Does Continuity Matter? Also this column is going to give you Nightmares. #SorrynotSorry
n which we contemplate how time has to contradict itself, how that might be a good thing and I leave you with an image that you’re going to see in your nightmares. Sorry about that, It was necessary.
Reader reaction thus far has been generally negative towards Age Of Ultron thus far, with most commentary being along the lines of ‘It doesn’t make a lot of sense.’, ‘There was too much waffling about the consequences of time travel.’, ‘Who is this Morgana Le Fay, anyway?’ and ‘All this for Angela? Really? Why don’t you just stick Bucky O’Hare and Lady Death in there as well?’
I don’t know if I liked Age of Ultron 10, and I wouldn’t even suggest I fully grasp all the side effects of Wolverine treating the Marvel timeline like his own brand of fan-fiction, but my understanding is that Logan jumping back in time, murdering Hank Pym for things he would do in the future, having a chat with New Future Tony Stark and then an alternate Wolverine going back and unkilling Hank has led to the Marvel Universe’s history being in total disarray. Various heroes are shown towards the end of the book with conflicting memories, suggesting that the timeline of the Marvel Universe is now totally open to anything happening and having happened. (Also, I was happy to see Blackbeard Thing. I’m easy that way.)Good. Does Continuity Matter? No.
Why? Because Reasons; here are some of them.:
Continuity only matters, for my money, if the story you’re writing and plotting has an ending. Narrative works on a pretty simple formula:
Status Quo, Disruption, Reestablished Status Quo. (Jokes about Francais Rossi and The Avengers singing ‘Pictures Of Matchstick Men’ begin here.)
Status Quo: Archie is on a date with Betty.
Disruption: Reggie tries to get off with Betty while Archie is distracted. Cherry Poptart shows up and takes Betty dancing.
Reestablished : Archie and Reggie go home. Story ends.
In both the Marvel and the DC Universe, their stories have been caught in a middle act for years. Decades, even. While non continuous comics and cartoon strips can play off the interactions between their characters possibly forever (Archie, Pogo, Calvin & Hobbes,) the Big Two superhero worlds run on the illusion that life is happening to their characters.
Be it Broken backs, Babies, Death, New costumes, and suchlike, when you’re telling stories that suggest there is a sequence of events happening to Spidey, Batman or Rocket Raccoon, then the chances are, you’re going to run into some problems.
There are rare occasions of stories in superhero universes being written with an ending in mind whilst happening in continuity.James Robinson’s Starman springs to mind and is totally recommended by me. Several times over.) Obviously comics get cancelled and the narrative is hastily reconfigured to accommodate the fact that your 75 issue magnum opus is now going to be finishing with issue 7. Also, ideally, if you’re creating a character for Marvel/DC, you’re probably writing with a view to get them into the same level of recognition as a Wolverine or Iron Man. Whose story you don’t want to end, for obvious T-Shirt and Video Game based reasons
Part of the reason Deadpool (who’s a very rare example of someone created after the end of the Kirby/Lee period of Marvel actually becoming popular in Real World stakes) works so well is that he’s almost anti-narrative and probably has more of an everyman mindset for the 21st Century than anyone else running about in comics today. People probably would like to be as efficient and cool as Batman but the truth is you or I would probably end up being Deadpool.
Speaking from a retail perspective Deadpool is a marketing dream. He’s got cross-media exposure, so ‘Straights’ (my term for people who don’t know the difference between Tim Drake and Jason Todd ) have an idea of who he is. While there is a back story to Wade Wilson all you really need to know about him is, ‘Unkillable Sarcastic Killing Machine. Think Bugs Bunny with a Boob Fetish and a ‘Kajillion Guns’. I’m not sure where the popular Fourth Wall breaking angle to the character came from (Certainly wasn’t talking to the audience when Rob Liefeld debuted him), but I’d stake money that Deadpool is probably the Mary Sue of comics fandom circa 2013.
Yet again, here’s the thing: He’s Anti-Narrative. The weight of Marvel History doesn’t loom over his comics except for a few in-jokes. Whomever the guest star is ends up as the straight man, regardless of whether Captain America is actually Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes or Commie Smash Cap William Burnside, he’s still just going to be the guy who ends up with literal or metaphorical pie on his face, and can just go back to the Avengers none the wiser.Yep, Deadpool is an easy sell, aided greatly by the fact that you don’t need an equivalent degree in Marvel History to understand what’s going before you own the comic; unlike say, Spider-Man.
