According to Cody Walker, reboots and relaunches have been a part of comics for decades now[i]: From Julius Schwartz’s revisionist techniques that birthed the Silver Age in DC Comics – Barry Allen as the second iteration of the Scarlet Speedster, The Flash, a re-imaging of the Jay Garrick-Golden Age archetype, alongside Hal Jordan as re-envisioned Green Lantern, a radically altered variation of the Alan Scott version – to the seminal landmark series, Crisis on Infinite Earths (1986) which strived to collapse decades of convoluted continuity and multiversal multiplication into one, ostensibly cohesive and singular universe, retcons, relaunches and reboots have proliferated exponentially in the post-Millennial context.
But what concerns me here, and the prime purview of this article, is the term itself, reboot. For the past three years, I have been researching the concept as part of a PhD thesis into the phenomenon which has seen the paradigm translated from the comic book language into other cultural dictionaries. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) began the trend in cinema which has since been adopted by a plethora of commentators to describe a wide variety of artifacts, texts and practices, some of which require interrogation due to the paradoxical elements at work across the popular culture landscape. In short, the term reboot has exploded beyond its initial definition and is being utilized in a multitude of contradictory and, I would suggest, rather problematic ways.
So, then, what exactly is a reboot? How does it differ from other revisionist strategies such as the remake, the adaptation, the retcon and the relaunch?
In the world of fictional narratives and long-running, serialized stories, the term is used to indicate a removal or nullification of history in order to ‘begin again’ from ‘year one’ without any requirement of canonical knowledge of previous incarnations. I would argue that a reboot is a narrative technique that renders all previous iterations null and void. Thus, the slate is wiped clean, and the story begins again from ‘year one’ untethered from the pre-established continuum. In short, a reboot begins a new continuity. So, post-Crisis, comic book fans could, theoretically, pick up John Byrne’s Man of Steel series or Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and need no prior knowledge whatsoever of the vast narrative tapestry that preceded them. Indeed, as explained within the diegesis of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the DC pantheon of characters, from Superman to Batman and all in between, retained no memory of the earlier continuity and history begins again from a new spatiotemporal position or an alternative narrative universe.
Of course, while it may be simple to wipe the memory of fictional characters, it is impossible to perform a similar ‘crisis’ on the reader; so older fans – and new readers should they eventually wish to do so – can return to the earlier universe and pay a visit to old friends. This is why a reboot can never completely wipe the slate clean, but, in the first instance, regenerates the narrative from the beginning – sometimes going back earlier than ever before as with Batman Begins (2005), Casino Royale (2006) or Star Trek (2008) does in cinema (more of which later).
Tracing the genealogy of the reboot is a difficult and arduous task: the earliest mention of the word I can find is from a Superman/ Batman graphic novel by Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner which was published in 2004 (and I would appreciate any extra assistance from the expert fan culture out there regarding earlier uses of the term and the marshalling of tangible evidence to support this). Although the general consensus amongst fans is that the reboot is a comic book conceit and has since travelled across into other fictional mediums, such as film, TV and others, there is very little evidence to suggest that this is the case beyond mere hearsay and fan apocrypha. The descriptor that does, however, keep cropping up, is that of ‘retroactive continuity’ or ‘retcon’ for short. Is this the reboot avant la lettre, before the term itself was coined? Is the reboot simply a ‘hard’ retcon?
The retcon differs from the reboot in the sense that it alters elements of a series’ chronology without collapsing the narrative continuum altogether – i.e. it does not ‘begin again’. One of the earliest uses of this technique is arguably the Arthur Conan Doyle short story, ‘The Final Problem’ where the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, plunges to his doom from the heights of the Reichenbach Falls after duelling with his bête noire, Moriarty. At the time, Conan-Doyle had grown weary of Holmes because he believed that the massive success of the character was deterring him from more intellectual pursuits in the literary field and felt that ‘putting him down’ was the only viable solution. However, due to the demands of avid fans, he was persuaded to bring him back from beyond the grave, thereby rewriting Holmes’s continuity (which is rather ‘loose’ in any case and is still a cause of contention for many Sherlockians who seek to rationalise some conflicting details in the Conan-Doyle canon of texts. Novelist, Michael Chabon illustrates this excellently in his non-fiction book, Maps and Legends)[ii].
