[Guest contribution by William Proctor]

In recent years, “rebooting” has become a buzz-word used to describe a variety of cultural activities. Etymologically, the term refers to shutting down a computer operating system and re-starting it, usually to clear an error in the processing unit. Yet the word has shifted beyond this singular definition into a mine-field of linguistic signifiers. For example: ‘Bill Gates is rebooting the toilet’, reads one Internet news feature; another states that ‘Alex Ferguson is rebooting Manchester United’. Sick and tired of looking drab and dreary? Why, then, reboot your wardrobe! And this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg (Google ‘reboot’ and you’ll see what I mean!)

I would like to draw your attention to the comic book reboot and ask: What is a reboot? And how does it differ from other revisionary story-telling practices in comics?

My interpretation of the reboot is this: A reboot seeks to render a previously established narrative universe null and void by collapsing existing continuity and beginning again from ‘ground zero’, without the former impinging upon the ‘new’ continuity. In 1986, for instance, the maxi-twelve-part-series, Crisis on Infinite Earths rendered the 40-plus previous years of DC continuity obsolete in order to streamline a narrative universe replete with contradictions, convolution and confusion. Thus, the DC multiverse – the nexus of infinite parallel worlds – was reduced to one Earth with one continuity. Following this seismic event, the majority of DC’s superhero pantheon were rebooted from the beginning of their careers: Frank Miller gave us the seminal Year One which re-situated Batman’s past as the present, with John Byrne doing the same for Superman in The Man of Steel six-part series. Barry Allen was dead, murdered during Crisis, as was Supergirl, and the new iterations of DC’s classic archetypes possessed no memories of the time before Crisis. That continuity was now erased from history.

The changes wrought on the DC universe by Crisis did not, however, remain fixed. Crisis initiated the wave of annual ‘event’ comics which have become an invariable feature of the comics’ landscape. 2006’s Infinite Crisis – commissioned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the original Crisis – led into a year-long series, 52, which once again shifted continuity back into a multiversal structure – an arbitrary 52 worlds this time – and the DC universe was rebooted once again.

Last year, a mere five years after Infinite Crisis, we were introduced to DC’s latest conceit, The New 52, which, once again, ostensibly seeks to establish a new continuity. This strategy has paid commercial dividends for DC, as they have ended the year as market leader in an era largely dominated by Marvel. The New 52 is in many ways a mixed bag: Some titles have a completely new continuity– Action Comics, Superman, Supergirl, Animal Man – whereas Green Lantern and the Batman titles include some minor changes – such as returning Bruce Wayne to the hot-seat after Grant Morrison had Dick Grayson in the role for over two years – but the earlier narrative is still very much a part of their continuity. As a result, I think there is a difference between a reboot: the severing of canonical ties with previous continuity in order to begin from a tabula rasa, and a re-launch, starting a series with a new number one, but not necessarily a new continuity, much like Marvel is doing in October with their Marvel Now initiative. But at present, these distinctions are flexible and less well understood that we would like.

So, what is the difference between a reboot, a ret-con and a re-launch?

About roytcook

Roy T Cook is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of comics. He is the co-editor (with Aaron Meskin) of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012)

5 responses »

  1. roytcook says:

    William,

    One of the really interesting questions is touched on at the end of your post: What is the difference between a reboot and a ret-con? Both significantly change the ‘backstory’ of the character – the former by erasing it altogether, and the latter by changing significant facts about past events in the story (or, at least, our interpretation of them). But as you make clear, a reboot cannot erase ALL the backstory – there have to be significant aspects in which the new version is appropriately similar to the old continuity in order for it to count as a reboot at all (rather than merely new stories about completely new characters who happen to have the same name as old characters in the old stories). But then does the distinction between reboot and ret-con really come down to nothing more than a matter of degree (i.e. reboots are just really thorough ret-cons?)

    Another important question with regard to rebooting is “why”? This one hits close to home. Just a few hours after your post went up, I purchased a used hardback copy of Marvel’s Annihilators. The plot (actually, a back-up to the main Annihilators story) involves Rocket Raccoon finding out that the stories of him featured in the old 1985 Rocket Raccoon limited series (and elsewhere, including an old issue of the Incredible Hulk) were self-induced hallucinations in order to protect him from ‘the truth’ (don’t worry about what ‘the truth’ is – it really isn’t worth it).

    Now, unlike some readers, I love Rocket Raccoon not so much for his recent exploits as a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but from having read the bizarrely awesome limited series when it came out in 1985. So now this entire backstory has been deleted by the powers-that-be. This raises a number of questions. Of course, the first one I already raised above: Is this merely a ret-con, or is it a substantial enough change to constitute a reboot of Rocket Raccoon?

