Fear of Discovery
By John Byrne
The first issue of Fantastic Four I read was the fifth. I was blown away, totally, and began a love affair with that title, and Marvel Comics, that lasted for years beyond counting. One of the things that made that introduction to the neophyte "Marvel Universe" such fun was what we might call the Joy of Discovery. I'd been reading DC Comics for about six years at that point, and I pretty much knew the turf. Sometimes a new bit of information might be slipped in ("O, by the way, there was this Kryptonian zoo keeper who also built a rocket and fired a bunch of his favorite animals out into space. . . ") but they were usually easy to assimilate. But Marvel was terra incognita. I'd read a few of their pre-superhero monster books (usually at the barber shop), but the FF did not tie into them, so that first (for me) issue was new stuff from the cover on. And the Joy of Discovery continued for many months. Due to a small oversight by Stan Lee, for instance, it was three or four issues before I learned Mr. Fantastic's last name was "Richards." That "revelation" leapt off the page for me like Holy Writ. Wow! Still things to discover!
Jump forward now some 20-odd years. Shortly after the second issue of Man of Steel hit the stands I received a letter -- remember letters? -- from an irate fan who was ticked off about the revelation that Lois Lane was an army brat.
Did the letter writer have a problem with the military? Was he an aging hippie seeking a way to once again burn his draft card, even symbolically? Did he just not like the idea of poor Lois being schlepped all over the world by her Dad, knowing what kind of effects that would have on her psyche and personality?
No. None of the above.
He didn't like it because it was new information. It was not mentioned, he insisted, in the first issue of Man of Steel and (I will always remember this phrase) "if you don't tell us these things, John, how are we supposed to know them?" (Readers always address me by my first name when taking me to task!)
Now, some of you are reading this and thinking "Huh? What does he mean by 'if you don't tell us'? Didn't the second issue of MOS 'tell' him?"
Sure it did, and any reasonable person (both of you) would recognize this. So, at first, I dismissed this writer as one of those crackpots comics seem to attract (Like the guy who tried to tear Mike Mignola a new one for "ruining" DRACULA by drawing bats with the wrong number of "fingers") and got on with my life. But as the years have gone by since MOS, I have run into variations on this theme time and time again, until a pattern formed, and I began to see a subtle but insidious mentality worming its way through fandom. We might almost call this "Fear of Discovery". Certainly the Joy is abscent.
The best way to define this mentality is thus: Some people have been reading comics too long.
Is that possible? Can you really stay "too long" with a medium you enjoy? Yes. And you can tell the moment it happens. It is when your accumulated "knowledge" starts to impact negatively on your enjoyment. When the latest issue of Captain Fonebone is "ruined" by Cap having lunching at the SuperSandwich Deli in downtown Superlopolis, but neglecting to mention that this is the fourth time he has had lunch there, (Fifth, counting that one panel sequence in Captain Fonebone 3, back in 1963, in which the Deli was not actually called by name, but, if you check the layout of the counter and booths. . . . )
We can't help but collect "information" as we read these books we love so much. Heck, that's part of the attraction, isn't it? Especially since the dawn of the "Marvel Age of Comics." Continuity, as it has come to be called, is an ofttimes vital cornerstone of the whole storytelling process. My own Generations series, for DC, was born in no small part out of my having absorbed a whole lot of trivia about the characters and stories, and seeking a way to play with it (without actually doing stories that depended on anyone else having read those old comics).
But what happens when something new comes along? It can take many forms -- a new direction for a title, a new bit of information, a "retcon", or even a whole new series. I just launched a new series, Lab Rats. Really, really pleased with the almost universally positive response. But there was one recurrent complaint about the first issue (even from some people who liked the book!): "We don't know enough about the characters."
