Atomic Roundtable: Reboots and Retcons

We here at the Atomic Junk Shop have opinions, certainly, and one of the areas where we all have strong views is with reboots and retcons in comics.  For purposes of this discussion, reboots are when a character’s history, origin, supporting cast, ethnicity, etc., are changed for a new era (see the Byrne Man of Steel series, for instance).  Retcons are elements of a character’s story that are revealed later on to have always been part of the current iteration of the character (see Sue Dibny’s rape in Identity Crisis).  We’re going to discuss best and worst reboots and retcons; properties and characters who either desperately need a reboot or which should never be touched with a ten foot pole; and the ones that are just plain favorites.  Or most despised.

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Travis: I started thinking about this topic because I encountered two reboot/retcon things within a day of each other.  I originally classified it as just reboots, but since I haven’t actually read the one thing, I’m not sure if it’s a reboot or retcon.

Regardless, what sparked this conversation was that I read a post about Hickman’s run of X-Men stories, and that there’s apparently a new origin (?) or creation story for the X-Men?  I’m being vague to avoid spoiling anyone else, but also because I’m not sure what the full story is without reading it.  Suffice to say, it’s reminiscent of a totally different property, as well as seeming to fit better with the Legion of Super-Heroes, which Hickman was apparently working on before he took some ideas with him once Marvel unloaded the boat full of money to do X-Men (that’s actually how they paid him, y’know).

Then I was reading the latest Justice League trade, volume 3, Hawkworld, which as you might imagine involves the Hawkman/Hawkwoman characters, and I got to thinking about how outright f-‘d up that property had gotten.

So here we are.

I’m not sure, as I said, if the X thing counts as a reboot or retcon without reading it, but one thing I thought of was that of any Marvel or DC properties, the X-Men seemed least needing a shakeup of this sort.  Despite all the years of stories, the continuity seems relative smooth and not in need of a dramatic change.

So having said that, I’m going to say that the property that least needs a reboot or retcon at this point is the Fantastic Four.  They’ve grown as a family and it’s great stuff, from what I’ve been reading.  Sure, you need to fudge the reason for going up into space, but all you really need to say is that cosmic rays needed to be studied immediately.

Greg H: A lot of this is caused by the simple fact that the business of comics itself has changed. From– I’m kind of pulling this out of thin air, it’s strictly anecdotal, but I think you have to figure it was around 1980, 1982, somewhere in there– but that was when comics readers stopped leaving.

Before then, the accepted editorial wisdom, well into the seventies, was that every issue was the first issue for somebody, and that the audience turned over every four years. Even at Marvel, which made its whole rep on “continuity,” this was the rule. We all know the stories about guys fighting that system, like Don McGregor struggling to get “Panther’s Rage” in print the way he wanted it, and how it was hailed as the first really long-form superhero story… but if you go back and actually look at it, it was, what, twelve issues? And each installment was relatively self-contained, it was very episodic, and there was always a recap.

Same thing with Gerry Conway and the original Clone Saga over in Spider-Man. Maybe eight issues, and he had individual little arcs with Mysterio and Cyclone and the Scorpion before we ever got to the Jackal.

Plus the little yellow text boxes with the hero’s origin at the top of the splash page, editorially mandated because it was felt that these hippy-dippy new guys like McGregor and Englehart and Starlin were actually alienating casual readers with their “sprawling cosmic sagas” …. and casual readers were the primary source of sales.



So despite the editorial panic, they were still playing by the rules. But even with all that, fans were bitching about how hard it was to come in right in the middle. Hell, I was one of them; it put me off picking up new Marvel books for quite a while because I was never sure I’d be able to get the rest of the story. To this day it seems like a miracle to me that there are bound books with entire runs of Marvel comics in them, even crossovers that bounced around every which way, and I can read whole stories all in order.

That was because all of us, fans and creators, thought of comics as magazines. Periodicals. But the side effect of comics moving off newsstands and into their own chain of hobbyist retailers was that if you got into comics in the 1980s then you just stayed. As far as you were concerned comics are not disposable and never were, people collect them and they are part of a saga.

So superhero comics end up changing from magazines to a new variety of serialized book. Today we think of superhero comics as being held to the same standard as a book series… even long-running series like the Nero Wolfe or Kinsey Millhone mystery novels, or over in the SF aisle, the Elric/Eternal Champion books or Asimov’s robot stories. Like those, we have come to expect an internal chronology and continuity that is consistent.

Marvel had been training fans all through the sixties and seventies to expect that from comics but the unintended consequence was that they didn’t expect the fans to STAY. So for a decade or so you have this thing where fans are treating the stories like installments in an ongoing series of prose novels, except the authors are “Marvel Comics” and, playing catch-up, “DC Comics”… but on the creative side, they’re still being produced like disposable magazines.

It’s unsustainable. Especially when these stories are all being produced by people who are rarely thinking more than three months ahead. There are lots of book series that have been done that way, but what kills people trying to keep up in comics is the sheer volume. Louis L’Amour really valued continuity and historical accuracy in his Westerns, but they weren’t done with any kind of PLAN. He was making it up as he went, playing around with character history and doing crossovers, same as in comics. But even so we’re still talking less than forty or fifty stories TOTAL. Imagine how insane it would get if, say, Louis L’Amour had written his Sackett books with the same volume and frequency that DC puts out Batman comics.

Jim: Now imagine that there are a dozen other writers inserting their own contributions to the series, none of whom are really checking with each other, it’s up to the ever-changing array of editors to try to keep all those stories consistent, and Louis L’Amour has no say in what is or isn’t a legitimate part of the series.

Greg H: But in comics the need to feed the monthly demand is relentless. Put it all together and these are the circumstances that first led to retcons like how The Vision isn’t a creation of Ultron, he’s really the rebuilt Human Torch from the 1940s, and so on. It was just freelancers trying to come up with interesting stuff to get them through to the monthly deadline, amusing themselves with callbacks to old comics they liked.

Speaking of, that was my first ever issue of Avengers and I spent most of my time reading it thinking “I don’t understand any of these references,” although I recognized the ‘original’ Human Torch character from a reprint of the original Lee-Kirby story in a Fantastic Four annual. Marvel editorial was right to be wary of these deep dives into continuity because they really were hard to get into… and I was a FAN.

