That demon Continuity

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”

-Self reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson

I haven’t made a non-review post and my actual reviews seem to be getting increasingly ranty so here’s a rant without a specific title in mind.

As I’ve mentioned previously, while I’ve always been a huge fan of comics I’ve been inconsistent over the years when it comes to the superhero stuff.

In my review of Identity crisis I mentioned that it was one of the titles that got me reading superhero comics again after an extended period of consuming Vertigo and Dark Horse titles more or less exclusively. I’ve been reading a lot of comic sites lately, and it seems that one of the more common criticisms of Identity crisis is that it “tainted” the characters, especially their earlier appearances. More innocent adventures took on a sinister undertone after the revelations of Identity crisis.

This is the scourge of the demon Continuity.

People also complained about Identity crisis because they felt like the characterization was inconsistent with the way those heroes were portrayed in other titles.

This is the scourge of the demon Continuity.

Without a rigid adherence to some continuity or canon, none of these would be issues. Both Marvel and DC have already established a series of “parallel universe” titles, so it seems logical to me to assume that discrepencies between titles are because the activities took place in separate, very similar universes. Bam, no problem.

This sort of attitude also removes the need for constant retcons or flimsy justifications when a writer wants to used a deceased character (or if multiple writers want to use the same character). I’d honestly find this way less jarring than suddenly having to swallow characters constantly rising from the dead.

Honestly, I adopted this mindset as a way of dealing with the way Batman’s personality shifts dramatically depending on the writer. The Batman of Arkham Asylum in no way resembles the Batman of The dark knight returns in no way resembles the Batman of Batman inc. in no way resembles the Batman of Infinite crisis, etc. etc. etc.

Part of this is that it’s really easy to write Batman as violently paranoid or an apologist for the extreme right, as many writers do perhaps unintentionally. I really dislike this approach to the character regardless of who’s writing it. Frank Miller’s the obvious target here. Year one was borderline but in The dark knight returns Batman is an unapologetic fascist. The Batman of All-star Batman and Robin is even worse.

It’s not just Miller though. Geoff Johns’ Batman in Infinite crisis is one of the least likeable superheroes I’ve ever read. I couldn’t make it through the No man’s land story arc, and it was a struggle to finish the Bruce Wayne: fugitive books. That’s part of the reason I preferred Dick Grayson as Batman during that relatively brief period.

The fact that all of these Batmen (Batmans?) with the exception of DKR and All-star Batman are supposed to be the same person in the same universe strikes me as improbable in the extreme. Adopting the multiverse theory seems to make more sense.

Part of the issue is these are all fictional characters. They don’t have to be consistent because as far as we know, comics are not in fact portals into another world where these people are real. Continuity is a tool, not a reality, and as such it should only be used when it’s actually useful. Conceptualizing comics continuity as having a set number of concrete noospherian forms seems arbitrarily self-limiting.

There’s another issue that comes along with an insistence on maintaining strict continuity, one that the major publishers are aware of but seem more or less helpless to combat:

The longer the period of strict adherence to continuity, the more background knowledge the reader has to have in order to make sense of the story. Marvel tried to deal with this issue by creating the Ultimate Marvel line. This worked for a while but as the Ultimate continuity got more and more convoluted it became harder and harder to pick up a title and figure out what was going on, who the characters were, or why New York City was completely underwater.

I’ve heard, repeatedly, that Marvel is publishing more interesting titles than DC. That DC continues to publish overly angsty faux-gritty superhero titles. I’d like to believe that, but the vast majority of the time that I try to pick up a Marvel title I find it incredibly difficult to figure out what’s going on. DC does a much better job of making their stories understandable to the casual reader. I haven’t paid close attention to mainstream Marvel continuity since Rob Liefeld’s heyday, and so I’m missing a huge portion of the context. Counterintuitively, it’s the b-list heroes who are more accessible: the current Hawkeye and Daredevil books manage to buck this trend really successfully and are a joy to read. I’m enjoying the Miles Morales Spider-man books because the references to previous continuity are explained sufficiently in context or aren’t necessary to understand the plot.

I really like the X-Men. I like Spider-man. I don’t generally read books about either of them because when I do I find it incredibly difficult to figure out what is going on.

It would be easier to understand if continuity was maintained only on a per-title basis. The problem is both publishers like to encourage people to buy more, so they spread out their stories across multiple titles. With 3 or 4 different Batman titles, 4 Spider-man titles, and the ten thousand different X-Men titles it becomes even harder to understand the context. DC’s current habit of publishing trades that collect specific titles instead of specific storylines further exacerbates this issue.

Continuity isn’t all bad though. Within a storyline, or in a series with a planned ending, it’s vital. Character development would be impossible without at least some continuity (although it doesn’t seem to really happen in mainstream titles anyways, and if it does it quickly gets reversed). It’s with the soap opera style never-ending drama that is the superhero comics industry that enforcing continuity makes books unreadable.

It makes me think about the uproar over the possibility of a new Star Wars movie somehow “invalidating” the EU material. The thing is, Lucas or Abrams or whomever doesn’t have the power to do that. Works exist independently from their creators, the only person who has the power to invalidate canon is YOU.*

Fiction doesn’t need strict rules, it’s greatest strength is that it’s not bound by the mysterious rules of “real” life. Being nitpicky about logical consistency and things like Sanderson’s laws (have I beaten this horse into the ground yet?) are just artificial limitations that can just as easily harm a work. The Sherlock Holmes stories are masterpieces of internal inconsistencies: Watson’s war injury moves around, his wife’s name changes, the dates are all over the place… Holmes is still considered one of the greatest characters in Western literature (although I personally prefer Arsène Lupin).

There was more I wanted to say about this but I don’t really remember what it was so I’m going to end this post here for now. If I remember what it was then I’ll either edit this post or write a new one.

*Or at least that’s what I tell myself to justify the fact that BOBA FETT IS NOT A CLONE.

 

 

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