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.
Once again we find ourselves in a place where a classic superhero has been replaced. In this case if you haven’t been following the comic book news, Peter Parker is no longer Spider-Man. A new Spider-Man has taken his place. According to Marvel this is a permanent change and will be the status quo going forward.
The general consensus amongst fans is that this status quo will last about a year before Parker is returned to his role as the Wall Crawler.
But why do we just assume that this is a temporary situation. Let’s take a look at the history of major characters being replaced in superhero comics.
First I suppose we need to establish that we are talking about characters from the silver age. There was of course the update of most of DC Comic’s characters in the 60s. That was treated as a new launch and not meant to be old characters being replaced.
The first question is why replace the character at all. The answer is naturally to open up new story possibilities. When a character has been in place for so long several of their characteristics are set in stone. If a writer wants to go beyond those a good way is to have someone new in the role. There is also the idea of character growth.
One of the most successful replacements of a character ever was the Flash. In 1986 during Crisis on Infinite Earths, Barry Allen gave his life to save the universe. At the end of the series his nephew and sidekick Wally West, Kid Flash adopted the Flash identity. Over the next 25 years Wally West was the Flash. The series often examined Wally attempting to live up to the legacy of Barry, and how other heroes and villains who knew Barry reacted to him in the role. Wally went from overcompensating, to insecure, to finally stepping up to the role of one of the leading heroes in the DC universe. Wally ultimately stood as a member of the Justice League alongside many of other major heroes. Most media projects of the time used the Wally West version of the Flash; most notably the Justice League animated series. There is an entire generation of comic fans for whom Wally is and has always been the Flash. But the tale of Wally West does ultimately lend itself to why we fans are cynical about the permanency of a replacement hero.
In the 2008 series Final Crisis Barry Allen returned from the dead. The following year saw the release of the Flash Reborn where Barry officially stepped into the role of the Flash again. Wally was still around at this time, but he no longer had his own book, and after a while just faded from the title. With the New 52 relaunch Wally is now not only missing from any title, but is one of the characters that writers are forbidden to use. Again he is the Flash that a lot of fans are familiar with, but since the powers that be at DC want Barry to be unique Wally has been wiped from the universe.
Another example was one we touched on last year when we talked about the old speculation boom and how it went bust, the Death of Superman storyline and specifically the Reign of the Supermen. Here you had the very publicly touted death of comics’ most iconic character. It was certainly a headline grabber. For all the grief it gets as a sales ploy and the storyline that started the implosion of the speculator market and subsequent shrinking of the industry, it was a well written story. It was broken into four acts, the death, the aftermath, the rise of the replacement supermen, and the return of Superman. Clearly the whole story was planned from the beginning, and savoy comic fans knew this. At shops and comic shows everyone speculated how each stage would be handled. No one expected any of the replacements to permanently take over. Well no one who actually followed the books. As discussed before, speculators assumed this was a permanent change. Just look at the previous article for more on that. The replacements did of course continue on as characters in their own right and Steel and Superboy went on to be important parts of the DCU.
Around the same time you had the Batman books doing a similar idea with Knightfall. Again a new character was brought in as the replacement Batman. This one had less impact on the DCU, with only the new villain Bane having any impact going forward.
In both those cases the fact that new characters were introduced as the replacements was a big clue that it these were only storylines and not lasting changes.
More recently Marvel and DC did some very similar stories that went another route on the replacement angle. Like the Flash these were stories where the former sidekick took over for their fallen mentor.
At Marvel it was Captain America’s sidekick Bucky taking over the role went Cap was killed at the end of the Civil War Story. At DC it was Dick Grayson taking on the role of Batman following Bruce Wayne’s death at the end of Final Crisis.
In both cases some very good writing came out of these stories. Ed Brubaker wrote Captain America at this time and you had a slightly darker Cap with Bucky under the mask and espionage was a bigger part of the story. At DC you had Grant Morrison writing Batman and Robin and knocking it out of the park with a more light-hearted Batman and a darker Robin, who was Bruce’s son Damian.
In both cases about two years later both Steve and Bruce were proven to be alive, their deaths faked by means of time travel. Upon their return both Steve and Bruce left their successors in their roles and the pursued other goals. Eventually both heroes returned to their roles and the sidekicks resumed their previous identities.
When these storylines started fans were already cynical enough about main heroes being replaced that there were betting pools on how soon the originals would return.
These are hardly the only cases I could site on this subject, but the trajectory is basically the same. Eventually the old superhero resumes his role.
