About the Author
Mass Effect
Final Fantasy X
Batman:Arkham City
Borderlands Series
Weekly Column
Champions Online
World of Warcraft
DM of the Rings
Good Robot
Project Frontier

Comic Books and Plot Cruft

By Shamus
on Monday Oct 12, 2009
Filed under:
Nerd Culture


I don’t usually read comic books. I like the idea of comic books, though. I like individual superheroes. But the books themselves are a mind-melting retcon clusterfarg of pretzel logic. When I talk to people who follow the books, it usually begins with someone trying to bring me up to date on the story of some character, and it goes something like this:

Did you see the new Captain Excellence?

Captain Ex? Didn’t they kill him off in the 90’s?

Well, they’re bringing him back. Well, actually, this is a new one. He’s a clone of the original Captain.

A CLONE? Didn’t they have that one arc at some point where he found out he was really an android that was programmed to look just like a human?

Yeah they did. But they said at one point that even though he’s a machine, his skin is like, organic.

Hm. So if you cloned him, he wouldn’t really be Captain Ex, since you wouldn’t have the robot insides that gave him his powers.

Actually his powers were mystical.

Well you wouldn’t have that either.

You can’t know how the spell works. Maybe it applies to him and any clones.

That enchancter must have really been thinking ahead. Anyway, how did they wind up with a clone?

Jayne made it.

Jayne Judas? The Feeder? She was his arch nemesis!

Not her. I mean Jayne Jennings, her twin from the alternate dimension. She was the opposite of the Feeder. She was good.

But she was a reporter. How did she clone Captain Ex?

She did it way back during the Invaders Saga. She got some of his DNA had herself impregnated with it by the Justice Alliance.

She wasn’t pregnant during the Invaders Saga. Or ever.

She concealed it with a hologram.

Why? I mean, why have a cloned Captain Ex baby at all?

She was in love with him.

But if the baby was born during Invaders… that was what? 1998? The clone would only be 11 by now.

She used a super growth process on him.

So he looks like the old Captain Ex now?

Pretty much, except the new costume is mostly black.

Yeah, but he’s really a kid.

Well, he has some of the memories of the original Captain Ex somehow. Maybe they were like, in his DNA or something.

So a reporter secretly had a baby of the man she loved who was actually a cyborg…


…and hid the pregnancy from everyone – including the scientists who helped impregnate her with the DNA – and accelerated the growth of the baby. And she did all this because she loved him. As opposed to just telling him how she felt.

I’m sure they’ll explain it when the book starts up. You gonna get it?

I think I would die of stupidity poisoning.

The continuity problems are inherent in long-running multi-author stories. Star Trek has the same issues. Writers come and go, and they all have their own agendas and their own take on the hero and their own idea of what’s “cool”. That’s fine. I love seeing what different storytellers will do with the same idea. It all makes for interesting reading until they start trying to stitch the disparate tales into a single whole, a process akin to trying to cook dinner using a single random item from every aisle of the grocery store. It might sound like a fun challenge at first, but when you’re standing there in your kitchen with a box of corn flakes, a bottle of Windex, some beef, a tube of toothpaste, a bag of marshmallows, a jar of pickles, some aspirin, a package of croutons, a mop, and orders that you must use everything, you will wish you had planned things better in advance or maybe set up some rules to guide what items wound up in your cart. The result is not pretty or elegant.

The problem gets much, much worse when crossovers force you take these dozens of long-running comic books, and turn all of those mangled stories into a single overarching universe-level continuity. You will need to resort to ugly hacks and contrivances just to begin to get a handle on the problem. But even if you can soften the story up with some retcon and hammer it into some sort of logical shape, you’re still left with the problem of the jarring thematic differences. I like science fiction. I like mythology. I like wizards. I like mafia stories. I like aliens. But I don’t like them all mixed together in a great big soup of nonsense. Spider Man, Thor, Dr. Strange and the Punisher all blend together like Snickers, Jack Daniels, and Spaghetti sauce. (Note to self: Stop writing when hungry. You use too many food-based analogies. )

Mary Jane is conceptually a great character, although at times she’s been a laid-back party girl, and at others a selfish, chain-smoking bitch.  It all depends on who the author is this week.
Mary Jane is conceptually a great character, although at times she’s been a laid-back party girl, and at others a selfish, chain-smoking bitch. It all depends on who the author is this week.
And even if you keep things from getting too mangled, you still end up with the biggest continuity hole of all: Time. Peter Parker has been in his late 20’s / early 30’s for almost half a century. If he was in his late teens in 1962, he should be about the age of Aunt May. He met Mary Jane when she was a “groovy” hipster in long hair and go-go boots. They courted, married, and now (or last time I checked, anyway) she’s a famous television actress with an established career. And neither one of them has aged. What is it like when they reminisce? “Hey MJ, remember last week when it was 1965 and you were a hippie?”

There really is no fix for this, although I suppose if I was running a comic book empire I might try to do things differently. I’d run books in five or six year self-contained arcs, where a single writer is free to do what he likes as long as he doesn’t invade anyone else’s continuity. Re-tell the origin, or don’t. Kill off the hero at the end, or have her retire, or just leave it open. Or tell a series of steady-state tales, Trek style. When the run is up, you wipe the slate clean and start over. This gets you out of the mess where you have a single hero who has died four times, lost his powers twice, had his powers altered once, fought six evil twins, turned evil once, had amnesia three times, and who has his identity outed and re-hidden on a regular basis. Writing these huge stories is a lot like writing software: You end up with a lot of cruft and if you don’t clear the board every once in a while the project becomes unmanageable. If you’re doing the self-contained six-year (or whatever interval) arcs, then it’s like refining the story as you go, or playing variations on a single musical theme. A popular run could be embraced by fans, and the favorite elements might end up in future tales. A bad run would at least not become part of the established continuity forever.

