Comic book movies are the hot thing right now. The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Batman v Superman, and movies of their ilk are raking in big bucks at the global box office, but the comics upon which these films are based are still relatively niche. It’s no secret that most people are more familiar with comic book movies than they are with comic books themselves.
With that niche market, however, comes a creative freedom, to tell stories to the fans, and not necessarily to the mass market. Comic books can afford to be more wild, esoteric, and unhinged than their big-screen counterparts. However, it’s always entertaining to see just how impenetrable some comic book concepts can truly be when introduced to casual fans. Just try explaining The Clone Saga to someone who only knows the character from the movies; it’s a hilarious exercise in futility. Comics are full of concepts and ideas which are utterly incomprehensible to the average consumer. Without further ado, here are 15 Things About Comic Books That Are Impossible To Explain To Casual Fans.
15. Shared Rights To Characters
Watching X-Men: Days of Future Past alongside Avengers: Age of Ultron in quick succession can lead to a casual fan asking why both movies’ speedsters have white hair and similar names (Peter and Pietro Maximoff). Insiders know that Marvel and Fox share the rights to several characters, among them being Quicksilver and his sister, Scarlet Witch. In the comics, they are mutants, but they also served prominently as members of The Avengers.
Ultimately, Fox and Marvel came to an agreement that both companies could use the characters in their movies, but that they would have to be mutually exclusive: they must be played by different actors, and Marvel’s version cannot be a mutant or related to Magneto (a Fox-owned character). Perhaps avoiding confusion is why Quicksilver is dramatically killed off in Age of Ultron, while the X-Men version went on to make another scene-stealing appearance in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse.
14. Comic Book Time
How old is Peter Parker supposed to be? Frank Castle is a Vietnam veteran, but he somehow doesn’t have grey hair yet? These anomalies are a result of “comic book time,” something we’re not supposed to think about, but it’s sometimes hard to ignore. For example, in the seminal 1980s comic, Days of Future Past, Kitty Pride has the appearance of a woman in her mid-40s, in the not-too-distant future of 2013. By the time 2013 rolled around in real life, Kitty looked just as young as she always did.
Every so often, a story comes along which pushes everyone’s 1960s origins a bit further up in time. However, the side-effect is that it really messes with continuity; the injury that crippled Tony Stark, for instance, originally occurred in Vietnam. Eventually, they had to rewrite his origin so that he was crippled in the Middle East, lest Tony Stark be really old in present day stories. Does that excise any and all Vietnam-related stories from the timeline? Do we have to let our imagination do the legwork and reinterpret the old stories through the fractured lenses of multiple retcons? In comics, continuity is somewhat important, but it’s seldom wise to try and piece together any sort of timeline; readers are encouraged to “just roll with it” and tackle individual stories on their own terms.
13. Legacy Characters
When asked, the average person will identify Batman’s sidekick as Dick Grayson, aka Robin, The Boy Wonder. Most casual fans are completely unaware of the existence of Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, and Damien Wayne, among the numerous other characters to bear the title. One can’t really blame them. In the 1960s Batman show, there was only Dick Grayson. Jason Todd, the second Robin, didn’t make his first appearance until 1983. Eventually, the big-budget Hollywood movies got around to introducing the character, but even 1995’s Batman Forever still used the Grayson version of the character.
Robin isn’t the only one, of course. In Marvel Comics, Jane Foster is Thor, Sam Wilson is Captain America, and Riri Williams is Iron Man. For some of these characters, their comic book stories have been going on for 50 years or more; many long-runners pass the torch to the next generation, at least temporarily.
12. Nobody Stays Dead Except Uncle Ben
The death of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben taught him that with great power, comes great responsibility: to protect the weak and fight injustice in all its forms. It’s the one death that just can’t be undone , as it would undermine the very foundation of the Spider-Man character. Everyone else, however, is fair game.
