Continuity, Keep Your Universe to Yourself

I saw an interesting subplot unfold the other day while I was reading the The Amazing Spider-Man Annual. Spidey had just run up against a new villain (again; just when I start to think every character has been created and everything is stale, the Spider-folk go ahead and launch their New Bad Guy Per Page program just to show me how it’s done) and he wanted to understand how the bum’s powers worked, so he decided to enlist the help of Reed Richards, Science Blowhard. Spidey knew that, while a lot of your lesser minds will specialize in a science, Reed had gravely misunderstood the course listings as a freshman and enrolled in everything. Somewhere in Reed’s storage area, perhaps under a letter jacket and some completely, pristinely unsigned yearbooks, there would be a Chem notebook with the answer he needed.

“Hey, Reed,” Spidey says on page five, climbing through a Baxter Building window. “I had this problem the other day I was hoping you could–”

“Security!” Reed shouts, stretching to slam a red button on the wall. “An unregistered superhuman has breached the Baxter Building defenses!”

“What are you doing?” Spidey says as Reed Richards, Science Blowhard begins frantically winding his elastic limbs around him like the double helix of DNA that he is totally an expert on when he’s not building robots or starving his children of all love. “I’m one of the good guys!”

“Is that supposed to be one of your lame quips, web-slinger?” says Reed. “Do you not remember me being one of the most ardent, obnoxious supporters of the Super Human Registration Act in the entire community? The space gulag was my idea. Remember the space gulag? Remember the big speech I gave about how great it was that HUAC ruined my uncle’s life in the fifties? Captain America getting arrested while I repaired the hideous cyborg clone I made of Thor, a dead friend of mine? Any of this ringing a bell? I believed so strongly in registration that it damn near broke up my marriage, never mind my team. And now you’re just going to swing in here flouting everything I fought for and act like we’re buddies again? I’m not your friend. I’m Tony Stark’s friend, and every time he thinks about you he starts to cry. Did you know that? You broke his heart when you left. So enjoy the clink, loser. In the meantime, let’s get this leotard off your face so I can describe you to authorities if you get away. I mean, really. When was that civil war, like, a month and a half ago?”

just like old timesOf course, no part of this subplot unfolded in the actual book. It unfolded in a corner of my imagination. In the adjacent corner of my imagination, I was thinking about Civil War tie-ins and wondering realistically how many dollars you could actually flush down a standard toilet before the plumbing started to back up. My guess is that the key would have to be feeding in one bill at a time, but: to wad or not to wad? I imagine it works best if you don’t wad, feeding bills to the bowl like fish to a hungry seal at the zoo. But what if it’s one of those environmentally friendly low-flow dealies? I guess your best bet is to keep a plunger handy from the outset. That way, in the event of a clog, you will see that money again, unlike what happens to it when you buy a bunch of interconnected tie-in comics that end up amounting to not one single goddamned thing.

In the actual annual, you turn the page and there they are, Spider-Man and RRSB, high-fiving, their cheeks touching as they coyly share the microscope. RRSB has no idea who Spider-Man actually is under there, but it doesn’t bother him all that much. Seems nice enough. Guy in a Danskin climbs through your 40th story window in the middle of a workday, sure, you take some of his blood, just to see what’s what. You could use his blood to get a DNA sample and turn that in to the feds for the database, but you won’t. Doesn’t enter into your mind, or Spidey’s as he’s handing you the sample. Pretty sure he punched you in the eye socket in the middle of Times Square last time you saw him, but it’s fine. Bygones, right? Life is too short to resolve any of that stuff, or ever mention that it happened at all. I believe right after the last panel on the page, they agree to meet each other for racquetball later in the week.

The entire thrust of the issue is about registered and unregistered heroes misusing the registration system. Did I mention that? Don’t worry about it; in a month, it’ll be like it never happened. This is The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, but I’m almost positive I bought #17 twenty-five years ago. A long memory is not your ally here. Long term, your best bet as a comic book reader is to be more like a goldfish, perpetually circling the bowl going, “Wow, a plastic diver!… hey, look! A diver!… what’s that over there? Is that a plastic diver?…”

I haven’t been to one of the major conventions yet, but I’d like to be at one of the panels where a company’s editors announce that their upcoming event promises a “major shakeup that will have long-lasting impact on the _____ Universe for years to come.” I’d like to get there early and save a seat right by the stage, so that when these words begin to form in someone’s mouth, I can run up, tilt the microphone out of the way, and gently put my fingers over his lips and just whisper, “Shhhhhhh. Quiet now, Joe. Quiet.”

