Earlier tonight, I had an interesting Twitter back-and-forth with Patrick Zircher about the perils (and potential pleasures) of revisiting the past for stories. Which led me to a couple of thoughts:
When I was a beginning writer pitching fill-ins, Len Wein gave me some good advice. He said that as a beginning writer, I wasn’t going to be allowed to mess with the status quo, and I also wasn’t likely going to be privy to whatever was upcoming. So in writing a fill-in, it was a good idea to get the lead character AWAY from his/her usual supporting cast and status quo. Swamp Thing could wander away from his friends, encounter someone, have a story and then his pals catch up, for instance. And bam, there’s an issue — if it’s an interesting story, it’ll satisfy readers, even though you haven’t moved the main story forward. And that’s one way to do it — separating the lead from the current status quo in space, in distance.
But time is a way to separate the character from his/her usual status quo, too. For instance, a Spider-Man story could start with Spidey weary and beleaguered from all he’s currently going through. He sees a spot—an abandoned restaurant? A particular set of waterfront docks? — that makes him think back to earlier days, when things were simpler. And we flash back to a story of those earlier days, as he remembers them, telling the story of what happened on that spot. We get to see everyone younger, more innocent, but we also see that Spidey’s dilemmas were just as tough back then, his life just as beleaguered. He comes out of the flashback reinvigorated, thinking how he always found a way then, and he’ll find a way now. Whether that would be a good story or not depends on what story you tell in that look back, but the principle of the past as a means of stepping away from the present for a clean separate story is a workable one.
Or let’s say you’re writing FANTASTIC FOUR and you want to lead up to a Dr. Doom story. You could start it in Reed and Ben’s college days, and see Ben as a BMOC, Reed as a brilliant hopeful, Doom as the potential friend who is too arrogant to unbend. And aside from whatever plot stuff you might want to plant, when you move to the present the reader will have experienced stuff that will give them a more immediate perspective of the Doom/Reed relationship, on Ben’s tragic loss of humanity, etc. See him as a rugged college chick magnet, and it makes his monstrous form all that much more of a burden, because we see the life he lost. By stepping into the past, you can make it come to life for new (and older) readers who never saw this stuff — or only saw it as summary. It’s a chance to show, to dramatize, things that for most readers have only been told.
An entire series of stories set in the past can give readers a portrait of change and growth over the years, something that didn’t get focused on when it was happening, because the concern was always “now.”
There are many ways to step aside from the norm for a different way to look at the series or the leads, and invoking the past is only one of them. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful, in various ways. The story of Clark Kent’s first day on the job, from Perry White’s point of view, may tell us a lot about Perry in a way that makes an interesting story. Even if we’ve already seen those events from Clark’s POV. Or Lois’s.
It’s like writing war fiction that revisits D-Day. The history may be established, but there are many stories to be told, seeing it from different angles. The story of Hiroshima is a different story if you follow the pilots of the Enola Gay or the scientists who invented the bomb hearing the news. Or people on the ground. Revisiting those events can support many new stories.
The fictional history of a comic book character may not be as stirring as D-Day or Hiroshima, but the principle is there. The human struggle can be experienced in many different ways.
A revisiting of past events can also modernize them. What may have been stilted or corny before can be made fresh to new audiences, or gain nuance and meaning from additional detail or new angles. For instance, it just strikes me now that I don’t think we ever met any of football hero Ben Grimm’s college girlfriends (turns out we did, back in an issue of THE THING), but surely there must have been some. What could you get out of meeting one of them, then seeing how her life has changed in contrast with how his has? Would that give us a new look at the man within the rocks?
"What happens next?" is the question that usually drives adventure comics. But it isn’t the only question to ask that gets you to a good story. Heck, in my career, most of my biggest successes have happened when I was asking a different question. (Often "What else happened?" or "And how did that feel, huh?")