The "C" word: Continuity in comics

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Dave Wallace

If there's one word which is bound to get the adrenaline of any self-respecting comic book fan going, it's the "C" word. Mentioning it can engender a wide variety of responses, from fierce defensiveness to disinterested shrugging to simple foaming-at-the-mouth frustration. Yes, Continuity - that most anally-retentive of concerns - is at the heart of many a messageboard argument and fanboy conundrum, but I can't help but think that the amount of attention paid to such problems is completely disproportionate to their importance in the grand scheme of things. When I talk about continuity nitpicks, I'm not talking about whether Daredevil's wearing gloves in one panel and bare-handed the next, or whether the position of a chair moves in the background between pages; I'm talking about the way a character's complex web of past and present stories ties together, and how much of that baggage should be retained when a new writer approaches an established title and tries to do something new or different. Personally, it's the other "C-word" - 'canon' - which sends shivers down my spine, evoking visions of issue-no.-quoting fans asserting what elements are "real" and what aren't, and what constitutes the "true" history of a given character.

But isn't a character the product of all of his or her experiences, good and bad stories alike? It might seem wrong to say that any past issues of a book should be arbitrarily written out of history or ignored simply out of distaste for a particular element of the story, or a perception that it doesn't really add anything to the character. Then again, some parts of comic book history by their very nature have to be disregarded in order that stories can work in the present day. A classic example is Peter Parker's schoolfriend Flash Thompson, whose service in the US Army during the Vietnam War would put him at an age of at least 50 in 2006. Franklin Richards might find himself equally perturbed that puberty hasn't kicked in yet, given his state of arrested development since his introduction to the Fantastic Four family so many years ago. Peter David's Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man even introduced a reverse twist on this dilemma recently, with a story about someone who has written an online blog about Spider-Man's activities ever since he first appeared in the Marvel Universe (and I don't remember many people walking around with laptops and wi-fi internet connections in the pages of Amazing Fantasy #15). But even the "don't ask - don't tell" sliding scale of comic book time can't solve some of the contradictory problems that a lot of characters can find themselves lumbered with over the course of their long existences - so some creativity on the part of fans is often required to make everything run smoothly (the same sort of creativity which resulted in the phenomenon that was Marvel's "no-prize," for solving apparent story problems).

Yet this pick-and-choose-and-ignore-the-rest mentality isn't just confined to fans who stopped reading comics at a certain point or disillusioned readers in denial about the recent fate of their favourite childhood characters. The big publishers have proved just as liberal when it comes to which storylines they want to accept as "canon": When Max Lord became a key character in DC's Infinite Crisis crossover event, they didn't let the fact that he'd once been revealed to be a cyborg get in the way of their wish to use him as a human character once again. When the now-defunct Ultimate Marvel Team-Up book introduced Ultimate versions of certain characters with details that conflicted with later Ultimate stories, Marvel simply waved their hand and declared certain issues "out-of-continuity." Batman's offspring with Talia from the Son of the Demon story was once declared out-of-continuity, but recently had its status changed for Grant Morrison to continue the idea. So if they can do it, why can't we?

I don't know why some readers seem to think that accepting continuity glitches and contradictions is so hard; after all, we're used to multiple, conflicting incarnations of the same character in TV shows, cartoons, films, comic strips, and even Marvel and DC's own Ultimate and All-Star titles. This latter has been possibly the most satisfying example of a continuity-free comics imprint, as whilst Marvel's Ultimate Universe has gradually developed its own web of continuity, the All-Star imprint has been designated as completely free of continuity from title to title, and has allowed Frank Miller and Grant Morrison to elaborate their own distinctive visions for Batman and Superman respectively. It's telling that Marvel has shifted the focus of its own Marvel Knights imprint to a similar format, and I look forward to seeing whether they can turn out the same kind of compelling new takes on their characters that DC has provided. Indeed, many of Marvel's most enjoyable and original recent projects have been out-of-continuity books (like Richard K. Morgan's two Black Widow miniseries, which rode roughshod over current continuity in the furtherance of a great story - which is reason enough for me to happily accept the fact that it doesn't "fit" the regular Marvel Universe). It seems faintly ridiculous that readers will complain endlessly about continuity in regular universe titles but will so readily accept a continuity-free book if publishers slap a label on it saying so, but if it makes it easier to develop new projects which are free from the shackles of decades of publishing history, I'm happy to see these imprints continue to blossom. Personally, I'd like to see publishers embrace this kind of approach for far more of their books, but I guess that only high sales will encourage them to move in that direction.