I’m starting to picture one of those conversations between devil-me and angel-me, except the thought of drawing it makes my hand cramp preemptively.

One of the things I love the most about the major comics companies and their books is the idea of a shared universe within those books. Blah blah reading a Thor story, something something Spider-Man swings by. It’s nice.

Incorrect! Actually, you hate it. I don’t know how to tell you this, but if you think about it, every problem you have with every comic you’re reading boils down to its existence in a shared universe. The timeline is inconsistent; the continuity is wonky; the same character is in four different books doing four different things. When did the X-Men get their own ghetto, where they are forced to participate in every earth-shattering Avengers event without having any impact on it at all, like ghosts in an old house? Do not hold your breath waiting for Brubaker and Fraction’s post-Secret Invasion X-Men story; that’s been shunted off into a miniseries to get it out of the way.

Given everything you have ever known about him, how could Professor X possibly sit out Civil War? Why isn’t everyone in New York with a Blogger account foaming at the mouth about World War Hulk? The Hulk parked an invading army from space over America and implicated the director of SHIELD as responsible for the whole thing. Nobody has a follow-up question about that, as every building in Manhattan falls down? No time for that now; a second invading army is here to knock down all the remaining buildings. Maybe that’s why Spidey is so close to Reed Richards, Science Blowhard again; he invented a Skrull detector, and fighting Skrulls together creates a bond stronger than blood and/or fraternity membership due payment. Except… did Secret Invasion happen before this issue or after? Are these coming out in reverse order? Do I have to read both to understand what’s happening here? Is something happening in a third book I don’t realize? Or am I not supposed to care, just unplug my brain and go with it to the tune of $3 plus ten pages of ads?

What’s the point of using all your books to tell one story if that story’s just going to sort of trail off at the end?

They have such interesting ideas, if only they’d take the time to let them breathe instead of strangling them in the crib because they need the bed for the next thing coming in the door. Civil War was a great idea. Secret Invasion, too. They had more potential payoffs than Mandalay Bay in there. It’s too bad, really. If they were indies, they could have gone on for ten years each, but who would have read them?


There are people who think Jim Mroczkowski is the idiot for not automatically assuming it’s all bullshit and cheerfully accepting it from the outset. Whaddya gonna do? Follow Jim at Twitter and, that’s what.



  1. I sure do miss the days when continuity was a bit more tightly controlled.  Nice article.

  2. Great article Jim, especially loved it you brought back your cartoon self again.

    I agree almost on all facets with you on continuity. It’s a brave thing for Marvel to try and make every single title they have connect to each other somehow. But if you dont do it right, not only will you shoot yourself in the foot; but your gonna piss off the fans. To have Spidey at one place, but he’s offically at another makes no sense. Wolverine is the biggest problem because (like Mystique joked in Jason Aaron’s run) he’s in about 1,000 teams right now. How can he be with the New Avengers when he’s on a mission for Cyclops with the X-Factor? They should’ve done what Joss Whedon did with Astonishing: make it a pocket universe where it obviously takes place before any big event. Brubaker has done that with Captain America, as his ‘Death of’ arc took place after Civil War and way before Secret Invasion. More people should do that often.

    Oh and can we just say Civil War just didnt happen now? I mean it’s up to a point, like Jimski stated, that people are just misusing the concept of the Registration Act so it makes no sense to continue it.If we’re gonna have one issue where Spider-Man is in the Baxter Building or have a mini-arc teaming up with Iron Man….it makes you feel like you wasted a good year on a storyline that is no obsolute. I’m sure Secret Invasion will be the same way in a year from now.

  3. My God, I didn’t even register the Iron Man/Spider-Man team-up.

    The Iron Man/Spider-Man team-up.

    Why bother? Why even bother?

  4. Good article Jim, I really couldn’t agree more. In fact I’m giving up on the whole cross over thing. As soon Ultimatum is over.