Jim: There was possibly a behind-the-scenes reason for turning the original Human Torch into the Vision, since Carl Burgos had previously tried to reclaim the copyright on the Torch in the 1960s (as I mentioned in my post about Captain Marvel history), and the then-in-the-works Copyright Act of 1976 would have given him a better chance at it, so Marvel preemptively turned the character into someone else.

Greg H: But the point is that nobody was thinking any of it would be remembered by anyone except a few hardcore aficionados. Certainly no one ever thought it’d end up packaged in hardcovers that people would keep on their shelves like, y’know, REAL books.

John: I hope I don’t sound too jaded, but well… I guess I am. I can’t get too worked up over superhero reboots and revamps anymore. I’ve had my fanboy heart broken too many times. Each time you reboot a character or a book, or each time you retcon some aspect of a character’s history, you’re sending the subliminal message: “None of this stuff matters. We can change it any time.” And if you do that enough times, readers will start to believe you and stop caring. That’s what’s happened to me with most of DC and Marvel’s current product. After Crisis and Zero Hour and Brightest Day and Flashpoint and the New 52 and Convergence and Secret Invasion and Original Sin and Secret Wars and Marvel Now and half a dozen others I’m probably forgetting… I’ve just stopped caring. I don’t want to learn an entirely new history every time I want to read a Batman comic. I just want to read a cool story with Batman, dammit.

Jim: I pretty much reached my limit with Final Crisis at DC; “events” wore me out and put me off the regular books. The only parts of that series I looked at were the Legion of Super-Heroes and Captain Carrot installments. I can’t even tell you what happened in the main story.

Travis: I read Final Crisis (and liked it better than most people) and I can’t tell you 🙂

Edo: I can’t get too worked up about reboots in general, because I had my first big break from comics reading just before Crisis on Infinite Earths (to this day, I still haven’t read that story). I got back into comics (one of several returns) just after Crisis, and actually liked quite a bit of DC’s output at the time – it seemed like the whole line had been reinvigorated from my limited perspective. It later occurred to me, however, how many negative repercussions CoIE had across the DC universe (Jai Guru Deva, om…) – esp. to two titles that I thought were probably the best prior to that point, the (New) Teen Titans and the Legion of Super-Heroes. So I guess in hindsight, I’d say that that first big reboot to end all reboots (you know, like World War I was the war to end all wars) was probably not a good idea, and when I learned about the later ones, or read about them now, I just kind of roll my eyes and remain thankful that I just don’t read any ongoing titles from either of the big two.

Travis: It was mentioned up top, but I do think Man of Steel (the Byrne version) is probably one of the best reboots ever.  I’m not sure it could be topped, really.  It streamlined the mythos, gave us a new starting point in following the adventures, gave us fairly adult storylines, and gave us a powerful but not godlike Superman that we wanted to read about.

Man of SteelJohn: I loved Man of Steel at the time, but when I’ve gone back to revisit it and the subsequent Byrne run on Superman, I don’t like it as much. I miss the meek and mild Clark Kent. Yeah, Byrne’s self-confident Clark who played football in high school might’ve been more logical, but he wasn’t nearly as much fun. I think the classic wish-fulfillment factor of “The girl of my dreams doesn’t appreciate me now, but she’d change her mind if only she knew the real me!” is more potent than any relationship drama that Byrne put in its place. I think it was Mark Evanier who said that he couldn’t relate to a Clark/Superman who was more impressive than him in both of his identities, and I agree. I prefer a Clark who’s mild-mannered and unassuming, but not necessarily an exaggerated wimp. The kind of guy who you wouldn’t give a second glance to when he walks into a room, and might not notice he’d left until he was already gone for a half hour. What better secret identity for Superman?

And although Byrne said that he wanted to make Lois Lane more likable, I always thought that his version of Lois was a bitch on wheels. She was always going “OOH-H-H-H!!!” and storming off because she was P.O.ed over the latest way that Clark or Superman lied to her. It got very tiresome very quickly.

Action 597 John Byrne Lois
See?

But hey, I love the more alien-looking Krypton and the businessman Lex Luthor (thank you, Marv Wolfman), so it’s a mixed bag for me.

Greg H: Absolutely it was a mixed bag. I agreed completely with the mission statement of Byrne’s Superman, which was to get people interested in him again and remind us all why we loved the character. Some of it was brilliant, like keeping the Kents alive and making Lana into his childhood confidante instead of a teenaged Lois. The new Luthor was Marv Wolfman but I like how Byrne ran with it. Some of it was just a bad take on the characterization like the way he re-envisioned Clark and Lois. But the trouble with it was that he did things that were just completely wrongheaded and screwed things up for a lot of other writers, particularly losing Superboy and Supergirl and the Legion connection. He wrote stories that closed off a lot of avenues and ideally when you reboot an ongoing you are opening up new story possibilities.

Travis: I get all your critiques, John, and now I realize I probably like it as much for how it laid the groundwork for the “Triangle Era” stuff after Byrne left, which was a really good era of comics.  I’d also point out that one of the great things Byrne did was not kill off the Kents.

Greg H: I really liked a lot of the triangle era too, and I wish Roger Stern and Jerry Ordway and Louise Simonson could have stayed even longer. I’d add that it’s amusing to me how much mythology that run tried to put BACK after Byrne got rid of it. We got a new Supergirl, a new Superboy, a new Brainiac, even a new version of the bottle city of Kandor.

Jim: Well, there were a lot of babies in the bathwater that Byrne dumped. I appreciated the boldness of Byrne’s “clean slate” approach, but he kind of painted himself into a corner with the Legion. Most of the other stuff could be recovered, but all the cobbling-together of contrivances (like the “pocket universe” and all that Atlantean stuff) to try to restore the Legion, Power Girl and a bunch of other things he (and COIE) broke along the way really made for convoluted comics far more incomprehensible than anything from the Earth-1, -2, -3, -X, -S, -etc. days.