I don’t know if that would appeal to the usual comic book audience, though. I would love it. But then, I like planned stories that arc and end, which seems to be at odds with how the business works. Part of the appeal of Watchmen is certainly the darker, more philosophical take on superheros. But I suspect the other big draw is that it forms a cohesive whole. We can talk about the arc and what it says in a way that just isn’t possible with other hero stories. I can’t help but wonder if they worked to take the idea of a “graphic novel” and focus more on the “novel” and less on the “graphic” if it might not make for better fiction.

Comments (64)

  1. Neil Polenske says:

    Logic will always give way to the opportunity to make more money. That’s not a mystery.

  2. Mad Flavius says:

    Shamus, this is exactly why I have tried and failed on numerous occasions to get into reading comics, as it is the last major bastion of traditional geekdom I have yet to embrace (beginning my first tabletop game soon!). However, every time I’ll read the Wiki article on a certain character, to get caught up to the present in their arc, I stop in frustration, after the thirteen required obnoxious-plot-twist-of-the-weeks and clones and massive pan-dimensional crossovers.

    Do you think, however, that some sort of system of single-arc, top-down applied continuity could work for a comic? Take for example, the model (please, please, not the actual implementation, for all that’s good and holy and beautiful) of the New Jedi Order of Star Wars books. While poorly executed, they–at least initially–began with a cohesive, single story arc mandated by a single authority, which was then fleshed out in individual stories. Do you think such a system would appeal to comic writers? Or would they feel it would stifle their creativity? I, for one, absolutely adore huge, constantly expanding universes, having myself just found out a way to combine every fiction work I’ve ever written/filmed/supervised into the same universe–without retcon (if I may be so pompous as to brag, but hey, I’m pretty stoked about it).

  3. There is another way to do this, and it’s to have artists control their characters. As in, instead of the studio deciding who writes it and when, the artist writes the character as they see fit, and if they finish, they can offer it to another writer.

    What we’d get is probably less long-running heroes, but better storylines and more characters. This method probably raises some large problems on its own, but I’m big on artists controlling artistic mediums, instead of corporations controlling them.

  4. Mephane says:

    I like planned stories that arc and end, which seems to be at odds with how the business works.

    You should definitely watch the (new) Battlestar Galactica series. You’d love it, it is exactly done this way, which is usually quite rare in science-fiction series.

  5. I’m actually heavily in favor of the accumulation of continuity. The incredibly rich and layered universe is a trait unique to comics and a few long-running franchises.

    I’ll be the first to admit that it’s often handled very badly these days, but when it’s done well with the “Every Issue is Someone’s First” mindset, it can really enhance the experience. I started reading comics in the early 90’s when they were still using editor’s notes and the occasional exposition panels to give a new reader enough information to go forward. The story worked fine if all you knew was that Villain X and Hero Y had a long-running feud which had culminated in the kidnapping of Girlfriend Z, but there was a great value-add in tracking down back issues and understanding this 40 year rivalry that by now was incredibly nuanced.

    Admittedly, there are things that are best left aside (Professor X’s icky unrequited love for Jean Grey, anyone?) and the time issue needs to be outright ignored, but a lot of the convolutions are actually the result of trying to fix this. If there were fewer clumsily wiped continuities, there would be a lot fewer contradictory incarnations of characters.

    I consider it a charming trait that the Fantastic Four can fight in WWII, rescue the original moon landing, save Jimmy Carter, and still muse irascibly about Pokemon without visibly aging.

  6. Momoko says:

    What you wish for is actually why I tend to like more of foreign comics and dramas. The American versions just keep going until they are no longer making any money. And its all contrived and doesn’t make sense really if you look back at the run of it.

    The Macross Series is actually a really good example of a universe where they keep going back and adding new things. I think for the most part everything works out continuity wise, but with each new Macross saga, it focuses on new characters in a new period of time. Of course, the series wasn’t and isn’t being brought out in order, so…

    But as said above, most of this has to do with the companies being the ones who say that they want more and force the writers to continue, because they are making money.

  7. gravitybear says:

    I must agree with DirigibleHate, artist controlled comics are much more like what Shamus is describing.

    Mad Flavius: your mistake is in reading the Wiki article. Don’t, and don’t worry about it. You don’t have to know everything that has happened to a character to enjoy the comic. Pick themn out because you like the writer or you enjoy the art and don’t stress.

  8. Broc says:

    Wow, I agree so much with all of this.

    Once I tried to pick up Spider-Man comics for a few months. There were so many references to past events and villains that I didn’t know existed that I gave up. Sure, they dedicated a few panels to explain why or how this particular thing related to the past but it was annoying for me to get only snippets of explanation and it must have been annoying for regular readers to have everything explained again every issue.

    Everybody lose.

  9. Robyrt says:

    I like having self-contained story arcs, but it’s also fun to be able to use characters from other people’s story arcs and watch them develop. For instance, Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men wraps up the many loose ends from Grant Morrison’s New X-Men arc in a satisfying fashion, but it’s presented as a self-contained storyline where you really don’t have to know anything a one-paragraph summary doesn’t teach you.

    It may be that on average, continuity adds more problems than it solves. Can we do any metrics?

  10. froogger says:

    Yeah, superhero comics are decidedly crazy in that respect. Of course, there are other drawn alternatives to those garish plothole universes out there. Heck, even lots of american graphic novels are worthwhile these days.

    As for diversing story arcs, in games there are some neat solutions.

    In the Zelda universe things happened “A long time ago”, so the new hero starts afresh in every game (although I’m sure there are non-canonical Zelda-games out there), yet in a somewhat familiar world. Same hero, same damsel-in-distress, same villain, but pretty much everything else replaced.

    The Final Fantasy series is the coolest, though. They just wipe the slate clean and reintroduce the same characters in a new setting with no explanation at all :D Works for me.

  11. JimminyJoJo says:

    This is the reason why I have never been able to get into any superhero comics. Even since I was a kid, I felt like if I just picked up an issue I would be lost from the get-go. It seems like you have to be follower of the series from the start for it to make any sense to you.

