Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Curse of Continuity

Up until the 1960s, comic books seldom had any sort of continuity. Some major events were remembered like the time Lex Luthor saved a planet and the grateful residents renamed it in his honor and made him ruler. For years after that he would occasionally visit. More often, the events of a story were forgotten as with the last panel.

This was partly because of the way that comics worked at the time. Comic book publishers kept an inventory of stories. Since any story could be published at any time, it could not refer to any other story unless it had already been published and was memorable. TV was the same way. The characters in the Superman TV show in the 1950s wore the same clothes in every episode so that they could film multiple episodes at once. Most episodes had a scenes in Clark Kent's office so they could do those scenes for multiple episodes while the set was in place.

Marvel and Stan Lee changed that. Stan and his brother, Larry Lieber, did all of the writing and Marvel didn't have enough money for much inventory so stories were published as soon as they were finished. That meant that events could spill from one issue to the next. At the end of the second issue of the Fantastic Four, the Human Torch quit, feeling that he was not given enough respect. The third issue began with the rest of the team looking for the Torch who returned to the team after accidentally discovering the Sub Mariner. Similarly, the Hulk quit the Avengers at the end of the second issue. In the third issue he joined forced with the Sub Mariner. The fourth issue began with a cameo of the Sub Mariner and the Avengers searching for him.

Continuity in Spider-Man was more subtle but more important because it introduced real time. People remembered events from the previous issue and referred to them as "last month". This included little things like arguments.

Things got more complicated when Stan started accounting for villains and how they returned from their last appearance. Fans started noticing discrepancies. Stan grew tired of complaints and started offering "no prizes" to the fan who came up with the best explanation for a seeming goof (after Stan called the Hulk "Bob Banner" a fan suggested that his full name was "Robert Bruce Banner").

All of this was great for the reader. It gave the impression of a single, seamless "Marvel Universe".

But time passes and things happen. The Marvel Universe stopped running in real time. Otherwise Spider-Man, the Torch, and the X-Men would be in their 60s, Reed, the Thing, and Professor X would be in their 80s, and WWI veteran Dum Dum Dugan would be well voer 100. But slowing the character's aging causes problems with continuity. If Tony Stark is only in his 30s then how could he have been injured in Viet Nam? The Black Widow started as a spy for the Soviet Union which disintegrated more than 20 years ago.

So some events have to be ignored or the continuity has to be retroactively changed (retconned).

A bigger problem is that changes that seemed like a good idea at the time can become a burden later on. Spider-Man's marriage is an example. It seemed like the natural progression of his relationship with Mary Jane but later editors felt that he worked better as a loner. So Mary Jane left and was presumed dead. Then she came back. Then Mephisto changed time so that they never wed in the first place. Except later they remembered their relationship. But no one else remembers that he revealed his identity.

Things were worse at DC. Instead of simply referring to the Golden Age versions of different heroes as being from the past, they invented a parallel universe for them (Earth 2). This would have been a simple curiosity except they started setting stories in Earth 2. This became confusing to new readers (If the Huntress was Batman's daughter why was she a similar age and why did she think her father was dead?). They "solved" this with the Crisis on Multiple Earths limited series. By the end of that, there was only one reality. They spent the next few years trying to tidy up the new continuity. Then they gave up and had another reboot to fix the first one. Rinse and repeat.

Enter The New 52. DC is doing yet another reboot. Decades of continuity is being thrown out the window. Superman is back to being single. Batgirl was never crippled. Other characters will get ethnic make-overs.

I don't really care. I stopped reading DC comics precisely because they do so many reboots. It's too much trouble keeping up with them.

One good thing to come out of this - digital comics will now be available at the same time as print editions. I still subscribe to Marvel's digital comics but their policy is that digital comics lag the print editions by months and series are hit-and-miss on being digitized.


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