DCnU-Inspired: Continuity - Please Use in Moderation (1)

(DCnU Continuity Series:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5) 

Wow! The DC Relaunch is the gift that just keeps on giving. This article is the fifth in a series centered on issues surrounding DC Comics' September relaunch of all their series. In previous articles, I've addressed a lot of retailer concerns, and even provided a historical perspective on distribution. Now I'm emphasizing fans instead of retailers, content instead of trappings. This article's been in mind for some time, but recent developments concerning DC's flagship character, Superman, have made it unavoidable. Don't know what's happened to Supes lately? Don't know that he's getting super-armor and will no longer be married to Lois Lane? It's just the next in a long line of changes, friends, and it all concerns the big "C"-word: continuity.

The New-New-New-New Superman. (We'll get to him later.) Art by George Perez.

Strictly defined, "continuity" is "the state or quality of being continuous"--straightforward enough. As applied to serial fiction (according to the always-right-yeah-right Wikipedia), it's defined as "consistency of the characteristics of persons, plot, objects, places and events seen by the reader or viewer over some period of time." It's a term used in movies and television, where they often have a script supervisor in charge of getting the details right because scenes are often shot out-of-order. A continuity expert makes sure a glass of water is at the same level throughout a scene. makes sure an actor wears the same clothes or is groomed a certain way in every take for a scene.

In comics, continuity takes on an arguably more twisted meaning. When telling stories about the same characters in one fictional universe, the details shouldn't change. Superman shouldn't have the hots for Lois one month and then do the same for Lori Lemaris the next month. He shouldn't have super-strength and speed one month and the next have electrical powers without explanation. It's all a matter of consistency, of keeping characters and their ongoing situations recognizable to the core model from month to month. Even if one waits a year or more between picking up an issue of any given series, the storylines shouldn't be all that different as to render the reader totally lost.

In the early days, consistency didn't even really matter.

In the early days of comics, the thirties and the forties, creators didn't have to worry about continuity except in a very basic sense. In his secret identity, Superman was really Clark Kent, reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, and he often competed with himself for the affections of fellow reporter Lois Lane in between saving the world and reporting about it. Simple, right? Even still, some of the details got mixed up. Clark worked for the Daily Star in one issue, the Cleveland Evening News in the next, and far later the Star became The Daily Planet. A new villain, named only Luthor, was a redheaded mad scientist when he first appeared in Action Comics #23 (1940), and yet he appeared soon after in a daily newspaper strip (and then Superman #10) as a bald man. The goof was attributed to Leo Novak, who either mistook Luthor for a bald henchman or the Ultra-Humanite, another early villain.

No one thought twice about these discrepancies at the time, which brings up another important point about early comics as they were never intended as serious literature. They were designed to be read by children and discarded after a few short years so those children would then form attachments to novels, magazines and the like. Certainly no one expected comic books to gain any manner of cultural relevance! Comic creators were also often those who couldn't get jobs creating newspaper cartoons or who were otherwise unable to write or draw what they wanted elsewhere. Nobody wanted to work in comics! (Stan Lee, hired at Marvel/Timely in 1941, actually changed his name because he wanted to write the Great American Novel, and thought he couldn't do it if everyone knew Stanley Martin Lieber wrote comics.)

The origin of Luthor in Adventure Comics #271 was one of comics' biggest retcons.

Eventually, writers would begin to tell stories that delved into the backgrounds of their characters, like Jerry Siegel, who in 1960 told Luthor's origin in Adventure Comics #271, incorporating his original red hair but stating the reason he lost it--and hence, hated Superman--was due to the Man of Steel's actions when they were both boys. Silly? Maybe. Still, it didn't solve anything since Superman and Lex were both adults in that first appearance when he had red hair. However, in reinventing the past, this story marks an important use of the retcon, or retroactive continuity--a fundamental conceit of comic books that writers have embraced with increasing frequency.