In comic books, nobody ever stays dead. After Captain America was shot to death, it turns out he was merely phased out of existence, only to be returned to life later. Batman was supposedly killed by the Endgame virus, but he got better. Jason Todd was bludgeoned to death by The Joker, but he was revived when Superboy punched through the fabric of spacetime. The Ultimate Marvel version of Hammerhead literally gets his head exploded by Gambit, but he still returns, with barely any justification for his miraculous recovery. The list of characters who are killed but still somehow come back is practically endless. Such contrived returns are far more justifiable in the pages of a comic book than in movies, where suspension of disbelief is at greater risk of being broken by the photorealism that comes from a live-action production.
11. Characters Die, But It Wasn’t Actually Them
In the world of comic books, if someone dies, they’ll either return to life eventually, they were only nearly dead, or (and this is the most infuriating) the dead character was just an imposter.
For all his bluster, Doctor Doom gets defeated quite often; pretty much every time, in fact. In order to keep the character from actually having lost all those battles, it’s revealed that Doom was hardly actually present at any of them: it was actually a Doombot the whole time. Similarly, Thanos, the Mad Titan, is also capable of creating clones of himself so that his numerous defeats can be written off as not actually having been against the real deal. This is turned into a minor point of contention among some fans, due to a popular Squirrel Girl story in which the plucky heroine defeats Thanos singlehandedly, with Uatu the Watcher showing up to confirm that this Thanos was indisputably not a clone.
Nick Fury is also a master of deception, having a veritable army of Life Model Decoys at his disposal. LMDs are robots which are indistinguishable from the real thing, some of which are autonomous, while others are controlled by Fury remotely. In the Original Sin story, Dum Dum Dugan is revealed to actually be an LMD, the real man having been dead for decades, but Fury just couldn’t let go of his friend.
10. Frequent Continuity Reboots
This is one concept of which casual fans of the films may have some knowledge. Superman Returns was a sequel to Superman II, excising the underwhelming Superman III and IV from continuity, but the following film, Man of Steel, was a completely new start for the character. Likewise, Batman Begins ignored the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher films. Spider-Man’s appearance in Captain America: Civil War is a reboot of the character as he appeared in the Amazing Spider-Man films, which itself was a reboot of the legendary Sam Raimi series. Spider-Man reboots on film are nothing compared to his constant resets in the comics. One More Day, anyone?
In comics, it seems like everyone gets rebooted every couple of years or so. DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths was arguably the first major crossover event which reset a lot of DC’s stable, but it would not be the last. The New 52 event rebooted DC’s canon again, while preserving select events of certain characters’ stories. That wasn’t enough, however, and DC is currently being re-re-rebooted with their DC Rebirth line, which, while not a “hard reboot” like New 52, is still shaking things up with significant changes, most notably the introduction of Doctor Manhattan into the DC fold. Yes, that Doctor Manhattan.
9. The Sheer Density Of Superheroes In Marvel’s New York City
In Marvel Comics, as well as its Cinematic Universe, New York City is practically the only place of any importance. Ask any New Yorker, and they’ll happily champion the sentiment of NYC being the center of the world. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spider-Man, Daredevil, The Punisher, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist all operate in New York City, as will Doctor Strange, once his movie finally hits theaters. Tony Stark’s Avengers Tower is right in the center of Midtown Manhattan, essentially replacing the MetLife building. The climactic battles of The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and the first Avengers film all took place in New York City.
They’re not part of the MCU, but in the comics, The Fantastic Four also have their home base, The Baxter Building, in Manhattan. Basically, one can’t take a leisurely stroll in NYC without running into a superhero, or, more dishearteningly, a supervillain.
8. Complex Family Trees
In comic books, everyone seems to be related to each other, a fact which is usually overlooked in the movies. Let’s take X-Men as an example. In the comics, Mystique’s son is Nightcrawler; in the movies, they show no relation, though Bryan Singer included an intimate dramatic scene between the two characters in X2 as a nod to their shared history in print. Also in the comics, Quicksilver is the son of Magneto (until that was retconned out of continuity, natch), a fact which was only briefly touched upon as in Easter Egg in Days of Future Past, though it did become a somewhat out-of-the-blue plot point in Apocalypse.
