Ask Chris #121: Continuity And You
Over a lifetime of reading comics, Senior Writer Chris Sims has developed an inexhaustible arsenal of facts and opinions. That’s why each and every week, we turn to you, to put his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: How important is continuity? Should stories strive to maintain the timeline or is it okay if not everything lines up? — @drawesome86
A: It seems like I get some variation on this question a lot, and not surprisingly, it’s one that I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years. Continuity as a concept is both extremely important and extremely polarizing in the world of superhero comics. There are people who think of it as something to be embraced and revered, and those who see it as a set of shackles that we all need to get past for the sake of new stories, and to be honest, I don’t think either extreme is entirely wrong.
Because here’s the thing: As a friend of mine put it, continuity is just a big word that means “sh** makes sense.” That’s really all there is to it, and because of that, the idea of a “continuity-free” story is a myth. It doesn’t exist, because the moment you have a second issue that follows from the first, or a second page, or a second panel, you have continuity. All it means is that things move logically in a sequence of events.
So in that respect, the part of your question about “maintaining the timeline” is one that I definitely think is important. It all comes down to internal consistency: No matter how fantastical your story is, consistency within the logic presented by the world around your characters is the only thing that really makes it possible to become invested in it as a reader. You have to be able to believe that things matter and that these conflicts have consequences. If things don’t have some kind of logic, if they change from panel to panel or page to page for no discernible reason, or because someone changed their mind halfway through a script, then you don’t have any reason to believe the consequence of the hero losing would be any different than a win. Things without a solid continuity — a solid internal logic — don’t feel like they matter.
That’s not always true, of course — Axe Cop is incredibly enjoyable, and it’s based entirely on subverting your expectations by throwing any semblance of logic right out the window. That’s where the comedy comes from, distilling it down to the form of a story, but with events that play out on a scale of sheer weirdness that you get with a hero who kills every bad guy on the planet with poison in one night. Then again, Axe Cop is not a character that it’s really easy to sympathize with and relate to, and most superhero stories aren’t exactly structured like Axe Cop. If nothing else, most mainstream comics writers don’t have the excuse of being seven years old.
The point is, all continuity is just a fancier term for that logical consistency. But at the same time, that’s not really the capital-C Continuity that people tend to mean when they talk about comics. That Continuity is the seventy years of stories that form the basis of modern superhero comics, full of minutiae and details that have been obsessively catalogued by fans who write blistering reviews on the Internet (and before that, to letters pages) about how this issue is a fail because, um, actually? The Thing and Ghost Rider met in Marvel Two-In-One #8, so maybe you should get your facts straight or die in a fire.
That’s the Continuity people tend to not like.
But when you get right down to it, it’s really the exact same thing, just on a much larger scale. That’s where the problems come in, but in all honesty, the fans aren’t the ones to blame for it, because they’re not the ones who decided to put numbers on the covers and assure people that these things were meant to be read in sequence as part of a larger, cohesive universe. It’s the companies that did that, and if that universe is going to be a selling point — which it is, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to tout stories that were going to Change The Universe Forever — then making sure it feels like a universe, with consistent logic across the board, is part of the responsibility that goes along with that.
I’ve yammered on and on about the illusion of fiction before, but the short version is that continuity is what allows you to suspend your disbelief and believe in what you’re reading. The more cracks you have, the easier it is to see through that illusion. Once you’ve done that, you just don’t care.
It’s one of the reasons I’ve been having such a hard time caring about most DC comics lately, even the ones I liked when we read the entire line last year. DC as a company has ditched their continuity so many times over the course of their publishing that smacking that reset button has become their go-to move every time they start lagging behind Marvel in sales. If the people who publish and sell the comics are willing to just throw everything under the bus as stuff that no longer matters, then why should I bother when they tell me this stuff does? And what’s to stop them from declaring that their current line is equally pointless whenever the next regime rolls in with a mandate to boost sales? I’m sure that there’s the potential for everything to shake out and give us some great stories, just like the DC Universe that I fell in love with when I was younger that came out of Crisis and Zero Hour, but right now, we’re still too close to it for me to see it as anything but an annoyance.
Also, it doesn’t really help that their flagship title is hot garbage.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m usually of the mind that the creators should be the main draw, and there are a few current DC comics that I like in spite of the company seeming to be dead set on making me forget that I ever liked their stuff, because those creators are doing genuinely good work that’s engaging and exciting. But character and setting are extremely important elements in any story, and when the characters feel like retreads and the setting is a universe that’s muddled and confused, you’ve got an uphill climb to create an appealing project.
