Wolverine, Part 2: Mutant Boogaloo

Nov-13-08

Okay, John and I have established what seems to be a rather easy and understandable way to reduce Wolverine’s ridiculously overblown powers. This reduction (and temporary loss) of powers will instill some emotion into Wolverine, and will allow him to show the slight weakness and trepidation necessary for a believable and long-lasting hero.

However, while we’ve managed to clear up the physical part of what has caused Wolverine to be a bit much, we still haven’t really rectified the historical parts of the character. His origin has been established, but all the other little bits thrown in make his entire backstory a royal mess. And it seems like every writer, who has worked on either his solo title or one of the team books he regularly appears in, wants to throw their own two cents into the pot. I’m not really sure if there’s anything we can do to sweep up the mess, but it’s worth talking about.

Then there’s the subject of rogues galleries and supporting casts. I think we should at least briefly discuss his tenure with the X-Men and how they’ve affected his life. Then we can discuss the implications for his solo title. This would also cover the fact that he’s extremely overused in the Marvel Universe (that’s the bad kind of extreme, not the cool XTREME!) and something needs to be done to fix that too.

So, let’s begin. Here’s my opening statement: Wolverine. What’s up with that?

I consider myself to be a pretty obsessive comics geek, and I have an amazing knowledge of the histories of the major characters from many comics universes….and I’m sure I couldn’t actually recite much of Wolverine’s origin without missing or confusing entire chunks of it. He was originally created as a man with a mysterious past, which worked perfectly for his personality as the tough, silent loner. Unfortunately, it seems subsequent writers have taken this nebulous past as a challenge to fill it with tales, some of which contradict each other. Matters are made worse by the fact that Wolverine’s healing factor is now said to slow his aging, giving him a much longer lifespan than normal; this gives writers even more undocumented time to fill with unimportant, trite stories.

Some writers, when confronted with this sea of mismatched facts for a character, will go out of their way to explain the discrepancies. Heck, that’s been happening since the 1970s, when Steve Englehart used his Celestial Madonna saga in The Avengers to explain some of the discrepancies in the Vision and the original Human Torch’s origins, as well as other bits of continuity. Kurt Busiek (with some help from Roger Stern) did the same thing in the Avengers Forever limited series; that was basically twelve issues of continuity explanations. John Byrne does this sort of thing all the time, perhaps most notable in his Wonder Woman run. Now, I have respect for all of the creators I just named, but I have to say, I don’t agree with that theory. Yes, we could come up with some sort of long, detailed explanation for how Wolverine’s origin actually fits together, and publish it as a special one-shot or a limited series (since, God knows, Wolverine doesn’t star in enough books). However, I think the better way to go is to just start ignoring it. Do a quick and pared down origin for Wolverine, run it as a quick flashback in the first issue of your run, and just move on. I find that stories that attempt to explain continuity fail in two ways: first, they tend to be very heavy on exposition, and consequently, they tend to be a little boring; and second, they are completely impenetrable to the casual reader. Cynics may say comics no longer have casual readers, and they’re probably right, but I see no reason to try and exclude any few that wander into the hobby.

I think the down and dirty origin just needs to hit a few highlights: Born James Howlett in the 1800s, he was the son of rich plantation owners. He left the plantation and took the name Logan. He eventually joins the Canadian military and then moves to Madripoor for a time. He then becomes a mercenary until he rejoins the Canadian military as a member of Team X. He’s kidnapped, has his bones laced with adamantium, and is rescued by the Hudsons, who convince him to join Alpha Flight. He skips out on them to join the X-Men. That’s a concise origin that hits all the high points, and it isn’t needlessly convoluted. It’s long, but he’s over a hundred years old (can I say how stupid I think that idea is? I think he works much better if he’s no older than 60) so he’s going to have a lot on his resume.

Does that work for you?

Your precision is commendable. I agree that the concept of Wolverine being centuries-old is not only laughable, but highly unrelatable. You make a lot of sense with the “ignore it” approach though. Most of the dumb stories related over the years about the character have no real bearing on who he is anyway. They were jsut a way for the writer to feel like he contributed something. But…

What if a lot of those stories were just flat-out untrue? What if Wolverine was just one of those guys, like a goofy uncle or an insecure schoolboy, who made up tall tales to both impress and confuse people? Granted, it’s pretty easy to confirm the points that you’ve made in your concise summary of his origin, but all the other little things could either be lies or just things that he thinks he’s remembering…either to repress the true memories that are too painful or maybe they were planted there by the Weapon X folks to block out his real past.