    One graphic novel that I enjoy however is David Petersen’s Mouse Guard. It has an excellent story and his illustrations are superb. I wonder if anyone else has read/ enjoyed the series?

  12. Joshua says:

    Creator-controlled comics do solve that problem, though you don’t usually get the different takes on the premise. It’s even possible with corporate-owned comics, under the right circumstances. Agents of Atlas, by Jeff Parker and Leonard Kirk, uses discarded and mostly forgotten early Marvel characters and at least through the first mini-series is excellent despite being somewhere between a ret-con and an elaboration on the backstories of the characters…

  13. Jenx says:

    I love reading comic books. But I never read super hero ones. Ever. Like I don’t even THINK about them, since I’m afraid that might cause my brain to explode.
    And, this might come as a shocker, these aren’t the only western comic books out there! I know, it’s amazing! I really hate it when people decide that every single comic book produced in the states is about a super hero and is riddled with continuity problems and stupidity. I hate it as much as I hate it when people think that every Japanese comic is about some girl with huge eyes doing silly shit.

    I like reading comicbooks like Sandman, or Y – The Last man. I like comicbooks like Wasteland, Fables and so on. You know where the story started, you know that it will end. So my advice to people who want to get into comic books – go read anything that isn’t about super heroes. ANYTHING.

  14. Stephen says:

    Back in the early 90s I remember noting that the X-Men at least seemed to be on a fairly stable 3 to 1 time scale. At their 30 year anniversary, the original five were in their late 20s as if they’d aged 10 years, and the rest of the cast was proportionately older based on when they’d been introduced. I even noticed a few references that seemed to back it up (“Last year” remarks typically referred to storylines about three years old).

    I can’t imagine they’ve stuck to that over the last couple of decades, though. And I don’t know if it ever worked with the other Marvel comics.

  15. bickerdyke says:

    Starting with DS9, Star Trek acually left those steady-state tales behind. But slooowly. And not until they build up enough of a background. I think it was in Season 3 when they did a 3-episodes arc first. Then a few unrelated episodes again. And then switching to loosly related episodes, building up a story arc, culminating 2 episodes short of the season finale, which then would then start a new theme, and setting up a entirely different mood for the next season. And not simply cancel the series, but instead using the last season to tie up the loose ends, end with a bang, and say a last good-bye.

    And all that, with the occasional independent, funny or espescially somber episode.

    Voyager tried similar, but didnt do a well as DS9. First you had your monster-of-the-week-show, but it wasn’t used for any background building. (Besides perhaps Chaokotay as the stereotypical mystical native American) So there was no reusable content for when they actually startet the “getting closer and closer to home”-part.

    Enterprise completly messed it up. Space-Soap-Opera or what? I gave up after episode 5 when just too much plot entanglement was dumped on me.

  16. Galenor says:

    There was an anime that I had the pleasure of watching called “Higurashi no Naku Koro ni” or “When the Cicadas Cry”. The structure of the episodes go as such:

    Ep. 1) Make it look like a generic anime. Hint at a problem in the ending.

    Ep. 2) Problem grows, becomes obvious.

    Ep. 3) Crap meets fan.

    Ep. 4) Loads of people die.

    This four-episode plan loops about four times throughout the season. Each loop is seperate from each other apart from the ‘base’ of it – the crew go to a festival, and meet a woman and a photographer. These two then die, and the police investigates a member of the crew. On each loop, a different crewmember is interviewed. The endings are radically different – some are happy, some are psychotic, some are pretty harrowing. The only link-up between these loops is that one of the crewmembers does remember each loop, as if they’re stuck in a constant timeloop – but thats hardly ever brought up, as she has to be channeling a spirit or something.

    The meat of the show is finding out, in each loop, who goes nuts, who kills who, who saves the day this time, and who ends up dead before the loop even properly takes off!

    Then when you’ve seen the arc, you can then go on to see the ‘answer arcs’ and see the story from another point of view, which makes it even more engaging.

    Have a nosey if you like:


  17. Torsten says:

    That is a big problem with superhero comics. I am not a big fan of those either, though I like Spiderman and X-men comics. Series that have a stable setting are much more easier to read.

    That is the major difference between american and european comic books. American comics have hero living in a world that changes with the story. Next story is in a slightly different setting than the story before it. Also characters change, they are introduced to the world, they can get married, get old or even die and so on.

    In european comics the setting and heroes stay pretty much the same and stories are more like graphic novels. Even though stories are different the world doesn’t usually change much when a story ends. Also characters stay pretty much the same, only villains might die or be only in one story. There are of course exceptions to these rules, but generally european comics have a staying setting and heroes while american comics have only staying hero.

    Another thing about european comic is that superhero genre does not exist. I can’t think of a single european comicbook superhero.

    A great example of european comic style is Asterix that just turned 50 years old. You dont have to worry about continuity when reading them, and the stories are great. Just start with a story written by Rene Coscinny.

  18. You’re partially describing Astro City. Kurt Busiek writes an arc of connected stories; they get collected into a book; and I buy them. Then he goes on to another story. His are shorter than years, though (I think–I have no idea how long he takes to write them, since I just buy the collections at Comic-Con).

  19. Trianglehead says:

    I think I’d really enjoy it. Neil Gaiman’s 1602 for example was an 11 issue run that was fantastic. I’d gladly pick up more stories like it. You run into even more problems with someone like Superman, where they have 4 titles for the SAME HERO GOING AT THE SAME GOSHDURN TIME! … Not that that ever gets confusing or vexing at all.

  20. Stringycustard says:

    This was always a sour point for me as a kid when comic stores (actually stationary stores that happened to sell comics – all I had) would only stock the occasional comic. This meant that these huge stories were more haphazard (as I’d miss multiple issues) than normal (which is to say: huge amounts of non-sensicalness ensued). I preferred (and still do) series written by a single author. I’ve generally given up of series that have multiple authors involved as soon as a new one pops in.

    Probably why Sandman (the one by Neil Gaiman, not the lame Spidey villain) is something I still actually re-read and love.

