Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Opening Rant: Contra Continuity

I was going to open with an introduction, but then I realized that you probably wouldn't care, so I'll begin with a discussion (that is, a rant, although hopefully an intelligent and well-informed one).

The blog will begin with an assault on a cursed chain that cruelly and crushingly constrains creativity, credibility and character development in comics about caped crusaders and  costumed cavaliers: continuity.

Before I proceed, I have to admit that I admire the ambition and audacity that comic book companies like Marvel and DC have displayed in creating their great shared universes.  These fictional universes, some of the only places where we can find Greek and Norse Gods, alien superbeings, tech-slinging gadgeteers, stretchy people, and streetwise vigilantes standing shoulder to shoulder against a similarly broad range of natural and supernatural evils besieging humanity, are the product of years of effort and exacting scrutiny to prevent contradictions from arising.  Hats off.

However, despite my respect for the effort that has gone into creating and maintaining these expansive continuities, I believe that they harm both the quality of stories and the revenue streams of the two superhero comics titans.  Having a long-term universe continuity alienates new readers, prevents certain types of experimentation and character development, and strains the willing suspension of disbelief required for many standard superhero plots to work.

The first of the criticisms listed above is also the simplest to explain and understand.  A work which resides in a long-lasting continuity in any sort of meaningful sense will reference details from earlier works in the continuity and have events which lie within chains of causality that stretch back toward the past of the series.  Thus, full appreciation of the work will typically require some knowledge of past events.  This can be be a big problem for a new reader.

Let's use a recent highly acclaimed event within the DC comics universe as an example: the miniseries 52.  52 was a grand, year-long book-a-week event featuring international conflict, the redemption and second fall of an ancient villain, a mystery cult that resurrects the dead, a time-traveler who exploits his knowledge of the future to fight crime, and a lesbian policewoman investigating a gang selling alien superweapons-- and the resulting comic lives up to that premise in awesomeness.  Despite this, I could easily see a new reader giving up in frustration after the first issue.  I'm reasonably well-informed, but I still needed to make a few trips to Wikipedia to find out who two of the major characters featured-- Ralph Dibney and Black Adam-- were.  Somebody completely new to the DC canon-- or at least, the parts of it that have not entered broader pop-cultural awareness-- would have to look up just about everyone who appears within the first few pages alone.  That's a significant effort barrier between the reader and enjoying the comic, and a tough one to surmount.

By locking out new readers, DC and Marvel are pushing away a big potential sales base.  The public definitely has an appetite for stories about superheroes.  The Dark Knight, the Spider-Man films, and even movies about relatively obscure figures like Iron Man and Thor have been big hits.  Perhaps if they were as open to newer readers as the films have been to new audiences, the incarnations of these heroes in their original medium could do the same.

Continuity also puts major constraints on the stories which writers can create and readers can accept.  Continuity demands consistency.  Batman cannot be grim and stoic in one issue, then cheerful and campy in the next.  If the Flash can run faster than the speed of light, he cannot find himself limited to Mach 1 without good reason.  If Spider-Man fails to save Gwen Stacy's life, she must remain dead in future issues, unless she's resurrected.  Anything else will strain our suspension of disbelief.

Unfortunately for superhero comic book writers, most superhero plots revolve around the heroes dealing with various types of supernatural enemies or obstacles.  Most heroes are fairly intelligent people, and we expect them to be able to use skills and solutions that they have used before again.  This leads to a problem when you have a character like the third Flash, Wally West, who, in one in-continuity issue, outraces death itself by running through the spacetime continuum to the very end of the existence of the universe, and then, upon arriving back in his own time, travels back in time to save his girlfriend from her untimely death in the last issue.  This, and other events like it have made the current core lineup of the Justice League into six gods and Batman, and turns many plots involving them into exercises in character stupidity.

The need for consistency also makes certain types of in-continuity universe changes impossible, because they would make future stories difficult.  The permanent death of a character like Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man would make future stories with that character impossible, killing a revenue stream for the company.  This means that any storyline which involves the possible death or death of one of these characters loses much of its emotional impact.  Grant Morrison's brilliant All-Star Superman was a story set outside the DC universe's continuity.  It was set during Superman's final days-- and it could gain actual emotional power from the scenario because we knew that this version of Superman would not have to be resurrected to continue to rake in the cash.  Taking away the continuity allows us to have things like aging and authentic death affect the great superheroes, lending additional weight to their stories.

