Thursday, January 12, 2006

Geek Thoughts Part 1

Once again I’m going to go off about things probably only of interest to me. Although in a way this could also be filed under “thoughts on being home”, because these thoughts were triggered by revisiting the world of American comics whilst back home.

Like most children, I was always fascinated with “comics” in any form I could get my hands on them. But, due to strict parents, I didn’t get into super-hero comic books until late in childhood, about 15 years old, which is the age most people are beginning to grow out of them.

I had been sort of dabbling until I decided I wanted to get really into collecting. I was fascinated with the rich history of comic book characters, and the way comic book storylines develop over several years. Old superheroes like Superman have developed hundreds of supporting characters through their long history, each with their own sub-plots. Also, within a given company, characters will appear in each other’s comic books, making every magazine part of the same big story.

Because of all the characters and history to keep track of, and because I had limited funds, I decided to limit myself to one comic company. There are a lot of small companies running around these days, but the big ones have always been Marvel and DC. Both have long histories, and both have lots of recognizable characters.

Most of Marvel’s famous characters originated in the 1960s (such as Spider Man, Hulk, X-Men, Fantastic Four, et cetera). Many of DC’s characters, on the other hand, go all the way back to the 1940s or before (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern). Therefore DC seemed to have the richer history, and I decided to start collecting DC comics. Also I was part of the generation that grew up watching “Super Friends” on TV, and the DC characters had more nostalgic value for me.

If I had to do it all over again though, I might go with Marvel instead, simply because of the “Crisis”.

There’s already a lot of Geek Ink spilled on the Internet detailing “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, so I’ll try and be simple here. (If anyone can out-geek me on this, feel free to correct the details in the comments section, but I think what follows is more or less accurate).

By the Golden Age of comics (1940s) the company that would become DC had launched most of their super heroes. By the 1950s, because of the government crackdown on Comics, most of these titles died out. Circa late 50s, early 60s, the government pressure let off, and the silver age of Comics began. DC re-launched many of the comics that had previously died out.

But instead of picking up where they had left off, heroes like “Green Lantern” and “The Flash” were re-imagined. They were given new origins, new alter-egos/ secret identities, and no reference was made to their previous incarnations.

This worked out fine at first because it was before the age of serious comic book geeks, and nobody really cared about these inconsistencies. But eventually people began to say, “Hey, wait a minute, what ever happened to the old Flash? How come Superman was friends with one version in the 1940s, and a different version in the 1960s, and he never noticed the difference?”

So to solve this problem, DC comics created the idea of “multiple earths”. The Current incarnation of Green Lantern and the Flash live on “Earth 1”. Their Golden Age incarnations live on “Earth 2”. Other superheroes like Superman or Batman who had survived the 1950s and remained intact into the Golden Age appeared the same in both earths, only aged slightly older in Earth 2.

This worked fine for the next couple decades. There were lots of crossovers between the two earths. Often, for one reason or another, the superheroes from “earth 1” would be drawn into “earth 2”, and interact with their golden age counterparts. Or vise-versa. To add in the fun, someone got the idea of creating “Earth 3”, a world in which all the super-heroes were villains, and Lex Luther was the hero.

In the 1980s, DC decided that the idea of multiple earths was just too much trouble to deal with, and it was confusing younger readers who had no idea about the golden age/ silver age history. So, they wrote “Crisis on Infinite Earths”. It’s a long, complicated, and confusing series, but basically the idea is that all the different earths merge into one. The golden age and silver age super heroes exist on the same earth. A new history is created, and everyone’s memory is erased, so that they forget that there was ever a time when multiple earths existed.

What this means is that, despite DC’s long history, most of its historic comics officially never happened in the new continuity. Some heroes like Superman were even re-created after 1986 with revised origins and powers. The idea of Superman might date back to 1938, but the version you pick up today was born in 1986. The DC characters do not have near as rich as history as you might think.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, “Crisis” created almost as many continuity problems as it solved, so it was necessary to re-boot the whole DC universe 9 years later with “Zero-hour”. And this still didn’t solve everything. Although I’ve stopped collecting, I understand currently DC is currently in the middle of re-booting again. It’s hard to get invested in a comic book company that completely restarts its continuity every ten years.

Marvel, as far as I know, has none of these continuity problems. And although their history may be a lot shorter, they do a much better job at cherishing it. When I was in the bookstores over the holidays I noticed Marvel has started selling the “Essential” volumes, which collect in, large volumes, all the early comics for famous Marvel characters.

That’s a great idea. In fact it’s difficult to imagine why they didn’t start doing something like this a long time ago. Marvel and DC are both sitting on decades of old archived Comics. They’re not making any money on the old issues, so they might as well release them to the public in a cheap form like this. Even though these early 60s comics are incredibly campy by today’s standards (the early Iron Man series reads like one long Anti-Soviet Cold War Polemic), people like me love reading old stuff like this. And I imagine it generates an interest in the modern incarnations of these characters, and helps their current sales as well.

(I noticed DC has started a similar project collecting old comics in the “Showcase” series, but they seem a bit behind the game. And besides, according to post-“Crisis” continuity most of those early issues officially never happened anyway, so who would be interested in them?)

While Shoko was doing other shopping in the mall, I was in the bookstore debating with myself whether to buy some of Marvel’s “Essential” collections. It was very tempting, but I had to remind myself that I was 27 now, and there were better ways I could invest both my time and money. I did spend a lot of time flipping through them in the store though. When Shoko found me in the bookstore she said, “Still in front of the comics? When you said you wanted to go to the bookstore, I thought you were going to look at serious books. Why are you wasting your time here?”

Well, that’s all for Comics. Thanks for indulging me on this one folks. I’ll post something on Anime next.

Link of the Day
This may be more interesting to me than most of you, but the Japan Times has advice on Cross-Culture Relations.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

We're supposed to outgrow comics? I'm 20 and still love them. I don't get a chance to read them so much, but yeah, I still love them. :P