Continuity Dreams and Nightmares

In the wake of the ongoing travesties of that are happening on both sides of the superhero aisle (OMD’s destruction of anything resembling a comprehensible sequence of events at Marvel and the Eternal Crisis at DC), I’ve been giving a fair bit of thought to continuity and writers.

Continuity is a tricky thing. For a good 40 years or so, it didn’t matter a whole lot. Arguably, the entire period between the end of WWII and the start of the silver age, it didn’t matter at all. Even after that into the early 80s, it remained a rather mutable concept. Sure, there was cause and effect, but the concept of continuity that spanned the entire line of books didn’t quite grab hold.

Starting in the 80s, though, a number of things happened. The X-Men began to sell like gangbusters, which prompted a number of related books. With Crisis on Infinite Earths and Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, the concept of the universe-spanning mini-series was discovered and with it the tie-in. Soon after, the crossover was established.

The crossover and the mini-series established the key ingredients that thrust our lovable comics into the 90s and continue, more or less, to be the key for any large sales to this day. Certainly nearly every major storyline of the past fifteen years has been one or the other, if not both. For some characters with multiple tiles, crossovers are often more the rule rather than the exception (I’m looking firmly at you, Spidey and Bats.)

The natural upshot is that the books need to have some related consistency. If Latte Lady breaks a nail in The Nifty Nailbiters, then by golly that better remain true in The Stupendous Seat-edgers. If Awesome Man dies in his own title, his best friend the Dimly Lit Intimidator may need to know about it in his own.

This rising integration in continuity has a lot of benefits. From a storytelling perspective, there’s a whole lot of options that open up when a writer can start taking part in a bigger sandbox. Stories that would be too big for a single title can now be told. If the Nailbiters and Awesome Man team up but need to split up to do separate objectives, then those can be handled in their own series, at the same time. This ability to tell multiple story strands at the same time, leading towards some ultimate conclusion allows superhero stories to massively increase in depth.

More than that, the crossover, especially, is a boon to business. If you’ve got a strong character who sells well every month, you can always have her show up in a few other books now and then, but have her title cross over with those books, and you could get the readers of each to try the other and possibly stick around.

Amazing stuff, these crossovers. Personally, some of my fondest memories of comics are when I read Uncanny X-Men in the late 80s and I really got into the mutant books with Inferno. It wasn’t enough to just read X-Men. I also had to read X-Factor to understand what was going on. And to find out what happened to Colossus, I needed to read New Mutants. As it happens, I stayed with all three books for a good long time. Inferno was clearly successful, enough that the mutant books especially began to feature them every year or two for the next decade or so.

Plus, there’s a decided advantage to telling a story that is too big for one creator. You can have multiple viewpoints, multiple people working together to create something that could be greater than the sum of its parts.

But there’s a number of downsides. While it’s great that a story could have multiple layers and interweaving plot points, all too often it comes out to be a bit messy, with contradicting elements, missed characterization, and things that just don’t make sense. In the mini-series, it’ll often come about that there are so many characters showing up that few, if any, of them get enough space to really shine and act as they should.

Plus, the bigger the story, the more far-reaching the effects, and thus the greater need for editorial oversight, which leads to more controlled and constrained writers. In essence, the scope of these projects tends to stifle creativity, even if the event itself turns out to be pretty good.

On the business-side, there’s the converse of the event getting readers to try another title. What if, instead of the crossover getting readers to hop on board both books, they instead decide that neither title is worth the effort and jump ship entirely. I read Birds of Prey rather faithfully from the beginning, but the number of crossovers that happened with other Batman titles essentially gave me a choice. I didn’t have the money or desire to follow every Bat-title, so I could either continue with it and be thoroughly confused as to what happened between issues, or I could stop entirely.

I’m not really inclined to write off the big event entirely, but there needs to be a degree of moderation. DC’s 3+ year continuity project has made me leery of trying out new titles, and I’ve tended to try and follow ones that are reasonably likely to remain unaffected and alone. On the Marvel side, I’ve found that Civil War has killed just about any interest I ever had in following The Avengers and any character related to them.

