I’ve been thinking about new stories versus old stories. This applies to entertainments I enjoy (film, television, books, comedy, etc.) but particularly to comic books. I try to read a variety of material, but I will gravitate to stories I haven’t seen before. This is the stance of the jaded reader, who has been a fan for (gulp) more than 20 years ‒ I’ve read this before, I don’t want to see Hulk Smash again/Batman fight the Joker/the X-Men fight Magneto/Captain America fight Red Skull (insert personal favourite).
The other side of the coin, however, is the idea that somebody hasn’t read this before and it will be their gateway comic. I was reminded of this listening to the Word Balloon Bendis Tapes, when Brian Michael Bendis was describing how much his daughter enjoyed the Hulk film this summer. People like her will want to see Hulk comic books with the Hulk smashing things, but I don’t want to see those stories again. I’ve no objection to watching mindless violence but I want more ‒ something new and different. But surely the appeal of the character lies in the ‘Hulk Smash’, so what is the writer of the Hulk going to do to win the affection of both the old and the new fans?
The modern writer has to create a more sophisticated story than the old days: they have to keep the continuity and the hook of the original creator, but they have to tell an original story that doesn’t tread over old ground. This is a tough act, which is why I think that the best of the current writers do such a good job. To use Bendis again, he is doing something new with the Avengers and the Secret Invasion crossover, but still using the old works as inspiration for continuing adventures. (I didn’t read the original Avengers, so I can’t tell if he’s repeating ideas, but I might be biased to enjoying his work.) Although the Skrulls have invaded the Marvel Universe before, this incarnation plays on the current political climate and terrorism and even identity theft.
The other aspect to balance this feeling out is the ‘nostalgia’ factor: the majority of comic book readers grew up reading these types of stories, so they keep on reading them for the feeling of comfort and security of knowing what will happen (good guys fight bad guys, good guys win). Surely this reason is why Spider-Man has famously been returned to the bachelor who has to balance freelance photography with looking after his aunt (with the ridiculous Mephisto ‘magical divorce lawyer’ nonsense), to turn things back to the way they were when people first started reading his adventures. Why make new stories when you can have the same thing again, just with new art and cultural references?
I’m not going to make judgement on which approach is better (a blogger who doesn’t shove his opinion down your throat? Do they revoke my blogging licence for that?), but I can try to formulate my thoughts. I grew up reading The Uncanny X-Men ‒ were these comics seen as dazzling and new, or were old fans of the X-Men complaining that they were doing the same thing again? ‒ but that doesn’t mean I still read the X-Men slavishly (although I did love the Grant Morrison run and enjoyed the Joss Whedon run). I still enjoy reading superhero stories but I want them to do something new (e.g. Powers ‒ police investigating superpowered crime; Top Ten ‒ the police unit in a city where everyone has superpowers; Sleeper ‒ espionage in a world where superpowers exist; Ex Machina ‒ a superhero becomes mayor of New York). I enjoy the work of writers who doing something new and interesting ‒ Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis ‒ rather than repeating themselves. Surely the whole point of telling stories is to give us something new? But am I being fooled by writers telling old stories that I think are new because I haven’t read them before? Neil Gaiman used old stories in The Sandman, but I hadn’t seen them before so I couldn’t make that judgement. Obviously, there are only so many stories, and the trick is telling them in new ways, but is there some balance between the amount of stories a jaded old reader has consumed?
As you can see by the lack of conclusion, I haven’t quite worked out the answer. But it won’t stop my continued search for new and interesting stories, which I’ll review at some stage on this blog.