Comics: the continuity conundrum

In an age of reboots and personal expression, is continuity the devil for comics?


 
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She-Hulk by Dan Slott

Four years ago, DC Comics did something that both it and its competitor, Marvel, had been talking about doing for a while: it cancelled all its comics and restarted most of them again, wiping out the characters’ histories and backstories in the process. A character’s past for the “New 52” line would be newly constructed based on the best parts of the old sources, like a character in a film or TV adaptation. No longer was there a whole big story about how Barry Allen became the Flash, died, got replaced by his teen sidekick and then came back from the dead to take the job again (even though his sidekick was doing a better job than he was). He was just Barry Allen, the Flash; a new character based on an old one.

Marvel has been more reluctant to take such a radical step, but this fall’s relaunch (“All-New, All-Different Marvel”) will follow the current Secret Wars event where the universe is destroyed and the characters are all replaced by alternate versions. When the universe is put back together, they’ll be able to make changes where they need to, including bringing Brian Bendis’s well-loved biracial Spider-Man character, Miles Morales, into the mainstream universe at last.

Whether the changes are radical or cosmetic, this is a great time for the idea of revising characters’ histories. It’s not a great time for that thing U.S. comic book fans know as “canon,” or “continuity”: the idea that all the old comics, however contradictory or crazy, should be considered part of a character’s life. (If you can’t get through this whole long post, skip to the end for some recommendations of how this approach has been made to work.) With some exceptions, today’s comic writers, readers, and critics tend to prefer a comic that isn’t too bogged down with history and references to other comics.

Greg Pak, whose wonderful Superman Action comic has been perhaps the best to emerge from DC’s uneven line, said that it was good to be able to approach Superman with a history that’s only a few years old, instead of decades:

The nice thing about coming in to write the New 52 is I don’t have to worry about what came before the New 52. That stuff is great and it can serve as inspiration, but continuity is the devil. As a writer, having to slavishly make sense of too much continuity can kill a story…

It was a beautiful, beautiful thing for me walking into the New 52 and being able to look at a small range of stories that had been told, and those are the things that are set in stone, and the rest of it we can make up as we go. We can build the stories that make sense for our characters in order to tell the emotional story that we’re telling.

Many writers have said something like this in some form; in fact, more than one writer has used the term “continuity is the devil,” which has almost become a catchphrase. Most of Marvel’s star writers (not all) prefer not to build their stories around history references; Bendis has said that the problem with this approach is that it can lead to “comics about other comics.” At DC, thanks to the reboots, even writers who want to refer to history can’t do it, because it no longer exists. Continuity is not deeply popular right now.

The idea that continuity is holding back American superhero comics has been in vogue since at least 2000, when new management at Marvel felt that one of the company’s problems was that the characters were too burdened by history references: the characters had such long and convoluted histories that they seemed old, inaccessible. Abraham Riesman had a great piece at Vulture a couple of months ago about the rise and fall of Ultimate Marvel, and how two books in particular — Ultimate Spider-Man and the satirical Avengers reboot The Ultimates — became the model for a way of writing old characters without all the old history weighing them down. Finally, Peter Parker was a teenager again, and his stories were fresh in a way they hadn’t been since the early 1960s. Ever since then, the easiest explanation for why a book fails is that it’s too bogged down in continuity for new readers to follow.

Was continuity a problem for comic readers? I think that’s unclear. The most popular comic of all time may have been X-Men in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and if you picked up an issue you would have no idea who most of these people were. Soap operas, the model for the continuity-heavy superhero style (the editor of X-Men used to hand out Days of Our Lives scripts to his writers to teach them how to write), never had any problem hooking new viewers; they might not know exactly what was going on, but they’d pick it up eventually. The point is to make new readers want to follow along even if they don’t get everything right away; when the story is boring, it’s easier to blame the continuity because it’s easier to fix than the quality of the stories.

Apart from being an easy scapegoat, continuity has also gotten a bad name for itself because of the attitudes of some comics fans who consider all inconsistencies equally important, and equally bad. These are the people you see writing in to ask why a character acts this way in one book when he acted that way in another, or why the new writer isn’t mentioning something terrible the character did in the last run. The obvious answer — because they’re different writers — never suffices. This is literalist, nit-picky reading, on a par with people who want to know why Batman doesn’t just kill the Joker (and the writers who foolishly try to answer this question). As comic writer Matt Fraction put it a couple of years ago:

Continuity is the devil. It’s all just trivia. You read in one comic he doesn’t like ham sandwiches, and in another he does. Who cares? That’s just trivia, and doesn’t matter to the character overall. Time isn’t really time in comics, so we can’t worry about why he’s here in one book, there in another.