The character of Cable will make an appearance in Deadpool 2, but it remains to be seen if this upcoming version of the character will be the son of Cyclops and Madelyne Pryor (a clone of Jean Grey), as he is in the comics. That…would be tough to explain.
7. Golden Age/Silver Age/Bronze Age Dissonance
Most regular people don’t know the differences between the different eras in comics. At best, most people figure that comics were all kids’ stuff until The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen changed everything in 1986, with a blind spot for the entirety of the 1970s and comics like The Punisher and Daredevil, to say nothing of the booming underground comic scene.
The Silver Age began with the publication of Action Comics #1, the debut of Superman, and lasted through to the implementation of the Comics Code in the mid-1950s. In order to stay relevant, and within the draconian standards of the oppressive Comics Code Authority, horror and mystery comics faded away into non-existence, and superhero comics became more lighthearted and nonsensical, more interested in wacky fun than dramatic stories. Interestingly, a great way to mark the difference between the eras is in the television show, The Adventures of Superman. The show debuted near the end of the Golden Age and featured Supes going up against murderous gangsters and legitimate crooks. Later seasons, borrowing from the Silver Age template, featured more child-friendly stories about robots and the increasingly-bizarre inventions of Professor Perriwinkle.
By the early sixties, comic companies stopped caring about the CCA and the stories became more grounded and realistic. The Spider-Man story about Harry Osborne’s drug addiction is largely seen as something of a turning point for the medium, which became more mature and adult. After all, comic readers were being drafted to fight in Vietnam. They didn’t want to read happy-go-lucky stories of youthful abandon; they wanted comics that grew up along with their own sensibilities and awareness of the real world around them.
6. Comics Aren’t Just For Kids
This point goes hand-in-hand with the last — how many parents with children went into Batman v Superman expecting a jolly romp through a candy-colored comic book fantasy world? How many of those same parents were stunned by The Joker’s massive body count in The Dark Knight? How ten-year-old kids were sent by their absentee parents to be traumatized/blown away by brutally violent movies like Sin City and Watchmen, or the raunchy hijinks of Deadpool? Even back in the earlier days of superhero movies, parents were surprised by the violence of Tim Burton’s two Batman movies, which stood in great contrast to the 1960s Adam West version.
Despite ample evidence to the contrary, comics are in the same boat as anime and western animation, in that the vast majority of the uninformed masses refuse to acknowledge that these art forms are not exclusively targeted towards children. Not all comics are created for the same audience. Older parents who grew up with harmless Silver Age stories may not be aware of the Bronze Age or the later Dark Age, to say nothing of the over-the-top violence and sexual content of Image Comics, or Marvel’s MAX imprint.
5. Different Imprints
Speaking of Marvel MAX, some stories are set outside of the continuity of the mainstream Marvel universe. Ultimate Marvel is a completely different continuity from the normal universe (called Earth-616), as it features interpretations of familiar characters with varying degrees of similarity to their 616 counterparts. Likewise, the aforementioned MAX imprint, while less prominent than Ultimate, features stories written exclusively for adult audiences. Garth Ennis’s Punisher MAX and Nick Fury stories are radically more grim and realistic depictions of the characters, generally stripping out the fantastical elements in favor of stories ripped straight out of current events and real-world history, respectively. Fury: My War Gone By is perhaps the seminal MAX story for the ages, a gripping and unfiltered odyssey through America’s controversial foreign policy throughout the decades following WWII.
DC also has their fair share of stories which don’t add to the canon of their mainstream titles. Sandman, published under their Vertigo imprint, stands apart from the mainstream DC universe. Likewise, Watchmen, though published by DC, is not set in the main DC universe… Or is it?
The different Marvel and DC imprints are set in their own universes, but are all part of a collective multiverse, and crossovers between the different universes are fairly common occurrences. Even Marvel and DC have crossed over from time to time. Remember that time when Spider-Man traded blows with Superman? True story. In the world of comic books, anything can happen, even inter-dimensional travel.