Before anyone gets me wrong on this, I’m going to draw my line in the sand here. Marvel can do whatever they want with their properties. The key word in that sentence is ‘Their’.. It does make explaining what’s going on a bloody nightmare though and ultimately, in ten years time, I’ll need to know as much as Spocktacular Spidey as I need to know about Spidercide, Deb Whitman and Jonathan Casear now.
Pre-Netflix, DVD Box-Sets, Iplayer, YouTube, 4OD, etc , the only way to watch a show was its original broadcast. There were only so many channels, so ratings determined everything to a much stronger degree than it does now. While a Family Guy or Futurama could be saved by online petitions and strong DVD sales today, in those days the show would just be cancelled and that’d be the end of it. Booking for new episodes of a show were dependent on how episodes rated during ‘Sweeps Week’. If you had low ratings during that period, your show was dead and any number of things would take its spot.
Writers and Producers soon twigged this formula, and would craft stories so that huge plot developments would occur during this period, to ‘spike’ ratings. ‘Will Sam propose to Rebecca?’ ‘Who Shot J.R?’ and ‘Who, Seriously now, No more fucking about with Owls or Log Ladies, Killed Laura Palmer?’
Now with television, where things could be cancelled and you couldn’t go back and check things because there was no way of watching them, it was fine, to an extent. Mention the phrase ‘And then Bobby Ewing stepped out of the shower’ and watch eyes roll. Some of us are still upset that Becky was played by a different actress for at least one season of Roseanne by the way.
Still though, when spiking became a thing, nobody knew that in the future people would be pointing out the contradictions of the event decades later. Promising that we’d finally see Bruce Willis and Cybill Sheppard snog was just a way of hopefully keeping everyone’s job for another season. When comics picked up the habit though, things became difficult. DC were famous for making the most insane promises on their covers. Clark was finally going to marry Lois; Bruce was going to shack up with Selina; Jimmy Olsen would acknowledge that his habit of dressing up as women in order to infiltrate The Mob might suggest questions about himself he needed to answer.
The thing is, DC didn’t really have a timeline of events or a cohesive universe to worry about. Sure Superman and Batman saw each other all the time but the events in Action Comics barely affected the goings-on in Superman, let alone Detective. Something frontal-cortex fucking would happen in the pages of Batman Family and then it’d be written off as Alfred’s personal Fan-Fiction or some Make-Believe movie that the poor, bored shitless people of Kandor would have to watch while waiting for Clark to get them out of that bottle.
But then The Death Of Gwen Stacey happened. When Amazing Spider-Man promised ‘THIS Issue, Someone DIES!’, I imagine nobody realised that Marvel actually meant it.
Much has been written about the Death Of Gwen Stacey, whether it was Norm hitting her with the Goblin Glider or Pete catching her with his webbing that actually finished her off. Did Stan Lee come up with the idea to end her or was it Gerry Conway acting without Stan’s permission? Stories conflict but for the sake of this, all we need to know is that Gwen’s Death is probably the most significant one in modern comics. The adventures of Peter Parker had been a bit of a formulaic soap opera since Lee and Romita Sr left the book but now, well, things were happening. Importantly a sequence of events that couldn’t be reversed by writing it off as a ‘What If’ had occurred and it carried with it inherent problems.
Spiking became a thing across the Marvel (and later, with 1985 Maxi-Series Crisis On Infinite Earths, DC) until stories weren’t written with a view to advancing characterization, making a point or just telling an interesting story so much as they became time-killing build-up to ‘THE THING THAT OH MY GOD DID THEY ACTUALLY JUST DO THAT THEY DID I CAN’T EVEN!’ Spidey gets a Black Costume, Barry Allen Dies, Spidey Gets A Silver Costume, Supergirl Dies, Harry Osborn Dies, Superman leaves Earth, Spider-Man’s Parents Return, Jason Todd Dies, Doctor Octopus Dies, Batman Stops Being Batman, Pete Has Been A Clone For As Long As You’ve Been Reading Spidey.
Spike. Spike. Spike. Spike. Which is fine if that’s what you were planning to do since the inception of the character. If you had a finite narrative in mind. If Steve & Stan plotted from the start a story that went from Spies buggering off under the instructions of Nick ‘Father Time’ Fury through Norman Osborn sleeping with Gwen, Mary Jane being pregnant, Otto trying to marry May Parker, The Avengers, Spider-Prime, Miles Warren mucking about with clones, Alien Symbiotes, The Spider-Mobile and God knows what else I’m forgetting that would also be part of the ongoing, sprawling Marvel narrative, then possibly, all this would make sense.
