What “Continuity” Is, As We Grow Older
“Continuity” is a straw that stirs addled neurons all across the spectrum of commentators upon the superhero genre. It’s “too involved” and is driving the kids to seek the more immediate pleasures of Manga (if that’s what they want–who cares?)… it’s an info-crutch for nerds who can’t bear to think about the details of their own lives (again, do you really think that these nerds would be “okay” if Marvel & DC would just stop referring to their own corporate pasts?)… it’s a sham anyway, because, you know, the kids grow up while the adults stay the same, and it’s always “now” (but you know, the same thing goes on in Peanuts–which I love, by the way–not to mention a lot of other revered strips. In fact, in the medium as a whole, series like Cerebus–in which the characters do age at a regular rate–are more the exception than the rule…and there’s nothing wrong with either approach, as far as I’m concerned…)
Darren Madigan, the fanboy’s fanboy, has written extensively on this subject. When Madigan is on, there is no purer–or more intelligent–exponent of the demented impulse to reify past narrative. For Darren, the Silver Age stories produced at Marvel and DC are actually scripture, and the world they describe is more real to him than the one he is forced to share with us. But let’s hear it from the man himself (and I urge you to read everything at the Calliope Martian Vision site–Darren & I don’t agree on anything, but that stuff is awesome–especially the Englehart piece):
There are other names and labels that the It’s Just A Story Contingent likes to affix on real, actual superhero comic book fans like me: anal, obsessive, compulsive, humorless, inflexible, lacking in a sense of wonder… and none of these are labels I, or you, if you are like me, particularly want to have applied to us, either. But the most stinging indictment, the most persuasive and telling, the one that makes those of us who truly care about continuity become very meek and quiet about it whenever a covey of Grant Morrison fans are slapping each other on the back and hooting like spavined whelk over the utter brilliance of the latest issue of whatever it is Morrison is ignoring continuity on this month… is that statement that we are childish, and immature, and bratty, and acting like a little kid, when we insist that Superman or Green Lantern or Green Arrow should continue to behave in a manner that they have heretofore been established consistently as behaving in.
…when you treat the adventures of Spider-Man, or Green Lantern, or the X-Men, or Batman, as Just A Story… you are intrinsically saying, Those People Are Not Real. The World They Live In Is Not Real. It’s just fiction, that people like you or me, or, actually, people dumber, and with much less talent than you or me, can manipulate as suits them to make money for themselves and other people higher up the food chain.
In other words: “It’s just a freaking STORY, fanboy. LIGHTEN UP.”
This is entirely unacceptable to me.
Okay, look, I know they’re fictional constructs created, for the most part, to sell magazines and merchandise and make a bunch of people a lot of money. The… Grown Up… in me knows that.
But the grown up in me isn’t the part of me that reads and loves superhero comics. And the grown up in me, in this regard, can go soak his head.
The reason I love continuity is that deep down inside, the little kid that loves superhero comics is absolutely certain that THOSE GUYS ARE REAL. That THEIR WORLDS ARE REAL. That, if you could build a machine to cross the dimensions (just like THEY do) you would, somewhere, find an actual, objective, existent DC Earth-whatever, and an actual, objective, really and truly, honest to Irving Forbush, Marvel Universe.
There’s a lot more there, and it’s all fun! Of course, I disagree with every last syllable of it–but you decide for yourself! One interesting thing about all of this is how closely Darren’s attitude tallies with the “sophisticated”/TCJ point of view on superhero comics. Kirby, Ditko, etc…these guys were masters of the universe, and they created something beautiful, innocent and untainted by their incompetent epigoni… There’s a glossary entry in Seth’s It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken that basically whines about how the big corporate Marvel of today is pissing on his childhood memories…
The Madigans and the Seths take completely different angles of attack, but their point of impact is the same–Seth wants comics to “grow up” (and I like his work, but I don’t think he has anything interesting to say about superheroes–like a lot of other people involved in this debate, he’s way too close to the issue, and he has no perspective whatever); Darren just wants the silver age superheroes to stop–they belong to him and to his generation–“you want superheroes you fuckin’ little brats? make up your own! Peter Parker is sixty years old now and he’s tired, see? And believe me–there’s nothing elastic about Reed Richards anymore. Just ask Sue. Everything you see printed about these folks these days is a goddamn LIE!! Marvel has all of us in a Liddleville/Matrix headlock and they’re making us see things that just aren’t REAL… The Infinity Gauntlet actually took place on a geriatric bocci ball court in Long Island–but THEY prevented you from seeing it that way…”
That’s Darren’s story and he’s sticking to it.
