Re-Examining Spider-Man 06 – Illusions Behind the ‘Illusion of Change’

When you become a comics fan who gets wrapped up in the history of Marvel Comics, you inevitable come across a concept called the ‘illusion of change’. A term used to explain (and justify), why superhero comics tend to reverse lasting changes and consequences, for characters in continuity. From the way it’s been used, you might assume that this was some coherent ideology. Yet as this post will demonstrate, its origins are murky. However an idea doesn’t have to be well-formulated to have an impact, and the concept of the ‘illusion of change’ has affected many comics in publication over the years, despite being erratic and contradictory in its implementation. As a comics reader, you may have no interest in the ‘illusion of change’ but rest assured the illusion is very interested in you.

I mentioned in one of my first posts:

Defining a “comics-fan” can be a nebulous and toxic affair, but a workable definition is the same as in sports. When you go from following a favorite set of players to following the whole team, knowing the names of managers, administrators, and others. It’s the same in comics, you know the editors, you read the interviews, you research the backstory, you try and dig through controversies.

Re-Examining Spider-Man – An Introduction

If there is a dividing line between being a casual reader of superhero comics and a fan, I think choosing the moment when one hears the phrase “illusion of change” is the moment when you peek behind curtain and find Oz operating the machine. It’s a loss of innocence. I have yet to come across any reader of superhero comics who has been made happier knowing about this concept, or how knowing about it has made their reading experience and appreciation better. In fact it’s the opposite. Learning about the “illusion of change” essentially makes you judge Marvel comics as editorial puppetry first, and story second.

In this post, I am going to explore the ins and outs of this idea, which is necessary scaffolding for me before I tackle some of the topics in publication history I will cover in the course of 2022. I am going to explore the context in which this idea generated, the responses to this idea, and the extent to which this idea was actually put into effect.

CONTINUITY IN THE 1960s

Steve Ditko’s Peter Aged visibly across his run. Personally Compiled Collage Ribbon [AF#15, ASM#8, ASM#9, ASM#25, ASM#28, ASM#31, ASM#33, ASM#38] Going from 15 year old to 18 years, i.e. legal adulthood in about 3 years of publication history.

One of the most storied aspects of Marvel in the 1960s during the Kirby and Ditko era was the intensified serialized continuity. It’s not that continuity was a new thing in comics. Many famous newspaper strips had daily serialized stories and arcs. “The Monster Society of Evil” by Fawcett’s Captain Marvel is commonly seen as the first multi-part continuous story-arc in the genre. Yet Marvel took it to another level, where everything was serialized: subplots, character arcs, and other elements continued story-to-story. The passage of time was addressed and referred to multiple times. This was the period when characters across many titles progressed in continuity, where changes in characterization and appearance were acknowledged in-story. Stories and moments inherently mattered in their pages in a way they rarely did afterwards.

As one prominent Marvel reader turned future celebrity author noted:

George R. R. Martin - Wikipedia
George RR Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire, aka Game of Thrones

Continuity was something else that was revolutionary with the Lee and Kirby and Ditko books. The books of the ’50s, before Marvel and all that, were largely episodic or circular. You would read a Superman or a Batman book or Justice League and they would have an adventure and then at the end of the book, the adventure would be over. And they would be pretty much exactly back to where they started. And then the next issue would pick up that way. So really you could read the issues in any order and any issue was an entry point. And Marvel really started—and DC followed—with the idea of multi-issue continuity. Something happened in one issue that really affected the character so the next issue, he began in a very different place.

George R. R. Martin. [1]
Marvel Time

Yet, as Marvel continued into the 1960s, readers noted that the age and dates seemed to slag a bit. In the letters’ pages of Fantastic Four, Lee coined the phrase “Marvel time” to clarify that Marvel didn’t entirely transpire in “real-time” and that in fact the continuity was stretched a fair bit — in a given year where a title might have 12 issues for each month, it didn’t necessarily mean that each issue correlated to a month. In practice it was an admission that the Marvel characters wouldn’t progress as much as they did going forward [2]:

The stuff that happened with Spider-Man, that was revolutionary stuff too. Superman was always with Lois Lane. He never dumped Lois and took up with a new hottie. And you pick up Spider-Man and you start reading and it’s “okay, the only girl in this is Liz Allen, okay” and suddenly she’s not important anymore. And it’s Betty Brant and then suddenly you got Gwen Stacy and you got Mary Jane and it’s all very interesting, especially to a kid like I was at the time. A high school kid, a college kid. Time passed in Marvel comics, which was amazing for me at the time. I was a high school kid and Spider-Man was a high school kid. We were practically in sync. And then I graduated high school and went on to college, and Spider-Man graduated high school and went on to college. So we were still in sync.

