Peter David wrote:
“The illusion of change.”
That’s what Stan Lee always said was the secret to Marvel storytelling. Make it seem as if things were changing in the life of a character… but, in point of fact, have them remain exactly the same. It’s a terrific theory, and creators and publishers still abide by it.
However, at this point it may have led to a readership that is so jaded that it’s hard to convince readers that anything matters anymore.
There is, of course, something to be said for maintaining the illusion. Why commit oneself to genuine change when by simply pretending to change things, one doesn’t have to risk finding oneself stuck with a character who has lost those elements that made him appealing in the first place.
Look, for example, at Peter Parker.
Originally, he started out as a student with girl problems, a sickly aunt, and money difficulties. (Although why a young man so brilliant couldn’t make money selling designs for his web-shooter to makers of–oh, I dunno–mountain climbing equipment is completely beyond me. Actually, I do recall an issue where he tried to sell his web-fluid adhesive, except that the people he went to couldn’t see any use for something that was only a temporary adhesive. As if Peter couldn’t have come up with a way to make it permanent.)
Over the years, Stan and Steve (and later John) put him through changes. But when you get down to it, they satisfied the concept of illusionary change. Peter went from high school to college… but he was still a student. Betty Brant and Liz Allen gave way to Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson, and nemesis Flash Thompson stepped aside for nemesis Harry Osborn. Otherwise, though, he was pretty much the same guy. Sure, he got a motorcycle, which was the ultimate in cool… but he wound up having to sell it, thereby bringing the money problems back to the forefront. It was evolution, but 360 degrees’ worth. Same old Spider-Man, same old Peter Parker, same old problems at the core.
That was why there was so much internal resistance to the concept of Peter Parker getting married. “It can never be undone,” said one spider-writer. “He can never be single again. If we kill off Mary Jane, he’s a widower. If they get divorced, he’s a divorced man. Spider-Man will be irretrievably older in the eyes of the fans.”
It was ironic, then, that the spearhead behind this permanent, non-illusory change in Peter Parker’s status was none other than the champion of the illusion of change, namely Stan. Stan became enamored of the notion of Peter getting married both in the comic and in the comic strip, and more or less steamrolled it through by going public with it before any of the powers-that-be could talk him out of it. Me, I thought it was a nifty idea, but no one ever accused me of being excessively smart.
By giving Peter Parker a life-mate–a loving babe and successful model who accepted his dual identity–he was so permanently and irretrievably away from his roots as nebbish and loser that Marvel felt he had totally lost whatever identification the younger fans might have with him. The illusion had been shattered. Consequently, the Powers-That-Be felt that extraordinary measures should be taken.
Their feet inevitably set on the road to personal growth, those self-same feet became cold. So they did the comic book equivalent of cracking open an odometer and rolling back the mileage: They came up with the Spider-Man clone. Free of any of the baggage the character had accrued since the death of Gwen, he was supposed to reconnect the audience to Spider-Man. 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.
That’s the problem with illusion of change.
There are all sorts of shades of philosophies in between, I would surmise, but if we take two schools of thoughts as the basic extremes: There are those creators who believe that anything goes as long as it’s not too completely out of left field and as long as it tells a good story. There are others who believe that any change should be transitory, serving only to provide a story arc but otherwise leaving matters exactly as they are. The latter mindset might be ideal when dealing with mainstream superheroes, since these characters are the properties of large companies and have to be kept nice and spiffy for whoever might come next. What becomes problematic is mustering any continued fan interest in the fates of these characters, because it’s becoming perceived that there is no fate that is irrevocable, no development that cannot be undone inside of twenty-two pages.
Look at Alan Moore’s take on Swamp Thing, for example. As the character was conceived, he was a muck-encrusted Alec Holland. Moore changed that irrevocably. Alec Holland, said Moore, was dead. Gone. Had been for a real long time. A writer at the time commented that he didn’t see the point of it; that it seemed a simple sleight of hand that had no real meaning. He mistook genuine change for the illusion of change, and consequently didn’t see why everyone was making a big deal about it since it just seemed business as usual.
