Trade Perspectives: New Explanation for My Continuity Obsession

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I care about continuity.

... Seems like almost a shameful admission, doesn't it?

I read an "Ask Chris" column by Chris Sims on Comics Alliance the other day (not realizing the column was from January!) and it stuck with me. A reader asks, "Are there any great Superman Stories that are actually part of current DC continuity?" Chris goes on to discuss, in an entirely fair way, that while he's a fan of continuity himself, the fact that a story isn't in continuity shouldn't be a reason to avoid it. Chris rightly says that continuity is "a tool, just like anything else. The problem is when it stops being a tool and starts being a shackle. Not for the creators, but for the reader."

Absolutely right.

Given that I agree with this, however -- and I've enjoyed DC: New Frontier and All-Star Superman and Fables and Y: The Last Man and Ultimate Spider-Man and other sub-continuity or non-continuity comics -- I still find myself feeling a tad ashamed sometimes to say I'll probably pick up all of DC's New 52 collections except All-Star Western because it's not as "tied in" as other titles, or that I picked up the Magog trade even though I didn't have high hopes for it mainly because I thought it was connected to Flashpoint. As if having as continuity one of your primary interests in comics-reading makes you a less pure fan or a "zombie" picking up whatever a publisher produces.

Except I think I finally worked out a paradigm that explains it better.

I mainly collect just one title, I realized, and that title's called DC Universe. Not DC Universe Presents, mind you, but DC Universe, the ongoing story of the DC Comics superheroes. That series is published in a couple of volumes every week (never mind the different names on the books), and the books often look at different corners of the DC Universe more or less simultaneously.

To put it another way, what I enjoy reading about is the DC Universe in its entirety. It's not always a cohesive story -- sometimes Captain Atom's doing his thing over here and Flash is doing his thing over there, but then other times Flash is in Captain Atom's book, or Frankenstein and OMAC are in each others' books, or all the heroes from all the books are in the same book called Blackest Night or Final Crisis or such. As the DC Universe became increasingly interconnected after Identity Crisis and in the lead-up to Infinite Crisis, what I began reading was more or less all the titles, because together they formed a tapestry telling different parts of the same story.

So if I were to forgo All-Star Western for the moment, it's not so much that the book is outside continuity that's important to me (though, from what I hear, there may be continuity ties there, too), so much as the fact that it's just not part of the series that I read, arbitrarily defined as that is. And if I were to pick up the Magog trade even if I hadn't heard great things about it (and then had the gall to be disappointed), I justify that decision in part because that book is a little aspect of the tapestry of my "series."

Certainly, continuity shouldn't keep you from enjoying a good book. But I'd like to see some of the stigma fall away from enjoying continuity, too.
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  1. Cross-title and cross-character continuity is the only thing that super hero comics have that no other media does. (Except for the occasionally TV crossover.)

    Telling people to "just enjoy good comics" and not worry about continuity is a tired criticism at this point. It's the one thing that's (supposed to be) special about this kind of storytelling.

    Of course, DC's editors have had some glaring issues handling continuity over the last couple of years (Countdown to what-now?). And the new 52 already has major confusion in its backstory. So there's an argument to be made that no continuity is better than mangled continuity.

  2. @Devin Well I actually like all the retcon BS. It gives narrative of the DCU a narrative of its own. It's interesting. I got into comics through Green Lantern Rebirth, so I love the way that the stories of the heroes evolve and change and clash and contradict. It's also a major reason why I'm a DC guy more than a Marvel guy. Every piece of the Marvel tapestry is a little too seamless for my tastes.

    And yeah why do people on the internet hate on continuity so much? Let's be honest, there's an unending flow of entertainment to enjoy nowadays, even within comics. The ONLY reason to read Marvel and DC is to be part of the grand narrative, because there are other superhero comics, other comics, and other stories that are just as good out there. There are better things for you to do if you don't like continuity. Marvel and DC are the ONLY places you can get this kind of grand narrative, and when they're gone it won't ever happen again

    TL;DR: Continuity is, in a world with an unlimited supply of entertainment, the only reason to read comics.

