In every other column for the past few months, I’ve been discussing the fictional construct we call the Marvel Universe. I’ve likened it to a sandbox which a bunch of us kids are playing in, a sandbox whose basic framework was built by master builders but has had many hands building additions and renovations over the years. I’ve likened it to a sandbox which has its own guidelines and standards for all those who choose to play in it. I’ve covered what it’s like to be a writer toiling in the communal sandbox. I explained that these problems lead to mistakes, discontinuities, and discrepancies.
This time out I’d like to talk about the impact and ramifications of these discrepancies. In short, these things contribute to a disjointed sense of universe. Every inconsistency hurts the integrity (literally: sense of oneness) of the fictional world known as the M.U. On one hand we can say, “Well, we blew it this month. We’ll just have to try that much harder next month.” On the other hand, bad stories never go away. As long as there is a single copy in a single reader’s hands out there, the story exists, and we have to deal with it and live it down somehow.
The way we choose to deal with inconsistent stories after the fact varies. Minor slips are usually treated like mere proofreading errors and ignored. Major gaffes are often addressed more immediately. And then there are, of course, the stalwart sticklers and feckless fixer of old continuity blunders – guys who make it a point of pride to rehash the past in a flashback in order to smooth out past rough spots. As often as my writing has been lumped in with that of the continuity-rehash crew, an examination of my body of work would reveal that my stories rarely address old inconsistency problems – I’m more interested in making the present interesting than making the past make sense.
Like with bad stories, bad characters never go away. There’s this rap group called Another Bad Creation. Somehow the name of that band runs through my mind whenever I see an ill-conceived character limp into print for some reason or another. What makes a character bad? We must distinguish between good characters handled poorly and bad characters from their inception. A famous artist of the 60s once said there are no bad characters, only bad handling. I disagree. All characters are not created equally – more thought and consideration and originality go into some more than others. Of the 100 or so characters I’m responsible for bringing into being, I can state unequivocally that the same amount of inspiration and work did not go into all of them. I think I’m typical of this.
Though my job as sandbox custodian is to keep lame characters from coming into being, I must admit that there are uses for lame characters of the past. Personally, I love it when characters who have appeared in Marvel Universe series of less fan repute or respectability are rehabilitated and become useful, productive members or more respected series. This list of characters who have gone beyond their humble beginnings are legion: Killer Shrike came out of BLOODSTONE to become a useful Spider-Man foe. Speedball was despised in his own book – as a member of New Warriors, he’s a fun, unique addition to the team. Dr. Demonicus came out of GODZILLA to become a major AVENGERS WEST COAST foe. So am I being inconsistent here? Should I let lame characters hobble into existence just so we have fodder for future useful rehabilitated characters? No. There are plenty of lame characters to go around already, and just because a bad character can be made useful, there’s no justification for the deliberate creation of one. To earn the right to exist, every new character must have at least one major thing about him or her that makes him or her unlike any other character we (or anybody else) ever published.
Conversely, characters with noble beginnings can fall on very bad times through less than thoughtful usage. Terrific characters I personally feel have been diminished through inconsiderate use include Galactus, Doctor Doom, Galactus, Scarlet Witch, Galactus, Kang, Galactus, Supreme Intelligence, Galactus, Electro, and Galactus, to name but a few. Fortunately, bad stories with good characters can be lived down once the character starts appearing in good stories again. But it often takes twice as many good stories to counteract the stigma of the bad. In other words, if the Trapster appears in 4 bad stories in a row, it may take 8 good stories before the reading public will accept him as a worthy character again!
So what’s my rationale behind the statement a few paragraphs ago that bad characters never go away? This: bad characters can never be uncreated. They exist forever. Once upon a time I didn’t believe this. I thought if a character stinks and you kill him, he’s gone. Then after doing MARVEL UNIVERSE for so many years, it sunk in that characters don’t disappear when they die, they just get filed under another category! Turner D. Century is not dead and gone – he’s just on the Actively Dead list, waiting for me to be on vacation and some recalcitrant writer to sneak him back into a story. If I had my way, characters would never die anymore, at least not until every last ounce of story potential was wrung out of him or her, and none who are dead would ever come back. John Donne said “Every man’s death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind.” I say “Every character’s rebirth diminishes the Marvel Universe by robbing the concept of death of its dramatic impact.” Since we’re doing drama, not comedy, in most series set in the M.U., I see no point in conditioning readers to not believe in the awful finality of death anymore. I’ve reserved a special circle in Dante’s Inferno for any writer (myself included) who manages by hook or crook to revive any character killed by Scourge. This doesn’t include recycling names or costumes, this means literally bringing back one of the people who was actually pum-SPAKked by Scourge.
My opinion is not one universally shared. My esteemed colleague Fabian “I write more books than you, Gruenwald” Nicieza, for instance, has no problem (if I understand him correctly) with revivals of the seeming dead. If a character even has an ounce of untapped potential and happens to be dead, then “un-dead” him so he can have that potential explored, so sez Fabe. Fabian believes that if you give the fans good stories, it doesn’t matter if the characters in the story were once believed to be dead – the fans care more about the quality of stories than the verisimilitude (semblance of reality) of the universe as a whole. He may be right, he may be wrong. But since my job is universe-preserving and his job (as writer) is quality-story-providing, you can appreciate where our sensibilities derive from. And since my position in the organization is higher than his, my sensibility may have more influence with Mr. Life and Death Arbiter (Tom DeFalco) when they’re in opposition (they usually aren’t, right, Fabe?). I can but hope.
Occasionally I get letters from readers who began their Marvel habit in the 60s and 70s who say that in their opinion the spirit of the Marvel Universe has died. It just got so distended, they so, so stretched out about the edges, so threadbare in areas, and overly dense and complicated in other areas that it’s just not the fun place it used to be. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but obviously I disagree. While the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s Marvel Universe are characteristically different places, I feel they are good and rightful expansions and extensions of the same place I’ve been reading about since the beginning of time (1961). Yes, there have been times when parts of the universe got skewed, but like a river flowing around a log that’s dropped in, the river is eventually going to dislodge and overpower the log. With Tom and me ever vigilant, the Marvel Universe despite its expansion (an expansion, I might add, that would not be happening if you readers didn’t demand more books!) will remain a happy, homogenous place. For my money, the sandbox known as the Marvel Universe has many healthy years ahead of it, and properly maintained, we’ll never have to resort to any kind of wholesale implosion or continuity-shedding of keep it from collapsing under it’s own poorly distributed weight.
I hope this lengthy discussion of the Marvel Universe had been diverting. Let me know what you think of the various points I’ve raised here if you’re so inclined. Write me in care of this magazine.