Pass the Retcon, I'm Feeling Mmemonic

In the category Warped Minds Think Alike, Thought Balloonists discussed Immortal Iron Fist's story structure (Part I, Part II). Where I coined the term "Bubble World", Craig and Charles use "Pile-Up", an additive use of continuity both OUTWARD and BACKWARD in this case. Charles is even reminded of Starman, which has been in the pipeline since my first article (look for it soon on an Internet near you!). Thanks for Chris Roberson for getting us together.

Now one of the Thought Balloonists' contentions is that Immortal Iron Fist is essentially a retcon. That if we look at Iron Fist's entire publishing history, we won't find the other cities competing in the Heavenly Convergence Tournament. We won't find a "Golden Age" Iron Fist, or Iron Fists going back to ancient times. Indeed we won't.

I'll say this: All shared universe comics are being continually retconned, all the time.

I'm not just talking about the big retcon events (DC's Crises and Marvel's One More Days), or about shifting paradigms on second-string characters whom we "didn't know much about so it's ok to do a big reveal that Changes Everything(TM)" (like Iron Fist). I'm also talking about the minute and not-so-minute differences in any character's history caused by long-term publishing at the hands of various creators.

Long-term publishing of any character means his or her origin must be continually retconned lest he or she dies of old age. The sliding scale of time most characters have to put up with means they'll celebrate Christmas 10 or more time a year, will see the President of the U.S. change 5 times while they finish college, started out fighting the communists, and can be heard calling their friends "daddy-o" when they were reasonably born no earlier than 1978. Comics taking place in the "present" continually retcon the character's history to reflect a present-centric view. That anyone can stuff decades of history into a character's 10-year (at most) career is a whole other issue.

Long-term publishing also means different creators will have left their fingerprints on characters and concepts, tweaking or changing their natures and personalities, slightly to outrageously. Can all these discrepancies be reconciled? One extreme case study is Batman who has probably been handled by more creators than anyone. Even if we leave out the "Elseworld" stuff, can we reconcile the human, beatable Batman and the unstoppable genius of the JLA? Sometimes he's an angry force of nature, sometimes he's got a sense of humor, sometimes he's fun-loving, sometimes he's planning his friends' overthrow, sometimes he's a loner, sometimes he wants to start the Outsiders, etc. His speech patterns change. Every time someone writes Batman, he's slightly different, necessarily so. A continuous and coherent personality cannot be maintained across multiple writers.

And what about artists? They bring something to a character's look, motion and world. There have been as many Gotham Cities as there have been artists to render them. A very small change in costume from one artist to the next (say, the design of a belt buckle) isn't a major retcon, but it is a retcon.

Fandom is clearly obsessed with continuity or massive event retcons wouldn't be mandated by Editorial. As pop culture historians and collectors of stories, we have an inherent need to know where things fit and what is canon. While it is patently ridiculous, it is (an essential?) part of the hobby. But there is it: None of it actually makes sense as a continuous "pile-up" or "bubble" because of the inherent nature of the medium.

I should take another look at Grant Morrison's Hypertime theory, since it claims to fit even this minor, subconscious retconning into a logical schematic, but isn't it just the retcon to address all retcons?


Charles Hatfield said...

Thought-provoking post, Siskoid, and thanks for drawing the connection to what we're doing over at Thought Balloonists!

Yes, you're right, the "retconning" of long-running mainstream comic book properties is continuous -- and necessary to their continued exploitation AS properties. Revision is in the nature of these things. On Chris's blog, I remarked that "continuity" is an artifact of work-for-hire, and I think your post here gets at that as well.

I suppose what we call retcons are revisions drastic enough to actually call continuity into question for those of us old enough, or steeped enough in the lore, to recognize the changes. What strikes me about Iron Fist is the way the retcon (the introduction of the Seven Cities of Heaven and the idea of Iron Fist as a legacy hero) serves to revitalize and redirect the whole property. That's a significant retcon. To me Moore et al.'s Swamp Thing is the classic example: a simple flick of the wrist, so to speak, that revived an ailing series. Of course, Moore had already pulled off a hat trick like this in Marvelman / Miracleman, but Swamp Thing was probably the first example US readers saw of that kind of summary revisioning of a character's origins.

Miller's introduction of Elektra into Daredevil (who knew that Matt had an old flame who was a ninja?) qualifies too. And of course Robinson et al. on Starman, with the fleshing-out of Opal City and the exploration of the hero's legacy.

But, yeah, these are just extreme examples that call attention to the continual "retconning" that goes on in mainstream comics. What's interesting about these examples, to me, is that they represent a way for creators, who are so very often treated as interchangeable in mainstream comics, to make their mark and carve out a relative degree of creative freedom. The current Iron Fist strikes me that way too.

Siskoid said...

Totally. The very best retcons become the status quo in our minds and hearts. When was Swamp Thing NOT a plant that dreamed it was a man? Seems like it was always thus. And the same goes for Starman and Iron Fist.

One might fondly remember Superman's previous origins from the Golden or Silver Ages, but who wants Swamp Thing the way it was before Alan Moore? I dare say few. The power of his idea absolutely overwhelmed the original story.

With Iron Fist and Starman, I think the backward expansion of the "legacy" has given the characters a weight they hadn't had before. Opal City seems like it's been in the DCU as long as Metropolis or Gotham as a result, though we know differently.

Jeff R. said...

I think that there are two different axes at play here. First, there's a difference between constructive and destructive retcons: with Swamp Thing, or Starman, or Daredevil, or Iron Fist presumably, all of the previous stories about the character still happened, even if they don't mean the same thing as they did before. Whereas when the Legion is reset or when Byrne sterilized Krypton and eliminated Superboy, or when a certain spider-marriage was erased, one is left with a large set of stories that cannot possibly have happened anything remotely resembling as written. Sometimes, as with M******man, a context is created for those old stories as hallucinations or alternate realities or the like, but that's not quite the same.

And the other axis or type of distinction would be quality-based; the degree to with the new story makes sense. Byrne's Superman did have a lot of advantages, logic-wise, over the built-up cruft of the Silver/Bronze age version, and, on the other hand JMS's Spider-Totem mythos, while theoretically inserting the character into a legacy mythos bubble, just didn't work for reasons of being, well, stupid...

Charles Hatfield said...

Yes, Jeff, but then Byrne set about reintroducing (in some case slavishly retelling) a lot of that "Silver Age" stuff, for example the Lori Lemaris story, simply because, having been ruled out of "continuity," it could now be freshly exploited and brought back in! Having cleared the decks, he was left with a teeming stock-basket of material that he could selectively revive and adapt. No?

Siskoid said...

I think I'll respond on Monday in a proper post.

Watch the skies!


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