Published on November 6th, 2015 | by Lauren McPhee0
A Politics of Superhero Comics Continuity
With this article, I want to try to outline a possible politics of superhero comics continuity, to better understand the dynamics and responsibilities that go into creating, maintaining and developing continuity in superhero comics. As a fan of serial story-telling, I find continuity really interesting and I am curious as to why some changes to continuity seem to work while others don’t. Meanwhile, the current climate, with the rise of the cinematic universes and their own continuity, as well as the recent reboots of the Marvel and DC comics universes, presents a lot of opportunities to question the role that continuity plays in the construction and maintenance of some of our favourite franchises. To do this, we’ll be looking at the relationships of power and authority relating to continuity in the hands of publishers, editors, creators and fans.
But, first, what is superhero comics continuity? Richard Reynolds describes it as ‘a summation of all existing texts plus all the gaps which those texts have left unspecified’. This means that continuity includes events in the comics, events that occur off the page and even the time elapsed between issues. I like to think of it like space-time. It’s the geography and history of those superhero universes, dictating in what time and place events occurred. It developed as a marketing tool for publishers hoping to sell more comics, a story-telling tool for creators and a source of enjoyment for fans who enjoy reading about the superhero universes themselves as much as they enjoy reading about the characters within those universes.
Since continuity developed in response to publishing, creative and fan demands, the relationships of power and authority as they affect superhero continuity are not straightforwardly top down. Yes, publishers often ultimately have the final say on what happens in a comic, and can impose their decisions on creators, but they also have to respond to the desires of their readers, or at other times, trust in the talents of their creators. As such, everyone shares a bit of responsibility for whatever changes to continuity are made and how well they are received.
Firstly, fan relationships to continuity are established by creating brand loyalty to a comic, universe or publisher. Fans respond by record keeping, sometimes excessively noting and recording continuity. This creates a sense of long term investment out of knowing the history of characters and universes, and a sense of enjoyment and reward for fans who are effectively ‘in the know’. This knowledge of continuity is often considered an ‘authoritative’ knowledge with which fans might write to comics publishers to complain about errors in continuity, or express their approvals, or use their knowledge to distinguish themselves as ‘true’ fans. They can interact with comics in a variety of ways, through writing letters, attending conventions, writing reviews or interacting with creators, any of which may influence the course of continuity.
Secondly, creator relationships to continuity are often marked by the success and privilege afforded to certain creators or creative teams. Certain runs by creators such as Frank Miller or Chris Clairmont are often heralded for the unique vision they brought to a book, marking that book out as a staple of the series’ continuity. This can also include modern takes and revisions, such as the Matt Fraction and David Aja’s run on Hawkeye, which has become the new, definitive version of the character. These creator influence nexuses often represent iconic or privileged continuity.
Finally, editorial or publisher relationships to continuity represent the most traditionally authoritative relationships. Editors and publishers, in order to maintain readership and brand loyalty, must constantly monitor and police continuity in order to appease long-term fans while also remaining accessible to new readerships. Crisis on Infinite Earths (1986) is probably the most well-known example of editorial imposed change to continuity, although it was creator influenced as well in its design by Marv Wolfman. As Geoff Klock notes, with the use of ‘krisis’ from the Greek meaning ‘judgement’, Crisis is ‘interesting in its (editorial) judgement on DC’s superhero comic book universe’, referring to the authority given to publishers to arbitrarily make changes to continuity.
One of the most chilling examples of imposed change to continuity that was also directed by fans was the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, decided by a phone-in vote. After poorly introducing the character as a near-clone to Dick Grayson, Crisis redeveloped Jason Todd as a reckless, street kid who was caught trying to boost the tires off the batmobile. Batman, making a strong judgement on Jason’s morality, decided that the child would inevitably turn to crime without superhero intervention. When the character of Jason proved unpopular, depicted as an impulsive brat, DC decided to hold a phone-in during the Death in the Family storyline and, by a small margin, Jason Todd was voted to die. On the decision to hold a vote for or against the death of a teenage character introduced only a few years before, and arguably badly written, Frank Miller has said: ‘To me the whole killing of Robin thing was probably the ugliest thing I’ve seen in comics, and the most cynical’.
