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Eric: Retconning: Just Another Day Like All The Others

This is talking around a subject, rather than directly about it. I apologize for that. Let me spend a few moments discussing the nub of the matter before diving into the meat of the essay, which lives out on the periphery where a man and a dog might have a gun and a shack, but there's not much likelihood of there being a WalMart nearby.

I am given to understand that Marvel Comics -- in an eighteen month block of time which could charitably be described as "the stupidest thing ever," has managed to actually do the stupidest thing ever.

How stupid was it? Beloved internet icon and Babylon 5 Great Maker J. Michael Straczynski, the current writer of Spider-Man, was told to do this thing by Marvel Editorial. He was so against the idea that he decided to leave his name off the story. There was a long discussion with various folks at Marvel Editorial, culminating in the Editor in Chief's having a long discussion with him and convincing him not to remove his name from the stories.

Of course, Mr. Straczynski then proceeded to post about this event on usenet. Seriously, I'm not kidding. He decided not to take his name off the story, then loudly posted about the conflict and decision, thus magnifying the story beyond what leaving his name off in the first place would have done. Which is worse for Marvel, because it really screams out just how unhappy folks were about this, and is a little bad for Straczynski, since it makes him look like he didn't have the courage for doing the hard thing but wanted the credit for doing the hard thing. If you're going to be a part of a travesty, don't even bother trying to half-distance yourself from it.

The event, which I suppose needs a spoiler warning except anyone reading these words probably already knows it, is essentially Spider-Man and Mary Jane making a deal with the devil, in his Mephisto guise, to save the life of dying Aunt May, retconning their marriage out of existence so that it never happened. Oh, and Harry didn't die. And I guess they wanted Gwen never to die but the writers demanded otherwise.

As I said, the stupidest thing ever.

That's only tangentially what we're here to talk about.

We're here to talk about retconning;

Retconning comes from "retroactive continuity," meaning "taking the continuity of your storyline and retroactively changing part of it so things didn't happen the way they happened," and there are many ways to do it. Let's talk about them together, shall we?

First off, let's talk about what all these things have in common. All of these changes underscore some Alteration Of What The Fans Know. And the fans are the only relevant part of retconning -- casual or first time readers don't care. You could just start your series over completely wiping out everything that happened (see below) in issue one of your new series, and a completely new reader won't give a damn about it when he reads issue two. The only people who give a damn about the history of your story are the people who have already emotionally invested in your story. They're the ones who bring baggage with them. They're the ones who have followed the story for some time -- maybe even years or decades -- and they're the ones you have to convince when you go ahead and make changes to "what they thought they knew."

That phrase, by the by, which is a lie. Retconning doesn't change 'what they thought they knew.' Retconning intentionally takes what they knew and made it wrong. It is a contradiction of your fans' expectations and a complete alteration of the context your stories are told in.

It is a tool, in other words, but it is one that should be used very, very, very rarely, because it deliberately breaks the emotional investment your fans have in your core product: your story. You take a significant risk that your fans will not then reinvest every time you do it. Which means you'll lose some of your fans every time you do it.

It's also a tool to be used sparingly because the retcon will always feel like fiat, whereas the continuity it replaced was organic. It grew and built over the course of months or years or decades. The resulting patches will be weaker, and won't take the strain the original would.

And it is a tool to be used sparingly because once you start to retcon, you start wanting to do more. It's a rare writer or editor who does what he feels is a necessary retcon who won't then throw in a bunch of flourishes just because they thought it would be cool. And even if the retcon could have worked all right, the flourishes inevitably cause destruction and lay waste to all they touch.

The major problem is, the major comic book publishers don't treat retcons like rare tools to be used sparingly. Since the mid to late eighties, they use them like chainsaws, and they're reaping that which they've sown ever since.

So let's look at the different ways to retcon. Let's look at the advantages of them. And let's look at the potential pitfalls of each type:

Category One: Now Revealed! A Lost Tale of the Hero!

The most basic form of the retcon is also the least problematic. History isn't rewritten -- it just turns out there was more to the story than we saw the first time around. Back in the late sixties and early seventies (and even into the eighties) the Legion of Super-Heroes did this sort of thing a lot. We saw stories set during earlier Legion eras, often with a "now it can be told!!!" caveat, meant to add a certain richness to the Legion's history without really changing anything.

In fact, the most pervasive version of the "secret history of X" form of retconning would have to be the existence of Superboy himself. Superboy -- the original, once tagged as 'the adventures of Superman when he was a boy -- had a whole mess of adventures, up to and including a ton of adventures with the far-future Legion of Super-Heroes long before he ever went to Metropolis! And every time a new one was published, we had a tiny bit of retconning of Superman's history -- after all, in the 'present' day, Superman would have had all of those adventures. When we learned that Superman's 'first' meeting with some of his foes (including bafflement at their powers until he worked out the kinks of fighting them) wasn't really his first meeting, what since he fought the teenaged version of Lex Luthor back in the day, it made that original story a little weaker (man, did Superman forget the bit about the imp saying his name backwards? I thought he had super-memory!) but it could be ignored, for the most part.

The advantages of the lost tale are many: financially it makes sense because it means mining earlier versions of your intellectual property. There were folks who tired of the Legion who'd still buy something with the old Adventure era costumes, for example. Superboy's adventures meant using Pete Ross and Lana Lang -- something that always seemed troubling when they showed up in the modern day and interacted with Superman. The old X-Men are still darn lucrative no matter how many weirdass variations of the new X-Men we get. And so on and so forth.

The disadvantages, on the other hand, are minor but present. One was touched on up above -- if you take elements introduced in your series and reintroduce them in a lost tale of your hero's past, you weaken the original story. Further, a new writer on a given series might be tempted to write "lost" tales from before he took over so his own beloved and precious characters can be made a part of the history of the popular character. (A plethora of Batman supporting cast and villains turn up in Bruce Wayne's years of training, for example, which makes us think that they're all essentially stupid for forgetting that billionaire they met back in Tibet, but I digress.) Perhaps most subtle but definitely there is that sense that with all those pastward adventures, Our Hero never had time to actually grow up. This is most true of Superboy, who Kryptonian or not didn't have nearly enough time to do everything he did in the past, and he must have spent a good eight years in the future with the Legion (making him in his twenties before he graduated high school, and why didn't Lana ever notice that, hmmmm?) Granted, comic book time is always weird, but there are ways to push it.

Finally, the greatest danger comes from your biggest fans. They're the ones who will notice all the inconsistencies your "lost tale" introduces to the history they've been tracking, and they're the ones who'll happily tell everyone about them. Marvel used to hand out nonexistent "no-prizes" to folks like that, and back then there were only letter columns and APAs for the fans to make trouble in. In today's forum/website/LJ community/wikipedia world, inconsistencies introduced into history become way bigger than the stories they appear in.

Category Two: The Story You Thought You Knew!

The next level up of retconning is the first true retconning -- taking familiar stories and adding new twists to them. Where lost tales get shoehorned into the quiet moments between comic books from a few years ago, these revisions get added into the actual stories. Generally, these take relatively simple stories (even origin stories) and give them more depth, or set up some future plotline. The evolution of Superboy meeting Lex Luthor is an example. Their meeting as young teens was itself a retcon, of course -- of the lost tale variety. Superboy recognized the signs of genius in young Lex, and built him a state of the art laboratory to let the genius flourish. Lex helped him out here and there, and ultimately worked on developing... well, they called it a Kryptonite cure but it was clearly a vaccine. Whatever. It blew up, Superboy flew in and blew out the fire, Lex breathed fumes or some such and lost all his hair, and then blamed Superboy for it, and his hatred for the Boy/Man of Steel rained down from his bald pate forevermore.

All fine and dandy.