Travis: I like that they were able to bring back various things that were lost, but that of course also created lots of convolution, as Jim just said.  Even when they tried “fixing it”, like when the Loeb/Turner Supergirl came out, it mostly made things worse.  Although I do like the story that DiDio was at one of the theme parks with DC character based rides, saw the description of Supergirl as an angel or something, whatever the status quo at the time was, and wanted to get back to “she’s Superman’s cousin”.

Edo: Yeah, Man of Steel was one of those post-Crisis titles I picked up and really enjoyed at the time. I’ve never revisited it, so I can’t say what I would think of the individual stories now, but I generally agree with Travis that it was a top-notch reboot – in other words, if you’re gonna do a reboot, that’s the way to go.

Also, I thought post-Crisis Lois was an improvement over what I remember of the pre-Crisis version (although I have to admit, I was only an intermittent reader of the two main Superman titles in the 1970s and early 1980s). And yes, evil, manipulative businessman Lex Luthor was a really good idea, and so was keeping the Kents alive.

Greg H: I’d also mention that despite the fact that we’re talking about Man of Steel like it stuck, it really didn’t. We’ve had at least four different Superman origin stories since then with more on the way.

John: Yeah, true. But Man of Steel definitely stayed in continuity for longer any of those other revamps. Which is one of the problems, I think — the turnaround on this stuff is SOOOOO fast now. (BTW, I hit on several of those Superman origins & talked about their Superman the Movie influences in my recent article in Back Issue #109, which is all about STM). And Superman For All Seasons, at least as far as I can recall, fits in around the margins of Man of Steel pretty well.

Travis: I’ll mention retcons here.  Off the top of my head, the retcon Grant Morrison gave Doom Patrol towards the end of his run seems like a pretty good one.  I know that not wanting to spoil a nearly 30 year old story seems silly, but I won’t get into it further for the folks who haven’t read it.  What did come to mind about it, though, is that I wonder now how another team that GMozz also wrote may have been affected, as there were somewhat similar, if slightly less sinister, reveals about the X-Men and Charles Xavier in particular.

Greg H: I loved Crawling From the Wreckage and the introduction of Crazy Jane, but the retcon Travis speaks of is something I hate with the burning fury of a supernova. That was a bridge too far for me. But then again, my Doom Patrol looks more like this.

Jim: I have a fairly low tolerance for retcons. Back in the ’90s, I described DC continuity as “like reading Pravda”; there was this 1984-like mindset where everyone was supposed to agree to pretend that Black Canary was always her own daughter or any of a dozen other absurdities, and it annoyed the crap out of me when somebody would regurgitate some ill-thought attempt to patch a hole as if it had always been the story. Far from “unifying” or “cleaning up” the continuity, retcons merely show that the story is subject to change without notice. It still annoys me, for instance, when some pop culture site will refer to the original Guardians of the Galaxy and include characters who were retroactively inserted into the original lineup years after the fact. The original GOTG from 1969 are Charlie-27, Martinex, Yondu, and Vance Astro. Period. Starhawk wasn’t there. Nikki wasn’t there, even though I love her and hope she shows up in Volume 3. And yet practically every entry you find online includes a bunch of ’70s and ’80s retcons stated as if they were always part of Arnold Drake’s story.

And now we’re starting to see this sort of thing in the films; ten years after the film came out, somebody decided that it would be cute if the unnamed kid in Iron Man 2 was actually a young Peter Parker, and now we’re supposed to just accept that his official first appearance in the MCU was in that movie rather than in Captain America: Civil War. No, that was just a random kid. But even though it’s never been actually referenced in any of the films, it’s now the “we always intended that” story. Oceania has always never always been at war with Eastasia.

Travis: An absolutely terrible one, for so many reasons, is the Sue Dibny rape in Identity Crisis.  I got into an argument at the old place over whether or not this was a retcon (the other person was obviously wrong in saying it wasn’t).  I hate this.  Not only because it does something terrible to a character I love (the 1992 Elongated Man miniseries is one of my absolute favorite comics ever), but she didn’t get a chance to deal with it in present continuity (that I’m aware of, at least).  Also, it led to the stupid Batman mindwipe stuff that led to the grim and grittying of the entire DC Universe (which it was on track for before that, but without the wild success of Identity Crisis, I don’t know that it would have gotten so bad or so entrenched).  Identity Crisis is bad for so many reasons, but leading the pack is the Sue rape retcon.

Jim: And that’s not even touching on the fact that it plays the “fridging” cliche five years after Gail Simone dragged that trope into the daylight for examination. The editors should have thought better of that particular point.

Identity Crisis
The World’s Greatest Mindwiping Superheroes.

John: I’m not too fond of the “Hey, this heroic character that you’ve known for decades is really EEEEEEEEVIL!!!” type retcons. They generally just uselessly tear down a character and don’t give you anything in its place. About the only time that plot twist has ever worked for me was when they revealed that Maxwell Lord was an evil mastermind intentionally keeping the Justice League ineffective in Countdown to Infinite Crisis. But I suppose that was because I didn’t have a big emotional attachment to Maxwell Lord. If I’d been reading Justice League International since I was eight years old, I’d probably feel differently.

Identity Crisis I really enjoyed the first few issues of, but the random, out-of-nowhere conclusion to the main mystery just marred the entire thing for me. I was all for making Dr. Light an effective supervillain again, but considering that he was basically remade into “Captain Rapeman,” maybe they should’ve just left him as a pathetic goon. And the rape of Sue Dibny and the reveal that the JLA was never as honorable as we all thought… Pass.

Spidey GoblinJohn: The type of retcons I hate the most are the ones where a writer is not only going back and rewriting some other writer’s story from decades before, but they haven’t even bothered doing the homework to make their new revelation fit in. I can think of two examples off the top of my head: The first, J. Michael Strazcynski’s 2004 storyline “Sins Past,” where it was revealed that Gwen Stacy not only cheated on Peter Parker, but she secretly had Norman Osborn’s babies for… Some reason? I dunno? Just so Spider-Man could fight some rapidly-aged Green Goblin love children? Or to give the Green Goblin more of a reason to murder Gwen in a story… originally published in 1973? It was all so badly done and vaguely justified that I can’t believe that it even got past the first pitch meeting, let alone published.

