“Don’t change anything, just give the illusion of change.”
Those words—or something very much like them, at any rate—have been attributed to Stan Lee for ages now, and it’s been painfully obvious that Roy Thomas, Jim Shooter, Tom DeFalco, Bob Harras, et. al. who have followed in his footsteps as editor in chief at the self-proclaimed “House Of Ideas” have taken them to heart. Nothing ever really changes at Marvel, at least on the printed page, does it?
Think about it—even the big changes, the ones we’re promised are “permanent”—never are. Sooner or later the status quo is always restored, whether it takes months (pick your Captain America death) or years (undoing the death of Jean Grey or the marriage of Peter Parker to Mary Jane Watson). Change may be the only constant in the real world, but in the Marvel Universe it’s more notable for its absence than anything else. It all reverts back to square one at some point in the hope that everything old will be seen as new again—and again—and again.
Which is why I can’t greet the “big news” that Marvel will be re-launching its so-called “616 Universe” this year with anything but a shrug. We’re promised that this is “the big one,” but damn—we’ve heard that soo many times before.
What we (apparently) know for certain is that the so-called “Ultimate Universe”—which Marvel has been allowing to wither and die on the vine for the past five years or so—will be ending, and that the only popular character they’ve got left over there, Miles Morales (a.k.a. The Ultimate Spider-Man) will be moving over to the new, consolidated universe in some capacity. Beyond that, there are rumors of the Inhumans and mutants being shoe-horned into one group (called either the NonHumans or UnHumans, depending on who you choose to believe), but even if that is happening—and it’s a mighty big “if”—it doesn’t represent too big of a shift given that the explosion of the gene bomb a year or two ago triggered a secret “Inhuman gene” in various members of the general public that’s more or less indistinguishable from mutation, anyway.
The other thing that has me more in a mindset of “here we go again” rather than “wow, maybe they really mean it this time” is the fact that they’re going back to the Secret Wars well in order to roll this “new” universe out, and that the first big cross-over event after that (they have, what? Two or three a year now?) is slated to be a re-telling of Civil War. What is it that Secret Wars and Civil War have in common again (besides being re-tread ideas?) Oh, that’s right—they were both “game changing” mini-series “events” that, within a year or two, were either completely nullified by subsequent stories, or wiped from continuity altogether. But hey, at least we’ve got Alex Ross doing the cover honors this time around.
On the confusing front, while Marvel is assuring readers that this new relaunch will be of far greater significance than their last two “soft reboots”—namely 2013’s “Marvel Now!” and 2014’s “All-New Marvel Now!” (I have it on good authority that “Marvel Right Now!” and “Marvel—What Now?” were scheduled to be next)—in that those were just “jumping-on points” for new readers and this marks a whole “new” beginning. They’re also claiming that nothing from the current universe will be “retconned” out of existence. I’m not sure how that goes together at all, but the scuttlebutt on social media and in the comics press is that this is not going to undo all that has come before a la DC’s “New 52” initiative. Hmmm—is it just me, or is that already an admission by default that nothing’s really going to change here apart from the “Ultimate Universe” finally giving up the ghost (which is more a mercy killing at this point, anyway)?
Also worth noting is the fact that Marvel has said absolutely nothing about altering their business plan of the past several years, so it’s a pretty safe bet that the raft of new first issues we’ll be getting in the wake of Secret Wars will probably be for titles that only last a year, maybe two at most, before they’re, at the very least, “soft rebooted” all over again—so if this whole thing didn’t seem pointless enough already, you can add that into the mix, as well.
Maybe I’m just showing my age here but I remember the first Secret Wars from 1984, and even though I was just a little kid at the time, I knew that I was being hustled. That it was a big cash grab that wouldn’t result in anything truly different. That it might “shake things up” for a few months, but everything would eventually settle back down. So who knows—maybe we can credit Marvel for the birth of my cynicism. In subsequent years, I would learn that Spider-Man stopped changing the minute Steve Ditko left the book and Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. transformed Peter Parker from a neurotic, insecure bookworm into a wise-cracking, popular kid who just happened to like science, and that the rest of their original characters, with the notable exception of Daredevil, started to stagnate the moment Jack Kirby took off. Writers and artists like Steve Gerber and Jim Starlin did some interesting and occasionally even groundbreaking things with characters they created in the 1970s, but the initial wave of Marvel heroes—as well as their primary villains—remained in a kind of stasis and/or eternal adolescence. Of course, the true innovators who gave birth to the universe those characters shared—Kirby, Ditko, Wood—would continue to push the envelope and transform the medium for other publishers, but change—real change—would never happen at Marvel again once they were gone.
When you look at things from that perspective, then, maybe the truth is that the Marvel Universe that’s supposedly “ending” in a few months’ time actually died decades ago, and they’re just making it official now.