Well, then a retcon came in -- Lex didn't just develop a cure for Kryptonite, as it turned out. He actually created life itself in the laboratory, as part of the process of curing Kryptonite. And when Superboy flew in and blew out the fire and saved Lex, he of course didn't know that there was an artificially created living organism in there -- so he either didn't save it or actually killed it depending on the version of the story you're reading.

And suddenly, that makes way more sense. Lex Luthor isn't pissed off that he lost his beautiful shit-brown locks. He's had a life he created, Godlike, destroyed. His baldness just reinforces what he lost -- what Superboy took from him.

See, you thought you knew the story, but now you really know the story.

The advantages are clear -- simple stories that are at most sufficient to their need become more complex stories that really flesh out the situation. The classic stories take on a fresher, more relevant vibe. An anonymous gunman becomes Joe Chill (or a proto-Joker). Uncle Ben's killer turns out to be a penitent Sandman. Iron Man's origin is taken out of war-torn Vietnam/Cambodia and put someplace a little more timeless so that Tony Stark isn't pushing sixty. R. J. Brande turns out to be a thousand year old frozen in shape Durlan who hopes to reconcile with his son by creating a team of superheroes in the thirtieth century that somehow he just knows his son will hear about in the backward and xenophobic society he lives in and join up--

Okay, sometimes 'relevant vibe' is pushing it.

The disadvantage and potential pitfall is twofold. First off, there's the old canard -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Sometimes in taking a story and recasting it to make it more relevant to the current audience, you take something timeless and make it either significantly weaker or... well, make it easily dated. A lot of the 'relevant elements' you can add to a story are in fact flavors of the week, and adding them will look at best ridiculous five years down the line.

The second potential pitfall is that you'll take a good story and make it a bad one. Honestly, if something seems timeless, even if it seems hokey, then the chances you'll write it better than the original writer did isn't all that great. And if you can, for example, explain someone's origin story in ten words or less, this is a good thing. It means you don't need a lot of backstory to get someone up to speed. Making that three or four paragraphs just weakens the whole thing, because that's time it takes a reader to get familiar with the story before they can jump in.

Category Three: The Real Story You Thought You Knew!

Hot on the heels of the last retconning, we have this little gem. It's not that there's more to the story you read that other time -- that story was wrong! Oh sure, everyone knows that Dirk Morgna was a young genius engineer locked in a reactor by the jealous Doctor Regulus, but that's all wrong! What really happened was Dirk Morgna was the plant manager's son and he got promoted and then he screwed up and Doctor Regulus who was innocent and the real genius got blamed and fired and he snapped and locked Dirk in that reactor, but no one really knows it except Regulus and Dirk! Honest! That's how it really happened.

This is where we get into the heavy minefield territory, as you can see from my somewhat biased accounting of one of Sun Boy's retcons, because this is where we're getting into actual story surgery. We're outside of value-adding into stories and into actual full on changing of stories, and like any plastic surgery it can leave some nasty looking scars and ultimately prevent Joan Rivers from ever changing her facial expression again. Some of the worst examples of this retcon style were found in the Keith Giffen/Tom and Mary Bierbaum version of the Legion (they're the ones who decided that Sun Boy needed to have an angst-filled origin, in the same issue his lover shot him in the head, I would add, so it's not like it did anything for him), and a good number of these retcons were designed to fit pet theories the Bierbaums had in their APA-participating days. For example, they'd believed Element Lad was gay, only Paul Levitz had him get involved with a hot redhead female science police officer named Shvaughn Erin. So Shvaughn Erin, was made a male-to-female transsexual specifically because Sean Erin had loved Element Lad from afar and wanted to appeal to him so that Element Lad could really have been involved with a man who later reverted to being male but they stayed together... sort of. Similarly, looking back at one of the seminal Legion moments -- where Proty sacrificed his life and life-force to allow a resurrection of Lightning Lad -- the Bierbaums became enamored of the notion that Lightning Lad really was Proty in Lightning Lad's body, with all Proty's memories and personality, and that his best friends and lover who was telepathic never noticed it.

These, as you can guess, didn't go over very well, because they came across exactly as they sound -- as ham-handed attempts to shoehorn in pet theories and fanfiction into 'real' continuity. We get away from trying to add depth to or invigorate the story with this style of retcon, and get more into the areas of 'putting one's mark on the series mythology,' which rarely goes well.

As a side note, Frank Miller did this about as well as anyone ever has, when he reworked a lot of Daredevil's origin (not to mention all kinds of stuff with Elektra). He combined the "lost tale," "thought you knew" and "what you know is wrong" retcons into a story that took a fairly average superhero and made him downright epic. So it's not that it can't work.

It's just that it almost never does work.

The major pitfall goes back to the core pitfalls of retconning in general. This is the territory where you're seriously fucking with established history -- which is to say you're fucking with the specific affections of your fanbase. Frank Miller got away with it in Daredevil for two reasons: almost no one gave a shit about Daredevil before the reworking, and he rolled a natural twenty in the execution of it. In the case of the Bierbaums, Legion history was revered by a gigantic pack of fans, and they alienated way more than they pleased with the changes -- leading to a full on reset button later on (though there were other problems with that, which we'll get to in a few minutes). People don't want to find out that they're wrong about the continuity they've been following.

It gets worse, of course, because they have all these issues of the comic that show a very natural and organic growth of the story they love, often handled by a plethora of creators. The retcon, on the other hand, is very artificially grafted over the top of it, and as a result there's a lot of scar tissue around it. It is nigh impossible to bring the same level of nuance that the originals had, and so even retcons that do make sense and improve the story end up sounding way weaker as a result.

And it's possible to go so far with a retcon of this kind that you out and out alienate people -- you can do serious damage to your fanbase if you're not careful, especially when you're trying to recast your comic (originally written for kids and teenagers) for an adult fanbase. Identity Crisis is the most egregious recent example of this -- the retcons put into place weren't simply to make Doctor Light more malevolent than he'd been for a while, it was to take the silver age Justice League -- a group of true heroes in the heroic mold of the time -- and make them "edgy." This largely had the effect of pissing people off, because no one wants the JLA of their childhoods screwed with. Having some punk tell us that the heroes we grew up revering weren't all that heroic just makes us set our jaw.

Like I said before -- messing with the affections of the reader base. Sometimes you can get away with it. A lot of the time you can't.

Category Four: The Story You Thought You Knew Was Right, But Now There's Been A Change!

While the last category was indeed a full on surgical retcon, there was generally no in-continuity reason for the retcon. Now we're into story-changing with a degree of awareness on the part of (at least some of) our heroes, and the trouble is really starting now.

In this case, the retcon is a full on in-story change, retroactively applied, for better or (generally) for worse. Often mandated editorially, this is the point where large chunks of your history get torn out and new bits get grafted in in their place, and you have to 'edit on the fly' to make it all work.

I've been pulling from Legion history for a lot of this, because... well, because they're kind of the perfect example. Moving from the Levitz version of the classic Legion to the Giffen/Bierbaum version of the retconned Legion and then the Post-Zero Hour Rebooted Legion gave us a chance to see almost all of these retcons in practice, and in the long run they were almost all disastrous.

Anyway, the In-Story Change happened because, ta-da, of editorial mandate. You see, Superman's history had had a Restart and Reboot (see below), which meant that there was no period of time where Superman was Superboy. At least at that point. Levitz had done a simple Category Three retcon to fix the issue -- Superboy, it turned out, came from a pocket universe that the Time Trapper had created, and this was the place the Legion had been traveling to all these years. That universe went pear-shaped and Superboy sacrificed his life to save his fellow Legionnaires.

Well, it was decided by editorial that this was insufficient. Superboy (and Supergirl) were too prominent and confusion could result. (Remember, kids. The reason for everything that followed was to avoid confusion. I swear I'm not making this up.) The decision was made to introduce a major retcon -- Superboy, the inspiration for the Legion itself, would be replaced by Mon-El -- now rechristened Valor -- in the history of the Legion. A major in-story event then took place where the revised history was written in and made 'real,' and everything we the readers knew had changed.

