Much like the history of comic continuity, my relationship with continuity in comics is complicated. Before going any further into it there are a couple of predicates to establish. I’m talking specifically about continuity in the “Big Two”, Marvel and DC, superhero comics. It’s also imperative that I clarify what I mean by continuity. I’m talking about logistical continuity, such as “Why is Batman in this city when he was in this other country during this event at the same time?”, and not character continuity. The “in character/out of character” conversation is much more nuanced and a topic all its own.
I love continuity in comics. I think it’s one of the most extraordinary things about the medium and one of the biggest draws for me. The unique nature of serialized stories spanning back over eighty years in some cases is one-of-a-kind. This breadth of time has allowed for tremendous storytelling possibilities. Creators can reference lines, panels, and events, from decades before, and as a reader and fan you feel the reward of experiencing all these connected tales.
It’s an amazing thing to watch characters grow and evolve over decades, as I said the characterization of specific heroes and villains can be argued endlessly, but regardless it’s undeniable that many have gone through significant changes and growth. The long-form nature of comics has allowed for this to happen naturally. We have seen team rosters evolve, characters live, die, and be brought back in the most miraculous ways.
To see all of this and more happen across a wide range of titles spanning decades is nothing short of amazing. Stories building on what has come before have built-in emotional weight and groundwork to them. While this is all wonderful, and one of my favorite things to do is piece together all the disparate pieces of continuity, there can at times be a huge downside to it.
Continuity can at times confine a story. When a narrative is too concerned with making sure it “fits” in with what’s happening in every other book in the line, it tends to suffer. Not to mention that naturally, given the sheer number of people working on these books and the vast volume of books published over these companies' histories, there are contraindications that inevitably pop up. It’s simply impossible to make every story line up with every other story that’s happened.
Marvel and DC have both taken various approaches to this problem over the years. DC has had reboots, Crisis on Infinite Earths is the most famous and one that started it all, while the New 52 era marked a complete line-wide restart. These two, along with a handful of other Crisis events always attempt to reorient and restitch the tapestry of the DC Multiverse. DC has recently landed on an outlook that every story has happened in some universe or fashion.
Marvel on the other hand has never rebooted their universe, opting instead for a “sliding timescale” in which time passes slower in the Marvel Universe than in real life, and the ages of their characters slide to keep them at an appropriate while stories take place in the modern day. It can be a bit confusing, but one of the main tenets of Marvel editorial now is to never give specific dates for anything, whereas when comics were first being put out there would be direct references to world events at the time. Writers eventually realized though that this begins to create problems when characters have been around for thirty years, and the world around them ages, but they don’t.
As you can tell, it all gets tremendously complicated if you start thinking about things too much. This is where continuity gets tricky for me. I think it can be a beautiful thing, and when it’s used well it can serve the story in amazing ways. At times though it can become too much of an ask for a story to fit in with everything that’s ever been established, and being upset that sometimes stories don’t fit perfectly is a recipe for disaster. I think continuity is important, and it shouldn’t be completely ignored, but it should always be used in service of the story and never hinder it.
I think when reading an in-continuity story it’s important to strive for a healthy balance of expecting things to line up with what has come before and being accepting of the notion that not everything will. Out-of-continuity stories are extremely popular because they offer a baggage-free reading experience unbound by decades of continuity. This lack of continuity also allows them the option to explore far more narrative possibilities than the mainstream universes would.
Continuity can be one of the best and worst things about superhero comics. It can be intimidating for new readers and frustrating for old readers. My personal advice and solution is to build your own for the stories you love. “Headcanon” is a popular phrase for a reason, and taking the groundwork laid by the big two universes and patchworking together what you think is most important is a fun way to maximize your reading experience.
About the Author: Alex Batts is a writer with a lifelong passion for comics and storytelling. If he’s not writing about comics, he’s likely writing or reading them. You can follow him on Twitter @apbattman.