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Worlds That Make More Sense Than This One

Continuity; the word alone strikes terror into the hearts of editors everywhere. When you disregard it, people will want it back. Within the two most revered and long lasting comic book universes, Marvel and DC, there have been many philosophies on how this complex editorial challenge must be handled. Over the years, the problems have stayed relatively consistent.

The most obvious are direct contradictions within the universe. Over the long periods of time that these stories have been published, editors, artists and writers have often contradicted previous stories without explanation. Sometimes this has been done intentionally, in other cases it was accidental. Often, these changes are simply ignored and the better known version of the setting, character or event is left intact without much to do. However, in certain cases the change is so drastic it can not be ignored by the reader. The other major problem faced in these universes is the passing of time. Bruce Wayne has been Batman for nearly 70 years, and has been written as a contemporary character for the entire run. That poses a bit of a challenge when trying to explain how one man could have experienced so much.

Since we are dealing with inherently symbolic superheroes,it is important that in whatever changes are made, one keep the thematic and philosophical aspects intact. We wouldn’t want Captain Marvel (the Shazam! one) running around tearing terrorists in half, it doesn’t work for him. It is also as important to keep the essential details of a character intact. There have been dozens of retellings of Batman’s origin, but as long as certain points like the circumstances of his parent’s death and his reaction to it remain, these re-tellings are valid. Neither of these problems seem all that complex when looking at a single character, but the true problem lies in the universal structure. If something is an insignificant plot point for one character but it is somehow tied to another character and holds great importance, it becomes an essential for the prior as well.

The simplest “solution” is to do nothing at all. On occasion, editors have decided to forgo a solution in favor of letting the writers choose to take the characters wherever they want. If they want to acknowledge something, they may; they also may ignore it. While this seems like a liberating artistic concept, its inherent problems have made it quite the rarity in developed continuities. What is more common is a relaxed editorial stance, meaning that while the editors certainly do have directives and corrections for their writers, there is no comprehensive policy in the company. Group editors may have fairly consistent policies, but outside of those groups, relative chaos may ensue. A great example of this is Marvel’s beloved Wolverine. The character appears in numerous titles every month and it is nearly every month that one finds contradictions. These problems can often be solved by creating a time table of events, but even in the last few months there have been very direct contradictions on the character’s whereabouts and activities. What is the most disturbing in this case is that many of these contradictions have appeared in direct reaction to universe wide events, which should serve to affirm the company’s commitment to continuity.

Another quick fix is condensing the universal timeline. Since a year of issues could easily represent days, this seems like a logical move. Unfortunately, this is not the case. With multiple storylines that interact with each other at different junctures, you are essentially dealing with one massive narrative. This means, if it says that Batman was stuck in the mouth of a giant space moth for 6 months in Detective Comics, it implies that his appearance the same month in Batman must fall before or after that. Line that up with a couple of decades of progression and hundreds of other titles which are all in reality the same story, you begin to lose the integrity of characterization and even the impact of certain storylines. Marvel occasionally invokes a modified version of this technique in what I have heard referred to as “Time Loop”, this allows for all events to take place in the time period they were written, and sort of-kind of over that amount of time, but not really. And yes, that sentence was intentionally nonsense because the explanation itself makes very little sense. There were rumors that Neil Gaiman’s 1602 was intended to end with a final word on how that concept functions, but it was either changed or a fun internet rumor.

Another commonly used technique is a multiversal structure. All this really means is that contradictory events or narratives separate from the primary narrative literally take place in separate realities, but ones that are usually accessible to each other in someway. The most significant early appearance of this can be found in DC, where the early World War II associated versions of their heroes were eventually assigned to “Earth-2” where they could live out their continuity without interfering with their contemporary counterparts. This eventually led to many other earths, some literally added as characters were acquired by the company. Marvel also has a multiverse, but it is far less prominent within their stories.

More complex than this, but exponentially more useful is the so-called “re-launch”. First coming to prominence during Julius Swartz’ DC in the 60s, the re-launch essentially (or should I say hopefully) takes the important and well liked aspects of a story, and gets rid of everything else. It also typically throws out any history that it does not re-tell within its pages. This can benefit the story as many of the confusing, unnecessary or even contradictory pieces of the narrative can be removed from continuity in one fell swoop. On the other hand, re-launches require that much of the universe itself be re-launched as well. The greatest drawback to this is the potential for fan backlash. One may find the fan base clamoring for the return of certain elements sooner than later. A prime example of a universe wide re -launch can be found in DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, where DC decided that the multiverse was not only too confusing, but was keeping the writers from fully integrating the acquired characters into their primary universe. Their solution was a revolutionary idea, an in-continuity re-launch which told the story of the destruction of the multiverse and the reconstitution of reality on one, new Earth. This was not only a huge hit amongst fans, but unintentionally set the stage for arguably the most complex universal continuity ever conceived.

