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How Marvel Comics made an art form of the "illusion of change"

cover of Heroes Reborn #1 (1996)
(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

With Marvel's 25th anniversary celebration of its 1996-97 event Heroes Reborn taking form through a variety of character teasers leading to an announcement of the plot of the revived event, it's beginning to look a lot like Marvel is reheating and reshaping a tried-and-true mold for its big event stories.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Right off the bat, the character teasers mostly appear to show mash-ups of multiple Marvel heroes and villains – Doctor Doom/Juggernaut, Scarlet Witch/Quicksilver, and Thanos/Mandarin to name a few – a story conceit Marvel has employed more and more over the last few years (we'll get into it), seemingly as a way to gussy-up fan-favorite characters without necessarily creating all-new IP. 

And Marvel's subsequent announcement seems to confirm that. While the whole Marvel Universe won't necessarily get the mash-up treatment, many characters, such as the aforementioned Doctor Juggernaut, Silver Witch, and Thanos and his Infinity Rings (all named in Marvel's announcement) will.

It's all part of the apparent "illusion of change" nature of replacing Marvel's top heroes with amalgams, mash-ups, and alt-identities for an indeterminate amount of time, only to bring them home better than ever with status quos that line-up with classic takes on the characters that were off the board or revamped.

Some of those twisted takes on Marvel characters have led to classic stories, both in terms of the alt-reality, mashed-up versions of the heroes and villains that have been born in them, but also in terms of the return to form that followed.

Marvel is using the "illusion of change" to put a fresh coat of paint on the Heroes Reborn title in honor of the story's anniversary, but visiting alt-realities and mashing up characters has become part-and-parcel for the House of Ideas in the last few years, with the new Heroes Reborn apparently bringing the concept full-circle.

The Illusion of Change

Cover of Age of Apocalypse: Alpha #1

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Once upon a time, the father of Marvel Comics Stan Lee coined the phrase "the illusion of change" in regards to superheroes – the idea being that an ongoing superhero story should give readers the idea that the hero's life is changing and evolving, even though the core concept remains the same, and on some level, the status quo always resets to its home position (more or less).

The concept isn't new in any way. DC in particular often-published wacky 'imaginary' stories (particularly starring Superman in crazy variations of his costume and powers) during the Silver Age.

But one of the first applications of the concept in a tonally-earnest, multiple-issue sense was the classic Uncanny X-Men's 1980 'Days of Future Past' story, which showed a glimpse of a dark possible future for mutant-kind.

Since then the concept of briefly diverting away from the mainstream version of familiar heroes for a glimpse of another world with alternate, sometimes staggeringly different versions of the characters we all know has only grown in popularity.

DC picked up the baton in a big way in the early '90s with the advent of its Elseworlds imprint, a whole line of comics based around earnest alt-reality versions of Batman, Superman, and others, resulting in stories like Gotham By Gaslight, Superman: Red Son, and Kingdom Come (itself reaching its 25th anniversary in 2021). The name ‘Elseworlds’ has come back in the DC Universe as part of its cosmology following the multiversal event Dark Nights: Death Metal, which itself was largely powered by alt/'dark'-takes on DC's most popular character Batman. 

But the X-Men, once again, is the franchise that truly innovated the concept with 1995's 'Age of Apocalypse' event, an extended story that took over the entire X-Men line, in which readers were transported to an alternate timeline where Charles Xavier died before forming the X-Men and Apocalypse conquered the world.

A smash hit, 'Age of Apocalypse' took readers away from the mainstream X-Men they knew and loved to a much darker, more violent world – and the result was that fans not only got the satisfaction of the return of the classic versions of the X-Men, but they also got to pine for the return of the 'AoA' versions they liked best.

(A few of them jumped to the mainstream Marvel Universe when the core X-Men returned, and others have crossed over later – a trend that will continue when alt-reality ideas hit it big – see the '00s version of this concept in Wolverine's Old Man Logan, which has spawned an entire spin-off universe).