It's curious that the phenomenon of tight continuity seems to confine itself to the superhero genre, too. This is perhaps due to the complex nature of Marvel and DC's universes, where everything relates to everything else, and matching everything up perfectly is a Herculean task which is more than a match for mere editors. There's also a very real fear of aging characters, which has the result of trapping many of Marvel and DC's most high-profile characters in a bubble, with a clearly-defined status quo to which they must inevitably return. It's reminiscent of Stan Lee's famous mission statement for Marvel: to provide no real change, but only the illusion of change.

Maybe the rise of the internet as a communication tool has made it easier to pick holes in stories, with instant reference methods close at hand and a gestalt combined fanboy mind which has the capacity to recall the tiniest details of the littlest-known comics and examine exactly how they conflict with more recent stories. It's obviously important to respect a character's history, but there is such a thing as paying too much heed to the work of previous creators: and as soon as that deference to history starts to get in the way of telling a good story, I think that a writer should be free to disregard the minor details of previous creators' work that might be tying their hands. A good test may be to examine the changes being made, or the parts of a book's history which are being ignored, and decide whether to do so would run counter to the essence of the character being written (Spider-Man or Superman killing indiscriminately, for example, or the Punisher writing a flowery sonnet espousing his liberal political leanings), or would simply mean a few superficial differences which could change depending on personal preference. Of course, deciding on which elements of the changes fall into which category in that test might also cause disagreement, but it's a good place to start.

If only every storytelling inconsistency could be waved away with one of the Scarlet Witch's chaos spells or some pounding on the walls of reality by Superboy Prime. The truth is, we all place certain stories above others when reviewing the histories of our favourite characters, and a lot of heartache could be avoided if we harnessed the power that we have as readers to give credence only to those aspects of their past patchwork of stories that we choose to respect. Did Gwen Stacy really bear Norman Osborn's children before her untimely death? Not in my mind. Was Felicia Hardy, the Black Cat, really motivated to become a Cat burglar by her recently-revealed college rape? No. Is Jason Todd still dead? To me he is. Oh, and Xorn was Magneto all along. Thornier issues arise when dealing with stories which don't seem to be able to exist alongside each other but make for great reads in their own right (the original death of Spider-Man's Aunt May's is a good example of this: a great ending for the character, but not a story which prevents me from enjoying her later appearances in the Spider-books either), but a little mental flexibility can easily allow this kind of coexistence of stories to pass without negatively affecting either.

I feel like I've painted continuity as something of a villain in this article, but it's not a wholly negative aspect of comicbook storytelling. Establishing ties to a character's past can strengthen a story, give a particular event added resonance, or add new layers to a writer's work. However, I can't help but feel that writers should have more freedom to use continuity, embracing it when it supports their work without being beholden to it and crippled by its implications. As the famous quote goes, "This is an imaginary story - but aren't they all?" - and we as readers are free to treat all our cherished stories as we see fit, revering those that we love and consigning the ones that we don't enjoy to the quarter bins of our minds. Alan Moore spoke of a unique, idiosyncratic version of every superhero existing in the head of whichever writer was telling his or her story, with the result that no two interpretations could ever truly stand as the same character. With this in mind, maybe readers should learn to be just as flexible in their reading of a story as the writers can be in their interpretation of the rich universe of characters that we read about every week. After all, the world would be a very boring place if characters never grew or changed, wouldn't it?

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