In recent years, through a myriad of events, DC has actually re-established the multiverse. However, this multiverse does not only feature multiple Earths with different inhabitants, but acknowledges all previous Earths acknowledged in Crisis on Infinite Earths along with many new Earths conceived in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Even though there is a prime Earth which contains what the reader can consider the “real” versions of their favorite heroes, anything they have ever read counts again. The benefits of this structure are immeasurable, it allows for everyone’s favorite stories to potentially have an impact no matter how obscure they may be. The only major drawback is potentially confusing new readers. It is for that reason that a focus on telling great, character driven stories must remain. If you hook someone on the characters, they can and will always go back to find out the whole story. No one reads comic books to torture themselves (though I have read a few issues of All Star Batman and Robin, ZING) so it’s not like you are going to lose readers by giving them what they want. Continuity is simply an acknowledgment of your own fan base, it shows respect for the integrity of the worlds they love so much.

-Vinny

Vinny’s Kinda Related Video Post of the Week

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America’s Finest

While writing my last entry (‘til deathrays do us part), I began to ruminate on the popularity of Batman over that of Superman, specifically in the United States. In most ways, Superman seems as if he should be the absolute king of all superheroes. He is the prototype for the entire genre and as far as the stories go, he is acknowledged as such. Not only that, but he is often cited as the ultimate immigrant, the only true pillar of virtue in the universe and the embodiment of the “American Dream”. If this is truly the case, than why do Americans prefer The Dark Knight to The Man of Steel? I believe it is (in part) because Batman embodies the American Dream in a far more accessible manner.

As I mentioned before, the journey of The Last Son of Krypton is often presented as the ultimate immigrant success story. Not only does he successfully assimilate into American culture, but adds his own knowledge and strength to the tapestry that is this great nation. I don’t think that this point is disputable, but it isn’t inherently relatable. Yes, the majority of the population finds its roots in other countries, but many of us were born within U.S. borders. Our ancestors gave us their traditions, but we cannot all empathize with their hardships. Additionally, even immigrants aren’t necessarily prone to reject an American born figure especially if they buy into the other aspects of the story. Basically, Superman is the ultimate immigrant story, but that positions him no better than the American born Batman.

Another aspect of this American Dream is living up to ones potential. In normal circumstances, triumph in this area typically garners economic success stories. Within the largely symbolic genre of superhero fiction it is perhaps better represented by the literal triumph over the evils of the world and the characters own condition. This is where Batman begins to gain ground on Superman. Yes, Superman does fight a never-ending battle, and one that he is often winning in, but his starting point is a bit more advanced. Superman is essentially never threatened physically; in turn, all of his real problems are philosophical. Superman can do anything; the hard part is figuring WHAT to do. In theory, this should be no less interesting than other stories. The problem is this type of narrative is very difficult to write and suffers from being done very badly over and over again. On the other hand, Batman starts where any of us would. Not only does he triumph over the tragic death of his parents, but he brings himself to such a high level of perfection (both mentally and physically) that he can stand side-by-side with men and women who can travel faster than light and punch through mountains. Yes, The Caped Crusader is blessed with the benefits of being able to afford anything he needs to achieve these goals, but I think the majority of the audience accepts this as a necessary resource to bring oneself to the pinnacle of human potential.

The American Dream also calls for the creation of a positive family legacy. The pioneer of the group is always credited with this and it is a very important part of the realization of an American Dream. Both Batman and Superman’s biological families are already portrayed as men and women who have already accomplished this. Jor-El is a respected scientist and member of the ruling class on Krypton. Thomas & Martha Wayne are respected philanthropists in Gotham before their tragic deaths. There have even been some apocryphal writings on the history of the Kents. However, it is their deaths that start the new dreams. New families start when people begin to wear symbols on their chests. To be clear, anyone who is around for the beginnings of the superhero can be included in this family. For Batman this is Alfred and for Superman, the Kents. However, it is now the burden of the hero to create the new family legacy. Superman does create a legacy, but it is an odd one. The Legion of Superheroes, teenage superheroes from the future who see Superman as a legend and recruit Superboy (Superman’s adventures when he was a boy!) serve as the philosophical children of Superman. Once again, this is a concept that should work but is haunted by writers’ difficulty to grasp the philosophical side of the story. Once again, Batman gets an advantage because of this. I would say one of the big differences between Batman and any superhero is public awareness of his supporting cast. Anyone who is aware of Batman will most likely be aware of Alfred, Gordon and Robin if nothing else. These characters, both literally and potentially, provide infinite extension of the bat-family legacy. Not only that, but many of these characters have or have had their own solo books. The Bat-Family is always in action, Superman doesn’t have that.

