[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?