Saturday, January 30, 2016

BAB Classic - Continuity, Part One: Decry it or devotion to it?

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 way to Part Two -- catch ya then, friends! 


Edo Bosnar said...

Another interesting topic, I'm looking forward to future installments. Just a question/observation, since I've seen this mentioned in a number of comic blogs & forums, i.e. Mary Jane as super-model. When did that happen? I pretty much stopped reading any ongoing Spider-man titles by around 1984, but it always seemed to me that Mary Jane WAS actually a struggling model/actress as you mentioned, but actually kind of BS-ed about how successful she was - which to me was part of her charm. So in that sense, her eventual marriage to the perpetually struggling Peter Parker made absolute sense.

Doug said...

Edo -

Thanks for the comment. Part 2 should be coming your way next Wednesday.

I believe the MJ super model stories were around the time David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane were the creative team on Amazing. I don't have my DVD-ROM with me to verify, but if I recall Peter at the time often lamented how his wife was carrying them financially, and McFarlane often drew MJ doing sexy photo shoots, etc. I think there were references to other real-life super models at that time, too. So this all would have been around issue #300.


ChrisPV said...

See, DC really has a problem with continuity. Mostly because of people like Johns who refuse to admit that some of the stuff from the Silver Age should be allowed to die. Three versions of the Legion is too darn much (although apparently we're back to the first one now.)

Final Crisis was totally impenetrable, and Infinite Crisis wasn't much better. Seriously, do you think the average fan has ANY idea who Kamandi or Anthro are? At all?

That's why I've abandoned DC comics. Too unwieldy, too fanboy baiting. The DCAU, however, is awesome. Gets all the important character beats without hitting you over the head with the silly stuff from the 50's and 60's.

Batman of Zur-En-Arh, anyone?

Humanbelly said...

Gosh, I feel like the five intervening years since this post was posted (although it was before I'd started popping onto this blog) have seen a shift in my own attitude on the subject.

Five years ago I think I was still buying a few comics, and still agonizing over the monthly march toward abandoning the characters and continuity across the Marvel U that had, quite literally, been a part of my entire life. This post probably would have got a pretty big rant from me then. Now? I gave up new comics entirely a few years ago (3? Maybe 4?), went through a grief process, and am now resigned to the fact that what I loved- in the way that I knew it- is indeed gone forever. And I can look at the current landscape from a detached peak a-ways off, and recognize that what I liked really was an unsustainable construct the longer it continued. We had a long, intense debate about exactly this point on the Avengers Assemble board about 2 or 3 years ago. Strict adherence to continuity, or a universe with malleable events? Character consistency, or character growth and change? And interchanges of even those simple tenants?

It comes down to individual preferences, of course. And even those get trumped by what will hopefully sell, as comics remain a for-profit enterprise regardless of all other considerations.


Martinex1 said...

I understand exactly what HB means as I dropped out of my weekly LCS visits years ago (although I pick up occasional new comics) and now look back at continuity with a bit of nostalgia. And I also can see how the construct can teeter as stories build on years of action.

But two things continue to bother me about continuity breaking. The first is that the stress in continuity seems to rest in the relationships so I often wonder why the creators don't just jettison the supporting cast, keep the main character and his / her traits, while building anew. Spider-man cannot continually battle JJ, worry about Aunt May, and stress over just Betty, Liz, Gwen or MJ forever. I saw opportunity when Aunt May died and Peter wasn't married yet. They could have had him leave town and start over in a different city with different relationships and even new villains. He could have kept his past and that past could become more distant as they created that illusion of change. I think continuity management has a lot to do with timing of relationship changes; In the early days Marvel was good at that. Peter pined for Betty but not for very long, Gwen was impactful with her death but wasn't around for decades. Once character interaction lasts twenty years it gets stale. And bringing dead characters back exacerbates that. Gwen, Aunt May, the Osborns ...all that does is bog down the illusion. All of those characters should just be distant memories that at most bolster Peter's sense of responsibility and loser status. Life can go on but the core character can stay the same. I think Stan understood that and was able to manage it. As time went on,writing got weaker. Just look at the villains; how many new villains have been created with any lasting impact compared to the early years? That also makes it difficult to move on because it causes the writer to continually go back to the same well.

My second beef about continuity is that nobody even tries anymore. I do pick up new books occasionally and even without much history in the characters, there is constant rebooting. A series will go 15 issues (15 decompressed issues) and then there is a new number 1 with a new creative team and a new direction. This makes it seem like there is no history and no consistency. Shifting sand. I can understand a reboot after 20 years but not after a few arcs. I think the pendulum has swung too far.