Only... remember way up above, when I said the urge to retcon more than is needed becomes overpowering in these situations? Yeah. Giffen and the Bierbaums went to town. Superboy became Valor, as we said. Then Supergirl became Laurel Gand, a Daxamite cousin/descendent/something of Valor. Then they replaced major villain the Time Trapper retroactively with Glorioth, a flunky and functionary of a single story -- and a very different character than the Time Trapper. Then they changed who the first Legionnaire to die was, and why he died. (This was Kid Quantum, who they wanted to do other things with). They added "Kent Shakespeare," the first 'Impulse,' to the Legion's history.

Then, things got worse, because see the Superman editorial team? They had used the pocket universe in Superman's history, including a point where he killed the pocket universe Phantom Zone criminals, an act that led to years of somewhat bad stories that culminated in Superman taking his solemn oath against killing. (I guess because the era where a hero would take an oath against killing as a matter of course was seen as hokey. See above RE timelessness vs. Flavor of the Week).

So, Editorial mandated that there had to be a pocket universe, which meant there had to be a Superboy who came from it. Supergirl (the Matrix version) also came from it, though she had nothing to do with the Legion. So, the Legion did travel back and Superboy joined 'briefly' to set up... um... yeah.

Then Dev-Em had his history retconned twice and then he blew up the moon. Because time had to... Superman could have stopped it but he couldn't be allowed to because... look, at this stage they were clearly huffing paint, okay?

Anyway. As it turns out, this amazing new take on the Legion didn't make people happy. Sales suffered. There were complaints. The Bierbaums insisted a lot of the fan mail was positive, which is interesting given how... sporadic letter columns became. And then they decided to try something to bring back the fans -- they actually created "Batch SW6" which was a whole recreation of the Adventure Era Legion. The idea was to give the fans back a recognizable Legion, while having the heroes we'd been following all these years continue to have their grown up adventures.

(The first thing they did after reestablishing the Adventure Era Legion, meant to fire our imaginations and return us to the days of heroism we pined for? They changed all their codenames and costumes. Interestingly, this was not a successful move.)

Category Four retcons seem to go this way. People just get annoyed at them, and it's nigh impossible -- no matter how good your storytelling might be -- to convince people they like the taste of your sandwich.

The Spider-Man retcon we mentioned at the start is a Category Four. History has been changed. And, like all these situations, they claim the changes are minimal, and that he had all the same adventures as he had before. Why, he's just not married! And he lives with Aunt May! And Harry Osborne is still alive. And he lost his organic webshooters. Oh, and he never revealed his identity to the world, which means the entire Spider-Man arc in Civil War was just dicking with us! And apparently this means Mary Jane conceived a child out of wedlock with Peter. And there are new characters!

But... it's back to the good old days where Peter has girl trouble and is single, and that'll be better, right?

Right?

Moving On.

Category Five: Meet the New Hero, Not The Same As The Old Hero Because That Never Happened

Finally, we have the major event. The big one. The big block of cheese in the White House lobby. The retcon that completely starts everything over. This retcon is often called a "reboot," because that's what it does. It starts from the very beginning, wiping clean all continuity so new readers can jump right in. Everything's up in the air because nothing's happened yet.

John Byrne loves these things. And the most famous Category Five was Superman, post-Crisis on Infinite Earths. They let Alan Moore write an "imaginary" story that tied up the Silver Age Superman, and then they started over, completely from scratch. Gone was the Legion of Super-Heroes, Superboy, Lex Luthor in Smallville and most of Superman's power. When he met the Toyman, it was for the first time. Lois's hair color changed. Jimmy became even stupider. And Lex Luthor stopped being a scientist and started being Donald Trump without hair.

It could have worked... had they had the balls to do the same thing to every other comic book in their stable. Unfortunately, they didn't. And that meant stress fractures began forming around the Man of Steel from the beginning. The Legion debacle above was just one of them -- also sacrificed was Superman's history in the Justice League. Which meant the whole "Superman was the first superhero" concept had to be junked too -- now there had been tons of heroes, stretching back to World War II. Add a complete reboot/Category Five of Wonder Woman into the mix, and... well, among other things, it became difficult to reconcile Batman's history (which was largely unchanged at first) with anyone else's.

The clusterfuck that was the Giffen/Bierbaum Category Four retcon led them to wipe the slate clean on that with a Category Five retcon. That in turn caused other problems so we've had another complete reboot of the series. Of course, we've had another Crisis come and go screwing with timelines and dimensions and Christ knows what else anyway. Honestly, the idea that there is any continuity between the current version of DC comics and previous ones is silly. If you're a current fan, let the past go and enjoy the ride. Here and there, there's some good stuff.

The major problem with reboots besides the above is it's a complete break with the past. Which means it's the ultimate break with the fan's investment. Take me -- I was a big-ass Legion fan. I held on through all the monumental pain that was the Giffen/Bierbaum era because... well, I loved the Legion. Even all the retcons wasn't enough to break me the rest of the way.

Tossing out the continuity and starting over? Was enough. I never got into the 'new' Legion. I can't cotton to the new new Legion. I was drawn into the current flirtation with variations of the original Legion that ran through JLA and JSA and now Superman, but they're clearly not really the Legion I knew.

Does that make them bad? No, not really. But I have no reason to reinvest in them. And every time we have retcons of any category some readers will be lost along the way -- and the Category Five shakes loose the largest numbers, because it's a full on starting over.

Interestingly, there is an entirely successful Category Five retcon on record. I'm serious. It absolutely worked, even though it was essentially unplanned and uncontrolled. That retcon is today called the Silver Age of Comics. They started over all the comics and continuities -- largely just ignoring the old stories and later giving them their own universe. And the essential proof of concept happened again in the nineties, when Batman: The Animated Series gave birth to the DC Animated Universe -- which held to a completely separate tight continuity over the course of a decade. In many ways, the DCAU has been the most successful superhero continuity artistically since it first appeared, and financially there's almost no contest. Certainly the DCAU brought in more direct cash to Warner Brothers than the DC Comics line has for quite some time.

One thing that highlights the problems that indiscriminate retconning breeds is complexity. A simple retcon turns into a series of more elaborate retcons to patch over broken pieces. Superman's reboot was at core simple -- it was an entirely new thing. But then all the other DC comics began showing problems and so they had to apply fixes and patches and retcon other things that bred new fissures and patches and retcons, until... well, until they had to take four odd years of "monumental events" to lead up to what sounds like one more complete reboot. And maybe this time it'll take.

Marvel's no better off -- Lost Tales and stories, especially around cash-cow X-Men have made it increasingly hard to know what's going on. And now they've introduced a monumental Category Four retcon into their flagship title, leading to problems the likes of which we won't know for five or six years, long after they've reverted back to the marriage because they're sick of this shit.

And they will. Just like Captain America will come back. Just like Supergirl came back all those times, and Earth-2 came back, and Power Girl's history came back, and a version of the original Legion came back. Because when you fuck with your fanbase's affections, you fuck with your livelihood, and eventually you pay a price for it. Check out the Retcon-fest that has been Green Lantern since Crisis on Infinite Earths, and notice that as of this point, pretty much all the dead Lanterns have come back to life, Hal Jordan never really went crackerdog and even Sinestro's doing just fine these days. Hey look -- Hal and Ollie and Kyle and Guy and John and Ice and everyone? They're all fine! Really! And they're having epic adventures! Please! Come back!

Please come back!

Please?

When Jesus makes Mary Jane and Peter married again (seriously. They're teasing Jesus as their cosmic parachute for this storyline), there will be great hopes that everything will be made all better. Only what will happen is people who invested in the post-infernal annulment will be pissed off by the restoration, and no one will be very happy, and eventually everyone will agree to stop talking about it. Sort of like the Clone War. And within a few years, Civil War. Which was all the fault of invading Skrulls anyway. No really. You thought you knew the real Civil War Story, but you were wrong.