But then at some point, I got out of college—I got a Bachelor’s after four years and a Master’s after five—and then I was out of college and Spider-Man took, like, 15 years, I think, to get out of college. And he entered his early ’20s and kinda stayed there for 40 years or so. And I, unfortunately, have not mastered that trick.

George R. R. Martin. [1]

Narrative progression of characters in continuity was undoubtedly a major factor in Marvel’s popularity. For more than a few, the halting or the slowing, of that progression was the point where Marvel became a lot like DC and more of a typical superhero comic.

At the same time it’s not a case at all that progression ended altogether. Some fan-scholars make the distinction between “stretching” timescale and “sliding” timescale [2]. A “stretching” timescale can be summarized as “characters age, but they age slowly” so for instance 2-3 real-time years could correlate to 1 year passing in Marvel continuity, so characters in fact age about 3-5 years every decade. That aligns with how Spider-Man aged into his early 20s between 1966-1987 though obviously there are parts of the continuity that don’t entirely make sense.

Franklin Richards – Birth in FF Annual #6 (1968), Toddler in Claremont’s FF/X-Men (1987), little boy in Jonathan Hickman’s Dark Reign: Fantastic Four (2009), “Emo” Teenager in Zdarsky/Dodson’s FF/X-Men (2020). Slow and steady until 2009, then hyper fast-forward with less acknowledgement of passing of time.

Franklin Richards is a famous example: he was born on-panel in FF Annual#6 (1968) and his aging on-page went from slow-motion (a small child until the early 2000s) to fast-forward (from Hickman to Slott’s run where he’s now become a teenager).

Continuity and timescale wasn’t a set-in-stone coherent idea, and this is evident when we look at the origins of the “illusion of change”.

UNWRITTEN DOCTRINES

File:Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens, by italian Rafael.jpg -  Wikimedia Commons
Plato (Left) and Aristotle (Right) – Detail from the painting “The School of Athens” by Raphael Sanzio

In philosophy, there’s an academic controversy called “Plato’s Unwritten Doctrines” [3]. Most of the Ancient Greek philosophy endures in a handful of surviving written works. Among these are many of Plato’s teachings. In the mid-20th Century, some academics did a real deep-dive into Plato’s works and made the argument that given that Plato was primarily a teacher, there was the likelihood that the written works attributed to Plato may not have contained all his ideas and belief. That most of his ideas were communicated via oral teachings different from how his written works express its point of view.

This idea is controversial and not widely accepted. Still, at its core the controversy over the “unwritten doctrine” raises this big question of the divide between what’s written down and what’s transmitted orally “off-the-record”.Picking a concept from philosophy might seem pretentious as a way to get my point across. If you feel that way, I apologize. My defense is that a certain sentiment I felt as a comics reader only made sense to me once I came across this controversy. In comics, “unwritten doctrines” have had a huge influence and impact. Much bigger and greater than the stuff you can research and trace in documentary detail.

Often times, when one reads interviews with comics creators, one gets a sense of something they are struggling to put into words. Most comics scholarship has primarily been organized by fans — in fanzines and fan forums. Comics creators generally approach such stuff as ‘inside baseball’ and don’t bother breaking stuff down. As such many vague concepts have never been properly jotted down and subject to the where-when-who-what-how of things. Given that the fans are also a key consumer demographic, that also means that creators approach fan-interviews from the perspective of PR and publicity, which means less critical engagement, less poring over detail, less in the way of specifics.

As such a lot of ideas and practices that are “taken for granted” have never been subject to the basic tenets of fact-checking, even when the sources were freely available for double-checking and verification. Nowhere is this more apparent than the “Illusion of Change”.

ORIGIN STORY – THE ILLUSION OF CHANGE

Stan Lee (standing) and John Romita Sr. (seated) at Marvel offices in 1971.

The “illusion of change” is a concept that originated in Marvel Comics around the 1970s. The idea behind it is variously summarized as: “readers don’t want change, they want the illusion of change” i.e. superhero comics should feel like they are doing some big shake-up and grand reshuffle but it should only go to a certain point before returning to a status quo.

The true real problem with this concept of “illusion of change” is that there’s no accepted source for its origin. Stan Lee is credited with coining the phrase but here’s the thing, people have scoured countless interviews and not found one instance of him actually expressing this statement. Until he died in 2018, Stan Lee was relatively accessible at various fan conventions but nobody ever thought to get him on the record about this ‘illusion of change’ idea and have him elaborate on it, or properly contextualize his feelings about it.