  21. bobbyzero says:

    There’s a couple of comic characters I really enjoy – but only in certain storylines. Warren Ellis wrote the “Extremis” arc of Iron Man, and every issue was beautifully plotted within the overall storyline. Then that ended and it was handed over to another writer, who transformed all that into another convoluted but generic crossover mish-mash.

    It’s interesting to note that Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius books have a different take on the concept of continuity – each of the 4 stories involves the same ‘characters’, yet with completely different motivations, relationships, and in wildly varying settings. Part of the joy of these books is spotting the recurring themes that bleed across from one story to another, and how they influence the current plot.

  22. Vladius says:

    You have no idea how much I agree with this.

    All comic books are ruined somewhere between the part where they reference another book and the part where they bring something in from another book. It’s all one big, muddy paste of continuity problems and retarded plotlines that are more ridiculous than the character’s origin itself.

    I’m fine with retelling the same story, ie. retelling Spider-Man with cooler art and cooler action, but not gigantic superhero wars on another planet, or the main character making a deal with a literal demon in order to keep Aunt May alive (for a nonsensical reason, also sacrificing his marriage in the process) or the main character of the past several YEARS being retconned as a clone and then retconned as not a clone.

    This is also a problem with Batman. He has way, waaaay too many followers, ripoffs, stand-ins, and crossovers with other comics that don’t even have the same atmosphere. Why are there so many Robins? How does Batman have a replacement for himself ready when his back is broken, but not for his vehicle when his Batmobile is destroyed? Why doesn’t the combined effort of two dozen equivalent Batman’s ever manage to clean up Gotham city? Why are the other superheroes such pricks as to not care about Gotham’s suffering until the Joker crosses over with Batman? Why doesn’t Batman ever kill the Joker? (The best explanation for that last one that I’ve heard is that the Joker will come back from Hell with a demonic army if he dies.)

    When you screw with time travel, the story becomes so riddled with plot holes that it becomes unreadable. (“Hey Superman, if you can fix that, can you maybe go back in time and save my parents from being shot? Okay, thanks!”)
    The Silver Age at least stayed within its boundaries most of the time, but it was hilarious and poorly written.
    (See Superdickery.com)

    And, to tell the truth, I hate Superman. He’s not the “classic” superhero or even the first superhero. He’s an alien whose powers work on the writers’ failing grades in science, has no good supervillains, and cannot be related to on any personal level.

  23. vede says:

    I’m telling you, Shamus, not all comic books have to go forever.

    I actually read very few unlimited series at all. I stick with the stuff that’s got a set run, then is set to end at the end of that run, period. All issues by the same author. Some go twelve issues, some go sixty, but they’re better than the unlimited runs pretty much 100%. These things can be extremely entertaining, and will tend to be more consistent, since the author’s the same the whole way through.

    (I recommend reading the series DMZ by Brian Wood for an example. It’s really great.)

  24. John Tomorrow says:

    What we are forgetting is that a typical DC/Marvel (or lesser publishers, like Image or Avatar – even though their published work is a lot more mature then the dross from the mainstream publishers) is usually written, drawn up and sold within a month.

    Monthly issues are the typical way these comics are released. Which means theres about 12 issues per year, not counting specials or retcons. Lets say that a story arc lasts about three to four issues, leaving us with four stories per year (if the publisher keeps the writer, or the writer doesn’t get bored).

    Sometimes the whole year if its a big, pivotal one, or there’s some kind of universal development happening (Final Crisis or Registration spring to mind immediantly).

    Now. A story last four months, basically. Typical superhero stories dont dawdle over four whole months, however – how boring would that be (Sammy the Supersnail?). So a storyline, in canon, would last a few days, perhaps a few weeks, max. Ergo, what would take a reader to read over several years would be the eventual building of a superhero.

    Obviously, the problem is introducing or attracting new readers to characters that are already deeply ingrained in their own history that it would read like the royal family’s family tree. People dont like being thrown into the middle of a story, so typically the little story-arcs are becoming more stand-alone and less involving with the rest of the history…

    …Or you can take Marvel’s path (or attempted path), and release a retcon in the form of a new line (Ultimate Universe).

    This helps a little bit – characters that were ancient are now rehashed and remarketed, updated for new readers as well as giving a waft of fresh air to the die-hard fans. This solution is better then DC’s usual way of dealing with matters, which is to get Superman to mash a big red RESET button every decade and call it a ‘Crisis’.

    However, the Ultimate solution isn’t really a solution either – its just buying a new car. Its fancy and smells nice now, but eventually you’ll find yourself driving it around and referring it as the ‘old reliable’ – just like the last one.

    In the end, i guess the main point is this – comics are just like any other media type, be it movies, games or novels. unless you are in from the start, you’ll be left in the dark. This is irritating to a newcomer purely coz they dont wanna buy back a hundred comics just to figure out whats going on – not only coz the writing might not have been as good back then (not to mention the art. ergh. ninties anyone?), but also how can you justifiy spending X amount of dollars backtracking to today?

    Blargh. Thats why i buy other, less regular stuff. Superman and Spiderman were cool back in the day, but titles like Punisher MAX or Invincible (Invincible especially – i get the feeling you’d like that one, Shamus) are the breath of fresh air people need.

  25. Taellosse says:

    Your thought about self-contained story arcs is a really good one. As others have sort of already pointed out, that’s essentially the pattern of Japanese manga. And it is mostly manga that’s killed comics among the younger generations in the US. So taking a page from their methods might not be such a bad idea for the superhero set.

    Marvel is sort of, kind of doing this with their Ultimates line–essentially its a relaunching of their most popular characters–Spider-Man is a high school kid again, for example, only he’s a teenager NOW, instead of 45 years ago. A lot of his enemies are re-imagined, and many of the story lines play out quite differently (there’s a Venom in that universe, but the symbiote isn’t an alien–it’s the product of an experimental cancer treatment, and has a few significant differences in powers from the symbiote of the main continuity, for example). But it’s an indefinitely ongoing continuity just like the main setting, and it’s not self-contained–the Ultimate X-Men and Avengers and Spider-Man all exist in the same world and all periodically interact. As time goes on, assuming the whole line isn’t canceled, it’ll accumulate all the same sort of cruft as the main line.

