Friday, July 17, 2009

Continuity Not Sorry, Seems to be the Hardest Word.

Over at Cosmic Comics, my friend and store owner wrote a column about what is going in with DC and Marvel in general in his opinion. That resulted in this comment from me.

Continuity is the hardest thing for the shared universes. It is both a strength and a weakness. If we accept continuity, then after 40 plus years what is canon and what is not? The weight of time kills continuity, so then it becomes flexible and writers use only what they want to use or what editorial wants to use. This causes confusion and headaches for fans and creators alike. I think the idea of every five to ten years doing a new origin helps clean things up, but the best way is to put new people under the masks.

And that in turn begat this diatribe. Now a word of warning this maybe a rambling almost stream of consciousness post, but it will still read easy then Ulysses by James Joyce.

Now you have to remember that I have been reading comics since I was five or six years old, so that means I have been reading comics for almost twenty years, okay more like, wow it is closing in on almost a half a cent – decade. Anyway I have been reading comics since right after the silver age began. My first comic that I really remember vividly reading was Amazing Spider-Man number six when he first fought the Lizard. It probably stuck with me as my father only has one arm and so did Curt Connors. I have a very long perspective on things.

When the Silver Age began neither company had a clue about how long this would last and had no conscious plan that things should tie together. DC just knew they owned these character names and realized that the ones that had not been published for over a decade were in need of some serious updating. So all the character names were taken out and dusted off and made new again. We had Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman as the most vivid remakes of old characters that come to mind. All the stories were very episodic in nature and the little bit of continuity that was building was within each character’s book. The big cross-over would be Flash guest starring in Green Lantern. Eventually the JLA was formed and Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and other characters were all integrated into one universe, but true continuity was not a concern. Remember Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman had been continuous published, Green Arrow was never truly reinvented he just sort of returned (until Neal Adams updated him) and Martian Manhunter come into being during the late fifties I believe and was actually just an alien Detective.

My point is DC’s continuity was never an organic plan. It just sort of happened. When they added Earth 2 to explain the older heroes and then they felt it got too convoluted they did Crisis on Infinite Earths and destroyed the multi-verse. Superman was given a hard reset with John Byrne’s do over of his origin, which forced ripple effects throughout the DCU and created havoc with the LOSH. Batman got multiple soft resets and this caused Jason Todd to not be an exact clone of Dick Grayson’s origin (as Jason’s first origin was just Dick’s done again) and he was turned into a street thug that Batman thought he could save. It is funny because the more DC tried to fix things the more things became muddled. After a while no one knew what was actual cannon and what was not. This problem has continued to plague the DCU and can be seen by all the various retro-cons and “fixes” that have been done to character, after character after character. Barry Allen now has a father who served time for killing his mother. Now it is a little thing, but what else do I remember did not actually happen the way I remember. Bruce Wayne has had his parents killed by Joe Chill, then not Joe Chill, then a random thug, then I think it was insinuated the Joker killed them. Superman is very confusing. I know he is married to Lois and I think he works for the Daily Planet, he was raised by the Kents, Jimmy is still apparently 18 years old but he dated Lucy Lane, who is now dead and was apparently 10 years his senior, Superman was part of the LOSH, but not all of them. It is confused. All of them are confused.

Now Marvel stared out with an easier road because all of the main books were started at the same time and essentially one man and three or four artists were producing all of the books. Even Marvel did not start with continuity, but once they did this world was so tight it was incredible. If Thor was stuck in Asgard and fighting in a multiple part story, he would not be in the Avengers. The characters would even refer to each other’s trials and tribulations. If Iron Man was in Avengers, but lying on his death bed in his book a footnote would tell you this story occurred before Tales of Suspense #84.

This is one of the things that made me such a die hard Marvel fan back in the day. It all work with each other. The FF went into outer space to have an adventure and Spider-Man would swing by the Baxter Building in his book and wonder why it was empty. The silver age marvel material will be something I can go back and read over and over again. I cna still recall many of those stories and even tell you the issue numbers they occurred in and I have read over 25,000 comics in my lifetime at least.

Then Marvel become successful and as they added titles and other creators the continuity started to slip a little bit. Captain America would be in Avengers, in his own book and guest starting in an adventure with another character. Also Marvel had a policy of no real change only the illusion of change. It still worked for years. Continuity was not perfect, but it did have an impact. Also within their own individual books there was strong continuity. When the X-Men were cancelled and scattered to the winds the continuity played out in the rest of the Marvel Universe.

