The C Word


You assume I just write about comics for my daily bread. You know what they say about assuming?  

Get in the car.

Ventura. I’m out of napkins but I’m not out of Cheetos. This could be a problem.

Speaking of Cheetos, here’s our guy. Fifth floor balcony, an undershirt that probably cost more than my suit. There, rolling a cigarette, but not for himself. I suck the orange from my thumb, ease down in my seat and reach over for the Nikon. By your foot. Thanks. I rest the lens on the steering wheel and wait. That cigarette isn’t for Mrs. Cooper. That’s not an assumption.

We have some time to kill. I think there’s some comics in the glove compartment.

Watch out for the segue or you’ll miss it.

“Who’s watching the Watchmen?” Me and you, Sam.

Continuity is a big barrel lens with a wide focus range. So it can be as fine and petty as panel to panel incongruity (“Where did Foggy’s tie clip go?”) or as global a problem as book to book confusion (“Hank Pym was where?”). It can even stretch far back to the dusty archives (“Wasn’t he killed in a boating accident and also Flemish?”) But no matter the range, the purpose of the focus is always the same. This is a lens of scrutiny.

Continuity is a business of armchair detectives. We only notice when somebody louses things up. And we’re often looking for it. When it comes to big event comics, that’s like trolling for trouble down at the docks. That’s like waiting for the big guy with the tattoos on his scalp to get up and go to the john and then taking his seat at the bar. Something’s gonna happen and the bar keep might as well put in an order for new pool sticks now.

Everything’s gotta be big, right? Bigger paycheck. Bigger floatation devices. Bigger thrills. As such, bigger risks. Mr. Cooper knows this and it probably excites him a little. Me and you, we like our comics. We also like when our favorite cosmic brawlers get together in a big tussle. You have action figures as a kid, Sam? I did. When bath time rolled around, Spider-Man and Superman were joining forces, and it was often against a reprogrammed Voltron. As kid logic works, awesome plus terrific equals something even greater. And sometimes this is even true (Punisher plus Archie, the individual lions of Voltron becoming Voltron). But though I do enjoy the individual parts, the whole of a shrimp pizza does not really tickle my fancy. Maybe it’s aiming that way, but it catches my gag reflex first.  Good intentions, right?

We’re in the midst of the summer comic season and that means a big bumper car death match for at least two major companies. Secret Invasion and Final Crisis are extremely ambitious crossover events within the Marvel and DC universes respectively. These massive, world-gobbling event comic war machines have big hungry furnaces, and the fuel is continuity. And there’s been some bump and grind the past few weeks. Secret Invasion is playing with the fire of retcon, or more aptly, posthumous exposition. A lot of the criticism surrounding the series lately has to do with the pacing and manner of dispensing information. When and how does Hank Pym learn of The New Avengers? When did this character get replaced by a Skrull? Well, why did they then react in this manner in a previous book? It’s sticky. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I wonder whether it’s a bigger bite than the jaw hinges were designed for. The problem is that there is so much information readily available and cached in recent memory, that continuity flaws and concerns are rampant. We know too much.

With Final Crisis the criticism is actually from the other direction. Detractors of the series question the clarity of the narrative and suggest that the mines of continuity were drilled a bit too deep. While I am a fan of this particular event, I certainly understand and empathize with those who find it troublesome. Final Crisis pulls material from obscurity and makes no apologies for the density of its allusions. Though it has also been criticized for missteps in inter-universal cohesion between itself, Death of the New Gods, and Countdown. But ultimately, the reason that this book is so intimidating and features such a steep learning curve is that looming history of canonical relationships and events. And for many, that history does not parallel with our own. We know too little.

So, how does this armchair detective suggest that continuity be fixed? Well, I honestly don’t think there is definitive answer, and nothing that is going to satisfy the more rabid readers of DC and Marvel. What I do know is this, Sam. The smaller the world the better. If you’re a continuity nut at least.  The happiest you’re ever gonna be is reading one great comic book. It’s controlled and easier on the editors (both paid and self proclaimed). Take Daredevil, one of the best books going during Civil War. The trick with that is escaping the event and making your own space away from the madness. But this can be viewed as party poopery, flipping off the lights during Halloween to discourage costumed traffic. That’s the give and take. Shoehorn your narrative into the event or step away to tell the story you want to tell, out of the loop.