The most reliable source for the first utterance of ‘the illusion of change’ doctrine seems to have been some-time in the early 1970s:

I Liked Superheroes The Best": An Interview With Steve Englehart - The  Comics Journal
Steve Englehart

“[Steve] Englehart, who first came to work for Marvel in 1971, described a change in Marvel’s editorial priorities “around ’74,” which led, in 1976, to at least three talents leaving Marvel at that time: himself, Jim Starlin, and Paul Gulacy. When Kim Thompson inquires as to what editorial restrictions were being promulgated, Englehart said:

“Well, just “don’t be so bizarre. try not to progress so fast.” There’s that famous meeting that happened before the quitting time when Stan said, “I don’t want progress; I want the illusion of progress now. We don’t want people dying and coming out of the strips [a reference to the death of Gwen Stacy], we don’t want new girlfriends, we want to try to keep it the same.”

Quoted by THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE [4]

Steve Englehart’s comments are the earliest references in print to the “illusion of progress” and he refers specifically to a “famous meeting that happened before the quitting time” which is to say an echo of a story that happened prior to him, communicated via anecdote and gossip. We don’t have the original Lee speech verbatim, we don’t have a contemporary recollection. What “the illusion of change” embodies is that as much as superhero comics are judged on the basis of in-universe continuity, it’s still fundamentally a business and a product of an actual office; a reflection of office culture and boss-employee relations. That power dynamic is often not taken into account by comics scholars.

ORIGIN STORY: GWEN, STAN, ILLUSIONS & CHANGES

Englehart’s anecdote claims that The Night Gwen Stacy Died was the catalyst for the “illusion of change”. This comic created a public backlash for Stan Lee and the writer Gerry Conway. At the time, Lee was publisher of Marvel and had essentially checked out of happenings in Marvel continuity. He was far more committed to his personal brand. Around this time, Lee was known for giving lectures at college campuses and constantly giving speeches to college students. As such when college students got upset about Gwen Stacy’s death and accosted him in-person at these meetings, Lee was a bit taken aback. As a boss, Lee’s response to the backlash of Gwen Stacy’s death was distinctly dishonorable:

R. S. Martin: The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files: Gerry Conway
Gerry Conway in the 1970s

The readership started hyperventilating as soon as the issue hit stands.

“Stan didn’t think about it until he went to a college campus and got yelled at by fans,” Conway said. “Instead of acting like he was in charge, he said, ‘Oh, they must have done it while I was out of town—I would never have done that!’ The pretty horrendous backlash that I received from the fan press, and the lack of support I got from Stan, who said we did it behind his back, had a huge impact on me in terms of my emotional state. He basically threw me to the wolves. This was the first time a beloved character had been killed off in comics. I couldn’t go to conventions.”

“The idea that the three of us together, or even separately, would have tried to sneak in the death of Gwen Stacy without Stan approving it is just so absurd,” said Roy Thomas. “Besides, he was never out of town that long.”

Sean Howe. Marvel: The Untold Story [5]

If one goes back to Englehart’s observations of Stan Lee above. What Lee says is clearly: “We don’t want people dying and coming out of the strips, we don’t want new girlfriends, we want to try to keep it the same.” Which is to say that Lee wanted a permanent status-quo rather than one of constant reversals and melodramatic yanking of chains. As such there’s a divide between the institutional idea of “illusion of change” that came to be developed later and what Lee in knee-jerk mode practiced at the outset.

In Comic-Creators on Spider-Man, Lee expressed quite a different view of Spider-Man:

You still write the ‘Spider-Man’ daily comic strip in the newspapers. How do you think the character has grown over the years?

STAN LEE: “Oh terrifically! He started out as a shy teenager, and now he’s a happily married man. He doesn’t have children yet, but he may sometime down the line.”

Comic-Creators on Spider-Man. Page 23 [6]

This interview was conducted by Tom Defalco, at the time former EIC himself, so it’s again an insider’s view and a curated interview. None of the rough edges of Lee’s time in the 1970s are addressed nor is the fact that Lee’s embrace of Spider-Man getting married seemed to fly in the face of the “illusion of change” doctrine he once spread.