    Oh, and, incidentally, Peter Parker is single again in the main continuity. See, he made a deal with Mephisto (Marvel’s Satan, basically) to save Aunt May’s life (again–she had already died at least once only she didn’t). The price was he wasn’t married to Mary Jane anymore. Actually, the price was he had never dated her in the first place. Thus messily overturning something like 30 years of continuity. Harry Osborn, the son of the original Green Goblin (who had himself died years ago and himself come back from the dead a couple years before this) and once Peter’s best friend was no longer dead–he’d apparently been living in Europe for years instead. There are all sorts of other messy corollaries, too. Very icky. As I understand it, it isn’t a very popular storyline, and is getting a lot of criticism still. It’ll probably be undone in another year or two anyway. Things like this always are, in comics.

    The really scary thing? I know all this and haven’t read comics since about 1996. I buy the occasional graphic novel collection, and I read things online. And yet my head is still filled with a disturbing amount of knowledge regarding the current events in the Marvel and DC universes.

  26. Deoxy says:

    Whoa – fail my saving throw against Wall of Text. Ouch.

    My only real comment is “Babylon 5”. A large part of what made that so good was having a story going, and that it had a definite end, so there was somewhere to go.

    Yes, the never-ending crap manages to make money… but it also drives LOTS of people away.

  27. Mazinja says:

    What? Spidey is no longer married. He made a deal with the devil sacrificing his marriage and (apparently) unborn child to save Aunt May’s life. Also he’s a no longer a teacher and is now an unemployed loser :V

    And what do they do with this clean slate? Why, they are apparently… doing the Clone Saga again! woo! Yeah.

    I’m gonna go cry in the corner.

  28. Wil K. says:

    I see that Jayne is a girl’s name…

  29. Gary says:

    I know a couple of people have mentioned it already, but the Ultimate series by Marvel are interesting. Old stand-bys are resurrected completely with new writers, artists, and timelines. The only reason I am even aware of this is that my favorite author (Orson Scott Card) wrote Ultimate Iron-man. I bought that one, and really liked it. And, though I knew a little bit about Iron-man before, I didn’t need to know anything to get it. It just helped me get the little easter eggs that were thrown in.

  30. Chris Arndt says:

    Let’s put it simple.

    All the stories of Logan “before he became Wolverine” can pretty much work as individual stories in a series. Almost no one labors under the illusion that a series is one big story.

    When Wolverine’s pre-Wolverine stories were stuck together as one story in that movie…. it was drop dead stupid. A lot of his tales are different genres anyway…. then suddenly they all ahve to share subplots and lead into one another?

  31. Robyrt says:

    The problem with applying the “series arc” concept to comic books is that it conflicts with the business model. A comic is expected to sell to a core audience for decades, and also to a more casual pickup audience for discrete 30-page chunks. A grand TV storyline is expected to sell exactly twice: to a set of initial watchers who tune in to each installment at a low cost, and then to a core audience who will buy the whole thing in a massive omnibus volume.

    What you really want is a superhero graphic novel. Marvel recognizes this problem, but its solution is to meet you halfway: self-contained story arcs with artist freedom and defined endings that still require the crazy, Byzantine continuity knowledge. This doesn’t really solve the problem, but it’s encouraging.

  32. SatansBestBuddy says:

    Isn’t the current Spiderman Spidergirl, who’s the teenage daughter of Peter and Mary-Jane, who are still married?

    Or am I seeing things when I shop at the bookstore…?

  33. Nate says:

    I’m not sure the unlimited run can’t be done well. You just need to plan for it. Schlock’s been running for years, but the changing scale can’t go on forever. You need to pick a scale and stick to it. There can be charachter growth, but you have to avoid any sort of power inflation because power inflation is a ratchet. You might be able to get away with it if you link it explicitly to current technology, but that doesn’t let you have very super heros or villains. You don’t have to stick to the same charachters though. At least not in some settings. You could follow a ship from its commissioning until it’s decomissioning and have charachters come and go. In reality that’d give you maybe half a century. In Battletech it would give you until you decided to blow the ship up because things are built with stupidly long operational lives and there’s near complete technological stasis. Another option is to use a framing story that relegates the main story to legend. Legend by its nature has a loose continuity. Instead of telling Spiderman stories now tell them in a century when his great grandkids ask about something they find in the attic. Don’t tell the reader what the storyteller knows from old newspaper clippings, what’s stories Mary Jane embellished to entertain her grandkid, and what the grandkid is making up for the great grandkids because he or she finds that spiderman stories keep them entertained, but he or she doesn’t have enough of them. You wouldn’t be able to do some arcs because you’d have a fixed endpoint, but you’d be able to jump around the chronology at will. You lose the possibility of the hero dieing but that’s not really there in most franchises anyways. This last method is the method most amenable to multiple authors, but with strict enough editorial control the others may be doable as well.

  34. LintMan says:

    Too often, comics are run as a “franchise” rather than with the storytelling taking precedence. (Which is also how the Star Trek shows got run into the ground, IMHO).

    Comics-wise, I generally only bother with ones I know will form a self-contained story. As others have mentioned, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is excellent. J. Michael Straczynski’s Rising Stars is also quite good, as is his Midnight Nation. (JMS’s Babylon 5 TV show is also excellent).

  35. Audacity says:

    As someone who recently got into comics, by way of the excellent Firefly miniseries, I’m staying away from superhero based series. I’m just not interested in working through the huge confusing mess that most of them are. So I’ve limited myself to more fringe, no Marvel or DC, indy titles and think that DirigibleHate nailed it with:

    There is another way to do this, and it's to have artists control their characters. As in, instead of the studio deciding who writes it and when, the artist writes the character as they see fit, and if they finish, they can offer it to another writer.

