Continuity.  The bane of many a comic book reader.  At times, when used right, it can add to the reading experience but other times can make for a frustrating or downright miserable one.  But should it matter that much?  Is it that important?  I say no, so continue on, Dear Reader, and find out why!

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

Lets start by defining continuity. Webster’s defines it as “Uninterrupted connection, succession, or union. Uninterrupted duration or continuation especially without essential change.” Encarta’s definition: “The fact of staying the same, of being consistent throughout, or of not stopping or being interrupted.” A couple of those phrases stick out: without essential change and consistent throughout.

So, what does it mean for the comic book reader and how important is continuity to comics? Some would say it’s critical for all the history and facts of a character to be precise and never contradict each other. I disagree and say continuity isn’t as crucial as many believe. Sure, certain aspects of a character should never be changed. Superman needs to be an alien from Krypton and Batman should be scarred by the death of his parents causing him to dress up as a bat and fight crime. This falls in the “without essential change” category, as these are crucial traits that make the character the ones we know and love. But is it important that a story written in 2013 isn’t consistent with ones written in 1963 or even 2010? No, it isn’t and it shouldn’t be.

WHERE DOES THE REAL PROBLEM LIE?

Think about it. If it wasn’t for writers and comic companies attempting to tie their worlds together and not contradict we wouldn’t have multiple earths, universes and reboots. Sure, those can be fun storytelling devices but they generally cause more problems than they’re worth. DC’s universe got so convoluted they had to make Crisis on Infinite Earths to solve the problems that had arisen from writer’s stories having to all work together. Granted, we got one hell of a great comic out of Crisis but the reasoning for its existence is, to me at least, humorous. The Killing Joke is another example. DC felt the need to make Moore’s story canon, resulting in Barbra Gordon being crippled and later having to explain why she can now run around as Batgirl in the New 52.

What’s the real problem here? I believe it lies with us, the readers. We can get so caught up with the facts and whether the continuity is correct or the story is canon that we lose sight of what’s most important: Is the story good? Continuity should only matter in the story being told. If Grant Morrison wants to write about the effects of Batman sitting in a tank for days, validating stories from the 60’s, that’s fine but I don’t expect the next writer or storyline to follow those events. This is where the second part of the continuity definition comes in, “consistent throughout.” As long as the continuity in the story I’m reading is consistent (because if it’s not, that’s just bad writing) then I’m happy. Continuity doesn’t need to be consistent throughout the whole of a character’s existence, just the story being told at the time. In fact, Robin, Nightwing and all the other supporting Bat characters don’t even exist to me. That’s not the Batman I enjoy but if a writer wants to use Robin in their story that’s fine with me. To me, the Batman in his own title isn’t even the same one that’s in Justice League. That’s my personal preference but if a writer decides to bring the Justice League into Batman, I don’t get upset or care if it’s true to a different story. It’s up to the reader to decide what’s important to them but it shouldn’t detract from our enjoyment of a comic and a writer shouldn’t be constrained by continuity. Many a title has been cancelled due to lack of readership because it’s not in canon or fits the current continuity. Does that mean it was a bad story? Those that didn’t read it may have missed out on a great reading experience because of their own hang-ups. Would you rather read a great story out of continuity or a bad one in continuity? You are dropping $3.99 on a comic book nowadays so wouldn’t you want to get the most enjoyment for your money?

A reader can get so hung up on the facts and worry of continuity that they forget to focus on the enjoyment they should be getting. To many, continuity is important and that’s where their pleasure of comics comes from. That’s certainly valid but it shouldn’t create anger or stress. These are fictional characters and worlds after all. If a story and its events from 1950 are important to you, great, that story still exists. You can read it any time you want but a writer shouldn’t feel the need to stick to a past timeline. Everything doesn’t need to fit into a complex web. In fact, it’s better if it doesn’t. Comics are suffering from lack of new readership and I believe that companies, the big two especially, are creating such a jumbled mess that it’s confusing for a new reader. Sure, you may get one who is so enticed that they’ll want to go back and consume all the history they can, but a majority just want a cool story where Spider-Man ties someone up with his webs. Look at Hawkeye by Matt Fraction, probably the best title Marvel is putting out right now. Why is it so good? Because it tells short, quality stories with little to no connection to each other or outside events. A new reader can pick that up in a second and get immense enjoyment. That’s what it comes down to, great stories.

