In the article "Deaths, Hookups, Reboots: Why Comics Thrive on Dramatic Twists," CNN's Henry Hanks asked comic book historian Alan Kistler, my fellow psychologist Andrea Letamendi, and me for our views on high-profile comic book storyline shakeups.
Of all the headline grabbers among the recent comic book storylines, I felt the same-sex weddings paid off particularly well because of the human element, with repercussions likely to last longer than character deaths (largely because nobody stays dead in superhero comics). As I told Hanks regarding two recent weddings, "Both of those weddings reflect our times and say these characters live in worlds that remain relevant to us." Marvel Comics gave us a celebrity wedding as mutant superhero Northstar married his boyfriend, Archie Comics saw Archie's former classmate Kevin Keller's more down-to-earth marriage, and over at DC Comics, Batwoman readers wait to find out if heroine Kate Kane's girlfriend, police detective detective Maggie Sawyer, will accept her proposal. Of the three couples, Kate and Maggie probably have the hardest road ahead of them but for reasons unrelated to their gender. Bat-Family crime-fighters have almost zero success in their long-term intimate relationships. Most importantly, these wedding stories are about relationships and how the characters themselves fit into the modern world. That makes a bigger difference than any multi-part fist fight.
The Bat-Family heroes hit headlines this month over other stories as well. The Joker left Batgirl, Nightwing (the first Robin grown up), and the current Robin unsure about working with Batman, and then one of those heroes got murdered by his own clone. It's not the first time one of the modern Batman's sidekicks has died. It is, in fact, the third. We won't know for a while if the latest victim (whose grandfather Ra's al Ghul has a Lazarus Pit which already fixed one dead Robin) will be the first of them to stay dead.
Peter Parker recently died (again) in The Amazing Spider-Man #700, but nobody reasonably thinks he's going to stay dead. However, Marvel Comics also publishes the adventures of alternate-universe versions of their classic heroes in their Ultimate lines of comics, and Ultimate Peter Parker looks unlikely to return. My initial reaction to his death was disgust (which does mean it made me care) and left me ready to write off all the Ultimate comics, but I must admit his replacement, a completely different Spider-Man named Miles Morales, is a great character with fresh, smart stories. Sometimes you must shake things up. Change or die.
In the Miles Morales stories, Pete’s history as his predecessor remains important, but when a reboot makes it seem that current storytellers don’t revere or even respect older stories, that can send a message that current stories won’t matter for long either, that none of it will remain canon. Comic book readers care about canon. People don’t like to feel they’ve wasted their time. A generation passed between the multiverse makeovers “Crisis on Infinite Earths” (1985-1985) and “Infinite Crisis” (2005-2006), major story arcs that rebooted many DC Comics titles, changed continuity, and livened up storylines, more than enough time to feel like each reboot mattered - each time, a new multiverse for a new generation. Rebooting too quickly can leave your audience feeling frustrated and can create an internal conflict psychologists call cognitive dissonance. To keep from feeling you wasted your time by loving the stories between the reboots, you might escalate your emotional investment in them and then resent whatever usurped them.
Six-issue stories and multi-title crossovers run risk making heroes look incompetent. Unless the big story gives heroes a lot of episodic victories along the way like “Knightfall” and “Hush” did brilliantly, we may wonder, “Why are they just running around? Why can’t they beat villain X faster than that?” Some of the most famous superheroes have not yet proven themselves to us in their revised "reality." Since their reboots and series relaunches, not all the new incarnations have earned our admiration. They need more successes before their failures.
Our love of superheroes grows out of our fascination with heroism itself. Real life heroes fail us. When they turn out to be human, we can resent them for it, but with a comic book hero, we never have to give up on them. When they sometimes let us down, we don’t have to get mad at them; we can get mad at the people who wrote their stories. Lance Armstrong’s failure retroactively taints everything he ever did and creates cognitive dissonance in fans who’d looked up to him. When Hal Jordan, the most famous of the heroes called Green Lantern, became a mass murderer during one of DC's crossover events, that didn’t make most fans stop loving the Hal they’d grown up with. Writer Geoff Johns eventually managed to redeem Hal in a way that respected the history even as he revised it (by establishing that it hadn't really been Hal who did those things). Fictional superheroes often reward us for our hope.
Keeping things lively is good. Attracting new readers is good. Alienating long-time readers is not good. Between one who has been buying comic books for 15 years and another who buys one for the very first time, who is more ready to keep buying years from now? Damaging characters to stir things up could impair long-term sustainability. The 1973 death of Peter Parker's girlfriend still matters - and despite what I said earlier, she stayed dead. Whose death matters now? High-profile deaths rarely even last long enough to justify the attention they get. Look at the big headline grabbers, not just the most recent: a Robin, Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Captain America, Human Torch, Spider-Man, Spider-Man, and now another Robin. (Apparently superheroine deaths like when the Wasp died in two universes in one month won’t draw the same attention. Wonder Woman died before too, you know.) Who seriously thought Superman was going to stay dead? The newest Robin just died, so he hasn’t had a chance yet to take a dip in the Lazarus Pit. Except for Ultimate Spider-Man, every one of the rest of those guys is currently alive.
Right after the teleporting X-Man called Nightcrawler died, I attended a Marvel Comics panel at New York Comic Con. One audience member asked, “When’s Nightcrawler coming back?” Some of the creators up there hung their heads and just looked at each other like, “What does it take to make them take us seriously?” Dead is not dead in comic books. And so what if it isn’t? This is fiction for our entertainment. The frequency of the deaths might reduce their impact more than the resurrections, just like reading about murders in the newspaper every single day numbs readers to the horror of it all.
At the end of the most recent Joker storyline, some fans were angry that it ended without a major murder to make it “matter.” Seriously? That story altered character relationships in ways that should last a lot longer than any kill ever would. Thirteen years have passed since Mark Waid’s “Tower of Babel” storyline, when the eco-terrorist Ra’s al Ghul stole Batman’s secret files and used them to defeat every member of the Justice League. No hero died, and yet that story still influences character relationships to this day. Other Justice Leaguers still walk more cautiously around Gotham's brooding avenger who has no superpowers.
Fans' passion for comics can take many forms. Love can fuel anger, still a sign of how much they care. Some who feel cognitive dissonance when storylines don't live up to expectations might keep buying comics they're not enjoying while others escalate commitment to old stories. Anger can be a good thing. It still means people care.