Obviously they didn’t; admittedly Spikes that have been done to Spidey (Particularly in the early 90′s) are certainly more insane than most but this process also applies to pretty much every other major comics character published from Marvel or DC. When you try and correlate these events into some kind of ongoing story you either end up getting it wrong or having to create an event every ten years or so that explains how time is in a mess and pretend certain comics just didn’t happen.
The problem as Stan Lee put it, is ‘The Illusion Of Progress.’ With the best will in the world it’s the core troupes of these characters that the general public (who are more likely to buy a copy of Batman: Arkham Origins on Xbox 360 than they are Grant Morrison’s Batman Inc collections, which means a hell of a lot more to DC at the moment) are aware of. For everything we know about Spock, Ben Reilly, Mephisto, Miles Warren and Nathan Lubensky, eventually Spider-Man has to be about Pete, Power And Responsibilty, living with Aunt May, having bad luck, etc. Those constants have to be in place in the comics for the franchise to work. It’s only by messing them around that any shock value can be transformed into a Spike Comic.
So, Does Continuity Matter?
Honestly speaking, there’s no way it can matter. Either The Marvel Universe is made up of a series of events that happen sequentially (Which makes the fact that Franklin Richards hasn’t aged and Katie Power has difficult, since they hung out when they were kids. Except Katie is now a teenager but Franklin is still a kid because one of the constants of The Fantastic Four is that Reed and Sue have a young son called Franklin. Also, no one really cares about Katie Power) that has to finally come to a conclusion OR you create some kind of set-up akin to Archie Comics where characters interact but the status quo is resumed at the end of each issue*
Right now Marvel has created a culture of shock fatigue. There’s literally nothing that Dan Slott can do to the cast of Superior Spider-Man that can have any effect on me beyond ‘I wonder how they’re going to undo that then.’ That’s not a case of him being a bad writer. I really like Superior Spidey as a quick read. But there’s nothing anyone at Marvel can do to convince me I’m actually reading a chapter of an ongoing story that has an ending; which is what gives those Spikes real impact. That’s down to seeing Janet Van Dyne die and turn out to have been sent to The Microverse. Watching Bucky Barnes snuff it but turn out to be a Life Model Decoy. Due to watching Spike after Spike after Spike after Spike over the last twenty years that have a need to be undone to maintain the Status Quo/Narrative Conflict suggests to me that my understanding of Age Of Ultron is the most positive one. DC did something similar with Mark Waid’s The Kingdom a while back, where the suggestion was while every appearance of Sugar & Spike, Comet The Super-Horse and The Inferior Five had all happened but while there wasn’t a need to ever refer to them again, nor would they need to brutally wiped from history.
I suspect Marvel might be onto something with the same idea. They’ve got a lot of good will out of how well Marvel Now! has done, both critically and commercially. While I don’t think any of our wallets are looking forward to Battle Of The Atom, Superior-Month and Infinity all happening at once, they’re on the ball with their current books whilst also upsetting the right people enough to know how to create nerdrage by clearly chuckling when working out how to abuse the Spider-Man franchise next. What they don’t want to be doing is ‘explaining how it all comes together with explanations probably blabbed at us by The Watcher.
It all happened; unless you refund me full price on comics I bought that you say didn’t happen anymore. Don’t try and make sense of it, because you can’t. Inherently you can’t. The only way to’ fix’ it is to try and draw a line in the sand and suggest certain comics didn’t happen and that tends to end pretty badly. It’s a short term solution that renews interest in your properties for a limited period but readers tend to become annoyed when you tell them that they’ve just wasted years worth of money buying comics that have no relevance anymore.
After all how many of the ‘All Time Greats’ in the super-hero genre throw the rulebook out of the window and just tell a story? Superman:Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow, Dark Knight Returns, Spider-Man: Tangled Web, Superman:Red Son, Elektra:Assassin, Ambush Bug, Marvel Zombies, The Golden Age, Punisher Kills The Marvel Universe and even current fandom darling Hawkeye could be happening anywhen. They’re good stories because they tell an interesting tale free of worrying whether they correlate between Adventures Of Superman 532 and Man Of Steel 23.Don’t write tapestries; Write Good and we’ll be there.
*This isn’t the terrible idea it might sound. DC’s better books of the last few years have been the ‘kids books’ that play with continiuity but don’t really deviate from it, such as Evan Dorkin, Mark Millar and Scott Mccloud’s issues of Superman Adventures and Batman:Brave And The Bold. See also Marvel letting Ty Templeton run amuck with Ultimate Spider-Man. (Not the Bendis one, which is proof of ‘Trying to solve The Status Quo/Narrative Conflict times a Kajillion.)