Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Discuss: If Retcons Were True Back Then

Doug: Last Friday afternoon our friend Aaron Meyers (@Aaronmeyers) posted the cover of Marvel Two-In-One #11 as one of his recent acquisitions. I immediately tweeted back at him, wondering if the retcon of Ben Grimm being Jewish would have made a difference in that story told 40+ years ago. So of course, that got me to thinking of other retcons that we know about and how certain stories, storylines, or elements of characterization would have been played differently.

The floor is open for nominations and discussion. Go!


Anonymous said...

I was gripped by the Hellfire Club/Dark Phoenix storyline in Uncanny X-Men #132-137 - I wasn't able to find the double-sized #137 in the shops so I finally got it via mail order some time later - if I'd known the Phoenix wasn't even Jean Grey all along I wouldn't have bothered trying so hard to acquire X-Men #137. The whole storyline was ruined by that stupid retcon.

Doug said...

That's a good one, Colin. It may have opened up even more story possibilities. And, the climactic battle could still have been one of redemption, only this time of the Phoenix force. Perhaps had we known all along that Jean was elsewhere, she could even have been the one to instigate the final triumph.


Anonymous said...

I'm not familiar with Marvel's Golem, so can't comment on specifics around Two in One 11 and any attendant ironies, contradictions or whatever, but - is Ben being Jewish really A retcon?
Can't believe it took Marvel so long to get round to that particular "revelation".
(Although they'd previously shown the Thing as Jewish in What If 11. I appreciate that wasn't Ben, but still...)


J.A. Morris said...

I'm having a tough time with this topic, since most of the major retcons came after I stopped following comics on a regular basis. But here's one:

Sometime in the late 80s/early 90s, it was revealed that Bruce Banner always had the potential to become the Hulk. He was abused as a child and his father Brian Banner killed Bruce's mother and forced Bruce to stay quiet. This led Bruce to develop multiple personality disorder, which (as I understand it) had as much to do with Bruce later transforming into the Hulk. It would've been nice for Rick Jones to know this, since he spent so much time following the Hulk around and trying to cure him, since he felt like he was to blame for Bruce's transformation.

Doug said...

Sean, to the best of my knowledge the reveal of Ben's religious background did not occur until this century. So at least 40 years of continuity had come and gone with ambiguity regarding that aspect of his character. Sure, most folks thought/knew Jack Kirby had based Ben on himself, but I don't think anything was explicit until FF #56 (vol. 3) in 2002.


Anonymous said...

Doug, maybe thats something to talk about - when is a reveal just a reveal, and when is it a retcon?
Now, Colin's Phoenix example... I'd say that was a retcon. Ben being Jewish is a reveal.


Doug said...

I see your point, Sean -- and it's well taken. Definitely more of a "reveal". Of course, now I'm trying off the top of my head to think of others. Matt Murdock's Catholic faith comes to mind, but I'm trying to think of something non-religious.

When Alex Summers showed up in X-Men #54 in 1969, comics fans had read of Scott Summers for six years. Was Alex's intro. a reveal or a retcon? Worse yet (maybe), what about Corsair being revealed as the Summers boys' father? Retcon or reveal.

This is a nice can of worms, Sean, and hopefully will be a nice addition to today's conversation.


William Preston said...

You could slice this even more particularly: There are "reveals" that make you think, "That's an interesting new piece of information." Then there are the one that make you think, "How could that not have been mentioned earlier? That was a key thing!" Both are bits of character development. Some further round out a character, delving into something previously unaddressed but nonetheless rising organically out of time and consideration given by writers. Some details, however (and Corsair seems like a good example of this), feel inorganically joined to the ongoing story and character and thus slip over the line into "If this had been established (or at least known to the writers) way back when, a lot of this character's history would have been different." I'm not saying the second kind is verboten; it seems like a natural development for a longstanding character who has had multiple writers.

What early Bronze-Age examples are there? Spidey's parents (was that Spidey Annual #3?)?

Then there are the times when writers tried to clarify something that had been dealt with somewhat variously throughout the years, such as Lee's own attempts to clarify the Don Blake/Thor situation and Cap and Bucky's final mission. The result is a retcon, but that wasn't the intention.