Probably a bit convoluted, but it would reveal a lot if we discovered that Wolverine was a big, fat liar.

Sure, he’s older than he looks. He has ties to Captain America and Nick Fury. And he married some chick in Japan. But some of his solo stories have been told with no supporting evidence…just Wolverine out on his own, doing what he does best, with no one to confirm or deny the exploits. What if he never actually fought Hulk in his first appearance? What if someone tracked down a few of these villains he says he’s faced and they don’t even know who he is? What if the whole Patch thing was just a fever dream?

That would be kind of funny.

And sad.

Anyway, I agree that most of that junk need never see the light of day again. Good comic readers should be able to block that garbage out (if they haven’t already). Funny aside: Earlier today I was reading a post over on Topless Robot about the awful stories in the Spider-Man Clone Saga. And I don’t remember any of them! I’m soooooo glad my brain was able to delete those from the IQ files.

So, with his history satisfyingly ignored, we should move on to Wolverine’s friends and enemies. You’ve already briefly mentioned the Alpha Flight and Department H folks who rescued Wolverine from obscurity. How did he happen upon the X-Men though? Aside from the movie version, I don’t remember that part of the story. Let’s talk a bit about the various members of the X-Men and how he interacts with them. We all know about the on-again off-again love triangle with Jean Grey and Cyclops. Then there’s the quasi-mentor relationship he had with Jubilee. What else though? How is he perceived overall by the X-Men family? Other mutants? Other heroes in the Marvel Universe?

One quick point to make on his origin. You mentioned the idea that some of those stories detailing his past were implanted memories, or tall tales that Logan has spun. I originally had considered trying to explain away some of his backstory, since I dislike so much of it, and return him to a simpler character. Unfortunately, much of what I came up with didn’t make him simpler, but just more convoluted. Still, I had one idea that I kind of liked….

What if the story of James Hewlett is all true….but he wasn’t Wolverine? The oldest stories in Wolverine’s origin are the hardest to confirm, and some of what happened to Hewlett may be true, but in actuality, Hewlett lived his own life for years, until meeting Wolverine in the 1930s, when Wolverine would have been very young (say late teens at the most) and Hewlett was old. Hewlett told Wolverine tales of his life, and Wolverine basically assumed his identity when Hewlett died. You could work this into your idea that Wolverine is a big fat liar, and I do think it makes the character more interesting. However, besides making that stupid Origin miniseries completely pointless, I can’t ever see it flying with Marvel brass. Too bad.

As for Wolverine and the X-Men, he joined them because Xavier recruited him to go rescue his original students from Krakoa. I don’t believe they had ever met before, but that’s where he enters the mythology. Originally, they said that he left Alpha Flight for the X-Men because he was bored, but later on it was revealed he was in love with Heather Hudson and didn’t want that to come between him and her husband (the first time he fell in love with the wife of the team leader; he really is rather a creepy old guy, isn’t he?).

As for how he fits into the X-Men family, I’m not sure at present. For years he was the rowdy, almost psychotic scrapper and he was close to all of the new X-Men who joined up to fight Krakoa. He had a bond with Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus and Banshee and the five of them were pretty tight. He was very much disliked by Iceman and Angel, and the enmity with Angel, at the very least, lasted for at least ten or fifteen years. By the time the new X-Men team began to split up and new members began to arrive, Wolverine had become such a popular character that everyone seemed to like him. New members rarely treated him like a crazy man who could fly into berserker rages, and indeed, that rarely happened anymore anyway. Even Kitty Pryde, when she first appeared, seemed more frightened of Nightcrawler than she was of Wolverine. I’ll admit that Nightcrawler looks odd, but he’s almost always drawn as blue, fuzzy and kind of cute. Wolverine is a short, hairy, cigar smoking, brusque terror, and I think he’d be a heck of a lot more scary to a young girl than someone who looks like an animated stuffed animal.