  3. I really like this explanation of continuity. It's how I feel too, which is why I thought it was really cool when in Supergirl #1, Supergirl overhears lines of dialogue from other DC comics that were published in September.

  4. Did not know that, and I think that's a nice touch, too. I will be interested to see the continuity "shoe" drop in the new DC Universe -- something's coming, obviously, based on the reoccurring character in all the series -- only I hope I get to read the first volume of each series before the explanation is all over the news. Tough to avoid spoilers and all that.

    Appreciate all the thoughts here. Matt makes a good point -- mainstream comics reading is largely meant for continuity, else there's plenty other non-continuity options out there.

  5. I've begun to ease up on my "If it's not in continuity I won't read it," stance. There have been plenty of books that weren't in continuity that are great.

    But I still enjoy continuity quite a bit and I get more upset when it's blantanly or ingnorantly treated. I believe that ALL creators, editors, etc should be on the same page. I think Morisson had a rough draft of Final Crisis so other writers can be on the same page but it seems like it was just ignored. This is what I don't like about continuity, when even editors and writers are not on the same page. It's just a sloppy outcome and very unprofessional; isn't an editor's job to correct mistakes?

    I know some editors juggle multiple books and it could get overwhelming; but that shouldn't be an excuse to have contardictions in your books.

    I believe the same thing happened with Countdown. Morisson had a rough draft of the scripts and still titles were coming out that contradicted the main event.

    What I love about continuity is the evolution and growth of the character(s). Many people invest a lot of time and money to learn the history of these characters - whether the story is godawful or a masterpiece doesn't matter - what you get is a story about what happened at that particular time to a character.

    There are some really bad stories I've read but it doesn't change how I feel about the series. Batman is my fav character but I've read some bad Batman stories but it doesn't make me stop liking him. I'll just pass on that particular trade and come back for the next one. It doesn't and shouldn't affect continuity; if you don't like it then you can check it off your "in continuity" list.

  6. Since Zero Hour happened less than a year after I started reading DC comics, I learned to accept that continuity-altering events are an inextricable part of these characters' adventures. Ever since, I've seen Superman's origin change 3 times, and I took it in stride.

    Frankly, DC's continuity stopped making sense since Crisis on Infinite Earths, which completely rebooted some characters like Superman and Wonder Woman while leaving others like Batman and the New Teen Titans mostly untouched, leading to a lot of contradictions that were never fully explained or fixed, despite many attempts to do so.

    The people who complain about the post-Flashpoint continuity are simply going through the same thing people who followed pre-Crisis DC
    went through. I bet whoever's bemoaning the fact that Superman isn't married anymore didn't mind when DC erased a lot of classic Silver Age stories they've never read.

  7. I think the gripes have less to do with continuity itself and more to do with the slavish, and at times hopelessly literal, way that people treat it.

    The problem with treating DC's entire output as one big story is that, by definition, it is not a story. A story has a beginning, middle, and end, and is about something. DC continuity has nebulous beginnings, no real ending, and a continuous middle, and if you take the company's entire output in the aggregate, it's not really about anything other than "what happens next."

    Which isn't to say that anyone is *wrong* for enjoying it that way - people can enjoy fiction in whatever way they choose. But shared universe continuity has to be malleable in order to work - you're working from a basic scenario where no one ever really gets older (except when it's expressly stated that they do), but the world is always intended to reflect "our world, only with superheroes." The characters have to be rethought, streamlined, reimagined every so often - sometimes in minor ways, sometimes in bigger ones - and adherence to every bit of backstory gets in the way of that. Superhero continuity works best when you step back from it and allow for the fact that it is something less than a historical canon (or at least something different - maybe less is the wrong word).

