The first installment of the Seven Deadly Sins of Comicdom discussed the inflation of comics concepts. While that particular vice does contribute to making comics both pretentious and trite at the same time, another vice threatens the collapse the edifice of the shared universe concept under its own weight: the cult of continuity.
Part II: Continuity
As practiced these days, the cult of continuity requires the editors of comics to choose between several unpalatable and ultimately impractical choices. One, the creative teams on comics can immerse themselves completely in the literature, memorizing every detail of every story that has appeared containing the characters they work with, and use this information to guarantee that their stories contradict nothing previously printed. Two, the creative teams on comics can create phony crises in spacetime every few years to justify throwing out an old, polluted, and corrupt continuity, and, after cleaning the house, rewrite said continuity back at least to the first appearance of the first superhero and possibly back to (or before) the creation of the universe. Three, creators can define safe zones, like “Elseworlds” or “imaginary stories,” where their work can have some sanctuary from the high priests of the cult of continuity, knowing that their best stories may forever reside outside the official canon of the characters they depict. Four, the creators may attempt to tell a good story using a fair approximation of the characters and inherited history within their domain, and say to hell with the howling pharisees of the hard core continuity ethos.
Comics in their infancy could follow the fourth path, which produced the very fertile worlds of the DC Golden Age and Marvel Silver Age. Comics, however, fear to offend their hard-core followers, and dare pursue no such path, typically tiptoeing along paths one and three until their subject matter becomes so untenable that they must follow the third path. Creators, given the freedom of the fourth path, could offer better stories than the “Spider-Clone Saga” or the disposable fluff that helped drive comics circulation figures down into numbers appropriate for small town newspapers. This would require a sacrifice, though; preserving the edifice of comics might involve abandoning the sacred cow of doctrinaire continuity.
Ever wonder what made the Marvel Revolution possible?
When Marvel revitalized the superhero comic form in the early 1960s, it began with a clean slate, devoid of prior editorial commitments. Everything, essentially, that Timely-cum-Atlas-cum- Marvel had printed in the past had failed in the great comics implosion of the 1950s. Market forces, the aging of the Golden Age comics readership, public pressure to clean up the popular culture, and, perhaps, some bad management had brought about a massive extinction of superhero comics titles and whole categories of other types of comics, including the much-maligned horror comic.
This meant that Stan Lee, as a writer and editor, could reformulate the structure of the superhero comic. The commercially viable superheroes, a market temporarily monopolized by DC properties, followed an iconic model of superheroism: Such superheroes combined a model human being with superhuman abilities. Humanity, for such characters, tended to mean physical limitations or trivial problems centering around the maintenence of secret identities or the unwanted attentions of ill-treated girlfriends or beaux. Boxed in by such strictures, these superheroes could do almost anything, including move planets, travel in time, space, and dimensions. However, one sometimes needed to consult the costumes and powers to tell these characters apart, since most tended to the same unselfconscious gallantry, devoid of emotional trouble or ethical questioning.
In Fantastic Four #1, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby ignored the old models and acted if the unwritten code of superhero gallantry did not apply. In this atypical and ground-breaking work, we found superheroes guilty of the following overt violations of superhero canon:
- The Thing demonstrated ill-humor, ill-temper, self-pity, anger, and, most incredibly of all, physical ugliness, characteristics previously typical of villains, not heroes.
- The Human Torch demonstrated cruelty (to the Thing), immaturity, short-sightedness, and other traits not completely foreign to sixteen year olds, but relatively unseen in superheroes.
- Mister Fantastic, although perhaps the most conventional member of the tetrad, still allowed himself to squabble with the other males of the Fantastic Four; and, more uncharacteristically, treated his relationship to the Invisible Girl seriously enough to progress to marriage.
- The Invisible Girl, though initially a heroine of the semi-helpless traditional mold, did not solely dedicate herself to falling out of windows or pestering the nearest tights-clad alpha male about his intentions or secret identity.
Lee had made a leap of conceptualization: He grafted the daytime drama to the superhero comic, and the formula served to save Marvel until its buyout by a toy company in the late 1990s. He created a new superhero model, where stories might involve more than the most recent fist fight with the latest mad scientist out to blow up the City. He had, so he reasoned, allowed superheroes to do things superheroes hadn’t before, including living real(ler) lives, feeling emotions, and, eventually, changing with the passage of time.
