Continuity: Friend or Foe?

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Wolverine Origins

In this column I’m going to look at the issue of continuity and its place in the comic reading experience. This is an issue that I’m greatly interested in. I’m an historian by training and the progression of events over time, as well as the consistency of action by individuals, is something that I like to explore (Why yes, I am the life and soul of parties, how did you know?)

In previous columns I’ve written about accessibility in comics, and continuity – at least when taken to excessive levels – is one of the factors often identified as putting off new readers. My personal experience is that this needn’t always be the case. I began reading X-Men comics in the early 90s, a time when you needed a scorecard to keep up with the number of characters, changing allegiances, and alterations to powers, costumes and motivations. Yet this never put me off. I enjoyed the sense of exploring a larger world and I found that establishing these connections and filling in the blanks was half the fun.

I think it’s impossible to have an ongoing comic book without some form of continuity. In serial fiction, where titles and characters may operate for months or years, the maintenance of continuous action is important in providing depth and scope to the characters and their world. Actions have consequences, and without continuity these could not be acknowledged or explored. Titles such as the Marvel Adventures line generally eschew tight continuity for a series of one or two part stories. Yet even then, the personalities and motivations of the characters remain consistent, providing the bedrock upon which the individual stories are built.

The Ultimate Universe is an interesting example of an experiment that came into being partly to be more accessible to new readers. At the time of the imprint’s launch, Bill Jemas spoke of readers being deterred by the intricate continuity of the Marvel Universe, and how the Ultimate titles would provide a fresh start for readers to get in on the ground floor. At the start this may have been the case, but the nature of serial fiction means that this level of accessibility can’t be maintained, at least not without sacrificing meaningful developments for the characters within. Anyone who has read the Ultimate titles over the last few years will recognise that it has developed its own intricate continuity. Marvel’s belated recognition of this perhaps explains why the promotion of the Ultimate books has changed from ‘accessible books for new readers’ to ‘books where anything can happen to characters’.

The recurring question, though, is how much should continuity be used or acknowledged? Should it service the story, or should it drive the story? Writers use continuity in very different ways, John Byrne and Roy Thomas being two of the more obvious examples who have continuity drive their stories. Byrne’s work on ‘Spider-man: Chapter One’ generated much fan derision at the time of publication for its attempt to weave together multiple stories. In Byrne’s retelling of Peter’s early days there were no such thing as coincidences, hence why Norman Osborn and Flint Marko were revealed to be cousins. After all, they had the same hair style…

Retroactive continuity – the infamous retcon – has become increasingly common in the last few years, being the alteration of previously established facts. In many cases it can be argued that this is for the greater good, altering events and situations that, in retrospect, were deemed a misstep. In other cases, such as when Maxwell Lord was revealed to be an evil mastermind who for years had pursued an anti superhero agenda, the results are so contrary to previously published work that it can’t help but leave a bad taste in the mouth. This is also a plot device that can easily be overused. One or two uses of this may be justified and effective, but when used time and time again the law of diminishing returns kicks in (Daniel Way’s ‘Wolverine: Origins’ series, I’m looking at you).

Personally, I’m a continuity buff and love stories such as ‘Avengers Forever’ that reference past events. However, for maximum accessibility perhaps a good baseline would be for writers to make use of what I’ve termed the Deirdre Barlow principle. During her years on Coronation Street, Deirdre has had more love affairs, break ups and drama than most super heroes. Long time viewers are fully aware of the fact and these actions have obviously influenced her current situation, but they are only directly referred to when the story calls for it.

What do you good readers think of continuity? Do you love it or hate it and does its use (or misuse) enhance or diminish your enjoyment of stories? Let me know in the comments below!