Jeff details all the things that went wrong in producing this episode
discussion on recent conventions
Recent changes at Marvel Studios
DC’s 2 million dollar shortfall and what they are doing about it
Marvel is the wake of Secret Wars
Daniel talks about books
Continuity in comics is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it allows the creation of a complex universe of interrelated characters and epic storytelling; on the other hand, it means that new readers may not fully understand aspects of a story that has years of background across many titles feeding into it. And in modern comic continuity we have to deal with canon, with some older stories having been removed from continuity.
Before looking at why this is relevant right now, I want to cover a bit of history. Continuity in comics is hardly new. In the early 1940s, Timely comics had its hero (the Human Torch) battle its anti-hero (the Sub-Mariner), each of whom had their own ongoing series. At the same time, DC comics had several of its heroes team up as the Justice Society of America. Almost every comic company had team ups with its various characters. Back in these early days keeping track of continuity wasn’t a priority, so there were often inconsistencies resulting from these stories and they rarely had any lasting impact on the character’s individual titles. This wasn’t a big deal, especially with the waning of superhero comics in the years post World War II.
But it became a very big deal after the birth of the Silver Age of comics in 1956, with DC comics introducing new versions of their characters with different origins and identities. This meant, at the time, that the Golden Age stories were no longer part of the DC continuity. And then DC decided to up the ante by introducing the concept of a multiverse, in 1961, with the story Flash of Two Worlds where the Golden age Flash met the Silver Age Flash who had accidently entered the first Flash’s reality. Suddenly, you had the potential for stories for characters from both eras. These led to dividing up which stories belonged on Earth 1 (The Silver Age Earth) and Earth 2 (The Golden Age Earth). In general this was easy as anything prior to 1956 belonging to Earth 2. But the wrinkle was that there were a few characters that were the same across both Earths as they were the handful that had never gone out of publication, those being Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Green Arrow. In general the 1956 cut off was used for them as well, with the idea that some stories counted for both, without a lot of concern as to what those were.
Over the years stories were told that on some level clarified the histories, but nothing was comprehensive. Another factor that played into the continuity issue was the static nature of the characters. Most superheroes were presented as being in their mid to late twenties. That meant that in the 1960s you had Superman stories where he met President Kennedy. Years later there would be a Superboy story, back when they were all flashback stories of Superman’s youth, where he met President Kennedy. Things of that nature were usually just hand-waved. In fact, the only characters that aged at all were the teens. Spider-man was introduced as a high school student in 1962. Flash forward to the mid-1980s and he was a college student. Similar aging happened to Robin and Kid Flash over at DC. But that was it for character aging. If there was an update to a character, it was usually handled as a reveal of previously unknown information.
One of the best known of this type was in 1984, when Alan Moore wrote the Swamp Thing Story Anatomy Lesson where he revealed that Swamp Thing was not Alec Holland, a scientist transformed into a plant monster, but instead a plant creature that had absorbed memories from Holland’s corpse as part of its creation. The story was ground breaking, and is still considered the best example of a soft reboot, where the previous continuity is not altered in any way.
In 1985 DC released the ground breaking 12 issue series Crisis on Infinite Earths, which was the first full out reboot of a comic book’s continuity. In it DC merged Earth 1 and Earth 2, as well as other alternate Earths that contained characters DC had purchased from other companies (such as Fawcett and Charleston) creating a single Earth with one history. The stated purpose was to make a cohesive history and create an easy entry point for new readers who were being drawn in by books like Swamp Thing and The Dark Knight Returns.
Over all Crisis was a success, but there were some snafus in the backstories of some characters (especially Hawkman and Donna Troy) that led to several rewrites, which in Donna’s case were ok, and in Hawkman’s case just made things worse. Eventually DC had two different series that tried to do patching rewrites to clear these issues up, Zero Hour, and Infinite Crisis. Both had mixed success at best.
Over at Marvel they decided not to go the full reboot route, stating that they had gotten their universe right the first time. Not that they didn’t like to play with the continuity idea. They have a series, which has come and gone a few times, called What IF. In it the Watcher looks at different universes in which the Marvel characters have made different choices; it’s basically a chance to look at stories Marvel wrote in the past to see what would have happened, had they gone down a different path.
On a more official level they tried some different routes to make clean entry continuities for new readers. The first of these was the poorly received Heroes Reborn, where the Avengers were sent to a new Universe where their histories were rewritten (the basic idea was sound, it was just really badly written – where all the stereotypes of bad 90s comics writing got codified).