Consistency's constraint on characterization is also, in my opinion, a problem for superhero comics.  Superheroes are mythic figures.  They stand in the public consciousness like Achilles and Odysseus stood in the minds of the people of ancient Greece.  Like all mythic figures, they're subject to multiple interpretations.  Is Superman a godlike being who puts on the mask of humble Clark Kent in order to understand the ordinary humans he protects, or a Kansas farm boy and skilled journalist who puts on the godlike persona of Superman in order to protect his fellow humans?  Both of these interpretations are aspects of the Superman myth, and both can be the root of worthy and interesting stories.  Mythic characters also make especially good fodder for stories that reinterpret aspects of their characterization.  The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus created one of the world's most powerful and enduring pieces of drama, the Oresteia trilogy, by taking the story of Agamemnon's death and changing one of its central figures, Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra, from a passive woman who goes along with her lover's plan to kill her husband to an active woman who kills her husband in anger over his role in their daughter's death.  Even the Iliad featured a reinterpretation-- it's fundamentally a story about how the godlike Achilles comes to respect his more human opponent, Hector, and gains the ability to forgive and grieve for him.  Many great comic stories also feature character reinterpretation: Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns sees Batman become a much darker, more savage figure, and Alan Moore's Watchmen is a reinterpretation of the entire myth of the superhero.  Continuity concerns exclude stories like this from the main output of comics publishers.

In a world without continuity, writers could be free to just write accessible stories about both publishers' stables of characters, and be able to introduce new ones without stepping on other writers' toes.  Super-beings engaged in Silver-Age silliness could be published alongside more serious and tragic interpretations of the same figures.  And we could let our modern myths be truly godlike without fear of making their future adventures exercises in stupidity.

Note to the reader: this blog will be about more than just comics.  All manner of subjects will be broached!


  1. I definitely see where you are coming from on this rant, and your first point is the main reason that I have not read any of either universe. There is just so much to know and keep track of in each universe, and it doesn't help that the universes have been around longer than I have. I feel as though some longer interconnected book series also suffer from this problem. It's one of the daunting things about the Discworld series. Obviously, it is much more manageable, but the problem still persists.

    Hmm..So the suggested solution is to allow the same iconic DC and Marvel characters be re-used again and again without continuity between all of the issues? So different universes in which these characters interact and sometimes die? I do have to admit that this is definitely appealing, however there are some problems as always. If we just had many interpretations of the same character, all written by different writers and artists, then we run into the problem of the character not being so iconic. I realize that we do have these different interpretations already. Perhaps this is just me being resistant to change, but it seems as though the continuity of the universes allows DC and Marvel more clout, the ability to tie everything together. I'm not expressing this very well; it's something vague about the continued universes allowing for more name-dropping. Smaller series might lead to smaller characters; more realistic and less silly no doubt, but also less iconic. Is this making any sense? I fear not.
    On a clearer note, multiple universes could be just as confusing and daunting as the continued universe if the same characters are used. Also pretentiousness becomes that much easier.
    I think different, unrelated universes with new characters would be more awesome, but then we end up with fewer iconic, awesome characters.
    Alas, we shall never be satisfied.

    I think I should end here. This comment got a little away from me. Sorry for any incoherence. :p

  2. Having very little knowledge of Marvel or DC, I can find very little wrong with your points... this was very well written and a pleasure to read. I'm so glad I discovered your blog before the posts piled up!
    Um, I guess I do have to say that I think these multiple universes, of which Marvel's or DC's version of the story is but one, already exist in the pages of fan fiction. The version output by Marvel is simply the original, and therefore has value in the eyes of collectors and enthusiasts. If Marvel were to take the steps you have proposed and do away with its continuity, then it'd become no better than the best of the fan fiction writers. it will have lost its "original" and "historical" appeal. I suppose it would be able to charge for services that fan fiction writers usually provide for free, but in gaining that piece of market it might well lose another. Legitimacy is, in a sense, a marketable slice of intellectual property.


    haha. actually,
    all I really, really wanted to say was:
    I absolutely ridiculously worship the raging alliteration in your second paragraph. amazing.