Fans turned writers — and editors

While continuity buffs have gotten a bad rap lately, they did contribute something genuine to comics history. After the popularity of superheroes was revived in the 1950s and ’60s, the established editors — like Julius Schwartz at DC and Stan Lee at Marvel — started hiring some young writers who were superhero comic fans. Grown-up superhero fans; they weren’t even supposed to exist, but Roy Thomas, who became Lee’s second-in-command and eventually took his place as editor-in-chief at Marvel, came to comics from the then-embryonic world of fandom: he thought of superheroes as having a history, whereas editors and writers mostly thought of getting them from one story to the next.

Thomas, and writers he trained or influenced, did a lot to create the idea of Marvel as having a real “universe,” rather than a bunch of different books that crossed over sometimes. In a storyline in The Avengers, Thomas took plot threads from earlier comics by Lee and Jack Kirby, as well as the Golden Age Marvel heroes from the 1940s, and linked them all together into the story of an intergalactic war which is literally solved by the power of superhero fanboyism:

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One of Thomas’s first acts as editor-in-chief was to ask why Lee and Kirby had done the story of Captain America being frozen after the Second World War, when there were a few Captain America stories in the 1950s. For Lee, who edited those ’50s stories, the answer would have been obvious: they didn’t sell and no one liked them, so he and Kirby ignored them when they revived the character. But for Thomas, all the stories, even the bad ones, had to fit together. So he gave his new Cap writer, Steve Englehart, the assignment to explain who that 1950s Cap really was. And Englehart wrote a fine story: this was really a Captain America admirer who literally turned himself into a duplicate of his hero — but became a warped, crazed, jingoistic Commie-basher, the nightmare version of what Captain America could be.

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This approach — the fan-turned-writer, the idea that all stories count — became standard at both Marvel and DC for a long time. One of the most beloved figures in mainstream comics was Mark Gruenwald, a Marvel writer-editor who became the company’s designated “continuity cop,” helping writers stay consistent with one another, supervising the creation of official character biographies and power sets, and creating the illusion that all these writers were contributing to one big “universe.” Stephen Grant, who worked on an Avengers story with Gruenwald, wrote that he had come to Marvel’s attention

with a fanzine called Omniverse, whose central thesis was that all comic book universes ran parallel to all others, so all were equally “real.” (Mark also confided on more than one occasion that he felt this was an accurate model of the structure of the real universe, and that – he was half-serious about this, half-not – all comics universes existed somewhere in reality alongside not only other comics universe but ours.)

This is an idea that gives a lot of power to the editor, and it’s not a surprise that many of the writers who embraced the continuity concept were also editors. It’s very much like the U.S. television model that we’re all used to: a producer, or “showrunner,” is in charge of the overall shape of the series. On your favourite show, the staff writers have to subordinate their own personalities — give the illusion that they’re all working in the same style and telling the same story.

In comics journalism, this model rarely gets much respect. But there’s no inherent reason it isn’t worthy of respect. It’s just not something that allows for a lot of writer autonomy. The continuity-heavy approach assumes that the characters, who after all will live forever, are more important than the people writing them.

One model for the more writer-driven, less editor-driven approach was the guy who co-created the ’60s Marvel universe in the first place, Jack Kirby. In the 1970s, his deal at both DC and Marvel was that he would be his own writer and editor. He preferred working on his own new characters, but when he took on an established book, he didn’t show much interest in what other writers had done with them. When he came back to Marvel to write and draw Captain America, a character he co-created, he ignored most of what had happened to the character in the years since he’d been gone.

At the time, this refusal to acknowledge other writers’ work was one of the things that led Kirby to be dismissed by fans as old-fashioned and out-of-touch; his solo work never sold very well, and letters columns were often hostile. And Kirby’s Captain America and Black Panther do seem like diminished characters after all the things the previous writers had put him through. Kirby created them, but they’d become bigger than Kirby.

But, as so often with Kirby, he was dismissed as being behind the times and then turned out to be ahead of his time. His ’70s comics, particularly at DC, became cult favourites for their ambition and scope, their attempt to create genuine epics. They were personal comics in a way that Kirby’s ’60s comics could never be (since those were edited and dialogued by Stan Lee), and his four comics at DC all told one bits of one big mind-expanding tale about the meaning of life and death, good and evil. Instead of being part of a company-wide story, Kirby was telling his own story, and the “continuity” that mattered was his own.

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Why the personal approach has triumphed

That approach — ’70s Kirby, rather than ’60s Kirby — is the ideal that underlies a lot of today’s independent comics, which are very writer-driven, have little interest in crossing over with other people’s work, and assume that the characters will never be used by anyone except the creator. And in many ways it’s also become the ideal in corporate work-for-hire comics, for two reasons.