A further example of the retcon in other media include the 1980s TV smash hit, Dallas. In 1985, at the height of the series’ popularity, fan-favourite Bobby Ewing was unceremoniously killed off in a car accident. As a result, ratings dipped and, six months after the fact, Bobby was resurrected through an age-old narrative quirk: yes, folks, it was all a dream. The point I want to make here is that the retcon does not begin again but, rather, alters details in the continuum for the purposes of story. Of course, this does not always have the desired affect: Dallas had ‘jumped the shark’ by bringing Bobby back from the dead and many commentators cite this as the primary reason for the show’s decline in popularity and eventual cancellation – although a sequel which began airing in 2012 has revitalised some of the earlier success.
Note I said ‘sequel’ and not reboot as many critics have described it. The new iteration of Dallas does not begin a new continuity; in fact, it actively relies on causality and thus continues the saga – albeit some two decades after the fact – rather than as a separate, narrative entity. Borrowing a phrase from Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin, I describe a spatiotemporal environment as a ‘chronotope’ – literally ‘space-time’. In short, the ‘original’ Dallas shares the same chronotope as the ‘new’ version: they both operate in the same story-world, the same narrative universe. Bobby Ewing is still played by Patrick Duffy and J.R by Larry Hagman (who sadly passed away in 2012) and although the latest Dallas introduces new story arcs and new characters – the next generation of the Ewing family in the 21st century if you will – the narrative is an extension of the former rather than a rebuttal of it.
In comic books, Marvel Comics famously, and contentiously, ‘retconned’ Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson’s marriage out of continuity following the events of One More Day much to the chagrin of the fan community. In order to save Aunt May from death, Peter Parker makes a ‘deal with the devil’, Mephisto, which erases their union from history and also resets the Civil War storyline which saw Spider-Man’s secret identity unmasked to the world at large. This retcon altered history and instigated a collective amnesia across the Marvel universe without ‘rebooting’ the continuum from a new beginning. From this position, we can clearly demarcate the retcon from the reboot.
In film, comic book aficionado and screenwriter on Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, David S. Goyer, discussed Batman Begins as ‘the cinematic equivalent of a reboot’, thereby inaugurating a cycle of films that adopted this descriptor and continues to this day, seven years after the fact:
After Batman & 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. One of the reasons they do that is after 10 years of telling the same story, it gets stale and times change. So we did the cinematic equivalent of a reboot, and by doing that, setting it at the beginning, you’re instantly distancing yourself from anything that’s come before.[iii]
Following the critical disaster of Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (1997), Warner Bros needed to revisit the corporate drawing board in order to satisfy the fans who clamored for a dark and serious Batman. Internet sites were spilling with invective and indignation as audiences called for the decapitation of Schumacher charged with the crime of debasing their vision of what the Batman should be. (And for those of you who think I am drowning in my own hyperbole here, one website which sprung up was literally called ‘Bring me the Head of Joel Schumacher’). Suffice to say, Batman and Robin left such a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of so many, that the film franchise was forced into hibernation for the best part of a decade.
In 2005, Christopher Nolan resurrected the Batman brand from cinematic purgatory and delivered an earnest portrayal of the Dark Knight, emancipated from the ‘camp crusader’ that had more in common with the 1960s TV series than the brooding representations of darkness emblemised in comics by the likes of Frank Miller, Alan Moore and Jeph Loeb. Batman Begins was a statement of intent. The title suggests a ‘prequelising’ of the successful film series, but new recruits, Nolan and Goyer, pitched an idea to regenerate the Bat by separating this new iteration from the old through the development of a new ‘chronotope’, a different time and a different space, unconnected – at least causally – from Schumacher’s puerile exploits. Batman Begins, therefore, is not a prequel, nor a sequel, but a reboot which operates in a parallel universe to the continuity established by Tim Burton and continued into parody and eventual failure by Schumacher.