The question is, what will the numbers be for a top selling book at that point?

And on DC's side... just what kind of Legion will be the new one then?

Posted by Eric Burns-White at January 3, 2008 1:54 PM

Comments

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 3, 2008 3:19 PM

For some reason, I really enjoy retcons of the ridiculous universe-spanning sort, like Zero Hour and Crisis on Infinite Earths, even when I hate the result. I'd probably read a comic universe that was all time-traveling continuity porn.

Also, I emphatically agree with you when you say, "In many ways, the DCAU has been the most successful superhero continuity artistically since it first appeared". As far as I'm concerned, the animated version of almost every character is the best one around, from Superman and Batman down to Wildcat and the Question. The JLU comic book is so much better than JLA.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 3, 2008 3:44 PM

The DCAU had the advantage of absolutely tight editorial control. The same editorial team coordinated what happened in each show, and because they kept the DCAU entirely contained, with no crossovers with other versions of the DC universe (the Justice Lords and the Justice Guild don't count -- neither of those were, say, the Crime Syndicate of America or the Justice *Society*) they could wipe the slate clean and let it evolve. And that last series shot in the last episode of JLU did all the homage they'd ever need.

Comment from: Egarwaen [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 3, 2008 3:49 PM

In my book, complete reboots are often preferable to perpetual continuity. But you can't fuck around with them, they really do have to be complete.

For example, Gundam receives a complete reboot with basically every new series at this point. Some of the new series flop (like X did), and some appeal to very different demographics and are explosive successes because of it(Wing, SEED, and G). As a result, each continuity is fairly clean but still appeals to existing fans despite having a completely new creative team. It helps that side stories are kept at arms' length from the main continuities.

(Technically, all of the continuities are linked by a reset button that happens to look a lot like a giant robot with a huge moustache, but that's really not relevant.)

I'll admit that I'm also a fan of the New Blue Beetle, which I think is another Right Way to do a reboot. But that seems to be the case of a really good writer with a major respect for past continuity being largely ignored by editorial.

Other working cases include the Shoji Kawamori "Macross" approach ("There is no continuity, I'm just going to do whatever the hell I want, and I dare you to try and stop me") and the Terry Pratchett approach ("Ancient order of monks responsible for patching up history when I break it").

So retcons can work. Just not when dealing with a massive shared universe where one of the main supposed selling points is the organic continuity. Particularly not when editorial is trying to "correct" things that fans actually like. (IE, the Spidey/MJ marriage)

Comment from: Darth Paradox [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 3, 2008 3:51 PM

One thing that highlights the problems that indiscriminate retconning breeds is complexity. A simple retcon turns into a series of more elaborate retcons to patch over broken pieces. Superman's reboot was at core simple -- it was an entirely new thing. But then all the other DC comics began showing problems and so they had to apply fixes and patches and retcon other things that bred new fissures and patches and retcons, until... well, until they had to take four odd years of "monumental events" to lead up to what sounds like one more complete reboot. And maybe this time it'll take.

This, right here? This is why time travel is a bad, bad idea. You think you fixed the timeline? Wrong. You fixed the timeline locally, kind of... and made it inconsisent with the rest of the universe around it, like trying to cover up a section of striped wallpaper with plaid. Even if you get some of the lines to match up exactly, the rest just clash.

And then the continuum has to go and make you rescue a cat from drowning in another part of the timeline, to force you to try to fix it by returning the cat to its proper place and cause the proper side-effects that will fix the original incongruity. Problem is, when you're writing a fictional timeline, there's nobody to do that for you.

Comment from: Scamp [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 3, 2008 4:22 PM

It's amazing what one finds wandering about the net. I put my maiden name in quotes into the google image search and got back several pages of your blog. You should email me so that we can get reacquainted ....again.... (I can't find an email for you on here anywhere....)

Comment from: Prodigal [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 3, 2008 4:54 PM

I'm not entirely certain that I'd call the newest Beetle a reboot, but I agree that he's one of the best characters in DC's stable right now.

Comment from: Zeekar [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 3, 2008 5:26 PM

Yay, a websnark posting!

Ahem.

Jaime Reyes is not a reboot. There are plenty of retcons to the history of the Blue Beetle character, but they're mostly categories 1 and 2; maybe a 3. In general there's a tremendous amount of respect shown to the character's past, which is something that was notably missing at DC around the time of, say, Identity Crisis. The new BB is on my must-read list. Even if it is essentially a knockoff of Invincible. ;-)

I think the DC editorial staff learned a lesson from the widespread negative reaction to Id C - though not necessarily the right one, since there was also that annoying little sales spike - and now they're trying to respect the past even as they're changing everything. Too bad it's so hard to do that. Sometimes it works (52), sometimes not so much (Countdown). But at least we get Showcase editions to remind us how it used to be. :)


Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 3, 2008 6:26 PM

Hrm.

Interestingly, JMS has chimed back in on One More Day. He mentioned he had a downright comprehensive plan to this retcon (which, to be honest, is fraught with the problems mentioned above), but was overruled by Quesada. When JMS raised many, many, many issues with Quesada's vision... well, here. Let me paste:

"So what does Mephisto do?" I ask.

"He makes everybody forget Peter's Spider-Man."

"Uh, huh. So Aunt May's still in the hospital --"

"No, he saves Aunt May."

"But if all he does is save her life and make everybody forget he's Spidey, she still has a scar on her midsection."

"No, he makes that go away too."

"Okay...:

"Then he wakes up in her house."

"The house that was burned down?"

"Right."

"But how --"

"Mephisto undoes that as well."

"Okay. And the guys who shot at Peter and May and were killed, they're alive too? Mephisto can bring guys back from the dead?"

"It's all part of the spell."

"And Doc Strange can't tell?"

"No,"

"And the newspaper articles? News footage?"

"Joe, it's been forgotten."

"I'm just asking is that stuff there or not there?"

"Not there. And Peter's web shooters are back."

"Is this the same spell or a different spell?"

"Same spell."

"How does making people forget he's Spidey bring back his web shooters?"

"It's magic, okay?"

"I see. And Harry's back."

"Right."

"And Mephisto does this too."

"Yep."

"So is Harry back from the dead, or has he been alive? If they ask him, hey Harry, what did you do last summer, will he remember? And the year before? And the year before? If he says they all went on a picnic two years ago, will they remember it?"

"It's --"

"Because if he now has a life he remembers, if he's not back from the dead, then you've changed the continuity you said you didn't want to change. Those are your only options: he was brought back from the dead, and there's a grave, and people remember him dying --"

"Mephisto changes THEIR memories too."

"-- or he's effectively been alive as far as our characters know, so he's been alive all along, so either way as far as our characters are concerned, continuity's been violated going back to 1971.

How do you explain that?"

"It's magic, we don't have to explain it."


And that's the part I had a real problem with, maybe the single biggest problem. There's this notion that magic fixes everything. It doesn't. "It's magic, we don't have to explain it." Well, actually, yes, you do. Magic has to have rules. And this is clearly not just a case of one spell making everybody forget he's Spidey...suddenly you're bringing back the dead, undoing wounds, erasing records, reinstating web shooters, on and on and on.

What I wanted to do was to make one small change to history, a tiny thing, whose ripples we could control to only touch what editorial wanted to touch, making changes we could explain logically. I worked for weeks to come up with a timeline that would leave every other bit of continuity in place. It was rigorous, and as logical as I could make it. In the end of OMD as published, Harry is alive and he's always been alive as far as the characters know...so how is that different than he was alive the whole time?

It made no sense to me.

Still doesn't. It's sloppy. It violates every rule of writing fiction of the fantastic that I and every other SF/Fantasy writer knows you can't violate. It's fantasy 101.