Consider the last element, because it holds in it both the seed of Marvel’s rebirth in the 1960s and the germ of the downfall of the entire edifice of superhero comics. In a sense, Lee had introduced into comics something that the old model forbade. He imposed upon the new Marvel mythos a sharedness of the milieu, something known today as comics continuity. The benefits seemed obvious.
- Unlike go-nowhere affairs like Superman’s multi-decade toying with Lois Lane, Mister Fantastic could wed Sue Storm (Superman finally did wed, after over fifty years’ romancing).
- Spider-Man could confront believable problems with school, work, or family in a way untypical of Superman (who frequently resolved similar, though short-lived, problems by using Superman robots as stand-ins).
- Superheroes could move in time, rather than hover in the timeless state typical of Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman.
At first, continuity offered opportunities to writers, editors, and creators. In its infancy, Marvel didn’t have to worry about what it did with its characters, who could acquire storytelling baggage precisely because they had no baggage to inherit. This allowed a freedom to formulate an editorial policy making stories more dynamic; making characters who could (or must!) have personal lives with real problems.
Time and Not-Time
Marvel decided to enforce continuity. Characters and their actions would have consequences. This meant superheroes could deal with long-term problems, such as the machinations of HYDRA, the animosity of Peter Parker’s editor, the courtship of romantically involved characters. By the late 1960s, DC recognized that Marvel’s increasing market share required them to examine the viability of their own editorial policies, and DC began to follow an increasingly Marvel-like model, especially towards minor and newer characters.
By the 1970s, continuity represented more than new opportunities. It began to represent a new kind of editorial decadence. Lee, to his credit, didn’t have the leisure to worry about long-term consequences of continuity, nor had he intended that comics would impose continuity and deny it simultaneously, by adding each new printed work (good or bad) to a continuity “canon,” but denying characters the effects of time.
Assume, for a moment, that Marvel had enforced the “real-time” concept. Spider-Man, accordingly, appeared in comics as a teen-aged Peter Parker, perhaps 16 or 17 years old, in 1963. This implies a birthdate of about 1947. In 1973, a vaguely-twentiesish Parker would evoke no disbelief. Perhaps not even in 1983, when the calendar would force upon him a thirty-sixth birthday (but some people stay young for a long time). However, in 1987, we would expect of him a fortieth birthday (followed by a fiftieth in 1997). Casual and long-term readers can recognize that no such aging took place.
At the same time, the Spider-Man stories accumulated over the almost 40-year history of the character. This means we encounter Continuity Bug 1: Comics time allows many years of published stories to fit into few (or no) years of character aging.
Nothing so far really causes great problems, if we recognize the (abandoned) iconic nature of heroes and allow for some relaxation of the Iron Laws of Nature; we must make such sacrifices, after all, to even allow for silly things like men in circus costumes walking on walls after a radioactive spider bite.
Who Takes out the Trash?
Continuity doesn’t really begin to stink until we encounter Continuity Bug 2: Everything becomes canon.
People who have read many comics may recognize that some comics contain better writing, better art, better concepts, better dialog, and better what-have-you, than do others. Put more bluntly, some comics reek. While the occasional piece achieves critical acclaim that makes it a classic of the genre (works like Watchmen and Kingdom Come have achieved such acclaim), others simply represent the disposable output of overworked or undertalented staff forced to output material to fill a certain number of pages by a certain deadline. Most long-lived titles go through (hopefully) short periods of substandard, unenjoyable content, bad experimentation, pathetic gimmickry, and other devices one finds increasingly in a shrinking comics market.
Under saner circumstances, we could forgive the occasionally bad story. However, the continuity trap leaves us with no such option. Bad stories remain in the canon, intractable as herpes, and as incurable.
Think of the most rotten comics story you ever read. Imagine that the stories twenty years down the line would have to treat this story as inalterable truth, and imagine how twenty, thirty, forty years’ worth of bad stories could pollute the history of a character.
Think of the rotten stories about Iron Man wandering around drunk and dazed in the early eighties. They hurt to read. They hurt to waste sixty cents to purchase the comics that pretended to contain Iron Man stories. Considering the pain these stories inflicted, we may hope that they hurt to write, draw, and publish. They remain something best forgotten; in an optimal world, we could simply decline ever to speak of them again, and allow the architects of the modern Iron Man title discreetly to fail to remember that they ever “happened”.
However, continuity denies any such merciful escape to us. These remain embedded in continuity, an undeniable printed recording devoid of gaps.
