Understanding Retcons

The Continuity Bottle discussions have largely been concerned with the kind of unconscious, continual retcon that seems part and parcel of shared universe comics where characters are not really allowed to age. Differences in writing, art and historical context are at the root of these changes to continuity, and are almost overwhelmingly accepted by both creators and readers as part of the medium. However, there ARE conscious retcons initiated by writers and (sigh) editors, and on blog buddy Snell's request, I'll attempt to address them.Adding to the Bottle
The smoothest way to retroactively transform continuity is to add an element that changes the way every past story is perceived without actually contradicting any of those stories. In the model, this is in a sense no different than contributing the next story in a character's life (nobody thinks of Superman's latest confrontation with Luthor as a retcon, though it definitely "adds" to continuity), except that story element is added to the PAST. Some of these additions, like say, Untold Tales of Spider-Man or those bonus pages in Classic X-Men, don't really change continuity. They're merely another story told about a character. These become retcons when, in story terms, they are "twists" that make you think of all stories chronologically set after it a in a different way. Examples include Phoenix putting Jean Gray in a stasis tube, Black Widow's longevity, Iron Fist's mantle having been passed on through the generations, Swamp Thing being a plant that dreamed it was a man, and Princess Leia being Luke's sister. None of these were "true" when the original stories were told, but having become true, they do not contradict any past even, even if they may, of course, contradict statements made by characters, now revealed to be lying or mistaken.

Manipulating Continuity Fluid
Less smooth is the addition of elements that do not fit established continuity. In such cases, new elements are forced into a given piece of continuity, bending the past in the process. In the model, new elements always take immediate effect even if they do not necessarily last (see Ignoring the Problem, below). Most often, the new element is not introduced in the "past" but in the present, making that past difficult to reconcile with the new status quo. Imagine as an extreme that someone wrote a contemporary Batman story in which he had the powers of a bat, with no explanation. Obviously, Shaking the Bottle (see below) is the crassest and most obvious way to do this, but I'll keep that for the next paragraph. Examples might include pre-Crisis Hawkman and Hawkwoman serving with the post-Crisis JLI just before Hawkworld belatedly changed everything (a shake-up aftershock?), the All-Star Squadron never referenced in the Golden Age, the various deaths of Anima and the New Gods, or simply how WWII vets become Vietnam vets become Gulf War vets etc. as time goes on (more than unconscious, these often get tellings of their own). These obviously contradict past stories, sometimes by necessity (the world has moved on, a new high-profile project must take precedence over more obscure stories), sometimes by sloppiness (like the deaths mentioned). Usually, we'll be told that past stories all happened, but perhaps a little differently than we remember.

Ignoring the Problem
Some retcons do not try to fit square pegs in round holes, but rather remove the hole entirely. Again, Shaking the Bottle is the easiest way to do this (see below), but it's not necessary. In the model, giving an element attention allows it to develop, so conversely, ignoring an element stunts its growth and may actually make it dwindle and disappear (or rather, make it dormant, because continuity elements have a tendency of returning). In this scenario, if a new continuity element doesn't fit, then the stories contradicted just didn't happen. The new element takes precedence to the point of destroying past elements. Sounds shocking, but you should realize that the transition between the Golden, Silver and Bronze Ages were all done this way. Until the additive retcon of DC's multiverse and that Golden Age characters were on Earth-2, Superman, Batman et al. simply ignored their origins as leapers and gun-totters. In the 70s, Fluid Fermentation alone had probably done away with silly Zebra Batman stories. Continuity elements have also been ACTIVELY ignored, especially older retcons that proved unpopular (Wiki suggests John Byrne's Spider-Man Chapter One re-origin as an example).

Shaking the Bottle
The "reboot", whether line-wide (Crises of all stripes) or imposed on a single dynastic molecule (One More Day) have in-story explanations that justify - both in the story and for the readership - large-scale retcons. The shake-up means to create an entirely different continuity and uses all three types of retcons mentioned above. There are additions, subtractions and alterations. Past continuity is reconfigured to include all of these, including the dreaded "it happened, just differently from what you remember". One way of perceiving the shake-up in the model's terms is that 1) past continuity is placed behind a Continuity Wall, 2) the liquid is cloned and placed in the top part of the Bottle, 3) retcon now happens liberally. It's in step 3 that we have creators pouring new elements into the bottle, including some that won't fit easily into the new dynamic. This is a problem with any shared universe, especially when there are so many stakeholders. Contradictions are bound to crop up almost immediately.

