Continuity Conundrum

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.

  • The Engineer

    We all know that with every story there’s a beginning, middle, and end.

    DC and Marvel seem to be very scared of ending the stories of their cash cow characters. And with due cause. Look what happened when Hal Jordan’s story as a Green Lantern came to an “end” back in the early 90′s.

    Fans were outraged.

    And really you have to give DC some credit that they didn’t just bend over for the fans, at least not right away, and put everything back to the way it was – like they did with Superman.

    Of course instead of doing that they basically whored Hal Jordan all over the DCU, making him evil Parallax that causes the events of Zero Hour, then good Parallax who “dies” to save the world from the sun-eater, then the “resurrected” Hal Jordan/Spectre amalgamation, and finally, after more than ten years, they bring him back as his old true self.

    Actually, now that I think about it, that’s kinda what they did with Superman when he “died”. Maybe that’s DC’s formula. “Kill” characters, whore them out all over the DCU, then bring them “back to life” exactly the same as they used to be (or maybe with a super-mullet) and fans will love it.

    Anyways, it all comes down to the fact that they can’t just say, “ok, he’s dead and that’s it. This person is now the new Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman/Green Lantern/etc” And it all comes down to them being scared of upsetting the status quo and losing fans. But like any fan will tell you, if they do it right then it will be accepted.

  • The Engineer

    We all know that with every story there’s a beginning, middle, and end.

    DC and Marvel seem to be very scared of ending the stories of their cash cow characters. And with due cause. Look what happened when Hal Jordan’s story as a Green Lantern came to an “end” back in the early 90′s.

    Fans were outraged.

    And really you have to give DC some credit that they didn’t just bend over for the fans, at least not right away, and put everything back to the way it was – like they did with Superman.

    Of course instead of doing that they basically whored Hal Jordan all over the DCU, making him evil Parallax that causes the events of Zero Hour, then good Parallax who “dies” to save the world from the sun-eater, then the “resurrected” Hal Jordan/Spectre amalgamation, and finally, after more than ten years, they bring him back as his old true self.

    Actually, now that I think about it, that’s kinda what they did with Superman when he “died”. Maybe that’s DC’s formula. “Kill” characters, whore them out all over the DCU, then bring them “back to life” exactly the same as they used to be (or maybe with a super-mullet) and fans will love it.

    Anyways, it all comes down to the fact that they can’t just say, “ok, he’s dead and that’s it. This person is now the new Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman/Green Lantern/etc” And it all comes down to them being scared of upsetting the status quo and losing fans. But like any fan will tell you, if they do it right then it will be accepted.

  • http://www.nuklearpower.com Brian!

    I think a big part of the problem is that the modern comics reader is too aware of how comics work. Everyone is already aware that any change, no matter what it is (or how interesting it is or anything), will be undone in the next five to ten years. Hell, Spidey’s unmasking didn’t even last one year! I thought it was an incredibly brave direction to take the character, but no, that didn’t last.

    Ugh, don’t get me started.

  • http://www.nuklearpower.com Brian

    I think a big part of the problem is that the modern comics reader is too aware of how comics work. Everyone is already aware that any change, no matter what it is (or how interesting it is or anything), will be undone in the next five to ten years. Hell, Spidey’s unmasking didn’t even last one year! I thought it was an incredibly brave direction to take the character, but no, that didn’t last.

    Ugh, don’t get me started.

  • http://heavyink.com/user/1 TJIC

    I’m relatively new to comics (I’ve only been reading seriously for maybe three years, although I started poking around comic book shops in college, about 15 years ago).

    I’ve never been huge into the superhero genre.

    …so the continuity stuff has always struck me as totally alien.

    As pointed out above, the need for it arises when (a) a comic has been in print for a long time; (b) the number of people who have worked on it has grown large.

    One of the benefits of reading more “indy” titles (or at least single voiced stuff) is that these problems never crop up.

  • http://heavyink.com/user/1 TJIC

    I’m relatively new to comics (I’ve only been reading seriously for maybe three years, although I started poking around comic book shops in college, about 15 years ago).

    I’ve never been huge into the superhero genre.

    …so the continuity stuff has always struck me as totally alien.

    As pointed out above, the need for it arises when (a) a comic has been in print for a long time; (b) the number of people who have worked on it has grown large.

    One of the benefits of reading more “indy” titles (or at least single voiced stuff) is that these problems never crop up.