Don't Get Me Started: Consistinuity...Or Something Like That

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Ever been on a date that you emerge from reeling with information? Pummeled and staggering from a life story cum background upload that would tax the deep memory systems of a HAL 9000, when the Readers’ Digest version would have sufficed? So much information that you forget your own state of being and feel trapped in a world you never made – in the world of someone you just met?

That’s what a casual young reader of average literary cipher skills must have felt when they gave in to an impulse and picked up an issue of X-Men in the 90s. If they were unschooled in the arcana of comics and just bought a title with an “X” and a character they recognize on the cover and/or were treated to the misfortune of having grabbed a second-tier or up-and-coming character’s limited series sporting the moniker of, oh…say, Terry Kavanaugh or a scribe of similar strengths, the sheer density of continuity data must have seemed nearly as impenetrable as an adamantium chastity belt with nothing resembling a key or Logan in sight –not that he’d help you to open it.

Now that master locksmith Joe Quesada has heeded her call however, the continuity muse has been freed of her constricting bondage. With Grant Morrison having coined the term “Super-Consistency” as label for Marvel’s efforts to rethink the notion of traditional continuity in an attempt to free the creators (and by extension readers) of said continuity’s bog and help all understand that it need not be so confusing and intrusive to every story, Marvel is now attempting to alter their way of storytelling without having to call someone like John Byrne in to make sense of things as DC has every ten years or so. The goal is to make the characters’ and Universe’s status quo seem at once familiar through the employment of consistent motivations and personalities, without having to shoehorn a morass of superfluous background information into the narrative.

Since they all have distinct life experiences and character definitions - traditionally in the form of clay feet, writers of Marvel titles may now embrace the notion that every peripheral and/or supporting character as well as the Big Guns can be written within their previously established parameters of motivation without necessarily feeling the need to relay every scrap of information possible about the character in the process. This complex and distinct fleshing out of every character is the reason that Marvel is now able to approach their comics with an implied and unspoken yet acknowledged sense of history and consistent characterization, instead of feeling obligated to spell out every minutiae of the antagonists' prior relationship and/or encounters and where their relationship currently stands.

The characters interrelationships can continue to maintain status quo because the only thing that’s essentially changed about Marvel continuity is that the details of the past are kept in the past and out of conversation except where required, as is unavoidable due to the organic nature of the Marvel Universe. Instead, Marvel comics ever-increasingly come scripted with clever nods to past continuity and "inside" references only long-time readers discern and smile at, and that do not inherently matter to the main story at hand other than to up the cool factor. What Quesada has realized is what DC figured out about their biggest stars some time ago. The major time-tested characters are iconographic and familiar enough (even to the casual reader) that they literally write themselves and when scripted become pliable because fans’ knowledge of the inner-workings of a character lend to the ability of the creators to spind, fold and mutilate the classic mythos of a character (a la Elseworlds, as an extreme example) in a story, while familiarity of the original mythos yet remains. In addition, Marvel has the luxury of the rich history of its detailed Universe's past to draw upon in a myriad of ways.

Although the characters of the Marvel Universe Proper aren’t likely to get the Elseworlds treatment too often, the fact that the writers are no longer obligated to tell the antagonists entire histories doesn’t’ mean that their intricate pasts won’t be alluded to and honored. Comics of a shared universe are largely an organic medium because, like people, it is the characters’ past that makes up their current motivations and traits. The past is always coming back to haunt Spider-Man and although his past may have begat the current problem, that does not necessarily dictate the source of the new problem must be dredged up in explicit detail to fully explain the characters motivations in the current struggle. This leads for more subtle ways of allusion, cooler “inside jokes” and tighter dialogue. Having Spidey tell the Human Torch with a knowing look or a few select words that he understands what he is going through in a personal conversation is a hell of a lot more subtle and revealing of their bond than having him say something along the lines of “I know how tough it is because as you know from when we met during the last time we teamed up to battle against Blastaar in Negative Zone to retrieve that cosmologic doohickey Reed developed, that Dr. Doom stole and lost in a barter to Annihilus when searching for the negative magic his gypsy mother studied when he was a child before he became Monarch of Latveria after his stay with monks as a result of a lab experiment that blah, blah, blah…”, because we already know that Spidey and the Torch are heroes who know each other, are roughly the same age and therefore understand what each other is going through. Everything else is unnecessary, confusing detritus.

Character does not come out in the details; it comes as a result of details. It’s the events of a life that shape the person into what they are. If a person has something happen in their life that has an effect on their personality and way of being, an observer need only know the essentials of that event to fill in a sympathetic chain of emotions leading to an understanding of their current state of mind. Literary characters are no different. Knowing Spider-Man chose not to stop a burglar who later went on to kill his Uncle Ben is enough information for one to make the leap to understanding Peter’s guilt. Who the burglar was, as well as where, when and how the incident occurred is…well -incidental. To a writer, having to come up with ever-sneakier ways of squeezing history and status quo into narrative and still stick to the tale at hand must have felt daunting, intrusive and nigh insurmountable. In the case of the Budiansky era of Spider-Man editorial, it must have been borderline dull for a writer to come up with new avenues of fitting the line “with great power, comes great responsibility” into what seemed like every Webslinger publication under his aegis.

As has so seldom been the case in comics, the shift by Marvel to a more “relaxed” form of continuity has been thus far a smooth transition, because regardless of the past, the characters are still moving forward with events and adventures that have permanent ramifications in the forms of the Deaths of Odin and the Kingpin and the apparent discovery of Peter Parker’s secret by his frail Aunt May. This is distinctly opposed to event-driven continuity, which is usually an exercise in taking characters into outrageous world-altering (or downright silly – JLApe, how lame is that?) situations and taxing their limits (and readers’ patience) before returning to status quo, world-unaltered, safe continuity.

Marvel comics can now be enjoyed by the new reader, who gets a solid story and by the…ahem, old reader (me, sonny), who gets that same solid story and all the little asides and references hidden within the dialogue and action that are just between an experienced reader and the creators. As time goes on, that same new reader will be fortunate enough to relate to subsequent creative teams’ methods of honoring the Marvel Universe’s past and present. This makes for a more personal experience because as I’ve said before, there’s something inherently cool about being in on something that others are not.

Continuity of characters and events need not be bound by the constraints of a past history that if properly recognized through subtle allusion, homage, and respectful reference and reverence, can yield a wealth of inspiration for creators and their fortunate readers alike.

Copyright 2001 Mark A. Bittmann

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