So, on the one hand, JMS is absolutely right. I mean, completely right. The way this has been done is just... it's horrid because yes, you do have to explain these things, because picking at inconsistencies like this is exactly what drives fans insane in the wake of massive retconning.

On the other hand? Had JMS done his "easily controlled retcon?" It would have been its own cascade of suck. Quesada calls it a 'Crisis,' trying to damn it with a title from his competitors, which is disingenuous since the execution still hasn't worked.

It comes down to this, 99 times out of 100, the effective retcon is the retcon that never happened. And they didn't roll double-ought this time.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 3, 2008 6:47 PM

Oh, and one last note:

The Legion retcons and reboots failed to trigger the one thing they hoped it would trigger: a significant return of the old Legion fanbase to the fold. The G/Bier era knocked a bunch of people out and the postboot Legion knocked out others. We have two Legions running around now -- the second Reboot, in Legion of Super Heroes, and a variation of the original Legion in Action Comics in a storyline called Superman and the Legion of Super Heroes. The Starman in the JSA is from the latter and is a brain damaged version of Star Boy. Karate Kid and the ex Triplicate Girl/Duo Damsel (now 'Una') are running around Countdown.

And Jim Shooter -- Jim fucking Shooter -- is now writing the Legion.

If you think all of these moves aren't hoping against hope that the old fans won't come back, you're kidding yourself. But the old fans? Started being knocked out in 1989 with "Five Years Later. It's been nineteen years since Levitz's Legion #63. Most of those fans aren't even trying to follow along, these days.

(And frighteningly, if they solicited Legion of Super Heroes #64, picking up exactly where that 1989 issue left off, I would buy a copy. But I'm going to be forty in a few weeks, and the idea that they want me over a twelve year old kid is just plain dumb. But that's another essay.)

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 3, 2008 8:30 PM

it's horrid because yes, you do have to explain these things, because picking at inconsistencies like this is exactly what drives fans insane in the wake of massive retconning.

True! For example, if Peter Parker isn't publicly known as Spider-Man, shouldn't he have been on the other side of Civil War? How many things does *that* change, just in the last year or so?

What drives me crazy is that Peter was single for 25 years, and then married for 20. It's not like his married continuity was a tiny sliver of his history; the character's actually been married for 40% of his entire existence!

Comment from: Moe Lane [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 3, 2008 11:53 PM

So... let me understand.

Peter & Mary Jane's marriage? Whoops! Gotta retcon that one.

Driving Captain FREAKING America into a metaphorical brick wall at 150 mph? ...Naah, Marvel's still down with that.

Sheesh. :)

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 4, 2008 12:58 AM

I have just two things to say on the topic of retcons:

http://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~dvandom/LNH/Files2

and

http://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~dvandom/LNH/Files6

:)

Comment from: Bertson [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 4, 2008 2:29 AM

Category 5 reboots can alienate the old fans, but if you do enough of them you often wind up training fans to expect them. The example above of Gundam is a good one, as is Transformers, which I'm a big fan of. The first time they threw out the G1 continuity and started fresh with a new TF series, the fans screamed bloody murder. Now that we're going into at least the 5th major new TF continuity in ten years, people have largely just accepted that that's how new TF series work.

Comment from: sqbr [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 4, 2008 3:40 AM

I like the sneaky Joss Whedon take on the "Magical being changes something and alters everyone's memories so they think it was always that way" trope, since while to start with pretty much only the audience knows it's happened, eventually the characters find out and have to deal with the complicated consequences. Which
(a) Creates interesting drama
(b) Means you still have a sense of continuity and consistency
c) Still allows for major retcons, which to a large extent carry on as if things really had always been that way (i.e. from Season 6 on Dawn is mostly just Buffy's sister, her true nature notwithstanding)

Comment from: theliel [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 4, 2008 10:20 AM

Bertson - I think it's an Anime thing in general, or at least a Japanese thign where it's ok to reboot until you Get it Right.

IT's sad it doesn't happen here more often because there are some shows which had awesum premise but then Lost the Way. (See Battlestar Galactica for a successfull american reboot).

Note this applies to RPGs as well, because NWoD caused alot of the OWoD fans to bail on white wolf but also braught on board all those who wanted to be in on the ground floor.

and my first batman WAS the animated series. Far as I'm concerned that's the ONLY batman for me. let's face it, the entire series was so full of fanservice as to be pure 100% win most of the time (until they started muckign around with costumes and such towards the end. I miss the pin-up poison ivy instead of the trinagle gothpunk)

David warner is my rash al ghoul.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 4, 2008 10:40 AM

Bertson -- the biggest problem with Category Five retcons is when they're halfassed, really. Rebooting some of your series but not all of them makes trouble for everyone.

The other side of the equation, looking at the Transformers continuity you reference, is that while you train some fans to accept it, you shake some other fans out of your fandom entirely. Now, Hasbro and the various licensees don't really care, because the core of their fandom... well, is kids. Yeah, they might lose some forty year old transfans when they toss out G1, but if they get fifteen year old transfans on the other end, that's okay with them.

This is also how comics used to work. These days, though, the business model is meant to hold onto existing fans rather than pick up a new group of kids every year. And that's much harder to do when you break the emotional investment with a reboot.

(As a side note? The obvious solution is to reorient to picking the new young fans back up.But as stated before, that's another essay.)

Comment from: BigNickNewt [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 4, 2008 3:03 PM

I have to say that I agree whole-heartedly with what you're saying in regards to retconning, Eric. There are times where it can be used for excellent dramatic effect, but more often than not, it's just not worth it, especially when you get into the category four and five retcons

My question though is this: How is a category five retcon analogous to a big block of cheese in the lobby of the White House? I'm a huge fan of 'West Wing' and love any and all stories involving a big block of cheese, I just don't get the analogy.

To be fair though, by asking that question I'm simply showing another problem with modern comics: damn nitpicking fanboys. What can I say, I have no problem with impossible feats being performed by spandex clad vigilantes, but dammit, I'm gonna pick at small things!

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 4, 2008 3:13 PM

Actually, Transformers did suffer from some serious halfassery recently.

The Japanese studio wanted to do every season as a completely separate story, as is their wont. The American studio wanted it to be a trilogy, same core cast (more or less) moving from one season to the next. And...it wasn't really either. There were too many callbacks and references to really separate out Armada and Energon, but at the same time there were too many things in Energon that just couldn't be in the same world as Armada. And then Cybertron went totally off the rails, with Transformers who had never been to Earth before...yet there was supposed to be the remnants of Unicron from Energon floating around as a major plot point. They tried to slap a patch on this in the final episode of U.S. broadcast with some still images of "where are they now" from the Armada and Energon casts, but that only made things worse, from a continuity standpoint.

And it's starting again. Transformers Animated, while supposedly a "clean break", uses some G1 sequences as "historical records", leading to fans wondering if this is supposed to be an alternate timeline (i.e. if Orion Pax never got injured and wasn't turned into Optimus Prime until long after the Great War was over).

A royal mess is what it is. Fortunately, I like royal messes...otherwise I wouldn't be into Transformers fiction in the first place (after all, even the first season of the original Transformers cartoon contradicted its own timeline).

Comment from: roninkakuhito [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 4, 2008 4:32 PM

Well BigNickNewt, I don't know if this is how Eric meant it, but Big Block of Cheese day's framing story is itself a Retcon that takes the original cast (Andrew Jackson and a large piece of cheese) and the original setting (The Whitehouse) and rewrites the story.

Comment from: lucastds [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 5, 2008 5:59 PM

As much as I hate the idea of retconning and all of that, it's really the only thing that the comic creators can do. See, we're essentially dealing with a set of stories that progress through time without ever really progressing through time. What I mean by that is, Spiderman moves up and gets married and has a kid, but there's a limit to how old he can get before he's going to either have to give up being Spiderman due to old age, or become and Indiana Jones Spiderman like in the movie. So he's either got to move through time VERY VERY VERY slowly, or the story has to be redone so he's a younger, swingin' single again so the story can start all over.