It’s also worth noting that the people who have historically been in a position of power or authority in order to make these changes have been predominantly white, male and heterosexual. There is still a need for a greater diversity in comics, as well as a better culture of inclusivity that doesn’t sideline the voices of women or people of colour. Continuity has a well-known history of being used to kill off, torture or drive insane female characters or characters of colour, one of the most famous examples being the death of the only female Robin, Stephanie Brown, only a few issues after she received the mantle. However, the opposite is also true: changes to continuity have been used to introduce diversity, such as in the introduction of an explicitly lesbian Batwoman and a female Thor.
The main reasons for making changes to continuity are usually to keep things contemporary, to erase out-of-date stories, to create future story potential or to draw in new readerships. Two ways of changing continuity are through revisionism, changing part but not all of a story (a reimagining) or retro-active continuity, also known as retcon, re-writing events, backstory and/or the history of a character or event. However, it is important to remember that the memory of the original story can never be erased, as demonstrated by the continuous return to the Crisis storyline. Retcon often leads to the return of the original story in some form, similar to ‘the return of the repressed’ from psychoanalysis. As Terrence Wandtke writes, ‘the psychic trace of the original is never completely lost, despite the best efforts of comic book writers to obliterate the partially hidden past…these past versions continue to shape the most recent versions’. In other words, the ghosts of continuity past are always haunting.
So, how can we start to evaluate these changes to continuity? Well, Roz Kaveney has noted two ways, outlining the ‘strip-mining’ of continuity and the ‘wisdom of continuity’. Strip-mining occurs when ‘things are unpicked which worked and had further life in them’ and often results in arguable damage to continuity. It can occur due to an over-use of retcon, or simply through arbitrary changes made to continuity. However, the wisdom of continuity means ‘to work consciously in a shared universe, and to go with the grain of that universe as most comic writers do most of the time in their best work’. The wisdom of continuity is, then, filling the gaps in a way that builds successfully on previous material and perhaps even creates further story potential.
From this perspective, we can start to imagine a politics of continuity that encourages maintaining the consistency of continuity and takes responsibility for the directions that continuity takes. By maintaining a knowledge of continuity, there remains an opportunity to develop future story that elaborates on what has come before and doesn’t make arbitrary changes that pick apart beloved and positive elements of that history. With awareness and creativity, it is possible to rethink problematic stories and develop a greater diversity and inclusivity to comics. Ultimately, comics are for everyone and represent shared universes; as fans, creators and publishers we have to be aware of what our input into those universes will be. I don’t intend this politics of superhero continuity to be taken as instruction, but rather, I propose it as a foundation, one possible framework for exploring or investigating politics of continuity. What you do with this framework is up to you, up to and including throwing it out, hopefully for something even better. My only hope with this article is that I have encouraged you to think a little more about continuity and about what a politics of continuity might look like or mean.
Friendenthal, Andrew J., Monitoring the DC Universe: DC Comics’ Crisis on Infinite Earth and the Narrativization of Comic Book History, http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v6_2/friedenthal/, [accessed 19 April 2015]
Kaveney, Roz, Superheroes! Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films, (I.B. Taurus, London, 2008)
Klock, Geoff, How to Read Superhero Comics and Why? (Continuum, London, 2002)
Reynolds, Richard, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, (B. T. Batsford, Ltd., London, 1992)
Sharrett, Christopher, ‘Batman and the Twilight of the Idols: An Interview with Frank Miller.’, in The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media, (London: Routledge, 1991)
Wandtke, Terrence, ‘Once Upon a Time Once Again’, in The Amazing Transforming Superhero!: Essays of the Revision of Characters in Comic Books, Film and Television, edited by Terrence Wandtke, (McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, 2007), pp. 5-32
 Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, p. 43.
 Klock, How to Read Superhero Comics and Why?, p. 19-20.
 Miller, ‘Batman and the Twilight of the Idols: An Interview with Frank Miller.’, p. 41.
 Wandtke, ‘Once Upon a Time Once Again’, p. 7.
 Kaveney, Superheroes!, p. 47.
 Kaveney, Superheroes!, p. 46.