Well, enough ranting. I have to go live my continuous life. By the way, I am enjoying these reruns.

J.A. Morris said...

I'm someone in the middle between "decry" and "devoted" to continuity.

I'm glad Peter Parker grew up to a certain point. Do we really want to read stories about 15 year old "Puny Parker" getting taunted by Flash for 50 years? I sure don't. And I understand why Lee, Ditko and Romita wanted to have Parker grow up as his audience aged. Of course he didn't age in real time, first appearing in high school in 1962 (cover dated August), graduating from ESU in 1978 (cover dated October).

I think Marvel would have been better off at some point to have a Crisis-esque event that rebooted everything, maybe sometime in the mid-80s or early-90s, when it was getting a bit hard to believe these characters had been fighting crime in the 1960s.

I think what DC did with Superman is a perfect is example of what Marvel could have done with Spider-Man/Parker. Byrne's Man Of Steel miniseries was a great re-introduction of the character. The series that followed did a nice job of telling the readers, without literally stating it that "Welcome to the new status quo, this Superman didn't hang out with FDR."

If Marvel had taken a similar approach with Spider-Man, they could've avoided future problems that came about as the character aged. It would've been a better way to fix things than the Mephisto divorce story.

Redartz said...

Great discussion here folks!

J.A. - that Spiderman reboot you described would have been a good idea. Even holding off until the early 90's, giving Pete and MJ a chance to become more comfortable in their marriage, perhaps with a youngster. A good waycfor the Parker story to go full circle.

Martinex and HB- also agree with you; I am planted right in the middle on this issue. Love continuity but understand that a time comes to let it go, and rework things. But, as Martinex1 said, not after a couple of mere story arcs...

Anonymous said...

Continuity is fine as a tool, but not a crutch.

I have no problem with revisiting character origins, for example, and updating them IF! done well. Batman Year One and JLA Year One are much better than the original origin stories. X-Men Season One and First a Class give the mostly-boring original X-Men (the only one I really like is Beast) some oomph.

What I don't like is the insistence that things snap back to how they were when the writes & editors were readers. Hal & Barry had no compelling reason to come back. Lex Luthor doesn't work as Evil Mad Scientist after spending several years as a corrupt businessman. I was 12 in 1989, but I don't want a new slew of characters with mysterious pasts carrying huge guns.

I also don't like the Roy Thomas method of treating everything that happened in old comics as immutable facts. I far prefer the "broad strokes" that Marvel has used.

- Mike Loughlin

Anonymous said...

I tend to be a continuity fan in general; not that EVERY story has to be canon necessarily (like the Zur-en-Arh reference above), but the major events shouldn't be altered. I think the characters should age and grow and change...a 17 year old Peter Parker who's struggling with his job and can't talk to women properly is relatable, but after a decade or two it's not just stale, it's starting to look a little sad.

I think Marvel and DC keep assuming that they need to cater to younger readers, and that any new readers will be teenaged or younger, but that's not really the case anymore. Young people have movies and TV and music and internet and video games all begging for their money...comics aren't really a priority. So I think the companies should let their characters grow up instead of (artificially) trying to keep them young.

Mike Wilson

Dr. Oyola said...

I like the multiple world approach to continuity, wherein every story and event is available for use and development, but can also be safely ignored if necessary. When it comes down to it an long-running serialized shared universe is going to have an innumerable number of poor choices, weak stories and/or inconsistencies. Furthermore, as readers with different degrees of engagement and reading in different eras and at different times in our lives, we are going to have different feelings about those events and their importance.

I want those ruptures in continuity to remain available for productive use, but I also want writers to be able to ignore them if they want.

Anonymous said...

Being well into my forties, I find it hard to relate to superheroes who don't age (or who don't age very much). I don't trust anybody younger than me, because if I haven't got my shit together by now, how could they?
I think if Batman dropped down down out of a skylight and landed right in front of me, I'd tell him he was a crazy, mixed-up kid.
Not the Miller Batman, though. That guy had a temper.

Edo Bosnar said...

I guess I kind of fall in the middle of this debate as well, something I didn't even address in my comment from 5 years ago - because then, just like now, I didn't feel too passionate about it as I was not following any regular super-hero books from the big 2.
Generally I like continuity in the shared superhero universes, but I also don't think it should be a straitjacket.

Anonymous said...

First of all - the clone saga of the 90s gets way to much criticism. Genuinely great storytelling abounds throughout. One example - issue 400 of ASM. In fact, it was a great storyline, a great concept. Did it drag a bit? Maybe. But I firmly stand by it as great storytelling!

Doug said...

Anonymous -

Were you able to keep a straight face while you typed that? :)~

Doug (in the camaraderie of comics love)

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