We live in an entertainment culture where we take it as given that all the best ideas were conceived before we were born, so trying to forge new universes seems like too much effort. Reboots used to be a desperation move, but anymore they’re the norm for luring in new fans — not just for work-for-hire companies with an intellectual property catalog to keep fertile and growing, but for artists, writers, and filmmakers all too happy to make a lifelong career out of perpetuating the lives and histories of worlds and heroes they didn’t invent themselves. It’s a living.
It’s easy to scoff at reboots when they’re happening to characters that don’t matter to you. If you’re a geek for long enough, though, sooner or later they’ll get to a universe you do care about.
I’ve been there. I remember the first time I had a universe yanked out from under me.
In 1985 I was 13 years old and had been following along for seven years, because comics were cheaper than snacks and fit easily into our family’s grocery budget. I glommed onto the Marvel and DC universes in equal measure; for the latter The Flash and The Brave and the Bold were among the first series I collected regularly, back in the days of Barry Allen, Iris’ untimely murder (the first major comics death I ever witnessed, and at such an impressionable age), and the one true Batman in my young eyes as drawn by the great Jim Aparo. Eventually I expanded to other heroes and titles, learning more about DC’s history from the 741.5 section of my local library as well as from their own ongoing comics. I found it easy to keep track of Earth-1 versus Earth-2, between Golden Age and Silver Age, between the JLA and the JSA.
As the ad prefacing this entry shows, DC seemed pretty happy with its results and its diverse lineup. I didn’t collect all the titles shown above, but I found plenty of reasons to buy in.
Less than six months later, fans were put on notice that everything they held dear was about to change forever.
I didn’t take them seriously at first. I was young. I wasn’t yet plugged into the meager fanzine culture, not until another six months had passed and my local Waldenbooks began carrying Fantagraphics’ Amazing Heroes. The first issue I saw had a cover story all about Crisis on Infinite Earths, the milestone event that would save or toss out fifty years of comics continuity as they saw fit, combine all their multiple Earths into a single DC Earth, start over from scratch, provide a company-wide entry point for new readers, and redefine their entire fictional milieu for a new generation of readers.
I wasn’t thrilled, especially not by the deaths of dozens of characters great and small throughout the series and the official Crisis Crossovers happening over in all the other DC books. Even as a lowly ragamuffin I thought it was a shame to see so much legacy relegated to the forgotten bins of ex-history. While Crisis was in the middle of its twelve-issue run, I discovered the wonder of my first local comic shop, the secret joy of direct-sales comics, and The Comics Buyer’s Guide, another publication about comics like Amazing Heroes, except weekly instead of biweekly, in a larger newspaper format, and, as I recall, filled with letters and comments from fans two or three times my age who were absolutely livid about all of this. I don’t have those issues at hand anymore, but many were the speeches about the indignities of childhood heroes whose sagas would no longer continue uninterrupted like soap operas, who would see their original timelines come to definitive stopping points and their stars regress to Day One to relive all the same triumphs and tragedies over again, or to potentially have to endure inferior, stupider, awful ones guided by the hands of greedy whippersnappers who care only about the bottom line and just want new moneys from new customers.
It was a rough introduction to the corporate world, to a completely different dimension from our own fanboy bubbles, where professionals in suits expect increasing profits every year, not just flatlined returns year-in-year-out. Where the key to beating inflation, growing as a company, and maybe handing out occasional raises isn’t to depend on the exact same customer base to hand over the exact same dollar amounts over and over and over and over again. Where sooner or later the reality of maintaining a successful product line is to retain customers to an extent where possible and to keep actively courting new clientele to replenish and surpass the attrition of the old.
I mean, I didn’t realize all of that at age 13. It took a while to get it.
Sure, I lamented losing some of the pre-Crisis concepts. Batman’s fun team-ups in The Brave and the Bold as well as Superman’s own in DC Comics Presents. The original SHAZAM!/Captain Marvel (acquired from the late Fawcett Comics) and what little flair he’d retained from C.C. Beck and Otto Binder’s original, whimsical tales (I’d found a few in some books for comparison). The Legion of Super-Heroes before Byrne’s deletion of Superboy muddled their entire team origin. But there were pre-Crisis things I didn’t miss, too. Both Superman and Action Comics had turned into aimless anthologies. Barry Allen’s depressing ordeal after killing Professor Zoom had dragged on for two-and-a-half years with no hope in sight. I was a little relieved to see those axed, to be honest.