Mockingbird Phantom RiderAnd, more recently, Chelsea Cain 2016’s Mockingbird series revealed that Bobbi Morse wasn’t really drugged, brainwashed, and raped by the Phantom Rider back in the 1987 The West Coast Avengers storyline “Lost in Space-Time,” she just cheated on her husband Clint when she was stranded back in the old west. The Mockingbird/Phantom Rider relationship not being consensual was now all just Hawkeye’s imagination, even though we saw it happen that way on-panel in the original storyline. I understand that part of Cain’s reasoning for this change was to give Bobbi her own agency, which is certainly an admirable goal, but… Why retcon a story from 29 years before to do that? And if the Phantom Rider didn’t do anything heinous to Bobbi… Why exactly did she let him fall to his death off a mountaintop?

Mockingbird Phantom Rider death
I mean, I’ve had bad breakups, but this is ridiculous.

Comics have to be the only medium where you see this sort of thing. It’s not like George Lucas doing the Star Wars Special Editions in the 90s, or Paul McCartney doing Let It Be: Naked because he didn’t like Phil Spector’s production. I can sort of understand those, because those are the original artists going back and revising their own work. This is going back and revising someone else’s work, decades after the fact, just because you think you know better. That’s weird. I don’t expect to walk into the new James Bond movie next year and find out that half of it is devoted to rewriting Goldfinger. I don’t expect the season premiere of Law & Order: SVU to refute a plot point from a Law & Order episode from 1990. But somehow in superhero comics, rewriting the person who had the job decades before you has come to be not only tolerated, but expected.

Honestly, I think the best way to deal with old story points you dislike is to just ignore them. Back when John Byrne was writing and drawing the Fantastic Four in the 80s, he got rid of Reed and Ben being World War II veterans by just never bringing it up. When Mike W. Barr was writing Batman and the Outsiders in 1983, he decided to forget all about a 1975 Bob Haney Brave and the Bold story that showed Metamorpho knew Batman was Bruce Wayne.

Batman Metamorpho jailbreak
You can tell it’s a Bob Haney comic because Batman needs help escaping from a jail cell.

Neither Byrne nor Barr ever did a big time-travel storyline explaining that those stories never happened, they just… never brought them up. And it amounted to the same thing. Instead of wasting time rewriting old stories to try to make everything 100% consistent with how they were doing the books in the present day, Byrne and Barr just… Told their own stories. Radical concept, right?

Jim: Byrne actually talked about this back when he was on Fantastic Four. I don’t have time to dig up the interview some decades later, but I recall his statement was along the lines of “you have to keep lopping off the back.” At some point you just stop mentioning Reed and Ben’s WWII history, the space race, or any other fixed point that ties the series to an era. If I recall correctly, he referenced the Little Orphan Annie comic strip, the way Annie is perennially 10 years old and sort of floats through time; she met FDR at one point, and was still 10 when Jimmy Carter was President, and would still be 10 years old for as long as the strip continued, and everybody just accepted that whenever 10 years ago was, that’s when she was born. Byrne said the Fantastic Four started “10 years ago”; whatever year it is, they started 10 years ago, and today that rocket launched in 2009. The more writers (and fans) try to lock down every detail, the more they complicate and screw up the story for the future.

Travis: I recently read an Epic volume of Fantastic Four during the Englehart/Thing in charge/Ms. Marvel years, and it mentions wanting to get to the moon first as a reason for going on the rocket, which locks it in to pre-1969, which is odd because those stories are from 1987-ish.  Which is almost 20 years later, which doesn’t seem to work….

Edo: I so totally agree with the idea of just ignoring old, problematic story points. It’s both the simplest and most elegant solution, I think.

Otherwise, I have no strong opinions on retcons. When done right, they can really enrich a character/series, when done wrong they can f*** things up so badly that only another retcon or even reboot can fix it. I think an example of some really good retcons can be found in Frank Miller’s first run on Daredevil, with the introduction of Elektra, the first great love of his life…

…and Stick, the blind pool-hustler and sensei/Jedi master who, we learn, trained the young Matt Murdock on the use of his heightened senses. It didn’t erase or negate anything that was done by all of the writers who preceded him, it just gave the character a whole new and intriguing layer.

Since I recently read my Falcon tpb that collects a bunch of his appearances from the ’70s and ’80s, I was reminded of a (really) bad retcon: when Steve Englehart retooled the Falcon’s past, to claim that he was a hood named ‘Snap’ Wilson and that Red Skull, using the Cosmic Cube, actually turned him into a goodie two-shoes as a part of a long game to mess with Cap. That was just so, so wrong for so many reasons, and hats off to J.M. DeMatteis for doing quite a bit to repair the damage in a few back-up stories in Captain America in the early 1980s.

That which never should have happened, and the laudable attempt to fix it.

John: Yeah, I think a lot of fans forget that Elektra and Stick were both massive retcons to Matt Murdock’s history. Whether that’s because they didn’t start reading Daredevil until after Frank Miller’s run, or because Miller’s run is just so beloved that they overlook it, I dunno.

And as long as we’re talking about continuity inserts by Frank Miller, I think a lot of people also forget just how much Miller changed in the Batman mythos when he did The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One in the mid-80s. I was pretty familiar with what Batman’s pre-Crisis history had been, because I read Len Wein’s The Untold Legend of Batman back in the early 80s, and I was able to recognize these changes for what they were. Alfred being the Wayne family butler ever since Bruce’s childhood? Retcon. Jim Gordon being a Lieutenant from Chicago instead of Gotham City’s Police Commissioner when Batman was starting out? Retcon. Jim Gordon having a son, James Jr., instead of a daughter, future Batgirl Barbara Gordon? Retcon. Catwoman being a former prostitute? Retcon. Now, I think that some of these were good changes, but they were still pretty big changes in Batman’s history. And it seems like a lot of readers either forget that, or else they never knew it to begin with, and just think that the Miller versions are the way things always were.