This isn’t written with the intent of bashing Superman; in fact he’s one of my favorite characters and there isn’t much I would change about him or his supporting cast. I just think it’s important to analyze why the public perceives characters as they do. Batman is a far more functional in a traditional sense and more writers are able to write him effectively (especially when they actually know the material they are working with.) I’m also not claiming that there is no fan base for Superman, it just needs to be recognized that it may take a bit more care to bring him back into the spotlight. We can believe a man can fly again.

Vinny’s unrelated Video Pick of The Week!

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’til deathrays do us part

Last night a friend of mine told a story concerning a panel at this past weekend’s New York Comic Con in which fans had argued over the merits of a certain web slinger’s married and single states. Essentially, no conclusion could be met since the room was filled with both single and romantically attached fans. A desire to connect with the protagonist exists within all of literature but is heightened within the superhero genre. This is in part caused by the breadth of choices one has in selecting a superhero tale to read (or watch for that matter). In a sense, there is a superhero for everyone and this often causes the reader to select a character that they feel represents their own situation. Threaten to change that relationship and you will meet fervent opposition. This is not to say that all superhero weddings have been met with disdain. Multiple Flashes, X-People and Emerald Archers have made their vows without much controversy. However, there are certain unions which still come into question with support on both sides of the argument. For time’s (and my own sanity’s) sake, I will address only one of these, the one that is perhaps the most important.

Lois and Clark. No matter how you slice it, this is THE relationship in superhero history. The struggle of the secret identity against the desire to live a normal life was an absolute in Superman comics over many decades. In 1996, DC Comics finally bit the bullet and married the two characters in regular DCU continuity. Since then, two arguments have been made. The dissenters call for the return to the pseudo love triangle between the brash and beautiful Lois, the meek and kindly Clark Kent and his messianic alter ego. The supporters tend to embrace the idea that this marriage can lead to new, exciting stories taking the last son of Krypton to new heights.

I’ll start with the dissenters because they have a strong argument for a number of reasons. One is that the un-wed Superman is the most familiar version of the story to the public.  Lois’ constant belittling of Clark juxtaposed with her worship of Superman is simply iconic and it should be no surprise that much of the audience would wish to sustain this. Another argument is that the removal of Clark’s longing to have a meaningful relationship with Lois makes the already god-like Kal-El that much more difficult to relate to. In the unmarried state, Superman can be portrayed as the man who seems to have everything but, in truth, is lacking in the one thing he really wants.

The counter argument to this is typically pretty simple, but has its value. If we all know that Lois and Clark are in love, why not let them get married. It opens up opportunity for new stories and new concerns for The Man of Steel. Additionally, Superman’s villains (especially the more powerful types) have a new target that actually bleeds. Superman becomes more relatable in this scenario because it forces him to expand his mortal family. Superman now has more than just his human parents to worry about when Braniac takes over the internet. This also opens the door for little half-Kryptonians, a topic covered in many of the 60’s “imaginary stories”, but let’s save that argument for another day.

I suppose that you are looking for my opinion by this point and the truth is I don’t really have one. I have read amazing stories using both scenarios and I feel that if the writer has something valid to say under either condition it will work out fine. The idea of Superman is bigger than the scenarios he exists in. A great Superman story is a great Superman story forever, whether Lois and Clark remain married until the end of time or if the marriage is ret-conned next year. This is not to say terrible decisions cannot be made *cough* mullet Superman *cough* but these modern myths always seem to correct themselves somehow. Superman was here before most of us, and will outlast all of us. The same can be said for characters like Spider-Man, who in recent years didn’t have too many great stories in either situation. It just takes one writer to put things back on track. At their best, these characters come from a very honest place and should never be limited unless the change will violate the character’s essential traits. Superman can’t kill, but maybe he can get married.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Keep reading! -Vinny

and now, my completely unrelated video pick of the week

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