What’s the Point of a Reboot?, or, Waiting for Godot in a Comic Book Shop

Curator's Note

In September of last year, DC comics rebooted its entire line of comic books as 52 new #1 issues. Beginning in October, Marvel plans to relaunch some of its major properties under the Marvel NOW! initiative. This summer, three high-profile comic book movies – The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man (itself a reboot), and The Dark Knight Returns – have been released. The top-selling comic for May 2012, Marvel’s Avengers vs X Men, moved a little under 180,000 units, and Marvel Comics as a whole reported a little over $11 million in sales. That same month, Marvel’s The Avengers made almost $81 million in one day, its opening day of release.

Given their comparatively meager profits, what is the intended outcome of rebooting a comics line? Who, exactly, is the target audience for these reboots? From a corporate perspective (Disney/Marvel, Warner Bros/DC), why bother? Marvel, presumably, would like to capitalize on the success of The Avengers by offering a convenient jumping-on point for new readers. As DC did with the New 52, Marvel NOW! is also revising its digital strategy, making it as easy to buy a comic book as it is to buy a movie ticket.

Comics reboots/relaunches attempt to address the issue of continuity, their dense, often intimidating, decades-long narrative history. It’s an issue the films are largely able to avoid, as they strive to remain accessible to new viewers. (See The Amazing Spider-Man, which remade the first hour of a ten-year-old film before forging ahead with its own original story.) When announcing the Marvel NOW! initiative, Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso commented that: “This ain’t a reboot. It’s a new beginning.” Comics fans are notoriously – and justifiably – loath to give up decades of continuity, so Marvel’s choice to vociferously avoid calling Marvel NOW! a “reboot” is perhaps a strategic way to have its cake and eat it too. It can attract new readers and fans of the movies with #1 issues while at the same time assuring longtime readers that their years of devotion will not be callously discarded. Marvel and DC’s hope, certainly, is to attract readers not only to the new #1 issues but also to their other properties and extensive back catalogs in both comics and other media. These reboots/relaunches might also benefit the entire comics industry, introducing newcomers to an unfamiliar medium and its history. One can hope, right?


Great post, Drew!

I think DC's strategy with 'The New 52' was, as always, to attract new readers but also shake things up for old readers to remain invested. The underlying goal is, of course, to spin a whirlpool of profit potential: one has to recognize that the cash nexus is where it all begins.

The New 52 also declared it wasn't a reboot - and, in some instances, it wasn't: Green Lantern and Batman carried on along the same narrative trajectory as the pre-Flashpoint arc (in Batman's case it simply placed Bruce back in the cowl and sent Grayson back to Nightwing's Bludhaven). As you said, 'they want their cake and eat it too!'

I know a few people who used The New 52 as their jumping on point and were left perplexed when reading titles such as 'Legion Lost', 'Stormwatch' and 'The Legion of Superheroes' (to name a select few). DC are no strangers to rebooting, of course: Julius Schwartz rebooted iconic characters after the comic book controversies of the 1950s - he also created the 'multiverse' concept which allows multiple iterations of the same character to operate across a nexus of parallel earths. 'Crisis on Infinte Earths' collapsed this into one, single reality in order to house-clean a vast and corpulent universe. 'Zero Hour' tried the same seven years later (but is was deemed unsuccessful and many changes did not stick). 'Infinite Crisis' and '52' resurrected the Multiverse as a network of '52' worlds rather than the infinite map of the former. It is interesting that reboots in comics always happen within the diegesis so that it can be rationalised and made logical (which Abrams lifted for the 'Star Trek' reboot).

I think 'Action Comics' is the most successful reboot as it actually is a reboot - wiping Superman's history off the map and 'beginning again'. And I love Morrison's take on the Man of Steel.

I also have an affection for Snyder's Swamp Thing and Lemire's Animal Man. Justice League Dark is interesting, too.

In comic books, which is where the term reboot comes from, at least in aesthetics, the reboot collapses history and begins again. David S Goyer (co-writer of Batman Begins etc) initiated its entrance into the filmic world, but it is intersting and illuminating what he had to say pre-Batman Begins release:

Goyer: 'After 'Batman and Robin', it was necessary to do what we call in comic book terms 'a reboot'...Say you've had 187 issues of 'The Incredible Hulk' and you decide you're going to introduce a new Issue 1. You pretend like those first 187 issues never happened, and you start the story from the beginning and the slate is wiped clean, and no one blinks'

Yet the slate can never be wiped clean in the minds of the audience, but the characters are rendered amnesiac. Some of 'The New 52' are reboots, some are not. 'Marvel NOW' sounds like a 'refresh' rather than a hard reboot. Characters still retain their memories and they are not starting from a narrative ground zero.

It seems that Marvel's actions are a reaction to DC's success: July's figures show DC out on top again so, for the most part, at least from a commercial perpective, the strategy worked. This is how cycles are created, of course.

Julis Scwartz, DC Reboot Maestro said in the 60s: 'Every ten years, the [comic book] universe needs an enema'. I think due to the sucesses of rebooting in the twenty-first century (Batman, Bond, Trek all broke their own box-office bests as did the Amazing Spider-Man, DC at the comic book apex for the first time in decades, Sherlock on TV) we are now witnessing an accelaration of the trend.

How do you define what a reboot is? Ian Peters and myself had an interesting discussion yesterday which illustrates the indeterminacy of langauge and the difficulty in pinning down a definitive designation.

 Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my post, William! My initial motivation for addressing the issue of recent (and near-future) comic book reboots was Marvel's refusal to term Marvel NOW! a "reboot." I was struck by the extent to which Marvel's rhetoric functioned to 1) Distance itself from DC's New 52; and 2) Assure readers that Marvel NOW! would not be a hard reboot but rather a "reimagining" of the characters. As your discussion with Ian yesterday demonstrated, there is a definite slipperiness in the usage of the terms "reboot," "relaunch," and "remake." Marvel seems to be exploiting this inderminacy both in order to differentiate itself from DC's efforts and to play coy about the extent to which existing characters and stories will change or remain unchanged within the Marvel Now! universe. By publishing a series of #1 issues, Marvel certainly wants to attract new readers, but in order to do so, the stories must necessarily provide understandable jumping on points. By avoiding the term "reboot," Marvel has made a strategic decision to attempt to placate longtime readers while persuading new readers that they won't be lost if they begin with these #1 issues.

Your point about comic book reboots happening within the diegesis is a good one, and it also helps explain some of the density of comic book narratives. Films generally seem to have no problem tossing out previous iterations of their stories in the interest of remaining accessible to a general audience. Comic books, though, have a significantly smaller and more dedicated audience, and their rationalizaion of reboots as emerging from preexisting narratives helps maintain this insularity.

And this brings me to another big question I have about comic book reboots: who are they for? I was one of the "New 52 New Readers," so DC benefited from my readership. But how many are there like me? How many new readers do reboots really attract? And is it worth annoying a large portion of a very small fanbase, an audience who doesn't want to lose a long and shared history with a group of characters?

In my personal experience, Image Comics was the biggest beneficiary of DC's New 52, as DC's reboot introduced me not only to its own properties but also to an entire fan community and medium. 

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.