As mentioned above, the strategy may seek to disavow past errors and wipe the slate clean, but cancelling out cultural products is not literally possible. Will Brooker, in his book Hunting the Dark Knight: 21st Century Batman (2012)[iv] describes the Batman matrix as an intertextual map which comprises comic books, film, toys, merchandising, animations, computer games, even Burger King Whopper meals via other links, nodes and interconnections. So, then, wiping the slate clean completely is an implausible affair and Goyer’s notion of ‘instantly distancing yourself from what came before’ is a rather problematic assertion. One can always find Batman and Robin in stores or on the internet: it has not been extinguished from the material plane of existence nor has it been removed from the mind of the populous at large by a Men in Black style erasure device. As comic book writer Grant Morrison states, “past continuities can never be erased” from the memories of the audience no matter how many crises are inflicted upon the fictional diegesis[v]. Crisis on Infinite Earths et al may have “wiped out entire characters and universes; the fact that they existed in the memory of their readers meant that they were real”.
But, on another level, and as mentioned above, the Batman story-world presented by Burton and Schumacher does not possess the same ‘chronotope’ as Nolan’s Dark Knight cinematic triumvirate: they exist in different story-worlds, a cinematic variation of the multiverse model, if you will (Cine-Earth 1 comprising Batman (1989) through Batman and Robin (1997) and Cine-Earth 2 populated by Nolan’s Batman). The fact that they are intrinsically connected vis-à-vis intertextual nodes and linchpins does not render their story-worlds non-linear and overlapping. Ergo, their temporal and spatial dimensions operate in alternative narrative universes possessing different chronotopic variants.
This technique mirrors rebooting in comic books with one discernible difference: rebooting is normally explained in the story-world itself in comics. In the first ‘Crisis’, for example, the Anti-Monitor threatened all of space-time and the superheroes galvanised a resistance that saved the final five worlds in the multiverse which were then collapsed into one, singular world (posthumously described as the Post-Crisis universe). The same strategy was employed for the sequel, twenty years later, although this time in reverse: Infinite Crisis re-birthed the multiverse as a nexus of 52 worlds rather than the infinite volume of its forefather and, once more, this was explained in story. In films such as the Batman and James Bond, the spatiotemporal revisionism is not explained or rationalised in story – although it is important to point out that J.J Abrams’ Star Trek reboot does employ the comic book technique of ratiocination which indicates that the ‘new’ Trek timeline operates parallel to the continuum established by the William Shatner temporality and its ancestry rather than wiping it out of existence altogether.
In comic books, Flashpoint reset the DC universe in 2011 by utilising time anomalies caused by Barry Allen as he battled the Reverse Flash which led into the most recent reboot of which The New 52 is a direct. But does the New 52 begin a new continuity? Well, yes. And no.
‘The New 52’ is DC’s latest strategy to attract new readers. In a climate of economic uncertainty, the reports from comic book industrialists prior to the initiative bemoaned the state of the medium’s fiscal health and suggested a complete collapse was hovering on the horizon. Launched in September 2011, the ‘New 52’ saw DC discontinue all of their ongoing titles – titles such as Action and Detective Comics which introduced Superman and Batman to an unsuspecting public way back in 1938 and 1939 respectively and inaugurated the superhero boom of the Golden Age – and begin again with 52 new number ones. Many commentators described this as a reboot, which ties in with the popularity of this ‘buzz word’ (more of which below) rather than an apt description, as I will argue.
In the DCnU (DC New Universe), superheroes began to surface a mere five years ago. The ‘original’ Golden Age Superman had already been removed from history and the continuum due to the first Crisis in the 1980s. John Byrne started the narrative again with the six-part mini-series, Man of Steel which re-situated Superman as a child of the ‘80s. The ‘New 52’, or, more pointedly, Grant Morrison’s Action Comics, re-imagines the Last Son of Krypton as a denizen of the new Millennium. Or, in other words, he starts a new continuity. So far, so reboot.
But what about Batman? What about the Green Lantern? What about Barbara Gordon’s years as the paraplegic Oracle being ‘retconned’ out of existence?