  8. Realitätsprüfung10/25/2011 08:23:00 PM

    Matches is quite right. Though I see the investment in the DCU as a larger tapestry, it's really a lot like Middle Earth or the Star Wars universe: It's a fantastic setting where characters interact and create a history. World-building.

    But world-building and characters intersecting happens, ideally, to serve a story about characters, rather than the reverse.

    That world/history is absolutely one of the best aspects of DC and Marvel, though.

  9. For me continuity comes down to verisimilitude. If you didn't get the concept from a literature class look it up as it would be too much work for me to explain it in this format. Basically, when a story's internal logic (or "truth")is not consistent its verisimilitude is lacking. When continuity is broken a story is inherently no longer internally consistent. Elsewhere stories don't have to be tied down by continuity but as the OP stated the story that DC is telling is one of the larger universe. If the same Flash character appears in multiple titles over multiple years each story should be consistent with the other or verisimilitude suffers. When Superboy started hitting reality verisimilitude suffered. If DC wanted to end the entire story and start another one then verisimilitude would not suffer because they made subseqent changes to a new story even though they contained the same characters. DC does not want to end any story because they want people to be serial readers. If DC told insular stories then continuity would not be an issue. DC is setting the playing rules so DC should have to follow them.

  10. The Star Wars universe that matches (Iceberg Lounge) brings up is a very good point. That fictional universe has dynamite continuity, but at the same time they're simultaenously telling stories set in different eras and fitting things it as they will without any deletorious effects (I think, as an outsider). DC does that to a point -- the Superman Confidential book, for instance -- but it always seems less-than; the primary focus is always what's coming, what's next. I have of late grown a little tired of the endless story, or at least every event feeding another event -- Blackest Night is for Brightest Day and Brightest Day is for Hawk and Dove and other series, for instance.

    If the new DC Universe is going to survive and not itself one day be rebooted (inevitable?), the writers need to find a way to interject modernity constantly. How to balance that with character change, I'm not sure -- basically, if Barry Allen and Iris West ever date, they have to break up; if they marry, they have to divorce or she has to turn out to be Professor Zoom or something. Otherwise, the character is locked into a specific ending point from which they can't break free except to reboot -- keeping the characters "modern," perhaps, means the toys go back in the box at the end of the day and the characters end (if after long story arcs) mostly as they were in the beginning, a la a Star Trek episode.

    I'm not completely satisfied with that, but still thinking it through. (Glad to see some new or infrequent commenters popping up!)

  11. Realitätsprüfung10/26/2011 11:06:00 AM

    Anonymous, you're stretching the definition of verisimilitude to include "maintaining the history of every DC Universe title published since the last time they reset their history."

    That type of long-term maintainence is not believability, realism or immersion; it's minutiae.

    Most DC stories published now, 20 years ago or prior rely predominantly on the current status quo, and sometimes call back to bedrock character epochs like origins, deaths and the like. But the other 99% of stories published between those early epochal moments and the current stories is immaterial to whatever is happening *now*. In short, what matters most of the time is a character's origin, and the current conflict.

    Which only makes sense; it's all fiction, an ongoing mythology that evolves with time.

  12. I think Realitätsprüfung hit the nail on the head with the use of the word 'mythology'. We've all heard that comics can be essentially considered as modern-day mythology, and this is also true when you consider continuity. As our cultures have changed over the centuries, so our myths have changed and evolved with us, so that many disparate cultures have similar mythologies. So it is with continuity in comics, interms of changing with us. In her book 'Superheroes!', Roz Kaveney mentions that the DC and Marvel continuity universes are the largest narrative constructs of human culture - in this context, I tend to read comics as stories that may change and evolve, sometimes radically, over time, but remain essentially part of the same overall 'narrative construct'. Completely agree that it makes for a richer reading experience if you understand past histories or chance remarks made by characters referring to previous events, and I have become a much bigger fan of continuity over the years than I used to be way back when, and love when it is used to good effect. That said, however, in the face of continuity glitches/messes/breaks, etc., yes, it can be annoying, but I tend to fall back on what Grant Morrison is fond of telling us, something that kids get immediately but we adults have a hard time with - 'it's not real'.