  5. Silly Jimski.  Intelligent thoughts are for non-comic reading people.  You’ll never learn, will you?

  6. I had the good (??) luck to get seriously involved in the Marvel Universe toward the end of Civil War.  I was able to read the main series the week the last issue came out, and then to go back and read various tie-ins. . .not all of the tie-ins, just enough to say "Wow, there is a ton of shit that happens in these 5 comics series that came out at the same time that is completely logically and factually incompatible.  I can either blow a gasket or resign myself to the notion that this is how these things work, that there’s no real incentive for these companies to tell a consistent story — that there is, in fact, a lot of incentive for them to tell inconsistent stories, because that way the Spider-Man fans get to read a book where their guy is the hero and Iron Man is a total dick, and the Iron Man fans get to read a story where their guy is just misunderstood, and the X-Men fans get to read a book where their characters seem to be doing something important even though the main series has already decided to tell us they don’t matter — et cetera.  And then, because you can’t actually read all the stories together and get any coherent narrative, a lot of angry fans queue up to ask Joe Quesada questions, to which he gives answers that he thinks are responsive, and he gets to feel important. 

    Did I leave anything out?

    That said, I’m not sure we can point to a time where things were any different/better, except in the sense that there were fewer books.  But even, like, the X-Men and X-Factor halves of ‘Inferno’ don’t make particular sense together.  I absolutely wish things were better — it doesn’t seem like it would be *that* hard to at least get all the X-Men books on the same page, for instance — but I don’t think there’s any real incentive for change.     

  7. Sorry, but after reading about a lot of what’s going on in the main Marvel Universe, I’m going to stay over here in the Ultimate Marvel Universe, with Ultimate Spider-Man; and over here in the Marvel Adventures Universe with the Fantastic Four. I’ll turn the lights out when I go if the price jumps like it’s supposed to.

  8. @AirDave  I don’t know that Ultimate Marvel has done any better job at keeping its continuity straight, and it has a lot fewer titles and less history to deal with, thus a lot less of an excuse.

  9. Continuity is pretty lame.  It’s cool when a gifted creator establishes a rich and expansive universe and is able to sustain his continuity over multiple titles, or if that creator is able to serve as editor and guide to a small team of writers (as in a television series).  But other than that, it’s just ridiculous and will hurt the work.  As it’s been said, many, many times, continuity is akin to the company’s best writer being held hostage by the company’s worst writer.  And beyond quality of the actual writing, it limits scope.  The mutant problem in the X books should affect all reaches of the globe, but it is rarely touched on in other Marvel titles.  

    Continuity may once have been a series of bridges between worlds.  Now it’s just a tangled mess of heavy, rusted chain.   

  10. A long memory is not your ally here. Long term, your best bet as a comic book reader is to be more like a goldfish, perpetually circling the bowl going, "Wow, a plastic diver!… hey, look! A diver!… what’s that over there? Is that a plastic diver?…"

    @ Jimski – I’m like that with everything.

    Seriously, I’m not a huge stickler on continuity – if I was, I wouldn’t read comics. But stuff like this, where it’s supposed to be this huge universe-altering event, does get under my nails a little. Not enough to forgo a good story, but enough to get me to go, "Grrrrrrr!" for a second or two.

  11. @AirDave817, you’re doing exactly what Marvel had in mind when they created those lines, so I can’t fault you. That said, be advised that the keys to the Ultimate Universe seem to have been handed to Jeph Loeb for the time being; plan accordingly. I read Ultimatum #1 just long enough to see that Gwen Stacy was randomly hanging out with the gang as if she hadn’t been "dead" for a year and nobody seemed to be bothered by it. Will this all make sense when I read an issue of USM that hasn’t come out yet? Either way, the Ultimate Universe seems to be learning from its big brother’s bad examples.

     @ohcaroline, I aaalmost don’t care about the continuity problems in the sense of simultaneous inconsistencies. I’ve seen how the sausage is made; I know there’s twenty writers back there. What genuinely gets under my skin is the "Memento" syndrome where a story arc ends without ramification and no one seems to remember it happened. I mean… are you familiar with what happened to Spider-Man during House of M? I would be in therapy for the rest of my life. Never comes to mind.