But we want a universe, right? We want to know that Reed Richards and Doctor Strange could go bowling one night. Even if we don’t see it, we want to know that that’s happening in the background of a fully realized Sim City version of the Marvel U. But in comicdom you can’t just set it and forget it. There are too many hands vying for the cookie jar. Too many talented writers with their own take on iconic characters. And too big a margin for continuity foul-ups. I don’t think we’re ever going to have a full sustainable and congruent universe where all of these characters can defend truth, justice, and the American way in harmony. Not entirely. The best we can do is crank up our own suspension of disbelief and set aside our obsession with complete cohesion.

But we’re not always capable of this. Me, I’m good. But I know that you, Sam, or maybe somebody you know is shivering in the corner over the Hank Pym thing, laboring over your fan fic obituary for Orion. You need a controlled universe, not a universe of controlled chaos. It’s cliche at this point to recommend the Ultimate universe, but that doesn’t take away from the pureness of storytelling in Ultimate Spider-Man. Bendis has achieved Thoreau level simplicity over there. It’s sublime. But even then, you’ve still got to put up with the nonsense going on in Ultimate X-Men and now, Ultimates 3. Let’s face it, continuity errors within otherwise excellent books aren’t the only obstacles towards cohesion. There’s also the onslaught of crap. Like the neighbor who insists on keeping his year old Christmas tree in the front window or refuses to mow his lawn.

So, where might one go to find quality? Think small. There’s a lot of world-building going on over at Image (Invincible being the cornerstone). Enjoy it while you can and before the neighborhood goes to shit. Or how about the Faerberverse (Noble Causes, Dynamo 5)? An established world maintained by one loving creator. And if you really want to see continuity at its best, why not light a candle and descend the rickety stairs to the dark and wonderful Mignolaverse, the home of Hellboy, B.P.R.D. and Lobster Johnson? In my mind, this is a land of milk and honey for continuity addicts. There are timelines! There is cause and effect and flashback and, yes, cohesion. It’s a small world, but it’s a rich one. (We’ll talk more about that particular world next week).

Listen, be critical. Be discerning. This is your time and your dime. Just remember the scope of the worlds you’re trying to sustain in your imagination, and how difficult that is with so many chefs in the kitchen. Remember that big continuity isn’t everything. Voltron’s tons of fun on his own. And even if you want Superman and Spidey to tag along, it doesn’t have to be for keeps. Don’t forget that comics are fun. That lens isn’t just for finding flaws. It’s also for enjoying the adventure.

Now, hand me a bigger lens, Sam.

Money shot.

 


Paul Montgomery watches far too much Veronica Mars. Or far too little. To catch your wandering spouse or missing cockatoo in the act, contact him at paul@ifanboy.com

Comments

  1. A comic book geek who can’t spell Cheetos?  WTF?

    Lots of grammatical and typographical errors.  Might want to get an editor’s eyes on articles before you post them.

    However, outside of that, I dig the article’s premise.  Another small "universe" to mention is Robert Kirman’s Invincible Universe.  I’m still waiting to see more from it, and not just from Kirkman.  Capes needs to come back!

  2. @thebouv  how is Cheetos spelled wrong?

     Great article Paul. Keep on truckin along

  3. Good times, Paul. Good times. Cap is a decent example of a book that follows the beat of its own drum in the Marvel U, but then some might view that as a problem.

     

  4. Brvo Paul, Another great aticle! contiunity  articles are aways fun to hear adout.

    it’s to bad you did’t get to fit Wall.E in your article as you wanted to. In my mind that robot can do no wrong.

  5. Unless something changed since the article went up, Cheetos appears correct to me. Also: I don’t see the grammatical or typographical errors, aside from "flotation" maybe, which uses a British spelling, if I’m not mistaken).

    Could be style differences, but I believe in breaking the rules once you know them.

    Excellent article, er, novella, as always Paul. I think you get to the heart of the matter: the big universe can have the big pay-off, but it is so hard to sustain. Particularly in a corporate comics environment with a variety of authors employing different styles and varying levels of craftsmanship.  But we do so love it when they connect well.

    There’s also something to be said for creating the feeling of a universe within a single comic. I know I go back to this well too often, but I look at a book like the Starman Omnibus. Now that delves into legacy and a larger universe, but honestly…? It doesn’t deal very directly with current continuity. When Robinson discusses tales of Times Past, it’s uncertain whether he’s making them up whole cloth or if he’s referring to actual events in DC history. And the thing is…? It doesn’t matter. The world feels LARGER, just within that single book.