In the later era of the fifties and sixties, Superman editor Mort Weisinger engaged in spotting mistakes in his letter columns, a practice that gave rise to what some might deem the worst kind of fan behavior (actively looking for said errors). I'm told rewards were offered by many publishers--free comics, money, something else. Directly or indirectly, the practice led in 1964 to Stan Lee, Marvel's key writer/editor, instituting the No-Prize, an award given for not only spotting a continuity gaffe, but also explaining why it wasn't really an error at all, because, after all, Marvel didn't make mistakes. Lee forced fans to be creative to win the prize, which originally was mere recognition in a letter column, but soon became an empty Marvel stationery envelope.*

(* My favorite No-Prize idea concerned the Hulk. In the seventies, Banner wore another color of pants, but when he changed they turned purple, which prompted one astute reader to surmise that gamma rays sometimes cause fabric to turn purple! The explanation has remained in place ever since.)

Flash #123: in many ways, a landmark for the comics industry.

Another leap forward came in 1961, just before the dawn of the Marvel Age of Comics. As detailed previously, comics circulation plummeted in the years following World War II, leading to cancellation of many books. Only Superman, Batman and a handful of other characters were consistently published from the late thirties through the present. Hence, DC introduced a new Flash, Barry Allen, instead of returning their original "Golden Age" Flash character, Jay Garrick, and no one was really the wiser. They opened up a can of worms with September 1961's Flash #123, featuring the landmark "Flash of Two Worlds" story by Gardner F. Fox, inspired by DC's then-editor, Julius Schwartz. The tale firmly established the earlier Flash had existed as part of a separate reality that could "cross over" with the then-current DC. But again, the revelation that the other Flash existed in another universe led to questions about the characters who'd been continually published in the same era!

Over the next several years, DC would showcase meetings between its older and newer generations of characters, often framing them as "crises" when the Justice League of America (JLA) teamed up with its predecessor, the Justice Society of America (JSA). The first such meeting between the groups, in Justice League of America #21, established the names "Earth-1" for the modern DC heroes and "Earth-2" for their Golden Age counterparts. Dennis O'Neil and Dick Dillin addressed the "problem" of Superman having existed in both the JLA and JSA eras in Justice League of America #73 (August 1969) with the (re-)introduction of the Superman of Earth-2. That Superman was named Kal-L (not Kal-El), had parents named John and Mary Kent, worked at the Daily Star, and was middle-aged. Soon after the development of the Superman of Earth-2 came the Batman of Earth-2, following a similar premise, and years later DC introduced Power Girl, the Earth-2 counterpart to Supergirl. These characters could do things DC wouldn't allow their Earth-1 counterparts to even consider, like aging, marrying, having children (like Batman's daughter, the Huntress) and dying.

The first of many, many crises for DC's heroes.

Meanwhile, another trend swept comics, spurred on by Marvel Comics throughout the sixties and seventies, but which was also employed by DC: the proliferation of editor's notes. Such notes were used to interconnect various series by indicating in which series and issues certain other events occurred.The last time the Fantastic Four fought Doctor Doom, that time Bucky was killed, a subtle reminder that the fella snapping photos while Daredevil fights the Eel is really Spider-Man--all were in these notes. While many notes were relatively unobtrusive, some writers would get carried away and reference multiple stories or otherwise write a caption that stopped the narrative dead in its tracks. Only infrequently could fans just coming to the hobby readily pick up the books referred to in these notes. (Some notes even cited recent reprints of the stories back when there were such vehicles, in the age before graphic novel collections.) The notes reinforced the shared universe feel of the comics in their best moments, but at their worst could be totally off-putting.

While the Crisis sagas of the sixties and seventies relied on two generations of characters, it was at first a manageable system. The real trouble hastened with the acquisition of other companies' characters and making those characters part of separate universes instead of merely blending them into DC's own "Earth-1" tapestry. Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel (himself the target of a copyright infringement lawsuit by DC) and his ilk became denizens of Earth-S, and Blue Beetle and the other Charlton Comics heroes lived on Earth-4. DC added Earth-3, home to the Crime Syndicate, an evil variant of the Justice League. Every time you turned around, another DC character was doing something crazy in an "imaginary story" that couldn't happen in the mainstream DC universe, and another alternate Earth was created. For a while it appeared that every off-base continuity element from DC's middle decades was explained away by just being another alternate Earth, in a broader continuity of universes, or multiverse.