  12. @Jimski  Possibly the only thing I really like about House of M is that Cyclops looks at Spidey and says something like, "Get ahold of yourself, we can all have our nervous breakdowns later."  But yeah, it never really gets to happen, does it?  I should send an angry letter of my own to Joe Q: I WAS PROMISED NERVOUS BREAKDOWNS!!! WHERE ARE THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWNS.

    But yeah, "No downtime, no followup" seems to be the rule.  Individual issues or runs or creators can be exceptions to that, but it’s not something you can expect overall.  I have an idea that people who are capable of getting emotionally attached to these stories, in spite of the glaring flaws, have to be pretty good at mentally scribbling in those margins.  But maybe I’m projecting.


  13. Amen, brother

  14. I recall the point of Secret Invasion being to bring the Marvel U together again. Perhaps this needs to be included in most people’s consideration.

    Or the devil did it. Pick one 🙂

  15. @Robertorex– Because continuity and scripting are fairly inseparable.  When you write a book in the Marvel Universe, you’re part of a web of narratives whee you have to find your place in between the threads whether you like it or not.  Your story is a piece of the giant story that is "The Saga of the Marvel Universe" and if you’re an ill-fitting piece, people will call you on it.

    Personally, I’m less concerned with where things fit in terms of time (unless it’s something really ridiculous like Iron Man being imprisoned by the Hulk, being relieved of command at SHIELD, tracking down the Red Skull at SHIELD, and dead all in the same month… that gets hard to swallow) but more of keeping characterization and plotting non-contradictory when the overlap happens.  Case in point, when Civil War was going down, you had Amazing Spider-Man where JMS’ Tony was telling Peter the space gulag was a permament fixture of the SRA and he was going to have to live that.  That cause Peter to attempt to flee Stark Tower when Iron Man busts through the wall and assaults him.  Then, it swings over to Civil War 5 where Tony is very calmly trying to talk to Peter and tells him the N-Zone compound is only temporary, showing an utterly different Iron Man in terms of character and even in plotting.  In that regard, I think that’s where bad continuity truly rears its head.

  16. Tork -But whose fault is that?  

  17. Now who was it who said: "make your own continuity"?

  18. @JumpingJupiter  I could be mistaken, but I think that’s Conor’s credo, and it makes a lot of sense to me.

    Thinking over Jim’s post though, it seems like he’s not talking about all continuity per se — which I think most sensible people can agree has its good and bad points — but about the specific problems companies create when they don’t finish the story that they start.  That’s annoying the same way a TV show that goes off the rails or a novel that falls apart in the last chapter is annoying.   This seems like it’s in a different category of complaint than, "How can the ring be powered by MAGIC when in issue 237 they said it was powered by SCIENCE?" 

  19. Well, that’s just a symptom of the overall disease that is continuity.  

  20. @Paul– Writers who make the contradictions?  Editors who don’t make sure their book are cohesive?  EIC’s who allow that to become commonplace?  Lack of understanding the characters at hand?  Lack of communication?  There’s no need to crowd, I’m sure there’s enough pie o’ blame for everybody!

    I don’t think continuity is a particularly bad thing.  The idea that this story is just a piece of a puzzle that is a much bigger universe-spanning story that’s been being told since the 1940’s is really cool and I never had a problem with Marvel’s continuity until about 2006 when they cycled back into the event modeand everything started to become uber-connected.  Again, that’s not even the problem but when miscommunication or lack of cohesion made the narratives and characterizations fall apart, that’s when it becomes a problem.  I don’t think continuity is an inherently bad thing, just that when you don’t respect it as a comic creator, it comes back to bite you.

    On the flip side, when you can make continuity work for you, it’s peaches and cream.  Look at Geoff Johns and Green Lantern.  Not only does that guy tell a great story from Rebirth to Sinestro Corps War to now and onto Blackest Night, but he manages to do it in a way where he pulled stuff as back as the O’Neil/Adams and made it foreshadowing for his fricking story.  I mean, he managed to go "Yeah, remember way back in the 70’s when Hal was acting kind of naive and his hair was greying?  Or when Alan Moore did that story with Abin Sur and Qull back in the 80’s?  That foreshadowed what I’m doing NOW."  That’s just freakin’ impressive right there.  Brubaker’s done something of the same thing with Captain America to a lesser extent, bringing in all these different facets of all these different eras of the book thought long gone and making them all gel together to make the book great.  You can be bogged down by the continuity or you can use it to your advantage.

