TOOL OF THE TRADE
by John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL
I thought, just to be different and original, I'd try to write about something I've never written about before.
Thus, today's topic is something completely new and unique to this column:
(No, I haven't fallen and hit my head on something hard. I'm being ironic. You gots, I say, you gots to pay ATTENTION, son.)
It occurs to me that in the midst of all this fannish uproar... or, at least, impassioned debate... as to whether continuity is a desirable element in four color superhero fiction or not, and whether, in fact, the very presence of continuity has, as some maintain, all but destroyed comic books as a viable financial medium... we've overlooked something. It seems to me that, as people often do when they're talking about things they're very deeply invested in... we've failed to define our terms.
For purposes of this article, I want to try to change that. I want to look at where continuity originated, and how it evolved, and therefore, show what it was, what it is, what it's meant to be, and what it never, ever, should have become.
The origins of continuity are dim and vague and ultimately debatable. However, as with most crucial storytelling elements in the four color funny book field, continuity itself seems to have first occurred in the newspaper comic strips of the 40s and 50s. I myself suspect it was Milt Caniff who first came up with the initial, groundbreaking idea of letting his various supporting characters in strips like TERRY AND THE PIRATES and STEVE CANYON actually remember their past meetings and interactions with various villains and refer to them in later adventures, but I could be wrong. Whatever the case may be, the first real hint of continuity in a serial illustrated adventure format was pretty much limited to this... heroes would run into a particular villain again, and both heroes and villains would make reference to their past meetings, usually in terms like: "Dragon-Queen! But you were killed by Dr. Sushi Wok's pygmy gibbons in that lost Burmese temple! How can YOU be here?" or "Blast you, Lieutenant Friendly, and those miserable orphans you travel with! You may have managed to somehow destroy my Flying Death Ray Kite Squadron back in the jungles of Java, but you won't be that lucky THIS time!"
It's easy to see and essential to note at this point that when we look this far back into continuity's dim and complex history, we can clearly define what continuity actually is:
A tool for better characterization.
I think many comics writers and editors have lost sight of this simple fact over the years, and as they have, it's grown easier for many insightful, analytical fans to lose sight of it as well, and to blame 'continuity' for the fact that a great many comics these days are filled with Byzantine, trivial, annoying little details and constant references to past stories, or simultaneously published stories, or even stories that are being planned as a big miniseries this summer but haven't appeared yet, so much so that the comics themselves have become all but incoherent and nearly completely inaccessible to any casual reader who might be made curious by a cover, or a movie or TV adaptation, and try to start reading them.
But this incomprehensible labyrinth of convoluted dates, issue numbers, alternate future timelines, and weird character names that all have 'star' or 'hawk' or 'death' or 'silver' or 'black' or 'laser' or an internal 'y' where an 'I' should be in them, is not where continuity started, and it is not what continuity is supposed to be.
At its base, continuity was simply a way for Milt Caniff, or Frank Robbins, or whoever it was who first came up with the idea, to make their characters seem more real. Prior to this, all fictional adventures, whether they featured hard fisted fighting Americans apparently hoplessly lost in exotic foreign jungles for vague reasons, WWII aviators starting their own small, perpetually struggling air delivery services, hard boiled private detectives with a soft spot for sexy dames in slinky dresses, cartoon animals, or even those bizarre men and women in tights and capes over in the kid's funny books on the newsstands, were self contained and entirely self referential. In melodramatic stories telling tales of good vs. evil, the villain invariably died horribly at the end of the story, making these simpler stories from a simpler time into something very much like modern morality plays in which, inevitably, the bad guy got punished by all knowing, all seeing fate at the end of the story for his vile and wicked machinations throughout the plot up to that point.
The idea that villains could, maybe, actually return to menace the hero anew was probably what gave someone the original idea for what gradually became that thing we call 'continuity'. Doubtless this came about through some overworked, stressed out writer/artist, at some point, saying to himself, "You know, King Boilermaker was a great bad guy, and he'd fit perfectly into this particular plot, I wish I could use him again..." and then realizing that, if Cap Cannister and Pat McFlack and Jumpin' Johnny Jupiter could all survive various deathtraps and seemingly inescapable dooms every other episode, there was no reason why Dragon-Queen or the Black Pharoah or Professor Dexter Diabolico couldn't, either.