What crushed Marvel was the weight of time and the fact they were unwilling to move new people into the role of the hero. So instead of Tony Stark getting blown up in Viet Nam, it become the first Gulf War I believe was the last re-telling. This creates all of the confusion, what did and did not happen. If that was true how did he form the Avengers. Marvel once said continuity was a sliding ten year scale (approximately). What this meant is they were going to pick and choose what happened and what did not happened. Different writers and different editors have no clue what the “true story” is of the characters they are writing, so things become totally episodic and what happened can be retro-conned away or fixed by the next writer. You lose your investment in these characters.

As a long term fan, I now look for stories that I enjoy and sigh about not having any real continuity with a character. Continuity now means what has happened since the current writer came on the book. That is why stories with beginnings, middles and ends mean so much more to me then what most super-hero comics have been doing. I want Bruce to be dead or when he comes back he is not Batman. I want to read Batman and Robin for ten years and see that Damian is now about 15 and grown into the role or quit and became something else.

Time in comics does not have to past exactly the same way as it does in real life, but it should have some effect. If you have some characters that are more or less immortal because of their origins, then the people around them have to get older and what good stories could come from that.

The marketing and licensing deals are for the names, no one who sees these movies have ever really come into comics and been held in rapt attention for the next five or ten years. So this crap about it having to be Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker is bullsh*t. I’d rather read about Peter Parker married, but Marvel threw us all under the bus with Brand New Day.

Continuity does not have to be the end all and be all of a universe. In fact as the article that inspired my diatribe points out, when it is all tied too tightly together, when the big idea holding it all together sucks, the whole line will suck.

To me the easy solution is to decide on a definitive origin for each character and then go forward. Let time pass. It does not need to be a hard and fast rule, but Pepper Potts and Tony Stark should not still be only around 30 forty years after we first meet them when they were 25 or 30 years old then.

Look at what the JSA has done. Mr. Terrific today is more interesting then the Golden Age version. Wally or Bart should be the Flash, Connor should be Green Arrow or Roy. Marvel needs to let new people take over. The FF could have Franklin running things with Reed just in the lab. Iron Man could have Amadeous Cho in the armor and he is back running Stark International. We have Bucky as Cap and that is good and Marvel has been trying to develop new versions of the heroes and I’m fine with that. I rather read about Stature then another Giant-Man, I rather read about Jamie then Ted Kord as the Blue Beetle.

The companies just have to remember to not stop there. Jamie needs to grow up still, Mr. Terrific needs to get older still and then we can move on yet again. If you have a great story to tell and a writer wants to use the old version of the character let him, but it is not a modern day story or if it is call it Elseworlds or whatever, just let people know it is not cannon. Treat the fans with a little more respect and maybe the base will grow instead of shrinking. The sales numbers have been okay, but they have not shown true growth even before the depression.

Continuity is important, but both companies need to make the fix and then go forward. It is one of two solutions. Put new faces under the masks and go forward or give the characters definitive origins and then move forward. Inside of each character's book continuity should be very important and editors should have the power to tell any writer (star or not), Spider-Man can't fly sorry. In group books it can be flexible, but if Wonder Woman now wears skin tight black leather as her costume, the JLA should reflect that change.

Otherwise we are reduced to just trying to tell good stories about these characters over and over and over again. While I have hung in there for a very long time, I could stop reading almost every Marvel and DC titles tomorrow and stick with indies and reprints because I know none of what happens matters and that continuity is apparently as old fashioned as fiscal conservatism is with our government (that remark is for Mike Sheer and Thomm if they are still reading).


  1. The single biggest reason Marvel had continuity and let's face it, DC did not, was that at Marvel from 1961 to circa 1974/5 time passed more or less equivalent to the real world, with common sense exceptions. Peter Parker went from 16 to 23-26 and it was fine. Sue Storm went from young grad student with the eewww crush on the WW2 veteran Reed Richards to a MILF, Reed is elastic so didn't show his advancing age, it all made sense. The moment Marvel abandoned real world passage of time they slowly but surely killed their universe. Marvel became as DC was. DC in my opinion was always, and is to this day, a totally incoherent shambles. DC is a slurry of second rate characters that rely on law suits to survive (Superman vs Captain Marvel) with a thin pie crust of pseudo-Marvel trappings on top.

    Disappointing to the Nth degree.

  2. Why i disagree with you assessment of DC, I think you make valid points as to the overall continuity of the companies.