The mid-'90s hit a wave of such replacements, from Spider-Man's 'Clone Saga' which replaced Peter Parker as the wall-crawler for a time (itself getting a revival this year starring Peter's protégé Miles Morales) to the Superman 'Red/Blue' saga in which the Man of Steel was split into two beings that did not resemble the classic Superman in design or powers, again turning Superman's return to form into a fanfare event when the 'Red/Blue' arc was resolved.

Superman, of course, also pioneered the tactic of killing a hero off and replacing them, only to have them come back sometime later – a tactic first used to great effect by the X-Men (there they are again) in the 'Dark Phoenix Saga.'

The crest of that arc of the "illusion of change" culminated in the original 1996 'Heroes Reborn,' in which the Avengers and Fantastic Four were shunted into an alternate reality with totally different backstories and relationships.

[We did a deep dive on the classic Heroes Reborn right here – and we've got the rundown on the new one too.]

1995-96 also marked the Marvel vs. DC crossover, which spawned its own "illusion of change" variant – the Amalgam mash-up characters. Originally envisioned as a whole line of Amalgam Comics which combined Marvel and DC heroes into new creations (Batman and Wolverine became Darkclaw, Superman and Captain America became Super Soldier – we're barely scratching the surface), in the years since Marvel and DC stopped collaborating, Marvel Comics has taken the concept and run with it, more on that in a moment.

Then there's of course House of M, a 2006 event which turned the Marvel Universe into a mutant utopia through the magic of the Scarlet Witch, and which may inform aspects of Disney Plus' WandaVision streaming show.

Most recently, Marvel made this move in a big way with 2015-16's Secret Wars, which revived the title of the very first Marvel event comic in a story that destroyed, rebuilt, and redefined the Marvel Universe while also streamlining and rewriting parts of the publisher's history – a way of 'rebooting' their universe without actually pulling the trigger.

And since Secret Wars, Marvel has made an even bigger pattern of the "illusion of change."

Mash 'Em Up

promotional art for Spider-Man: Spider-Verse

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

For the last few years, Marvel Comics has made an art form of taking their classic characters, and plain old mashing them up with other characters people love (or don't), sometimes innovating brand new fan-favorites along the way.

In recent memory, Marvel has mashed-up everyone from Deadpool and Venom (putting the Merc with a Mouth in a symbiote suit for multiple stories), to Deadpool and Howard the Duck (Deadpool the Duck was real and that's all we really need to get into), to Howard the Duck and Juggernaut (in an alt-reality Guardians of the Galaxy story), and of course Deadpool and Gwen Stacy (for a variant cover design which took on a life of its own as Gwenpool, a character who actually is not a mash-up of Deadpool and Gwen Stacy).

And speaking of Gwen Stacy, she may be the uncrowned queen of the Marvel mash-up, with the alt-reality Spider-Gwen, who debuted in the Multiverse event 'Spider-Verse' as the hero of a world where Peter Parker died and Gwen survived, becoming one of Marvel's biggest multimedia breakout stars in years, now under the codename Ghost Spider.

'Spider-Verse' of course formed the basis for the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which adapted the story of Miles Morales, the Ultimate Universe Spider-Man who took on the mantle after the Peter Parker of his world died, eventually coming to the mainstream Marvel Universe. (He's got that 'Clone Saga' we mentioned coming up, just more proof of the cyclical nature of these concepts.)

'Spider-Verse,' the comic book event, featured a whole army of alternate-reality Spider-Men – but, ironically, not the core Peter Parker, who was at the time himself replaced as Spider-Man in the mainstream Marvel Universe by the Superior Spider-Man, a mash-up of Spidey and his arch-enemy Doctor Octopus who inserted his consciousness into Peter's body.

