Friday, June 26, 2009

Those Who Do Not Know History...

Like it or not retroactive continuity is a fact of the comic medium at this point. We, the comic reader, are used to have any element of a character's history or background changed on at a moment's notice. Yet it is not a fact that I am entirely o.k. with accepting. There is something about the retcon that has always stuck in me like thorn in the paw.

It is not that I have anything against radical changes in te character or storyline. You say you want to turn Superman blue and red? Go ahead. You say you want Tim Drake to becoming the dark and obsessed Red Robin? You got it. You want to kill Oliver Queen? I will be pissed but if it is decent storytelling I will grudgingly accept it. Change happens in stories. Tragedy, joy and complete life upheavals happen in our everyday lives so why not in the fictional journeys of extraordinary characters? As long as the build makes sense, well comic sense, and it leads somewhere then you could give Lian Harper laser eyes for all I care.

Yet, retroactive continuity flies in the face of the fundamentals of good storytelling. I will actually hedge that statement before I get into too much trouble. Lots of retroactive continuity flies in the face of the fundamentals of good storytelling. Ah, there is nothing like a good hedge.Some of it works for me. Oliver Queen having an illegitimate son that he never knew about?The character was a womanizer for a while so it makes sense. Jefferson Pierce, Black Lighting, having daughters is a whole different story. For almost three decades Pierce was a divorcee with no mention of one daughter, let alone two. However, you hit Outsiders #1 and you suddenly get Anissa “Thunder” Pierce going off to fight the good fight. Jump a few more years forward and now you have Jefferson with Jennifer, another daughter with powers. Oh, he is married as well. There is no explanation for why it happens. It just simply is. This leads into my two issues with the retcon. One, once you allow it, it steamrolls. We go from divorcee, to single father of one, to married family man all on the whim of writers. Too many steps from the original and you lose sight of the heart of the character. How can you rely on the facts, the core of a character, if those base facts are subject to change. What next? Have Bobby Ewing's death turn out to only be a dream? Wait a second...

More importantly, the retcon is a cheat. The writers do not want to work with the base that is given them so they ignore it. You do not like blue Superman or red Superman? Fine, his electromagnetic powers dispersed and he is back to normal. You do not like a crippled John Stewart? Fine, uber-powerful Hal Jordan cures him. These are changes that work within and are believable to the comic genre as we know it. To just ignore though, shows a lack of imagination. To ignore though, shows a lack of respect for what has come before. I was struck by something that came out of Newsarama’s coverage of Heroes Con this past weekend.

“In regards to the upcoming Starro appearances, Cunningham said that despite all of the appearances to date, the real Starro has never been seen…”

What do you have to say about that, Gardner Fox?

I ask you , Second Printers, am I off base here?


ChrisM said...

I'm going to paraphrase that thing that Devon always sez RE Keith Giffen and the death of Blue Beetle-"Blue Beetle walks into a room completely brought back to life.."

I think people get too hung up on continuity. Its nice that there aren't insane inconsistencies two issues back to back but I think people get a little too worked up over it.

I LOVE Starro. and I think the idea of reimagining him as an interstellar Conan is a dumb idea-but I don't think it in any way diminishes the original vision of the character. But eventually it will either work or it won't-and he will return to his roots.

That's the beauty of the fluid landscape of creativity. You can try all the permutations-and let the cards fall where they may.

One could argue that honoring the history of a character would be easier if you could see how bad (or more importantly-how unsuccessful) it becomes if you take it away from its roots. But how would you know?

I'm curious what you think about the multiple continuities that characters in the public domain have? The Black Terror has now been "reinvented" by Alan Moore, Alex Ross and I think my some small podunk publisher in the 90s??
Do tose characters even have a consistent character history any longer

Justin said...

Well, Grant Morrison also pulled a weird sort of retcon or revamp of Starro back on JLA. Mind-controlling starfish, and everyone acts like they've never seen anything like this before.

But if I'm remembering correctly, they didn't even handwave it away, they just ignored any previous Starro stories. I actually think that's a better way to work around it than this new revamp. If you try to square everything away with continuity, you're eventually going to get tripped up by, like, a thought balloon in a forgotten Zatanna story or something. Live by continuity, die by continuity. (And the whole "You've just never seen the REAL Starro" does seem kind of lazy and ... I don't know, presumptuous? ... just like it did with Brainiac.)

Morrison's JLA doesn't even try to address the continuity issue, so I feel there's not even any point in nitpicking it, so I just accept that this is the way it's gonna be now, and go along for the ride.

Of course, it also helps that Morrison's Starro revamp did some interesting things with the concept and also featured Daniel-as-Sandman in a rare appearance outside Vertigo, plus the whole "If Superman didn't exist, we'd have to create him" concept, and crammed all that stuff into two highly dense, highly entertaining issues. Making Starro just another humanoid space tyrant doesn't seem all that interesting by comparison.

Basically, I am the type of fan who's okay with whatever you want to do to continuity, as long as you come up with some interesting stories. I'm willing to forgive and forget the bloody awful idea of One More Day because I'm generally enjoying new Spider-Man comics

Nate said...

Without retconning how do you spark up storytelling in characters that are 70 YEARS OLD ?

We're in a unique world of copyrights that get renewed in seemingly perpetuity. Since the characters remain under corporate enslavement, creators aren't left with much wiggle room but to retcon as they need.

Jon Hex said...

What I don't understand is how some writers would hold a ten year old story sacred and waltz over a story from a year ago. If you're going to have this shared universe and shared history, the editors need to make sure creators are beholden to it. If not, make your own book and your own universe. Or write an "what if" story or one that takes place around the time of the story you're so found of.
In DC, it's easy to make changes to a character's history, even Crisis gives you an out. But don't glance over a story just because you didn't like it or it interferes with your story you've been working out for six years. There are other people in the company and their work should be respected by at least the recognition that it happened.