And, granted, not everything in the post-Crisis DC universe worked. Some folks were less impressed with John Byrne’s Superman than I was. Hawkman was a butchered mess with multiple backstories that took years to vet and reconcile. The addition of drunk driving to Hal Jordan’s origin was a questionable move. The new “street-level” Jason Todd was more irritating than a cloud of mosquitoes.
But the next twenty-five years also saw a lot of astounding, unforgettable work in the all-new all-different DC universe. Perez’ revamp of Wonder Woman. Wally West’s long reign as the new Flash after Barry Allen’s death in COIE #8. The Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire sitcom-like Justice League. Denny O’Neil and Denys Cowan on the Question. Cary Bates, Greg Weisman, and Pat Broderick on Captain Atom. Roy Thomas’ Infinity Inc. adjusting to super-heroing without their dead or retconned Golden Age super-parents, while enjoying the radically different art of a young Todd McFarlane. Miller and Mazzucchelli’s “Batman: Year One”. New Bat-villains over time like the Ventriloquist, Azrael, and Bane. Tim Drake as a Robin competent enough to headline his own series. James Robinson and Tony Harris on Starman.
I’m skipping around a lot, but you get the idea. Crisis on Infinite Earths saw a lot of concepts retired and never brought back again. It saw a lot of concepts revived and retooled into worthy works. It paved the way for a lot of brand new heroes, villains, and antiheroes to join the stage and make their individual marks in the annals of DC Comics. Crisis most certainly did not mean we would never, ever, ever have good DC Comics ever again.
I’m sure I went through the five stages of grief in my own way. And then I came out the other side and enjoyed the ride.
In 2011, here they went again. DC’s “New 52” initiative did the exact same in a more thorough, sweeping manner. All titles were canceled, the 1986-2011 DC universe came to a close (except the Bat-parts Grant Morrison had borrowed, and maybe some impenetrable Green Lantern leftovers), and another all-new all-different DC Universe began afresh for still another generation of potential new customers. Of the fifty-two new titles I tried something like eighteen or twenty of them. By the end of Year 1 I was down to less than a handful because I got the impression I wasn’t their primary target anymore. I understood, complied, and found other uses for my money. Today my monthly DC list comprises Prez and Batman ’66.
For a while it kind of sucked. I was miffed at first as DC and I grew apart, but then I realized it was for the best. I type this today with neither rage nor contempt. I’m in my 40s. I have myriad other things on my plate, from other fictional universes to non-superhero comics to non-comics-reading to non-print hobbies to fellow living humans to adult responsibilities, and so on. I’m not out of things to do, and my life doesn’t seem to be a meaningless shambles without a monthly fix of Serious Aquaman.
The characters who live in the DC Comics Universe aren’t my family or my idols. They’re the puppets of a corporation that can use, disuse, refurbish, leave alone, or destroy as they see fit. Their heroes are not my gods. If there are other hands directing their actions from behind the curtains, they’re not gods. That means it’s okay to walk away from them.
In all my stages of coming to terms with their justifiably capitalist behavior, with this two-time shattering of the foundations of one of the many universes I liked, not once did it ever occur to me that maybe DC would bring back all my favorite DC stuff and cater to me, and only to me personally, no matter how much business sense it would totally lack, if only I would renounce personal morality and start pushing lots of people around until DC collectively surrenders and gives me what I want. Not once.
But that’s just me.
That brings me to another universe.
This is my wife’s collection of Star Wars Expanded Universe books. Almost all of them, anyway. The comics and graphic novels are in another bookcase in another room, but they’re a smaller set because she’s less completist about those.
She’s read them all, more than once. Out of pure fun and enjoyment, for the Star Wars message board we call home, she’s spent the last nine years writing her own coverage of each and every Expanded Universe novel that’s one part SparkNotes and one part Nitpicker’s Guide. She has dozens of novels she hasn’t posted about yet, but literally years’ worth of chapter summaries she’s written in advance for posting, one per day, until she’s someday caught ’em all. After our hard drive crashed in July, she had to retrieve many portions of those advance writings from emails she’d sent back and forth between work and home as she’d added to them during downtime. What she couldn’t recover that way, she’s having to rewrite from scratch, hoping she can recapture the same plot points, questions, and Easter eggs she’d noted the first time around.