In ‘The New 52’, Batman is not rebooted, but carries along on the same narrative trajectory as before. Sure, there are some changes: Dick Grayson leaves the cowl and cape to Bruce alone following his stint as Batman in Grant Morrison’s run and returns to the Nightwing persona (and retains the memory of his Batman tenure); Stephanie Brown is ‘retconned’ out of the Batgirl suit and into oblivion without explanation; Grant Morrison’s Batman Inc continues unabated, aside from the Stephanie Brown erasure; and, as Mike Greer[vi] explains on Sequart, Batman has existed for five years yet has found time to train four different Robins!?
Scott Snyder’s ‘New 52’ run on Batman is garnering applause and praise from the critical circuit and rightly so. ‘The Court of Owls’ illustrates how someone can inject new energy and invention into the old guard and the recent ‘Death of the Family’ storyline featuring the return of the Joker after a year’s absence solidifies Snyder’s growing reputation as DC’s man of the moment. But even Snyder admits that he is treating the continuity of Batman as if all of his history happened which is a similar tactic employed by Morrison during his run:
We had the opportunity to reboot a lot of things but there are only some really minor changes such as with Batgirl…There’s been a few tweaks here and there but for the most part the Batman stories that you love, like ‘Knightfall’, ‘No Man’s Land’ and ‘Year One’ still stand…it’s a different feel but the rich character history is still there.[vii]
It is important to point out that this is not a criticism of this tactic, but to simply point out that, this does not constitute a reboot. Moreover, the adjective ‘relaunch’ is even problematic given the connection to the continuum. Putting a number one on the cover and saying so, don’t make it so.
So, if the Superman books operate as a reboot, and the Batman series is a continuation (with Batgirl as a retcon), not to mention Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern which continues as if the re-launch didn’t actually happen, what does that make the New 52 initiative? With regards to continuity, I would say it resembles a rather messy affair. It is not surprising that one commentator on comicbeat.com, Mike Mitchell, declared: ‘I’m having a Crisis of trying to keep all of this straight’[viii]. Imagine you’re a new reader and you have not read any of Morrison’s Batman run or Johns’ War of the Green Lanterns, you would certainly be forgiven for scratching your head as the impending migraine threatens to destabilise your head from its axis. Remember: these books are supposed to be ‘jumping on points’; I dare anyone to read Legion Lost or Stormwatch without any knowledge of previous incarnations and not experience befuddlement.
We can see a similar occurrence with ‘Marvel Now’. As DC’s ‘The New 52’ began topping the Diamond Distributor charts, Marvel, of course, needed to respond with an initiative of their own. Marvel had been industry leaders for over a decade, perhaps even longer, and DC had performed a significant coup d’état with ‘The New 52’. ‘Marvel Now’, however, is dissimilar in that it does not reboot any titles, but resets issue numbers to one (and we know all comic book fans love number ones) as a company-wide jump on point. Yet this is still being described as a reboot in some circles, or even a semi-reboot (how do you reboot something by half?). But, once again, I would ask a new, or lapsed reader to pick up Uncanny Avengers or All-New X-Men and not require some additional information from the continuum: Professor X is dead? Okay. Killed by Cyclops? Why? What the hell? Phoenix returned? In fact, the problem here is that a new reader may or may not even be aware of who the Phoenix or Professor X is. Perhaps they’ve seen the X-Men films and have some notion of who these characters are. But it’s hardly a continuity friendly jumping on point, is it?
