Friday, October 07, 2005

4-Color Fri. - Of What If's and Retcons

Still haven't made it down to pick up my comics, going to have a HUGE haul when I finally make it this weekend. So, while we're waiting for me to have some actual comics to review, let's talk about one of those things that's practically guaranteed to get me to fork over some cash.

I am a total sucker for alternate reality stories, always have been. My earliest exposure to alternate realities was the great old Marvel series What If?, each issue of which focused on some event in a Marvel comic and posited a question, such as "What If Phoenix Had Not Died" or "What If Wolverine Had Killed the Hulk" or "What If Uncle Ben Had Lived" or "What If the Invisible Girl Died?" or . . . do you sense a pattern here? 9 times out of 10 the ending would be downbeat and depressing, and at least a couple ended with the end of the universe, but all that I cared about was seeing how the scenario played out. I loved the idea of seeing how one little variation in circumstances could change so much, like how Wonder Man not dying in his first adventure would have affected the creation of The Vision. My favorites were ones where the question resulted in the heroes getting different powers, like this issue with a horribly misleading cover (the two FFs never fought), or the issue where all of the Avengers got armor like Iron Man.

A variation on the What If? concept that also always entertained me was the alternate reality that contained variations on established characters, whether that was the Crime Syndicate (evil versions of the JLA) or the Imperial Guard (an homage to the Legion of Super-heroes), but none could compare to the ultimate alternate heroes and JLA-analogues: The Squadron Supreme. I've been in love with the Squadron ever since I first read my Uncle's tattered copy of Avengers #147 (which I shall be picking up in collected form this weekend as part of the long-awaited Serpent Crown TPB) which is also, btw, when I fell in love with The Avengers as well. An Avengers without The Vision or Scarlet Witch is hardly The Avengers at all (you hear me, Bendis?!?!?!). Over the years, there has been many an homage that used the JLA archetype, but none have had the duration or depth of the Squadron. Of course, just because the others are often pretty shallow, doesn't mean I don't love them too! Half the fun of the archetype-analogue is matching them up with their inspirations: Hyperion-Superman, Lamplighter-Green Lantern, Smasher-Ultra Boy, etc. The other half is enjoying the variations and original touches the variation brings to the original concept. I guess you can sort of sum up my feelings towards the alternate realities as "variety is the spice of life."

Now, as a full-fledged alternate-reality nut, DC's 1985 mini-series Crisis on Infinite Earths was both a blessing and a curse . . . and a sorta-kinda blessing again. A blessing because over the course of its run it highlighted practically every alternate Earth in DC's publishing history; a curse because, by the end, all of those alternate worlds had been annihilated, leaving only one Earth that was an amalgam of 5 others; and a sorta-kinda blessing because this amalgamated Earth led to the rise of the retcon.

Retcon comes from the phrase "retroactive continuity," and describes the writing of new material that effectively contradicts or changes previous material. Good example for the non-comic minded: Eps 1-3 of Star Wars contained many retcons (midichlorians, Anakin building C3P0, Yoda knowing Chewbacca). One of the first major retcons of the post-Crisis DC, was John Byrne's revamping of Superman, which reduced Supes' powers, changed Lex Luthor from mad scientist to ruthless businessman, and eliminated Jor-El's disturbing tendency to launch anything and everything he could get his hands on into space (dogs, monkeys, babies, last week’s left-over Kryptonian lasagna . . .). Soon followed some major retcons for Hawkman and Wonder Woman, as well as some minor ones to Batman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, etc. These retcons has a ripple effect to several other series, and it was these ripples which caused me great joy and distress.

The retcons of Supes/WW/Batman/Hawkman effectively removed them from the history of the JLA and Legion, meaning that every time a writer wanted to reference an old story that contained one of those characters, they would often have to perform creative gymnastics to explain how the story now worked in current continuity. For JLA, this resulted in Black Canary (having been retconned into the daughter of the WWII version) being a founding member of the team, which added some interesting dimensions to the character, and set up the legacy vibe that is so important to the JSA series today, but more on that some other time. These artistic contortions were a nightmare for the writers, to be sure, but a blessing in disguise to someone who loved watching exercises in variety; most of these retconned stories just read like special DC-styled "What Ifs" to me.