And that’s not even talking about what the movies mean to her. It’s safe to say she’s a big Star Wars fan and has a vested interest in the Expanded Universe.
It’s also safe to say when Lucasfilm announced in 2014 that they were rebooting the entire SW prose universe, Anne wasn’t thrilled. Her reaction was, quoted here word for word, “Well, that sucks.”
When George Lucas sold his precious moneymaking babies to Disney, when The Force Awakens was announced, and when every division of the Lucasfilm empire began buzzing with new life, she knew a line-wide reboot was one possibility. She also knew she had no control over it. She was bummed for a while, and, as she summed it up to me just now after waking up for a few random minutes in the middle of the night, “I’m sorry that it happened…in some cases.”
But I know what she’s going through. I’ve been there. More than once, and with a much older universe. I’ve shared my experiences with her. I like to think it helped put things in perspective, though she still had a few bummer days to let the news sink in.
In discussions like these, we hear the inevitable nutshell about how those old stories haven’t been erased and how they’re perfectly intact on our bookshelves where she can still read them anytime. That’s not the point. The part that hurts most is when you realize the company that once considered you its target audience has decided you’re not so much anymore and is moving on to captivating your successors instead, for its own good from a commercial perspective.
When you think that you and a company have a quote-unquote “understanding”, it’s never fun when they pull rank and dispel the notion. It’s a form of rejection. And some people take rejection better than others. Some can’t handle rejection. At all.
Some write angry letters. Some now take to social media and contact the responsible parties. Some flood said parties with messages endlessly for days and weeks on end without regard for decorum, manners, civility, or other traits that make human interaction a desirable experience. Some attend conventions and all but bully other fans into joining their hivemind, so that theoretically all shall rise up as a single, entitled mob and demand the large corporation go back to catering to them Or Else, no matter how much business sense it would totally lack.
Thankfully for me I married a wonderfully level-headed woman who has no use for such movements.
She’ll miss plenty about the old Expanded Universe — the Republic Commandos, the Han Solo Trilogy, Corran Horn, Rogue and Wraith Squadrons, Jagged Fel, Grand Admiral Pellaeon, Anakin Solo in the New Jedi Order, and anything written by Jude Watson. She’d be fine with more of those. For now, there’s not. She soldiers on.
The EU also gave her plenty she won’t miss and wishes she could erase from our timeline: The Black Fleet Crisis, the Jedi Academy Trilogy, the Lando Calrissian Trilogy, Callista, Jacen Solo walking straight into the Dark Side with his eyes wide open, The Crystal Star, Luke Skywalker’s wishy-washiness as a supposed Jedi Master, every strong woman turning into an idiot when she becomes a wife and mother…
…and then I realized Oh, no, I got her started! as she kept trying to go on and on for several minutes with more detailed examples from specific scenes, books, and series where assorted authors went off-track and failed at bookmaking. When her bullet points threatened to become paragraphs I had to call time-out and invited her to write up a separate “1000 Worst EU Moments Ever” entry of her own sometime, because I’m not sure I would be the best stenographer for that. Updates as they occur.
At this point she hasn’t read any of the new stuff beyond A New Dawn, the prequel to the Rebels animated series. EU books haven’t been a week-of-release must-buy for her for a long time now. At this point it’s too ridiculously early to gauge the EU reboot as a success or failure based on the scant evidence and the fact that we’re barely months into this new universe and there’s a little movie on the way to shake things up even more. Anne remains open to the possibility that The Force Awakens may be watchable, possibly even above-average. And in my eyes she’s weathering the transition with an enviable grace and dignity.
And who knows? Maybe a lot of EU concepts will stay retired and never brought back again. Maybe a lot of concepts will be revived and retooled into worthy works. Maybe the reboot will pave the way for a lot of brand new heroes, villains, and action figures to join the stage and make their marks in the annals of the post-Lucas galaxy far, far away.
And regardless of whether you love or hate Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath, it most certainly does not mean we’ll never, ever, ever have good Star Wars books ever again.