Lee’s contradictory attitude is also apparent when he stepped away from Marvel’s day-to-day and left NYC for the West Coast in the hope of promoting Marvel properties in the media, becoming remote from the company’s day-to-day activities in the 1980s. Jim Shooter wrote a famously controversial issue with Hank Pym in the pages of The Avengers in the 1980s, and in response to this backlash consulted with Stan Lee:

The Avengers #213 – aka Hank Slaps Janet

During the time the story was running, I got a great deal of hate mail. It worried me enough to ask Stan what he thought. He said he got the same kind of mail in the ‘60’s regarding Peter Parker’s various romantic travails. He asked me how Avengers sales were doing. They were in fact, increasing by 10,000 copies per issue. Stan said that people obviously cared passionately about what was happening to Hank and Janet, as if they were real people. That’s the key. And he said, “Don’t worry about the mail.”

Jim Shooter, [7]

Lee had no true convictions about the “illusion of change” outside of a knee-jerk response to Gwen Stacy’s death and its effect on his personal reputation. He was quite content to sand off the rough edges when his successor was facing similar troubles, leaving out the part that his response to such a situation was throw his young writer under the bus.

Still, when Lee was boss his words had weight. We don’t have nor are we likely to get the original verbatim utterance of the “illusion of change” yet I have no doubt that Lee stated words to that effect at some point in the early ’70s. At Marvel Comics, Lee became boss/founding editor/spokesman/publicist all combined. Everything he said and did became precedent-setting. The nature of Marvel as a business means that as in any office, people want power, promotions, praise. Aligning oneself with Lee, or promoting oneself to be in the mold of Stan Lee, by clinging to some of Lee’s phrases and ideas, was a good way for Post-Lee Marvel employees to settle arguments, throw their weight around, and justify their decisions.

BECOMING A ZOMBIE

Arguing with Zombies | Paul Krugman | W. W. Norton & Company

The Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman is well known for arguing against what he calls “zombie ideas” which ultimately led him to title an anthology of his essays as Arguing with Zombies [8]. Zombie ideas flourish despite being discredited by data; repackaged under new names but without any changes or solving its flaws. These ideas — dated, refuted, obsolete — nonetheless slumber around, like the undead zombie.

The “illusion of change” is a similar zombie-idea. The belief that ‘readers don’t want change only want the illusion of change’ is cited constantly by many professionals inside and outside Marvel Comics. This despite the fact that, as examined above, it was vague and contradictory at the outset, and that Stan Lee himself didn’t set as much store by it. There’s also the fact that the illusion of change once put into effect doesn’t have much to show for itself. For instance, it’s a fact that Marvel comics and its sales slumped in the 1970s around the time that “illusion of change” was put into effect [9].

Sales only recovered during the tenure of EIC Jim Shooter who reversed and overturned the ‘illusion of change’ mandate. Shooter’s time as editor saw a return, somewhat, to the intensified serialized continuity of the 1960s. Granted there were inconsistencies, setbacks, and flaws in implementation but during this time, Marvel became the biggest title in superhero comics. One contemporary writer, another future celebrity, though in 1983 an obscure British writer at a Marvel UK fanzine was especially withering about the “illusion of change”:

You see, somewhere along the line, one of the newer breed of Marvel editors…had come up with one of those incredibly snappy sounding and utterly stupid little pieces of folk-wisdom… “Readers don’t want change. Readers only want the illusion of change.” … Who says readers don’t want change? Did they do a survey or something? Why wasn’t I consulted? If readers are that averse to change then how come Marvel ever got to be so popular in the first place, back when constant change and innovation was the order of the day? Frankly, it beats it beats the hell out of me.

Perhaps I could have a little more sympathy for pronouncements like this if there was some solid commercial reasoning behind them. If, for example, Marvel’s books suddenly started selling significantly more during the period when this “Let’s-Not-Rock-The-Boat” policy was introduced, then I might have reluctantly been forced to agree with it.

This is not the case. Marvel’s best selling title today is the X Men, or it was when I saw any figures. It sells something like 300,000 copies, and it is regarded as a staggering success.

Listen, in a country the size of America, 300,00 copies is absolutely pathetic. Back in the early fifties it was not unknown for even a comparatively minor-league publication like Lev Gleason’s original Daredevil (no relation) to clear six million copies every month. Even in the early days of the Marvel empire, any comic that was selling only 300,000 copies would have probably been cause for grave concern amongst those in charge of it’s production, and indeed it would have most likely been cancelled. These days, it’s the best we’ve got.