And, of course, if you were going to bring an old villain back, it would only make sense to have your heroes go "Gosh -- didn't you plummet screaming to a horrible demise from your own anti-gravity Death Moon back in 1939?" And thus was born, in its crudest and most elemental form... continuity.
As a side note, it's also worth mentioning that this was the point where serial heroic adventures stopped being modern morality plays, since, once villains started surviving their apparent demises at the end of the story, much of the 'evil is eventually and inevitably punished by God' theme, which is the whole point of morality plays, vanished.
To call contemporary comic books, for example, 'modern morality plays' indicates a staggering ignorance of exactly what medieval morality plays actually were, and what modern comics actually are.
In modern comics, good is sometimes but not always rewarded, and evil is rarely punished in any manner more significant than a brief beating by the heroes, followed by either a seeming death (inevitably to be explained away when the villain next returns) or a brief and probably reasonably comfortable jail term that ends with either the prisoner's fairly quick release (as supervillains rarely actually do much of anything WRONG, since superheroes tend to show up and stop them BEFORE they manage to kill all the Geminis in Manhattan or melt the polar ice caps) or their clever escape.
Modern day comic books are, for the vast most part, adolescent power fantasies, and the titles which have been most successful with an adolescent audience are the ones whose editors seem to understand this basic premise and stick more or less strictly to a formula of creating a bunch of attractive, superpowered characters that young, often lonely, boys will either want to be or want to hang around with, who run around beating the living snot out of other, meaner, uglier superpowered characters, which young, often lonely boys think they would enjoy doing.
Even in some of the more violent Image comics, where evildoers ARE punished, often fatally, by the heroes, the fact that the protagonists kill the bad guys, or permanently cripple them, or simply beat the crap out of them to punish them for being so
goshdarned nasty, is a crucial departure from the morality play theme, in which only God (or blind fate) is allowed to punish evil. Probably the only real modern morality play I can think of occurring in superhero comics within the past thirty years or so were the Fleischer-Aparo SPECTRE stories in ADVENTURE COMICS back in the early 70s.
The formula of these stories was simple: first 8 pages, evildoers show up and demonstrate how evil they are with graphically violent and truly awful deeds (like pumping a bank full of nerve gas so they could rob it without interference), last 8 pages, the Spectre, as an agent of God and Justice, takes truly horrifying vengeance on them (such as turning them to wax and melting them, turning them into wood and feeding them through a buzz saw, etc). The Spectre, at least in these stories, never had a recurring villain, nor did he really even have opponents... just evil victims who richly deserved their horrible fates.
But back to continuity. When villains started showing up for rematches, and heroes and villains started remembering their past encounters, it was the first, crude, most basic form of continuity that audiences had seen to date. And it wasn't hard for the writers of that time (who were mostly artists, too, and don't I wish the writer/artists of the modern day could all plot and sling around word balloons as well as Milt Caniff!... or even draw as well as he did) to realize that this gave an additional level of depth and credibility to their
characters that had previously been lacking. After all, real people remember their pasts, in fact, to most real people, the past is very important.
So, when the stars of people's favorite adventure serials started encountering old acquaintances again and picking up the threads of past relationships once more, it struck a note in them. The audience responded to it. These heroic protagonists suddenly had something in common with their readers, and that was an infinitely valuable attribute for a fictional character to have. Comic strip creators of that day often went to significant extremes to create characters that a wide audience would be interested in, which is doubtless the motivating impulse behind the whole 'kid sidekick' thing in the first place, and the reason why Terry, of Terry and the Pirates, was a young boy, but travelled around with an older male companion as well: to create an ongoing adventure drama that would appeal to a larger audience than just kids, or just young men.
And for the creators of that time to suddenly discover that, hey, if we give the characters some sort of memory of the past, it makes them seem more real to the audience... well, that was like finding a big chunk of raw gold in the middle of a log while splitting kindling. The technique spread like wildfire through serial adventure fiction, and through the Golden Age superhero comic books as well.
