This post was originally published on February 5, 2010
Doug: We're re-running this post, as it ties in with a conversation we had about a week ago. There are two other parts in this series if you feel like spelunking.
Doug: I've been reading a few of our esteemed Bronze Age colleagues' blogs, and have noticed repeated aversions to that comic universe foundation known as Continuity. Karen and I would like to toss forth our evaluations and opinions and we certainly welcome comments at the conclusion of this post, which might further this as a discussion.
Doug: I suppose at the root of the problem is that word "universe". Once a creative team and/or editorial staff begins to craft real-life events for the protagonist and his/her supporting cast, things inevitably are set up to become sticky later on. This fictional realm where the title's cast, or as in the case of Marvel and DC (et al.), titles and casts, dwell now has moments frozen in time. This predicament is the main point of separation between the comic strip and the comic book.
Karen: Marvel had the relative luxury of being new to the scene, whereas DC was carrying around baggage from the last 20+ years. Marvel could do whatever they wanted - because as many of those early writers and artists have noted, they never thought these characters would be around so long! Marvel essentially created the comics continuity fever that most of us grew up with, by creating a fully integrated universe. We saw that the characters interacted with each other. Past events would be referenced repeatedly (remember all the footnotes the comics used to have?). Marvel built a sense of reality and history that had rarely been seen outside of such universe-building works like Lord of the Rings.
Doug: It's funny to me, re DC. Of course at some point in this conversation Crisis on Infinite Earths will be brought up, but I'll be quite frank -- I never thought (as a kid) that continuity was anywhere close to a big deal at DC. Marvel, sure -- continued stories, characters and villains crossing over all the time, big events (and I mean pre-1980's big events, like one of the FF's break-ups or an Avengers line-up change -- not the marketing junk)... DCs mostly contained one-and-done stories, and it never seemed like they were referenced later on. Even when villains popped up after a few years' hiatus I couldn't see that the new story built off of anything from before.
Doug: So concerning Marvel, it's hard to imagine that what was once the best thing about The Amazing Spider-Man has become the worst. As soon as Stan Lee and Steve Ditko chose to have Peter Parker graduate from high school (ASM #28), Peter entered our world and was marked by time. Now characters in the Marvel Universe could age. Charles Schultz's Peanuts gang didn't; over at DC Dick Grayson had been ~15 for over 20 years. Spidey was now unequivocally 18, and off to college. So Pete and the rest of the characters began to age, to experience life, and then to die.
Karen: I think Stan Lee had it right when he said the goal for Marvel was the illusion of change. Changes in relationships, powers, costumes - all of these contribute to the feeling of excitement and newness but don't really affect the main character in any significant way. Going with our Spider-Man example, even the death of Gwen was not an event that altered the Spider-Man universe in such a way that the basic core of the character was altered or violated. It did however bring an element of reality heretofore unseen in comics, and allowed the readers, many of whom were probably young men themselves, to relate to and grieve with Peter. But the basic concept of Spider-Man was unchanged.
Doug: Well since you brought it up, perhaps no events are as hallowed in the Bronze Age as the deaths of Gwen Stacy and the Green Goblin in June/July 1973. Both were surprises when they happened, and both carried enough weight that one felt that a chapter had closed in the life of Peter Parker. But then, only 14 months later there was a new Green Goblin, and as 1975 dawned there were hints that there would be a new Gwen Stacy.
Doug: Why? Sales would be the obvious answer. Fixing what many fans felt was a gross injustice? Maybe - but even that quasi-noble gesture oozed potential dollars. And I guess if we use this as a microcosm of the continuity question, we have to dwell for a moment on any publisher's ultimate goal: to turn a profit. In a perfect world, publishers would remain benevolent, always producing magazines within whose pages characters always behaved as we expect them to and change could be unexpected but would remain logical.
Karen: Peter's growth as a character continued as he got a job and got married. Personally I liked the idea that Peter was still growing, although perhaps at a rate of 1 year for every 5 real-time years. I didn't mind him being married -although I do think it was a mistake for Mary Jane to be a super-model. That took Peter out of the everyman role he should rightfully occupy in the Marvel Universe. It would have made much more sense for Mary Jane to be a struggling actress/model. But despite this, by the time the 2000s rolled around, Spidey had a rich history.Karen: However, that rich history can also be like an anvil around one's neck. New writers may feel constricted by what stories they can tell. And by having any of the characters progress in age, the inevitability of adulthood, old age, and death starts to come into play. You almost have to commit to it fully, ie. have characters age, perhaps much more slowly than in real life, but eventually wind up hanging up their fighting togs and/or passing the mantle to someone else. But is that really what fans want? Can we imagine anyone else besides Peter Parker as Spider-Man? DC has made Dick Grayson the new Batman, but is there any doubt that Bruce Wayne will return to that role?
Doug: No, no doubt at all. By and large, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are untouchable. But one could argue that where it appeared that the entire second-tier of DC characters were allowed to move on with others taking up the mantle of Green Lantern, Flash, Green Arrow, etc., even those changes have been reversed or at least diminished historically by the returns of Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, and Oliver Queen.
Karen: I realize I am primarily a Marvel fan, so I am sure hard-core DC fans would disagree with me, but I saw little personality at all in characters like Hal Jordan or Barry Allen. Many of these DC characters seemed almost interchangeable. I'm honestly surprised there was so much clamor for their return! And so now DC has multiple people running around with the same name. Those seem like characters where the passing of the torch really could (and I think did, particularly with Wally becoming the Flash) revitalize a title. I'm still surprised that Barry was brought back, although I do think that Geoff Johns has managed to give Hal Jordan a personality now.
Karen: But getting back to the limits of continuity - apparently the Marvel writers felt that Spidey's situation, which had been crafted over decades by numerous creators, had become unwieldy. And so we got the biggest cop-out in comics: Brand New Day. It was bad enough that they used this deus ex machina to remove the marriage; but then they went several steps further and also used it to alter his entire history. Somehow, vast chunks of Spider-Man history were magically removed, so that Marvel could send Peter back to the Coffee Bean and relive his life.
Karen: Brand New Day was a complete disregard of not only continuity, but of Marvel's status as the 'reality-based' comics company. Marvel has always taken pride in the fact that they brought a sense of realism to comics. One might have expected them to end the marriage in a realistic fashion - say by divorce or even death. Instead, they just decided one day to revert the series to about 1975 and not make any effort to actually have it make sense.Doug: I'm very happy to report that my mind was not polluted by any of the Spider-events of the past 12-15 years or so. I got out way back during the second clone saga, which was just a complete train wreck. It was so bad, as was much of what Marvel was producing in the 90's, that one has to wonder exactly what was going on in those editorial meetings. It wasn't creativity -- no, no -- my guess is the VP in charge of marketing was running each and every editorial meeting. All style (and that's debatable) and no substance. Or at least no substance that made sense.
Karen: This is probably the biggest violation of continuity that I am aware of. DC on the other hand, seems to be fond of continually 'ret-conning' their characters' stories, so much so that I don't even know who the original founders of the Justice League are supposed to be now. It seems as if much of John Byrne's revamp of Superman has gone out the window, which I can't say I mind. But for a casual DC reader like myself, the events of all the "Crises" have only made things more confusing than ever. Back before the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, I had a pretty good grasp on the multiverse and who was on what Earth. Now? No idea.
Doug: Sounds like a nice segue to Part Two -- catch ya then, friends!