And that’s one of the biggest problems with that Capital-C continuity. It’s not just a matter of facts, it’s a matter of taste. For something that’s been created and enjoyed by so many different people over the years, the idea of continuity is something that’s weirdly personal. The decisions about what counts and what doesn’t are so closely tied into a specific person’s taste on every level. Creators write stories that they think are good, editors suggest changes to get rid of the stuff they don’t think works, and even we the fans form our own mental lists of what matters to us.
We all construct a personal continuity that doesn’t always match up with the official version. A few days ago, someone asked me if I was reading every current Batman title, because — as you may have heard — I like Batman a lot. The answer is no, I’m really just reading Batman and Batman Incorporated. Those are the two I like, and the others don’t really interest me, so as far as I’m concerned, they don’t really count. For me, the specific details of Batman in a given month matter a lot less to me than the way overarching themes shake out over the long term, and how specific issues add to and reinforce those things. But that’s just me.
Because there are so many stories that approach things from different angles by different people living decades apart, there are conflicts of all sizes in the Continuity. With contradictions, everything can’t count, so everyone tends to build their own personal continuity, and a lot of the conflict between readers and creators arises from the fact that everyone’sis different. Batman throwing a car battery at a guy matters a lot to me because it was in my favorite comic when I was six, but there’s a pretty good chance that nobody else actually cares. If you write a Batman comic that contradicts Batman’s battery-chucking ways, I guarantee you I will write a pretty angry review.
Also, let’s be honest, if you write a Batman comic that somehow manages to contradict his battery-throwing ways, you’re probably doing it just to piss me off.
Another example: Kelly Sue DeConnick, who actually said the phrase “Continuity is the devil” when she was a guest on War Rocket Ajax, has also said that in her run on Captain Marvel she’s going to pretend like that whole crazy nonsense with Marcus never happened. I am 100% okay with this, but comics being what they are, I’m sure some dude is sitting around reading Captain Marvel and wondering why they haven’t gotten around to talking about that weird-ass baby that Carol Danvers gave birth to and then space-married.
And it gets even more complex because the same kind of elements that seem important for one character might not be for another. Just look at Captain America: Anyone who says that it’s not important for Cap to be rooted in World War II is wrong. There’s no other event that would shape him the same way, nothing else that would match the poetry of a super-soldier created to face the greatest threat the world had ever seen, who vanished and then re-emerged at the dawn of the modern Marvel universe when his country needed him the most. There are themes there that this specific piece of his origin reinforces; Joe Simon and Jack Kirby defined that guy with the very first image of him, where he’s punching Hitler right in the face.
But what about the Punisher? Is it as necessary for him to be rooted in the Vietnam war? There are a lot of stories — a lot of good stories — that have unambiguously placed him as a soldier during Vietnam, but there are plenty of other stories — also good — that violate that by showing him as being far too young to have served in that war. So does it matter more that he served in Vietnam specifically, and that he’s now pushing 70? Or does it matter more that he served in a war, and came back to find the peaceful life he fought for taken away from him by unchecked violence?
Greg Rucka would say the latter. I’ve never spoken to him about it, but judging by his work on the character, Garth Ennis might say the former. But both of them have written good comics about the character, and what’s more, Frank Castle himself still feels like the same person across both. There’s a consistency and a logic to what he does, even when the details might not match. Both writers may have started from different premises, but they were able to synthesize what they felt mattered about the character, and omit the stuff they didn’t think worked, and because they’re working with a pretty high level of skill and talented collaborators, they end up with good comics.
You can’t ignore Continuity in superhero comics. If you do, all you’re doing is creating a new Continuity that someone else is going to have to decide whether to ignore or not, and you also run the risk of just telling the same story over and over and over again, like all the endless permutations on Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men that have cropped up since, or how everyone who writes Superman seems to want to do a General Zod story, even if it has nothing to do with the one that just happened two years before. But at the same time, it’s not a set of shackles. It’s a foundation to build on.
Of the two options you presented, I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. Nothing’s ever going to line up exactly if you’re working on a character on the scale of Superman or Batman or Spider-Man, but it’s every bit as important to make sure that you’re doing something that makes sense, both for the characters themselves and for the universe in which they live. Sometimes, that means addressing the fact that they’ve done things in the past, and sometimes it means not getting bogged down by it, heaping so much pointless minutiae into the story that you lose sight of what that story actually is.
In the end, that’s what continuity really is: Not messing it up. And that can be a lot harder than it sounds.
That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!