Tuesday, February 15, 2011

remember the "New Fantastic Four"?

I keep noting how comic books can be incredibly thick and complicated upon a second look, and that second look is what makes it difficult for an intended so-called "new reader" to start reading a series for certain characters, franchises, or genres within this specific medium.

While one could argue that there television shows that as difficult to catch up on, that argument would be daft. At its worst The X-Files is still one television show and while there may be difficulty in understand the new episodes at the time with only syndicated re-runs to inform you, with the internet as loose back-up, contemporary times have (relatively) inexpensive DVD sets with a more organized internet fanbase, complete with nerd-fueled databases uniformly set. A popular television program is merely one series and there are ways to keep track of what is what.

Even television franchises with multiple series, such as the Stargate franchise or Star Trek, have fortunate separations into discrete television series with more or less a given order of events, with the understanding of what exactly retcons are.

Only the Star Wars Expanded Universe is unduly complicated to the extent of comic books and the multimedia canon in that does include comic book series.

Comic books have discrete series with discrete issues and different sorts and formats of stories, many of them are told in multiple parts and/or chapters. Plots, subplots, and character arcs can and often do carry over from one issue to another or even into an issue of a different series. None of those mechanics are quite as important to explaining how this works or comes to be in a simple but comprehensive manner until we just assert a very common tendency. Comic book characters, settings, and stories owned by one company all tend to be set, by fiat or by assumption, as set in one larger setting, or meta-setting, generally referred to as a "shared universe".

The shared universes within the worlds of comic books are each respectively referred to as a "universe", simply, usually. The word "Universe" is typically capitalized and some companies have multiple Universes, usually created by other comics that were bought out or served as imprints of the publishing line.

Marvel Comics has owned and published comics set and stories set within its own Marvel Universe, the Ultraverse, and the New Universe, for example. Each Universe has its own rules for how stuff works, including how stories get told, what is allowed to go on, limitations of characters and superpowers, and to some extent alternate dimensions and heroes' power sources. The DC Universe, home to the various Super-Heroes and Super-Villains of DC Comics, has its Speed Force and Lords of Chaos as well as Lords of Order. The Marvel Universe has its Quantum Zone. I never read any of those pesky Ultraverse comics or the New Universe but everything comes down to Author-Intent when it comes to Rules of Stories.

In any case a given shared universe has as its history, a canon. This canon consists of the accumulated events of the accumulated stories from the various series and respective characters all ordered by some sort of continuity. Various images may represent how we view characters and some of them are our favorite ever. Each issue itself is a frozen moment in time so it can be visited and revisited but the "current continuity" is set in the folds of author intent and the latest issue to come out.

All of that means that the "New Fantastic Four" is about twenty years old. That's alright. The team only lasted for a single story that ran for two issues.

The Fantastic Four are a family of super-heroes/explorers. They discover new things and battle threats to earth along the way rather than seek out costumed thugs to pummel. They fight monsters and travel to other worlds. The New Fantastic Four was assembled from the four most commercially popular Marvel Super-Heroes at the time: Spider-Man, the (gray) Hulk, the (second) Ghost Rider, and Wolverine (wearing plain clothes). As it stands only Spider-Man and Wolverine are essentially the same characters visually right now as they were then. As far as characterizations and history go, however, there are vast and horrible differences.

In current continuity Spider-Man sold his marriage, wife, and married life to the devil in order to bring his ninety-something year-old aunt back from the brink of death via gunshot-wound to the constant brink of death via threat of heart attack.
In current continuity Wolverine has two or three costumes, is on the X-Men, two Avengers teams, and still has his solo adventures. Back then it was about the same only he was not on the Avengers.
In current continuity the Thing is pretty much like he always is; back around that story he was wearing a Thing suit.
In current continuity the Human Torch is pretty much like he always is; back around that story he was married to the Thing's classic love interest.

Those are merely horrible examples. The use of continuity does enrich the experience of reading the stories. Next I will either study the Fantastic Four's resistance to continuity and change or I will briefly touch upon the phenomena of the "classic love interest".

Essentially I make this up as I go.

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