in the last ten years. And all to maintain this illusion of change.
But fans don’t like to be treated as if they’re stupid.
Power of the Press
When I was in tenth grade, Superman died. Now I knew in advance this would happen because I subscribed to Wizard (don’t judge me, I was a teenager). I also knew damn good and well that DC wasn’t going to let their flagship character stay dead. But apparently it was a slow news day and some news outlet caught wind of it. The word got out quite unexpectedly and people were incensed.
Even worse, DC had to pretend like this was a thing they had actually committed to because, otherwise, the news would make them look stupid. Which means we got a lot more of Superman being “dead” then anybody had originally planned or probably wanted. I also fielded a lot more questions about it than I expected and far too many of my answers started with, “Of course they aren’t going to leave Superman dead! I don’t care what CNN said, he’s the most recognizable fictional character in the world!”
I had a surprisingly hard time convincing people of this. Because fans, even super casual ones, don’t like to be treated as if they’re stupid.
Flash forward to now. So everyone knows that now nerd is in, geek is chic, and the world at large is in on our little fandom clubs whether we like it or not. I, for one, like it a lot. It means that the next little Rowan won’t have to fight hammer and tongs to enjoy superheroes like my lovely co-host did. But one unintended bit of unpleasantness is that when major comic companies pull ridiculous stuff like Hydra!Cap, it’s no longer an accident or a surprise when the press asks them about it. And while I’m fine with everyone being in the club, there is still some element of truth to “there is in, and then there is in.”
Time Magazine and the people who read it are in. Tom Brevoort has to pretend like Cap being Hydra all along is a story in the way that most people mean the term: a narrative wherein the characters grow and change and revelations about them are then ratified within the narrative become part of those characters.
But I’m in. All that noise sounds like the carnival huckster promising me that I can knock over three milk bottles with three baseballs no problem. I may still give over my money, but I’m under no illusions that the giant stuffed bear is coming home with me. Same way I might read this Spencer story on Cap, but there is no way I expect it to stick. Hell, even when talking to Time, Brevoort betrays the real way superhero stories work. Check this quote.
But I certainly believe it’s not a gimmick. It’s a story that we spent a long time on, that’s compelling and captures the zeitgeist of the world. It will make readers wonder how the heck we’ll get out of this.
The question isn’t will they backtrack on this, it’s how. Those of us who are in already know this because we’ve become accustomed to superhero writers treating us as stupid. Or, to save our egos, we’ve decided it’s all part of the game. Either way, the story suffers.
When Anything Can Happen…
Friend of the show Daniel Swensen had a quote I appreciated: “If anything can happen, then nothing that happens means anything.” That rang a helluva chord with me, but I’m going to rephrase it a bit.
When anything can happen, but if it almost always unhappens, then none of it means anything.
Because obviously it isn’t the sky’s the limit attitude of superhero stories that’s the problem. That’s actually one of the genre’s biggest selling points. It’s the put the toys back where and how you found them necessity of corporately owned properties that make billions of dollars a year for the parent companies.
Sure, mystical Spider-Man is interesting, but there’s no way in Hell that’s going to be in the movie next year, so it’s got to be back pseudo-science by then. Sure, Batman Incorporated is the best idea since Robin, but we’re rebooting the universe to where he’s only been in the cowl for five years so not even all his Robins make any sense. And besides, they never use Robin in the movies anyway. AND IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT’S HOLY, DON’T EVEN SUGGEST THAT ONE OF THESE WHITE SUPERHEROES COULD BE REPLACED BY A PERSON OF COLOR! WHAT MADNESS IS THIS?!
So instead of figuring out how to create interesting and creative stories with real in-fiction ramifications to enthrall us, we get these Big Shocking Ideas™ that will be rolled back in some convoluted Event or retcon. Fiction only matters as much as we let it, and illusion of change means we can’t afford to let superhero stories matter that much to us. This slight of bland is why superhero fans wind up jaded and saying things like “just wait until next year, they’ll change it back.”
So illusion of change is devastating to the concept of interesting stories. Thankfully, since it’s meant to safeguard some kind of corporate platonic status quo, it isn’t dangerous to the core concept of the characters.
Except when it is.
When the Illusion Becomes Reality
Once upon a time, Magneto ripped the adamantium from Wolverine’s bones and we discovered he had bone claws instead of artificial metal ones. Dick Grayson used to be Robin, but then he grew up and became Nightwing and we started collecting new Robins, replacing each one as a newer model came along. Lois Lane used to not know Superman’s secret identity. Bucky used to be dead.
Every now and then, one of these stories meant to give the illusion of change becomes interesting or popular enough that the change sticks. Wolverine got his adamantium bones and claws back, but we’re still stuck with this weird story about a sickly Victorian kid who grew up to be the king of all bad asses.
Dick Grayson couldn’t return to being Robin because the character had literally grown up, moved out, and led his own team for years. It didn’t make sense for him to ever return to the cave. Lois and Clark as happily married power couple is such a strong idea it survived a line-wide reboot.
Bucky being dead for sixty years and then suddenly alive felt so natural that it became a summer blockbuster.
So not only are current stories ruined by the entire concept of illusion of change looming in the background, but we can’t entirely trust its poisonous presence. Sometimes it just stops being an illusion and becomes actual change! And these changes are capricious and without warning!
This is the background radiation that makes a Big Shocking Idea™ like Hydra!Cap sound like a good plan to the editor who needs to justify himself to the corporate masters and the writer who is just trying to make a big enough splash to work another couple years. But the fact that there’s a tiny sliver of a chance that Steve Rogers might just stay a Nazi makes this more than a little terrifying to the fans that love and cherish Captain America and the ideals he tends to express.
Illusion of change has kind of soured me on superhero stories. Oh, I’m still reading them and often enjoying them, but I can’t just get lost in them anymore. They don’t work that way. The engine underneath the hood has, to some extent, become more interesting than how fast the car moves and how awesome it looks as it races. As a born storyteller, this kills a little bit of my soul whenever I think about it for too long.
It didn’t use to be like this, though. Go read the first decade or two of Claremont’s X-Men. There is no status quo! Everything changes! No shit, there is a moment where you wonder if Storm is going to fall in love with Doctor Doom and become his queen. You will bite your nails over it! The covers of those comics said “Nothing will ever be the same!” and, whatever other faults he had, Chris Claremont took that sales copy as a sacred vow.
In some pockets, it’s not even like this today. The Marvel Cinematic Universe moves forward. The characters grow and change. Do you know why? Because that’s how moviegoers (and everybody else who isn’t a fan of superhero comics) expect stories to work. Steve Rogers isn’t <SPOILERS> Captain America anymore after Civil War. And while I’m convinced he’ll pick that shield up again in time to smash Thanos’s face in with it, it will mean something different than when he picked it up to smash the Red Skull’s face in with it.
That’s powerful stuff. That’s change and conflict and STORY. It might not make certain ideas better stories, but at least it would make them more impactful. I’ll climb into the ring with a good story and punch it out every time, even though it leaves marks on me. I’ll even take a beating in a back alley brawl of a tale, kind of like the curbstomp that Brevoort meant his interview with Time to be.
But a story the creators don’t even think matters isn’t allowed to mark me. And nobody gets to say I didn’t put my gloves on when the story is pretending shadow boxing is a stand up fight.