Alan Moore [10]

THE ILLUSION ENTHRONED

Amazon.com: Comics Creators on X-Men: 9781845761738: DeFalco, Tom: Books

To reiterate what I said before, comics publishers only count the votes of the wallet when it satisfies their prejudice. When the free-market proves the prejudices of the sales/marketing/executives to be wrong and the instincts of creators right, those votes aren’t counted. When Claremont’s X-Men became #1 and featured an African-American woman as a team-leader (Storm), the incoming editor Bob Harras still felt justified in citing the “illusion of change” as reasons to restore the older status-quo:

With X-Men, there are some things you can’t get away from for too long: The school dynamics, Xavier, the fact that they’re essentially students learning how to use their powers and trying to teach other mutants to use their powers that sort of thing. But the book was becoming more like Avengers. The X-Men now had aliens and magically-powered characters on the team. I felt like we had to go back to what X-Men was all about, and to me X-Men was Xavier and Scott and Jean and all the other classic characters. But Chris didn’t want to do that kind of stuff any more. He felt that he had done it already. My point was, “Sure, but THAT’s the X-Men!” It was getting so we were speaking the same language, but we couldn’t understand each other.” … It was doing well enough, but I got these rumblings that excitement wasn’t there anymore. It had the numbers still, that was Chris’ point, and it was valid. His books had the best sales by far in the industry. He had made it the number one book. Why mess with that?

Bob Harras [11]

Bob Harras statement especially in the final part where he acknowledges that the X-Men titles were selling well, affirms something I’ve long suspected :Superhero comics aren’t in fact a true free-market enterprise but more of a corporate-directed oligopoly. As Harras admits, he had no sales justification to drive Claremont off the books, and yet he did it anyway, presumably for the sake of editorial power-politics and establish control (and credit) for the future direction of the books. Ultimately, Harras became Marvel EIC and then DC Comics’ editor-in-chief until 2020. By that time he had disgraced himself with controversies far dwarfing the petty power-plays of the early 90s. [13]

Getting back to Spider-Man, he has always been at the center of debate around the “illusion of change” mostly because he was once the major superhero character who experienced the most drastic and long-lasting growth and changes across his publication history. And certainly two story-events in his continuity became faultlines for the debate: The Death of Gwen Stacy in the 1970s and The Wedding in 1987:

Over the years, Stan and Steve (and later John) put him through changes. But when you get down to it, they satisfied the concept of illusionary change. Peter went from high school to college… but he was still a student. Betty Brant and Liz Allen gave way to Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson, and nemesis Flash Thompson stepped aside for nemesis Harry Osborn. Otherwise, though, he was pretty much the same guy. Sure, he got a motorcycle, which was the ultimate in cool… but he wound up having to sell it, thereby bringing the money problems back to the forefront. It was evolution, but 360 degrees’ worth. Same old Spider-Man, same old Peter Parker, same old problems at the core.

That was why there was so much internal resistance to the concept of Peter Parker getting married…It was ironic, then, that the spearhead behind this permanent, non-illusory change in Peter Parker’s status was none other than the champion of the illusion of change, namely Stan. Stan became enamored of the notion of Peter getting married both in the comic and in the comic strip, and more or less steamrolled it through by going public with it before any of the powers-that-be could talk him out of it. Me, I thought it was a nifty idea, but no one ever accused me of being excessively smart.

Peter David [12]

Returning Spider-Man to what Marvel felt were the “roots” of the character led to the teenage Spider-Man project which, despite total apathy and opposition from the actual free market, was something the oligopoly persisted in, despite multiple failures as covered here and here.

By this point, Marvel Comics and for that matter DC, no longer exist as a comics-first company. As of 2022, both are well behind Scholastic Books in terms of actual comics sales [12]. Yet both generate revenue as merchandise owned by their respective corporations. So long as Marvel commands the tiny window of direct market sales, they no longer have to worry about blowback for their poor decisions.

ZOMBIE ILLUSIONS

Today’s Marvel editors rarely cite the illusion of change in quite the same formula.

ASM#600 Art by Marcos Martin

After all, “readers don’t want change…readers want the illusion of change” is nakedly cynical and condescending. Today’s more “touchy-feely” “customer-care” front-facing companies like to avoid coming off as a jerk. So they do their best to gaslight their audience as coming off as jerks, rather than being held to higher standards by them.

Take Tom Brevoort’s response to one fan asking if real-time aging and progression is possible in Spider-Man and other comics:

I think you could do a series like this…but I don’t think that series is AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, or indeed any of the other classic core Marvel characters. That’s just not how the Marvel characters operate—they’ve proven to be so popular over such a long period of time that it would be foolish to allow them to change so much or grow so old as to not be equally appealing to the new crop of readers who are coming in every generation. In some ways, this desire is a self-centered one on the part of a particular generation, to have the characters age and grow with you. And that’s perfectly understandable, and a desire that’s been felt by all of the assorted generations of readers. However, Spider-Man and the other Marvel characters belong not to one single generation but to all of them, so while we like to put the characters through their paces and watch them grow and change along the way, you don’t really ever want to get to the point in the main books where the characters are past their shelf-life.

