No Looking Back
By John Byrne
Sometimes I think no author, no "creator," should ever be allowed to revisit his or her earlier work(s).
As many of you reading this already know, I am no great fan of any of the subsequent iterations of Star Wars. Like the first one just fine, thanks, and have found no improvements brought to the table by anything presented since. Found mostly things that detract from the original, in fact. (Did we really need to find out that Obi-Wan was a Machiavellian schemer, lying to Luke at ever turn, while Darth Vader tells him the truth??)
Meanwhile, I told Harlan Ellison years ago that I would never be able to entirely forgive him for his apologetic sequel to "A Boy and His Dog". (You can be sure Harlan tosses sleeplessly every night, to this day, because of my comments.)
Gene Roddenberry forgot that the original Star Trek was barely disguised gunboat diplomacy, and gave us later versions that were touchy-feely to the point of inducing diabetes.
Comics are not spared this phenomenon, of course, though often it is not the original creator(s)/talent who revisit a storyline to no good end. Consider "The Flash of Two Worlds," which was an absolute marvelous little story when it was first published -- arguably on of the best stories of the "Silver Age" -- but which became a great problem when it was revisted. Left along, it was one of those complete-unto-itself tales that composed most of the stories back then -- but the first time someone said "Hey! What about all the other superheroes who would be on Jay Garrick's earth?" we were in trouble. That way, as the saying goes, lay madness.
And I don't need to mention "Days of Future Past" or "Dark Phoenix" here, do I? The X-Books would have run out of storylines long ago, but for constantly excavating more and more from those pretty-much-tapped-out mines.
Sequels of any kind are hard to do. Often they become little more than thinly disguised remakes -- consider RoboCop II and Terminator II -- which can sometimes tell good stories of their own, but which more often tear down parts of what was set up in the first place in order to tell a "new" story.
One sequel which many fans have spent many hours villifying is, of course, the return of Jean Grey. Some will tell you this "ruined" the "great" Death of Phoenix story, though I think it actually made the original stronger. My approach to all comic book stories borrows a leaf from Hippocrates: "First do no harm." The return of Jean did no harm that I could see to a story that had been so many times exhumed and revisited that Phoenix had come to be called the "least dead character in comics." Bringing Jean back and establishing that she had never been Phoenix in the first place allowed not only for the restoration of a founding member of the X-Men, but would have allowed for the return of Dark Phoenix -- except for some reason no one ever quite thought of it that way. The whole thrust became looking for ways to say yes, it was Jean who was Phoenix -- and that opens up once again the whole can of worms that led to her dying in the first place.
I've mentioned before the writers who Julie Scwartz calls "The Archeologists" -- those who seem incapable of writing anything if they are not digging up some relic of the past, either to represent or to "fix." Mostly, they are working from and with works created by others -- but there are many in the business now who have been around long enough to have created a substantial block of excavatable material themselves. This leads to many a turn back to what has gone before, and a desire, on the second pass, to "fix" what was wrong before. (When more than one person was involved in the original creative process -- as with Dark Phoenix, for instance, who had more "fathers" than I can count -- this can get especially sticky, as one or more might not think the previous work needs fixing.)
There are also writers who operate out of pure spite. Now -- you might well have trouble believing this. After all, don't all stories have to be filtered through an editorial process of some kind? Indeed they do, yet I am constantly amazed at the number of stories -- more and more each year, it seems -- that are generated for no purpose I can determine other than to deliberately undo the work of a previous writer. No advance comes to the character(s) or overall tapestry -- just holes being punched by a writer with an agenda of his/her own. Freqently these things will happen in books/titles that are not even connected (save via the tenuous connection of a shared universe) to the original storyline.
We'd be in a very different place, of course, if no one could ever return to previous material -- of his/her own creation, or otherwise -- but sometimes I wonder if it might, in some ways, be a better place. Without a doubt it would be more easy for a new reader to access -- I think of my own early days as a fan. in the late 50s, when what we think of as Marvel Comics barely existed and when DC's "universe" was a clutch of independent editorial feifdoms that rarely, if ever, referenced each other. (It was years after Superboy was introduced before the character was acknowledged in any of Superman's comics.) The closest thing we got was returning villains, and there such returns would often be accomplished with little or no acknowledgement of how the bad guy had been undone the last time he showed up.
Much of this was due to the way comics were written back then, of course. The stories tended to be six or eight pages, self-contained, and huge inventories were assembled using combinations of different writers, pencilers and inkers. Only the editor remained constant, and selected each month, at random, the three or four stories that would go into the latest issue. ("Each month" is a slightly erroneous statement, to be historically accurate. Most of the books back then were either bi-monthlies or twice-quarterlies, the latter appearing eight times a year. Sometimes I think these are publishng schedules which would solve a lot of the problems currently vexing the industry -- but that's for another column, perhaps.)
The result was comics anyone could pick up and understand instantly, and even when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko began making their stories more "layered" they still resisted for a few years the temptation to revist their growing past too often.
By the time I stopped drawing Uncanny X-Men, some eighteen years or so after the "birth" of Marvel, fans were already complaining that the book was becoming difficult to penetrate if one had not been reading for a while, and as the years have passed since, this has only become more the case, and not just with X-Men books, or Marvel. (I've already mentioned a recent Superman story that visited the pre-"Man of Steel" reality -- something that had not been mentioned outside stand alone books like my own "Generations" in close to 20 years.)
We come, in the end, to something that has taken on many of the attributes of a mantra for me, of late, as I struggle with the shape of the industry, and seek ways to restore at least some of its past glories: keep old Hippocrates in mind -- and keep in mind, also, that perhaps the best way to abide by his Golden Rule is to leave well enough alone!