Interesting subject. Reminds me of the Sherlock Holmes stories and Doyle's wise decision to focus on the stories rather than on Holmes's personal narrative, thus keeping Doyle from having to keep track of revelatory character elements. (He couldn't even keep straight where Watson lived and whether, at any given time, he was married.)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

D'oh - I meant Captain America's ancestry, not his origin.

Anonymous said...

I pretty much agree with William. As an good example of "inorganic" developments that work, I'd suggest Swamp Thing 21 (tail-end of the "bronze age" maybe?)
I think it works because even though the original creators clearly intended ST to be Alec Holland, its an elegant development done really well.


Martinex1 said...

I like this conversation but sometimes thinking about it makes my head hurt. The reveal that Peter Parker's parents were spies or super agents bugged me. It somehow affected his Everyman status. He and his family were special. I tend to dislike that everybody a character knows is somehow special. And when that is revealed I groan. Corsair is a good example.

I also really disliked the more recent reveal that Norman Osborn was back and that he had a relationship and kids with Gwen. I cannot tell you specifically what changed in previous stories other than the mood. Now when I re-read early ASM it takes away a lot of the innocence in Peter's early relationship and seems so false.

Adding motivations to earlier actions also rubs me the wrong way. I cannot put my finger on the issue or particular story but somewhere along the way it was suggested that Reed wanted the team exposed to the cosmic rays. That makes him a villain not a hero and changes everything.

Martinex1 said...

Thought of one more...the revelation that a group of heroes had a secret Star Chamber like illuminati cabal since the days of the Kree Skrull war makes no sense. Namor Blackbolt Xavier Reed etc??? How could that be? That means much of the hero-fighting and inter-title conflicts were all an act. What did they do, have pretend fisticuffs and then go share brownies and brandy behind closed doors? Ridiculous. And also horrendously not in character for many of them.

William said...

To me, one of the filthiest terms in the English language is "ret-con". When it comes to comics (and other media) there is nothing I detest more than some writer basically saying "Everything (or some major thing) you thought you knew is wrong." It's like saying you've been lied to all these years.

How about this. Name a time when a ret-con actually improved on a character (or storyline).

To me there is either a bad ret-con that totally ruins the core concept of a character's entire personality (like when it was "revealed" that Gwen Stacy got busy with (uhg) Norman Osborn, and bore him children no less). If you took that to heart, it basically changes everything you ever thought you knew about Gwen Stacy's character, and pretty much destroys every story she was ever a part of. (Which is most of Spider-Man's early years). I personally choose to ignore it, as I have decided that every Marvel comic since Joe Quesada became EIC is basically a What-If story. But that's just me.

The other kind of ret-con is the banal kind that doesn't necessarily ruin a character, but also doesn't improve on them either. The kind of fact that if you never knew it existed, it really wouldn't change too much of how you feel about the character (like Ben Grimm being Jewish). It's just change for the sake of change which I find unnecessary for a comic book superhero.

I'm of the mind that sometimes the less you know about a character the better. For example take Wolverine. Was he not a much more interesting character before they decided to give him an "Origin" story? It pretty much eradicated his entire mystery man persona, which was one of the coolest things about him.

And it's not just comics, they also can ruin novels or movies with a ret-con. Take "Highlander" for example. The original movie was a brilliant and original action movie with a great premise. A story about mysterious immortal warriors battling throughout history. Awesome stuff. And then they made the sequel and ruined the whole thing by explaining that all the immortals were alien beings from another planet. What?? That really ruined the entire concept of the first movie. By revealing the origins of the characters it took away one of the coolest things about them, the mystery of their existence.

Sorry, I didn't really answer the exact question that was posed, but I really hate ret-cons (in case that wasn't clear). LOL

Redartz said...

How about the ret-con (reveal?) that Mary Jane Watson knew Peter Parker's secret from nearly the start? I actually think that worked fairly well. Given MJ's historical tendency to hide behind the cheerful 'mask', I don't see keeping the big secret as out of character. Unlike the Gwen/ Osborn fiasco William mentioned- I too refuse to accept that as canon. Jeez, what Captain Stacy would have said...

Anonymous said...