In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to stop and mention how the insistence at Marvel of pairing Wolverine up with young girls (first Shadowcat and then Jubilee) is the wrong move for the character. I understand that they’re trying to portray Wolverine as the gruff uncle with the heart of gold, but honestly, he should simply be the gruff uncle. When Wolverine first appeared, he was a scary, violent little man with razor sharp claws. He had enough trouble associating with the adults on the team, never mind the teenagers. However, as he became more popular, his persona softened. He rarely lost his temper (unless it was integral to the plot). He became more friendly and spent time with the rest of the team. And he became the mentor to every other young girl to be recruited. Personally, I think they should have kept him standoffish, particularly to the younger members. Sure, let him bond with some of the other adults, but don’t make him a den mother. First of all, I still find it hard to believe that young girls wouldn’t be scared half to death by him. Second, he’s the quintessential loner; it’s hard enough to sell that when he belongs to two of the largest teams in the Marvel Universe. It becomes an impossible concept to convey when he’s got sidekicks.

And along those lines, the enmity he had with Iceman and Angel has also disappeared over the years. To an extent, that’s fine; these guys have to work together, and more importantly, watch each other’s backs in life and death situations. It’s natural that they would bond over the years. Still, Wolverine has one of the most grating personalities in the Marvel Universe. Surely there are going to be some mutants who really aren’t fond of him. He should have personality conflicts with at least some of the members of the X-Men, and unless I’m wrong, he doesn’t. I’d like to see him very close to a few of his fellow mutants (perhaps Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus and Banshee, since they all started together), be on speaking terms, but little else, with the majority of them, and have a few that he simply rubs the wrong way. Your take?

Oooh…what if James Howlett was the guy who originally started Weapon X (or whatever that program is called now)? In fact, what if it was something he did in response to the Nazi buildup…like the Canadian version of the Super Soldier formula, but much more clandestine. After all the torture and abuse, all Wolverine can remember are the tales that Howlett told him and he’s able to use those as a backstory when he eventually escapes from captivity. I don’t know if you follow Mad Men at all, but the main character in that show had a somewhat similar situation. He was stationed in a remote area of Korea when their encampment was struck by mortar fire. The blast killed his commanding officer, burning him so badly that he was unrecognizable. The main character had an awful childhood, so he saw this as his opportunity to change things. He switched dog tags with his commanding officer and started a new life when he got stateside.

Now that I’ve ruined a major plot point for one of TV’s greatest shows, let’s get back to Wolverine.

I think there’s reason to assume this could be possible. And it sets Wolverine up as more of a sympathetic character…he has that one dark secret that he’s trying desperately to hide from the rest of the world. He’s ashamed of the “easy path” he’s taken to try to get his life back. It’s a little convoluted, but what isn’t in the X-world?

Anyway, back to the friends thing. I never really thought about Wolverine’s relationships with all the young girls on the team. On paper, it sounds pretty creepy. And it does diminish the “bad boy” quality of the character. In the books though, it comes across like one of those cartoons where the little dog is trying to make friends with the big dog who barely acknowledges his existence. The girls see a father figure that may be able to protect them and teach them. Wolverine sees another person that he has to keep out of trouble for the sake of the team. It’s a weird parasitic relationship and comics seem to thrive on that kind of melodrama.

In reality, I agree with your bigger point. These girls would be reluctant to get close to the brute of the team. And he wouldn’t pay any attention to them at all, most likely sneering whenever they insist on tagging along on an adventure. Better yet, he’d probably roar that they didn’t belong in action at all. It’s like how the popular clique thinks that they’re the only people in the school. Just a natural pecking order.

However, we can’t dismiss the friendships that he has made. It would be odd to have him do a 180 now. So we have to deal with the Kitty Prydes and the Jubilees. Neither of them is particularly close to him right now, so it’s easy to just let those ties fade away. I do like your idea of having the mutants almost segregated by team…where Wolverine associates only with the “new” X-Men while the original team keeps him at arm’s length or just flat-out distrusts him. And the new recruits hold him in awe while he chooses to ignore them.

I’d like to see him fly off the handle a bit more too. The berserker rages have all but disappeared. The half-cocked, male pride angle has been abandoned. I’d like to see Wolverine acting a bit less rational and more spontaneous. And that whole “had a Japanese bride and a kid” thing has to just go away. Seriously.