However, the smaller-scale events have worked out fine. Annihilation was just about the most enjoyable story I’ve read in years, and I’m waiting to see what the Sinestro Corps storyline is like once it hits the trades. It’s possible to do an event, but there just needs to be some consideration against doing too much.

And, as One More Day has shown, editorial mandate isn’t good for anything. The writers generally need to have some freedom to explore and get creative with the characters. Dictating that the writers must do x and y and keep in tap with all the other titles running leads to problems, because, by and large, most comic writers cannot or will not be able to handle that sort of overhead on their books. There are some, but they’re few and far between.

I could probably trust Grant Morrison to handle just about any continuity issues. Kurt Busiek, too. If only because of his comments regarding One More Day, JMS seems like he’d be up to the task. And possibly Mark Waid. However, we’re talking about four men out of tens of professional comic writers who are adept enough to write a story that fits into continuity while also changing it. This is an extremely limited skill that very few possess.

Geoff Johns and Keith Giffen might be able to, but they also seem to shine best when they’re given a section of a universe to play with. Preferably a cosmic one or (in Giffen’s case) a comedic one.

I’m not going to criticize writers who don’t do this. While I’d trust Morrison to handle such a task (and Final Crisis likely will be), some of my other favorite comic writers probably couldn’t. I don’t think Brian Vaughan could (he’s a bit gun-shy when handling characters he doesn’t create.) Nor Brian Wood. Warren Ellis probably could, but his disdain for the conventions of the superhero genre makes me question whether it’d work. Gail Simone, The Best Writer in Superhero Books, might not be up to it, but I’m curious to see how she’d fare if given the chance.

The problem is that despite the obvious way that Big Continuity causes problems for the individual writers, it’s become this massive driving force from both within (editorial) and without (the fans.) On the inside, it’s this stifling way of sucking the fun and creativity out of any story, even if it’s something that should be as fun as superheros kicking the shit out of each other (see exhibit 1: Civil War). On the outside, it’s the promise that if anything doesn’t quite work, the fan community is going to jump all over it.

I’ve found myself questioning my resolve and desire to keep up on things. Conceptually, the Big Event is awesome. In theory, it should be great. But in theory, communism works. In practice, there’s those few events that actually work (Annihilation), more that are just kinda meh (Infinite Crisis), and still more that just kinda numb my whole brain when I start to think about them (Civil War, Countdown, One More Day).

What I’ve been left with is a desire to just find those select few things that are actually good. I’ll follow specific writers around, check out those titles which are remaining consistently strong, and just keep abreast as I can.

It’s a shame, because I’ve had my time as a continuity nut, digging how all those threads relate and create a stronger story. But the DC fan in me has spent the past three years hearing that if I just keep going a bit longer, everything will fit together and make sense. Sure, it’s possible Grant Morrison will actually do that in Final Crisis, but what if it’s just a precursor. After the next couple of weekly series, what if there actually IS an Eternal Crisis? And in 2012, will I be eagerly anticipating Gail Simone’s Crisis Forever?

Over at Marvel, I’m left wondering what’s good. Civil War is a black stain, from which there’s very little to redeem. One More Day has just told me that anything I could have cared about can be whisked away. And I really can’t get up the interest in Secret Invasion. Bendis isn’t a writer I have a lot of faith in to handle multiple heroes. A small number, with deeply personal stories, possibly a lot of crime, sure. Teams? His track record is lacking. Disassembled was almost as bad as Civil War, and House of M was unfortunately little more than a compelling Elseworlds idea.

On the other hand, I suppose I can thank Joe Quesada for teaching me to stop caring. At the House of Ideas, it’s clear that few, if any, ideas are going to do much more than cause a temporary hiccup to the status quo.

Because of that, I’m going to take a new view on continuity. I call it the Current Writer theory. Basically, continuity on a title or character only matters inasmuch as it matters to the current writer. If they want to delve deep into the backstory and pick out little elements here and there to build up the richness, so much the better. If they just want to tell stories in the here and now, fine.

What would be grand, though, is if everything was free reign. If a writer could come in, figure out how to make all the pieces fit, or at least some of them, and just tell that story, then move onto the next.

What if… what if EVERYTHING was true?

Oh, yeah. DC tried that. About ten years ago.

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