In recent years and months, the term reboot is increasingly being utilized to describe a whole host of contradictory texts and practices. For example one website reads, ‘Bill Gates wants to reboot the toilet’[ix] If one enters reboot into the search engine at Amazon.co.uk, for example, a whole range of alternate possibilities are offered: a DVD of the animated series Reboot (2011) a PC game, Space Rangers Reboot (2011); a kindle book by John Lees titled, Career Reboot: 24 Tips for Tough Times (2011); an Eastpak Unisex reboot laptop bag; Catherine Allen et al (2011) explain how to Reboot Your Life, while James and Randolph offer sexual advice with In The Mood Again: Use the Power of Healthy Hormones to reboot Your Sex Life – At Any Age (2009); and a music CD by Rob van de Wouw called Reboot (2011). Furthermore, ‘Reboot’ is the name of a parallel world in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s novel The Long Earth (2012) – which interestingly also employs the multiverse model – and the title of a 2012 short film written and directed by Joe Kawasaki. And this is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Recent activity online includes an LA Times article that describes a ‘fashion reboot’ as an ‘eco-friendly make-over’ whereby a new wardrobe is furnished with ‘recycled and upcycled clothing items’. In the world of folk music, ‘2012 sees a complete reboot of The Albion Band’, one of the big three of English folk rock. Band leader Ashley Hutchings told Sky.Com that ‘the way forward was to allow a new generation to take over the baton of The Albion Band’ which will include rewritten and rebooted material alongside a line-up consisting of new members (Anon, 2012: online). The Daily Mail Online invites readers to ‘reboot your shape-up plan’ while Diana Vilibert offers instructions for rebooting stagnant relationships including sage wisdoms such as ‘Take a Sexy Class Together’, ‘Recreate the First Date’ and ‘Make a Bucket List together’. Ben Davis asks if artists can help reboot humanism in an over-connected age.
(Incredibly, these news features all occurred in the same week).
In film and TV, the reboot concept is being used or, rather, ‘misused’ in a variety of perplexing ways. Critics and commentators identify Scream 4 as a reboot rather than a sequel which makes more sense as it does not begin a new continuity but continues within the same narrative chronotope as the three earlier films (and is the clue not in the title itself? Scream 4? As in, the fourth instalment?). Similarly, Tron: Legacy is not a reboot, but a sequel; I would argue the same can be said for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; the next phase of Star Wars films following the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm; Superman Returns which retcons Superman III and IV out of the cinematic continuum but still operates as a sequel; the Coen brothers’ True Grit is a remake or a ‘re-adaptation’, as Thomas Leitch theorises[x], rather than a reboot as suggested by some; while the same can be said of 2012’s Total Recall.
Is the reboot I am describing here now a defunct descriptor? Perhaps, this is simply a new method of describing adaptation practices and textual revisionism using the technological vernacular of the day, a digital ‘emperor’ masquerading in post-Millennial garments rather than a rational, logical and cogent definition.
What do you think? How would you interpret the reboot, the retcon and the ‘relaunch’? Can you marshal any tangible evidence that the reboot was a comic book concept prior to 2004? Any assistance would be gratefully accepted from the fan community at large and, of course, will be respectfully used as a source in my thesis and corresponding book on the topic.
Suffice to say, the reboot is a ‘buzz-word’. Does anyone else have a problem with this?
[i] Walker, Cody (2011) ‘Whatever Happened to the Big Cheese, Part 5: reboot’, 26th October 2011, Sequart [http://sequart.org/magazine/5939/whatever-happened-to-the-big-red-cheese-part-5-reboot/]
[ii] Chabon, Michael (2010) Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing along the Borderlands. London: Fourth Estate.
[iii] Greenberg, James (2005) ‘Rescuing Batman’, Los Angeles Times, May 8th 2005, Sunday Home Edition.
[iv] Brooker, Will (2012) Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman. London: IB Taurus.
[v] Ndalianis, Angela (2009) Enter the Aleph: Superhero Worlds and Hypertime Realities, in Ndalianis, Angela (ed.) The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. London:Routledge.
[vi] Mike Greear (2012) ‘Critiquing the Robins of the New 52’, 10th November 2012, Sequart [http://sequart.org/magazine/16713/critiquing-the-robins-of-the-new-52/]
[vii] Jewell, Scott (2012) ‘Great Scott’, Comic Heroes, Issue 10, 2012.
[viii] Allen, Todd (2012) ‘Earth 2 New Costume Week Marches On’, [http://comicsbeat.com/earth-2-new-costume-week-marches-on/]
[x] Leitch, Thomas (2002) Twice-Told Tales: Disavowal and the Rhetoric of the Remake, in Forrest, Jennifer & Koos, Leonard. R. (2002) (eds.) Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice. Albany: State University of New York Press.