Love in the Time of Serial Media: Comic Books and Impermanent Storylines

Last week I posted an extremely brief and emotional knee-jerk reaction to the most recent issue of Civil War II, and specifically the depiction of Carol Danvers. I made the post mainly as a testament to what I feel is some damn good characterization on the part of author Brian Michael Bendis. The fall of Carol Danvers is painful, and it’s painful because it is so well-written. Her actions are perfectly psychologically understandable, and it is absolutely awful. Watching her dig in on the wrong side of history, ripping her world (and many other people’s) apart in the process, you can see an array of possible futures unfolding in the aftermath—none of which are without heartbreak.

So it was interesting to me to see a few responses that could essentially be summed up as, “Why should we care about what’s happening to Carol now since we know that Marvel’s just gonna reboot her to a new status quo in a couple of years?”

It got me thinking about the nature of comic books as a serial medium and what that means for the stories, characters, and audiences. In a world of constant reboots and retcons and endlessly shifting new status quos that will change the comic book universe forever (omg), does our knowledge of a story’s fundamental impermanence really detract all that much from its impact? Does a tale only matter if its repercussions are set in stone?

On the one hand, I understand the fatigue that such a viewpoint evinces. Comics today (Big Two comics, anyway) often feel like they are dominated by a 24/7 news cycle of ceaseless publicity stunts and promotional interviews and sneak peek teasers that tout the latest thing that is going to blow your mind (omfg). It’s exhausting, and frustrating that the nature of the beast makes it hard for the creators and their audiences to just sit back and let the stories be stories. On the other hand, however, it’s a mistake to think that any PR juggernaut could take away from a truly well-written story. And suggesting that one could is little more than a critical cop-out. This new status quo won’t last, therefore I don’t need to care about it, therefore I don’t have to think critically about it and evaluate it on its own merits.

Comic books are a unique form of storytelling, peopled not so much with characters as archetypes—symbolic figures with massive legacies, who star in independent tales that may (or may not) figure into the larger understanding of them and their history. Characters in comic books are fragmented across an endless spectrum of stories, created by an endless collection of creative voices. The audience tends to think of the things that happen to said characters as things happening in a strictly linear, and fixed, continuity, but this is not the case. Little things are happening all the time, and often simultaneously. Right now, at this moment in time, there is a story about King T’Challa scouring the multiverse for threats with the Ultimates, and one about him weeding out corruption in Wakanda, and one about him taking a stand in a superhero Civil War. These stories aren’t necessarily compatible with one another, though they aren’t necessarily incompatible, and the T’Challas in them are not necessarily the same, though they are not different either. They are archetypes, playing out individualized stories in a sweeping and ever-changing mythological framework. Not all of these little myths will have big reverberations down the line, though some will, and it doesn’t matter if they do (or don’t).

All that matters is that the stories are good.

Right now, at this moment in time, there is a story about the fall of Carol Danvers—about what such a thing would look like—and it doesn’t matter if it clings to canon forever like a burr or blows away in the wind like dandelion fluff. It’s a morality tale, a cautionary tale, and a damned good one so far. And its meaning is not lessened by the knowledge that the story will end and the character will go on and eventually someone else will craft a new reality for her. All that matters is that the new reality is as good a story—or better—than the old one.

This tale of the downfall of Carol Danvers will never not be affecting, if it is well done. Even though we know that she will become something different a couple years down the line, and that that something may very well be extremely similar to what she was before, it’s still powerful and painful to experience right now. In this moment. In this little piece of narrative forever. For this small slice of time, things really never will be the same again. And for now, it’s enough.

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