Batman Year One bat crash
Heck, even the bat crashing through Bruce Wayne’s window is a retcon. Originally, the window was open.

Jim: And here I think we find what I consider “good” vs. “bad” retcons: adding something new that we didn’t know before, as opposed to writing something out or altering what came before. In Untold Tales of Spider-Man, (a terrific series set in between the events of the early years of the Spider-Man), Kurt Busiek reveals that before they ever met, Mary Jane Watson discovered that the boy next door is Spider-Man. She keeps this information to herself, and as far as I know, no other writer touched the notion for years afterward, but the tidbit that she always knew serves to color all their interactions in a nice way.

An example I can’t really call “bad” so much as desperate would be Roy Thomas’ Young All-Stars, which rapidly turned into a heroic attempt to salvage something of the Golden Age following the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths.

John: One small correction, Jim: The revelation of exactly when Mary Jane first learned that Peter Parker is Spider-Man was in the Gerry Conway/Alex Saviuk graphic novel Parallel Lives in 1989. So Busiek was just following Conway’s lead there.

Spider-Man Parallel Lives MJ Finds Out
To clarify: Mary Jane learned that Peter Parker was Spider-Man on the same night that Ben Parker was killed.

Edo: At the start, Travis mentioned the most recent developments with the X-Men, and I suppose this whole post could have just been dedicated to all of the retcons in that franchise. My vote for the worst X-retcon, and the worst retcon of all time, goes to the resurrection of Jean Grey and the revelation that Phoenix wasn’t really her. I hate the way this crapped on the powerful and moving conclusion to one of the best story arcs in all of superhero comicdom with, well, to quote Greg above, the  burning fury of a supernova.

Some other X-retcons that still have me on the fence involve Magneto: the revelation that he’s the father of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, and then that he’s a Holocaust survivor. As they were happening, I accepted both of these without question. They were just so intriguing and seemed to give Magneto so much more depth.

I also loved the way his parentage of Wanda and Pietro was revealed: you could only understand these panels and make the connection if you were reading both X-Men and Avengers at the time.

However, both were/are problematic, first and foremost in the sense of not fitting smoothly into what we know about the character from previous appearances. For one thing, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch were members of the first Brotherhood of Evil Mutants – which then makes Magneto seem rather stupid for not noticing that this brother and sister strongly resemble him and his former wife, who fled from him while pregnant with them. Like he wouldn’t have noticed the family resemblance and then done the math in his head?

The revelation that he’s a Holocaust survivor makes certain aspects of his behavior even  more troubling. Like early on in the X-men, Magneto at one point briefly took over a small South American country and set up a full-on fascist regime, complete with goosestepping troops. It just doesn’t seem like something a Holocaust survivor would be too keen on doing. Nor, for that matter, does Magneto’s occasional propensity for engaging in indiscriminate slaughter – like wiping out an entire city in Russia that one time. Or his occasional threats to perpetrate genocide against non-mutants.

Moreover – and I admit this a more of a minor point – tying his backstory, and so that of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, to a fixed point in history (World War II and the Holocaust) creates all kinds of problems for Marvel’s sliding timescale, which then necessitates periodic ‘fixes’ as well.

Travis: That’s funny that you guys talked about Untold Tales and then the Phoenix retcon right next to each other, since Busiek was the guy behind both of them.

The DC Hawks continuity and characters have been so f-‘d up over the years, it’s not even funny.  Apparently now in Justice League it’s not just Thanagar, but Thanagar Prime, and it’s a world where other planets in the universe keep all their most precious treasures and secrets (so they’re the Switzerland of the universe, kinda).  On that world the ruler is Shayera (I think), but there’s also Kendra, the Hawkgirl from Earth who was (re)introduced in the Dark Nights Metal series, I believe.  I think they’re parts of the same soul?  And there’s the appearance of a (new?) Savage Hawkman on the planet as well.  My haid hurt.  This is after Crisis on Infinite Earths (or more, the aftermath thereof) tried to reconcile the different Golden and Silver Age versions, and then created more versions, and then his ’90s series was confusing, but finally he seemed to have been mostly fixed by the early ’00s series and JSA where he and Hawkgirl/woman were reincarnated repeatedly through the ages.  But after Flashpoint and the New 52, things have gotten weird again (as well as this new change after Rebirth adding in extra years and characters).  I can follow all this stuff pretty well and I can’t follow this stuff.

Hawkman Zero Hour
Vandal Savage is every confused Hawkman reader right now.

John: Yeah, Hawkman’s become a total mess, and even after he’s been fixed a few times, he always seems to default back to being a total mess. At this point he’s become one of those characters, like Donna Troy or Jean Grey, who’s probably just screwed up for all time. (And when characters get so messed up that readers no longer even call them by their code names anymore, that’s when you know they’re probably too far gone to ever be fixed.)

In retrospect, I think DC’s biggest mistake after Crisis on Infinite Earths was not just putting the brakes on revamping characters after a certain point. The JLA didn’t get their new origin with Black Canary in place of Wonder Woman until 1988. Hawkworld and Emerald Dawn debuted in 1989. Considering that Crisis came to an end in 1986, that’s a bit late in the day, I think.

Basically, I think that 1980s DC didn’t really put enough consideration into the domino effect that rewriting certain characters’ origins would have on other books. A affects B affects C in a story, and sometimes revamping a solo character screws up the history of a group book. Wonder Woman and Hawkman being introduced into the present day DCU meant that the histories of Wonder Girl, the Teen Titans, the JLA, and the JSA ALL got altered to one degree or another. And the Legion of Super-Heroes has had years of constantly-rewritten history, all because Superboy and Supergirl were removed from continuity. The Legion is still dealing with the fallout from that one decision 30+ years ago. I wish them the best with the new Brian Michael Bendis/Ryan Sook Legion, but frankly, after four or five Legion reboots, it’s hard for me to care much anymore.

Jim: I’ve talked with Marv Wolfman about COIE; he really just wanted to clear the table and let writers write stories without having to look up decades of history to make sure they weren’t contradicting something. The plan was to be a total reset, but almost immediately each editor and “name” writer started trying to rope off their little corner of continuity to protect their own stories, with the result that COIE accomplished nothing in terms of its original purpose.