A few years after that failed experiment Marvel created the Ultimate Universe. This was a separate continuity from the main Marvel Universe that allowed them to do new stories for the Marvel heroes without the baggage of the old continuity. Overall this was a success, as the old universe was also still going on so the fans didn’t feel a sense of loss and could enjoy the new stories as their own thing. Part of the significance of the Ultimate Universe is that years later, when Marvel studios came into being and created the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they cherry picked the best elements of both the old Universe and the Ultimate Universe to make their stories.
As for the movies, a lot of people attribute the MCU success to that fact that it has continuity between all of its films, just like the comics. Some say it is a throw-back to the old movie serials. This has led other studios to try and create their own mega-franchises, such as Universal attempting new Universal Monster movies with this type of continuity.
But not all was well with Marvel continuity. Marvel was not above tweaking characters with various soft reboots. None are more infamous then the reboot of Spider-man’s continuity in the story One More Day, where Peter made a deal with a demon to save Aunt May, but at the cost of having his marriage erased from history; this remains a hot button topic for many fans.
In more recent years DC did another reboot (which I have written about a lot) called Flashpoint which lead to The New 52. Here I will simply reiterate that it was a hastily thrown together reboot designed as a means to drawn attention to DC comics (who were getting crushed in sales by Marvel). It has been a complete mess and divided fans nearly as bad as Heroes Reborn did.
And that leads us to now.
Both DC and Marvel have events going on that are pulling deep on their continuities. Over at DC is Convergence. This is a two month event that will be replacing DC’s entire line of comics for its duration, that will cover the gap created by DC moving their staff and offices from New York to California. It will feature characters from different DC continuities, such as the pre-Flashpoint universe and DC’s various Elseworlds (their answer to What If). This has fans wondering if this will lead to a more permanent return of the pre-Flashpoint universe, which fans have been asking for since it became clear that The New 52 was a mess. Marvel is doing an event called Secret Wars nameds after an event they had in the 1980s. This series has apparently been in the works for three years and will apparently lead to a new Marvel continuity that combines the old Marvel Universe with the Ultimate Universe (remember how I said that the Cinematic Universe was a combination of the two). There is a lot of speculation that this is an attempt to bring the comics more in line with the movies, and therefore an easier entry point for fans who are picking up the comics because of the movies. There is also hope that it will clear up missteps such as One More Day.
No matter which way you slice it, continuity is a big deal in comics, and will fuel fan debate in all corners of comic culture.
Back in 1980, I was struck by what (at the time) was an outrageous idea.
Why can’t Superman marry Lois Lane?
The heart of the idea was that I was getting old enough to realize that the status quo in comics was stifling, and that not letting the characters advance in any way kept the stories from being anything more than kids’ stuff. Sure you were beginning to see books with better story telling come out, like the Chris Claremont run on X-Men, and the Wolfman/Perez relaunch of the Teen Titans. But, overall, the really big name comic characters seemed stuck in a story stasis that seemed to be permanent.
Of course this wasn’t an absolute. DC had characters like The Flash, the Atom, and the Elongated Man who all eventually got married. This also did not count characters like Hawkman and Hawkgirl, who started out married.
Also if you look at Marvel you had Reed Richards and Sue Storm who got married early in the run of the Fantastic Four, as well as Ant Man and the Wasp. But, like DC, it seemed that some characters( like Spider-Man) were destined for bachelorhood.
Then 1985 happened. With the release of The Dark Knight returns and Watchmen, comics suddenly became a venue for serious writing. You also had Crisis on Infinite Earths, which tore down the old DC continuity and relaunched the entire line. It took characters (like Superman) and, even though it restarted them, allowed for stories that advanced and felt like they really could grow dynamically.
From the time of the relaunch, you saw Clark Kent and Lois Lane go through all the stages of their relationship – from dating, to his revealing his identity to her, engagement, and eventually they did get married. Over all, it felt organic and was some very good story telling. It also opened up some fantastic storytelling, with the marriage being treated like one you see in real life if one of the partners is a fireman, or solider. But not all was peaches and cream; from the beginning of the relationship, there were detractors. Some were fans who did not like the break from the status quo. They wanted the Superman who appeared in the cartoons, or the Donner movies, and could not accept a more humanized version of the characters. Others were writers who chafed at having to write about a Superman who was in a healthy relationship, as they felt it constrained them.
In spite of this, for over a decade, you had Clark Kent and Lois Lane as a happily married couple, and they were not the only ones. Wally West (Barry Allen’s successor as the Flash) married his girlfriend Linda Park. Over at Marvel you even had Spider-Man get married.