    What we'd get is probably less long-running heroes, but better storylines and more characters. This method probably raises some large problems on its own, but I'm big on artists controlling artistic mediums, instead of corporations controlling them.

    A perfect, to my mind, example of this would be the Hellboy series. The original writer/artist is still in control of the plot, and the series is, so far as I’ve read, still sensical and straightforward. Well it is provided you accept the series premise, which allows just about anything to happen.

  36. acronix says:

    That one is ANOTHER (alternate) storyline. When talking about Marvel comics, remember you can have a thousand ongoing stories about the same character. All in different universes, of course. And at some point they´ll make a crossover to wipe out those storylines that the fanbase disliked the most. And then they´ll just remake it…again.

    To tell the truth, that “multiverse” thing is just a huge cheat button.

  37. Jon says:

    As long as people keep buying, they’ll keep mass-producing stories. The cool thing about a multiverse is that you can choose which plot lines to follow, and have a wide range of options to pick from.

  38. Strangeite says:

    I am neither a physicist nor a writer, but to me the errors in the timeline and continuity make sense. I believe it is referred to as a “Floating Timeline” and it isn't limited to just comic books.

    In these fictional universes time works differently than in our reality. Just like in our universe, time is relative to the observer BUT in these fictional universes the main characters are the axis upon which time is relative. I think of the main characters as little islands floating on top of a river that is time. The river maybe moving at one speed but our characters are moving at a different speed. The other important aspect of these universes is that time changes and retcons its own history in order to be accurate relative to the main characters.

    This is why Bart and Lisa are still in the same grade after 20 years but time has obviously progressed for other characters (think Apu's kids, which are now toddlers). It also explains why James Bond is still fighting the bad guys with the latest technology even though he should have started collecting his pension decades ago.

    Obviously this makes for a very weird universe where history is literally re-written in accordance to the main characters, but I am not sure it is any more of a stretch of the imagination than the essence of Thor being contained in a walking stick or a yellow sun granting the ability to defy gravity.

    Of course this is coming from a guy that hasn't read comics in almost 15 years.

  39. Jabor says:

    From what I’ve read (and I’ve read quite a bit), the vast majority of the Star Wars books form into one overall continuity with very little retconning needed.

    I guess it’s because the guys in charge are very strong about not letting new books override existing canon – if you want to write for the Star Wars universe, your plot needs to fit in to the rest of the universe and not break continuity with what’s already there.

  40. Louis says:


    Another Mouseguard fan here. :) In fact, I just got my copy of Winter signed by Petersen at the Baltimore Comic-Con.

    For anyone not in the know, Mouseguard is a comic series that looks more like a set of storybooks. It’s kid appropriate, aside from a little non-detailed sword-swinging violence, but still charming enough for adults.

    And really, you have to check out the out work. The official site has a lot of samples.

  41. skantman says:

    When Garth Ennis did Preacher he decided from the start it would run 66 issues. It was for the most part an excellent comic series that benefited from having a beginning, a middle and an end. I’ve always thought it would be great to have a comic where the character actually aged with the book.

  42. Lanthanide says:

    Warning, the following site may take up a lot of your time:

    This really epitomises what Shamus is saying here, because in the majority of these comic covers superman is being a total dick, and in some of them so are Lois and Jimmy (then ones where Jimmy can’t stop eating and gets obese are particularly strange).

  43. ehlijen says:

    Mephane, post 4:

    That is certainly one way to look at BSG, but I disagree with it. The last season especially smacked of deus ex machina and way too much ‘god moves in mysterious ways’ for what wanted to be a hard, gritty scifi show.

    Anyway, while I haven’t read too many comics overall, the best ones I read where V for Vendetta, which is much like Watchmen in that it is one story with a start and end, and the 8th Doctor who stories, who suprisingly given the way doctor who stories usually work, also have arcs with starts and finish. Sure the doctor just keeps going, never changing, but the better stories aren’t about him, he just happens to be in them. That’s if you like doctor who to begin with of course.

    But even with novels, some companies are trying to take the comic book approach of a constant continuity (see The new jedi order, the clan invasion thing in battletech…). So the reverse of what you want, Shamus, has already been happening for a while in the novel world :(

  44. Mom says:

    I remember an issue of Superman where something bad happened causing superman to get old in a few days but then something good happened and he got young again. Of course I read that 55 years ago.
    That happened to Captain Kirk too. Occupational hazard I guess.

  45. Heron says:

    @Mom: That happens all the time in sci-fi and fantasy shows. I can remember two Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episodes off the top of my head where that happens (albeit briefly). I can remember a TNG episode where that happens to Picard, and another where it happens in reverse (he’s made young, then reverts to normal age later).

    Occupational hazard, indeed.

  46. Scott says:

    Spiderman isn’t married anymore. He made a deal with Mephistopheles.

    (MJ might still remember–it’s hinted that there’s something about her we don’t know, and she was reading Faust the last time they met–but she’s the only one.)

    This is why I don’t read comic books.

  47. RPharazon says:

    Continuity issues are why I never got into Star Trek or any other sci-fi TV series.

    Star Trek, for example, has 3 long-running TV series worth watching, who knows how many movies (with half of them worth watching?) and enough lore to drown me for a year.

    It’s not just sci-fi, it’s series in general. For example, Discworld (I can only find the latest 5 books what the hell), Doctor Who (running since 1963 and has ELEVEN doctors), Metal Gear Solid (that’s confusing enough on its own even to dedicated fans), and Battlestar Galactica (what the bloody hell). Just to name a few.

    It is for this reason that I am eternally thankful that I caught on to House during its second season, and managed to find ALL of Asimov’s big works at a bookstore. Best knee-jerk $250 that I have ever spent.

  48. Gregory Bogosian says:

    Maybe each writer could just have their own separate continuity. That way they could all have access to whatever IPs the company trusts them with, and none of them would need to worry about other writers messing up their stories.

