Monday, March 05, 2012

Sea Change: Thoughts on Comic Book Reboots

Since the the triumphant success of Batman Begins, the word “reboot” has been wafting through popular culture, particularly among comic book properties. For the most part, I haven’t paid much attention to it because I unhooked myself from the lure of comic continuity a long time ago. Rebooting recently took center stage due to DC Comics’ widely publicized “New 52” where they, basically, “rebooted” their entire line.

It’s hard to know what to expect regarding reboots because I think the general definition of the term for comic books is more fuzzy than it is for comic book-based movies. With movies, it seems to mean that when the creative team wholly changes (mostly meaning just actors and directors), and the new flick is not based upon previously filmed continuity, then it’s a reboot. This is what happened with Batman Begins, sort of what happened with X-Men: First Class, and is arguably happening with the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man (and, please god, be the case for Transformers). Creative teams in comics, however, change guard all the time, and it is expected that whatever comes next respects what was published before. So, when timelines get too convoluted or marketing brains believe that the comics on the stands are impenetrable to new readers, the bigwigs announce via an unsubtle press release that a certain book or line of books is getting rebooted. In fact, continuity seems to be such a majority shareholder in comic books that a title that keeps the same creative team but abolishes all previous story ties could classify as a reboot, too.
A page from Prophet #21, art by Simon Roy
For comics, it seems that to “reboot” a line means a few things: first, it often means to start the numbering over from #1; second, it can mean that age or time is getting rolled back so that the setting, character, and theme can be modernized and made “more relatable”; third, it jump-starts the collector’s market and generates notable media attention, thus boosting sales. Though the reasons can go on (I admittedly only compiled those most cynical), just cutting out years of story and taking a license “back to basics” doesn’t scream “reboot” as much as it does, in filmic terms, “splicing,” a process whereby a length of film is cut at two points, removed, and the remaining hole is closed by joining the two cut points together. Most reboots are more like removing scenes from a story rather than actually starting from scratch. While this is perfectly serviceable, and does achieve the goals numbered above, what it doesn’t do is actually more interesting.

If a character or brand is honestly outdated, simply starting over again from issue #1 isn’t going to do the job, and neither is increasing the contrast in the art, adding curse words, filling pages with more violence, interspersing a new adjective into the title, or merely updating the popular culture references. That’s just a new coat of paint on a car that can’t pass a smog check. Though it may not meet well with die hard fans or core audiences, it seems generally beneficial that the term “reboot” should be a more severe action. Instead of just being a challenging of the previous continuity, a reboot should challenge the very concept of the character. What if the title of the main Batman book were to remain the same, but the very idea of Batman and how the character is represented within were completely and utterly new? What if Bruce Wayne, the Joker, Gotham City, and the gadgets were all gone?

While rebuilding from the ground up a property like Batman would undoubtedly bring mutiny, I am quite impressed with how Image Comics has truly “rebooted” one of their properties that had lapsed into complete obscurity.
Prophet #1, from 1994, on the left; Prophet #21, from 2012, on the right
Prophet was a character created by Rob Liefeld, a man whose career trajectory (in hindsight) is so bizarre that it warrants study. During the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s, Rob Liefeld was one of the most important and influential comic book artists on the planet. For the 1990s collector’s era of comics, his style is unmistakable and ingrained into what defined that culture: ridiculously over-muscled men, bullet casings filling up negative space in panels, geysers of blood bursting from webs of veins protruding from every bit of exposed skin, illogically proportioned women who are able to show you a full view of their rears and their helium-filled breasts in a single pose, and really––biblically––big guns. Without a shred of personal malice or judgment toward the man, he is generally considered to be the poster child for everything that was wrong with 1990s comics (his own creative studio even embodied this trend, calling itself Extreme Studios). Prophet came from this particular mindset and, with the addition of a new superstar penciller named Stephen Platt––basically, the guy who showed how Rob Liefeld should be drawing by taking all the things Liefeld did and amping them up exponentially––made Prophet a shining beacon of the times.
Thankfully, tastes change
The comics scene was a different beast then. With the advent of Image Comics––a creator-owned publisher created solely by the hottest Marvel artists who got fed up with the lack of creator control over content, of which Liefeld was the spearhead––the leaders of the comic book business were comic book pencillers. Because of this, it can be generally argued that during this time art in a comic book was more carefully considered than the story, something that’s hard to debate when I look back at the dusty longbox of Image comics I recently pulled from the back of my closet. Looking specifically at Prophet, it is a comic compiled of dynamic poses and double-page spreads, fraught with microscopic cross-hatching and early use of computer coloring. To be honest, even after rereading what old Prophet books I have, I have no idea what it’s about. It was for sure three things: a lot of action, a lot of blood, and a lot of grimacing. In short, it was 1990s comics and, with time, was something best forgotten.

