Continuity is consistency. A finished film appears to be a consistent whole because continuity exists between camera angles, between scenes, objects within the scenes, the characters, and the plots they drive. Hell, the very motion of “motion pictures” is an illusion your brain manufactures from the continuity between individual frames.
Continuity is the clear path of cause and effect from origin to conclusion. Without continuity there is anarchy. It would be fair to say that continuity is the basic building block of all storytelling.
So why is continuity such a huge problem for comics?
Well, The Big Two have made continuity their problem. This isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just the inevitable result of maintaining a cache of un-aging characters for five to seven decades with hundreds of creative teams overseen by dozens of editors. Today’s comics creators and editors are in the ineviable position of figuring what to do to maintain continuities that were never meant to be maintained.
Good luck with all that.
So far DC’s decision has been to nearly completely erase their existing history to reboot the multi-uni-multiverse every so often (and more and more often). They can’t be faulted for doing it the first time because, hey, it had never been done before. They couldn’t hope to have foreseen some of the inconsistencies it would cause. They can even be forgiven for doing it a second time because “Surely,” they no doubt thought, “We figured out what went wrong and this time we can make it stick!
Short version: they didn’t. The third reboot is where it’s fair for us to make fun of them for it. I guess DC’s reboot policy is, “Fool me seven times, shame on you. Fool me eight or more times, shame on me.”
Marvel’s solution tends to work better. They just quietly ignore and/or update the past as needed. Iron Man, for example, originated in a Vietnam-like war and battled Cold War-like enemies. Today his origins are tied to the Middle East and he fights terrorist-like enemies. Same actor, different stage.
Marvel recently attempted a DC-type “clean slate” reboot, in miniature, with the Spider-Man storyline One More Day, which is what got me thinking about continuity today.
If you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, check out the multi-part interviews with Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada and see Spider-Man writer J. Michael Straczynski’s perspective from the other side.
TL;DR version – “We think we should see other people.”
To say that reaction to this story has been “mixed” would be, well, lying. The reaction is negative in a big way and by a large margin. It’s probably impossible to find out for certain, but I bet reaction would be more favorable if the story wasn’t a DC-type continuity reboot or if, at least, it arose naturally from the characters instead of spontaneously arriving care of left field.
I think part of what riles fans so much about these kinds of events is that they are meant to “solve” a particular (and sometimes merely perceived) problem with continuity when all they really do is bring to light that comics characters’ continuity is very poorly maintained when viewed with the slightest scrutiny. It calls into question the consistency of the character (or setting) as a whole. It breaks the illusion.