I WILL TELL YOU #40: Continuity Must Die – Part 4

Three weeks ago, as I hope you remember, I wrote about how comic book continuity had become a problem. That was here. Then two weeks ago, as I think you remember, I said that the focus should be on stories, not continuity. That was right here. And last week, as you’d better remember, I went so far as to say that continuity was an addiction, and we were all overdosing. That was way over here.

We must be overdosing; I don’t know how else to explain it. We’re obviously hallucinating, because we think characters like Superman and The Amazing Spider-Man are real. All the while, insisting that the Earth-2 Superman and The Ultimate Spider-Man are still imaginary; at least that’s refreshing, to know that we still acknowledge that some of these characters are only fictional constructs. I guess we’re not completely tripped out.

To continuity freaks, this means "just kidding".

Maybe I’m being too cruel. Understand; I “get” it. I know what people mean when they differentiate a comic story or character that they consider real versus one that isn’t. I guess what I’m struggling with is: why it matters. I struggle with why readers and fans feel compelled to draw that definitive line between that oxymoronic thing we call imaginary realities. I struggle how a story that would anger, upset, or otherwise offend is made acceptable with the addition of that little Elseworlds logo on the cover.

So I therefore struggle as to why Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, for instance, is given less relevance because it falls outside a certain fictional reality. Why are the adventures of this version of the character considered any less “real” than that of the one being written by, say, J Michael Straczynski, or Paul Cornell? Especially when it’s a far superior work? If Morrison’s Superman had revoked his own citizenship, for example, would it have received the same attention that it did in Action Comics?

I’ll repeat: I get it. I know what continuity is supposed to do. It’s supposed to provide a historical backstory that’s intended to give the stories and characters more depth and believability. It’s supposed to be a set of guidelines that establishes what characters can and cannot do. It’s supposed to bring the four color world one step closer to our own, where things that happened in the past impact the events of the present and future.

And here’s what it’s not supposed to do: it’s not supposed to hogtie writers and hamper them from telling stories that readers will like. It’s not supposed to be an unmovable anchor that prevents modern day readers from venturing out and enjoying stories about older characters. And it’s certainly not supposed to addict us and enslave us, preventing us from enjoying stories that are supposed to be fun.

This reboot: accepted.

In fact, so problematic is this that we as fans can’t even agree on what’s supposed to be canon and what’s not. Fans had long accepted John Byrne’s redefinition of Superman’s origin in Superman: Man of Steel, but were not so accepting of Byrne’s similar attempt with Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Chapter One. And the most common reason I’ve heard for this is that Byrne’s alterations to Superman were well-regarded, but his tweaking of Spider-Man was reviled. So does that mean we, as fans, can flagrantly disregard continuity if it’s something we don’t like?

This reboot: ree-jected.

Well? Does it?

I will tell you: absolutely. Why should we feel bound by something we hate? Especially something as fundamental as a character’s origin? If we don’t like a story, we have a right to reject it. It’s our right as fans, and as paying customers. Byrne’s changes to Spidey have largely been wished to the cornfield by the fans. So have the love twins of Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn. And the teenage Tony Stark. And the whole Heroes Reborn thing.

Also rejected by fans.

But when creators tamper with past continuity, we’re ready to have them fired, banned from comics, and finish out their careers writing obits for the Poughkeepsie Times. A lot of comic stories have been a mistake. And sometimes, publishers are smart enough to recognize that, and recognize when something should be disregarded in order to move forward. And when they do, they should be allowed to fix it, if possible, and pave over it, if not.

And, fellow fans, that’s where DC is right now. The DCU is being paved over, if not outright being bulldozed and rebuilt.

Epic fail before the first issue. Reeeeee-jected.

Continuity must die, and it is. And it had to, because it would have killed us, instead. Killed us, along with our ability to recognize a good story regardless of its place in some arbitrary, make-believe universe. And it would have killed comics, eventually, had they continued to tread down a road that had become all but impassable.

