Continuity is a Double-Edged Sword…

I was actually looking for information on the scuff-up-cum-verbal-slapfight between Tim O’Reilly and John C. Dvorak today when I stumbled upon this post by Brett McLaughlin on O’Reilly Radar. And as a person with both a personal and professional interest in comic books, I have to say:

Yes. The fans love continuity. But continuity is also one of the things that’s killing the comic book market.

It’s interesting to me that they’re illustrating the beauty of continuity with a bunch of Chris Claremont comics, too. Claremont is an enjoyable comics read, and a pioneer of the modern superhero comic in a lot of ways, but at the same time, having the same writer on X-Men for over fifteen years also made those mutant books a nightmare for new readers. To say nothing of the irony that Claremont is now writing an out-of-continuity title, X-Men Forever, that essentially goes on the premise that anything that happened at Marvel Comics after Claremont’s departure in 1991 never happened.

When I started reading comics in the early 1980s, the average comics reader was my age– someone under twenty years old. The problem is, today, the average (non-manga) comics reader is still someone my age.

The ridiculous continuity shifting crossovers that started with (the brilliant and enjoyable) Crisis on Infinite Earths have become a biannual event at both Marvel and DC. Strict adherence to principles of cannon and continuity have produced the need to constantly housekeep through crossovers with little actual narrative pay-off, which are just confusing to newcomers.

The comics industry decided to stick with continuity coming out of the beginning of the silver age. That’s longer than I’ve been alive, by a good bit. A ten year old with a small allowance is going to find catching up on almost fifty years of Spider-Man continuity a daunting task, if not downright impossible. Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited might make this concept at least possible for your average new reader, but it’s still nearly fifty years of comics. (Not to mention that there’s been several ongoing Spider-Man titles at any given moment since almost the beginning, to say nothing of the crossovers…) You’re not going to try to understand what was cannon and what wasn’t since they suddenly undid Peter Parker’s twenty or so years of marriage. You’re not going to get current, and you’re just going to spend the money on a Naruto OVA, or whatever the kids are into these days.

What the comics industry ought to be doing is learning from what Horror and Sci-Fi movie franchises have been doing for the last few years– reboots. If you want to bring new audience into the fold, the best way to do it is to start over from time to time, to let new members on board with a new continuity, in a way that will still be enjoyable for the majority of your previous fanbase. The way you got that fanbase is with a certain seminal story or set of stories. They won’t mind seeing it retold with a new slant and higher production values. And newcomers won’t be scared away by the need to catch up on all the continuity to enjoy the story.

DC does this slightly better than Marvel. With their two flagship characters, Batman and Superman, we get these stories on a regular basis, we get stories that are in continuity along with stories that are out of continuity, and every time the characters jump into a new medium or new title, there’s an opportunity for a partial or complete reboot. And these characters remain strong as brands, even when their comics are experiencing bad runs. Because– in part– there are so many opportunities for new audiences to get onboard with these characters, without having to make a running start.

Reboots and retellings need to force their way to primacy rather than giant mega-crossovers. Whenever you have a new creative team on a title, why should the editors shackle them into years and years of continuity for the book, if that’s not the best thing for the characters, the title, or the artists? Becoming more casual about cannon and continuity is the only way that Marvel and DC are going to have a shot at attracting readers who don’t already shave.

I know that this is a lot more aimed at the comics industry than McLaughlin’s article. He was talking about technical/instructional publishing. But if you were in that industry, why would you endorse mirroring one of the key mistakes of the only portion of the publishing industry that seems bound and determined to fail before the newspaper industry?

It strikes me as a patently bad idea.