It has been twelve years since the last solo Prophet book hit the shelves (with its third #1 issue, no less, though it didn’t last any issues beyond that), and at the end of last year I was as surprised as anyone to hear that it was going to be “rebooted” for 2012, the 20th anniversary of Image Comics. My expectations were low not only because I was slightly familiar with the original property, but also because of a familiarity with how comic book reboots work. All I could see was another #1 and a creator banking on a surge of mid-90s nostalgia. However, the John Prophet found in Prophet #21––released to stands in January––is unrecognizable. By my estimation––aside from the numbering (which is actually new, none of the previous iterations lasted beyond issue #10, they just combined them all) and the book’s logo, Prophet is a reboot in every sense of the word.
Two Prophet 2-page spreads, 1995 and 2012
Without devolving into a mere review of the issue––that is not the point here––it is important to note that Prophet #21 is, rhetorically, about destroying the expectations any reader has coming to this title. If we are to expect out of a Liefeld title art shackled to ‘90s artistic excess, we are given in Canadian artist Simon Roy (whom I first encountered when I found his post-modern, sci-fi one-shot Jan’s Atomic Heart mixed in with the new releases a few years ago at my local comic shop) a sketchy precision more associated with European artists such as Enki Bilal, Moebius, Hermann, or François Boucq. Lines are no longer tools for hyperreality, they are abstract hints at shape and detail, lending the title a nigh impressionistic feel. If, because it’s a book linked to Extreme Studios, the reader expects story highly tangled and abstruse, Brandon Graham (a crazy good artist in his own right) crafts a subtle, mysterious, but inviting tale of a man lost in alien terrain that is actually Earth in the far future. Prophet has moved away from the self-indulgent, masturbatory, angsty teen dream it used to be, ridding itself of all attempts at tension caused by conspiracy and double-talk spoken through gritted teeth. Instead, we are given a simple and weird––but not uninviting––sci-fi parable, becoming not even the polar opposite of what it used to be but pulled from a different sphere entirely.
Plus, sex with gross aliens is awesome
Going back to the car analogy, the Prophet reboot is not necessarily comparable to a new design using an old name; instead, it’s as if Henry Ford created the Model T and, for ease of social dispensation, called it the world’s newest version of the bicycle. In looking outside the realm of comfort to find a new direction, Prophet #21 has created a new mold for what that property can be, a new definition for an old word, and has created something the recent reboots haven’t done. But why is such a huge shift important for comics wanting to reboot, especially in the modern market? If we can accept that all texts, even comic books, are created as a means to reflect a societal aspect of the times, then comics need to change as society changes. America today is not the same America as 1995, though books like Prophet perfectly captured the spirit of that time––bloated by the speculator's market, Prophet and many books like it were simply embodiments of confident, masculine excess. Today we are a more humble country, quieted by the divisive nature of our leaders (both politically and corporately) who look more and more alien to us every day despite their assurance that they are just like us. The heroes we want are not the unstoppable juggernauts of grotesque and unlimited possibility and violent potential, the modern heroes are, instead, the lucky men and women who awake to find themselves alone in a hostile landscape, with nothing but the will to put one foot in front of the other and call it success.