Travis: I’m not entirely sure it counts, but one of my favorite reboots is probably the Kyle Baker Plastic Man.  He seemed to take Plas and make him fun, even as he acknowledged how out of place he was in the greater DCU at that time (right around the time of Identity Crisis, I believe).  Not to name names (Burgas), but people who don’t think Kyle Baker is amazing are just wrong.  Plus, it gave us a celebration of “shirtless fighting!”

John: I’d say that the Kyle Baker Plastic Man definitely counts as a reboot. Baker made some adjustments to the origin and he gave Plas a different domestic life than Joe Kelly did in JLA around that time. (Kelly’s Plas was a deadbeat dad, if I remember correctly. Gee, how heroic.)

Plastic Man Kyle Baker
What do you suppose Batman made for the JLA bake sale? I’m thinking macaroons.

Plus, how can you not love the idea of the JLA having an annual company picnic, where Batman and Robin compete in a sack race? That’s just fun. And God knows that superhero comics should be fun.

Greg H: My number one pick for best reboot AND best retcon are the same thing– the Goodwin-Simonson Manhunter.

There have been others since then I really liked– a close number two would be the Jack Knight Starman— but I think Paul Kirk’s the one you have to beat.

Edo: Oh, man. I love the Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter story so much. It’s one of my favorite comic stories of all time – and I never even thought of it as a reboot/retcon, but I see now that it totally is…

Greg H: I liked the Kate Spencer version of Manhunter a lot too.

Fun fact– it’s regarded as a cult hit but it was actually a huge success compared to every other Manhunter DC ever did. There are as many pages of story about Kate Spencer as there are all the preceding versions of Manhunter combined.

Worst… you all have already mentioned so many other bad ones it’s hard to pick. Reading the examples above I kept wincing and muttering damn, that one was so bad I put it out of my memory but Jesus, yeah, that WAS horrible.

I think the prize has to go to the 1990s Hawkman hall of shame, though. Like Manhunter for the best, it serves as my worst for both retcon AND relaunch. You know what the worst part is? It was all based on a MISTAKE. When Tim Truman did Hawkworld he was very specific; it was a prequel story to the then-current Hawkman, the Silver Age Thanagar one. That’s why it ends with Byth the shapeshifter escaping to Earth, which is where the Silver Age one starts.

Look at the original Hawkworld mini-series like that and it’s seamless. No problem at all. But at some point everyone changed their minds about it, including Truman. Suddenly it was a new-to-continuity relaunch like the Perez Wonder Woman where all the previous history gets wiped.

That’s why you’ve had so many people trying to patch it and fix it forever. It was a SPECTACULARLY dumb decision.

John: Yeah. Mark Waid made the point that the entire decades-long Hawkman mess could’ve been avoided with just one caption box in the original Hawkworld miniseries reading “Ten years ago…” That’s literally all they needed to do. It really makes you appreciate a strong editorial hand.

Edo: Looking over this whole post, I have to say I’m surprised that Roy Thomas has only been mentioned once so far, in the context of his desperate post-Crisis salvage operations, but I have to say, since he started writing at Marvel back in the latter half of the 1960s, retconning has been one of the leit-motifs of his entire career as a comics writer. And even though, before Crisis, Thomas often seemed to be intent on reconciling every superhero story from the Golden Age onward into a seamless continuity – just think of that story in World’s Finest #271 that strung together and explained all of the ‘first times’ Superman and Batman met…

(So. Much. Continuity porn.)

…his love for the Golden Age characters from both the DC and Marvel stables led him to introduce some serious, and rather intrusive retcons. The Liberty Legion, pictured above, is just a relatively minor one. Far more important and far-reaching were two that had respectable runs in their own titles:

Honestly, there’s no way you can seriously say that all of these stories occurred in conjunction with the original appearances of these various characters back in the 1940s. But who cares? I liked, I mean really liked, both of these. To me, they fall into the ‘good retcon’ category. And I just particularly like the Invaders as a concept – heck, I just read (like, last night), Roger Stern’s three-part Invaders story published in the (unfortunately) short-lived series Marvel Universe in the late 1990s and absolutely loved it. Maybe, in the case of Roy Thomas, the retcons he introduced have been so accepted and internalized by comics fans that we don’t even perceive them as such…

John: I think with the Golden Age stuff, Thomas had the advantage of the fact that most readers of the 70s and 80s hadn’t read every single story from the 1940s the way he had and wouldn’t notice if things didn’t exactly jibe. So he had the freedom to change things a lot, and most of his audience was none the wiser. For instance, I recall that Thomas had Johnny Quick and Liberty Belle get married in All-Star Squadron, which is certainly a substantial change from their Golden Age status quos. Tarantula got an origin, a brand-new costume and new raison d’etre, so much so that he was practically a new character by the time Thomas and Jerry Ordway were done with him. But when you’re changing more recent stories that your current audience still remembers or even cherishes, people are going to notice it a lot more.

Edo: I mostly agree with you about Thomas fiddling with Golden Age continuity, such as it was, but with the  creation of the Invaders, he really intervened in Silver Age and even earlier Bronze Age continuity as well. He may have teased their existence in Avengers #71, but to the best of my recollection, until the Invaders series was launched, neither Cap nor Namor ever gave any indication they were close comrades-in-arms in a number of missions for several years during World War II. Even their actual Golden Age, but post WW2, collaboration in the All-Winners Squad was retconned – by Thomas (of course) – with the explanation that the All-Winners Cap was not Steve Rogers (because according to the venerable Lee/Kirby retcon from Avengers #4, Rogers had already been turned into a popsicle at the close of the war).

Jim: For the record, Marv Wolfman told me that the editor who most supported his plans with Crisis on Infinite Earths, and worked hardest to accommodate the new status quo, was Roy Thomas, who incidentally was the writer most directly affected by it. He basically had to invent an entirely new “Golden Age” for DC in a couple of months.

