John Ostrander: Revamp, Reinterpret, Regenerate, Reinvigorate

On makin’ the old wine new:

Ostrander Art 130303 John Ostrander: Revamp, Reinterpret, Regenerate, Reinvigorate by John Ostrander

There’s been a lot of pushing the reset button in pop culture recently and I find the results interesting. J.J. Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise a few years back and, while some fans complained, I think it was successful. Certainly it was financially successful, which is what the Hollywood moguls really care about.

At the start of Daniel Craig’s run, the James Bond movies were also rebooted, culminating in the recent spectacular Skyfall, which – again this may be heresy to some – was the best Bond film ever. It’s visually stunning and takes Bond himself to greater depths and heights than I’ve seen up until now.

Sherlock Holmes has been reinterpreted into the modern age with two versions, the BBC’s magnificent Sherlock and Elementary on CBS. Both are true to the basics and it’s amazing how well the classic fictional detective gibes with modern times.

Of course, we’ve witnessed DC’s rebirth with the New 52. Again, you can argue as to whether it is artistically successful but I don’t think you can argue that it hasn’t been financially successful thus far. This summer will see a movie rebooting of Superman with Man of Steel. The Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy rebooted that cinematic history as The Amazing Spider-man did with that character’s movie version. X-Men: First Class reimagined Marvel’s mutants and so on. The next Star Wars chapter and the announced Star Wars solo films, while they will undoubtedly respect the previous movies, will probably play hob with what is known as the Extended Universe, the complex continuity that has sprung up around the films via novels, comics, games and more. Depending on how they turn out, that may not be a bad idea.

All my professional comic book writing career, I’ve played with and enjoyed continuity. I respect it but I don’t worship it and I don’t think it is cast in stone. Sometimes, continuity becomes like barnacles on the bottom of a boat and need to be scraped off in order to make the boat (or the franchise) sea/see worthy again.

One of the most successful franchises is the BBC’s Doctor Who and part of its longevity (it celebrates 50 years this year) is its ability to change the actor who is playing the Doctor. It’s built into the series; the Doctor is an alien being who regenerates from time to time into virtually a new character, played by a different actor. The new Doctor doesn’t look, act, dress or sound like any of the other incarnations. The re-invention is a part of the continuity and that’s very clever.

I think this is very healthy; characters and concepts can and should be re-examined and re-imagined for the times in which they appear. They have to speak to and reflect concerns that its current public has if they are going to remain vital and alive.

Can it be overdone or badly done? Absolutely. Some remakes get so far from what the character is about that they might as well be a different character altogether. You want to take a look at the essence of the character, what defines them, and then see how you get back to that, interpreting it for current audiences. Some folks revamp something for the sake of revamping or to put their stamp on the character. I don’t think that usually works very well. Change what needs changing, certainly, but be true to the essentials of the character or concept.

Have I always done that? I don’t think so; when I was given Suicide Squad, I didn’t go back to the few stories that were originally published and work from that. I created a new concept for the title. However, I did reference the old stories and kept them a part of continuity, albeit re-interpreting them. I think we played fair with the old stories.

On The Spectre, Tom Mandrake and I took elements from as many past versions of the character as we could while getting down to what we felt were the essentials. Really, our biggest change was not the Spectre himself but his alter-ego, Jim Corrigan. Originally, he was plainclothes detective in the 30s and our version reflected that. I think that was a key to our success.

Even with my own character GrimJack, after a certain point I drop kicked the character at least 100 years down his own timeline into (shades of the Doctor) a new incarnation. I gave him a new supporting cast and the setting changed as well. It made the book and the character fresh again and made me look at it with new eyes.

The old stories will continue to exist somewhere; they just won’t be part of the new continuity. At some point, that new continuity will be changed as well as the concepts and characters are re-interpreted for a newer audience. That way they’ll remain fresh and alive. Otherwise, they’ll just become fossilized and dead. Who wants that?