Reboots and Retcons and Remakes, Oh My

It's seriously a beautiful volume.  Check it out!
Recently, I brought home Marvelocity, the gorgeous retrospective of Alex Ross's art for Marvel Comics.  It is a glorious volume of comic art goodness, and I was fully prepared to write a flowing paean to it when, toward the back, I read that Ross was a fan of the original X-Men but also loved the "reboot".


Full stop.

That is not a reboot.

I believe words, even imprecise ones, have critical parts of their definitions that should remain sacrosanct.  As a computer scientist and a longtime geek culturist, reboot has very specific meaning to me.  I may have in fact originated the pop culture use of the term.  As at the very least an early adopter, I feel some sense of authority on the subject.  And with all due respect to Mr. Ross, the All-New, All-Different X-Men were not a reboot.

Nor are many other cases where I've seen the term (mis)used.

So here we are, taking a timeout to go over what reboot and other, related terms actually mean.

Pedant powers activate!

Merriam-Webster defines a reboot within a non-computer context as "the act or an instance of starting (something) anew or making a fresh start".  I've accentuated the "anew" and "fresh start" because they're critical elements of a reboot.  The term comes from computing, where to reboot a computer was to restart it, clearing memory and processor registers.  This effectively deletes the state that things had been in previously (particularly useful when your computer has entered a faulty state), reflecting a fresh start.

And here our troubles began.
Apparently, some out there think that this use of reboot was first coined by Marvel in the late 2000s.  Honestly, it's cute that Marvel fanboys think that their favorite company invented it.  However, it had only been in use among comics fans (particularly regarding DC's then-frequent rebootings) for more than a decade prior.  Just after Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC allowed John Byrne and George Perez to completely restart the histories of Superman and Wonder Woman, respectively.  The previous stories featuring those characters either occurred without them being involved now or they were excised from continuity entirely.  This clean slate approach (a fresh start, if you will), is key to understanding what a reboot does.  It erases the prior continuity from the franchise and starts it anew.

Superman and Wonder Woman weren't even the first reboots at DC, as the entire Silver Age could be looked at as a reboot, with new versions of most heroes being introduced in rapid succession.  This reboot lasted at least until the idea of the DC multiverse was introduced, bringing all those Golden Age stories back into continuity, just on another Earth.  Marvel, in the meanwhile, made it clear with Fantastic Four #4 and later Avengers #4 that their Golden Age history remained more or less intact with the reintroduction of Namor and Captain America, respectively.

Even with the fresh starts of Superman and Wonder Woman, reboot didn't enter the comic fan vernacular until DC, thinking the restarts had done wonderful things for Wonder Woman and Superman but had completely hosed up the Legion of Super-Heroes (though many would argue that Keith Giffen and Tom and Mary Bierbaum had more to do with that), decided to do the same with the Legion.  This is where reboot first started appearing frequently (or possibly at all) among comics fans.  It might have died an early death except (a) Legion fans don't let go of any topic, especially not one as big as a whole continuity restart, and (b) DC kept doing even more reboots over the years (including a second Legion reboot, because why not). 

Marvel also added some short-lived reboots of their own that were typically walked back in short order, such as when they had most of their major non-mutant characters redone as Image characters or when they put the X-Men into completely new continuity (multiple times).  The introduction of the Nightcrawler/Wolverine X-Men in Giant-Size X-Men #1 was not a reboot, however, because the prior continuity remained completely in place.  So what term should be used to describe it?  Let's take a look at some related options.

Not a reboot.
Retcon is short for retroactive continuity, a term that first appeared in genre fiction in a letter column in All-Star Squadron #18, when Roy Thomas said he'd heard it at a comic convention in San Diego "some months back", placing it around 1982.  It is, in short, when specifics of continuity are excised and replaced by new elements of continuity.  For example, just after Crisis, DC performed a small retcon on Batman, replacing Jason Todd's past as a redheaded circus orphan with a past as a streetwise juvenile delinquent who stole the Batmobile's tires.  They later had Roy Thomas perform a much larger retcon on the All-Star Squadron, replacing the Golden Age Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and Speedy, and Aquaman with new or adapted characters in 1940s continuity.  Retcons have been a common occurrence in comics since the early days of superhero comics and have also appeared in other media (for example, TV's penchant for Chuck Cunningham Syndrome) but certainly receive much more scrutiny in today's continuity-obsessed geek culture.  The New X-Men kept the continuity of the original X-Men, so it's not a retcon.

Not a reboot.
A remake is the recreation to some fidelity of a single work, for example, the reshooting of a film script or the re-recording of a song or the retelling of a story.  Remakes recreate the essence of the original work but in the eyes of the new creator.  Typically the remake makes changes to match the perspective of the new creator and updates the sensibilities of the original work for the times.  The original 1937 A Star Is Born featured the glamour of Hollywood.  The 1954 Judy Garland remake kept the story in Hollywood but updated it to be a musical, a genre that was highly popular at the time.  The 1976 Streisand remake updated the story to one about rock musicians, while the 2018 Lady Gaga remake brought it into the 21st Century as she played a modern pop star.  Remakes differ from reboots in that they don't restart continuity because, as a singular work, there is no continuity to restart.  In our case, the New X-Men didn't recreate the original X-Men, so it's not a remake.

Not a reboot.
A revival is a new production of a previous work, breathing life back into a franchise that had ended, stalled, or gone on hiatus.  The revival differs from a reboot or remake in that it recognizes that the previous work existed and, when continuity is involved, the revival maintains the previous continuity.  The Jurassic World films are a revival of the Jurassic Park franchise in that the films recognize that the originals occurred and build on them.  A revival is exactly what the New X-Men was, bringing back the title (in fact, continuing the original's numbering) and breathing new life into the franchise.  This is the term that Mr. Ross really meant to use.

JL Franke is a fan of both hard science fiction and hard fantasy.  He has been collecting comics for over 40 years and has been an on-and-off active member of online fandom for 25.  Those interested can find other writings at his personal blog,  When not geeking out, you may find him at a baseball park or cheering on his favorite college and pro football teams.  In his spare time, he is chief scientist for a research and development laboratory somewhere in the Washington, DC greater metropolitan area.

Reboots and Retcons and Remakes, Oh My Reboots and Retcons and Remakes, Oh My Reviewed by JL Franke on Wednesday, October 24, 2018 Rating: 5
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