Steve Englehart retcons the Captain America of the 50s.

By comparison, Marvel took pains to acknowledge all its characters as part of the same cohesive universe. In the sixties Stan Lee established Captain America had been frozen in ice since the end of World War II, and was thawed by the Avengers. Similarly, the Sub-Mariner had been reduced to an amnesiac vagrant until the new Human Torch, the Fantastic Four's Johnny Storm, awakened his dormant memories. Later, writers Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart established the original Human Torch's body was rebuilt and became the Avengers' resident android, the Vision. During the "Kree-Skrull War," Thomas had Rick Jones harness some power that brought to life versions of earlier generations of Marvel heroes without bringing them in from alternate realities. And in the early seventies, Englehart established the Captain America of the fifties was not really Steve Rogers, and used that idea to springboard a new story of his return. In addition, most of the dimensions the heroes visited weren't shadows of the main Marvel universe, but far different dimensions with their own physical laws, like the Dark Dimension and the Negative Zone. Only a handful of alternate realities or alternate futures were ever glimpsed, and were different enough from the main reality to avoid confusion.

Only later would Marvel begin to play in the "alternate universe" sandbox with the advent of What If?, a series starring the Watcher, a tertiary character introduced in Fantastic Four. Fascinated by the heroes of Earth, the alien peered into alternate realities to see other versions of key Marvel events, such as what might have happened if Spider-Man had joined the Fantastic Four back in Amazing Spider-Man #1, or if Conan the Barbarian (then licensed by Marvel from the Robert E. Howard estate) had time-traveled to present-day New York City. The series afforded Marvel the opportunity to tell stories outside canon, while its episodic nature meant that a different hero or team could be spotlighted every issue (occasionally with more than one story per book). Although the book only ran 47 issues, it would return in 1989 for many years. Even today, the series returns annually with a number of one-shots. More than any series before or since, What If? serves as a foremost example of fanservice in comics due to its very nature, where anything can and often does happen to beloved characters--albeit often with a "monkey's paw"-style twist. (DC would exploit their own version of What If? much later in their "Elseworlds" imprint from 1989-2008. The stories were often anchored less to any individual divergence in the comics themselves and more the result of changing world history or the character's milieu, like involving a late 19th Century Batman against Jack the Ripper.)

Marvel's experimentation with the multiverse kicks in high gear.

While Marvel developed their own multiverse in 1977, a group of fans took it upon themselves to analyze the different continua of both DC and Marvel. Mark Gruenwald and Dean Mullaney developed the two-issue fanzine Omniverse and in so doing coined the very term, defined as a system of multiverses: Marvel's, DC's, all the independent publishers', every novel, every piece of literature, every story ever told, even our reality, all strung together in a string theory of deliciousness. The fanzine led to Marvel hiring Gruenwald as a writer and editor, where he put his ideas to further use in some early Marvel Two-In-One stories about time-travel and Serpent Crowns from across the multiverse. He also codified much of Marvel's universe in the first-ever official handbook, called (what else?) The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

Adding to Gruenwald's vision, whether he knew it or not, was British creator Alan Moore, who teamed with artist Alan Davis on a revival of the Captain Britain character for Marvel U.K. beginning in 1982. In that series he established the Captain as but one in a group of British warriors across a myriad of realities. Henceforth the mainstream Marvel universe was dubbed "Earth-616," after the alleged newsstand release date of Fantastic Four #1. (Although the book was cover-dated November, it may have hit newsstands as early as June. The British invert the month and year, hence 61-6.)

And somewhere in there, DC decided that enough was enough. With the newfound attention to multiverses and continuity came the idea to tear it all down and simplify...

Next: "O Crisis! Where Aren't Thou?" (Or, Continuity Gets Kinky)

(DCnU Continuity Series:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5)  



  1. WOW that is a lot to digest... These are fantastic articles. Digest... digests (?).

    Are you planning a post on the DC Digests any time soon?

  2. Fantastic read, well document and researched!
    Loved every bit of it!


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