    The other question, however, is the aforementioned “why”? What, exactly, did Marvel (or the writers of this issue – Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning ) hope to accomplish with this story? Was it an attempt to make the character more ‘serious’, by eliminating the ‘silly’ older stories from continuity? Was it connected to the rumors of a Guardians of the Galaxy film (supposedly featuring Rocket Raccoon)? Good questions, I think.

    It is worth noting that superhero comics typically run with a built-in assumption to not conflict with established continuity, so anytime established continuity is flouted (or, as here, outright eliminated), there must be some specific reason for having gone against standard operating procedure. Now, it’s possible that Abnett and Lanning just thought it was a cool story. But I doubt it.

    Great post, by the way!

    • William Proctor says:

      Thanks Roy! I think you may have a point about a reboot being a ‘hard’ ret-con. Continuity is a contradictory affair as there are numerous questions that can be raised via-a-vis casuality in superhero narratives. For example, frequently asked questions from my students involve touching on the plethora of Batman titles and when each one takes place. In ‘Batman Inc’ he is fighting Talia Al Ghul at the moment and the Leviathan collective; but this is not mentioned in ‘Detective Comics’ at all – are these all occuring at different times? Or in different spatio-temporal spaces? Geoff Klock, in his excellent 2002 book, ‘How to Read Superhero Comics and Why’ analyses the contradictory nature of continuity and how it is discontinuous at times (perhaps often). A stable, cohesive universe is difficult given the vast intertextual universe of the likes of DC and Marvel.

      Why do reboots occur? Well, Roy, the Marxist in me has to say that the first underlying principle is the cash nexus: attracting new readers who may be put off by a labryrinthine and corpulent narrative IS about profit, first anf foremost. Of course, older consumers may relish a series that has grown stale getting a revamp through a reboot – but a lot of comic book readers often express chagrin at these tactics. ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ was not received well by the fans at the time.

      From a post-structuralist perpective – one which Will Brooker adopts in his recent and seminal ‘Hunting the Dark Knight’ – a reboot can never truly wipe the slate clean; although I argue that it strives to, at least from the position of linear storytelling. I myself do not accept the excessive post-structural reading of texts as being non-linear: I would argue that they are both linear and non-linear depending upon your reading strategy and position in what Jim Collins calls the ‘intertextual array’. Audiences do read structurally! They create structures and read casually – this does not refute intertextual explanations, but posits that intertextuality is but one factor in a much larger schema. Just read any piece about Nolan’s Batman films and how they constitute a trilogy – i.e a structure – and also how it factors in other textual enunciations – an intertextual formation. These texts lie on a fulcrum between linearity and non-linearity; between unicursality and multicursality; between continuity and the intertext.
      Hope this makes sense!

  2. Hi, Wiliam.

    Thanks for your post on a very intriguing and timely subject.

    I don’t pay much attention to mainstream superhero comics (with apologies to those who do!), so I felt rather external to the discussion (hype?) about DC’s reboot/relaunch. But your post made me remember that there was at least some protest about the retooling (if I may use a different term): there was quite a bit of press about the DC “relaunch” NOT being a “reboot.” Your post helped me understand that this is more than a question of sales figures and profit margins.

    And because of my research focus, I only paid minimal attention to the history of the Rawhide Kid when I was working on that article. But now I wonder: are all the iterations of Johnny Bart/the Rawhide Kid developed along similar lines? Are some of them ret-cons where others are relaunches where others are reboots? If Johnny Bart was heterosexual (but shy) in the 1950s, how did he become gay in the 21st-century? Maybe it’s one thing for all the characters in the Crisis series to forget their histories, but did any of them change their sexual orientation? (That’s not a rhetorical question: I really do wonder!)

    • William Proctor says:

      Hi Frank,
      As far as I am aware, sexual preferences were not re-assigned post-Crisis. But following last year’s DC relaunch – some titles were rebooted, some continued along their previous narrative trajectory – the Wildstorm universe has been subsumed by DC which includes Apollo and Midnighter in ‘Stormwatch’. Apollo is a Batman analogue while Midnighter is Superman – they are also gay lovers. ‘Batwoman’ is lesbian, although she was pre-relaunch. In ‘Earth-2’, the Golden Age Green Lantern, Alan Scott, is now re-positioned as homosexual. Marvel has also had a gay marriage in ‘X-Men’ recently; I guess this is part of a strategy within comics of equality and diversity? Spider-Man and The Blue Beetle are hispanic; Captain Atom is African American as is Marvel’s Nick Fury (in the Ultimate Universe, a parallel strand of the mainline narrative). I would argue that more diversity is needed but this is clearly a step in the right direction (even ‘Star Trek’ never included a gay main character).

  3. Billy Proctor says:

    Apologies to all – my post above includes an error – Apollo is the Superman analogue while Midnighter is Batman.

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