For another, gruesome example, consider the story where the (horribly named) Ms. Marvel became pregnant and gave birth to an extradimensional being who became her lover and mind controlled her and kidnaped her into another dimension. This story became canon; Marvel even demonstrated the cheek to print the resolution of this plot thread in The Greatest Battles of the Avengers. Think of the awful gimmickry, including the perennial deaths of Wonder Man and Adam Warlock, and, as well, their perennial resurrections.
Think of the awful love affairs, the awful divorces, the awful heroes-gone-bad or villains- turned-straight tales that thoughtful revisionism could spare us. Think of the loathesome secret sibling/clone stories we could excise (including stories already cropped from the canons of Superman and Batman, but not (yet) Spider-Man). Think of the outrageous gimmickry of stories that feebly attempted to bully readers into caring enough to buy a fading title.
Does your stomach protest? Does your head reel? Does illness incline you to abandon comics altogether, as have so many? Endure, if you will, a moment longer, to consider this: in a hard-continuity model (one that assumes that all printed stories “happened”), nothing can erase these stories.
Continuity, even where no bad stories happen (and what title can enjoy such a claim?) requires that writers mold their stories around everything that happened previously. Such a task attempted by the best talents with the best faith would require considerable knowledge without necessarily adding to the quality of the product.
With bad stories in the mixture, however, continuity becomes something else. It becomes a festering pit. Bad stories remain to rot and infect all that follows them.
The Broom of Revision
DC and Marvel, between the mid-eighties (DC) and mid-nineties (Marvel) finally encountered a crisis of continuity. Their major titles had run for about thirty years in each case, and by then the history of almost any of their characters had included periods of mediocre to atrocious writing and a list of past events so long as to render almost any potential story redundant. New characters proliferated, in spite of viability, for a new character, however ill-conceived, still remained potentially free of the unwelcome load of all the comics printed before it.
Continuity was strangling comics under the weight of its entire inherited history.
Some characters, albeit generally marginal ones, became casualties of continuity. For instance, the tortured canon of Hank Pym, known at various times as Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, Yellowjacket, and “Dr. Pym,” included nervous breakdowns, incidents of amnesia, wife-beating, divorce, legal problems, and too many strange attempts to work up reader interest to detail. By the late 1980s, little remained to do with the character but retire him as a superhero, and he remained, for years, a non-heroic figure as a footnote in the titles he once peopled.
We can consider worse cases, however. Marvel managed simply to quietly ignore much of Pym’s history and thereby returned him to his role as Giant-Man; but DC, in the case of its 1940s creation Hawkman, so fouled continuity that the character no longer appears in print in any form whatsoever. DC remade him, remade him again, combined him with earlier versions of himself, and finally attempted to make him into a Platonic version of himself; failing to make this make sense, they dropped the character, quietly, into the feeding pit of the Demon Continuity.
DC, worst afflicted with the consequences of the Strong Continuity Principle, saw the need for a fix by the mid-1980s. The older sibling of the Big Two comics publishers had dealt with continuity like an inner tube, applying patches here and there to keep in the air; but by the eighties, these patches required considerable maintenence.
DC’s first patch involved the revisionist concept, introduced by Gardner Fox, that the DC heroes of the forties and those of the sixties did not originate on the same world; that the elder heroes lived in a parallel universe; and that these universes could communicate certain conditions. This allowed, for a time, an explanation of the youth of DC’s big guns (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) and the reinvention of a number of second-stringers whose titles (if they ever had their own) had not survived the 1950s, such as the Atom, Green Lantern, the Flash, and Hawkman. However, DC misused this explanation, and soon had alternate universes popping up everywhere; had one sixth of the issues Justice League of America dealing with the annual interdimensional crossovers; still had unexplained periods of printed comics history (especially fifties Superman and Batman); and, with the passing of time, still failed to explain why the characters didn’t get any older. This problem became more pointed as DC began printing new stories of the original superheroes, who, by the 1970s, would have included mostly sexegenarians.
The second patch appeared in the 1980s when DC brought out Marv Wolfman and George Perez to craft the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries, which consolidated or eliminated the alternate universes and attempted to create a shared, single history for DC’s creations.