As of this writing I can only think of one exception to this, Marvel comics’ cosmic hero Captain Marvel. Marvel’s death occurred in the first ever Marvel graphic novel. Over the years his death has stuck. The problem has been keeping a consistent successor.
Originally the new Captain Marvel was an unrelated heroine with unrelated powers who took up the name. Next up was Marvel’s son taking up his father’s role. Most recently we have the heroine Ms. Marvel, who was connected to the original, taking on the title of Captain. This last is being well received so we will see how it goes.
Which brings us back to Spider-man.
This is actually the second time that Peter has been replaced. In the 90s you had the first attempt to have an unmarried Spider-man thanks to the clone saga, where it was revealed that Peter was just a clone of the original Spidey and the person we thought was the clone, Ben Reilly, was really the original. Peter decided to retire, and Ben took over as Spider-Man.
Fans hated this twist and it was quickly dropped and revealed to all be a plot by the Green Goblin and Peter was the original after all.
Now thanks to a body swap we have Doctor Octopus inhabiting Peter’s body. Doc’s body with
Peter in it has died, so Doc as Peter is the new Spider-Man.
I won’t get into the details, but the first issue of the new Superior Spider-Man on the last page already has the seed of how the original Peter will return. So the question is, how long will it take.
During The Holidays one of my favorite comic writers Peter David suffered a stroke. I was already planning on taking a look at his title X-Factor, and so I am now moving that up to the top of my list.
I of course wish Peter a speedy and full recovery and am glad that he is getting good care. More on that later.
In the last couple of years I have not been very happy with Marvel comics. I know it seems that I complain more about DC these days, but that is because I have been following more of their books. At one point I reduced my Marvel comics to one title. Why this is I will go over at another time. As for the one title I kept, well it of course is Peter David’s X-Factor.
Before we get into the current run however let’s take a look at the history of this title.
As should be obvious from the X in the title, this is technical a book in the X-Men franchise. In fact when the title was originally launched in 1986 the team line up was the original five X-Men: Cyclops, Angel, Iceman, Beast, and Jean Grey. The theme of the book was that the original X-Men were posing as a group of mutant-hunters that people could hire to deal with perceived mutant threats. In reality they were rescuing said mutants to secretly help and train theme. So basically they were pretending to be the mutant equivalent of the Ghostbusters.
This line-up lasted for five years. After a shakeup of the X-Books the team was given a new roster and recast as a government sanctioned mutant team. This was also the first time that Peter David took on the writing chores and the book was known for its more lighthearted tone compared to the rest of the mutant titles. David only stayed on the book for two years. The series kept going, keeping the government team angle until it was canceled in 1998.
The series languished for a few years, with just a four issue miniseries of no real note being produced.
In 2005 Peter David brought the series back, spinning it out of a mini-series he wrote featuring Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man as a private Detective. The New X-Factor was a private investigation firm specializing in cases involving super humans. The cast was drawn largely from David’s 90s run on the title giving him characters he was familiar with and also allowing him to build on plotlines he had started back then.
So what is it about this title that has kept my attention when I had basically dropped the rest of the company’s line? Let’s take a look.
First off as should be no surprise is David’s writing. His specialty is characterization. The book has the same lighthearted tone that he established in the 90s and has become the books trademark. This is not to say it doesn’t get serious at times, or deal with heavy issue, but it is not weighted down with unnecessary angst like so many x-books, or really Marvel books in general. In the end like all good fiction you care about the characters and thus get engaged in their stories.
And there is the next point, the cast of characters. The unlikely lead of the series is the previously mentioned Jamie Madrox. Jamie was never really a main character before. His superpower is to make duplicates of himself. Other than being able to create an over whelming force or be the ultimate multitasker writers didn’t have much use for him. But then David did something great, he thought like a fanboy and asked what the other angles of self-duplication are. He hit on the idea of Jamie sending dupes out into the world to learn a variety of skills. Once a dupe mastered a new skill he would come back and be absorbed back into Jamie prime. This meant Jamie was able to master multiple skills in a relatively short amount of time. David followed that up by asking what the downside was. The answer there was that as people grow they change. Each dupe grew in different, sometimes conflicting ways. The result was a Jamie that was himself not sure who he was, and new dupes having varying personalities upon creation.
That is the kind of thinking that goes into this book.