  21. @Paul  I guess I don’t understand what you mean when you say ‘get rid of continuity.’  Do you mean that every story should start fresh without building on what happened before?   I can’t think of a quicker way to get me to stop buying comics.

  22. @Paul  Adding to that thought, if my problem is that nothing has any consequences, that’s not an issue with continuity, it’s an issue with continuity being done badly.  If the story resets every time a new writer takes over, that’s giving me less of what I want, not more.

  23. I never said "get rid of continuity."  But I don’t honor it.  I think it’s an unfortunate necessity.  It’s a no win situation because it would be great if everybody who wanted to write and draw comics could do that and make a living, but at the same time, there should be less books and tighter editorial control over what gets published.  I always look at Hellboy and BPRD as a perfect microcosm of continuity.  It’s a rich world that’s as big and as little as it needs to be.  

  24. It’s impossible to maintain clear continuity in something like the Marvel or DCU.  There’s no such thing as good continuity outside of one writer’s collected works (Johns for example) unless that writer is also overseeing the work of the other writers.  This does not occur.  And to see people try to maintain it?  Pathetic.  

  25. @Paul   That helps me understand where you’re coming from a little better — I don’t understand the alternative to continuity.   And you’re saying there isn’t really one except, what, don’t worry about it?  (That’s usually my solution, btw; I’m in this conversation because Jim wrote an interesting essay but as my first comment said above — I knew within a month of getting into Marvel that it was never all going to make sense and decided that I don’t actually care about that very much). 

  26. @caroline – Yep. See, I always think of that scenario where you’re, I dunno, writing Daredevil and you get this email about registration and Skrulls and such, and it really screws up the books you’ve already outlined for the year ahead.  Because, now, on top of your responsibilities to cater to the quality of you individual issues, you greater overall story, and the history of the character that came before you, you also have to shoehorn it into somebody’s pet project.  Or, you can’t use a great rogue because he’s being used by some clown down the hall in a book which will most likely be cancelled and forgotten by the time your book would come out anyway.  Sure, sometimes it’s going to be a welcome surprise.  "ooh, Skrulls. That’ll work."  But sometimes I have to imagine it’s "Oooh, Skrulls.  FUCK."  And the bigger the universe, the bigger the writing team, the more tenuous the working relationship and communication and overall vision as a cohesive thing.  

    My experience as a reader is as such:  I don’t have a problem with tie-ins because I have to buy a lot of books I normally wouldn’t buy.  It’s that a lot of the books I normally buy are often being invaded by a story which doesn’t interest me in the least.  And in many cases, halfheartedly.

  27. The books I read are Herbie the Elf.  Herbie is his own elf.  He wants to be a dentist.  But there’s always this looming legacy of elves as toymakers.  And Herbie is forced to make toy trucks.  And he doesn’t like it and he’s not good at it, and it shows because the truck always veers left.  

    All I’m saying is, let Herbie be a dentist.  And if he wants to make the occasional Toothache Terry doll and participate in the toy making game every once in a while, he will.  But let him make that decision.  And leave him to his private practice.   

  28. I don’t know that it’s impossible to maintain at least a loose continuity.  I know I stood there one day with Amazing Spider-Man in one hand and Civil War in the other and quietly thought "Why didn’t anyone catch this before it made print?"  I’d just like JMS to pick up the phone maybe and call Mark Millar and go "Hey, Mark? Joe.  No, the other one.  Listen, I’m writing right now and I gotta know… is the Space Gulag permanent or not?  No?  And Iron Man… do you want him angry and swinging or calm and collected when he– calm?  ‘Kay, thanks." and go from there.  Just a little communication between the writers of the big sweeping events is all I ask.  And thankfully, I haven’t seen anything particularly glaring in a while so thank Marvel for that.  And I don’t think I’ve seen anything too out there on DC’s behalf in a while.  They tend to blow up their canon every ten years anyway, so no biggie.

