Recapping the Continuity Bottle

With DC's next big reboot looming (a rose by any other name...), I've decided to at least attempt to complete my model for comic book continuity. But since those discussions occurred more than 3 years ago, I thought I'd start with a recap just to get myself and everyone else back up to speed.

It all started with my musings on what I called Bubble Worlds - a concept that tried to explain the writing strategy of certain superhero comics series that expanded a character's universe not with the usual dynastic model of supporting cast and contextualizing city, but by building the universe around the character outward in space or backward in time. The rainbow Corps in Green Lantern, for example, or Iron Fist's retroactively created legacy (other examples included Wonder Woman's Greek myth ghetto - as a negative way to "bubble" - and Swamp Thing's leaking bubble, its concepts infecting the rest of the DCU. This generated some discussion here and on other blogs, and in answer to Thought Balloonists' intelligent riposte about how some of these bubbles were created through retroactive continuity, I postulated that comics universes are continually being retconned. In that article, I claimed that every writer wrote a character slightly (or outrageously) differently, that every artist drew that same character differently, and that was all, in a way, retcon. The very idea that time slowed down for characters, so that they'd celebrated more Christmases than they should and seen more presidents come in and out of the White House than most of their readers, was also a kind of continual retcon (and a largely unacknowledged one, even by those who scream bloody murder at more event-driven retcons).

At this point, I proposed a MODEL, which I called the Continuity Bottle, in which continually shifting Continuity Fluid would hold all of a universe's characters and concepts. It's important to note that this is not a TOOL for creators to work from, but rather a way to look at how the work of comics creators interact in a shared universe.
I'll let you read the original articles if you're interested, but to quickly recap, the article put forth the following concepts:
-Each character (and team) is at a center of a molecule (the Absorbascon's "dynastic model") swimming in the continuity fluid and containing all characters and concepts that usually connect to it (Superman is connected to Lois Lane, Metropolis, Lex Luthor, etc.). These molecules can connect to other molecules to simulate team-ups, villains crossing over from hero to hero or participation in a team.
-Bubble Worlds are areas around dynastic molecules that represent the entire world (or history, since continuity fluid also contains past and future) surrounding certain characters (the galaxy according to Green Lantern, or Opal City's history, for example).
-Partitions are semi-porous barriers that curtain off a part of continuity, such as Vertigo's DC properties, an Elseworld or the part of Wildstorm that sometimes interacts with the DCU. The fluid behind these barriers is different from the rest of the bottle's and does not mix with it, though characters may infrequently enter or escape.
-Because the fluid isn't static inside the bottle, the characters swimming in it are continually being updated and retconned.
-A universal reboot is akin to shaking the bottle and letting the constituents reform and adapt to the new fluid - often changed by pouring another continuity bottle into the first, as was done with the Charlton, Fawcett, etc. heroes.
-The old continuity is nonetheless saved behind Continuity Walls at the bottom of the bottle. As concepts from former continuities reappear in the new continuity, we might imagine Continuity Funnels feeding the new fluid with older elements. Funnels between bottles also exist to explain cross-company crossovers and obvious pastiches of another company's (continuity's) characters.
-Finally, in another article, I added the idea of Tonal Pockets. This postulates a different consistency to continuity fluid that explains why, in the same universe, Plastic Man lives an almost cartoon life, while Batman's existence is so much more gritty. Dynastic molecules (like those) may prefer a certain fluid consistency, though they sometimes swim through a different pocket.

I left that one with "To be continued..." Ouch! More than three years later, and I haven't made good on that promise. But I've given myself until Flushpoint to finish my thesis and my model, in time to discuss DC's new continuity using the vocabulary created. Wish me luck!


snell said…
Since all universes are being continually retconned, I think your model might benefit from making a distinction between some of those retcons. Clearly, there's a difference between an additive or explanatory retcon, that adds to a character's backstory without actually contradicting anything past (e.g. Iron Fist's legacy), and an altering retcon, which actually contradicts past stories but falls short of a full reboot (eg, it wasn't really Jean Grey that died, it was the Phoenix posing as her).
Siskoid said…
I'll put that on the docket, good idea!
Doc Loki said…
I think that the Jean Grey one is also an additive retcon rather than an altering retcon - all discrepancies can be explained away as either the Pheonix lying or other people being fooled by it - i.e. it accounts for any discrepancies.

An altering retcon would be something more like Bendis making the Beyonder an Inhuman rather than a cosmic entity.
snell said…
Doc--Obviously there's fine lines in some of our definitions. But the fact that we can come up with a plausible post hoc explanation doesn't make it less of an altering retcon, in my opinion. After all, in a comic book world we can come up with an explanation for almost any type of situation without much effort, be it magic or science or clones or what have you. That would virtually eliminate my concept of altering retcons, except in cases of ridiculous errors or lazy writers (like you example of the Beyonder).