BOTTOM LINE: WE REALLY ALL WANT THE SAME THING

I get it, some readers love a universe that is connected and shared by characters. That’s some of the coolest things about comics, the interactions between superheroes. There’s no problem if that’s what you love but we can’t let continuity bog down our stories and, even worse, affect our enjoyment of them. We, as readers, should worry less about the facts and more about the fun and greatness of comics. Focus less on continuity and more on the tale. Because, in the end, we all want the same thing: Good Comics.

The Author

Wilson

Wilson

One of the two idiots of Shock 'N Awe Toy Reviews, ever since he was young, Chris has sided with super-villains. At age 8 he became a Decepticon sympathizer. When he turned 18 he left home to become an Agent of A.I.M. He quit at 21 (the costumes were too stupid) and devoted his time to all things geek. His hobbies include making aluminum foil hats, magic, taxidermy and music. Oh, and reading comics. Lots and lots of comics. More nonsense can be followed at @scaabs on Twitter and his YouTube channel, Shock 'n Awe Toy Reviews.

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4 Comments

  1. Karen
    August 30, 2013 at 6:58 pm — Reply

    Great article

  2. Mike
    August 31, 2013 at 1:49 am — Reply

    To me, removing continuity in a character is both lazy storytelling on the part of the writer, and a complete invalidation for the reason I became attracted to comics in the first place in the early 80s. Bear with me, I’m trying to word this as diplomatically as possible, since your article – in my humble opinion – still just comes down to the age-old ‘good story’ vs. ‘good continuity’ argument.
    Of course, we all want a good story. That’s a given throughout the minds of all comic fans. And yes, I agree that the basic origins and major changes in a character’s world should never be touched, otherwise it runs the risk of completely changing said character’s motivation, and by proxy can ruin the directing emotions behind many a good story retrospectively. And that’s really the root of continuity in my eyes: what, exactly, are the basic origins and major changes to a character?
    OK, so to use Spider-Man (of course) as an example: Uncle Ben’s death was a major defining point in Spider-Man’s growth as a character. So was the death of Gwen Stacey. These are canons that I think most fans believe should be sacrosanct. And to that end, in my opinion, I believe that Pete’s marriage to Mary Jane – for a ‘dead horse’ example – is also a major point to the character’s motivation, and by definition should also be untouched. Otherwise, his motivation in so many stories during the 20 years he was married are invalidated, and as such, horribly cheapened. And yes, I’ll spare you my opinion of the whole OMD/BND debacle.
    I believe that any writer that says they don’t want to be burdened by a character’s history and continuity should probably just stay clear of writing established characters completely. They just don’t have the moxy – or are too lazy – to pick up the slack on the last writer’s story and make something work with it. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great amount of respect for writers; I happen to be one myself. But if you can’t make your story fit within the confines of a given role that has already been created (a concept that is neither new, nor untried – it’s a fairly common exercise that many writers practice, albeit largely privately), then you’re better off just writing something from scratch.
    I believe, however, that your point is that within a story arc, or a scene, or even a single panel, the importance should rest more upon the story itself and not kowtow to the work of previous writers. In this I completely agree. Yes, a writer can and should, within the confines of the character’s defining points, make his or her own mark. But when a writer ‘retcons’ a previous writer’s story for whatever reason, especially if it doesn’t ‘fit’ with their view of the character, that’s just plainly wrong. And I think that is where the basis of many readers’ ire toward the lack of continuity lies.
    Too many comic writers nowadays are very quick to throw out far too many interesting possibilities in character development because the character either has changed too far from what they believe the character should be, or hasn’t changed far enough, and, although I’m sure that at least some of these changes are due to editorial edict (and that’s a whole different barrel of worms), the fact remains that there is nothing in these wonderful stories that would be irrevocably damaged if only the writer would pay more attention to where the character came from in the first place. And, by your own words, perhaps there would be less titles cancelled because they were not canon or in the current continuity. And I, for one, would be more intrigued in a title if it at least mentioned in passing something major or ‘defining’ – if you will – that happened within another title once in a while. Anything to make me feel that these were living, breathing characters that could (but not necessarily will) interact with other titles at any time, instead of the increasingly tiring and inevitable ‘Summer Crossover Event’, or the ‘Special Guest-Star’ garbage.
    (Whoops! Sorry, a wee bit tipsy and ran on a bit. My apologies! :)