  13. The reason I read DC (or Marvel) is for that rich, shared-history universe experience. The kind of thing that adds to encounters between characters in those universes.

    DC hit the 'reset' button, but are playing the same game. There's still a DC universe, but now Superman and Batman get to meet 'again' for the first time. That just bores me, because I remember a universe where they shared a rich history together. Taking me back to the beginning really does nothing for my experience or my bookshelf. The DCnU has me reading books that make me question what's the same and what's different. Bloody hell, that's not a game I want to play.

  14. I can understand and appreciate your point, and I doubt most continuity-phobes (myself included) have a problem with that. Hell, I love continuity when handled right - with writers using the tapestry of the universe in a way that fits.

    Consider, for example, crossovers like Swamp Thing's intersection with Crisis on Infinite Earths, The Secret of Barry Allen's overlap with Identity Crisis or even Gotham Central's Infinite Crisis issue. They were all stories which took the big event in the universe and tied it in to their own themes. Wally discovers Barry was only a man, and a flawed one. Dark forces exploit the collapse of reality. The Gotham PD, normally out of their depth against Batman's villains, have to contend with an apocalypse.

    However, I think the problems that some readers have with continuity fetishism are:

    (a.) the "gotta have it all" attitude where fans will buy books they know (or suspect) will suck, allowing the companies to make a large amount of money on what they know to be a substandard project; this does little to encourage improvement. This isn't an argument about taste, and doesn't apply to readers who really like Flashpoint: Canterberry Cricket, but to those who wouldn't buy it if it didn't have an event logo on it. The Internet is awash with people who buy comics they don't like, and don't realise that things won't improve until the stop, no matter how much they complain about Bendis (I like him more than most). This dichotomy is infuriating to me, because it's so counter-productive. I want to read Flashpoint, because I like Johns, but I doubt I'll touch Shadowland, despite the fact I like Daredevil.


  15. (b.) the fact that it cuts so many great comics and stories out of discussion. In or out of continuity, All-Star Superman is a definitive take on the character, as is Donner's first film. They inform the character as much (or more) than a random nineties issue, despite the fact they "never" happened, as much as anything ever happens. I hate the idea of a rigid internal contuity, dictated by events like Flashpoint or Crisis on Infinite Earths. I find it better to chart it myself. In my head, Grant Morrison's Superman stories flow naturally, including All-Star (to DC One Million to Justice League). As much as slavish devotion to continuity makes bad stories more important, it diminishes good stories.

    (c.) related to above, the argument that a story "doesn't matter" is a valid criticism. This is an attitude that led to the cancellation of titles like Xombi or Thor: The Mighty Avenger, which people didn't seem to buy because they disn't tie into anything. Bad books prosper and good books die.

    (d.) it damages stories. I argued above it can great when a tie-in is fluid and logical... it's often not. At DC, Dwayne McDuffie's Justice League was derailed by events. They guy wrote one of the most compelling iterations of the Justice League ever, with a wider audience than anything DC publishes, and he's left doing eleventh-hour rewrites to his five-year-plan? The same with Brubaker's Captain America: he spends two years building up to the death of Steve Rogers, only for Civil War to take his lead character OUT OF HIS OWN BOOK. So everything goes into a holding pattern until suddenly he's in chains and shot. And at least THAT Captain America died in his own book, with build-up, rather than as event fodder. I think Grant Morrison's "Missing Chapter" does a great job integrating his Batman run and Final Crisis. It is the exception rather than the rule.

    (e.) in its current form, it scares readers. I think basic "there's a Justice League" and "Superman has a supporting cast" and "there's a history of Flashes" stuff works grand. However, a reader should be able to say "I want to read Iron Man" without having to read the Secret Invasion miniseries to understand the serious change to Tony's status quo between the seventh and eighth issues of his series.