This was also paired with the growing idea of the legacy character. You had Wally West pick up the mantle of the Flash after the death of Barry Allen. You even had Dick Grayson become Batman after the apparent death of Bruce Wayne. So you had comic characters growing and their stories progressing. It was a great time to be a comic book reader.
We should have known it wouldn’t last.
The first signs of this problem were over at Marvel, when it was decided to retcon away Spider-Man’s marriage. I’ve written about the specifics of that in the past, so I won’t rehash here. The basics however were that Editor-In-Chief, Joe Quesada, wanted Spider-Man reset to how he was written during his own youth.
Sure it annoyed fans, but it was nothing compared to what was going to happen over at DC.
The first sign of trouble was Emerald Dawn, which saw the return of Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. This was written by Geoff Johns, one of DC’s best writers. The problem wasn’t apparent at first, as Johns did not discard Kyle Rayner, Hal’s successor, but instead made all of the Green Lanterns a team.
The real signs of trouble came with Flash: Rebirth, which was the story that brought Barry Allen back to life, again written by Johns. While not stripping Wally West of his status as the Flash, he was quietly moved to the background.
DC was rolling back the status of its Universe to the Silver Age status quo.
There was another troubling factor going on at the time; there were writers complaining that writing for a married Superman, or even Flash was too hard.
This brings us to Flashpoint and the launch of the New 52.
I’ve written a lot about what a mess this entire relaunch was, but one of the biggest factors contributing to this was the loss of all the character progress that had occurred. I may not have minded so much if it had been a clean and total reboot, but the half assed way it was handled (with not really rebooting Batman and Green Lantern) made it more glaring that characters like Superman and the Flash lost all their development from all of those previous stories.
And, of course, a large part of this was that not only were Superman and The Flash not married any more, but that their wives (Lois and Iris) were not even their love interests. In fact, the writers went out of their way to make it clear that they were in no way romantically linked.
The part that really annoyed me was when DC Co-Publisher Jim Lee said that, once they got rid of Superman’s marriage, the stories just flowed. This implies that the marriage was the problem, and not his lack of skill as a writer.
But at least the DC Universe had some married couples, like Animal Man and Aquaman. Or so we thought.
This all came to a boil during what is now known here as the DC PR Meltdown; the week when DC could not keep their foot out of their mouth.
This is when everyone learned that DC editorial had pulled the carpet out from under the long planned wedding of Batwoman, and her girlfriend Maggie. When accused of shying away from a same-sex marriage, DC Co-Publisher Dan Didio said it was not the same-sex part that they were against, but the marriage part. He said that they did not want any of their characters married, because the level of sacrifice needed to be a hero did not allow for that kind of happy ending. He fundamentally said that no DC hero should be married. So, basically, a ban on marriage. He seems to believe all heroes need to be miserable. I am left to wonder how these clearly hack writers ended up in charge of the DC Universe. Of course, I am sure the answer is politics, but I digress.
Another DC editor was challenged, after these comments were made, to reconcile these comments with a character like Aquaman, who is successfully married to Mera. The editor said Aquaman and Mera were not married. It was pointed out that Aquaman, king of Atlantis, regularly refers to Mera as his queen. The editor countered that just because she is his queen, it does not mean they are married. This came as a surprise to series writer Geoff Johns, who had never been told they were not married.
The only hero allowed to be married was Animal Man, and that is because his marriage (and its slow collapse) was central to the story. Not that it was a happy marriage, which is why I guess it was ok.
So why has DC come out against marriage?
I reject Didio’s argument that heroes don’t get that kind of happy ending. First off, marriage is not an ending, it is a commitment to the most important person in your life. Also, it is not easy and comes with many challenges that can lead to dramatic moments. Superman and Flash writers were able to find those for all the years each characters was married.
I also reject the argument that marriage limits storylines. A good writer would not have that problem. The issue is that a lot of the current writers (and more importantly right now editors) are caught up in their childhood power fantasies, and their heroes being married doesn’t fit into them.
As for the overall all ban, I have a suspicion that it was an attempt to cover a bad decision. I think someone in the editorial chain did not want there to be a same-sex marriage. When the story broke big, I think Didio’s statement against marriage was an attempt to hold off the accusations of being homophobic, chiefly due to how ridiculous the claim that Aquaman and Mera are not married is.
In the end, I think the whole war on marriage that DC has declared is just another sign of how badly there needs to be a change in the editorial structure. Time will tell, I suppose.