Except it wasn’t. Swamp Thing thought he was alive; he wasn’t. He was a ghost with delusions of being alive. Moore inflicted Swamp Thing with a terminal illness–death itself–thus allowing him to take the character through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s arc of reaction to terminal illness: Shock, fear, denial, anger, bargaining, despair and, finally, acceptance. Acceptance of not only his death, but of his new “life.” It was only upon that final acceptance that Swamp Thing was led to a sort of resurrection as an elemental force.
The thing is, Moore was so thorough in his presentation of the material that there was simply no going back. Fans didn’t read those stories wondering how the status quo was going to be restored; they read them knowing that they were seeing the inevitable and permanent evolution of the character, and wondered about all the possibilities that Moore was presenting.
Contrast that with virtually any other of the major superheroes, and you see the difference. The illusion becomes plain. All too often, the work of producing superhero titles harkens back to Paddy Chayesfsky’s newsman in Network proclaiming, “We are in the boredom-killing business.” Batman’s back breaks, but we know he’ll be back. Superman dies, or becomes an energy being, but we know that–sooner or later–he’ll be back the way he’s always been. Fans perceive the changes simply as an array of gimmicks concocted to maintain interest in characters who have as much growth potential as Garfield.
The illusion of change has raised the threshold of what will grab and hold an audience. Genuine change becomes extremely problematic because in order to make it really stick, you have to do something drastic just to get the reader’s attention. So Hal Jordan goes completely and indisputably nuts and winds up getting killed off. That was no illusion; it really happened (or at least it was as real as fiction ever is.) It outraged fans beyond imagining. But at least it wasn’t as badly executed as the Spider-clone, because Hal Jordan hasn’t been the only holder of the power ring for decades, so at least there’s some precedent for bringing in a new Green Lantern.
In the pages of the Hulk, I walked a fine line. I made changes in the character that were, to my mind, permanent, but they were also illusional. I knew that I would never return the character to the mindless, “Hulk smash” Hulk because I found that limiting and simply not inspirational for storytelling. However, none of the changes that I made were irrevocable. Indeed, the last irrevocable change to the Hulk’s status was made by John Byrne, when he married off Bruce Banner and Betty (placing Bruce in the “can’t ever be single again” category that Peter Parker fell into.) In my penultimate issue of the title, I knocked off Betty. And by today’s standards, even that change was illusional; I had no intention of ever bringing Betty back for as long as I was writing the title, little realizing how short a time that would be.
However, I hedged my bets; I left a “trap door” to bring Betty back, a clue in the series that could easily be utilized to reinstate her, presuming a subsequent writer wanted to do so or even if I suddenly decided that I’d totally blown it and wanted to bring her back (even though her demise had, in fact, been foreshadowed back in Future Imperfect.) Killing off Betty was one of the most personally emotionally traumatizing stories I’d ever done; yet any number of jaded fans remained unmoved, announcing with conviction, She’ll be back. Maybe they’re right. Who knows?
Over on Supergirl, I still get people asking when the “angel storyline” will run its course. Except I’d never conceived it as a simple storyline. Her new status was intended by me to be permanent. That’s a hard notion for fans to wrap themselves around, and I can’t entirely say I blame them. They keep waiting for her status quo to be restored, just as they waited for Superman to stop being an energy being. Why should changes or development in Supergirl be, by their nature, any more permanent than anything in any of the “S” titles?
The illusion only works for so long. The problem is that on the one hand fans want real change, want a sense that something has long-term meaning; on the other hand, as creators we’re boxed in. Things intended as changes in the status quo are seen only as the latest in an endless succession of unconvincing and temporary morphs, unless they’re dramatic enough that they can’t possibly be undone… at which point the fans go nuts and demand not only the reinstitution of the status quo, but the heads of everyone who had anything to do with the change in the first place.
What’s the answer to it all?
Well… the only thing that comes to mind is that all the current incarnations of the characters are yanked out of existence and the characters are completely rebooted into all-new, anything-goes versions of…
Hmm. Or, well, maybe the characters can be relegated to another version of earth entirely and a whole new set of characters with new powers and identities, but the same names as the originals, could be brought in to…
Hmm. Or we could clone all the…
Ah, forget it.
That trick never works.
(Peter David, writer of stuff, can be written to at Second Age, Inc., PO Box 239, Bayport, NY 11705.)