That sort of brings us to the rogues gallery (because the only Wolverine enemy I can think of is Silver Samurai). Is there anything to go on here? Does The Hand count as an enemy? Can he claim any of the X-Men’s enemies as his own? I’m so tired of Sabretooth that I don’t even really want to talk about him. All I know is that Marvel’s editorial team thought that Wolverine was going to fade away quickly, but Chris Claremont liked the idea of a feral warrior so he created Sabretooth as an enemy of Iron Fist in that character’s solo title. Sabretooth is basically a blond, slightly taller Logan. Lame.

I like the idea of Hewlett being someone whose identity Wolverine took. I think it would add some mystery and danger back to the character, who’s a lot less impressive when you see him as the James Hewlett depicted in Origins. I also think it drops the character a little more back into the realm of the relatable, since he’s not been around for 150 years anymore.

As to your other point, I agree that Wolverine’s Rogues Gallery is laughable. Sabretooth is indeed his biggest foe, but considering that Sabretooth is almost as overused as Wolverine, he’s not a good foe. I had forgotten about the Silver Samurai, but isn’t he a good guy now? Even if he isn’t, I’m not thrilled with Wolverine’s staunchest foe being someone with an Asian background, as I’d like to move the character out of that region of the world and back to his homeland of Canada. I would count the Hand as an enemy, but not a particularly interesting one. They exist only so he can slice and dice any number of their operatives, and there will still be more waiting in the wings.

I believe that you could consider the Wendigo to be part of his Rogues Gallery, and that’s suitably Canadian, but the Wendigo is a dull foe, and not nearly smart enough to present an interesting threat for more than an issue or two. Wasn’t Cyber considered a Wolverine foe? He never seemed to have much going for him, except for the fact that he looked neat when Sam Keith drew him. Yeesh, that is one pathetic roster of baddies; it makes Superman’s Rogues Gallery of bald scientists and wacky inter-dimensional imps look pretty good.

I believe that Sabretooth was intended to be Wolverine’s opposite number (actually, rumor has it he was intended to be Wolverine’s father when first introduced, which could have been more interesting), but I’m not a big fan of opposite numbers as archenemies. I don’t find Venom vs Spider-Man to be an interesting match-up. I much prefer when opposites clash, and in this instance, I think that Wolverine needs to face off against a patient, calculating, schemer. He doesn’t need to be a Lex Luthor type, with no powers but great scientific know-how. He can be quite powerful in his own right, but he needs to be the type who doesn’t rattle or get upset. He needs to be able to make long range plans and he needs to be able to change them as circumstances warrant. This would put him at odds with Wolverine’s berserker rages and notorious temper.

I’d also like to add a villain from the general Marvel Rogues Gallery: Viper. She has worked with Silver Samurai, and the two of them clashed with Wolverine in the past. I think she’s perfect against Wolverine as she has some of the espionage background that mirrors Wolverine’s own background in that field, and she also is a fierce and savage opponent, just as Wolverine is. If the Samurai has not reformed and can fight with her against Wolverine, they’d be a perfect team.

Dragging X-Foes into Wolverine’s Rogues Gallery could be tricky. Sure, he has reason to hate Magneto and Apocalypse, who have both wronged him severely, but they’re not really the sort to fixate on one mutant. Perhaps it would be better to use one of the lesser known, and lesser used, X-Villains. Personally, I’d grab one or two of the Marauders and flesh them out in the pages of Wolverine. Most of them never really got personalities under Claremont’s pen when they were first created, and a lot of work could be done on them if they were given space to breathe in Wolverine’s solo title. Wolverine could probably lay claim to Donald Pierce, Lady Deathstrike and the Reavers as his own villains, but unfortunately, none of them are very interesting.

Ugh. His villains are a sad state of affairs. Any ideas on your end?

I was thinking along the same lines as you. Never been a fan of those “same but different” match-ups. I think that’s why I generally get bored with primary arch-enemies anyway. They start out as strong foils for the heroes, but over the course of time both the hero and the villain get tweaked until they’re basically mirror images of each other. I mean, Lex Luthor spent some time in that armor of his in an attempt to go toe-to-toe with Superman…Red Skull has been pumped up until he’s basically Cap without the shield…even Green Goblin’s powers were increased to better coincide with Spider-Man’s. I would much rather see a fight between folks who take different approaches, have different strengths and weaknesses and are able to employ tactics that may confuse or distract.

