In Your Face Jam: Why Superhero Comics Can't Be "Breaking Bad"

Wed, October 2nd, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Brett White, Contributing Writer
17

Artist Robert Rath illustrates "Breaking Bad" meets the X-Men for The Line It Is Drawn

I'm not going to get into any spoilers, as I know just seeing the words "Breaking" and "Bad" lumped together in a sentence right now is enough to make a lot of people slam their laptops closed. I'm not getting into anything specifically about "Breaking Bad," except to say that, after 62 episodes, the "Breaking Bad" story as it was started back in 2008 is over. This is how stories tend to work; they all tend to have endings -- except in superhero comics.

This isn't something I've just noticed, but the cultural frenzy over "Breaking Bad's" finale got me thinking about comic books and how that particular type of frenzy will probably never happen in comics. DC ended every single one of their superhero comics in one month and people made more of a fuss about the reboot that followed. Comic book fans knew that that was not truly an end.

But I haven't always considered this to be part of the comic book reading experience. When you first start reading superhero comics, you treat them like movies, television, novels, pretty much every other medium. You read them as if you're eventually going to hit an end, and every change and status quo shake up hits so much harder because, according to the way most other mediums work, those changes mean something. I think this is why so many of us, myself one million percent included, look back on those first few years of following superheroes with such nostalgia. We not only remember the characters we fell in love with, but we remember the feeling of reading stories that felt ground-breaking. The first 62-ish issues of my favorite comic will forever feel as complete as the 62 episodes of "Breaking Bad" because I experienced them in the same way -- without any precedent for how that type of story should be told and thinking that every plot point would have a lasting impact.


At some point, every comic book reader learns that comics are not like most television shows or movies. Comics are cyclical, and they reset every few years, with characters dying and status quos changing only to be reversed in a handful of years.

Those first few years reading superhero comics are magical because you don't know this yet. As someone who started reading X-Men comics on "Fatal Attractions" Eve, I experienced Colossus' defection, Magneto ripping out Wolverine's adamantium, Gambit and Rogue's first date, Multiple Man's death, Strong Guy's heart attack, and the spread of the Legacy Virus with such immediacy that I was definitely white-knuckling my comics while reading them. I didn't see the writing on the wall when changes made before I started reading were reversed; I instead saw them as new Earth-Shattering Status Quo Shakers (which kind of sound like an Applebee's dessert). Archangel's feather wings returned mysteriously, and that change blew my middle school mind.

But then the reset button was hit on all of my big changes, and my honeymoon period with superhero comics ended. I was all too aware that these stories had no end in sight, and every big moment I read from that point out wouldn't carry the same weight. When this happens, every reader has to either accept that these superhero stories are unlike any other form of popular storytelling in this regard and find another metric to measure enjoyment, they have to quit reading comics, or they keep reading and become the bitterest of fans.

Guess who's coming back?

I hit this moment around 62 issues after my first "Uncanny X-Men" issue, with the 35th anniversary two-parter in "Uncanny" #360 and "X-Men" #80. Up until this point, both of the main X-Books had been on a forward progression that could easily mimic any basic cable drama. The "head writer" Scott Lobdell had left after five years of service, with "writing staff" members like Fabian Nicieza and Mark Waid having come and gone as well. The "show" was then handed over to Steve Seagle and Joe Kelly, whose debut "season" was characterized by a startling status quo change, one that stripped the team of the excess of its early '90s "seasons" and got the X-Men back to their roots. Even a lot of the big "stars" had had their involvement reduced to "recurring" roles, with heavy-hitters like Bishop, Gambit, Rogue, and Psylocke all on the sidelines while newer characters became "regulars." And then, this longform serialized drama that I loved became a comic book.


With "Excalibur" coming to a close, or perhaps "Excalibur" was canceled so this could happen, classic X-Men Nightcrawler, Kitty Pryde, and Colossus were added back to the cast, just as the entire book jettisoned all of its building subplots and took on a more old school vibe. All of the changes made to the team between "Fatal Attractions" and "Operation: Zero Tolerance" were gone. Colossus was a good guy. Multiple Man was alive. Wolverine got his metal claws back.

This type of reset button rarely happens on television. When a character or actor leaves a show, they're gone. The young, innocent comic book reader that I was assumed that Nightcrawler and friends would never be a part of the team again, much like "Mad Men" viewers know that Sal Romano and Paul Kinsey will never return to "Mad Men" and be full-time employees of Sterling Cooper & Partners.

So superhero comics can't be like television series because this intellectual property is too valuable to die. They'll go through phases, the characters will have the unthinkable happen to them, but they'll be just as they were once the right amount of time passes. After reading comics for as long as I have, I think I'm finally coming around why this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The nature of comics allows us to constantly see new, different interpretations of our favorite heroes, and because these reimaginings are never ending, there's always a chance that another good one is right around the corner. Imagine if "Bionic Woman," which NBC failed at resurrecting a little while back, was -- for some reason -- a key property for NBC and they invested in relaunching it over and over again, with new showrunners every time. What are the odds at least a couple of those would hit? What are the odds that, right now, my imagined-NBC would be eyeing someone like "Breaking Bad's" Vince Gilligan to take over the imagined TV series, much in the same way real Marvel snatched up real Joss Whedon to reimagine the X-Men following Grant Morrison. The constant regeneration comics endure is only a problem if you let new issues devalue your old ones. Don't let that happen.

Imagine if television was run the same way big superhero titles are, and it will offer proof of how fun the endless nature of comics can actually be. If TV was run the way comics are run, maybe we'd still have new episodes of "Cheers" right now, written by the "Parks and Recreation" writers -- maybe with a rebooted continuity, maybe with an embarrassingly dated streak as a cool internet cafe in the late '90s, but we'd still have a "Cheers." No, it wouldn't be the same, but the best writers would be able to discern what's essential to the series and make it relevant again, much in the way writers like Mark Waid handle "Daredevil." We'd also have old "Cheers," too, untouched and on Netflix and available for you to spend literally every evening for the past ten months watching. Oh, that last part was just me?

This cyclical nature allows us to read even more types of stories with ostensibly the same characters than in any other medium. You get Scott Snyder's Batman at the same time as you get Christopher Nolan's Batman, neither of which negates the existence of Adam West's Batman. If you apply a "Breaking Bad" mindset to your comics, where a singular overarching narrative rules all, then you will probably never be satisfied. But if you just view them as stories to enjoy in the moment, treat every death as it's forever and ever return as if it's a miracle, then they can be a lot more fun.


Nightcrawler's coming back. He died in a previous era of the X-Men, and now he's coming back to find all of his friends at various crossroads following "Avengers vs. X-Men" and "Battle of the Atom." I can't wait to see what he makes of everything, and I can't wait to read him written by Jason Aaron. If this was TV, the Nightcrawler character would be long forgotten in the "X-Men" show, and the actor who played him would maybe be starring on an NBC sitcom right now, with no hopes of returning thanks to things like "contracts" and "money."

Way back in 1998, Nightcrawler's return to the X-Men signaled the end of my superhero comic glory days, but now -- knowing that the cyclical nature of comics isn't such a bad thing -- it's signaling something I really want to read.

Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

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