Really, the best solution would be to do what John Allison has so seamlessly done over at ScaryGoRound.com. See, while exploring the stories of his older set of heroes, he is also raising a new, younger generation of heroes who, if the story were to keep going for infinity and drawn by other artists/writers the way that comic book hero stories do, the younger generation of heroes could replace the older generation of heroes and then the strip could carry on resting on the shoulders of the younger generation.

Batman, for example, could eventually hand the reigns over to Robin and new villians would emerge and it would be the adventures of Robin and his new sidekick. Except that Robin would be cool and not a total lame-o because he'd been developed enough over the years as a character for him to warrant carrying the load that Batman had.

And of course, rivalries between old Batman villians and the baggage that Batman carried around could be passed on to the new Robin hero and, as the reigns were turned over (slowly, over several years), dark secrets about Batman could be revealed that Robin would have to struggle to deal with.

Instead, we get these weird Retcons that try to make us forget that, having been invented in the 1930s, Superman in reality would now be over 70 years old. So, really, either Superman doesn't age or the story has got to reboot somewhere.

You'd think this would be an easy process -- especially when dealing with stories like the X-Men where there are several generations of stories to deal with and develop. Instead, writers seem to stick to their cashable characters and never develop another generation. So, instead of exploring some of the more minor younger characters, we get to see Wolverine kicking butt because, darn it, his claws are so amazingly awesome looking and we can sell more t-shirts that way.

Which I understand, because his claws are pretty awesome-looking.

But it's one or the other. Either we trade in the Joker for a younger villian with less history (maybe a protege of the Joker, even), or we continue pretending that the Joker never ages, or that he is replaced through a retcon with a "new" Joker with a different name and backstory, or something, the way that sidekicks and even major superheroes have been replaced. Which Flash? Which Green Lantern? etc.

Either we allow characters to age and die and allow whole series' to die their natural deaths, the way Peanuts or For Better of For Worse have, or we get other artists to make the characters ageless.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 5, 2008 7:03 PM

Actually, I'd've said Peanuts and For Better or For Worse were the perfect examples of the opposite ends of the spectrum. I always lump Charlie Brown and Superman together as examples of what I could've done with King Arthur and didn't do (and sometimes regret not doing). But that brings us to what Alan Moore wrote for the introduction of the Dark Night graphic novel (originally, only issue one of four was titled The Dark Knight Returns), to wit: a legend isn't complete without an ending. You have to have the sword thrown in the lake, the arrow shot in the air, the ascension to Olympus, the farewell to the Ringbearer at the dock, to tie everything up - rounded off and whole and done. But now, even as I write, I wonder whether that trope is the necessity Moore asserted, when so many modern heroes - largely or only because they constitute money-makers for intellectual property owners under modern copyright law - are going without: Superman, Batman (Frank Miller notwithstanding), Charlie Brown, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, the Doctor.

Not really on topic for the blogpost, but lucastd's comment got me thinking.

Comment from: Stephen Geigen-Miller [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 5, 2008 7:48 PM

I'm particularly enamored of Eric's terminology; using the same categorization system for retcons and hurricanes certainly underscores the point!

Comment from: Tom Lynch [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 6, 2008 8:05 AM

There is another option to the Spiderman comments, lucas - the Clone Saga, or variant thereof.

At least, the Clone Saga as it was intended when conceived - Peter's married, his wife is pregnant, another Spider-Man appears with the same powers, is introduced and given the rub of popularity by teaming with Peter a few times, runs solo OK, and allows Peter to concentrate on the 'responsibility'* of parenthood while the new Spider-Man starts out fresh, young, single, and (in that particular case) functionally identical to Parker in memories so you can keep the interaction with the bad guys.

And the beauty of it was it was only a Class One alteration - the clone story had appeared. All you need is the notion the clone survived.

Of course, then editorial changed, and their minds changed with it...

On the other hand, one of the reasons I'm fond of DC's original Crisis was that the cracks produced paste jobs like Morrison's Animal Man.

* -inverted commas due to the connection to the Spider-Man mythos, not to deride the very real responsibilities inherent in parenthood.

Comment from: Benor [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 6, 2008 12:30 PM

Mr. Gadzikowski-I think Moore has a point, in that every story has to have an ending. But that doesn't mean every character has to have an ending, because some are iconic. I mean, you're doing a webcomic about King Arthur in different times and modes (a webcomic I read and enjoy, for full disclosure), long after the medieval audience for King Arthur has disappeared. The fact that King Arthur 'died' (or survives in Avalon) doesn't mean his story can't be retold in an interesting way, or that all stories about King Arthur need to be drawn out to the point where he gets his mortal wound.

And I think the best comic book characters are also icons, though not of the same stature. We accept them being timeless because we enjoy them that much, and that's why people get upset with a bad retcon. It's not just sloppy writing, it's tarnishing someone that has been around for years or decades. Someone introducing a stupid new character? We'll survive. Maybe even laugh about it. Someone doing something very stupid to a well-loved older character? FAN SMASH!

Comment from: Tangent [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 6, 2008 1:44 PM

The funny thing is this: the future of comic books lies within graphic novels. Marvel and DC are both printing boatloads of graphic novels of their comic books and finding they make good money off these compilations.

The problem? Well, they're print compilations of print comics. If you've a new fan just getting into it, then it gives them an easier and less-expensive means of catching up on back story. But if you spent a bit of money on those back issues? Then you suddenly start cursing yourself out and deciding "there's no way in hell I'm buying back issues again."

Which just destroyed the collectibles market for comics. Why spend a boatload (or even twice market value) for an old comic when you can wait a year and get it then?

This also erodes away at the print comic value. Why go to a comic book shop when you can wait a year and get a print compilation that ends up being cheaper in its entirety than each individual book?

And finally it is the clarion call of trumpets evoking the End Times for the comic book store. Why bother going to a comic book store when you can go to Borders or Barnes and Nobles and buy the compilations there? Often with a discount card or coupon?

The problem is that with the death of comic book stores (though the smarter stores will shift over to collectible products and manga - which of course eats away from the financial resources of fans who will then buy less from DC and Marvel) you have fewer places to buy print comics from. People are FORCED to wait that year for a print compilation to arrive.

With diminished sales comes increased cancellations of books. Thus Marvel and DC are setting off a domino effect that will kill the comic book industry unless they take that final step they resist with all their might: free comics on the internet.

If they go the route of Girl Genius and other such companies, then there is no added cost of print comics (and the reason Girl Genius went to an online comic wasn't due to losing money on the comic... but because the Foglios noticed that sales of print compilations increased significantly whenever a new comic book came out, and they realized that the print comic was in fact an expensive advertisement). Sales of print compilations went through the roof when they went online and abandoned the print comics... and the Girl Genius model of comics was shown to work.

Of course, by going online, Marvel and DC will be abandoning wholesale the comic book store model of sales... and in turn those stores may either close their doors or turn completely to the sales of independent comics and manga... which will mean Marvel and DC will have lost that small amount of revenue. They're entirely too greedy to do that.

The effect this would have on retcons would be interesting. Considering that the industry would have an immediate reaction to their actions, if Marvel and/or DC were doing their comics online and noticed that a certain storyline was angering fans to the point they stopped visiting... might not the financial executives stomp on a few editorial heads and say "Put things back. Now." and we'll see a series of retcons becoming bad dreams.

Which I'm sure a number of fans of the Mary Jane/Peter Parker marriage currently are hoping for. "Let me wake up and find out this is just a bad dream...."