Unfortunately, Wolverine’s foes are a bunch of weak reflections of him. Like I said, Sabretooth is basically Logan with a mullet and some lifts. Lady Deathstrike is Logan with boobs. Cyber quickly became Wolverine’s indestructible brawling counterpart. Viper may not be a bad idea…she’s someone who has resources and can throw some bodies at Wolvie. And she plays in the same dark corners as Logan.

The perfect villain for Wolverine to face off against would be someone who is very intelligent, has a unique power set and doesn’t get rattled easily. We need a Zen counterpart to Wolverine’s berserker. This may sound like a crazy idea, but what about Vanisher? He’s constantly getting himself involved in some of the more back-alley crimes that land in Wolverine’s wheelhouse…associating with drug cartels, thieves and smugglers. Vanisher is a smart guy and his powers would confound Wolverine. Could be a fun way to bring one of the X-Men’s oldest foes up to a more worthy level.

Of course, we’ve talked about Grey Gargoyle too. He may not be a long term opponent, but he would definitely inflict some damage on Wolverine that would be felt for a long time. I could even see them facing off against each other after we’ve diminished Wolvie’s powers…right up until we kill off Gargoyle. And some interesting things could spring out of that as well. I’m not a huge fan of legacy villains, but maybe Gargoyle has a child or family member who would pick up the mantle? Are there any long-time associates of his that may seek revenge on Wolvie? We could push Wolverine off into his own mythos, his own corner of the Marvel Universe. Granted, some new villains will need to be created at some time, but if Wolverine is that old (even if our new origin is able to shave off a century or so) he should have some interaction with some of the older villains in the Marvel Universe.

Those are my first thoughts. Follow up?

Not much to follow up with, as I like your ideas. I agree that the Vanisher has a lot of potential, potential which Marvel is just now beginning to explore. He’s a smart guy, and he’s a planner, which makes him perfect against Wolverine. The Vanisher has to be a planner, as he’s basically useless in a fight, although his teleporting ability could be used to some effect in a brawl (I think the only time I’ve ever seen that happen is when he took on the original five X-Men way back in his first appearance in X-Men #2. Basically, it’s a question of getting your foes to use their powers against each other by teleporting in and out among them). I think he should definitely be added to the Rogues Gallery.

With Vanisher, Grey Gargoyle (and making him a legacy would be fine; Marvel is able to do that with their villains, even if they can’t with their heroes), Viper, and possibly the Silver Samurai, we’re slowly building up a small group of foes for him. I’d still advocate taking a few of the Marauders and using them against him. I’d choose a duo, Scalphunter and Arclight. Arclight had a romantic interest in Scalphunter, so perhaps she’s working with him as a way to try and make something happen. They both have a history as members of the military and/or special forces teams, so perhaps they met Wolverine sometime in the past and have some sort of specific issue with him. They’re also both tough characters who can go toe to toe with Wolverine for a nice big slugfest, in ways that none of our other villains (except the Gargoyle) really can. That gives us seven new villains for him (even if some of them work in teams) and I like that.

Hmmm. That gives us history, allies and enemies. Have we finished dissecting and rebuilding Marvel’s most overused character?

Aside from shaving his back and putting him on a Nicorette regimen, we’ve done all we can.

I like it.

Now if only Marvel would take the hint…

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Can’t See the Forest For the Continuity.

Apr-25-08

Science! While never one of my favorite subjects in school, I do remember a few precious scientific facts about our world and the things in it. Trees, for instance. I recall learning that there are basically two types of trees: those that seasonally lose their leaves and those that do not. The seasonal types are called deciduous. The others are called evergreen, because, well, they’re always green. Educational lesson aside, here is where I’m headed with this thing. Comics have more in common with tress than merely the paper they’re printed on. If you think about it, the continuity behind comics falls into the same two categories as the types of trees. And the same can be said about many other forms of mass entertainment. The pros and cons of both types are something I want to examine further.

Let’s start with the easier explanation. Evergreen continuity is the basic history of any superhero comic. Each plotline is held as canon for the next. Characters branch off and develop their own roots in the comic universe soil. In the long run, nothing ever changes. But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the changes are ongoing. It’s just that they’re ultimately absorbed into the evergreen landscape. You could also refer to this type of continuity as the “Big Picture” view. Everything that has happened affects everything else that will happen. The past shapes the future. Even the event of someone dying is merely a catalyst for their ultimate rebirth.

