Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Imaginary Stories

As I write this DC Comics is once again planning an event called Convergence that will change, in some way or another, the nature of the continuity of its universe. This is only a little over three years since the launch of the New 52, which threw out (in my opinion anyway), seventy-five years of history and legacy. Over at Marvel Comics they are hyping their new Secret Wars event, and while the details of what this will eventually mean are vague it looks like Marvel will also be doing some restructuring of their continuity.

And, of course, the fans are losing their minds. Not everyone. A response I'm seeing a lot of is the eye-rolling, “here we go again” kind of exhaustion that goes along with these big events.

But that's not really what I want to talk about here. Not really. I've been through reboots and Crises and Zero Hours and Incursions enough to know that, in the world of Marvel and DC Comics, this too shall pass. What I want to talk about is the larger issue of the idea of “Continuity” in comics (and to a lesser degree in other media), and why it's so important to fans, and I want to do it in the context of my previous post about memory and recapitulation.

First, some background.

Continuity wasn't really an issue in comics for many years. Throughout the 40s and 50s readers were content to read self-contained stories that had little relationship to each other from month to month. We knew Superman's background and his supporting cast. As long as these were maintained, anything else was fair game. DC would actually label any story that broke these very basic and simple guidelines as “imaginary stories,” meaning, stories that take place outside of continuity.

It was in the Silver Age of comics (roughly the late 50s through the mid 60s), that continuity became important. Marvel certainly pioneered this concept by making all of their titles exist in the same world in a much more coherent way than DC had done prior to then. Events in one story would have lasting ramifications. If Aunt May had a heart attack in one issue she would still be in the hospital in the next. It created the illusion of the passage of time and reflected the real world more accurately.

This was easy enough to maintain when there were only a handful of books and a few years had passed. It became much more complicated as time went on. Tony Stark created the Iron Man armor while a prisoner in Viet Nam. The Fantastic Four launched a rocket into space to beat the Russians in the space race. Things like this made complete sense for a number of years. Not so much fifty years later.

These sorts of issues have usually been addressed obliquely by Marvel with a sliding time scale. It wouldn't be mentioned for awhile and next thing you know Stark is building his armor in a cave in Afghanistan.

Continuity, the sense that there is a canonical storyline, is important to many fans. I am certainly guilty of this. As much as many of us say that all that matters is that we are told a good story, part of our definition of good story is dependent on how well it fits in with our own sense of the continuity of the characters. Whether fans say they care or not, it has an effect on what books they read and what kind of emotional investment they have in the characters. We all have a head canon of what “actually” happened to these characters and what didn't.

In my personal head canon Hawkeye is morally opposed to killing no matter how many stories Brian Michael Bendis wrote indicating differently. The DC New 52 makes no sense to me if Dick Grayson didn't grow up with Wally West and Donna Troy and become adults while they were in the Teen Titans, none of which is true according to current continuity. And yes, these are some of my personal bugaboos, but we all have them. As much as I say I want change and different points of view and these characters and universes need to grow and change, the truth is I always have a certain knee-jerk reaction against anything that contradicts my version of what took place, and I'm ready to pull out the back issues to prove my point. It's all right there in black and white and four-color printing. This actually happened. It's canon!

Which makes me ask the question, “Why?”

In my last blog I talked about the unreliable nature of our personal memory, about how none of us have access to the reality of any past event, simply the story we tell about it. I can tell an anecdote from my own life that other people who were there will remember completely differently. The truth is, we're never sure of what really took place in any definitive way. There is no official canonical version of our past. We live our lives with the illusion of continuity but all we really have is our own personal head canon of what we believe happened. The stories of other people may contradict our version, or add a different dimension of information. This current moment is defined by the story we have constructed about our previous lives, but if any or all of our memories are suspect, then who the hell am I right now.

Welcome to Existential Angst 101.

No wonder a definitive continuity is important to us in our fictions. How nice it would be to pull out a back issue of our lives from twenty years ago and check to see what happened exactly the same way we experienced it then. Then we could argue with someone with a different opinion with some degree of authority.

Even if it is unconscious, we long for certainty in our lives. It's part of why we write fiction and tell stories. In our search for order amidst the chaos we create a narrative. We attempt to impose plot and structure on the random events of our day to day, to make sense of the many unrelated aspects of our existence. When something breaks our sense of continuity in comics we feel betrayed. I remember Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson being married... what do mean that never happened? But it's easier to argue over this obviously imaginary story than it is to reconcile conflicting narratives about our own failed relationships.

In the introduction to his story Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow (Superman #423), Alan Moore, in direct reference to the aforementioned practice of labelling out of continuity stories as Imaginary Stories, famously said, “This is an imaginary story... Aren't they all?” At the time this was seen by many as a negative reaction to DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, which consigned much of Superman's previous history to non-canonical status. None of those stories were real any more, as if any of them had any reality beyond the printed page anyway. I think it was more than that. I think it was commentary on the breadth of the imagination.

The old stories don't go away when the official continuity is changed. They're still there anytime someone picks up a back issue or a trade paperback collection. Grant Morrison addresses this overtly in the pages of Animal Man where a group of old DC characters who had been consigned to Limbo by the Crisis discover, “Every time someone reads our stories we live again!”

Unless you have been keeping a running diary of your life, written as events happened to you, you probably don't have a canonical history that you can refer to. Even if you do, maybe it's time to start questioning the back story you've been telling about yourself. Maybe not. How is the story you tell helping you live life to the fullest? How is your story limiting you? Maybe it's time for a soft reboot and a retelling before a Crisis makes it necessary.

Imagine a better story for yourself.


  1. I've always been a bit perturbed with continuity problems and I was never a big DC fan because I wanted all the comics I read to be connected with one another. In my world, Tony Stark was a brilliant inventor but an alcoholic who drank so much he had to hang up the mask, and that mattered in other comics.

    George R. R. Martin did something interesting with _Wildcards_ continuity as editor and referee. He allowed authors to share primary characters as long as they followed certain basic rules. I might invent someone like Marvel's Daredevil, but you include him in a story as just a lawyer, and probably not a very good one because he's so exhausted from fighting crime all night long. We share the characters but we play in the same imaginary space.

    So that being said, there's the context for the people reading the comics. The Berlin Wall fell before many of my classmates were even born -- they have no idea what life was like during the real Cold War. One student told me how afraid they were of flying after 9/11, which happened when they were in high school. I asked how long it takes for an ICBM to get from the Soviet Union to a US target and they had no clue what I was talking about.

    Manhattan is no longer the comic book Gotham; we no longer have a us-vs-them with the International Communist Conspiracy; the Mujahideen used to be our allies and now they're one of our biggest threats.

    Maybe re-inventing origin stories makes more sense once we admit that the world has really changed since the 50s? Other than being a museum exhibit or a circus act, what's Crimson Dynamo going to do these days?

  2. Have you heard about the case of H.M? You mentioned you had a degree in psychology. The man was unable to form new memories because his hippocampus was damaged.

  3. Are you going to do a article on Leonard Nimoy's passing?