For most of the Golden Age, this was pretty much the extent of 'continuity'... characters in comic books would remember past encounters with enemies, and sometimes, potential love interests, although there was a lot more romance in the newspaper strips than there was in the comic books. The next crucial development in continuity would be the inclusion of various independently published characters in the same coherent universe, and while Roy Thomas is now currently hopping up and down like a little kid having to go to the bathroom screaming "Mention the Justice Society, mention the Justice Society, mention the Justice Society RIGHT FRICKING NOW!", in point of fact, the JSA was more an example of lack of continuity than any further development of it.
Yes, a particular publisher got the idea of taking a bunch of reasonably popular featured superheroes and combining them in one big sort-of team title... but the group did not fight evil as a team, they gathered together at the start and end of the story, then broke up for individual stories/adventures, and got back together at the clubhouse at the end to discuss the adventure, making the JSA little more than a framing sequence for a typical anthology type comic book of the time. In their own solo stories, the various JSA members made no mention of their 'team' adventures, and in fact, in JSA itself, the only 'continuity' was the forementioned memory of past villains, when they returned, which was very rarely. Justice Society of America, however seminal and crucial the concept of the 'superhero team' was, did not really in any way provide the next evolutionary step for continuity.
Nor did the various WORLD'S FINEST tales in which Batman teamed up with Superman, for the same reason... neither hero ever seemed to remember the adventures in their own comic, or make any mention of them. Even a bit later, when Batman became an infrequent guest star in Superman and Superman family titles (he often stood in for Superman or Clark Kent in some plot to keep Lois from discovering Superman's secret identity or to humiliate Lois when she tried too blatantly to manipulate Superman into marrying her, for example, although Superman almost never showed up in a Bat-title in return), there was no real 'continuity', since, again, there was no mention of past adventures when the two met again, not even a "Oh, this is like the time when you had me pretend to be you to fool Lois, only this time, we're doing it to fool Jimmy, right?"
Even the Justice League of America, when it came along in 1960, failed to take the next step forward, although they did go the JSA one better and actually fight their villains as a group. Still, the individual members had no apparent memory of League cases in their own separate titles, and rare guest appearances by other heroes in those titles were never remembered from one story to the next.
No, continuity, like the rest of the world, was going to have to wait for Stan Lee.
Stan didn't waste any time establishing cross-title continuity in the nascent Marvel Universe. In SPIDER-MAN #1, a cash-strapped Spidey tried to join the FF, and reference was made to that meeting in future issues of both titles. Similar cross-overs fairly quickly occurred between AVENGERS and THE X-MEN, AVENGERS and the FANTASTIC FOUR, and unlike the JSA or even the contemporary JLA, the various
members of the Avengers, who all, at one time or another, had their own series somewhere in the early Marvel Universe, remembered their adventures in the team and made reference to them when their fellow Avengers would frequently show up for cameo appearances.
Even better, when the Hulk went on a rampage in New York City, both the Avengers AND the Fantastic Four tried to corral him... and cameo appearances by various other heroes who would only exchange a word balloon or two with the star of the strip, or even simply watch him swing by out their window, became common.
When Spider-Man seemed to run from the Green Goblin in issue #17 of his own title, and remained at home to take care of Aunt May for nearly the entirety of issue #18, the Daily Bugle called him a coward, and we saw the FF, the Avengers, and Daredevil commenting on the public furor in sorrowful or disbelieving tones... which was simply something you weren't going to see at DC, where every individual character had their own God-Editor, who jealously guarded story content from every other God-Editor, and where the various characters were allowed to co-star in the JLA only grudgingly, and with the implicit understanding that nothing that was done there would ever interfere with, or even impact on, the stories in the characters' individual titles.
In fact, it's safe to say that this next, and crucial, development in 'continuity' was all simply an unanticipated fringe benefit of the fact that the early Marvel Silver Age was entirely written, or, at the very least, somewhat plotted and then dialogued by, Stan Lee, and Stan himself encouraged his artists to draw in little guest appearances of other Marvel characters, sometimes deliberately in hopes of boosting circulation on flagging titles, but often, just because it was 'fun'.
