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!