Another great thing about the case is its diversity. They include a gay couple, one of whom is a genetically engineered warrior from another dimension, and the other a mutant who had, until very recently, lost his powers. You also have an ex-girlfriend of Jamie’s who can shatter walls with her voice, a powerful mutant named M, who is Muslim, but really they periodically have to remind us of this as it is not her defining characteristic, an alien troll, and a large super strong mutant whose hero name is Strong Guy, because he doesn’t feel like being pretentious. And best of all is Layla Miller, a young girl whose power was first presented as “I know stuff.” This meant she knew what was going to happened before it did and could take small actions to affect the outcome. Her code name is butterfly. It later turned out that the knowledge was implanted via time travel and her real power was to bring the dead back to life, but that she needed to conceal that power for a long time. A trip to the future led to her coming back as an adult and ultimately marrying Madrox.
Yeah, that story does get a bit soap operaish, but the dialog is usually more witty than melodramatic.
A really big factor for me liking this book is that while it clearly is in the Marvel Universe it is telling its own story. As such none of the big crossover events that Marvel constantly throws at us really have much effect on the book or the ongoing story. So as someone who doesn’t follow those events I do not feel like I am missing important parts of the story.
When Rictor, the depowered mutant, got his powers back it actually happened in a crossover. It was the one time I did fell that Marvel editorial had done wrong by Peter David. However Peter did manage to write the follow-up to that event in a way that covered the gap and was highly entertaining.
When they do interact with the Marvel Universe it often feels correct as they are usually being hired to investigate something, such as when the children of Reed and Sue Richards hired them to find their mother.
There is one other detail that I have always enjoyed on the book. The first page of every issue has a listing of the team’s roster, a recap of the recent story line, and then a quick update about Peter David and his family. Yes, the writer will keep us updated about his family in the text of the comic. Try and tell me that is not cool.
Obviously the future of the book is currently up in the air due to Peter David’s health. Of course my hope is that he is able to recover and continue writing, or at the very least advise on the plot. A recent post from his wife on his website indicates that he is still working on the book from his hospital bed, and that it is helping keep his spirits up. No other announcement has been made about the future of the book yet.
One other note is that the David family, while having medical insurance, is facing some big medical co-pays. As such they are asking fans for help. For more information on this please go here to visit their web site.
As a final recap X-Factor is my favorite Marvel title and Peter David my favorite writer working for them.
The big news was the show hitting capacity. Someone told me it was 10,000 people. It seemed like more. It was bad enough that the fire marshal had registration shut down and was not letting people who stepped outside to come back in until the crowd thinned. This crowding was most evident in the area outside of the dealer floor. It has been where cosplayers have gone for photo ops. It was so crowded that you could barely move. I think some expansion of space may need to happen next year. An upside of this is that everyone I know that is running a booth had very good sales.
Panels I attended.
Will Wheaton’s 90 minute awesome hour. It’s pretty much what it says on the tin. I have never seen anyone able to work a crowd as well as Will Wheaton. He knows his audience and knows how to play to them to perfection.
Marvel: pint of O’ C.B., which is basically Marvels big news panel. It was a good show case for what Marvel is up to. There were two highlights for me. One was a very honest answer to the question of the lack of female creators. They are aware of it and looking for ways to address it, but right now it is a continuing issue that plagues the whole industry and will probably take years to turn around. The other highlight was when Matt Fraction was asked about his writing of Dr. Strange as very creepy. Fraction countered that Strange is creepy and used that fact that he entered into a romantic relationship with his student Clea. Fraction felt that crossing that line informed a lot about the character.
DC Comics: The New 52. This was a lot better than the DC panel from the previous day. Tough questions were not ignored. A big one was how DC addresses old readers leaving in wake of the New 52 does. Gail Simone led the way in answering that stating that change can be hard but the writers are dedicated to doing their best by the characters. This led the rest of the panel to give their opinions as well. Overall a much more satisfying experience than the day before.
Next were back to back panels featuring Christopher Judge of Stargate SG-1 and George Takei. I will save fuller write-ups on these for the post con report. But let’s just say both were great speakers.
Most awesome moment of the day came early on when I met up with an old friend of mine, Ryan K. Johnson. Ryan is a film maker and it the late eighties and early nineties I worked with him on several fannish films, including Star Trek the Pepsi generation. While talking he told me that he really likes the blog. As a creative person I really respect his praise meant a lot to me.
As for my little cosplay contest, here are the scores for Saturday. Please note that these are new people in the costumes. If it was someone from the day before wearing the same costume I did not count them.
·Doctor Who: 15 our winner the second day in a row.
·Captain America: 8
·Wonder Woman: 6
·Harley Quinn: 6
·Poison Ivy: 5
·Green Lantern: 3
·Doctor Octopus: 2
·Iron Man: 2
See everyone tomorrow for the last day of the Con.