Reading these comments made me flash back to that "how will we know if you don't tell us" letter, and got me thinking about first issues I have read over the years. The first issue of Fantastic Four, for instance. How much did we find out about those characters, as compared to what we knew about them by the end of the sixth issues, and their first year of publication? Or by the end of the 50th issue. Or the 100th? How about Superman? Batman? FF 1 gave us an elaborate origin for the characters (since tweaked and modified several times). Action Comics 1 and Detective Comics 27 did not. Superman himself did not find out he was from Krypton for something like ten years! After he did, that "origin" went through countless mutations. It wasn't until 1945 that the world learned he had adventures as Superboy. X-Men 1 (the real one) told us virtually nothing about the characters, and, indeed, we did not get around to learning their backstories for almost 60 issues! (In stories either missed or deliberately ignored by some. One of the stranger letters I got to X-Men: The Hidden Years was from a fan who dismissed my book as "rehashing old stories" while praising Children of the Atom for "showing us something we hadn't seen before". Hmmm.)
Most of what we think we "know" about so many characters, in fact, was not there at conception. Bruce Banner's abused childhood and split personality (like Harvey Dent's) was a much, much later addition to the lore. Franklin Storm, Sue and Johnny's father, who gave his name to Reed and Sue Richard's baby, was never mentioned until his first appearance, some 30 issues into the run. Then he turned up just in time to die. Magneto was a ruthless, unrepentent villain, known for sporting Nazi trappings on occasion, until one day he became a troubled Holocaust survivor. Matt Murdock got his powers from being conked in the head by a radioactive cannister, until a few decades later when Frank Miller decided maybe they were not "powers" at all, so much as training -- and here's his trainer. The list is nearly endless. And a disturbing number of fans, who started reading these books after these stories, will insist that what we have now is as it ever has been. (The Magneto instance is especially telling. Mention a thought in the direction of restoring Magneto to his full-fledged villainy, and prepare to be stoned to death by those who insist his present form is the true form, and what you suggest would be a "change". I have even been called an anti-Semite for pointing out that Magneto was not always as he is now portrayed!)
There is a trap people sometimes fall into, out in the real world. I call it "Looking through the wrong end of the telescope," for lack of a better description. I first noticed it way, way back in the the 4th Grade, when my teacher told the class that "Apples taste good so we will eat them." Is that right, I wondered? Do apples taste good so we will eath them, or do we eat them because they taste good? If you are a Fan who's been reading superhero comics for five years, or ten, or twenty, or longer, and you encounter some "new" information, do you embrace it as an addition to the canon -- or have you reached a point at which you greet any change with fear and suspicion, because you have convinced yourself (or perhaps genuinely do not know anything else to be the case) that the slice of the book's 50 year history you have read represents the whole, and that it is a perfect and unchanging whole. (When I did Spider-Man: Chapter One several people complained that such a book was not "necessary", because unlike DC, Marvel's history was "perfect" and contained no continuity errors or contradictions. Honest!)
Do you smile in recognition as Captain Fonebone chomps on a burger at SuperSandwich, or do you fume at the "failure" of the writer to make proper annotations? Or, even worse, if this is actually the first time Cap has ever been shown chowing down at the Deli, yet he says to Fonebone Lad "You know, I've never had a bad meal in this restaurant!" do you topple into apoplexy at this retroactive introduction of stuff you "weren't told" before?
One departed Marvel Editor-in-Chief used to insist (probably still does) that everything we needed to know about the characters in a given comicbook should be established by no later than Page 3. We should know their names, their powers, their relationships to each other, and why and where they are. Difficult to accomplish, I used to say, if they are buried up to their necks in hardened concrete, from the end of last issue! (But, then, this E-i-C was always opposed to continued stories -- unless he wrote them.)
It would seem there are many (Too many? Their numbers, by percentage of the audience, have certainly swelled as the marketplace has shrunk.) who would not only agree with that E-i-C, but who would take it a step further. Every issue for them must be, in some way, a reference to every issue that has gone before. When Captain Fonebone battles his arch nemesis Jimmy "Joker" Zwilde, both must make copious reference to the times they have battled before -- and nothing, nothing, nothing must be introduced that was not known before.
That would make for some pretty verbose -- and pretty dull! -- comics, no?