Retcon Motivations
There are a number of reasons why creators indulge in retroactive continuity and some seem more positive than others. I count 3 major motivations:
1. To tell more stories. This kind of retcon adds more dimensions to a character and allows for new types of story to be told using it. Swamp Thing's vegetable epiphany and Iron Fist's legacy are good examples, as are Roy Thomas' manipulations of DC's Golden Age to create the All-Star Squadron. Without some measure of retconning, these stories cannot occur or would be told with a new character not viable enough to survive in the market place.
2. Fixing continuity. Here, creators are focused on making continuity coherent by retconning "mistakes" made by others. These mistakes might be "square peg" retcons like the Hawkman situation mentioned above (a story was then told that these were Thanagarian spies posing as heroes - this was contradictory in its own way), or simply bad/destructive stories like Hal Jordan becoming a supervillain (fixed with the whole Parallax battery-creature additive retcon). These stories aren't as well regarded because they at once make use of the same manipulation they seek to stamp out, and put the mistake in the spotlight for all to grumble at.
3. Fitting to vision. Certain creators have a certain vision of the shared universe they work in or the dynastic molecules they are handed. If their vision does not match existing continuity, they make changes to bring it closer to that vision. This is probably the root of many character resurrections (Bucky, Barry Allen, etc.) and reset points (One More Day was more about this than about fixing a perceived "mistake"). Fans turned creators are especially prone to this. Other examples would include editorial mandates, such as handing over some characters to Vertigo, retroactively making their world and origins darker. Some of it is definitely ego however, wishing to put a retroactive stamp on a character, or resetting things to one's own childhood version of the shared universe. Comics companies will often claim Motivation #1 for their reboots, but a mix of #2 and #3 is probably more to blame.

Value Judgments
All of this doesn't tell us whether retcons are good or bad, or whether one type of retcon is better than the other (though we of course have our preferences). Truth be told, it's all in the writing. The same approach and motivation may have yielded crap on one side and genius on the other. Some changes seem inevitable and necessary, others gratuitous. Some are immediately ignored, and others seem like they've always been in continuity. As usual, the model only tells us what's happening and why, but not whether this is a good thing or not.


Delta said...

Regarding resurrections, my theory is that in the long term they are mandatory on an economic basis. Comics companies don't own anything except trademarks to some characters (and back-issue copyrights). In some sense, corporate entities are obligated to maximize owner value.

And so "dead" characters are really just a resource that's currently going un-mined for the comics company. There's always an opportunity for someone to bring them back and increase interest/sales in a comic with their appearance, spinoff their own publication or mini-series, etc.

Do you think that fits into motivation #1-3, something else, or invalid?

Siskoid said...

I think it can be either.
1-Bringing back any character will create potential for new stories.
2-A character's death may be perceived as a mistake, one that has cut the shared universe off from story telling possibilities.
3-A character could be brought back because it is a certain creator's favorite.

It's all part of the ongoing revision that goes on in a shared universe, as new creators fight against the decisions made by others before them.

LiamKav said...

Does that apply to legacy heroes, though? Do DC own "Barry Allen", or do they own "The Flash"? Was their property value diminished by Wally West holding the title? Have they gained anything by bringing Barry back?

Siskoid said...

I imagine you're addressing that to Delta. Hopefully, he/she will come back and respond.

Martin Gray said...

Excellent piece. My attitude towards retcons depends on nothing more than whether it feels 'right' to me. I hated that Steph Brown died in the Batman War Games crossover because Dr Leslie Thomkins wanted to teach Batman a lesson about using kids in his war on crime - it made no sense, given he'd already got one Robin killed by that point, and it destroyed a longtime supporting character character by making her a wicked loon. Because of this I was happy with the speedy retcon that Steph was alive. And I can't see Les's 'lesson' ever being mentioned again.

Other retcons - Martha Kent was married to someone else before Jonathan, Laurel Kent/Rudy West/Lana Lang/everyone else was a Manhunter
agent - just felt wrong. In the first place because it was just soapy nonsense, and in the second because it messed hugely with histories for the sake of a short-term crossover.

Siskoid said...

Excellent examples! I wish I'd used them!

Delta said...

LiamKav: I would say that DC own all of those entities. "The Flash" is probably of primary importance, the civilian identities of secondary value. Off the top of my head, probably WW is a bit like having redundant divisions. Barry Allen is probably the deeper, more valuable property.

And Siskoid: So hypothetically, what if a resurrection is initiated by a publisher (not a creator)? Like if a publisher comes to a writer and says: it's time to bring the Human Torch back, you figure out how. Or: The new Thor movie has Jane Foster in it, please bring her back in the comic for cross-marketing value. Is that a distinct case?

Siskoid said...

The reason I don't use "writer" is that "creator" also includes editors. It's whoever makes the "creative" choice.

Carl Walker said...

Martin, I haven't read the story where Stephanie's death was retconned away, but my understanding from blogs is that the retcon was also designed to restore Leslie by saying that she'd helped Stephanie fake her death, and furthermore that it was done for her safety somehow. As such, the "lesson" motivation is now secondary or perhaps just a total cover story, not just something that "won't be mentioned."

Oh, and also my understanding is that they retcon away another source of fan disgruntlement, specifically the lack of a monument for Stephanie, by saying "Bruce always suspected she wasn't really dead." Which of course also nicely retcons away the suggestion that he might not have been on top of something and therefore not the World's Greatest Detective.


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