And it WAS 'fun'. We very young comics fans of the time responded to it with huge enthusiasm, taking immense satisfaction and enjoyment out of the fact that Spider-Man and Daredevil might cross paths on a Manhattan rooftop and chat for a little while before moving on (the early Silver Age was a time before every meeting between Marvel superheroes HAD to result in a misunderstanding and violent fist fight), or that Hawkeye might borrow a mini-sub from the Fantastic Four when he needed to go rescue his fellow Avengers from Attuma. We were kids and had little capacity for analysis, so we didn't know WHY we liked it... but now, it's fairly easy to realize that what we liked about it was that, like the earlier, most fundamental forms of continuity where characters simply remembered their past encounters with other characters, it MADE THE CHARACTERS MORE REAL.
We could more easily 'willingly suspend our disbelief' in super characters who acted more like real people, and who lived in a world that was more recognizably like the real world, than we could in those who never remembered their adventures in other hero's titles, and who inhabited a world full of imaginary cities that had dopey sounding, iconic names, with one hero neatly assigned to each of them.
This is what continuity is FOR: to add depth and credibility to fictional characters, to make them seem more real, by giving them realistic traits that we recognize, like a memory of their own histories and a capacity to run into other characters in the same line of work who lived in the same fictional realm.
In addition to being a characterization tool, continuity is also a valuable plotting aid, as well. A character with a detailed history can always draw on that history for future story ideas. The best writers mix in fresh, original ideas with older plot concepts, or even better, bring back previous story elements in new and unpredictable, yet entirely consistent and intelligent, ways, but nonetheless, the fact that the characters have a history, remember that history, and that that history is creatively valid and available to writers to use as the basis for new storylines, is a priceless addition to any creative repertoire.
And this is one of the many reasons why DC's universe-wide divorce from their lengthy past history, the Crisis on Infinite Earths, was, in retrospect, such a spectacular misjudgement. DC had the longest running, richest, and most intricately complex heroic history in the industry, and rather than try to find ways to intelligently use that utterly priceless resource, they simply tossed it away, and then placed their collective trust in a lot of good artists who for the most part wrote poorly, to create something better.
Contemptuously discarding the collective work of generations of the seminal, and most creative, writers and artists to ever work in comic books (people like Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, Gardner Fox, Jack Kirby, Dick Sprang, Alex Toth, Joe Kubert, Edmond Hamilton, John Broome, Cary Bates, Jim Shooter, and Carmine Infantino, just to name a few) and then turning the job of creating a replacement mythos over to a roster of writing incompetence that includes John Byrne, Tim Truman, Keith Giffen, Mike Grell, Jim Owlsley and, perhaps the only writer/artist who could actually WRITE better than he drew, Frank Miller... was simply a mind boggling bad move, and the fumbling, ponderous, overwhelming creative cluelessness that currently defines the entire so-called "Original Universe" is a direct result of that cosmically boneheaded blunder.
Continuity can also be a circulation booster on lagging titles, as I've already mentioned Stan using it at times in the early Silver Age. By exposing readers of a popular magazine like SPIDER-MAN or FANTASTIC FOUR to the hero of a less well selling comic, like the Sub-Mariner or Daredevil, and writing huckstering panels like "Check out the astounding adventures of the Man Without Fear in his own title, on sale NOW,True Believer!", Stan hoped to get some of the Spidey or FF fans to try an issue of the more lackluster comic, as well... and the technique seemed to work fairly well, too... but this was a side effect of continuity, a little piece of serendipity that never should have been allowed to come to dominate and all but define the term, as it very nearly did at the height of Marvel and DC's crossover frenzies in the late 80s.
Continuity is also not supposed to become such an out of control, omnipresent, front-and-center, overwhelming element in a comic book that NOTHING new is ever done and no story ever seems to begin or end, but rather, all current plot developments grow out of past plot occurrences, constantly looping and feeding back into and on each other until it becomes virtually impossible to figure out exactly where certain characters came from, who they actually are, or where they're going.
This is especially a hazard in large team books, and almost guaranteed to happen under the auspices of a writer who combines certain dangerous attributes: namely, laziness, a lack of knowledge of how to do real, interesting, three dimensional characterization, and, last and most hazardous to actual story quality, popularity.
These three elements unfortunately define in their entirety 'creators' like Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Grant Morrison, and most if not all of the Image Ilk. Chris Claremont, for example, is so lazy that he simply can't be bothered to take the time to establish the relationships he wants his characters to have slowly and naturally the way a real writer would. Instead, he'll tell us, in one panel in X-MEN #100, that Jean Grey and Storm are close, dear, bestest bestest friends who love each other SO much, despite the fact that the two of them have never so much as shared a panel prior to this other than the two big splash pages in GIANT SIZE X-MEN #1.