One, there’s a sense that the editor-driven, character-first approach produces bland work that doesn’t ultimately serve the characters very well. This was a problem with the X-Men in the 1990s: writers rotated in and out, the editors controlled the direction of the franchise, and everyone had to write the way everyone else had always written. When Marvel changed its editorial direction in 2001, one of the most important steps was giving an X-Men book to Grant Morrison to more or less write as he wanted, no crossovers, minimal nostalgia, and a very personal and idiosyncratic take on the franchise. In the ’90s, kids who bought X-Men couldn’t tell you who was writing any particular book. Since the ’00s, it is often a selling point to give you a particular writer’s take on a franchise.

Two, much like Kirby, many writers today are more interested in using superhero characters in an explicitly personal way. Jonathan Hickman, the writer of Secret Wars and the writer of Avengers since 2012, isn’t particularly interested in Marvel history in the sense of referring back to other writers’ stories. (His Avengers run, for better or for worse, has less to do with the history of the team than any other run; he has said it’s about “aggressively going forward,” not backward, so all you really need to know is that the Avengers are a big super team and Iron Man is kind of a jerk.) But he’s very interested in referring back to his own stories, and his years at Marvel add up to one long, ambitious cosmic epic running through all the books he’s written, dealing with big questions about science, power, hard choices, and whether to accept the inevitability of change and destruction. His approach is suspicious of nostalgia, always questioning the need to look back.

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Read all Hickman’s work, and you see the Marvel Universe as filtered through one very specific sensibility. That’s the independent sensibility as applied to corporate comics, and it’s a technique a number of writers use to make their corporate work personal to them. Like Kirby, Hickman is creating his own niche within the impersonal corporate world, and part of that is not being beholden to the details of earlier work (as opposed to their spirit, which all good writers want to preserve). This is a very valid approach, obviously, and it’s the ideal approach for many writers and readers — epic, not soap opera; looking forward, not backward.

In defense of historical comics

What I think we sometimes miss is that continuity, in the sense of building on other people’s stories, has some artistic merit of its own. For one thing, it’s something most independent comics can’t duplicate. Really, no other medium can duplicate it, the sense of taking other people’s work, rewriting and adding to it, and having it all count as part of one big story. Wicked is not part of the story of The Wizard of Oz, and anyone who thinks it is is misunderstanding the author’s intention; it’s a commentary on the original story, not an extension of it. But if a writer at Marvel or DC gets the go-ahead to tell us what was really happening during a famous story of the past, then that interpretation becomes “real.” At its worst, it can detract from the enjoyment of the original (though I think we, as readers, have a duty not to let that happen; again, it’s up to us not to nit-pick). At its best, it’s an amazing pile-up of different perspectives and ideas, giving the characters a richness that no one writer could ever give them.

Avengers Forever, the Kurt Busiek/Carlos Pacheco limited series of 1998-99, devoted one of its 12 issues to, basically, explaining away all the bad stories that the Avengers had been through in the 1990s. A comic book about other comic books that no one liked and few people read; that seems like the height of what people complain about when they complain about continuity, and some readers didn’t and don’t like that issue.

And yet, having never read those bad stories before I read Avengers Forever, I found it kind of fascinating. Because instead of being about the abstract concepts science fiction and fantasy comics usually deal with, instead of the made-up world of a typical fantasy story, it located the characters within something that resembled an actual, concrete history (albeit one that is subject to revision, but then again, so is “real” history). It made the characters seem more human to me because, like real people, they have a past that follows them around. It’s “world-building,” except the writers didn’t build it; they found it through research, like historians, and continuity-heavy writing is like historical fiction.

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That sense of engagement with history, of agreement and argument with other writers, is what gives the continuity-heavy comic its special interest. Another example of how this works, also from the 1990s (which is mostly remembered for its “grimdark” comics, but was also a very neoclassical, nostalgic period), is Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, where he takes details from the comics of Scrooge’s creator, Carl Barks, and weaves them into a coherent life story of how Scrooge became the richest duck in the world. Even early stories where Scrooge acts way out of character were explained as shameful turning points, where Scrooge strayed from his lifelong commitment to honesty.

Scrooge

When I first heard about this story, I thought it was ridiculous, since Barks’s stories had literally no continuity at all – any “fact” he introduced about a character was only supposed to be there for that one story. So this sounded like the sort of thing people usually complain about when it comes to continuity: the obsession with making a bunch of old stories fit together that were never intended to fit together; comics about comics. But eventually I realized the point is not what Barks intended, but Rosa’s engagement with the works of his favourite creator. The comic works because it’s Rosa arguing affectionately with Barks about what his stories meant and whether they can add up to something he never dreamed of. Again, it’s historical fiction, using your own creativity to make sense of history (in Rosa’s case, both comics history and actual world history, which he’s obsessed with incorporating into his work).