    I think, for better or worse, Marvel’s Iron Fist series has recently tried to create a larger universe within a single book. It’s not necessarily continuity, but it pulls from past and present comic books (Heroes for Hire, New Avengers). while also establishing an immense new world of mystical cities and legacy-based characters. I think there’s somethign to be said for building a larger world without having to rely too much on an engineered gestalt.   

     

  6. Timmy Wood (@TimmyWood) says:

    The only editorial note I have for this column it that it is TOO AWESOME!
    Good Column as always. I hope Sam learned his lesson about continuity, that rookie.

  7. Personally I have pretty much given up on continuity in my beloved DCU. Sure, I still love it when I notice stuff from other books playing out in one I’m reading, but there is SO MANY holes in continuity, I gave up worrying about it a long time ago. So long as the stories are well written and the main details stay the same across the board (eg: Superman isn’t made of electricity anymore) I’m cool with it.

  8. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I apologize for any typos today.  I went through a couple topic changes and ended up writing at the train station.  I’ll make up for it.   

    I originally spelled it ‘Cheatos’ for the ‘cheating’ pun.  There’s a method to my madness.  It’s fixed though. 

  9. Continuity is funny. We have these fictional worlds filled with all kinds of crazy stuff…then we try and put all our real world limitations on them. I think that tension can create some fun ideas and stories. On the other hand, you got to be careful that you aren’t creating stories just to make the Who’s Who’s and Marvel handbooks of the world are nice and linear.

  10. Last week or so, I had a epiphany.  Was talking to a friend, who is mostly a Marvel Zombie.  He tends to look at DC as a joke….  I tried to defend DC.  I think Marvel’s a bigger joke.  Skrull’s??  C’mon… then I thought New Gods.  Yeesh.  Peter Parker losing MJ, cripes.  All stupid ways out.

    Then I started to think about it more.  Then I looked through my handy dandy iFanboy pull list.  I started doing the math and figuring stuff out…  ..carry the one, divide by…

    I guess I really don’t buy very many mainstream comics. This took me a while to figure out.  I knew I was no Marvel Zombie, I haven’t bought an X book (other than the Whedon run), a Cap book, a Spidey book in eons…. (ok, I am buying FF to give the creative team a chance… and well, I am still digging Thor and some Runaways).

    Then there’s DC.  Well, first and foremost… I refuse to buy anything that the dork from The Real World writes.  I do pick up an occasional ish of Supes when there’s a light week – but I really don’t see that happening soon with Gary Franks drawing it (sorry, I think Supes demands to be more vibrant and dynamic), Batman?  Not for me in regular series form.  Um, what else?  Trinity?  I tried… I wanted to like it, it was terrible.   I bought 52 and Countdown with a passion and I am into Final Crisis (and hoping for the best).

    By Odin’s beard! (Whatta ya mean Odin’s dead?  Gods don’t die).  I’ve become an "indy" guy.  Does this mean I have to shop at Goodwill and smell like clove cigarettes? 

    I thought about this and that main problem I have with the "big two" is the "C" word (which by the way never call the girl your seeing’s sister that in text message… or if you do, thank god it comes up as "aunt" – then bluff your way out of it).  Continuity killed DC and Marvel for me (mostly DC).  Reboot everything.  End of story.

  11. Ah, it was an intentional pun, gone by the time I read the article. LOL. Nice.

    I think, in larger terms of continuity, I like what Joe Casey and Grant Morrison were saying when they took over the Marvel X books a few years back. They touted ‘consistency’ over continuity. They weren’t worrying about "Continuity-with-a-Capital-C", but rather that the stories were consistent within the world of the current books. That’s the kind of continuity that I think writers mostly need to worry about. I don’t mind gaffes in the Continuity and long as the creation of the fictional dream remains consistent and continuous. 

  12. Here’s the thing about continuity.  At the risk of being really pretentious: it’s as old as literature.  I realized reading this article that the first conversation I ever had about continuity was with my college classics professor, when I asked him if a reader of ‘The Iliad’ was supposed to know what was eventually going to become of Achilles (since his death isn’t actually covered in the epic) and we don’t even know whether the rest of the story had been written at the time.  His answer was that it didn’t really matter, since *we* know the rest of the story, and having that knowledge makes the reading experience richer. 

    "Richard III" is one of the most commonly performed Shakespeare plays; it’s also a sequel to the obscure and often tedious Henry VI trilogy.  Most people who see Richard III don’t have a comprehensive (or any) knowledge of the backstory laid out in the previous plays.  But a few summers ago, I buckled down and read the Henry plays, because I felt like I should.  Then I happened to go to a Richard III performance a few days later.  I found myself literally gasping during the performance, as passages that had little significance when I’d read or seen the play before suddenly had an incredible resonance.  I didn’t need that knowledge to follow the play I was watching, but it added dimensions I had never expected.