Okay. Now, enter Tim O’Neil. What does he think about all of this? Well, basically the same thing (except he’s a little younger than Darren). The fact is that, immediately after complaining about the “intensely, painfully retarded fanboys” who cannot accept change, Tim proceeds to confess that he is appalled by John Byrne’s plan to “retcon” Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol out of existence! See, Morrison’s run is the “real” Doom Patrol! In this case, Tim sounds like just as much of a reifying fanboy as Darren does. Ditto all of those people out there who revere Kirby, but hate his descendents with an unnatural passion.
Now listen, I would bet my life that Byrne’s DP will suck in comparison to Morrison’s, but that doesn’t make it any more or less “real”… I hate to keep invoking Magritte, but goddamn it the man continues to be relevant. There has never been, and never will be, a “true story”. A story is a story. Truth is something else entirely. The “Continuity” vs “Imaginary story” binary is absolutely worthless, as far as I’m concerned. You read all the time how Marvel’s “continuity revolution” in the sixties brought a new “realism” into comics. I disagree completely. In fact, I think it did the reverse. By cramming the panels with footnotes, hovering over the pictures in self-reflexive narrative captions, orchestrating almost continuous x-overs, and allowing readers to reason their way into the stories through the lettercols–Stan Lee actually played up the textuality of his work.
So, what is “continuity” then? Well, at this point, I think it’s something like T.S. Eliot’s “tradition” in microcosm. To get the most out of reading a Marvel or DC comic, you have to be familiar with where it fits into the history. And I’m not talking about character histories here, I’m talking about interpretive histories. Actually, the proper term for this isn’t history at all–it’s historiography.
My reading of Gruenwald’s Captain America is enriched by my understanding of how radically his interpretation differs from Kirby’s or Englehart’s version of the character. And if I have the time and money, I will certainly read Kirkman’s Cap, because, whether I wind up liking the issues themselves or not, I will still derive a certain gratification from thinking about them in connection with what has come before. This is why I believe that Darren is dead wrong when he claims that Grant Morrison doesn’t care about comic book history. Of course he does! He just doesn’t reify the past. He jumps into it for a healthy swim–he doesn’t drown himself in it. And, like Emerson, he begs you not to reify his own work by transmuting it–through the alchemy of reverence–into quicksand. What the hell else was the finale to Animal Man about?
At this point, I think we can just retire the term “continuity” anyway–“awareness of tradition” is a more descriptive term for the phenomenon, in this age of continual (and overt) “retcons”… The onus is now on the readers, not the editors. And if that alienates readers who don’t want to do “homework” before they can begin to enjoy the issues–so be it! And if that means the whole genre is doomed–well, that’s just the way the continuity crumbles, right? Blake isn’t really BLAKE unless you’ve read Milton–and Animal Man isn’t ANIMAL MAN (although, I firmly believe that, even to the uninitiated, it can still be Animal Man!) unless you’ve read Crisis and old Supergirl adventures that featured Streaky the Super-Cat… Oh yeah, let’s get rid of “retcon” too–it’s just “reinterpretation”, people. And what’s wrong with that?
Good Afternoon Friends!
