Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

I did not care, at all, how this strange state of affairs had come to pass

Reading BLACK WIDOW: The Ties That Bind by Kelly Thompson and Elena Casagrande earlier this year made me realize the way I read comics has changed.

I picked up the book based on a recommendation here and I mostly enjoyed it.  The premise is that a Black Widow Revenge Squad has decided trying to kill Natasha will only piss her off. Instead, they take her off the game board by brainwashing her into Natalia, an architect with a warm, loving partner and a baby they’re raising together. She’s happy. So much so that when Hawkeye and the Winter Soldier find her, they wonder if she’d be better off staying as Natalia (I find them considering that as an option to be incredibly creepy).

The thing is, one of Natasha’s adversaries here is Arcade. I had no idea Arcade had any sort of grudge against the Widow, or that they’d even crossed paths. That’s not surprising — the past 20-25 years, I’m a lot less familiar with the Big Two’s output than I used to be — but it’s surprising how little interest I felt in finding out.

No, not surprising, more like profoundly weird. When I restarted my interest in comics after my parents moved us to America, I couldn’t afford everything Marvel and DC were putting out, but I was always interested in the superhero books I wasn’t buying. Even if I didn’t like them, they were part of the same universes as Avengers and Flash and I cared passionately about that universe, the whole thing. I browsed what I couldn’t afford or didn’t want to buy and continued doing so until about a decade back, when I stopped buying the current DCU and MU books.

The Internet has compensated for not browsing, of course. Between the various fan and corporate wikis and sites such as Marvel Universe Appendix, I can always find out some bit of backstory I need to know if I click on enough links. For example, after running into the latest White Tiger in Avengers Academy, I got curious about what happened to the original and looked it up. But this Arcade thing? I didn’t give a hoot.

Why not? Thinking about it, I realized I don’t see a point in knowing current continuity any more. If it’s DC, it’s only a matter of time before a new reboot changes everything. Since Infinite Crisis we’ve had New 52, Convergence, Rebirth and maybe another since then? Anything I learn about anyone is ephemeral, sure to be wiped out of existence a few years later.

Marvel, as far as I know, has only had the one universe-changer (that dreadful Jonathan Hickman COIE knockoff about the multiverse merging). Even so, backstory remains ephemeral. Black Widow, for example, has suffered massive memory implants to the point she’s as unreliable a narrator of her past as Logan (something Paul Cornell’s Deadly Origin touched on). That’s an open invitation for future writers to reboot whatever they don’t like (Richard Morgan introduced the memory implants as a way to do exactly that).

Even characters who don’t have memory implants don’t have reliable history any more. The dark, dirty secrets Professor X has hidden from his students probably take up more of his life than the stuff we’ve seen on the page. The “everything you know is wrong” twist remains a favorite for Bold New Directions: everyone’s been lying to our hero or everything they know is yes, a memory implant (e.g., Greg Rucka.’s Rebirth origin for Wonder Woman). Or a writer will hit on a direction I like, then the next writer will completely undo it None of which is new but the sheer accumulated weight of it over time has taken its toll on me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still checking current books out of the local library (I’m six volumes into Immortal Hulk so far). The way I read them now, though, is closer to the way I read them when my age was in single-digits. Back in the 1960s I had no access to old issues, no Internet, no way to learn anything I didn’t know unless some key story got reprinted. So I rolled with it. When I first encountered Dr. Destiny in Justice League of America #34 I was fascinated by the references to his two past encounters with the team (JLA #5 and 19). I wanted to learn about them, but I couldn’t. I accepted the story as a thing in itself (and a fun thing it was, too) and didn’t worry too much about the big picture.

Which is where I am now. For example, I’ve been enjoying catching up on Sterling Gates’ Supergirl run from a decade ago but I’m only slightly interested in which of Kara’s multiple reboots it is. I’m sure the big reveals about gamma radiation in Immortal Hulk will eventually be retconned out or otherwise undone but I still have fun reading the books.

There are worse states of mind.

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Adam Hughes, Bob Larkin and Mike Sekowsky.


  1. I used to read comics regularly from 1974 to 1994, always Marvel, sometimes DC, and a lot of the indies (Pacific, et al). Even in that relatively short time of reading Marvel – and actually, it was longer because I would buy reprints such as Marvel Tales with early Spider-Man, e.g. – I stopped worrying about internal consistency by the end. Whereas in the 1980s, I’d scream, “Hey, that’s not right” to some inconsistency.

  2. conrad1970

    I’m kind of in the same ballpark as you guys.
    I stopped bothering with continuity a long time ago, these days I just read whatever I want when I want and enjoy it for what it is.
    I really enjoyed the Immortal Hulk run even though it’s nothing like the character I’m familiar with, but like you said, it matters little, as it’s already been rebooted.

