By John Byrne
(NOTE: What follows is an expanded version of a comment I posted to the message board of the "Unofficial John Byrne Fan Site")
A while back I learned that there were plans afoot to revisit the story "A Small Loss," from my run on Fantastic Four. The intent, apparently, is to establish that Sue's and Reed's second child had not died as a miscarriage after all.
Now, contrary to what you might expect, my first reaction upon learning this was not "How dare they mess with my masterpiece!" I gave up a long, long time ago on any ghost of a hope that a story of mine would remain forever inviolate. (Around the time Bill Mantlo did an ill-conceived "sequel" to "Terror in a Tiny Town," for his Micronauts book.)
Nope, my immediate reaction was something more closely akin to "But that story is nearly 20 years old!!" Why on earth revisit a tale that was published before most or the readers were even born? Especially one that, to the best of my knowledge, has not been reprinted, and is not likely to be in the foreseeable future?
Julie Schwartz refers to a certain breed of writers (a group which would include me) as "The Archeologists." These are the ones who dig into the back issues in search of story ideas. There are some writers -- even some very good writers -- who have reached a point where they seem incapable of even making a start without dredging up something from the past that they feel needs "fixing." Sometimes they find good stuff. Sometimes they find dross. But mostly what they find is **old stuff**.
Is that necessarily a bad thing?
Well, yes and no (of course!). In the past several years I have seen my career turn more and more toward exploration of Things Past. Generations 1 and 2. Marvel: The Lost Generation (with Roger Stern). Spider-Man: Chapter One. X-Men: The Hidden Years. All were well received, sold well (at least for the current marketplace), and in some cases were even highly praised. Am I now saying I think maybe I shouldn't have done these series?
Not quite. Read on.
You know those "new readers" we talk about all the time? That Holy Grail the industry is supposed to be seeking? What does a story built on an issue from 20 years ago mean to them? Or 10 years ago? Or 50? Or even 5? Captain America's shield is destroyed because it was "flawed" since Secret Wars II. How long ago was that? Superman discovers the Silver Age Krypton is "real." How long since it wasn't?
There are lots of ways to build new and interesting stories *set* in the past. That's where books like Lost Generation, XHY, and G1 and G2 fit in. You can read any one of them without ever having seen those characters before. In fact, in the case of LG the whole point was what you had not seen those characters before. None of them hung on the reader knowing past history. There were references, to be sure, for readers who did know the backstory, but the books did not hinge on those moments.
There are even occasions when it is deemed necessary to revisit the past in order to dust it off a bit, to bring things up to date, a la Chapter One, or the earlier Man of Steel, rather than letting increasingly hoary old tales drag out behind us like the chains on Marley's Ghost. These, of course, use the past more or less as a new starting point, rather than as a foundation on which to layer more, retroactive material.
Me, I'd love to see more stories set in past epochs, in fact. More (as if there are many anyway!) Westerns, more World Wars I and II stories. More stories from the Cold War. From the Victorian Age. Heck -- all over the temporal map. Why not? There is a treasure trove of material to be mined there. (This despite the protests of some fans who say they don't read or like "stuff set in the past." My most humorous encounter in that arena was with a slightly beligerent fan who insisted, at MidOhioCon, that he had no intention of reading Hidden Years, for precisely this reason. The fact that he was wearing a Star Wars T-shirt held an irony which seemed utterly lost on him.)
But I wonder how good an idea it is for us to keep dredging up the past as the basis for modern stories? How good an idea is it to produce those footnote heavy tales that require a reader to either already know a lot about the history of the characters, or to be prepared to do a lot of extra reading. (I have been guilty of this sin myself, to be sure. "VisionQuest," in West Coast Avengers, was such a tale, though I flatter myself that I made it largely accessible to a new reader.)
But 99% of the stories I read as a young fan existed in complete isolation from the stories around them, and seemed none the worse for it. (The first story I remember that required the reader to be familiar with a specific previous story appeared in FF 32 -- and actually led to my "quitting" comics! My parents had been badgering me to stop reading those kiddie books, and when I was able to guess the identity of the "surprise villain" by page 4, entirely because I had read his previous appearance, I got to thinking maybe they were right, and maybe I had passed a significant signpost on the road to becoming a Grown Up.¹) Sadly, it often seems now that the very thing which made the neophyte Marvel Comics so intriguing, the very thing which worked so much to their advantage as they sallied forth against the slumbering, stumbling giant over at National Periodicals -- well, that very sense of everything being interwoven now works against the enlistment of new readers.
When I look at what seems a majority of comics being produced these days, I am struck by how many depend on at least some awareness of previously published material, whether the comic to hand represents an expansion of that material, or whether it exists solely to tear down that material (another problem altogether), the reader really needs to know what the material in question is. Marvel, especially, has been taken to task for this, and by no means just recently. The greatest complaint against books like X-MEN is that they are so hard for a new reader to penetrate, enmeshed and entangled as they are in their own complex lore. (Remember those foldout "Story So Far" covers of a few years past. Surely needing a dozen column inches to catch up a new reader is an indication that something has gone sorely amiss!)
Maybe -- maybe -- it's time we devoted more energy to looking forward, and whole lot less to looking back?
¹ Luckily, I was able to get off that road altogether before it was too late!