Ah, it’s all just a power struggle over competing discourses–those who lay claim to superiority through their own knowledge of previous stories versus those who lay claim to superiority through an embrace of the new and an assumption that the past is irrelevant. As with so many other things, I return to the words of Murray Kempton: “A while back I fell into one of those tiresome discussions where the other party says you take Julius Erving and I’ll take Larry Bird and you take Sarah Vaughan and I’ll take Ella Fitzgerald. There was no disposing of such nonsense except to observe that the years have taught me to be grateful for having them all.”
An essay should be written on how continuity in popular culture universes has been treated in the past. Balzac’s attention to detail and appreciation of consistency versus Gaboriau’s & de Boisgobey’s willingness to sacrifice coherence for their audience; Feval’s careful construciton of a coherent, 30+ year universe versus Jules Verne’s occasionally fluid approach to his character’s histories; the Eternal Now of the dime novel characters like Old Sleuth versus the incremental aging and routine nods to the past of Nick Carter. We could look at how past audiences reacted to these approaches. We could examine whether the anti-continuity-in-comics folks are practicing a literary bigotry of their own and excusing things in comics which they would not allow in literature. We could even cast our nets deeper and go back to the unauthorized sequels to El Cid, the Arthurian Apocrypha, and the versions of Judge Bao (a mini-continuity debate in itself, and an interesting precursor to the Retcon Wars: “he died” “no, he didn’t, the Five Gallants saved him” “you’re only saying that because you’re a Qing bastard–‘Overthrow the Qing, restore the Ming!'”). Yes, we could do all that. And when the stars are right, we will. Me, I agree with Alan Moore’s Joker: sometimes I do prefer the past to be multiple choice.
Good post Dave. I’m seconding your outstanding notion to abandon the term “continuity” for “awareness of tradition”. I think long-time readers will accept a story that violates “continuity” if it is a good story. And to be a good story involving pre-existing characters, there should be an “awareness of the strip’s tradition” by creators. And if the creators don’t see anything worth salvaging in the character’s “tradition”, they should examine why they are using an existing character instead of creating a new one.
that’s a project I would love to participate in Jess–as you say, when the stars are right!
and H (or was that Mag? it sounds like H!)–I agree completely: writers who don’t have any interest in playing off their interpretations against what has gone before really shouldn’t bother writing established characters! What would be the point? “Big Two” superheroes absolutely require the “historiographical” treatment…
Tim proceeds to confess that he is appalled by John Byrne’s plan to “retcon” Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol out of existence! See, Morrison’s run is the “real” Doom Patrol! In this case, Tim sounds like just as much of a reifying fanboy as Darren does.
Well, I can’t answer for Tim, but one can be annoyed because Morrison’s run is getting erased out of contin… err… awareness of tradition and still not care about awareness of tradition all that much. I know that sounds like having your cake and eating it, but it’s more like having your cake and eating another cake you just pulled out of the ether. I don’t care that Grant’s Orion acted somewhat different from Kirby’s. I don’t care that Geoff Johns forgot Impulse already had a girlfriend in Teen Titans, but I’m still sad that Morrison’s run is getting erased, because it had so many great concepts and characters that could have been used again and now sure as hell won’t. It’s not that the Brotherhood of Dada is no longer quote “real” unquote, but that now they won’t show up again. It’s like they cut a big portion of awesomeness, leaving a big hole to be filled by… Byrne, and that sucks.
Now, the way I see it, “continuity” and “awareness of tradition” are not the same thing at all. “(Non)adherence to continuity” is only part of “awareness of tradition.” Byrne’s Doom Patrol will arguably not be unaware of Morrison’s Doom Patrol. Byrne’s willfull “ignorance” of all previous Doom Patrol texts is itself an interpretative statement about those texts — at the very least, “These previous texts are not worth reading.” Absence of critical response is itself a critical response.
that’s exactly how I see it Steven!Whether Byrne likes it or not, I’m sure he knows that many people are going to be comparing his run to Morrison’s, and he’s going to have to deal with the consequences! I, for one, will be picking up the books expressly for the purpose of teasing out an idea of what Byrne thinks Morrison did “wrong” (he won’t convince me–but the juxtaposition will be interesting, nevertheless)
A fine piece, and one that underscores a conflict any of us who’ve been comics readers for more than a decade (I’m 37 years into it now, give or take a few months) have had to deal with from time to time.