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews
http://www.tangents.us

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 6, 2008 11:14 PM

Benor: I think I'd conceded by the time I finished my paragraph that Moore's observation, while arguably true for traditional icons, doesn't seem to apply to the icons of modern communication media as influenced by modern intellectual property law. And to finally bring my comments on-topic for the post with thoughts that occurred since I last clicked on submit, maybe the same evolution in storytelling media is not only forcing evolution in the nature of endings but also in the method of retconning:

When someone like me, or even like T.H. White or Marion Zimmer Bradley, wants to retell a public domain, centuries' classic like the Matter of Britain, because there's an end to the story - because it's whole - you're almost obliged to do it over your own way just to provide value-added content; it's expected. But when a story never ends and belongs to a copyrightholder, like Superman's or James Bond's, the only way to do the story over your way as is wholly expected of reenvisions such stories from pre-1900 is to be a licensee and to retcon them within the existing continuity back to the taking-off point you want. As Eric says, that's not inherently wrong; it depends on how well it's executed.

Comment from: PatMan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 7, 2008 11:46 AM

I don't have time to read the whole essay just yet, but I just want to get one thing off my chest.

Danger.

The X-men villain.

I checked, folks. There is not one instance of the holographic Danger Room malfunctioning in any issue of X-men. (Not including, of course, the four times the person in the booth deliberatly programed a different scenario.) I don't have all the issues of New Mutants, so it might have done it once there, but come on folks. That is a retcon gone horribly wrong. He was retconning Star Trek instead of the book he was writing!

And don't get me started on Deadly Genesis. We need a re-retcon to explain why Banhsee and Multiple Man weren't sent on the first rescue attempt, despite Banshee's history of rescuing the X-men and MM actually being on Muir Island.

Can we also retcon Scarlet Spider back in? I know at least two people who thought he was really keen, if he hadn't been handled so badly.

Comment from: Stephen Geigen-Miller [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 7, 2008 5:15 PM

Oh, and having cogitated on Eric's essay some more, I have come to one certain conclusion:

Joe Quesada now HAS to call his autobiography, 'Jesus Was My Ass-Pull.'

Comment from: baf [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 7, 2008 5:27 PM

I'm not sure I get the distinction between types 2 and 3. Which category does Alan Moore's reworking of Swamp Thing fit?

Comment from: baf [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 7, 2008 5:27 PM

I'm not sure I get the distinction between types 2 and 3. Which category does Alan Moore's reworking of Swamp Thing fit?

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 7, 2008 6:05 PM

Type two doesn't fundamentally change the past. It just adds to it. Type three is an actual change -- details we thought we knew turn out to be radically different.

Alan Moore's origin of Swamp Thing was a hardcore Category Three retcon, by this system. We didn't learn additional facts about Alec Holland becoming the Swamp Thing, we learned that we (and Alec) were wrong all along -- Holland died and the Swamp Thing, a completely different creature, was born.

He did a fantastic job with it, too. But then, he's Alan Moore.

Comment from: leons1701 [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 7, 2008 7:46 PM

While I agree that the ending of OMD was pretty stupid, calling it the stupidest thing ever is a bit of a stretch. I'm not sure it even makes the top 5 stupidest things Marvel's ever done.
This is a company that decided to reboot Captain America and the Avengers by handing them to Rob 'No Talent' Liefeld. Remember Heroes Reborn? Oh you forgot? Sorry for bringing it up.
They drove Peter David off of the Hulk at a time when he was pretty much the only author of any note working for the company and certainly the only one to do anything significant with the title.
They published the 'Clone Saga'. A story so amazingly bad, it drove virtually everyone away from the Spider-Man titles. One of their marquee characters (certainly the biggest not an X-Man) was given a story so weak, confusing and drawn out that even his biggest fans couldn't stomach it.

And that's just off the top of my head. Nothing Marvel does surprises me any more.

Comment from: schaefe [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 8, 2008 12:28 PM

Maybe I shouldn't say it, but my first Legion WAS the Geffin/Beirbaum Legion, and my friends and I ate that series up when it launched in 1989. We all thought the story and the art was excellent (9 panels per page? Freakin' sweet!). But that just serves to Eric's point. We were the new fans. We hadn't invested in the earlier Legion stories so we had no idea what had really passed on before. What made us mad was the introduction of Batch SW6, and then the whole series began to lose its appeal to us. So, we ended up getting retconned out as well. I tried to follow "Legionaires" for a little bit, but I faded off of that as well.

Sigh. What ever happened to the old editor box stating: "Waaaaaay back in Issue #234!--Ed. That was enough for me...

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 8, 2008 6:46 PM

Personally I LOVED the Legion of Super Heroes retcon. I thought it kicked serious ass, starting with Power Lad (or Cosmic Boy? Or... hell, I actually forgot who it was) realizing Superboy was a fake created by the Time Trapper and not caring because Superboy still represented everything a hero should have been, right up to whenever the hell DC putzed out and "made everything right again." Dark LoSH was brilliant.

Comment from: Pseudowolf [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 8, 2008 10:25 PM

You inspired me to write in my blog by finally helping me put my finger on why the Star Wars Prequels (Episode I-III) caused such anger amongst the long-time fans.

George Lucas ret-conned Star Wars.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 9, 2008 9:24 AM

Meh... the hurricane parallel doesn't work for me. Maybe it's because I lived in hurricane country for a few years, and I imagine the categories in terms of destruction (sleep through a category 1, stock up on supplies for a category 3, flee 1000 miles north for category 5).

You know what I think is the biggest problem with this retcon of Spidey? I can't figure out why in God's green earth would Mephisto even bother with doing any of this. I'm sure the editorial team would claim that's it's a part of some really convoluted scheme to get Mephisto even more power/souls/cheeseburgers, but you'd have to come up with a plan beyond anything beheld before in human existence to justify it.

I mean, doesn't it really seem like a huge waste of Mephisto's efforts to bring a few people back from the dead, alter the powers of a hero, and forcibly alter the memories of everyone in existence which includes *physical and digital records* of said memories? What is Mephisto getting out of all this? If the answer is "pure entertainment" or "Spidey's soul", then there are much more effortless ways to pull that off.

By the way, my guess on how this retcon is getting erased is that this is all a delusion, a little personal hell that Mephisto has made for Spider-Man and the latter doesn't recognize it until Jesus does a repeat of the Sundering of Hell solely for the purpose of saving Spider-Man. Jesus then deposits Spidey back on Earth, where things are mostly back to "normal".

Comment from: Doublemint [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 10, 2008 12:52 PM

I'm kind of the inverse of you with the Legion, Eric. I only started reading it after the Zero Hour reboot. That was the Legion I grew up with and enjoyed (although I did drop it for a while when it got super-sucky prior to the Legion Lost soft reboot). I was pretty pissed when they did this Threeboot deal. I grew up reading the Zero Hour Legion and know all that didn't happen? That those characters aren't just dead in the DC universe but now they never actually existed? Damn.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 10, 2008 12:58 PM

Doublemint -- second verse, same as the first. :) We are the same, we just have different Legions.

And that might be one of the most important points to make. Your Legion wasn't bad. My anger over it came from my Legion being wiped out to make room for them.

Comment from: Mushroom [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 22, 2008 3:18 AM

I'm not sure if this qualifies as a retcon per se because, as it was described above, there's a series and a history which gets rubbed with a pink eraser and repencilled. What I bring up here lacks two of those three elements (the history and the repencilling):

Marvel New Universe

Remember that bucket of eight titles?

Here's how I see it: Stan got a bug in his bum, and broke out a parallel series unrelated to anything else but related to each other. How they were related wasn't immediately visible, that would come we were assured and we gathered that Starbrand would make it happen. (And the faithful did wonder how the heck hardboiled Merc was going to tie into psionic 'Wonder Twin' wannabees Nightmask, for example.) It was good comics IMHO but I'm not a comics guy. That was the buildup to the branch.