  16. Such good points. I read Darren's list and I can admit I'm guilty of a lot of it. I do at times feel I've "gotta have it all" (my work on the timeline notwithstanding), like buying all the Blackest Night hardcovers even as I could sense some wouldn't tie in as strongly, because my collection would feel "incomplete" otherwise -- though in my defense I did pass up Countdown Presents Lord Havok and the Extremists the first time and other times I've swapped books with others rather than buying them, so I have my "gotta have it" somewhat under control.

    Second, I do have the gall of being both pleased to see a Xombi trade for purposes of both diversity in the DC Universe and ambitious trade-making on DC's part, while at the same time probably not picking it up (though maybe so, now) because it isn't tied in. But I'm also miffed that Doom Patrol withered, too, so I'm part of the problem and part of the solution.

    Bottom line (and read into this no animosity toward Darren, because I think his points were brill), nobody can buy everything, so everybody's got to have some way to decide what to buy and what not to. I buy mostly DC because it's what interests me, for a million different reasons; also I give my money to Magog instead of Xombi (shame on me) because "tied in" interests me. It then happens that I do buy books that it turns out I don't like, but (maybe) I could just as easily take a flyer on a random book that piques my interest and not like that, too, or be less engaged because it's not part of my DC Universe soap opera.

    Darren's spot on, however, about how continuity damages stories, externally. Of course we could say "Well, Geoff Johns works around it and Grant Morrison works around it," but indeed it torpedoed McDuffie's JL and probably James Robinson's, too. There's lots there, though -- that the writer, yes, could be more versatile in a continuity-heavy company like DC, or that the editor could help finesse it better or allow for continuity to happen between arcs rather than during them, or that DC could decide Justice League would sell just fine without needing to be interrupted to be "tied in," and then it comes back to the fans craving "tied in" books so DC keeps forcing continuity on their titles.

    But back to what Matt said way up there -- maybe "tied in" continuity is part and parcel of mainstream comics, and if it'll bug a writer or annoy a reader, maybe mainstream comics aren't for them. Maybe craving "tied in" books is what you're supposed to do with mainstream comics. All of that -- maybe.

    Completely separately, I also agree with Robert -- whereas I think de-aging and de-experiencing Superman is a good thing ('cause nothing fazed the guy any more) and I even understand retconning the marriage, I'm also bored by another Superman/Batman meeting, or playing continuity "games," same as I'm tired of them constantly basing every crossover around the Multiverse. Whether this new Hawkman ever knew Hawkgirl or not isn't a story, it's a tease masquerading as a story. To have a character named Ray Palmer walking around, and then a year or so from now making him the Atom: *yawn*. We *know* he'll be the Atom one day. Do something mind-blowing with Atom Ray Palmer's shrinking powers, then I'll be excited.

    Hey wow -- rant! Happy thoughts: Peter Tomasi on Batman & Robin. New Frankenstein series. Demon Knights. Stormwatch. ... OK, all forgiven now.

  17. I didn't mean to sound aggressive, of course everybody likes the comics they like, and it's nobody's place to tell you what to like, but I just find it frustrating when so many people read something (think Countdown) only to hate it... and buy it... and hate it... and buy it more... it's frustrating.

    I probably sounded harsher than I intended, but I think Civil War undermined Brubaker's Captain America for me, and Secret Invasion did the same for Fraction's Iron Man. Funny, I can't think of too many DC examples, but I think they handle their events better - crossover miniseries, like for Flashpoint and Blackest Night, rather than hijacking a main title.

    By the way, am I the only one ticked off that Knight of Vengeance is not in hardcover? I hear it's one of the great Batman stories.

  18. I didn't think you sounded agressive, Darren -- if anything, I thought my response sounded overly agressive as compared to your thoughtful points. Countdown is a good example of buy it and hate it and buy it again -- in that instance, I think the readers were lead to believe that the story (irrespective of quality) was going to have a big payoff at the end, and then it didn't. Previously with Infinite Crisis, they said Superman: Sacrifice and JLA: Crisis of Conscience were both important and they were, but somewhere along the way that trust between reader and publisher has fallen away, and that's a problem. It keeps us blindly buying bad things instead of truly enjoying a comics universe's big events.