My definition would leave probably leave "explanations" out, no matter how clever, unless we can clearly show that was the intent of the creators all along (eg, Jean Grey's death, as she was meant to be really really dead, vs. Steve Rogers, whom Brubaker always intended to bring back).
Siskoid, would you consider the retroactive continuity of Roy Thomas's workings with All-Star Squadron more important than, say Geoff Johns changing the Parallax of Zero Hour into the giant yellow fear avatar and other aspects of the GL history?

I've always appreciated Thomas's work in such a fashion, though not typical retcons, there was more effort in his work than, say, any part of Zero Hour.
Siskoid said…
Note that the model doesn't make value judgments.

I think there are various kinds of retcons:
-Those of which the creators or readers are not consciously aware or accept as part of the medium (the sliding time scale, changes in characterization or art style). What I describe as that continual retcon.
-Retcons that change the meaning of previous facts without contradicting them (Jean Gray, Parallax).
-Retcons that change previous facts outright, contradicting what has gone before.

Some of these have in-story explanations (Mephisto did it, various Crises), some don't. Some are well done, some aren't. Some lead to good stories and a better status quo, some do not. Quality is independent of the type of retcon at work.

If I judge your examples, well, I'll admit I'm a fan of Roy Thomas as a continuity artisan who knew his way around continuity and had fun making you discover it even as he retrofitted older concepts into new continuity.

Johns, with his Parallax retcon, seeks to explain away a story element he dislikes (the "turning" of Hal Jordan). Nothing wrong with that if it allows for better stories (and I think it does, because GL turning into Parallax was a destructive idea), but Johns has shown again and again that his focus is to return continuity to a prior state (from when he was an enthusiastic reader).

Now let's compare: Johns' preferred configuration requires continuity to go back in time, making irrelevant or at worst erasing (note the coming reboot) past continuity. Thomas' focus was to bring older continuity elements into the present by reshaping them and allowing previously aborted stories to continue into the future. Two very different foci.

One strategy certainly seems more negative than the other.
chiasaur11 said…
So, where'd the latest Taskmaster mini fit under those definitions?

The Org and MILF were definitely additive, but the Tony Masters backstory definitely eliminated a few older bits.

I mean, it's all great, which excuses all manner of sins, but more opinions are always interesting.
Thanks for the detailed reply, Siskoid. I do agree re: Parallax, and I'd think most people would agree that the idea itself was just not thought out well at all. Plus, he made for a 90s bad guy, just as Extant was, and they both were products of Zero Hour.

I'm 51 for a few more weeks, so I read all of Thomas's work, even when he tried to fill in the gaps after COIE by creating Iron Munro to replace Superman, etc. (The B&W Showcases really need an All-Star Squadron volume or two).

Roy was close to my age in the early 80s. Even though it didn't sell well, and I just realized that you had Munro in your Reign series awhile back, Young All-Stars was likely the best spin-off attempt to keep a brand going. In a way, Roy simply ignored the retcon of COIE and kept the status quo going.

Johns is young, Lee is still in his thirties, and so the reboot will only seem fanboy-ish to me, the costumes are horrible (I've been waiting to see if they put Doomsday-style trunks on Swamp Thing). It's unfortunate that this whole mess that is 52 reminds me of the last time a bunch of young kids, including Lee, got their own sandbox. Image Comics. Could Dan DiDio play Roy Thomas in this reboot? He's not capable of much. Paul Levitz? Certainly. But my understanding is the 52 reboot was nixed by Levitz but now he's gone, so...
I guess there's something to end with, Siskoid. How might this reboot have fallen out had Levitz still been in charge? Anyone?
Siskoid said…
Chia: I think it's additive and that any additive retcon does create minor inconsistencies (I'm sure we can find some for Phoenix/Jean Gray), but I put these on the order of presidential changes, multiple Christmases and changing writer/artist.

Wayne: Who knows. There are too many factors at work for me to make any kind of estimate. If it HAD gone through, then at least it would have made SENSE. The Earths had split apart again, which was a perfect time to move some pieces around. The fact a hold was put on it is I think largely why this reboot seems gratuitous and ridiculous.
chiasaur11 said…
Makes sense then.

It did add a lot. I mean, the changes to Taskmaster were notable on their own, but the Org?

Oh man that's fun stuff. A secret organization that provides muscle, tech, and contacts to all the various villain groups, basically running them.

That turns out to be a rogue, off the books SHIELD project trying to keep the whole mess small enough for the good guys to win.

Combine that with the secret warriors bit where HYDRA has semi-controlled SHIELD forever, and the whole matter is amusingly messy.

My money is on Devil Dinosaur being behind the whole thing in the end.
Doc Loki said…
Not for a second am I disputing that it was a retcon. Just quibbling about the type of retcon ;)