But before we could really get to that denouement (or maybe I missed it because the vendors in my area shitcanned selling the New Universe titles one by one before 'The PITT' happened, which I didn't see for that reason) the stories petered out like a faraway tsunami wave that swamps islands in its path but is just a ripple when it gets to the mainland shore. Entire titles were suddenly "just a dream" like Justice (and my favorite character in the New Universe was Tensen) -- and there was one comic that actually quoted Firesign Theatre in its cover script "Everything you know is wrong!", or euthanized like Merc, or just left hanging with their powers' purposes unexplained as they sunk under the waves like DP7. And the waves washed onto the shore weakly and the entire New Universe was a footnote, if that.

Though I do wonder sometimes if parts of the 'Heroes' TV series didn't borrow heavily conceptually from how the New Universe was created. Save the paranormals, save the universe. Sometimes the formula works?

Comment from: B. Durbin [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 22, 2008 9:03 AM

"And then the continuum has to go and make you rescue a cat from drowning in another part of the timeline, to force you to try to fix it by returning the cat to its proper place and cause the proper side-effects that will fix the original incongruity."

Ah. Another Connie Willis fan.

I particularly liked their reaction to the whole thing. "When's the center of ingongruity?" "Six hundred years from now." "Six hundred years?" "... It's only a model."

Retconning only works when you have enough control to build the retcon itself into the story. Comics, like soap operas, change people at the helm often enough that behind-the-scenes continuity is essentially absent, and, well, you end up with a bunch of people around the campfire invested in telling their own story, not the story they're theoretically taking part in.

Comment from: B. Durbin [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 22, 2008 9:04 AM

"And then the continuum has to go and make you rescue a cat from drowning in another part of the timeline, to force you to try to fix it by returning the cat to its proper place and cause the proper side-effects that will fix the original incongruity."

Ah. Another Connie Willis fan.

I particularly liked their reaction to the whole thing. "When's the center of incongruity?" "Six hundred years from now." "Six hundred years?" "... It's only a model."

Retconning only works when you have enough control to build the retcon itself into the story. Comics, like soap operas, change people at the helm often enough that behind-the-scenes continuity is essentially absent, and, well, you end up with a bunch of people around the campfire invested in telling their own story, not the story they're theoretically taking part in.

Comment from: buddy the wild geek [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 22, 2008 2:13 PM

Once upon a time, Archie Comics had a superhero line, featuring The Fly, who became Fly-Man. The writers/editor wanted to change something about the character, so one issue they JUST DID. They said in the issue that hey, it's just a comic, they can do that. Jarred me at the time, but ever since COIE, I've thought better of it.

Comment from: harvey [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 23, 2008 6:30 PM

I am very saddened that no one mentioned the first use of retcon... back when (believe it or not) retconning was a good thing: Roy Thomas and the Golden Age DC.

Roy Thomas was a huge fan of the golden age. Back then, there was no such thing as a comics continuity. Each story was a standalone story, with no impact to any other story. The things that Batman did in, say, the Justice Society stories never impacted the events in his own stories in Detective Comics. Granted, it was a different time, and most of the characters were *very* two-dimensional.

When Roy Thomas became a writer for DC (in the later parts of the Silver Age), he took those standalone stories and introduced continuity to them... explaining why certain things happened. Why did the Spectre not just wave his hand and end World War II? Why did the Sandman go from a trenchcoat-wearing detective to a costumed superhero with sidekick? It was a great way to blend in the history of the comics he enjoyed with the demands that current readers had for comic characters. IIRC, it was he that "retconned" that the Justice Society disbanded because of HUAC.

It was around that time that either Roy himself or his fans coined the term "retcon".... he was retroactively adding continuity to books from a time where writers had never even heard of continuity between comic stories.

It is so sad to see something that was pretty novel and pretty cool turned into one of the most hated words in the comics industry.

BTW, my memory on a lot of this is a bit dim, so I might have left out some key pieces. I will have to dig out my old All-Star Squadron and Alter Ego magazines to reminisce.

Comment from: Elizabeth McCoy [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 23, 2008 8:04 PM

(Psst, Eric. Check out http://feeds.feedburner.com/~r/wwdn/~3/221902135/the-geekiest-th.html )

Comment from: nerdwerds [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 23, 2008 8:52 PM

Because when you fuck with your fanbase's affections, you fuck with your livelihood, and eventually you pay a price for it.

Agreed!
Retconning is the primary reason I no longer collect comics.

Comment from: raistlinsghost [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 23, 2008 10:05 PM

Really excellent post. Came here by way of the aforementioned Mr. Wheaton.

I don't actually mind the idea of the retcon, providing that its a way to undo some of the stupider plotlines that a comic has undergone. The problem to me, as you stress, seems to be execution. If a publisher is going to retcon, they have to go all the way and retcon the associated characters, and storylines, even if that means rewriting the whole line. And they have to have the balls to not go back and undo the retcon after a year or so.

I do take issue with the Green Lantern comments, as I thought the Rebirth was great, and was a natural progression of that whole Spectre business. Didn't diminish his crackerdog a bit.

And for the record, I liked Identity Crisis, and I am a fan from way back.

Comment from: GhoulashMike [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 24, 2008 8:20 AM

Wonderful post. I'm a comics fan since the 12-cent days, and these days I find myself more amused than annoyed by the myriad attempts at retconning, although I do admit to being quite weary overall.

What I've found most amusing over the years have been all the attempts by both DC and Marvel to document the histories of their characters in various encyclopedia and Who's Who-type directories. At first the entries would attempt to document the various retcons ("But then he found out he was a CLONE! With planted memories!"). In more recent volumes, however, they've just given up trying to keep things straight and have devised clever patter to distract the reader from the fact that they, too, are baffled ("Over the years and hundreds of strange events in unusual places - COUGHretconCOUGH - until he became the legend he is today. Thank you. That'll be $24.95 US.").

What I'm also finding amusing is how the concept of retconning has found its way to the movie world, threatening to screw with the minds of an entirely new audience: "Batman" (1989) to "Batman Begins" (2005); "Hulk" (2003) to "The Incredible Hulk" (2008).

Interesting, too, how the concept of retconning found its way into the non-comics popular culture, the most popular example being the dream season of "Dallas." Even the authorized sequel novels to "Gone With the Wind" and "The Godfather" are dallying with retconning in their own ways.

Also, I echo the support for the Green Lantern rebirth. Would that Kyle "Toaster Face" Raynor have never been conceived.

Comment from: Jemaleddin [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 24, 2008 1:55 PM

A bunch of my non-comics reading friends asked me about the OMD/BND retcon, and I told the, "Meh. Who cares?" Because either it will work out and good stories will come out of it, or they'll recognize that it sucks and retcon it again. I'll just be glad that Dan Slott is on the team, and that I can enjoy his stories even when the editors are fucking up the back story.

The part I find funny is the sudden "Oh, we liked Mary Jane all along" tune I keep hearing. Wait, what? To me this was as if George Lucas retconned out the Ewoks or Jar Jar and people started rioting. Don't kid yourself: just as many people bailed when Peter married MJ.

And I have to say that complaining about a new background or storyline for Peter Parker is inherently silly when you've seen all of these:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternate_versions_of_Spider-Man

On the other hand, I think a good example of a successful retcon is the Final Fantasy series of games. Square Enix basically builds a new universe for every game, but finds ways to keep many of the tropes and some of the characters from game to game in a way that makes the whole thing feel cohesive. They build a slew of universes, each distinct, but each tied to the others by their fans' affections.

Comment from: Sean Duggan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 27, 2008 1:29 PM

^_^ Personally, I think that the Spider-Man movies should completely drop continuity and have Peter wind up with Ursula. Ultimately, I think with the way they've portrayed the females in Peter's life, she's the only one who really loves Peter for who he is as Peter. Of course, goodness only knows what she would think of his alter ego... and yes, her love is in some ways very much a crush love, but it could mature. Anyone remember the rumors that she was going to be turned into the Black Cat for the third movie?

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