Tom Brevoort
ASM#600 – Backup story “Identity Crisis”. Art by Marcos Martin

You gotta hand it to them. It’s incredibly cunning how “readers wanting the illusion of change” is converted into “readers are selfish for asking for real changes”.

This thought process directly governed Joe Quesada’s justification for One More Day:

ASM#600 – Backup story “Identity Crisis”. Art by Marcos Martin

Sometimes when I look at the way that the lines of opinion have been drawn in comics about the marriage, I see the argument falling into two basic camps. The fans may not perceive it this way on the surface, but it is what’s happening when you look at it clearly…On one side, there is a contingency of fandom that wants Peter to age along with them and live life as they do. He needs to get married, have kids, then grandkids, and then the inevitable. One the other side, there are fans that realize Spidey needs to be ready for the next wave or generation of readers, that no one can lay claim to these icons, no one generation has ownership and that we need to preserve them and keep them healthy for the next batch of readers to fall in love with.

To me, only one side of this argument is correct. If Spidey grows old and dies off with our readership, then that’s it — he’ll be done and gone, never to be enjoyed by future comic fans. If we keep Spidey rejuvenated and relatable to fans on the horizon, we can manage to do that and still keep him enjoyable to those that have been following his adventures for years. Will everyone be happy with the decision? No, of course not, but that’s what makes it a horserace. At the end of the day, my job is to keep these characters fresh and ready for every fan that walks through the door, while also planning for the future and hopefully an even larger fan base.

Joe Quesada [16]
The Strange Case of Stan Lee - The Comics Journal
From “Identity Crisis” by Stan Lee and Marcos Martin, where a psychologist (Stan Lee in his ’70s aspect) attends a therapist himself (implied to be Ditko) after having a breakdown on hearing of the Spider-Man continuity shenanigans after One More Day.

What Quesada and Brevoort are expressing is in effect the same contempt for readers as the old “illusion of change” but rhetorically masked so that a section of the readership come off as bad guys for holding them to higher standards. That said, a certain combativeness when defending a controversial story is to be expected, and Quesada can at least claim greater courage than Stan Lee who, initially, threw Gerry Conway under the bus over Gwen Stacy’s death.

But at the end of the day, Lee’s wishy-washy nature at the least led to flexibility and genuine unpredictability, rather than rigidness. Today’s Marvel Editorial are hyper-defensive about their specific interpretation, and that means rigidity and sterility.

Say what you want about the “illusion of change” ideologues, at the least their contempt for comics readership was grounded in acknowledgement that readers do in fact want to see changes, and aren’t wrong to seek it. Since Quesada, Marvel’s ideology is that the audience is selfish while they are self-righteous self-anointed priests of the Marvel-Disney Imperium. The point to emphasize is that this is the same “illusion of change” expressed differently. It’s the same mentality, the same contempt for the audience identified by Alan Moore, all grounded towards lowering standards and norms so that regression wouldn’t be called by its name.

THE FUTURE OF AN ILLUSION

At the end of the day “the illusion of change” is empty rhetoric and one can twist it however one chooses. One can even argue that Spider-Man getting married was in conformity to the “illusion of change” since after all it didn’t change the Spider-Man comics too much, since the most prominent characters before and after the marriage were Peter/Mary Jane/Jameson/Aunt May and that’s continued to remain the case even after OMD. One can argue that Spider-Man growing up and getting married was in line with Lee-Ditko’s run since after all, the first mention of Mary Jane in continuity is Aunt May declaring that she and Peter would someday get married and that was in ASM#15. One can also point out that removing the marriage didn’t actually work in making him younger and stand-in for all generations. If Post-BND was the accessible Spider-Man for All Seasons, how is it that the biggest new character after Venom was Miles Morales, the African-American teenage Spider-Man and not the new “how do you do fellow kids” version of Peter?

Why 'affordable' only 'really' means affordable in Scotland – Talking-up  Scotland
Illustration by John Tenniel

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass [17]

Ultimately it’s a question of power. Time was that superhero comics were connected to authentic popular feeling and expression, and real word-of-mouth. Much of that has withered thanks to changes in marketplace and aesthetic regression astroturfed from the corporations downwards.

Rereading Comics: Moore and Simpson's In Pictopia! | THE PERIODIC FABLE
“In Pictopia” Art by Donald Simpson, Text by Alan Moore, a short-comic about the dominance of superhero comics over the non-superhero comics marketplace from which it sprung.