Intended as a permanent housecleaning, this patch began leaking early on, because, although DC had stated that the Crisis event resulted in a single continuity replacing the multiple dimensions, no one had bothered to adequately address what this continuity included, and DC printed stories for a number of years without ever detailing the missing timelines. Wonder Woman survived a reconstructive canon due more to her popularity than the quality of the revision. Hawkman, revised several times too often and ultimately forced into a trendy, angsty, “gritty” comics mold, did not survive the revision. In the end, almost ten years after the event that would have allowed DC to correct its continuity, the changes remained unmade; and DC therefore cobbled together another crisis event, similarly threatening the universe (through destroying time at both ends toward the present). However, the Zero Hour event did not include the careful planning of the Crisis event, and did not result in aesthetically or commercially popular changes to the DC canon. It included a number of unfathomable changes included, perhaps, for the sake of change itself (Green Lantern became a villain; superheroes died or disappeared; other superheroes reappeared in “hipper” or revised forms that no one, reader or creator, liked).
DC had attempted to reforge its canon in 1985 and 1994, and by 1996, Marvel followed, although Marvel’s attempts rotated around the bankruptcy of the company; Marvel, seeing the growing market share of the self-congratulatory, gloomy, nihilistic “new comics” attempted to remake itself in their image and also created a universe-remaking event. However, the remade Marvel universe proved so unsatisfactory to readers that Marvel recanted, returned the heroes to something like the universe they left, and, in the case of the Avengers, attempted a conspicuously retro-styled refurbishment.
The Way Out?
The question occurs: Why keep patching a worn out tube?
The problem involves continuity itself, rather than its details, after all. Superhero comics did well with almost nonexistent continuity during their childhood (1940-1950) and grew in depth with the some continuity during the high Silver Age (particulary 1963-1971), before the cumulative weight began to crush writers beneath rotting old stories. DC’s three continuity “fixes,” however, all failed; the first in twenty years, the second in less than ten, and the third even as it appeared in print.
Better revisions, it seems, do not fix the problem. One should begin to suspect that the problem lies in continuity itself, not in the content thereof.
DC acknowledged as much by the creation of its Elseworlds stories, in which the general concept of characters appear, but changes skew the canon (such as stories with Superman in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War). If readers bought just for the canon, none would have bought Elseworlds. Nor does continuity subjugate works like the DC/Marvel crossover titles (which appear often enough that the content dominates the hype). While neither approach offers enough sales to revive the medium, their minor success offers suggestions about what comics must contain to succeed. Stan Lee went on record somewhere with a quip that translates, “It’s the characters, stupid,” which, after all, states the whole point behind his sixties redefinition of the medium. To this we could add good scripting, good stories, good art, accessability to new readers, and possibly dozens of other things before we need even consider the overrated (and, when misused, dangerous), continuity.
Comics versus Theses
One more thing makes the Continuity Bogeyman bad for comics. A comic does not need to read like a scholarly thesis; consider that the presence of footnotes every page implies something structurally wrong with either the story or the continuity it attempts to support. When someone makes an argument in a scholarly paper, there the footnotes belong, not in comics; a comic book has failed if the reader needs to examine the contents of a bibliography to make sense out of it.
This statement implies a different view about superhero comics. “Good stories told well” provides what seems an obvious model for the medium, but not everyone agrees with this as a canon; “Stories told with legalistic adherence to established history as expressed in earlier stories” represents an altogether different model which, strangely, appeals to a considerable body of the surviving comics readership.
However, the pleasure in this latter approach seems to involve the reader’s testing his recall against the content of stories; a pseudohistorian’s examination of a long, encompassing mythos in which he may argue about what “really” happened and what did not. It evokes skills of research and memory that, in other contexts, have considerable social value and, with the right training, commercial marketability; these skills characterize attorneys who examine statements and historians who weigh witness accounts of significant events. Can we consider it fair to expect every reader to possess such skills, and offer fare that only feeds his desire to maintain proficiency? Or should we expect the reader to possess a baseline familiarity that requires an ability to understand premises of the medium (superpowers; science-fiction concepts like beneficial mutation, time travel, space travel, extraterrestrial beings; secret identities; sorcery; and so on)?
If a reader seeks to do research, libraries contain an ample body of source material. But sales trends suggest, perhaps, that using a story model that appeals to continuity historians may not reach outside their own intellectual ghetto.
Why, we may wonder, does superhero material interest television and movie audiences in greater numbers than printed material? Literacy may suffer in this age, but not that badly. Could the greater appeal of cartoons, television, and movies that depict the same characters rest in a story structure that does not demand constant currency of comics historian proficiency? Could it, after all, rely on the appeal of the story with the role of continuity minimized?