    So, I warned you it was incredibly pretentious.  And ‘do it like Shakespeare and Homer’ is a pretty lofty standard for summer comic events.  But that’s what I think of when I think of continuity at its best.  The new story works on its own terms, but it reflects and resonates with things that have already happened, and the new story and the old both enrich each other.

  13. Oh, and before I started wallowing in my own pretentiousness, I meant to say — great article, Paul, and I particularly like your analysis of how the two big summer events have opposite kinds of problems.

  14. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @ohcaroline – Not pretentious at all.  I think the conversation that goes on at iFanboy is testament to the fact that, in our brand of comic analysis, we don’t cater to the lowest common denominator.  We try to raise it. 

    Says the guy who paused at the Title field, chuckled to himself, and typed ‘The C Word’  😉

  15. Hey Paul, best article yet. This was especially fascinating to me as Final Crisis is the first big event I’ve dived into from the start, and I’m playing a LOT of catch-up to figure it all out. You know what, though? It’s fun as hell.

    ohcaroline makes an excellent point, continuity problems can be found in every source of entertainment. Go watch a movie; good chance you’ll find a plothole. Watch your favourite TV show; they might just paper over or forget entirely something that happened 2 seasons ago. I think it might be more noticeable in comics because of the time-span of the storytelling.

    A movie’s only 2 hours long and moves pretty fast, so you’ve gotta be pretty eagle-eyed to spot them. Whereas comic stories, due to the nature of their schedule, can last months… years even… and devote that entire month’s story to something that later could cause a problem. Plus, with companies like The Big Two, you’ve got multiple books featuring the same characters, at the same time. Imagine if, like, 8 different directors had been hired to make the X-Men movie, but each only featuring one of the team. Problems ahoy!

    By the way, I think you should have kept your original spelling of Cheatos… I got a kick out of it! 

  16. Nice article, Paul.

  17. nice Paul.

    Perhaps TheBouv should change his name to TheDouche.

  18. Oh, that "C" word.  I came at this article at the complete wrong angle.

    Money shot.

  19. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @YoSoyJu – I deliberated with myself.  "Continuity Crisis" or "The C Word"

    I always vote ‘salacious.’ 

  20. When I first started reading comics continuity was intimidating.  In fact, for me it was the single most intimidating factor, even more intimidating than walking into the LCS and dealing with that stigma.  I didn’t have anyone to guide me or to recommend decent starting points, but what I did have was this respect for the efforts put forth by the writers and for the years of work spent laying down a history. I didn’t want to ruin any sort of continuity that was already in place.  

    If I was just starting out on my comic adventure I am not sure if the current state of affairs, so aptly described by Paul, would make me recklessly jump in with nary a second glance, or if it would be even more intimidating.  I can’t help but to wonder what it looks like from the outside.

  21. @ohcaroline:Point well taken. Continuity, especially when dealing with long form narritive, can indeed enhance the impact or pleasure that the art produces.

    To take a differnt angle, some continuity anchors, like pop culture references,don’t age particulairly well. Shakespeare, lik eany other great artist, has aged well. But I get the feeling that there were some gags or critiques of culture in his work  that were most affective for his contemporary audience. There are some nuisances which are forever lost to time.

    I wonder, for example, how well the refrences to obscure television in Y: the Last Man will go over in a generation. I think the work will endure as an honest exploration of sex, gender relations, and the joueney from boy to man, but someting of its original pisazz will inevitably be lost.

    This might be a tad off topic. Carry on

  22. @Paul — Hey, Shakespeare is famous for punning on that word.  And the only ‘literary’ reading I ever did while pursuing my overpriced grad degree resulted in my sister saying to me, "I didn’t even realize there was an adjective form of the C-word and yet — you found it."

    I’ve totally forgotten what I was going to say about continuity.  

    It’s late. 

  23. I’m sort of ashamed. Moments before I read this, I was reading Millar/Hitch’s FF and thought, "Hey! Thing’s shirt is torn in this panel, but then it’s fine in that panel!" Then I pulled a pen out of my pocket protector and wrote a strongly-worded letter about it on my Silverhawks stationery.

  24. Continuity can be by turns, fun and frustrating. Depending on how much it adds or distracts from the story & plotting at hand. Fairly simple.

