Only some of the gods of ancient Greece have outlived the society that created them, adopted by the Romans and adapted to their culture. Most of the stories of the old gods became obsolete, relics of cultures that no longer exist. A few were reinterpreted over the ages. A clear example is Thor, the Norse god of thunder who has (several times) been reinvented in comic books by Marvel. Other examples of these reinventions are more subtle.
Odin, one of the most powerful of the Norse gods, had his story retold in the early middle ages and was cast as a version of the devil; a pagan threat to the christian faith as it expanded across Europe. As a sacrificial god associated with rebirth and renewal, he later became assimilated into European rituals of with midwinter, his tale evolving into that of The Green Man. This figure, in turn, became associated with a generous spirit who brought joy and gifts around that time; this was Father Christmas, the English folklore figure who, along with St Nicholas and Sinterklaas, evolved to be the Santa Claus figure we know today; until at least the Victorian era he was commonly depicted in green.
In 1962 Marvel plucked Thor from Norse mythology and recast him as a superhero in a children’s comic, but a Norse god had already become a hero to children, and his story had rewritten itself over a millennia.
Comic books are often said to be our modern mythology; instead of Zeus, Hades, Poseidon and Hera we have Superman, Batman, Aquaman and Wonder Woman. In comics, as any other fictional medium, new characters will be created to reflect our society, but if a character is to exist across generations it needs to be adapted to stay relevant; stories that don’t adapt become relics of the past, either forgotten or held up as examples of cultural standards we no longer support.
This shift doesn’t happen overnight, of course; there wasn’t a specific day where everyone woke up and collectively decided that the chief of the Aesir is now a kindly old man who delivers presents to children. Stories are in a constant state of flux and the speed at which they change, and the rate at which the change is accepted, will vary. We saw two sides of such a shift in the reactions to Raphael Albuquerque’s Joker variant cover for Batgirl. The cover reflected the story as it was told 27 years ago, but those aren’t the pertinent elements of Batgirl’s story that are the focus of the version of the character we have today. These changes happen all the time and we come to accept them; Dick Grayson is firmly established in the role of Nightwing, and there would be highly vocal objections if DC reverted him to being Batman’s teenage sidekick.
In comics, we’ve gone so far as to create a framework around this narrative fluidity we call ‘canon’. What actually happened to these characters, who they are and what motivates them, will vary with each shake up of the respective DC and Marvel universes. Ultimately there is no clear definition of Spider-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman or any of the superheros from these publishers, there are only consistent elements in versions of their stories. To be blunt about it, canon is just how these properties have been packaged to better sell them to us. Continuity changes depending on which branch of the comics universe your reading, whether you’re watching one of the animated series, live action series, cinematic universe or playing Heroclix. The publisher sets the outline of events and characters according to the basic framework of their narratives and we collectively agree that this is how the stories should be told. And, if there’s no collective agreement from the audience, then a title is cancelled due to poor sales to be later relaunched with a new creative direction.
We can see this when characters are recast in alternate universes, such as the 1890’s set Gotham by Gaslight where Batman faces a Jack the Ripper-esque Joker. On a grander scale, Neil Gaiman’s 1602 takes multiple major characters from the Marvel universe and recreates them in the court of Queen Elizabeth and the newly founded American colonies. In both these instances the stories remain recognizable even though the settings and details are so significantly changed.
Gotham by Gaslight and 1602 were stories out of continuity, but this change happens ‘in canon’ as well. In the case of Batgirl, her being shot and crippled by Joker was still an event that occurred, but whether the New 52 continuity has this happening in exactly as depicted in The Killing Joke hasn’t, I think, been made clear. There is a change in Barbara Gordon’s age, at the very least, with the current version having her younger when shot.
Marvel are managing the same types of change with their characters. Carol Danvers changed from wearing a leotard and boots as Ms. Marvel to more of a flight suit when she became Captain Marvel. The Ms. Marvel title was picked up by Kamala Khan, and the diversity of our society became further reflected in comic books.
This isn’t just limited to comic books, of course. European folk tales were adapted to suit the morals and sensibilities of the day. Jacob and Wilhem Grimm disagreed over whether the tales they collected should be preserved or made less gruesome. Because of this we no longer have Cinderella’s ugly sisters mutilating themselves to try and fit into the glass slipper and the horror that befalls Conrad in Little Suck a Thumb (written in 1845) is no longer a cautionary tale we read to children at bedtime.
We see this in cinema, as well. The Bond franchise was becoming increasingly out of touch, even recognized in 1995’s Goldeneye where Judi Dench’s M calls Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War.” The gritty relaunch in 2006 with Casino Royale re-positioned the character as emotionally damaged, incapable of forming relationships. In our post 9/11 world, espionage and counter-terrorism is no longer seen as glamorous, but a dirty job where bad things are done in an attempt to do good. The franchise was rewritten to reflect that.
The fundamental elements of these stories stay essentially the same, but the details and context change to reflect our culture. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is a 75 issue epic that is, at it’s core, about storytelling. Gaiman managed to summarize the entire tale into a single sentence as, “The King of Dreams learns that he must change or die, and makes his choice.”
People will protest that character changes are “just to sell more comics” or “change for the sake of change”, but what they don’t understand is that both of these are not only positive forces but necessary. If more people are buying a comic that means more people identify with the story it’s telling. Our society is constantly changing and, if the stories we tell don’t change with it, then they will become obsolete. Change is as essential to comic books as to any other narrative form, because a story that doesn’t change is a story that is dying.