Greg B: I apologize – I’m late to the game, and I can’t really contribute too much to the discussion above. We’re talking about good and bad reboots or retcons, though, and I’m with Travis and opposed whole-heartedly to Greg H.: the Doom Patrol one is brilliant. I thought so when I first read it, but when I finally read the 1960s DP, it made even more sense. Hatcher is just wrong, man!

I’m a bit flabbergasted that no one has mentioned the King of Retcons and the Greatest Of Them All, Alan Moore and Swamp Thing. I mean, that’s the best retcon of all time, right? And the one that stuck the longest, too, I think. Moore retconned Miracleman before that, too, and it was also brilliant (although it did have an early example of his enjoyment of rape as a plot device). So yeah, Alan Moore: Best Retconner around, yo.

Swamp Thing Alan Moore
…Well, this was unexpected.

Edo: O.k. I’ll admit, Moore’s new take Swamp Thing slipped my mind; otherwise, I agree that that was among the best retcons, and I also liked his Marvel/Miracleman retcon, but I still think Roy Thomas wears the crown for best retconner – especially if you look at his extensive work on Conan as an exercise in long-form retconning.

Greg B: As for reboots … I’m not really sure. Recently, the best cinematic reboot has been Fast Five, which took a drag-racing franchise with tiny, tiny stakes and turned everything up to 11, adding The Rock and making everyone in the cast the best [insert their job here] on the planet. It’s a wonderful movie, because it’s utterly ridiculous and knows it. In comics, I don’t pay attention to reboots as much as others, so I’ll say the worst one is what Claremont and Lee did to Psylocke. I’ve made the point more than once that the Lady Mandarin story is both the best and worst Psylocke story, because it was a ridiculously cool story but it also closed off a lot of avenues for the character and turned her into a bunch of walking clichés (I will say that Jamie Delano’s short story about Betsy becoming Captain Britain and New Mutants Annual #2 are candidates for best Psylocke story, but Lady Mandarin is just hella cool). I did enjoy the fact that in the 1980s and 1990s DC was willing to reboot some of its hoariest franchises with new characters (Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Flash), but then Geoff Johns came along and cried because everyone was ruining his childhood, so that didn’t last. That’s all I got!

Travis: It’s probably time to wrap up anyway.  We can always come back to this topic another time, because obviously, as Burgas pointed out, we missed a big and obvious one with Alan Moore, so there’s plenty more to discuss.  The idea was brought up in the discussion of Daredevil/Batman/Frank Miller about retconned elements that seem to have always been there, and that’s fascinating and we could talk more about that.  I’m also intrigued by the notion of how the new comics-based movies affect continuity and how that affects the comics.  A few people mentioned big events, and not just COIE, so I’m intrigued by the notion that was unspoken with that of “are event comics per se rebooting and retconning things?”.  And Burgas talked briefly about movie reboots, which is something we might want to discuss further in the future.

As we can see from this discussion, the business of comics has changed in such a way that reboots and retcons are the norm.  Even as more old stories are available, new stories building off and reworking the past come up more and more.  For every really good reboot or retcon there seem to be more awful ones.  And that means that we here at the Atomic Junk Shop will continue to have strong opinions.

21 Comments

  1. Peter

    For reboots and retcons, I think Kurt Busiek is one of the best in the business. I don’t know if I can say offhand whether Avengers Forever had any dramatic retcons, but it is one of those rare stories that explored the minutiae of continuity while still being a really fun read. However, I do think that Busiek’s contributions to the return of Jean Grey might be the worst retcon of all time. Perhaps on its own, it wasn’t terrible, but it really opened the door to so much continuity-rewriting for the X-Men; that kind of thing turned one of the finest comics of the 70s and 80s into an impenetrable comics franchise.

    1. The return of Jean Grey wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been preceded by the mess that was Madelyne Pryor, and followed by a million ill-thought attempts to rehash Phoenix again and again. They could have reset Jean to Marvel Girl and let Phoenix stay dead. “That thing will never heal if you keep picking at it.”

      1. Edo Bosnar

        I don’t agree about the Jean Grey resurrection, i.e., that it could have worked out if there had been no Madelyne Pryor. I did some thinking about that when I last re-read the Dark Phoenix saga a few years ago, and concluded that there’s really no way to bring Jean back without totally cheapening that story’s conclusion: it’s supposed to be the real Jean Grey who is Phoenix, and who took her own life so she wouldn’t eventually end up destroying the universe.
        As for Madelyne, on the one hand, at the time I thought it was a good idea to show Scott moving on, but how far could he have moved on if he married someone who’s a carbon copy of his dead girlfriend? (Personally, I think it would have been better if he had settled down with Lee Forrester…)

  2. For clarity’s sake, it wasn’t actually Kurt Busiek who resurrected Jean Grey, right? I may be off on the details, but my understanding is that before he was a professional comic writer he was just coming up with his idea of how such a thing could be accomplished while also fulfilling the editorial instruction that Jean had to remain dead unless she could be fully absolved of her crimes. The idea was then shared from one creator to another until John Byrne and Bob Layton put it into action…is that right?

    As some have said in the article, the Man of Steel reboot was the best–it totally succeeded with making Superman a relevant character for me, whereas before I found his stories too silly to really engage with. Now, I have grown to love lots of different versions of Superman, including those that I previously disparaged, but Byrne’s work and, even more so, the triangle years that followed were my gateway in. To reference the frashersherman article from not long ago, that particular incarnation of the character somehow turned Superman into someone whose “ideal” I really love, and can enough elements in most takes on the character that I’ll read almost anything.

    As a long-term Legion of Super-Heroes fan, I know all about being frustrated with reboots, but I think I’ve mostly gotten over being shocked and outraged by them, and now tend to just look at each one (LSH or otherwise) as another take on a property–another story, really–that I might or might not enjoy. And if I don’t, I’m hopeful that they’ll be yet another one before too long. I think like most, I’ve long given up on the notion of finding a genuine sense of long-term, lasting continuity in any comics I read…except for more independent stuff, like Astro City.

    Actually, that might be part of the appeal of later Astro City comics–a nostalgic look at the idea of internally consistent continuity…

    1. As far as I know, Busiek didn’t directly have anything to do with the Phoenix resurrection, he just had the idea. (He was probably doing DC stuff still, as he did some JLofA and Wonder Woman stuff, at least, by about 1985.) I think Brian might have done a Legend about it over at the old place, but I’m not sure. But I think it was Busiek who came up with the idea that was eventually published.

