Crisis Management: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Continuity?
Superhero comics as we know them have been telling singular ongoing narratives for over seventy-five years, and they can be incredibly intimidating to new readers. Comics companies have been seeking fixes to the problems caused by continuity for almost as long as they’ve been releasing them, and the it seems like publishers are getting far more comfortable reaching for the big red button marked “reboot.”
Continuity isn’t necessarily a four letter word, but satisfying an existing fan-base while trying to appeal to new readers can be a tricky tightrope to walk. With Marvel’s not-a-reboot Secret Wars recently behind us, and DC’s not-a-reboot Rebirth event on the horizon, what can a company do to try and solve the problems caused by long-term continuity?
Superhero comics came to prominence in the late '30s and '40s, but a number of factors led to most superheroes vanishing completely from the newsstands for the better part of a decade. The so-called Silver Age of comics can be traced back to 1956’s Showcase #4, which introduced Barry Allen as The Flash. Rather than explain where the Golden Age Flash (Jay Garrick) disappeared to since 1949, DC introduced a new character with comparable powers and a recognizable name.
It wasn’t long until the question came up about what happened to Jay, so DC introduced Earth-2 in The Flash #123, which eventually led to return of all the Golden Age characters. Earth-2 was followed by Earth-3, and as DC started swallowing up defunct publishers, their worlds were given their own designated Earths in an ever expanding DC Multiverse that was growing more unwieldy every day.
As we got to the mid-80s, DC sought a streamlining of their continuity and used their upcoming 50th anniversary to do just that. Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s Crisis on Infinite Earths eliminated every Earth in DC’s Multiverse save for five, which were smushed together to become New Earth, complete with a brand new continuity and history.
Marvel Comics meanwhile, didn’t have as big a problem as DC, but it was starting to experience problems of its own due to some of its characters being tied to major world events. This led to the creation of Marvel’s sliding timescale, so Reed Richards took part in World War II, later the Korean War, even later, Vietnam. Now I’m not quite sure if he’s even a veteran at all.
Other characters in the Marvel stable were inextricably linked to major moments in history, most notably Magneto who is defined by his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Over the years, there have been several stories that have left Magneto physically younger than he should be, in order to explain why he’s still kicking around with the X-Men at eighty years old.
DC’s Crisis was a success overall, incorporating characters such as Charlton’s Blue Beetle and Fawcett’s Captain Marvel fairly seamlessly into its continuity, while adding the adventures of the Justice Society characters into the mainline history and incorporating some of Marvel’s sliding timescale tricks to keep everything going into the 2000s and beyond.
Crisis caused some big problems in continuity, however, notably for characters like Hawkman, Wonder Girl, and the Legion of Super-Heroes. The fix was to throw another Crisis at it in the form of Zero Hour, and when that didn’t fully work, DC introduced the complicated but compelling concept of Hypertime.
Hypertime can be hard to explain, but once you understand it, it perhaps makes the most sense out of any continuity fix. Established by Grant Morrison and Mark Waid, Hypertime’s core concept can be boiled down to the idea that it all counts. Try to think of Hypertime as a river that represents DC’s history; occasionally small offshoots branch out of the river and carry on their own path, while sometimes they come back into the main stream.
Hypertime can be used to tell alternate reality stories like Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn & Paul Pelletier’s Dark Flash tale, or it can be used to explain continuity mistakes after the fact. Unfortunately, Hypertime was never sexy or exciting enough to catch on, and it was officially abandoned by DC in 2005 ahead of another Crisis, which once again shook things up continuity-wise.
Meanwhile, Marvel’s answer to the obstacle to new readers presented by burdensome continuity was to introduce separate and alternative continuities. After trying to create an entirely separate superhero universe with the New Universe in the 80s, Marvel tried again with the more familiar feel of MC2 in the mid '90s. Like DC’s Earth-2 concept from the Silver Age, MC2 was a separate reality where heroes had aged and retired, to be replaced by a new generation composed largely of their children.
A more successful endeavor on Marvel’s part was the Ultimate Universe, which offered modernizations of classic Marvel concepts, starting with Spider-Man and expanding from there. The Ultimate Universe eventually fell prey to the monster of continuity harder than most, with an emphasis on shock stories that made that universe even more impenetrable than the Marvel Universe --- and because it wasn't part of the main universe, the Ultimate Universe was seen as expendable by fans. After fifteen years, it was recently snuffed out of existence.
Infinite Crisis reintroduced the concept of the multiverse to DC Comics, limiting it to fifty-two alternate Earths, but five years later DC threw the baby out with the bathwater in an attempt to relaunch the line without fully rebooting it. Similar to the fallout from Crisis on Infinite Earths, The New 52, as it was called, rebooted characters DC felt it could be doing better with, like Superman and Wonder Woman, while holding onto the exact continuity of their more successful properties, like Batman and Green Lantern.
While comics have been struggling with continuity for decades, it’s a concept that’s recently reared its head in TV and movies too. Daniel Craig’s James Bond films are essentially a reboot, but they retained Judi Dench’s M exactly as she was before, and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot bent over backwards to explain how it could be a new continuity that remained linked to the original television and movie series.
Last year, Marvel Comics embraced the Crisis approach to continuity with its Secret Wars event, in which the entire multiverse was destroyed and one single universe emerged in the aftermath, with elements of the most most popular alternate realities incorporated within. Marvel editors will go to their graves denying that it’s a reboot, but they also strongly insist that their main universe is no longer Earth-616, so... which is it?
DC first began teasing its Rebirth event in late-January, and speculation went into overdrive that it would be yet another reboot, less than five years after The New 52. Apparently this generated the wrong buzz for DC, as it later sent out a teaser claiming, “It’s not a reboot… and it never was.”
Now we know a little more about Rebirth, but we don't know to what extent it is or isn't a reboot. We've been told that it's about returning a sense of legacy to the DC Universe (lost in the New 52 reboot), so some continuity changes seem likely, in which case, what makes it different to the soft reboots of Zero Hour or Infinite Crisis?
Despite the scale of all these events and relaunches, the easiest way to fix continuity may simply be to not worry about it too much, and just carry on telling good stories. Grant Morrison decided that every Batman story from the Silver Age happened, and his run with the Caped Crusader was all the better for it. It’s weird to think that, due to the sliding timescale, the Fantastic Four didn’t debut until after Y2K, but if it’s not really mentioned, we don’t need to think about it too much.
The biggest success stories in superhero comics are continuity-lite comics that play in the open sandbox that their universe provides --- but never at the expense of the story. Continuity should always serve the story, never the other way around. By following that rule of thumb, things usually work out for the best.