Emanata: Just Like Starting Over and Over

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The end of the world has happened before, and might be happening again in a couple of months, at least in comics. It’s no big deal.

The persistent rumor, which seems to grow louder daily, is that DC Comics is rebooting all of its superhero titles as of September, following some sort of earthshaking event in Flashpoint #5 the final week of August. (We discussed it a little bit in yesterday’s Comic Book Club here on Techland.) The consensus seems to be that most or all of their series are going to start over with #1 issues, but that this will be a “soft reboot”: they’re not throwing out 25 or 50 or 75 years’ worth of continuity, just setting everything up with new jumping-on points, and turning a lot of series over to new creative teams.

It’s something DC’s tried to do before. Back in the mid-’80s, when the company was getting things in order for Crisis on Infinite Earths, writer Marv Wolfman was pushing for every DC title to relaunch with a new #1 the month after the continuity-slate-clearing miniseries finished. (That didn’t quite happen: post-Crisis, Superman and Wonder Woman both got new #1s that effectively ditched their back history, the Flash got a relaunch with a new character in the costume but the old continuity intact, and otherwise most of the line’s numbering and continuity kept going.) DC’s last attempt at “we’re making a clean break–check it out!” was the “One Year Later” event of mid-2006: every series’ timeline jumped ahead a year (the year-long weekly series 52 filled in the gaps), new creative teams took over most of them, and a handful of series got relaunches.

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Marvel’s main-line comics have generally been a lot more haphazard about relaunches. Four series were relaunched in the Heroes Reborn project in 1996 (and re-relaunched when that project ended a year later); other titles have restarted their numbering when a new creative team arrived, then reverted to the old numbering whenever a suitably round number came around; The Punisher relaunches every time Stan Lee buys a new necktie.

The one real group relaunch they’ve done in the past few years was the (relatively small, self-contained) Ultimate Comics line in 2009, following the big Ultimatum crossover event. Ultimate Fantastic Four and Ultimate X-Men ended; Ultimate Spider-Man got renumbered, after a fake-out in which that universe’s version of Spider-Man appeared to die. All the other Ultimate titles since then have been limited series, or effectively limited series–Ultimate Comics X went nine months between issues at one point. Everything got new trade dress (and got bumped up to four dollars an issue). Sales got an initial bump, and then continued to dwindle.

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And now the Ultimate line is getting another reboot: this one goes by “Ultimate Comics Universe Reborn,” and will involve relaunching and renumbering everything, once again with new trade dress. (The launch starts in August, with Ultimate Comics Hawkeye and Ultimate Comics Ultimates.)

There are obvious reasons to relaunch long-running or ailing series, chief among which is the curse of long-running serial comics that have gone through multiple creative approaches: that there is no clear starting point–no issue or book with which one can be assured of jumping in and reading forward without having to backpedal at some point to have a chance of understanding what’s going on. A big “#1″ on the cover of a comic book is a sort of promise to potential readers: that it represents a beginning, or at least an on-ramp, a point from which everything that came earlier is inessential.

That promise, though, has been broken so many times that it scarcely counts for anything any more (and it’s going to have to be kept a lot more reliably if it’s ever going to count for anything again). And reboots small and large–new #1s and creative shakeups for individual series, or for an entire line–are effectively shock tactics: admissions that what was going on before wasn’t working, one way or another, and that wiping off the slate and starting over is the only way to salvage a project. (They’re also as dangerous to overuse as any other kind of shock tactic.) To be genuinely successful, this fall’s Ultimate and DCU reboots are going to have to work on two nearly contradictory levels: they’re going to have to convince those of us who are still following superhero serials that they’re significantly better than what we’ve been getting for the last few years, and convince people who don’t follow those serials right now that they haven’t been missing anything. Every jumping-on point can also be a jumping-off point.