    By Knight of Vengeance, do you mean the Flashpoint tie-ins? I was surprised those weren't hardcover, but given that they come out months after the main book, and amidst all the New 52, it doesn't surprise me that DC went paperback. Now, where the other smaller Flashpoint specials will be collected remains to be seen ...

  19. Yep, I mean the Flashpoint tie-in. Everyone on-line seems to think it's one of the great Batman stories, which is some praise given how divisive the on-line community can be. Word of mouth is phenomenal on that - apparently it's the best thing about Flashpoint.

    Truth be told, I'm disappointed by the lack of hardcovers. I travel between family homes, so paperbacks bend too easily.

    While I'm not sure I'd buy them all (I did buy all the Blackest Night tie-ins because there was at least something of interest in each - Tomasi Batman & Robin, Robinson JSA, Johns Flash), there are a few I'm interested in. I'm curious to see, for example, what a Scott Snyder plotted alternate Superman story looks like, or to read a Lemire Frankenstein book. Or even Milligan's Secret Seven. And the very concept of an Abin Sur Green Lantern book is fascinating, because it takes something that's taken for granted and turns it around.

    Perhaps it's ironic that I think Flashpoint is one of the most conceptually interesting events from a comic company in a while because of its relationship to continuity. I know some people avoided it because "it didn't matter", only to jump on board when it suddenly became the launch pad of the new 52, but I think Flashpoint offers the best kind of use of continuity: it takes the basic assumptions about particular characters, and turns them around. So things that were essential to the characters get altered or removed from the equation, and we get to see the result.

    That's my own interest in continuity, finding a point of thematic (rather than narrative) resonance and building the story around it. The "big" sense of the ingrediemts of who the character is, rather than the particulars of what story happened when and how Batman's five million titles line up with one another. If Superman hadn't been found by the Kents, would he still retain his humanist values? What if Bruce died that night in Crime Alley?

    It defines who the character is, so I consider it important to my definition of them, that sort of thing? Even though there's little way The Dark Knight Returns could be in-continuity, it tells me a lot about who Batman is, as compare to The Resurrection of Ra's Al-Ghul. I hope the same might apply to Knight of Vengeance - it tells me about what Batman is (and, possibly, what he isn't). I'm not sure if that makes sense?

  20. Makes sense, Darren (my tardy reply). We're rapidly approaching the Collected Editions review of Flashpoint, and I think you note something important when you refer to how some readers avoided Flashpoint because it "didn't matter" and then joined it when it became the launch of the new 52.

    As a preview, some of the questions I asked myself as I started reading Flashpoint: Is Flashpoint a good story separate from the DC New 52 hubbub? Does Flashpoint have something to say, also separate from the New 52? To what extent can the casual reader determine where Flashpoint ends and the DC New 52 begins, and what does it suggest Flashpoint might have been without the DC New 52? Is there relevance, and what is it, to a Elseworlds story based somewhere between a continuity that no longer exists and a continuity not fully formed -- that is, a really disconnected Elseworlds?

    What you say about continuity as a "point of difference" is interesting -- we need a constant Superman who comes from Krypton and a Batman whose lost his parents so that we can then consider "if Superman didn't come from Krypton, who is he? Is he still Superman?" Personally, I'd rather see these issues worked out within a story (Batman: Murderer/Fugitive examining the relationship between Bruce's two identities) than in an Elseworlds, but I take your point.

    Would you jettison continuity all together? In the Golden/Silver Age, one issue Superman was married to Lois and the next issue he came from a different planet and in the next he had a brother. Issue by issue, the writers changed Superman at whim to do exactly as you said -- examine how the differences relate to the core of the character. But would something like that be a satisfactory read today? Would it sell?