  29. @Paul   I can’t really disagree; I just tend to frame the problem more as ‘there shouldn’t be pointless tie-ins to crossovers’ and ‘there shouldn’t be shitty books tying up characters who are better used elsewhere’ than seeing continuity itself as a problem.  But I can see how continuity can make a bad situation worse, because it doesn’t allow you to have that undisturbed corner of the universe. 

    Though I don’t know that the artist/elf who wants to labor in his own corner is always right.  Marvel, at least, could use some editors willing to make judgment calls about what does and doesn’t belong in a crossover, rather than the writer-opt-out thing they’ve got going now. I feel like Secret Invasion would be a stronger event if Marvel was willing to do something with Thor or Bucky  instead of deferring to JMS & Brubaker.  The Thor/Cap/Iron Man/Hawkeye reunion that ought to be the centerpiece of the story is barely registering on the page– and yeah, I know there are other problems with SI, but I think I could forgive a lot if that story were actually getting told.     

  30. I honestly don’t think the reunion moment/event is worth disturbing the individual story which the writers have been cultivating over years.  

  31. I think they could have the moment, but it’s only going to be a moment.  The other books, Cap and Thor in particular, would do well without being an Avenger just yet.

  32. You wanna talk about flushing money down the toilet? I bought two identical versions of that god-forsaken HUAC story in two separate Marvel titles written by JMS. Way to cheat me out of my money, J. 

    But here’s a question. Do you think ancient Greeks worried a whole lot about the continuity of their stories? Did the slightly-less-ancient American folklorists worry about whether or not Brer Rabbit’s tale was lost pre- or post- his Tar Baby encounter? To me, it’s the stories that stick that matter. I don’t think Stan Lee created a shared universe in order to map out a meticulous timeline of who was where when and for how long. That’s a pencil pusher’s job, not a writer’s. He did it to make the stories fun, and the second that continuity takes away from fun, it should be dropped like a hot clone.

  33. And for those who are going to say that Stan just did it to sell more books, yeah ok, but you don’t sell books by making them a drag to read (current Marvel event books excepted).

  34. @Paul  I think they could have done it in a way that didn’t have to disturb the stories.  Captain America is acknowledging that SI happened; it just isn’t telling us what Bucky’s part in it was.  But my point is that the editor should be the one to make that decision, rather than this opt-in/opt-out thing they seem to have going to make the star writers happy.

  35. God, for a second there I thought that Reed/Spidey exhange was real dialogue from the comic.  I threw up on my computer!  Good stuff!

  36. With all of the crossovers being put out these days I think that the shoddy continuity is nothing less than disrespect for the readers.  But I’m only looking at continuity in the short-term sense.  In movies and TV shows you have continuity cops who make sure that objects stay in the same place from scene to scene, and that transitions provide the viewer with a smooth progression rather than jarring or incomprehensible changes.  When the big companies sell us a crossover, they’re selling us one big story split between a number of different comicbooks, created by a number if different writers and artists.  And at the end if the day the whole product is supposed to tell one story.  ONE story.  Not fifteen similar stories riffing on the same concepts.  When the subjects of scenes change from one chapter to the next (e.g. one comic to the next), or characters’ motives change month to month, the average reader can see the broken continuity and it diminishes the quality of the ONE story.  If the companies can’t actually execute ONE story across multiple titles with multiple creators, then they should stop pretending like they can and isolate the stories in single titles.  This is what bothers me most about continuity in comics today.  The above cited complaints about Civil War (and what’s followed) are very valid, and they reflect on the poor quality in the crafting of the stories, not flaws in Jim’s ability to supsend his disbelief.

  37. My only response is that the nonexistent subplot didn’t happen because it would destract from the actual story of the annual.

    That being said, Curt Conners may have been a better choice.

  38. I don’t think Professor X was on Earth when Civil War happened; pretty sure he was dealing with the Shi’Ar and accidentally getting his powers back from the M’Krann crystal.

    And honestly, I was doing fine with continuity until a week ago. If they don’t tell me where a story fits in continuity, I can fit it in myself. If a story isn’t referenced (like the WWH thing), I can assume the angry New Yorkers are bitching where I can’t see it because they don’t have their own comic (except when they do and it’s called Front Line). It’s when some jackass decides to make a deal with fuckin’ Mephisto to change reality that I suddenly have continuity problems…