As if often the case, my passion about the subject has cooled considerably with the years. Anyone who follows characters for decades (especially Marvel’s characters as they moved from their Silver Age forward) sees that details, at least, have to be abridged by the seeming market demands that “now” always be NOW. The Fantastic Four started with a Moon shot, but had to change that to the test of an interstellar drive. Reed and Ben were heroes of WWII originally, but — gah — who wants to even think what conflict they’d be party to now? Flash Thompson obviously never went to ‘Nam, … and that’s just the relatively small stuff.
The healthiest approach is likely to consider each island block of internally-consistent continuity as it’s own, and shroud any proposed mists between that and other such blocks in perpetual fog. It’s disappointing to the kid in me who KNOWS what he read in 1970, inside and out, but mainstream comics continuities haven’t generally been allowed to roll on at their own pace. In my perfect, once-passionate fanboy’s universe, the Fantastic Four would likely have reached the early 70’s by now at the latest, which would have necessitated an entirely different approach.
But, hey, it’s all fantasy.
Apologies for my lack of formatting. I’m not used to all of the adjustments from place to place.
Just to add a little more:
Where I am now finds my interest in many old favorites dimmed considerably. I recognize that Marvel is attempting to do what DC has long since done: reduce each of their characters to a brand name, image, and as simple a one or two line description as possible — and less if they can get away with it. Spider-Man is Spider-Man is Spider-Man, whether he’s in Amazing, Ultimate, a cartoon or a movie. While I don’t mind the cross-media changes, I suspect I’ll always resent the different versions, with different backstories, within comics themselves.
This is the central reason why, despite knowing the quality of work often being accomplished there, I have not and possibly will never spend a cent on anything from Marvel’s “Ultimate” line. I cannot conceptually condone it. I fully recognize that this is a purely emotional decision, but, ultimately, isn’t every decision?
Sure, I should be able to approach them in an Earth-1/Earth-2, alternate universe manner, but I somehow can’t. These stink of replacement.
I quickly see how petty I still am about this, when I find myself relishing the inevitable outrage that will flow from all of those hardcore Ultimate fans when those continuities are judged to be old and broken and need of either radical revision or a competing, relaunched version sporting some of the hottest creative talent working in the field at the time.
I understand how you feel Mike, believe me–Gruenwald, Stern, Simonson, Morrison, David, Englehart, Messner-Loebs, and Thomas (+ Sim) may have been the writers whose works I enjoyed buying off of the racks in the eighties, but I also spent every cent I earned on my quests for silver age Marvels (and I was doing really well, too, until people broke into our house and stole all of the most expensive items in my collection; and by 1991 they had appreciated in value to a point where I knew I’d never reaquire them…)
My point is–I think the sixties Marvel corpus holds up well as a freestanding structure, and the internal coherence is a big part of what makes it great… thanks to San Lee. Obviously, Kirby & Ditko contributed more of the raw imagination (and there were significant contributions by Heck, Thomas, Colan, Buscema, Werner Roth, etc. )–but Stan held it all together…he was the Selznick of comics…
but the great thing is that, as Lee’s stewardship over the universe evaporated, it didn’t just fade away–in the early seventies we got Conway’s wonderful ASM run–which makes a pretty sharp break with the past; as do Englehart’s Avengers, Defenders & Doc Strange; not to mention all of the contributions made by Stern, Gruenwald, Gerber, Simonson, David, Byrne, Claremont, Morrison and many others later on (I have a soft spot for Boisterous Bill Mantlo too!); you can’t reconcile all of these differing takes on the characters–but I think there’s a lot to be gained by looking at them in juxtaposition. It’s a different kind of pleasure, to be sure–but it’s wonderful! (and I do think that the groundwork for this was laid in the lettercols of the sixties–that’s what my dissertation will argue anyway!)