This is not the epic, mind-expanding, ultra-personal Kirby approach; it’s more, I suppose you would say, Talmudic, scholarly, argumentative. Both approaches work, but because I have a rather prosaic mind, I find that the comics history provides a more appealing backbone for a story than more abstract themes or concepts. If the ’50s Captain America story had just been about making sense of continuity, it would have been terrible; it had to have a theme, a point. But as a way of conveying the theme — the question of whether Captain America is a racist or jingoistic concept — the comics-history aspect makes the story work much better than if the writer had simply invented a completely new story, and for that matter, better than Mark Millar’s portrayal of a jingoistic Cap in The Ultimates. It just feels more “real” when it’s about stories the writer didn’t invent.

In 2003, Busiek (known for incoporating a lot of history into his work-for-hire projects, which is why he comes up twice in this essay), wrote the long-awaited Justice League/Avengers crossover, and the best part dealt with, basically, the danger of throwing out continuity and starting afresh. At the beginning of the third issue, both teams’ realities have been changed and their memories along with them. When they find out the truth (yes, Marvel and DC have done this plot a lot), the heroes also find out about all the pain and misery they’ve been through in their history: they are actually shown, on a screen, all the terrible stories writers have written for them. The Vision is particularly annoyed that in the “real” reality, he had children who were wiped from existence (I know he’s an android; don’t ask, okay?) They have to fight to restore the awful, confusing stories that make continuity such a mess.

The argument for doing so? Partly it’s that without continuity, without history, the characters aren’t anything; they can just change randomly from moment to moment:

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It’s not an argument writers should feel bound by if they don’t find it convincing, but as a reader, I buy it. The continuity-light approach of Ultimate Marvel and the New 52, where writers pick the best aspects of the character and ignore the rest, often feels like a mere gloss on the “real” thing. It’s like a movie adaptation, but without the compensating presence of a real, live actor to relate to.

History brings something to these characters – a sense of weight, of substance, of reality. Wally West used to be DC’s best character because he had decades of history behind him as the Flash’s sidekick and successor, and because writers like Mark Waid used that history effectively to build his character and his place in the world. Now that he’s been rebooted, he really isn’t anything, because superhero characters’ personalities aren’t unique or special; their histories are.

These characters can never change in any meaningful way (fans are wrong to want them to change, but that’s another argument); they’re destined to learn and teach the same lessons over and over again for all eternity. What changes is their history. And you can get some very good stories from honouring that. Here are several:

JSA (1999-2006). A mix of old Golden Age characters from the DC universe and younger characters who had taken on their costumes, this series’ mantra was “legacy,” and it was known for its attempts to try and work out the incredibly convoluted histories of DC’s Golden Age heroes (made more complicated by a couple of previous reboots). The young writers who did most of the series, Geoff Johns and David Goyer, even took it upon themselves to fix the backstory of Hawkman, a character whose whole shtick is constantly getting reincarnated as different people. The result was an entertaining and sometimes touching look at the meaning of legacy and history, treating the DC universe almost like an extended family.

Thunderbolts (1997). My favourite of Busiek’s history-heavy work-for-hire comics, this book, about a super-team with a big secret, plucked most of its characters from obscurity and went back to their original appearances to figure out their motivations. While it wasn’t confusing to readers who didn’t know all the history, it still conveyed the feeling that all these old comics were part of one grand epic; it was about the strange ways comic history intersects, giving the feeling that stories mean more when you try to fit them together.

She-Hulk (2004) by Dan Slott. Written during one of those periods when continuity was out of fashion, Slott came up with a lighter take on continuity, making it something you could literally enter as evidence in a court case (in-universe, Marvel comics are considered true stories, so anything that’s published is admissible evidence). A series that turned Slott into one of Marvel’s top writers and She-Hulk into their best female lead.

Justice League Unlimited, season 2. Mostly written by the late, great Dwayne McDuffie, a man with a great, generous love of popular culture, this run of TV episodes essentially created the “DC Animated Universe” in front of our eyes. Producer Bruce Timm had done several animated shows based on DC characters — Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond Justice League — but they rarely had ongoing storylines and rarely referred to past episodes. McDuffie took plot points from those old episodes and weaved them into the new ones, revealing connections between stories that all the characters (and writers) had forgotten. It culminated in the episode “Epilogue,” which made it seem like all these series were part of one coherent story. They weren’t, of course, but the artistry was in creating the illusion that they could have been.

Avengers 129-135, Giant Size Avengers 2-4. The “Celestial Madonna” story by Steve Englehart is the biggest, most ambitious Avengers epic in its attempt to weave together every aspect of the then-new Marvel universe. It includes meta-commentary on the way classic comic creators were treated; commentary on Roy Thomas’s “Kree-Skrull War” epic; a revelation that a Silver Age character is actually a Golden Age character but doesn’t realize it; and a finale where a Vietnamese prostitute turns out to be Space Virgin Mary and marries a tree. For better or worse no one could come up with a story quite like this on their own, without building on other people’s writing. It can only happen in continuity-obsessed work-for-hire comics.

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