  3. Oldcomicfan
    August 31, 2013 at 9:16 am — Reply

    You make some good points in your article, and I will say you’re right on the money for comics produced after 1970. But you did not growing up the garbage that passed for comics in the late 50s and 60s like I did. There was virtually no continuity in comics in those days and it led to a lot of ridiculous and idiotic stories that usually ended with “Oh, and it was just an imaginary tale” to explain away the idiocy inside the issue. Which was why I found the early Marvel books to be such a refreshing change – thanks to Marvel’s continuity, we got epic tales told across multiple issues and the problems a character encountered in one issue usually affected his decisions in the other. This led to far superior stories in the Marvel books than you got in the DC books back in the day. And then, guess what? In response, continuity began to creep into DC’s books.

    Sure, people can get too hung up on continuity – you get that with Star War and Star Trek fans, too: Sad little people who have no social lives arguing endlessly about ridiculous little details that don’t matter – but that’s a problem with the wankers themselves, and not due to continuity. Or for that matter, you get the same thing with football freaks who spend every waking moment engaging in mental masturbation regarding their favorite teams, memorizing statistics, engaging in bar fights with other yahoos who don’t agree with them and getting so blitzed at tailgate parties they miss the actual game they went to watch – but that’s not the fault of the statistics and line-up any more than the arguments that comic fanatics get into over Miller’s Dark Knight or The Killing Joke or why Wolverine and Thanos seem to wear the same damn hat.

    Continuity provides a solid foundation for building a good story upon. Look at what happened in the Superman movies when continuity was ignored – you ended up with Superman erasing memories by kissing and throwing cellophane S shields around and turning back time by rotating the planet backwards! And you don’t need to know all the current continuity in order to enjoy a comic book tale, but it might inspire a reader to collect earlier issues to read about what he or she missed! But who will ever go back to reread that issue of Superman where competed against Clark Kent in a bowling tournament? Nobody – because there was no point to that story aside from robbing dimes from school kids. Because there was no continuity. The next issue Jimmy Olsen was likely to be turned into a turtle, and in the issue after that Supes might end up married to Lana Lang and be diapering a pair of Super Twins, and in the next issue Batman might be prancing around in a rainbow costume. Ugh!

    In my opinion continuity leads to better stories and better story telling, and still allow for masterpieces like “God Loves Man Kills”, “The Death of Captain Marvel” “The Dark Knight Returns” and “This Killing Joke” which officially occurred outside of continuity. Isn’t it strange how much of these out of continuity masterpieces have since become part of the characters’ continuity?

    If you want comics without continuity, then I suggest you go read Little Lulu, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich and the like. Oh, wait. Those comics are pretty much all defunct. Could it be that the lack of continuity in story telling had something to do with that?

    • August 31, 2013 at 6:14 pm — Reply

      You raise some interesting points. I like to hear the responses from people reading longer than I have been. Of course those stories from the 50’s and so forth may have been ridiculous, but was it really because the books lacked continuity or was it just crappy writing or the style of the time? And you’re right about people getting hung up on the facts. I agree, but my point was that it shouldn’t affect our enjoyment of the work. It isn’t continuity’s fault, so it shouldn’t matter (if that makes sense).

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