He can't be bothered to remember what a character's powers actually are, or create plots around limited, tightly defined super abilities; instead, he likes to redefine his characters, often spontaneously, as having these really vague mental abilities that he can adapt to whatever story he's come up with off the top of his head that week... as when he had Jean Grey suddenly demonstrate the frankly staggering ability to TELEPATHICALLY ABSORB THE SKILL OF SPACE SHUTTLE PILOT from Peter Corbeau, well enough to pilot a space ship from orbit to Earth's surface, or, more recently, gave the same character the power to create utterly lifelike 'telepathic illusions' so new X-Men team leader Rogue could absorb that power and use it to distract a bunch of bad villains with a fake attack while the real X-Men ransacked their hide-out.
In the hands of a criminally self-indulgent hack like Claremont, with no real editorial oversight (editors don't tend to interfere with writers who sell well), the storylines in comic books frequently become utterly impenetrable, as the wretched writer brings up plot elements simply because they're exciting and then drops them again without resolving them, redefines characterizations to suit his own peculiar fetishes (as when Claremont, who seems to have an almost sick need to see male characters dominated and controlled by female characters, suddenly has the previously non-charismatic Rogue turn into the X-Men's latest Alpha Bitch, snapping out orders and taking charge of the team in a manner we'd probably find bewildering if we hadn't already seen every single other female character Claremont has ever written do it at one point or another as well).
Add into this a tendency, as has been evinced by Claremont, and especially, by Grant Morrison, to regularly and constantly create NEW characters to add to the team, when the old characters no longer interest them, and you quickly get an utterly bewildering situation in which one even the capacities of enthusiastic young fans, whose memories are equal to the task of keeping track of every single character that has ever appeared in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, along with all their various abilities and relative interrelationships, are inadequate to keep straight who is who, and doing what, and why, without an inch thick fan fold hard copy scorecard.
In such an overcrowded environment constantly suffering from time travel or 'previously untold history' fueled ret-conning, 'continuity' quickly becomes a drag on good storytelling and an actual hindrance to good characterization, as has happened most egregiously in the various X-MEN titles, where there is probably no living sentient being in the universe who could coherently explain the origins of Cable, Bishop, or Nate Grey, X-Man any more, being as confoundingly bound up as those stories are in time travel from alternate futures that no longer exist, maybe, except in some parallel timeline where Howard the Duck is an evil elf, or something.
That continuity, in the hands of corrupt, venal publishers who care about absolutely nothing except short term profits, becomes something that smothers and stifles creativity and quality storytelling, should come as no surprise. That continuity, in the hands of a hack who would be more productively employed repainting dumpsters outside stadiums than writing comic books, becomes a pellucid and Byzantine element that overwhelms virtually every other aspect of characterization or plotting, is also hardly a shock.
This doesn't mean continuity is BAD, it just means that comic books should be written, drawn, and published by intelligent, creative people who are doing it because they love the characters, respect their readers, and have an honest and sincere need and desire to tell these stories... rather than soulless corporate drones who only care about the company's stock quotes, or lazy, self-aggrandizing egotists who think their latest, 'brilliant' insight about Batman or Reed Richards or Jean Grey is far more important and valid... or convenient to the plot... than decades of previously established work by other, better, and more conscientious writers.
This is, perhaps, the most disturbing consequence of continuity abuse: the nominal professionals who use bad continuity as an excuse to refuse to do research on the characters they're given creative control over. Claiming that continuity is nothing but a fetter on their brilliant and innovative plotting, these arrogant turds simply go ahead and do whatever stories they feel like with whatever character they have at hand, distorting the personalities and powers of these characters often out of all recognition to fit the exigencies of their trendy, superficial plots, and responding to criticisms by sneering in their superior tones that they're doing original and brilliant work here and they can't be bothered to worry about little things like the actual history of the title they're currently writing.