  49. oep says:

    I am ambivalent about House. I enjoy his acerbic attitude but the medicine on that show is laughably bad. I mean horrible, intern looked it up on wikipedia horrible. I wonder who their medical advisor is. I can tell you it sure isn’t a doctor.

    One episode that I remember featured a young girl with some obscure respiratory ailment. Someone mentioned Chlamydia as a possible cause, which is fine, but they then proceeded to do a pelvic exam on the poor girl. Chlamydia pneumoniae is a common cause for atypical pneumonia. It is not the same organism as Chlamydia trachomatis which is what causes the STD. Swabbing the cervix is about as useful in the diagnosis of pneumonia as you might expect. It is the kind of stupid mistake a second year medical student would have picked up.

    It ruined the show for me. I was willing to suspend disbelief and pretend that doctors break into people’s houses. But at least try. Talk to a physician at least once when you write a script for a medical show.

  50. Adam says:

    Go for the limited run comic series or the creator-owned superheroes. Anything from Image by Robert Kirkman. SANDMAN by Neil Gaiman. EX MACHINA by Brian K. Vaughan.

    But I was chortling as you mentioned Peter Parker, Shamus. Apparently you last checked in on his life before the BRAND NEW DAY arc (those of you familiar know what I’m talking about). Oh, if you only knew… To quote another reviewer, the comic book companies have answered the question “Can it get any worse?” with cries of “Oh God yes!” normally reserved for hardcore porn films.

  51. David V.S. says:

    I’m glad Astro City and Marvel: 1602 were already mentioned.

    No one mentioned Usagi Yojimbo or Planetary?

    (There are also Lone Wolf and Cub and Samurai Executioner if you don’t mind gore and adult themes.)

  52. Sam says:

    I must say, you’ve cast a bright light on this whole industry. And you’ve also changed my opinions somewhat in regards to all the various IP floating out there. My big problem with all these remakes and series reboots is that there is so much history with each IP that going ahead and basically changing the entire idea behind the show/comic/what have you seems blasphemous and stupid to me. But your idea of five year self-contained story arcs is brilliant. The longer a single story arc goes on, the more difficult it is when someone decides to restart the entire series. It’s true for movies, television shows, and many other media besides comic books. If you’ve got 10, 15, 30 years of history only to take it like an Etch-a-Sketch and shake the progress off the screen, it’s going to make a lot of people angry, myself included. This even includes IP that I don’t honestly care that much about. But if you have history that only lasts five years and people KNOW that the history is going to start over after that, it would be a lot easier to accept that it’s somebody else’s turn to tell their story of Captain Excellence.

    It’s actually a little like when you watch a certain actor play the same role (or series of roles) for an extended number of years, that seeing them play someone radically different makes it that much tougher to suspend your disbelief that he or she is playing somebody else as opposed to the guy or girl he or she has been playing for the last ten years.

    I loved your description of trying to catch up with a comic. It’s exactly why I don’t read them.

  53. wererogue says:

    I don’t have a problem with the time issue. After all, when the action’s flowing, a monthly comic can spend an issue dealing with about 30 minutes of plot, in which case, of course Peter Parker’s still in his 20s – when you cover, at most, about one month a year it’s not unreasonable to have little temporal advancement.

  54. SteveDJ says:

    Just glossed over comments, didn’t see this…

    While not a comic book, there is an animated series that has pulled off the no-time-advancement for about 20 years now — The Simpsons! IMHO, still as funny as ever, and no need to age people and progress them through life.

    So, if done right, I don’t see why a superhero couldn’t pull off the same idea – just multiple adventures in the same space of time. (Note – I’m not a comic reader myself, but I do love the Simpsons) :)

  55. Martin Annadale says:

    I’ve been more a fan of brittish comics (2000ad) than their American counterparts. They’ve been better at keeping some continuity, I think mostly because the same small group of writers would work on the same story. When you count the number of writers who has worked on Judge Dredd (the most prolific of the 2000ad comic books) the number is much smaller than what would have worked on something like spiderman.

    Also, super-powers are scarce in 2000ad universes. There is some with magical abilities, but most of the time its just some human that’s really awesome. Like Judge Dredd. He makes Jack Bauer look like a really upset kindergarten bully.

    Most of 2000ad is not really superhero comics. A lot of it is just straight scifi told in a comic book form. ABC Warriors rule, ok?

  56. DaveJ says:

    Shamus your post is basically my exact reasoning for not getting into comics. But I tried Ultimates and Ultimates 2 and I changed my mind.

    While still avoiding the mainstream series that have been running forever I’ve picked up older and completed stories (like 100 Bullets or Sandman) or newer ones that aren’t going mad with the crossovers (Invincible, The Walking Dead, Punisher Max, and Fables). There are some great stories lurking out there!

    I should add that there are some characters that have aged somewhat close to real life, Constantine and The Punisher in the MAX series. I couldn’t say it was a 100% parallel, but it is there.

  57. GuiguiBob says:

    My only suggestion would be to not worry about it too much. When you get into Silver Age comics you read them into wathever order you can get your paws on them so continuity takes a backseat to quality of story and art.

    Yeah he’s been abducted by liens at some points is it relevant to the story being told? no so it doesn’t matter. Yhough they used to be batter at keeping a status quo back then that you could go back to after your story was told. The biggest problem with comics isn’t the continuity is the need to shake everything up every couple of issues.

    If you want to read some great Marvel ongoing I’d advise to go with their cosmic ongoing : Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy.

  58. Daimbert says:

    A couple of comments before I get onto the main point:

    1) The new BSG is a bad example of a good, plotted story because it actually changed itself frequently — even in major details — due to things like people liking an actor or an actress liking an actor. So much so that, at the end, it’s hard to say if that was what they were aiming at all along, or if that’s just what they did to stick it all together at the end.

    2) Babylon 5, on the other hand, is an EXCELLENT example of arc writing. The anime/game/manga (though I haven’t read the manga so it might let me down) of the original .hack games and .hack//Sign is also a good example; there are at least three different stories (the anime, the games, and the anime that come with the games; the manga probably has one as well) that are interrelated and interrelate well. Mostly because of the reasons I’ll mention now.