Broadly speaking, this is an attempt to mirror real-life. For example, Spider-Man meets Dr. Octopus. Years later, Dr. Octopus crosses paths with Spidey again and both remind each other (and the audience) that they met previously. Each instance builds upon the last to give depth to the characters and their backstories. And all of this is fine until you get so weighed down with facts and recollections that the characters are more tied to history than they are to any single plot. Even worse is when a supporting character or particular villain appears in another title and gets strange twists added to their history. This affects not only the villain, but everyone else that they have dealt with in the past or will deal with in the future.

Evergreen continuity is very linear. Unfortunately, comic books don’t follow a linear path. While most companies establish an overarching universe for their characters, each title operates within its own structured sub-universe. Crossover is encouraged (and inevitable), which further muddles the timeline. The closest thing you could compare this phenomenon to is a soap opera where individual sets of characters have their own storylines. When those storylines reach their natural end, the characters are remixed with each other to provide new lines of interest. That’s how you end up with evil twins and convoluted situations where someone ends up being their own mother.

The flip side of this is deciduous continuity. For some reason, this type of history always shows up in humorous situations. I’m thinking of things like South Park, Family Guy and, to a lesser extent, The Simpsons. On these shows, we have a group of main characters that work their way through a half-hour story. Ultimately, the end of the episode has no ill effect on the next episode. Kenny is killed every show and yet somehow magically returns the next week. The supporting characters add color and nuance to the show, but their own backstories are relatively meaningless to the grand scheme of the show.

Deciduous continuity is mostly non-linear. Anything can happen to anyone at anytime. Nothing really sticks. The leaves grow, they’re shed and then new leaves grow in their place. Time moves forward, but the isolation of the main characters helps keep the history streamlined to a degree. This type of continuity is based on episodic stories rather than continuous arcs that lead into each other. Most television shows run on a form of deciduous continuity. Shows ranging from MASH to Law & Order to Friends all deal with this type of history. It’s a type of timeline that runs more on characterization than it does action.

For instance, think of Richie Rich comic books. Richie Rich is the nice guy. He’s loaded, he’s young and he has a funny dog and a helpful butler. Every issue of every title keeps these facts as a constant. The adventures that Richie Rich goes on add color to these facts, but none of them greatly change the main characters. Once you close the book, everything goes back to the way it was and you wait for the next adventure to be entertained again.

So which form of continuity is better? I guess it depends on the type of story you want to tell. But my ultimate argument is that while the name implies that deciduous continuity is always changing, it’s actually not. By shedding whatever history is acquired during a specific story, deciduous continuity brings an air of timelessness to its use. I think it would be more functional to the superhero genre to adopt some of these functions. Look at Iron Man. His origin deals with being a POW in Vietnam. What kind of resonance does that have with kids who were born fifteen years after that conflict? So many villains and heroes sprouted out of World War II or even the tensions of the Cold War. Using a realistic timeline, none of these characters would be functioning at the same level today as they did in their prime. By clinging to an evergreen continuity, superhero comics force themselves to grow up alongside their readers.

Marvel and DC both attempt to do this at a ridiculously slowed pace. And, while I’m a bigger fan of Marvel in the long run, I have to say that this type of history stunts the growth of their characters. The DC universe isn’t specific to any reality. It builds its own history and doesn’t recognize real world events. It can offer broad changes at any time, ebbs and flows. Marvel’s strength, in its heyday, was the emotional power it could imbue in its stories by placing its characters in the real world and having them deal with a form of current events. It was radical in its time, but seems rather dated nowadays. When you try to saddle your heroes to the real world, you’re forced to age them. And everyday occasions…weddings, careers, deaths…add further age to each and every character.

So is there a path to loosening this evergreen status? Is there a reason to do so? Does any of this make sense or am I just over-thinking the whole thing? What does everyone else think?

Whew. I suppose this is a subject we’d have to tackle sooner rather than later, but it’s a mighty complex one. I think that continuity is important, but like everything else in life, needs to be used in moderation. Allow me to clarify my position.