  3. JHL

    As near as I can tell the Hickman Secret Wars reboot changed little if anything about 616’s past. It seemed more like a reboot that happened because of the story, instead of a story that happened because of a decision to reboot. About the only things I can think of that came out of it was some stuff going on with Franklin Richard’s powers and an explanation for where ISO-8 came from. And ISO-8 is just a made up element used almost exclusively in Marvel video games. I only recall ISO-8 being used in the comics by Al Ewing, and he just loves playing with weird bits of continuity.

    1. Peter

      I actually enjoyed Hickman’s Secret Wars far more than I expected. I am generally not a fan of his characterization of Big Two characters (don’t care for his X-Men at all; liked some of his FF but thought Johnny was too childish, Reed was too aloof/supervillain-y, and Dr. Doom was too borderline heroic) and I hadn’t read any of his Avengers, but I thought it was a pretty exciting, surprisingly-standalone popcorn comic. It did seem like a story first and foremost rather than a continuity exercise forced to have a plot.

  4. conrad1970

    Well I still enjoy current comics but a lot of the characters are not my characters if you get my meaning.
    It’s kind of hard to explain but when I think of Thor for example I can enjoy Cates current run but my Thor is from Simonson’s run. Same with Batman, I liked Tom Kings recent run on the title but my Batman is from the 70’s, Haney and Aparo for example.
    My favourite Justice League run remains to be the Dick Dillon era closely followed by Morrison and Howard Porter.

    1. Oh, I get your meaning perfectly. While I understood the logic of Ta-Nehisi Coates making Wakanda a failed state (several catastrophic incidents in Big Events), “my” Wakanda isn’t. My Thor is Silver Age and Simonson, my Professor X isn’t a borderline supervillain, my JLA is Silver/Bronze Age. Etc.

      1. JHL

        I just assumed that the that while Coates was interested in exploring the weight and pressure of being a monarch, he wasn’t interested in presenting a direct control monarchy as being a good system of government. I certainly wouldn’t want to. That said, all the poundings Wakanda had taken in recent had been taking in various stories did set up why it happened right then rather nicely.

        cough Professor X was always sketchy cough

        1. There’s definitely that in BP too, but I’d forgotten it — the debates over good government didn’t grab me at all (for fictional purposes I’m willing to accept “enlightened monarchy” as good government).
          It’s not that Prof X hasn’t done stuff worthy of criticism (as Claremont pointed out) but as new writers decide in a shocking twist Professor X has yet another dark secret, over and over … it warps him beyond the guy I recognize) I find it as stock as The Green Lantern Corps Is Gone or The Amazons Vanish over at DC)

    2. Le Messor

      I still enjoy current comics but a lot of the characters are not my characters if you get my meaning.
      I’ve noticed a lot of people argue over whether this is ‘my version’ or whatever and forget the main question – is it an enjoyable comic?
      They’re separate arguments.
      I can understand how seeing this stranger in your character’s shoes makes it less enjoyable, but that doesn’t automatically make the whole thing bad.

  5. conrad1970

    I really disliked Coates Black Panther run from start to finish.
    I guess that’s what becomes of hiring a flavour of the month novelist, I only continued reading it due him been one of my favourite characters.
    If I want ‘good’ Black Panther I’ll read Mcgregor’s run or Christopher Priest’s which was excellent and so under-rated.

    1. JHL

      I liked what Coates was trying to do in regards to the characters and themes but it seemed like he never really got the got the mechanics and flow of comics writing so a lot of issues were rough reads with significant pacing problems. I would have like to seen him paired up, at least initially, with a writer that ‘gets’ the nuts and bolts of comics writing to help get things going. The first name that pops into my head is Evan Narcisse who wrote the Rise of Black Panther mini. Evan doesn’t have a lot of comics credits but he loves the character Black Panther and really understands how to put together a solid reading comic. I think the two guys together could have gotten all of Coates ideas in while still making it a really enjoyable read. Comics are a different medium than novels or screen writing and I always find it inexplicable when Marvel or DC throws one of these outside authors at a big title without writing backup. Clearly having an experienced artist and editor isn’t enough to balance out the inexperience in a lot of these cases.

  6. Judged on its own merits I thought Coates’ first volume was good, but too much setting the stage for the rest of the run (i.e., no payoff). Despite being Not My Wakanda (and I much prefer McGregor and Priest) he did better than Jodi Picoult’s messy attempt at Wonder Woman or Brad Meltzer on Identity Crisis. Which admittedly, is faint praise.

    1. Le Messor

      Jodi Picoult’s messy attempt at Wonder Woman
      That’s unfortunate. I think she’s the only one of these ‘hot’ authors I’d ever heard of before they got their runs on Marvel / DC comics.

        1. JHL

          As always it’s a matter of taste, but my feeling has always been that Meltzer’s Identity Crisis was so poisonous that they eventually had to burn down the whole DC universe.

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