Comics prequels: Do we need them?
What is it about comics fans (any type of fan, really, but let’s focus on comics fans) that makes us want to see the details of every little thing that happened ever? We know that Bruce Wayne was inspired to become a crimefighter when he saw his parents gunned down in an alley, but what about the gunman? He’s gotta have a story too and I want to read it. The X-Men are already a team when we first meet them in X-Men #1, so how did they form? There has to be a story there as well; someone get on that. And so the publishers and storytellers oblige us.
It’s not just gaps in comic book history that we want filled in. Movies also have back-stories and comics are the go-to medium for showing us Abby the vampire’s adventures with her “father” pre-Let Me In or filling in details of how Romulan Eric Bana went back in time to create Nu Trek. Why are we so interested in seeing this stuff when we’ve already seen how it plays out?
You don’t have to answer that. I think I know. For me, it goes back to my childhood introduction to comics as a casual reader and an experience that I’ve heard shared by countless comics fans. It comes up a lot when we talk about the necessity (or lack thereof) of jump-on points for new readers. Fans of my generation didn’t need jump-on points to get interested in superhero comics and we often argue that neither do new readers today. Part of the fun of Marvel and DC comics was being thrown into the deep end of these universes that felt so real. And the reason they felt real was because of all the history that was referred to not only by the characters, but also by the editors themselves in all those little caption boxes telling us to check out Avengers #53 or whatever if we wanted to see what Hawkeye’s talking about.
That immersive experience hooked us and we didn’t actually need to go back and find a copy of Avengers #53 to enhance anything. The story we were currently reading told us enough to understand what we needed to know. But we sure as hell fantasized about one day owning a copy of Avengers #53 and reading that story for ourselves. For a lot of fans, reading older comics isn’t just about consuming classic stories by legendary storytellers; it’s also about filling in those historical gaps and finally witnessing for ourselves events that previously we’d only been told about second-hand.
The thing is though: it never ends. I pulled Avengers #53 out of my butt as an example, but let’s go with it. Looking it up on Comics.org, it’s about Magneto’s manipulating the Avengers into fighting the X-Men for him. That’s going to lead to some questions about the X-Men, but if you want them answered first-hand, you’ll have to go to their book to learn more. Except that current X-Men comics are only going to send you digging into X-Men back-issues for the “complete” story and even if you go all the way back to the very first X-Men comic ever made…you still don’t see how the team came together.
Any fictional world worth exploring is going to have back-story. My question is: are we ever really satisfied by having it laid out for us in detail? Is my enjoyment of Batman enhanced by knowing all about Joe Chill? Has any prequel comic ever turned the movie it supported into a better experience? Maybe they have for you. If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. But for me, I’ve only ever been disappointed at seeing events play out that I’ve already imagined much more coolly in my head. Exhibit A: the Clone Wars.
Observing another movie franchise, I was concerned when I heard about plans to make an Alien prequel. Rob Bricken at Topless Robot summarized my feeling really well:
“Let me tell you what this movie will be – an alien stalking that first spaceship [that they discovered in Alien], or, basically, a remake of the original Alien except everybody dies and it’ll saddled with an incredibly lame origin story that makes the whole franchise less interesting. No thank you, Ridley. Why don’t you just go ahead and work on a prequel to your Monopoly film instead. Tell us how Uncle Moneybags met the dog and thimble.”
Or, as Filmdrunk put it, “You know what are super cool? Sharks. You know what’s not that interesting? The story of how sharks were created.”
Fortunately, the direct-prequel idea for Alien ultimately was trashed, mostly because Damon Lindelof got involved. What actually got me thinking about all of this were some comments he made about prequels on The Kevin Pollack Chat Show.
“I’ve always felt that really good prequels should be original movies. And the sequels to those prequels should not be the movie which already exists because, with all due respect to anyone who makes a prequel, but why would you ruin the greatest twist in the history of cinema – ‘Luke, I am your father’ – by showing me three movies which basically spoil that surprise. You can do movies which take place before Star Wars, but I don’t need to see the story of the Skywalker clan. Show me something else which I can’t guess the possible outcome of. There is no suspense in inevitability. So a true prequel should essentially proceed the events of the original film, but be about something entirely different, feature different characters , have an entirely different theme, although it takes place in that same world.”
I tend to agree. It’s not that I don’t care to see stories anymore that are set in earlier time periods. Marvels is a great example of this done correctly. It reflects events from Marvel’s history without being about them. And from the movie prequel arena, BOOM!’s current Planet of the Apes comic succeeds by covering events not directly referred to by the films or leading into any of them. It’s exciting because it’s its own thing. It doesn’t rely on my affection for another story and that makes all the difference in the world. I don’t want to keep going over missing details from stories I’ve already enjoyed. I want to experience new ideas and new characters that will get my imagination firing, not digest someone else’s version of a story that I’ve already imagined as awesome as it can be.
What about you though? Do you enjoy prequels and hole-filling stories in general? Do you only like certain ones? What are the greats?