    So, onto the main point: in order to keep continuity going across writers, the first thing that has to happen is that each writer has to understand and — even if they don’t like it — accept what other authors have done. You can patch it up and tweak it a bit to have it make more sense, but what’s written is written and you have to accept that that’s what’s going to happen. So a good example of this — in my opinion — is “I, Jedi” in the Expanded Universe. A lot of people really hated the “Jedi Academy” trilogy. Michael Stackpole inserted a character into it and tweaked some of the background, but as far as I can tell he didn’t completely write it away. Things happened as they happened, and his new character had an “excuse” for not being involved every time. It may be my favorite book of the series and I think it did all that well, because while the author didn’t like it he accepted it enough to have it happen pretty much the way it happened in the original trilogy (with some tweaks to fix things).

    That’s how you keep continuity, as long as all writers are good. If you get a crappy writer, then you may need to take drastic steps, unfortunately.

    I’d say to do this right you need a writer who can and will think two ways. First: “How can I do what I want while keeping everything that happened before consistent?”. Second: “If I do this, what will it mean for those who come after me? If they don’t like this, can they easily work their way out of it?” Unfortunately, most writers want to do it their way, even when the other way worked (see almost all video game movies, for example; they suck mostly because the writers feel the need to change the story of the game, even though the story is why people thought it would make a good movie in the first place).

  59. Merle says:

    For anyone who hates continuity snarls, I highly recommend Usagi Yojimbo or any book by Fred Perry. Years of comics written by a single author, with a well-defined cast of characters and (gasp!) PLOT that stretches over a long period of time without being screwed up by a new author coming in!

  60. Blackbird71 says:

    @oep (49)

    I could care less about the medical accuracy of “House”; my problem with the show is that it redefines itself as the standard for the term “formulaic.” Seriously, watch 3-5 episodes of that show, and you can accurately predict not only the outcome, but the flow of the plot for any episode after watching the first 3 minutes.

    Anyway, back on topic: I can’t say that I’ve ever gotten into comic books. With the exception of a few afternoons spent at my cousin’s house 20 years ago, I don’t think I’ve ever really read any comic books (I do remember that he had a few volumes of nothing but one page character bios, that might have helped keep some of the confusion straight). However, the problems that have been cited with comic books are some of the same issues I have with series in various other media.

    For example, the repetitive flow and neverending but ever ratcheting approach is what turned me off of shows like Lost and 24. If you drag a story out long enough without ever getting anywhere, but constantly try to increase the drama and tension over the previous episode/season, I just get tired of it.

    I don’t necessarily mind someone new reimagining familiar characters/settings with a fresh perspective, but doing so and then trying to shoehorn all the changes into the existing continuity in a way that just ends up making a colossal convoluted and nonsensical mess is exactly the problem I had with the recent Star Trek movie. So I can definitely see where people are coming from on this one.

    If problems like this are the typical fare of the comic book world, I can say that I’m glad I’ve never gotten involved. It just sounds absolutely frustrating to keep up with. I think I’ll stick with my regular books; after all, book series are never complex and repetitive with no end in sight, right?

    Hey, what’s this “Wheel of Time” thing over here…


  61. Gildan Bladeborn says:

    All that convoluted and somewhat nonsensical backstory is half of what I [b]love[/b] about comics, but I agree that it does make for a difficult time keeping track of it all, heh.

    Which is why I don’t bother, I generally just read trade paperbacks and the story in those is typically self-contained enough that you get the gist of whatever history you need to know. Folks who are familiar with all the back issues just get a bit more out of it.

  62. I have to second the Astro City recommendation. Part of the issue is that Kurt Busiek and the rest of the creative team are relatively small, so it’s hard to imagine it as an alternative to Marvel/DC (or at least it’s not clear if it COULD be), but the concept is that characters age in real time, they tend to explore individual characters or individual events, and heroes really do retire. One hero has been in operation since the 19th century! It’s fantastically written and beautifully drawn, and if they’re making invasion stories or detective stories or mob stories they make them SUPERHERO versions of those things, rather than trying to shoehorn in thematically inappropriate characters.

  63. Maureen says:

    If you don’t like weird continuity and everything being connected, you obviously aren’t much into the lais and gestes of Arthur and Charlemagne.

    Personally, I was really happy to learn how Oberon was connected to the Four Sons of Aymon and Roland and Holger the Dane and the time the angel commanded Charlemagne to go steal something and William of Orange. It made me even happier to learn that there were vast long sagas of all their ancestors and descendants.

    The thing that spoils it is not so much crazy storylines or retconning, as boring storylines and retcons that strike at the foundations of the characters. If comics writers are too wimpy to be able to continue relaying the story forward, they should have picked another job.

  64. Gordon says:

    I’m currently working on something kinda sorta similar, only different.
    I’m writing a limited series of comics for my brother to illustrate based on a preconcieved group of heroes, focusing on one in particular as his best friend remembers him, working up to his death. the way continuity will work is like Watchmen in the respect that there are assumed other events, but everything that needs to be known is explicitly explained. (another example of this is “soon, I will be invincible,” a novel)

    I hope I’m able to finish the first issue before the heat death of the universe. maybe I’ll even sell it.

Leave a Reply

Comments are moderated and may not be posted immediately. Required fields are marked *


Thanks for joining the discussion. Be nice, don't post angry, and enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be fun.

You can enclose spoilers in <strike> tags like so:
<strike>Darth Vader is Luke's father!</strike>

You can make things italics like this:
Can you imagine having Darth Vader as your <i>father</i>?

You can make things bold like this:
I'm <b>very</b> glad Darth Vader isn't my father.

You can make links like this:
I'm reading about <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darth_Vader">Darth Vader</a> on Wikipedia!

You can quote someone like this:
Darth Vader said <blockquote>Luke, I am your father.</blockquote>