There is an anonymous proverb that states the only three things that are certain in life are birth, death, and change. Within the realm of ongoing comic book narratives, these take the form of retcons, resurrections, and reboots. For the purposes of this weekly feature, retcons are elements added into a character’s history after the fact, resurrections are characters return from death or some state of limbo, and reboots are wholesale changes to a character or characters canon (history, supporting casts, origin story, etc).
These changes, just like all stories, range from those that add definitive things that still stand with the characters to those that sometimes should best be forgotten. Except, they won’t be in this feature. Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Resurrections, and Reboots.
Marvel Comics current event, the umpteenth one in a continuous cycle of events, is called Heroes Reborn and features an alternate Marvel Universe where the Squadron Supreme are the big heroes after the Avengers never formed. All the heroes that we know have been altered because they either never became heroes or they were inspired by some different hero or they have been combined in some format.
Thing is, this isn’t the first time they’ve had a big event-type situation with that name. Let’s turn the clocks back to the year 1996. The line-wide ‘Onslaught ‘storyline had come to an end, after spanning a ton of issues through 1995 and 1996, and most of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four sacrificed their lives to defeat the villain (a twisted Xavier/Magneto psionic being).
Death is no stranger to comic book characters and stories, a ticking clock is usually started at the moment of death counting down till a likely return. This was a very different case than the usual death and return revolving door scenario.
Understanding the whys requires looking beyond the comic book pages at Marvel itself as a company at the time. This is a time long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and before most Marvel movies overall really, and the Avengers and Fantastic Four and other titles were seeing declining sales and interest. On the flip side, this was a time when the X-Men as a line was the sales dominating beloved baby of the publisher. ‘Onslaught’ as an event was born out of the X-Line and touched all other lines at the publisher in the hopes that this popularity would rub off on the other books.
At the same time, Marvel itself was moving closer to filing for bankruptcy and laying off almost a third of their staff (they filed in December 1996). This moment is what led to the company selling off the media rights to most of its big characters (Spider-Man to Sony, X-Men to Fox, etc) as part of their moves to come back from the brink of that possible collapse. Before all that though, there was the attempted reboot/relaunch of a swath of their characters.
What made this reboot attempt stand out was that Marvel wasn’t doing it themselves. No, they decided that they had this grand idea. That idea was to farm the running of these books, which took place in their own separate universe, over to Jim Lee and his WildStorm imprint (they worked on Iron Man and Fantastic Four) and Rob Liefeld’s Extreme Comics (handling Avengers and Captain America) who both were at Image Comics, which of course is the company they and other creators created after their mass exodus from Marvel years prior.
While sales reportedly seemed to increase from where they were previously, the reboot was riddled with controversies and issues from day one. The complete jettisoning and rebooting of continuity turned off many fans that had been reading the books before (some especially upset that the Mark Waid and Ron Garney run of Captain America was ended for this). Then there were issues with some of the art, including the above infamous Liefeld Captain America image which was just the tip of the iceberg in regard to that series’ art.
As is quite common still to this day, behind the scenes there were issues and controversies and a variety of stories about the reasons that the deal soured, and Liefeld left both the titles and Image itself at that point. By this point, sales were already starting to decline again and all four books were moved under Lee’s purview until they were ended after their 12th issue. That led to a Peter David-led Heroes Return miniseries (and one-shots) that brought all the characters back. Turns out they were actually just in a bubble universe created by Franklin Richards at the moment they “died” as a way to hide them from Onslaught.
Overall, as a reboot attempt Heroes Reborn is a giant mess that did nothing to boost the heroes at a point where Marvel needed them to do better with their own existence on the line. It would take a great many years before the publisher really put the same level of effort into pushing these characters/titles with the same sort of drive. That would come thanks to many factors including the success of the Marvel Knights line launch, the success of the Ultimate comics line, putting Bendis on Avengers, and the overall success eventually of movies featuring their characters.
Though one could say that Heroes Reborn did in a way set the stage for the launch of Ultimate Comics in the 2000s because Marvel learned that if they were going to jettison continuity and start over it was better to do it as a side universe that allowed the main Marvel 616 universe to keep going. That’s something at least.