At the same time, entropy is a thing. Zombie ideas need not flourish forever. Today superheroes are popular everywhere except in comics. And the popularity of superheroes on-screen do not rebound into the comics. Avengers: Endgame was the biggest movie of all time but Jason Aaron’s run on Avengers sells poorly compared to the X-Men whose most recent films (Dark Phoenix, The New Mutants) were total duds.

The future of the Marvel IP and trademark, barring changes in copyright laws (which I argue should be a priority for the Left going forward), is secure enough.

The future of Marvel Comics though isn’t.

The fact is that if superhero comics continue to imitate the versions from other media, and don’t offer something intrinsic and valuable within itself, it will stagnate and die, and it will have deserved it.

Iron Man was never #1 in comics or in cartoons or in games, but he was #1 in the MCU. The only #1 version of Iron Man is played by Robert Downey Jr. who shows a serialized arc of growth and character development and satisfyingly achieves closure. Perhaps someday the MCU will reverse it, who knows? The fact, is that given that the most popular version of Iron Man achieved a cohesive satisfying conclusion, what possible reason is there for anyone to pick up Iron Man comics which are perpetually in the status-quo of Post-IM1?

As such, the comics cannot rely on the movies for its future nor its legitimacy. Ultimately superhero comics need to thrive by being intrinsic and committed to its virtues and its charms.

CONCLUSION

Marvel Editorial and Marvel Corporate has over-time extended its control over Intellectual Property by lowering norms and standards among readership. By saying “readers want the illusion of change” and not real change, they ensured that their comics could be judged as a kind of game, and not as a serialized engagement with continuity and characterization. By saying that readers are selfish for wanting real change, they in effect cast out of their demographic those who hold them to a higher standard.

Innovation and change will not guarantee success, and I am well aware of the original position fallacy, i.e. in asking for changes and innovations it’s possible I might not like the direction of some of those changes myself. That’s fair. But that will ultimately be what makes these comics pulsing with the life they once had. Yes comics are static 2-dimensional images but nobody would care or talk about Spider-Man and Mary Jane if their personalities weren’t as well known and familiar as if they were people in real-life. The same applies to Claremont’s X-Men, Miles Morales and many other comics that readers truly care for. They pulsed with the unpredictable and the unexpected that are the stuff of life, and few can coherently argue that the top-down astroturfed nature of Marvel comics is a preferable alternative.

At some point, Marvel needs to live up to its creed and accept the great responsibility that comes with their great power.

REFERENCES

  1. “The Marvel Life: George R. R. Martin” DAPS Magic.
    https://dapsmagic.com/2012/03/marvel-life-george-r-r-martin/

  2. “Marvel’s Sliding Time Scale”. Zak-Site.
    https://zak-site.com/Great-American-Novel/marvel_time.html

  3. “Plato’s unwritten doctrines”. Acervo Lima.
    https://wiki.acervolima.com/platos-unwritten-doctrines/

  4. “PROGRESS AND PROCESS PART 1”. The Archetypal Archive. Posted by Gene Phillips at 2:23 PM. January 24, 2011
    http://arche-arc.blogspot.com/2011/01/progress-and-process-part-1.html

  5. Sean Howe.Marvel: The Untold Story. Part II, Chapter 5. E-Book Edition

  6. Tom Defalco (editor and interviewer). Comics-Creators on Spider-Man. Titan Books. 2004. Print. Page 23.

  7. Jim Shooter. “Hank Pym was Not a Wife-Beater”. March 29, 2011. Jim Shooter (dot) com.
    http://jimshooter.com/2011/03/hank-pym-was-not-wife-beater.html/

  8. .Charles Kaiser. “Arguing with Zombies review: Paul Krugman trumps the Republicans” The Guardian 3 May 2020.
    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/03/arguing-with-zombies-review-paul-krugman-trump-republicans

  9. “Marvel and DC sales figures”. Zak-Site.
    https://zak-site.com/Great-American-Novel/comic_sales.html

  10. Alan Moore. “Blinded by the Hype”. Online Transcript. GeekTyrant. 2012. Accessed on 11/29/2021
    https://geektyrant.com/news/2012/9/25/alan-moores-lost-stan-lee-essay.html

  11. Jonathan Deman. “Claremont’s Departure”. Timestamp 01:45-02:00
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdAG503Ce20

  12. “Bob Harras: An Oral History in Collage Comics”. Claire Napier. Women Write About Comics. February 12, 2021
    https://womenwriteaboutcomics.com/2021/02/bob-harras-an-oral-history-in-collage/

  13. https://bleedingcool.com/comics/how-marvel-comics-first-overtook-dc-comics-in-1972/