This is a huge factor in my love of the much debated "Gap" stories of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Cliff’s notes version: the retcon of Superman made it so that there never was a Superboy. The LSH's entire history was based on Superboy. LSH writer Paul Levitz tried a workaround to explain where their Superboy came from, and it worked pretty well, but somebody at DC was vehement: no Superboy at all, period. So, instead of just ignoring everything that had gone before, as was the norm for retcons, new writer Keith Giffen came up with a plotline that started up after a 5 year gap from the last issue by Levitz, and which resulted in the rebooting of the Legion's history, with pre-existing characters Glorith and Mon-El taking the place of now-deleted characters Time Trapper and Superboy. From that point on, half of the fun of the series for me was seeing how the plugging in of Glorith and Mon-El (now renamed Valor), as well as the creation of a Supergirl-analogue, Laurel Gand (later called Andromeda) affected the history of the Legion. Lots of fans bemoaned the changes, often complaining it was too confusing, but I ate it up. I had always been a Legion fan, but starting on the Gap years and their alternate histories made me a Legion fanatic.

Of course, when the Legion underwent yet another reboot after the ill-considered Zero Hour miniseries I wasn't quite as happy; this was because this time, instead of slightly tweaking the past, they scrapped everything and started over from scratch. Ripples, I didn't mind: completely removing Glorith, Dawnstar, Blok, Quislet, Tellus, etc. ticked me off. I am still bummed that I might never know exactly why Glorith hated Celeste Rockfish so much; I hate that they made Phase into one of Apparition’s duplicate bodies, and “merged” them together, destroying the perfectly viable character of Phase in the process; and don't even get me started on the post-ZH Sensor! Yes, there were some good stories and some interesting variations on classic stories, but this was one of those few times where the alternate take didn't do it for me. And now, just as soon as the series had regained its strength under the steady hands of DnA, Legion's been rebooted yet again *sigh* This reboot is easier to take than the last since I wasn’t quite as attached this time around, but dang, do I miss Shakiri. But, that's a story for another day.

In the post-Crisis years, DC has capitalized on the general enjoyment of alternate realities with their “definitely not in continuity, no way no how” specials and miniseries published under the Elseworlds imprint. Sometimes the stories come from a simple What If style idea: Alan Davis’s The Nail used a “What if the Kents got a flat tire from a nail, and never found baby Kal-El” idea. Other times they just applied specific character traits to other genres (blending Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. into worlds of fantasy, horror, western, etc.). The quality was all over the map of course, but when they were firing on all cylinders, they were excellent. One of my favorites was Elseworlds Finest featuring new takes on Supergirl and Batgirl. DC has cut back on the Elseworlds books quite a bit in recent years.

A few years back Marvel and DC teamed up to put out a series of books for an event they called Amalgam. The Amalgam books took established characters from both companies and merged them for a series of one-shots: JLA + X-men = JLX Dr. Strange + Dr. Fate = Dr. Strangefate. Superboy + Spider-man = Spider-boy. My favorite book from the Amalgam stories was Spider-Boy Team-up which did a massive parody of the Legion of Super-Heroes and its massive reboots. Dang funny stuff to an LSH fan.

There are a couple of recent books that are fully tapping into my alternate reality jones. The first is Infinite Crisis, a thematic sequel to the big Crisis event of the 80s. Especially pertinent here is the precursor storyline in JSA Classified featuring Power Girl, a character whose origin has been retconned so many times that it’s now become her defining characteristic: she’s a super-human with no real idea where she came from, or what she’s capable of. The second issue of the storyline even suggested that she was a grown up, time-displaced Andromeda from LSH; although that was an obvious red herring, it was a fun issue. Looking forward to the final definitive origin of poor PG . . . or at least, definitive until the next big reboot in 20 years.

The other big alternate reality friendly series is Exiles, the X-Men spin-off which has a group of alternate-reality mutants bouncing around from one alternate reality to another, making each storyline a visit to another What If? world. The initial run by Judd Winnick (that’s Judd from MTV’s Real World: San Francisco, btw, for any non-comic fans who've somehow made it this far), was excellent; the run by Chuck Austen was a bit painful (surprise, surprise), but not as bad as some of his other work; the current run by Tony Bedard has its moments, and I’m really, really looking forward to the next big storyline, which features the Exiles going to some of my favorite pre-existing alternate realties, including the New Universe, Marvel 2099, and, last but not least . . . the home of the Squadron Supreme!

Full circle, my friends, full circle