Redartz, I always liked the "MJ knew all along" retcon (and I wrote about it right here on BAB). But it does make me try to "read between the lines" in those old Spidey comics. Same with finding out Alicia Masters was a Skrull...it makes me try to spot clues in the old issues, even though there aren't really any, since it's a retcon!

Mike Wilson

david_b said...

Like most folks here, I basically have no desire to even consider ret-cons. Period. I know the writers back in the day had no inkling of the concept, so the idea of realizing it now and going back for clues is silly.

The legions of long-term serious Zuvembies and DC purists already have 'insight' into their characters.., then to have some writer attempt to throw a monkey wrench into all that after generations of great memories..?

One of the early ones I still detest was the Red Skull/Snap Wilson idea for the Falcon. Just felt it was a lame cop-out of an idea, which didn't make too much sense to begin with, but to now taint a strong and beloved character of mine.

What if in 10yrs, we discover Dick Grayson was a robot from the future the entire time he was Bruce Wayne's ward...? I mean, sheesh folks, where does it end..?

It sullies my desire to even care.

Anonymous said...

Dick Grayson as a robot from the future...?
Heres a good one - what if it turned out that Matt Murdoch was really a ninja assassin the whole time!
Except... that actually happened when Miller introduced Stick and that lot into Daredevil, doing a retcon to the origin. And I like those issues.

So... given that comics have to change over time - or a character who lasts decades is going to get really boring - I'm going to say it all boils down to whether the results make good reading or not.
Of course, most retcons don't, but thats just bad writing.


pfgavigan said...


I'm not entirely convinced that the Grimm revelation could count as a ret-con. I've looked at ret-con more as an attempt to write away a major event that impeded whatever the current creative team wanted to do . . . or was so repulsive to the readership of the book that the editorial staff thought that it had to be remove to improve sales.

I think I recall a column at Jim Shooter's defunct log concerning the Jean Grey/Phoenix revelation. If memory serves me correctly, and for once, it might, the decision for the X-Force book was made by the sales department and upper level management and it was dictated that the original X-Men, all the original X-Men, were to be part of the team. Shooter's thoughts were that the explanation for Grey's survival were that it was about the best one possible under the circumstances.

Does anybody a blog posting that Peter David wrote concerning when he had a little scene in The Incredible Hulk with a similar reveal about Doc Samson? It seemed that, back then at least, the assistant editors on the book were concerned about an negative impact upon sales should even such a minor character be / . . . is 'outed' the right term ? /. . . as jewish?

Maybe we could consider the casual reveal of Ben Grimm's cultural heritage as an improvement in editorial standards?

I guess I'm going to put myself into the "not necessarily opposed to ret-cons" category. With the weight of several decades pressing down upon many of the characters that we enjoy so much, the room to maneuver the story-lines for the current creatives is much more reduced than it was for Lee/Kirby. Sometimes something has got to go.

Or, to quote Pablo Picasso, "Every act of creation is first an act of destruction."



Redartz said...

Mike W.- thanks for the link; you covered that retcon deeply and well! Shame on me for not recalling it better. And yes, I also tend to analyze into her early appearances looking through the lens of her later-revealed knowledge...

Doug said...

Nice conversation today, kids -- thanks very much for the enthusiasm for this topic. And thanks again to Aaron Meyers, comic collector extraordinaire, for the inspiration.

I'll again say that Ed Brubaker's handling of the revival of Bucky Barnes was outstandingly well done. I have a review coming up in a few weeks of a mini-series called The Torch that features a revival of Toro and the Original Human Torch. The Cosmic Cube was a part of the beginning of the plot -- you know, the ultimate deus ex machina. But guess what? I was just thrilled to read a story about characters I was excited about as a youngster. I hope that energy comes across in the review, and that this conversation will rev up again at that time.


B Smith said...

Why don't Marvel just go "Aw, what the heck" and bring Uncle Ben back from the dead...they've done just about everyone else.

(This comment presumes they haven't already done so)

Garett said...

Uncle Ben: Winter Soldier 2!

spencer said...

Agree. Maybe where Ellis got his Planetary idea of the Four from.

spencer said...

Totally agree. One of the best things about being a "bronze age baby" is ignoring all that garbage that came later.

Related Posts with Thumbnails