I think that deciduous continuity can rely on characterization, as you mention above, but it’s very static characterization. If the events of the past do not affect your character in the future, then your character’s personality doesn’t really ever change. This works well for children’s fare (check out any long running Saturday morning cartoon series, like Scooby-Doo or Bugs Bunny) and for some humor projects like South Park since you want the characters to be eminently recognizable to your viewers, or in the case of South Park you want to be able to do whatever you want to a character in one episode, and not have to worry about fixing it in subsequent episodes. There’s a lot to be said for that, and anything that makes it easy for a new viewer/reader/listener to pick up on the concept of the series on their first exposure to it can only be a good thing. That being said, there’s a limit to the amount that can be done with this sort of continuity and only so many stories that can be told (with the Simpsons trying to make that statement untrue by telling pretty good stories in this type of continuity for two decades now).

Evergreen continuity, on the other hand, gives you a lot more opportunity to actually allow your characters to grow as the stories continue. Almost every serialized fiction of any real length has used evergreen continuity to an extent. I think it would be next to impossible to find a pure example of deciduous continuity as even shows like The Simpsons will refer back to previous episodes on occasion. I think the difference between a show like Friends and a comic like Iron Man isn’t the type of continuity to which they adhere, but the degree to which they adhere. I believe you were going in this direction in your initial post, but I believe that, like everything else in life, continuity should be used in moderation.

I don’t believe that a writer should come in and ignore everything that has gone before on a title. Those stories happened, and a new writer needs to work with what they are given. Nothing frustrates me more than one a new writer jettisons a previous supporting cast with no explanation, inserts dear old friends that we’ve never seen before (but are now expected to care about) or ignores important events that happened mere weeks ago in the hero’s life. That being said, some stories are just plain bad and trying to explain them so that they fit into continuity is pointless. Let’s use an example…during the mid-90’s, Marvel Comics revealed that Tony Stark had been manipulated by Kang the Conquerer for the past several years. Kang forced Stark to murder people and to fight the Avengers. The Avengers decided that no one could beat Tony Stark except for Tony Stark, and the only possible way to defeat him would be to travel ten years into the past and grab Tony Stark as a teenager and bring the teenage Stark into the future. This they did, and during the battle, the older, Kang-controlled Stark was killed, and Teen Tony took his place as the Iron Man of the Marvel Universe. This met with widespread derision (as well it should) but was quickly undone when teen Tony sacrificed his life to stop Onslaught, was thrust into an alternate universe, and was aged to adulthood once again. When he returned to our universe, his time as teen Tony was not mentioned.

Some readers weren’t satisfied with this. “It makes no sense!”, cried they, eager for clarification. “If Teen Tony was aged to adulthood for the alternate universe, he still wouldn’t have the memories of the Tony Stark from the original continuity, so how does the current Stark possess those memories? Explain please!” Thankfully, to the best of my knowledge, Iron Man writers ignored those pleas and never really delved into his past as Teen Tony. This is good. Trying to explain this continuity gaffe would have taken up time and space and would have been helpful only to a small portion of fandom. The series re-aged Teen Tony, which was sufficient. Let your readers come up with their own solutions as to why he has memories that he perhaps should not have.

Again, we want to make the stories fun and accessible to new readers. Delving into the deep dark recesses of continuity to explain away obscure plot points is not a good use of a character’s series. Some writers don’t understand that. John Byrne, when he wrote Wonder Woman, spent entirely too much time trying to explain why there was a Wonder Woman in the original Justice Society, when Diana hadn’t been introduced into Man’s World at that time. Way too many writers have spent way too many comics trying to untangle the tortured continuity of Donna Troy. Kurt Busiek, a writer I very much enjoy, used a good portion of Avengers Forever, otherwise an excellent miniseries, untangling plot points from the Avengers. And this is not a new phenomenon. Steve Englehart, during his Celestial Madonna saga in the Avengers, back in the 1970s, did the exact same thing, going on for issue after issue in an attempt to explain discrepancies in character’s histories. I like his run on the Avengers, but those issues still put me to sleep, and I would imagine they would leave new readers scratching their heads in puzzlement.

Continuity should be a tool to allow a writer to tell deeper stories and to allow characters to grow and develop. Unfortunately, too many of today’s comics professionals use continuity as a blunt object, and want to craft stories around it, around fixing it or altering it to better serve their visions of what a character’s history should be. Too many of today’s comics professionals are stuck in the past. We need to move into the future, telling new stories. It doesn’t mean you don’t refer to the past. In our Defenders discussion below, you’d refer often to the relationships the team’s roster shared with one another in previous appearances. That deepens their characterizations and makes them more interesting. What you don’t want to do is spend a four issue storyarc explaining how Patsy Walker could have appeared in Avengers #138 with her Hellcat costume, when The Cat #7 clearly states that it was put in storage in Detroit, and none of the members of the Avengers at that time had ever been in Detroit.