  3. Rob Allen

    You guys hit all the major ones from the Big Two, but let’s not forget:

    – Charlton’s Blue Beetle – Dan Garret to Ted Kord. And even the Dan Garret version was a reboot of the 1940s character.

    – Steve Ditko created The Question as an objectivist hero for Charlton; DC’s version by Denny O’Neil was more Zen.

    – Simon & Kirby’s new version of Harry Shorten & Irv Novick’s character The Shield for Archie Comics.

    – speaking of Archie, all the different versions of the Riverdale gang in the last decade.

  4. jccalhoun

    I reread All-Star Squadron a few years ago and it is kind of crazy how many times the early issues reference 40s comics. This was way before any of these things were really reprinted on a large scale so the vast majority of readers had no way of reading the comics referenced. All the trouble Thomas went to in order to fit all those things in and no one would have known if he just did whatever he wanted. I guess he was having fun doing that but still someone should have said, “just do whatever you want. no one will know if you contradict some story from 30-40 years ago.”

  5. That Mockingbird retcon makes things so much worse.  Yeah, it’s been a bad trope to have female characters indiscriminately raped, but it seems to me that Bobbi is saying here that a rape victim who was drugged and taken advantage of doesn’t make her own decisions and seems awfully victim blaming to me. “I’m always in control, so I couldn’t have been raped” is not a binary thing.

    1. Jazzbo

      I 100% agree with this. It comes pretty close to victim blaming. Plus, as mentioned above, why did she let him die? Because she wanted to break up with him? That basically makes her a murderer. How is that better than that she was a victim?

  6. Sigh, I would have loved to contribute to this, but time has not been my friend. So in no particular order …
    1)Reading THE HAWKMAN COMPANION recently made me aware all over again how badly Hawk-continuity’s been mangled, from the reboots to things like “Oh, Katar Hol of Thanagar is half-Navajo” at one point. Plus lots of other bad editorial ideas, like Denny O’Neil (according to Tony Isabella) telling Isabella to wrap up the Shadow War in two issues.
    2)I actually think the pocket universe retcon worked great. Superboy wasn’t appearing in the LSH at the time so it preserved that part of their history without really affecting future stories (and the arc gave a better farewell to the Earth-One Kal-El than the adult version got). It was the later decision to retcon the pocket universe out and erase Superboy from the LSH history that made it a mess.
    3)Yes, the Mockingbird thing sounds ghastly.
    4)I’ll have to disagree with JC on All-Star Squadron. I enjoyed watching him fit new stuff into the gaps in established continuity, and I recognized quite a bit of what he was working with. It wouldn’t have been as much fun if he was starting from scratch.
    Admittedly it didn’t always work. The story that retconned the JSA winning the war in the Pacific into an illusion by Brain Wave was an awesome idea; establishing Brain Wave was secretly behind Dr. Elba in an earlier JSA adventure accomplished nothing.
    5)For a good retcon series, “Mr. and Mrs. Superman” in Superman Family was a hoot. E. Nelson Bridwell showing us the Earth-2 Lana Lang, how Clark wound up editing the Daily Star, and other fun stuff.
    6)Lord, but I love the Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter. And Simonson’s Thor is a textbook example of how to do a soft reboot without rewriting anything.
    7)Conversely I hated the Kate Spencer Manhunter. I don’t like heroes who kill, and a prosecutor who kills people if she can’t put them behind bars — well, that’s a villain to me.
    8)I couldn’t stand Hickman’s Avengers work so I shudder to think what his big reboot of Avengers in.
    9)Someone who’ll need a retcon eventually: Kate Kane. Another decade and Batwoman having been kicked out of West Point for being gay will be unworkable (unless gay rights goes into a very nasty reverse, which is not inconceivable).
    10)The Ostrander/Mandrake Spectre did quite a bit of retconning, making the Spectre into a fallen angel and tying up many odds and ends from previous Spectre series. I wish DC would reprint more than the first two volumes.
    11)In full agreement that resurrecting Jean was never going to work. And “Look, the original X-Men together again!” was a pointless reason to do it.
    12)Two more good retcons: Captain America: Young Allies looks at the kid group Bucky and Toro hung out with; Karl Kesel’s Captain America: Patriot covers the third guy behind the shield, Jeff Mace.

  7. Agents of Atlas was a hoot. I wish it hadn’t come out when finances had forced me to a “don’t buy any new series” rule, but if it’s out in trade …
    Not only does the retcon make Mockingbird a murderer, but it makes Clint — well, he looked like an idiot refusing to listen to her, but if he’s fabricating the whole rape story in his head, he’s a little nuts.

  8. Le Messor

    “ten years after the film came out, somebody decided that it would be cute if the unnamed kid in Iron Man 2 was actually a young Peter Parker”

    You see both of them on screen at the same time in Avengers: Endgame, so no. (Though it’s hard to recognise the Kid With No Name. He doesn’t? I honestly hadn’t noticed. But also, I had to ask who that was.)

    Mary Jane revealed that she’d known who Spidey was for a very long time in a comic much older than the ones mentioned above, one that I happen to have read recently.
    If only I could remember which.

    1. The kid at the funeral is not the one from IRON MAN 2; that’s Harley from IRON MAN 3.

      The kid from IRON MAN 2 is this one:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7JPI1RTR2M

      Which is now officially and canonically Peter Parker, because nothing can ever just be a scene in a movie, it has to be an easter egg or some retroactive trivia. Nobody ever notices how these things make the world smaller and more boring. Everybody knows everybody and every action is part of an obsessively tightly-woven tapestry in which there are never any innocent bystanders.

      1. Le Messor

        I was seriously confused (obviously). I was kind of second guessing which movie he was in; and then I figured out the one who was in (it turns out) IM3 had a sister, and Peter doesn’t.

        But… Oh. Wow.

        That guy who was in the movie for, like, two seconds is Peter now?
        Perfettik.

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