As I’m sure all internet-going comic fans are aware, Wonder Woman is going through some changes. While I would love to be able to turn this into a tasteless menopause joke, the reality is both more interesting and far more controversial. Her decades-old costume design is getting an update (I’d say “finally” getting an update, but this has happened before; check this great review from Comics Alliance), from Jim Lee, no less, and I don’t think it’s possible for fans to be less happy.
The sense I get from the more vocal parts of the internet is that they A) hate the change, B) don’t want it to happen, and C) if it has to happen, they want it to go back as soon as possible. This isn’t a new attitude—remember “Electric Blue” Superman, and AzBats? These were changes to the fundamental nature of the character, and fan outrage soon made sure that their beloved heroes had been returned to status quo.
And while Wonder Woman’s change is currently the most polarizing, it’s far from the only ones. Look at Firestorm, and the Atom: back to their original (that is to say, white male) status quo. Clint Barton is back as Hawkeye, and Norman Osborne is no longer in charge. And even the ones that are in the midst of big changes probably aren’t going to last much longer—Dick Grayson will NOT be Batman for very much longer, Spider-Man WILL get back with Mary-Jane, Nightcrawler WILL come back someday, and Steve Rogers WILL become Captain America again.
The fact is, sweeping changes to established canon and characters are resisted at every turn by both fans and creators—and that is the most crippling flaw in the comic industry today. Now that the thesis is out of the way, I’d like to make, as a follow-up, an equally broad declaration: as long as this attitude persists, comics will never improve as a medium.
Every time comics try to shake things up, whether it is by changing the race or gender of a main character, retconning the backstory, or even something so small as changing a costume, fans rebel and refuse to accept the change (I recognize, of course, that “every time” is an exaggeration. For example, a lot of the “Post-Crisis” retcons are still holding.) These fans write angry letters and write hateful blog posts. This shows the industry that their fans are about as traditional as religious fundamentalists, and the change is dropped a few months later.
That is, believe it or not, the best-case scenario. The alternative is that these same fans grow up to become comic book writers and decide to make comics were the way they were when they were growing up. For example, take Kyle Rayner and Wally West, the Green Lantern and the Flash, respectively. For a guy like Geoff Johns, these people are not the definitive versions of the character; that honor goes to Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. So what happens when he starts getting editorial privileges at DC? Bam, Hal and Barry are back in the game, never mind the fact that by now, Kyle and Wally have had years of experience (on the other hand, I grew up on Morrison’s run of the JLA, so when I get a cushy job writing Green Lantern, you can bet Kyle’s going right back to #1. In addition, I plan on bringing back Rogue’s “spandex and leather jacket” if I get a job at Marvel).
This attitude—that comics were best “back in the day” and their going to go back to that—is what’s holding comics back. It’s a selfish attitude that rejects all the potential progress made by these “unimportant” characters. By sticking to the status quo, comics have a built-in reason never to have their characters go through any development. This is why Batman is never going to get over his parental abandonment issues—it might make his character grow in interesting ways, but if it makes him any different, the fans will froth at the mouth to have it retconned away.
As with most things, there are exceptions, and there is hope. Frank Miller did wonders for Daredevil, Moore made Swamp Thing great, and Denny O’Neil brought Batman into the modern age. And of course, small-press comics and some of the Big Two imprints have more leeway to explore their characters. Unfortunately, these new characterizations can succeed too well—if the fans like it too much, it will become immutable status quo, just like everything else.
I don’t think that I’ve said anything that no one doesn’t already know. This shouldn’t be news to anyone who follows the industry. What I am trying to do is make a plea, to all the fans out there who think things should go back “to the way they were:” let it go. Go with the flow. Accept change, and finally, don’t be such a selfish prick. If you want to relive your childhood, pull of the first Toy Story on Netflix. Don’t take it out on comics.