Learn to Share

December 2nd, 2008 by | Tags: , ,

The difference between continuity and shared universes is one of scale.

Shared universes work on a macro level. Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four live in the same city and sometimes run into each other. Daredevil hangs out with Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Spider-Man. Sometimes Ben Grimm runs a poker game with a bunch of heroes. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman consider themselves the best heroes around and sometimes get together to look at pictures of other heroes and sit in judgment of them.

Continuity, as its usually used, works on a micro level. Jean Loring did this thing in the past that led to this happening in the present. Spider-Man once fought a guy who knew a guy who was related to a guy who hates Spider-Man. Superman once had killed three guys but in the new storyline he didn’t, because they are back and angry and will Superman kill them again?

Neither of these are inherently bad. They can both ad flavor to stories. My main gripe tends to be with continuity porn, which Funnybook Babylonian Chris Eckert succintly explained as being “stories/sequences that really have no real dramatic or thematic reason for existing save for REMEMBER WHEN.”

Shared universes make for fun cameos. Sometimes Thor flies around in the background of a Spider-Man comic. Why? Well, he’s Thor, he lives in NYC, and he flies. Kapow! There’s a particularly fun issue of Spectacular Spider-Man by Paul Jenkins and Talent Caldwell where Spidey takes part in a poker game featuring the Fantastic Four, Angel, Black Cat, Dr Strange, and the Kingpin. Rather than getting bogged down in “Remember when we all fought in Infinity Gauntlet or Last Rites,” the point of the story sticks to the point of the story– a poker game. Their history is implied, rather than explained, and it works for the betterment of all involved.

The bad continuity, for me, is the kind of thing that tries to answer every quesiton ever, references things just for the sake of referencing them, or tries to solve old problems. It isn’t using the continuity to push the story forward so much as using the continuity as the story itself. Wolverine Origins was a good example, as the entire series’ reason for being was “Remember when this stuff happened to Wolverine?” X-Men Legacy is another continuity-based comic, though it’s more in the “using continuity to tell a new story” box for me.

I can’t get into the New Krypton stuff because it feels like it hinges too much on continuity, and the triangle numbering isn’t helping. Thy Kingdom Come over in JSA feels the same way. It’s slow moving, crowded with a bunch of faceless characters, and seems like it’s just there to remind you of a) Kingdom Come and b) Earth-2’s JSA.

What these stories have in common, at least for me, is that you feel like you’re missing something. There’s a story you didn’t read somewhere, or a connection you’re missing. It just doesn’t click.

While I was doing “research” for this post (asking others their opinion so I could steal their quotes and use them as my own), I realized that pinning this down isn’t as easy as black and white, good and bad. Like many other things, it comes down to quality.

I picked up Spider-Man: Round Robin: The Sidekick’s Revenge at a used bookstore. It’s Spider-Man, it’s Bagley, I bought it. It’s a shared universe book that doesn’t work. Basically, Moon Knight’s sidekick Midnight is back from the dead and he’s a villain. So, Spider-Man, Darkhawk, Moon Knight, Punisher, Nova, and probably some people I’m forgetting all team up to fight Midnight. It’s the shared universe at work, but it’s a mess in basically every way but artistically.

I know that my taste tends to run toward continuity free, or freeish, stories, rather than ones that build off something from the past, but that’s just me.

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7 comments to “Learn to Share”

  1. The worst use of continuity, to me, is trying to tie everything together. Especially when it uses hair-thin explanation. Sandman is related to the Osborns because he has the same hair. Wait what? Ultimate Origins was sort of the same, although it was showing new material and the Ultimate U was intended from the start to be “everything is connected,” so at least it gets a pass.

  2. You hit New Krypton right on the head. Their intended method of revamping Superman’s world isn’t to do it with good story telling, but rather to pull as many toys as possible out of the chest, and step aside for other authors to play with.

  3. I suppose Geoff Johns’ Superman run does feel different from his GL stories. And if I had to say why, it’s probably because he’s out to tell big stories with one but the other he’s just out to make big. The Brainiac arc & New Krypton so far are a lot like his Infinite Crisis/event book work in that respect.

  4. I’m a big fan of the idea of the shared universe and even continuity to a point, but there’s a certain line that when crossed, causes the precarious house of cards to come tumbling down. It’s fine for characters to have pre-existing relationships, especially when new readers are easily able to grasp the dynamics of that relationship, but when a story is either contingent or exists to explain or deal with the idea that Spider-Man dislikes coconut cream pie, a fact expressed in an issue of Spectacular Spider-Man from the 70s, something’s wrong. Continuity was originally supposed to be a way to get Superman and Batman together and have them punching guys in a more effective way in terms of storytelling. Continuity should always bend to a story, and I think we’d all like it more if more writers realized that.

  5. I think a lot of what you’re identifying is the “tribute” story. It’s not a real story in its own right, it’s an attempt to somehow continue/cash in on another story or concept.

    Of course, there’s its cranky sibling, the “purposeful retcon of spite” story, which would be an attempt to explain that a particular story in the past was just wrong. Like if I did a Wonder Woman arc hammering home the idea that Cassie is not really the daughter of Zeus, & explaining away every comic that says she is.

  6. Continuity should always bend to a story, and I think we’d all like it more if more writers realized that.

    Honestly, I’d be more happy if fanboys realized that, so that there’d be less instances of “G.W. BRIDGE NEVER REFERED TO DOMINO BY HER REAL NAME! @#$% YOU FRACTION, YOU’RE THE WORST WRITER EVER!” crowding out drowning out people who have something to say that’s worth a @#$% in comic discussion groups.

  7. I agree. JSA and the Legion of Superheroes are two concepts where you’re either gonna love or hate after being introduced, and you can only keep loving either one if you’re so interested that you’re ready to hack through page after page of Wikipedia and other sources to find out what the hell you’re reading about. JSA, I’ve done for love of Johns and the first few issues I ever read in 2007. The Legion I’ve given up on forever, and good riddance with this 3 Worlds, three nearly identical teams, trying to please every fan of every incarnation all-the-worst-stuff-about-DC bullshit.

    Even though I like JSA, I can’t defend its problems, and Thy Kingdom Come is doubly messed up for its dual reliance on KC and DC’s constant-freakout multiversal setup to get the 50% of it that doesn’t rely on the standard huge cast of little-known characters. I love the book but can’t recommend it to anyone and won’t be surprised if it fades (again).

    Marvel’s always seemed to be more easy-going and have fewer sticks up its ass about making ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING FIT including stuff that roughly five 35-year-old Americans remember. Kept me Marvel-only as a kid and keeps me coming back as an adult no matter how much I get into DC.