The Ultimate Marvel universe came to an end during the Secret Wars event, though Miles Morales (that universe’s Spider-Man) was able to escape to the 616 world where he continued to serve as Spider-Man alongside the mainstream Peter Parker. On the DC side, one of the biggest shockers of the DC Rebirth rebranding was the surprise appearance of Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen. His moral alignment is as vague as ever, and his interest in the grand scope of the whole universe makes him an enigma to the characters of the claustrophobic present.
The Arrowverse on the CW network has dabbled in multiverses, with Barry Allen travelling to Earth-2, meeting The Flash from Earth-3, alluding to the 1990s Flash show being part of yet another alternate universe, and even travelling to the universe of the Supergirl series for last year’s jolly crossover event.
3. Inhumans vs Mutants
Fox’s movies feature the X-Men, a team comprised of mutants, which are people who are born with an X-gene that grants them extraordinary abilities. Meanwhile, Marvel’s own movies, due to the rights issues with Fox, are not allowed to use the term mutants, or make use of any mutant characters; they only barely got a pass with Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, and poor Pietro did not survive the ordeal. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s second season introduced Inhumans to the MCU. Inhumans are humans with dormant alien DNA which can be triggered by exposure to Terrigen, causing a change which cannot legally be described as a “mutation.”
Essentially, although Inhumans are technically not the same as mutants, they are basically serving the same role in the MCU, just by another name, for legal reasons. It’s conceivable that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will eventually bring in characters like Black Bolt to unify the Inhumans in a way similar (but different) to how Magneto founded the Brotherhood of Mutants. Maybe Daisy Johnson aka Skye aka Quake will get shot in the spine, lose her hair, and become the MCU’s version of Professor X!
2. DC’s Captain Marvel/Shazam and Marvel’s Captain Mar-Vell
Ask a random stranger on the street, and they’ll probably say that Shazam is a movie where Shaquille O’Neal plays a rapping genie.
These days, he’s still a popular member of DC’s roster of superheroes, but at his peak in the Golden Age, Captain Marvel (then owned by Fawcett Comics) was even more popular than Superman. The name Captain Marvel predates the inception of Marvel Comics, but in the interim between the cancellation of Fawcett’s run of the character in 1954 and his revival under the DC banner in the early 1970s, Marvel Comics created their own Captain Marvel, who was a completely different version of the character, but with the same name. DC brought their Captain Marvel character back, with his original name, though the comic was officially titled Shazam, or some variant thereof. Likewise, the live-action children’s show based on the comic also adopted the name Shazam.
Eventually, most people forgot that the character’s name was supposed to be Captain Marvel, and in the 2011 New 52 relaunch, it was officially changed to Shazam, to the chagrin of some old-school purists, but to the relief of everybody else. This move by DC was immediately followed by Marvel Comics having Carol Danvers, Ms. Marvel, finally adopt the title of Captain Marvel… The Marvel version, not the DC version.
1. “What If?” Stories
The legendary Alan Moore story, Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow, is the hypothetical end of the Silver Age version of the character, but stands outside of any specific continuity. It features the wonderful passage, “This is an Imaginary Story. Aren’t they all?”
DC had Elseworld issues, and Marvel had What If? tales. These stories were decidedly out of continuity, with the What If brand explicitly asking a question: “What If Spider-Man Had Joined The Fantastic Four?” or “What If Captain America Hadn’t Vanished During World War II,” to more silly scenarios, such as: “What If Peter Parker Was Bitten By A Radioactive Sheep,” or “What If Doctor Doom Had Conquered Camelot?”
The closest we have to these types of stories in live-action are episodes of Star Trek set in the mirror universe, or the Deadpool movie, which, while ostensibly set in Fox’s X-Men universe, is just a big ball of R-rated fun with a complete disregard towards movie logic or consistency with the movie series of which it is theoretically a part of.
Basically, comics can do whatever they want. What If? stories are the very embodiment of the creative spirit. While mainstream comics are certainly privy to their share of executive oversight, they are far less restricted than movies or television.
What other comic concepts are tough to explain to casual superhero fans? Have you ever had to explain the difference between Shazam and Captain Marvel to a budding comics fan? Share your stories in the comments!
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