Often these 'creators' aren't even particularly good writers, but nonetheless, they seem to attract endless legions of carping, puling apologist fans who will endlessly excoriate anyone who thinks a writer should pay attention to what's been previously established in a character's past as being someone who not only doesn't care about Good Stories, but is actually Actively Destroying The Entire Industry Of Comic Books.
In such a fan's eyes, somehow, a criticism of Grant Morrison's hopelessly self indulgent laziness as a writer turns into a vicious and mortal blow aimed at the heart of the comic book genre itself... and all because Morrison himself thinks it's just far too tiresome and tedious for a person making two hundred dollars a page to be bothered actually READING the previous issues of the title he's now writing... and ten thousand sycophantic fanboys drool into their modems in the most pathetically Pavolovian manner when he rings that little "oh lord the whole idea of continuity just makes my arse itch" bell.
There are endless examples of good, creative, satisfying uses of continuity in comics. From Steve Engelhart's brilliant explanation of the origin and history of the Watcher's blue area of the Moon, originally created as a weird, mysterious, throwaway reference by Stan and Jack in FANTASTIC FOUR, through Alan Moore's astoundingly moving "Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?", which, despite being nominally an Imaginary Story, is clearly actually the final adventure of the Classic Superman, through a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand other wonderful little plots and bits and adventures that simply could not have been done, or would not have been as good, without the element of depth and credibility added by 'continuity', these myriad and all but infinite examples make it clear that 'continuity' is, when used properly by creators who understand their art, an overwhelmingly positive element in any fictional milieu.
To say that 'continuity' is somehow causing comics to lose their popularity is to ignore the fact that over the past twenty years episodic fiction on television has been all but made obsolete by growing elements of continuity, and similar elements have even shown up in such overwhelmingly successful movie franchises as STAR WARS.
While I, personally, am perfectly capable of enjoying the occasional 'out of continuity' story with a WHAT IF? or an ELSEWORLDS label on it, I have to say that the comics I enjoy the most all have that vital element of consistent, respectful, intelligently done continuity in them. Could concepts like PROMETHEA, TOP 10, or LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN even exist without issue to issue continuity?
Would AVENGERS currently be worth reading if Kurt Busiek had an editorial mandate to write stories with a beginning, middle, and end in every issue, where no references were ever made in one issue to anything that had taken place in any other issue, and where the return of Ultron was treated as the villain's first appearance ever, to avoid confusing anyone who hadn't read the Roy Thomas story where the evil robot was originally created?
Please. Video games and the adventures of Scoobie Doobie Doo are fine and have their place, but to petulantly demand that all comic books everywhere return to the model of the 1940s and 1950s simply because, in those simpler and more prosperous times, before television and effective special effects in movies and a precipitous decline in cultural literacy, comic books sold better than they do now, is to demonstrate staggering and probably even willful ignorance.
Continuity, more than anything else, is that element which separates a comic book you'll put in a polybag and keep for years from one you'll read once and toss in the trash. I want my comic books to have continuity as much as I want my comic books to have good writers and artists. Any writer who can't be bothered to do the basic research necessary to get the continuity right on the series he's now in creative control of should, as far as I'm concerned, enlist in the Peace Corps and go build bridges in Botswana, and any fanboy who stands up stridently to speak for that creator's spurious 'right' to re-define any aspect of a given character simply to suit his own iconoclastic 'vision' can go rivet girders right alongside him.
Good characterization strikes me as being the essence of good fiction, and therefore, it really shouldn't surprise me that good continuity is so rare in a genre where it was once so prevalent. Continuity is simply, essentially and ultimately, a tool for writing characters in a more interesting and believable manner... and God knows, there are only a handful of writers working in comics that still seem to know how to do that.
Unfortunately, the worst and laziest writers seem to have the loudest, rudest, and dopiest fans. Of course, that's really not much of a surprise when I think about it, since the smart, mature people are too busy reading Alan Moore's and Tom Peyer's and Chris Priest's stuff to pay any attention to X-MEN...
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John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. He can clearly recall a time when he thought the Claremont/Cockrum X-MEN were the greatest thing since Hershey's Kisses, but then, he can also recall a time when he thought Kate Jackson could act, too. Unfortunately, the phrase 'we learn or we die' does not seem to apply to either Chris Claremont or most of his other fans, which simply proves that, indeed, there ain't no justice.