Comics / Cult Favorite

Crisis in the Infinite Continuity


By Philip Schweier
Aug 20, 2003 - 8:58

Crisis In The Infinite Continuity

I was flipping through my Marvel Comics page-a-day desk calendar recently, and came across two interesting facts: Thor's secret identity is Jake Olson, and he is an EMT.

Really? When did that happen?

I've never been into Thor, at least not in many years. The last time I read one was during the days of Beta Ray Bill. I'd taken it for granted that in mortal guise he was Dr. Don Blake. But being a god, I understand he can be whomever he wants. And I'm sure there is a Thor fan somewhere who hasn't kept up with the goings on in the Green Lantern title. Kyle who?

Back in the 1950s, there was a whole spate of characters who had changed dramatically, including Green Lantern, The Flash, The Atom, and Hawkman. Older readers probably scratched their heads, wondering what had become of Alan Scott, Jay Garrick, Al Pratt, and Carter Hall. So a little bit of character revision can be a good thing when concepts are revised for a new generation.

I've never adhered to strict continuity, but I appreciate some semblance of linear storytelling. All the major comics characters have undergone a facelift of sorts over the years. I like it, it keeps them fresh for subsequent generations of readers. Longtime characters often get bogged down in a wealth of obscure reference points, and when these become unwieldy, it's time for a creative enema. Sometimes, some concepts just plain become outdated. I remember a cartoon in Mad Magazine in the 1970s in which comic strip character Dondi commented how silly it was for an 8-year old to remember World War II.

He's right. Characters have to keep up with the times, and reach out to the current generation in order to maintain their appeal. This allows for some elements of a character's history to be streamlined a bit. When I was reading Spider-Man, it was a simple radioactive spider that gave him his powers. But it was in the early 1960s, and it made sense. Now, the spider was bio-engineered by Norman Osborne's lab, tying Peter Parker and Norman Osborne's alter egos more closely together.

Sometimes these alterations in a character's pedigree seem to be completely arbitrary, and as such really stick in my craw. It is usually borne of some know-nothing looking to put his own indelible stamp on a character. In the 1960s, Julie Schwartz made a small but recognizable change to Batman by putting a yellow disc behind the bat-emblem on his chest. But in recent years, harmless details such as that just aren't enough for some people. There is the need to change entire costumes, casts, identities, powers and abilities. But in fairness, I don't think anyone involved in these changes ever expects them to stick. It's just a detour until the next great idea comes along.

Sometimes, such changes develop a life of their own, borne of hype and publicity. A few years ago they changed Superman's costume and powers, which I immediately saw as a temporary thing. If one took the tone of all the various media reports at face value, one might never expect to see the familiar blue and red costume ever again. But true to form, that era ran its course, and DC returned the Man of Steel to classic form.

I remember when Jason Todd was introduced as the new Robin. His parents were circus folk who gave their lives in the pursuit of Killer Croc, so Bruce took Jason in. Later, during the Death in the Family story, Jason had become a former street kid who Batman had taken in. When and how did that happen, and why did the change matter? A friend told me it was part of the fallout of the Crisis on the Infinite Earths. I fear that epic, as well as the Zero Hour saga, made a convenient excuse for any editor looking to put his personal mark on a character.

Some changes are little more than another stage in the evolution of a comic book. These are characters, and as such have a personality of sorts that enables them to grow and develop. Many Marvel characters have gone through variations, either in name (Ariel/Sprite/Shadowcat), or the name remains the same, but the face behind the mask changes, such as Giant Man/Goliath.

It's a healthy evolution for a character to undergo slight changes over a period of time. Adding a new supporting character here, or tweaking the costume a little there, is relatively harmless. It just has to be done delicately, more so in the case of major players. These fictional beings have become iconic to fans all over the world, and it's dangerous to tinker with something that is so near and dear to people's hearts.

Praise and adulation? Scorn and ridicule? Email me at philip@comicbookbin.com.

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