Continuity. Writers: Take in moderation.

What’s the downfall of today’s superhero? Retconning. In the Assembled book I’ve been reading, one of the contributors made a comment about Kurt Busiek’s run on the Avengers, saying that “while he was indeed revisiting old-school characters, relationships and situations, he was doing so in the context of the many new developments on those fronts since the olden days, taking assorted old-school concepts in new directions.” Or, to sum it up, he used bits from the past to frame the future.

This is the expected use of evergreen continuity. And perhaps I should have written two posts on the subject, because here’s the true crux of the argument. The “retconning” or deliberate changing of established facts is what ruins evergreen continuity. If all writers would simply work with what’s already been shown, then these superhero comics would be much less confusing and convoluted.

I’m reminded of Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men and how the writers that followed him, whether through company mandate or their own failing to understand what to do next, systematically took apart everything that he had built up. Characters that already had bizarre, twisted histories were given another layer of muddle…even characters that Morrison himself had created from nothing.

I’m all for continuity. I love it. It gives me something to think about and study. And I wouldn’t mind if every writer used all of the continuity of any given character while they’re writing them. When you’re done with your run, the next guy should come in and just pick up from where you left off. The problem is when certain writers come in (yes, I’m looking at YOU John Byrne) with the belief that their talent supersedes the character itself. They feel that they can create their own version of the character’s history and pay absolutely no attention to what happened before. The creative team that follows them is then left scratching their heads and trying to figure out how to accommodate what just happened with what came before AND with what they want to accomplish themselves. This gives you things like Hawkman, Supergirl and Aquaman (is it just coincidence that this seems to happen more often with DC even though I just praised the company for their non-real world universe?).

Of course, then you also have cases where new characters are explained into past history. The first example that comes to mind is Marvel’s Sentry character. Beginning as a hoax on Marvel readers, the Sentry was then integrated into Marvel’s history rather well (though some would argue unnecessarily) by writer Paul Jenkins. Brian Bendis did the same thing with his Jessica Jones creation. This kind of retconning is interesting to me. Here’s a character that blatantly never existed before, yet creators are able to use bits of other characters’ pasts and small vagaries in overall continuity to place their new creation in the fabric of the established universe. It’s a neat kind of phenomenon that can work quite well in building a past for a new character. I think this is another beautiful use of evergreen continuity (and that’ll probably be the only praise you’ll ever hear me heap upon Bendis).

It’s of interest to me that deciduous continuity is used primarily in humorous situations. Not sure what’s behind that thinking except that the telling of jokes is more easily accommodated by simple set-ups. If you have too much history piled upon your characters, there are certain ways you expect them to perform and react to things. Plus, the superhero world already has a problem with bringing characters back from the dead…imagine how horrible it would be with South Park rules!

Wow. Well said. I think that sums things up nicely: deal with the continuity you have, and stop trying to make it the continuity you want. Perfect. You know, creatively, I’m surprised so many creators have problems with this concept. For example, I always loved the Vision and the Scarlet Witch as a married couple. But they’re not. Were I in a position to handle the characters, rather than trying to say that, I don’t know, the two characters had been replaced by Skrulls before their divorce, and then bringing the married couple back, I’d work with what is currently in continuity. It may not be what I consider ideal, but it’s a very good creative exercise to try and make what you have work in a way you find interesting.

Some creators, as you noted, are worse than others on this score. Some creators simply can’t let go of the way they want things to be, and to be fair, neither can some editors. Your example of the way the X-Books dismantled Morrison’s run as soon as he left the book is spot on; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a company back pedal so quickly from a former writer’s work on a book, especially a run that had been so universally praised by critics and fans.

Of course, now we have entire event miniseries (like Final Crisis and Secret Invasion) which seem to exist solely to muck with current continuity. I hope that neither of these series make sweeping changes to try and reset the universes to previous settings. I have no problem with surprises and exciting changes, as long as we’re moving things forward and building on what has been done, not knocking down previous structures and invalidating things that are considered inconvenient for the current and future creators.