But, listen up, DC: don’t blow this. Don’t. Playing fast and loose with continuity doesn’t mean that if Jimmy Olsen breaks his arm in this month’s issue, that he should be trying out for the Metropolis Sluggers in the next. It doesn’t mean that new readers should be introduced to fifty parallel universes and expected to keep track of the differences between Superman from Earth-12 and the one from Earth-27. And for Rao’s sake, it doesn’t mean we need yet another telling of Superman’s origin.

There’s a difference between continuity and editorial discipline. Loosening up the strangling effects of rigid continuity does not grant an editor the right to blatantly discount basic storytelling. Disregarding a Challengers of the Unknown story from forty years ago is one thing; disregarding one from last month is another. And regurgitating old stories should never be done at the expense of telling new and exciting ones.

Continuity is dead.

And continuity is reborn.


About Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson (@quigonjimm) will tell you! He got a chance to write for the big boys at CBR, so we don’t see him around the site as much as we used to. Check out his stuff anyway!


  1. “wished to the cornfield”

    +1 for the Twilight Zone reference. I was so satisfied by that, I stopped reading.

    Eh, I’m lying, I did read all of it.

    I remember a few years back, when a certain largely forgotten Zatanna miniseries did away with Z talking backwards to cast a magic spell. A year or two later, Mark Waid used Zatanna in a story, with the reverse magic speak in full effect. When queried about that miniseries and its continuity, Waid invoked good writer’s privilege: Anything that sucks can be disregarded.

    Sure enough, Z has spoken backwards ever since, so that early 90’s miniseries goes on the discard stack in the continuity card game.

    The thing about continuity shackling is that you never know if it’s in effect or not *right now* – the moment you’re reading and digesting any given story.

    I used to religiously document every book I read in a database which would be the foundation of all DC knowledge (to my naive self of 20 years ago). I look back on some of my notes now, and just have to laugh. “First appearance of The Sponge” – some random villain in some random book that nobody would even remember now. “World threatened” event – overshadowed by whatever “world threatened” event comes along in the next issue. By and large, the great majority of notes I took have no value to anyone now. All that painstaking tracking of continuity mostly doesn’t matter.

    There’s a more recent good example of this unknown state you’re in at the moment you’re reading a book. In the Millar run of Fantastic Four, Doctor Doom is fried to a crisp right before your eyes. Stone cold dead. My old database would have been updated: “Death of Doctor Doom”

    And did the world erupt with madness and did everyone rush to the comic shop for that milestone issue? Nope. A few issues later, as luck would have it, old metal face was reconstituted and life went on.

    However, not very long after all that, Johnny Storm dies and the world DID react, and that event became a real FF milestone.

    Certainly, there are external sources (CBR, Newsarama and even Marvel itself) telling us that *this* is important and *that* isn’t. But, we don’t always have that external context when we’re reading.

    Is this book I’m reading right this moment going to be something that future writers and editors will describe as suckage and be disregarded? Or am I reading something that will become seminal and become the “Dark Knight” for future generations to keep coming back and re-reading?

    It’s not always that easy to tell. Even really good reads slip away into the ether after a while. JLA: The Nail comes to mind as something really great that nobody really references anymore. But, then again, it was Elseworlds and therefore “doesn’t count!”

    • This touches on a good point; how many stories are really highly-regarded enough for anyone to even CARE if they’re canon or not? It’s probably a safe bet to say that no one clamored for the return of The Sponge, but if he / she / it did appear again, the writers could probably do whatever they wanted and no one would care.

  2. Within this, you’ve hit a problem of the industry….the constant retelling of origins. Maybe if we just stuck with one, and moved forward, the industry would as well.

    And, I see that as a plus for continuity (as, an origin stays, and we all move forward!)

    • I completely agree. Last year alone saw two more takes on Superman’s origin (JMS and Johns). Even without the problems that have plagued recent Superman stories, it seems as though DC could never really grow the character because they were stuck on repeatedly trying to get his origin right.

      To me, an origin nowadays should be treated more like a religion; believe the one you want, accept it on faith, and agree to disagree with someone who recognizes a different version. Siegel & Shuster’s? John Byrne’s? Mark Waid’s? Take your pick. But carry on with life, rather than becoming a zealot.

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