Spider-Man isn't the only character whose franchise has once again become dominated by the narrative of alt-versions and mash-ups of his classic self (though Marvel's just-announced Spider-Man: Spider's Shadow will keep the wallcrawler busy in an alt-reality where he never gave up the Venom symbiote). The X-Men, ever the guinea pigs for the "illusion of change," have been mashed-up and moved around as much as any Marvel properties since the end of Secret Wars.

There's Weapon H, a genetically engineered mash-up of Hulk and Wolverine with all the powers of both (and, uh, very little of the staying power of either), and then there was the couple of years where the classic Wolverine was dead and 'illusion of change' superstar Old Man Logan took his place on the X-Men alongside Laura Kinney/X-23, who took up the actual mantle of Wolverine.

And of course, the X-Men revisited the 'Age of Apocalypse' concept through 'Age of X-Man' in which NateGrey/X-Man, a holdover from the 'Age of Apocalypse' reality, made his own world that supplanted the X-Men line for a few months before the House of X/Powers of X revamp – which has itself incorporated a concept where mutants who died while the team was fighting in the multiversal Otherworld have been resurrected with new personalities.

And lest you think the new Heroes Reborn is the first time Marvel's made a meal of the mash-up idea for a recent event, remember the Infinity Warps, a whole universe of mashed-up Marvel heroes where characters like Steve Rogers and Steven Strange combined to become Soldier Supreme, Peter Parker and Marc Spector became AracKnight, Black Panther and Ghost Rider became Ghost Panther and many more.

The Infinity Warps debuted in 2018's Infinity Wars event in which the Infinity Stones fell into the hands of random, sometimes disastrous people. Created through the reality-altering power of the Stones, the Infinity Warps were instrumental in eventually destroying the stones at the end of the story, despite it meaning the end of their own world which was housed in the Soul Stone.

Don't worry, Marvel left a back door open for them to return, so you might get to see Weapon Hex (X-23/Scarlet Witch) again someday.

Though some may like to forget the still controversial story, there's also Secret Empire, in which Steve Rogers was replaced with a duplicate whose history was totally rewritten so he had always been a villainous agent of Hydra, operating as a double agent in a temporarily successful plan to conquer the Earth. And that’s saying nothing of all the times Steve has been replaced by Bucky Barnes, Sam Wilson, and others, only to have Steve Rogers returned to the role at a key dramatic moment.

Now, Marvel is bringing back Heroes Reborn with a mash-up twist, apparently combining classic Marvel characters into new concepts in a world based on the premise that the Avengers never formed – very similar to the classic X-Men story 'Age of Apocalypse' that we mentioned. 

Heroes Reborn #1 is due out in May, though it's unclear if the story will be confined to the limited series (as with Marvel's Age of Ultron, in which Ultron conquered all of time and rewrote Marvel history), or if it will spin-off into other titles that may replace core Marvel titles.

All of this to illustrate not just how prevalent the idea of remixing and combining characters has become in Marvel Comics, but how much that premise has gone beyond the comic book page to become one of the defining traits of Marvel's multimedia presence, including the increasingly Multiverse-focused MCU, which may even feature multiple live-action versions of Spider-Man in upcoming films.

While the new Heroes Reborn may be Marvel Comics taking the trend of their last few years to its logical conclusion (or at least the next level), the Marvel Cinematic Universe may be getting in on the action too, with Phase 4 of the MCU revolving around the Multiverse. The aforementioned WandaVision has already started the fireworks by pulling in story elements of reality-altering events like House of M and maybe even the Secret Empire lead-in Avengers: Standoff, and it'll dovetail right to the alt-timeline exploring Loki and reality-bending Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

And with rumors Chris Evans may return as Steve Rogers, that whole 'illusion of change' idea might just carry over too.

A new Heroes Reborn has the potential to have a massive impact on Marvel Comics, as with these ten Marvel events that changed everything.

Newsarama staff writer who learned to read from comic books and hasn’t shut up about them since.