  25. Paul, I love you.

  26. @piscespaul:  As the author points out later in this thread, it was originally spelled Cheatos.  So I made a quick joke about it since, you know, as geeks we’re stereotypically supposed to be a junkfood loving bunch.  As for the other problems in the article, I didn’t pick it apart or make notes, but several things did jump out at me at the time.  Enough to make me wonder "does this go through an editor?".  But I didn’t hang on it.

    @fred: Look, I made a small joke and even commented on the article AND added my own suggestion for a small universe that isn’t fraught with C-word problems.  I contributed.  Silly me.

    I’ll limit my commentary to "HOLY CRAP I LOVED THIS ARTICLE!" from now on just for you.

  27. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @thebouv – In your defense I did make several typing errors in my rush yesterday.  I was running behind and didn’t do the usual aggressive proofread. Won’t happen again. 

    Don’t feel that you’re only invited to leave positive feedback.  The comments section is for discussion and debate and I encourage you to question my arguments.  Otherwise I don’t really have a chance to look good defending myself.  😉 

    @Neb – Right back at ya, man.  

  28. I was rereading some older Marvels recently (got the FF, Avengers, X-men and Hulk DVDs) and a mid-80s letter column announced that No Prizes would no longer be given for rinky-dink shit: the miscolored leg or spontaneously-repaired costume. Only big stuff, like Galactus stating he’d never been to Earth before while he tries to eat it for the Nth time. Seemed like a wise decision to me at the time, but I think it may have bred a gereration of readers who’ll go over a book and it’s predecessors obsesively looking for that. one. thing. that’d get them their coveted empty envelope from mighty Marvel.

    I appreciate continuity. I like the shared universe. But I don’t need it so much it gets in the way of the story. Brubaker does great things with his books, but they’re always at least slightly out of phase with the rest of the universe. His Cap was killed 1/2 hour after Civil War ended, but other timelines have Cap stewing in lockup for a day or so. Minor, yes. But it’s there. And I don’t care. It’s a great story. (This isn’t limited to his Marvel work; his Wildstorm stuff was all over the place, continuity-wise. Not that Wildstorm really gives a crap about maintaining it’s U anymore). Story > continuity.

    Good article. 

     

  29. great article Paul and lots of great comments from the ifanbase.  Continuity to me is a pair of pants you either choose to put on or not.  If a story is good a story is good.

  30. As long as it isn’t atrociously contradictory, I don’t get too worked up about this stuff anymore. I’ve come to realize that even if every writer and artist was 100% in line and consistent with one another, two years from now I’d probably remember it wrong anyway. And I’m not alone.

  31. @PaulMontgomery : I think I’ll just keep my proofreading comments to myself.  I’m certainly no grammar nazi.  Just popped out this time.

    Since I might not have been clear before, nice article.  I’m fairly new to comics in comparison to my friends and The Dreaded C-word was actually a huge deterrent for me jumping in on some of the more mainstream stuff.  That’s why i started with Invincible, Walking Dead, Y the Last Man, Preacher as my gateway comics.  I wasn’t really going to get into Marvel until SI seemed like a decent place to start.  I still feel lost some times.

    So not only there issues of continuity mishaps making small universes look nice, but large ongoing continuity is a wall for some new readers.

  32. @Jimski

    Was that a Silverhawks reference?  That was my favorite cartoon when I was a kid.  I had the plane and all the figures.  I can’t wait until October.

  33. I heard Marv Wolfman on a Wordballoon episode say he hated continuity b/c "it held the best writer of the company hostage by the worst writer of the company." 

  34. Fun stuff. I like it. And I’m only recently tripping myself into the mignolaverse but can’t wait for more. For my money The Invincible-verse is the most fun in comics.

  35. I thought this might be a discussion on the adult film inspired by the excellent Showtime series but I enjoyed the article nonetheless.

    Personally, I wish the Big Two would reboot every 10-15 years so that we don’t end up with problems like Spider-Man’s marriage, Psylocke, Hawkman, and all the versions of the Legion.

  36. paul,what’s the deal with Batman RIP and Final Crisis? They can’t be in continunity….can they? 

    ANYONE know what the deal is with these two series’?  

  37. @brassa12003 – They’re both in continuity, yes.

  38. Great article Pol. Stop taking photos of me, my wife is catching on.

  39. what really erks me is why big crossovers like final. or secret. have continuity cracks in them. why can’t it be more like image where it is so much easier to keep track!?