  14. Peter David. “The Illusion of Change”. Posted By: Peter David.
    Posted On: December 24, 2012.
    https://www.peterdavid.net/2012/12/24/the-illusion-of-change/

  15. Tom Brevoort. “Blah Blah Blog – Reader Questions 3”. The Tom Brevoort Experience. December 11, 2021.
    https://tombrevoort.com/2021/12/11/blah-blah-blog-reader-questions-3/

  16. “The “One More Day” Interviews with Joe Quesada, Pt. 1 of 5”. CBR. Recovered from the Internet Wayback Machine. 12.28.2007 by CBR Staff.
    https://web.archive.org/web/20180917004834/https://www.cbr.com/the-one-more-day-interviews-with-joe-quesada-pt-1-of-5/

  17. Lewis Carroll. Through The Looking Glass. Wikisource.
    Chapter VI – Humpty Dumpty.
    https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Through_the_Looking-Glass,_and_What_Alice_Found_There/Chapter_VI

8 thoughts on “Re-Examining Spider-Man 06 – Illusions Behind the ‘Illusion of Change’

  1. I have always been frustrated with this “illusion of change” concept, particularly (like George R.R. Martin with Spider-Man) as I’ve gotten older. There’s so much you can do with a character who truely ages, grows up, has kids, dies etc. but comics creators seem so damn worried about it. Death is basically meaningless since the next creative team can just bring them back, which only just devalues the meaning of death in comics. I’ve been trying to write my own version of the DC universe, and one of my chief rules is going against this “illusion of change”: Characters grow and age, can permanately die, and just in general it’s a more interesting saga with those rules in place.

    Basically, thanks for writing this article! This was a fun, cathartic read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The thing is I was against the illusion of change when I was young and starting out. As Bob Dylan said, “Oh I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now” (From “My Back Pages”).

      I am glad you found this cathartic. It was cathartic for me to write it as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This idea that we have to “prevent” Spider-Man from getting old is one of the dumbest ideas I ever heard Coke out of Quesada’s mouth. He does realize Spider-Man is a fictional character and therefore will never grow to literally be old or middle-aged?

    To quote Grant Morrison: “[Superheroes] never grow old because they’re different from us, they’re paper people.”

    Quesada and Brevort are acting as if Spider-Man is a real-life sports player you would recommend to retire while “young”. In the context of comics, that mentality is just nonsense.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. “coke out” does get the metaphor across though, lol.

        Yeah, I mean it’s a little hysteria mixed with self-righteousness. Both Quesada and Brevoort know they are defending a terrible story on aesthetic grounds, an unpopular story across-the-board, polarizing everyone…so they have to double down and act as if what they are doing is the most important thing ever.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The zombie ideas categorization feels like an overly smug dismissal … pretty much any big idea has/can have both a lot of data to support it and a lot of data against it.

    It’s true that some changes can hurt a character and series, for a big change (either plot/characterwise or visually) a lot of readers and likely to reject it and the publishers should be cautious about making it, not petrified always but not make them very often and probably should include backdoors to be able to reverse if the writers/company decide that’s better.

    I also think slow though steady aging/acknowledging passing of time (1 year in-universe for every 4 or 5 years real universe) is the best compromise approach, definitely not too fast, not quite too slow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Perhaps it was a big smug. I apologize if that came across to you. I was being satirical of Marvel in acting as if the ‘illusion of change’ was permanent untested idea. The broader point at the end is that the “illusion of change” is so vague as to be meaningless, i.e. it’s obvious for instance that assuming Stan Lee said it at some point, he meant it differently than others and he didn’t exactly stay the course to it all the time.

      The exact nature about how much/how often/what rate to change and so on, that’s an interesting question to tackle later, as would the question of when do you know the time for change has come and so on.

      And yeah…I prefer a stretching time-scale, characters age slowly, and obviously there’s a way to play with that and decide, like every five or ten years the Marvel Guide makes a call as to determine how much time has passed the last time. A bit like the census. You could vary it, like one decade could be a full year another could be two and so on. There’s that famous thought experiment of Zeno’s Paradox of a guy walking a certain distance constantly has to sub-divide and sub-divide even further to infinity. So continuity could be approached a bit like that.

      Like

  4. I will say killing off a popular supporting character who seems like the hero’s ongoing love interest like a Gwen does seem a much bigger change, and one much more likely to be rejected, then getting him married to a longtime love interest, it makes sense that Lee would try to avoid and dissuade things like the former from happening and then a while later get into the latter idea and think that would be pretty popular, an improvement or at least not damaging.

    Liked by 1 person

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