Continuity – what is it, and what is it good for?
By continuity I mean the linking together of separate stories into a coherent whole. In films, continuity refers to the task of making sure that there are no errors between takes. If a character changes clothes, or night becomes day during a scene that’s meant to happen all at once, the viewer’s suspension of disbelief is burst, and they realise they’re just watching a fiction. That’s a good place to start – continuity helps the audience to believe in the fictional world.
At Marvel Comics, it evolved into an advertising trick. Spider Man would appear in the Fantastic Four in the hope that regular FF readers would start buying Spider Man too. It also made the world inhabited by the character’s seem more real, from having guest star appearances to just sideways references between books. A reference to Stark Enterprises in the pages of the X-Men would remind the reader that all these characters are part of a bigger world. We like our fictional universes to feel big. Its easy to fall in love with a fictional world, and start imagining what exists outside the panels of a comic or the levels of a game. It’s also easy to want the creators to provide this for you. In extreme cases, like Marvel, DC, or the extended Star Wars universe, you end up with whole teams of writers working on the universe. Continuity becomes an important point to keep the universe consistent.
Over time, continuity in comics has snowballed into something much bigger. Company-wide events in the 80’s like Marvel’s Secret Wars or DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths have become almost the norm, with individual writers for the big two having to abandon or modify storylines to fit into the event of the day. This has opened up a slot for refreshingly continuity-free comics. JLA Classified had the selling point of each story arc taking place with the JLA of the writer’s choice, from modern to 1970’s Satelllite era or whatever. These feel expecially refreshing in the wake of DC’s latest house-cleaning execise of the “Nu 52”. Paul Dini and Joe Quinone’s Bloodspell allowed us to slip back into the old comfortable DCU where Black Canary and Zatanna have a shared history and are old friends. Who cares if it makes sense with this week’s JLA Dark or Birds of Prey? Wonder Woman’s new book Sensation Comics is continuity free, giving us the awesome flashback of Barbara Gordon as Oracle under Gail Simone’s pen, calling Diana in to work Batman’s shift in his absence. Both titles threw continuity to the wind and were much better for it.
The Ultimate Universe was a direct response to the way that the mainstream Marvel U was bogged down with continuity.
Continuity can also stretch in a more ambiguous way. If JM de Matteis and Keith Giffen are writing a comic together, you can bet that the characters will undergo some fairly heavy personality changes, to make them funnier. No explanation is required, any more than a change of artist requires an explanation in the fictional space. The reader knows different writers will approach the same character differently.
I’ve had the pleasure recently of being involved in a revival of the Southern Squadron, Australia’s premiere superteam from the 80’s. The original writer Dave de Vries has teamed up with local Dark Oz publisher Darren Koziol to bring them back in a strip in Decay magazine, and sent out a call for local artists to produce pin-ups. At the meeting. Dave made the awesome announcement that the Squadron are now protecting Australia from whatever comes through an parallel reality gate, so we can create our own versions of his characters, set them in whatever era we want, and so on. That’s the way to do it – let your collaborators go nuts with their own ideas! Here’s my take on Lt. Smith, Nightfighter, Southern Cross and Dingo.
Individual writers often have a personal universe. John Smith‘s stories in 2000AD all take place in the Smith-verse, with links between Indigo Prime and Tyranny Rex. Joss Whedon’s TV series interlock to form a larger Whedonverse. Mark Millar’s been teasing us at Millarworld with a unified theory of all his comics, from Kick Ass to Jupiter’s Legacy to Starlight.
Without even really thinking too heavily about it, I’ve slotted all my stories into a coherent universe. The Amazanauts acts as a link between Universe Gun and the Strangers with Miss/Ms. Amazing as the common thread. My short story comics, like Pazuzu!, all take place in the Universe Gun universe, possibly during different time periods, but common elements like New Mumbai and the Great Database of Mars recur. Strips whose ideas start off as standalone ideas tend to get pulled into the mix by some tenuous link or other, so that they fit into this larger diagram. I can’t quite figure out if this tendency comes from a lifetime of reading continuity-heavy comics, or if its just a natural tendency for a writer to try and make sense of all their work into a whole.
Continuity can get restrictive if applied too heavily. DC made the rather strange decision a few years ago to bring back the multiverse, but with only 52 parallel worlds. That’s not a big number – a single story can easily gobble up 3 or 4 parallel worlds. Grant Morrison’s Multiversity series lays out a map of all 52 worlds, which seems to me to be very limiting for future writers. He’d be the first to admit that thew shape of the DC Universe is really the shape of the collective imagination of all writer past, future and present.
There is no right or wrong. I’ll finish off with a look at two cross-company comics that handled the continuity aspect very differently.
Kurt Busiek and George Perez’ JLA/Avengers represented the awkward merger of the two fictional universes quite literally. The Marvel and DC worlds are portrayed as separate realities that are being squashed together by the bad guys. The differences are played up – DC’s sleeker heroes are perceived as tyrants by Marvel’s more grounded heroes. Superman grumbles that Marvels heroes aren’t doing enough, and even complains that the sunlight is “greasier” there. DC’s Earth is slightly bigger due to all the fictional countries like Qurac. The Marvel Universe doesn’t have a speed force, so the Flash’s powers don’t work until Steel, builds him a backpack battery. Busiek has a whole lot of fun highlighting the differences between worlds in this epic saga, from gags for the knowledgeable fan to some fairly profound statements. The two universes are literally depicted like this:
Contrast that with X-Men/Teen Titans by Chris Claremont and Walt Simonson. Marvel and Dc’s best-selling teams of the 80s (and maybe all time since then?) get together to take on their greatest enemies. But here, they deliberately brush over the fact that they’ve just butted too universe together. Cyborg wonders why they haven’t run into the X-men more often, probably because they live on the other side of town. Gar points out to Wolverine that they have the same name. Wolverine tells him to zip it. That’s it, and we can get on with the story.
The continuity-free approach also allows for a very dramatic ending – Claremont as good as kills off Darkseid at the end of this story. JLA/Avengers, in contrast, has to do some hand-waving about the universes returning to normal, and the heroes forgetting most of what happened in order for the stories to make sense in context of what will happen next month in their respective company’s books. This always felt like a little bit of a copout to me, but understandably necessary. There had been rumours at the time of some bolder moves, like the two comic companies swapping a minor character in this crossover. Hawkeye was mentioned in some of these rumours, which seems funny now that he’s featured in Marvel’s massively successful movie franchise.
So, yeah. Continuity is great, but you can have too much of it. When it starts to hinder the stories that you want to tell, its time to cut it loose.
See you in seven, sticklers for super-universal sense! Dr Mike 2000, 01 September, 2014