Selective Continuity

July 12th, 2009 by | Tags: , ,

I’ve written before about how, when following a character, you generally have to throw out the continuity you don’t like and read the continuity you do.

What I’ve noticed, though, is this trend tends to cultivate pockets of people who see very different characters.  This depends on a lot of things.  One is when you got to know the character.  People who are used to the warm and cuddly Batman of the 70s, do not like the colder Batman of today.  People, on the other hand, whose first impression of Bats was The Dark Knight Returns, wonder at how cuddly he’s gotten in the past year.

There are also different incarnations of each character.  Catman started out as arguably one of the more noble Secret Six characters.  But in Legends of the Dark Knight he was introduced as a psychotic murderer who slashed up women.

But things get a bit contentious when people drop or keep continuity based on how much they like a character.  We are all inclined to give more credit to those we like, in fiction and in life, and serial fiction gives us a convenient excuse for bad behavior.  I’ve gotten into arguments in which I can write off a character’s fall from the path of righteousness with an airy, “Oh, that wasn’t X-character, that was Y-writer.  You can’t trust Y’s writing.”  If I don’t like the character, however, Y-writer’s character choices seem perfectly trustworthy, and fair game to use in an argument.  Ah, the capriciousness of the reader.

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8 comments to “Selective Continuity”

  1. I think a lot of this can be attributed to the ‘miser’s coat’ from Morrison’s masterful Seven Soldiers. Reality/continuity is not a whole cloth, it’s a tattered, fraying patchwork being endlessly added to and repaired by an army of tailors with varying ideas about how the overall design should look. Obviously whoever wrote that Catman story thought he’d be best used as a serial killer, although Gail Simone’s interpretation definitely is a lot more wide open in so far as telling interesting stories about that.

    I tend to follow writers over characters, but I think there’s room for an extremely wide range of characterization so long as the progression is basically logical. Like did they ever explain why Selina Kyle doesn’t have a giant rack anymore? Or why Superman isn’t the socialist champion of the little guy anymore?

  2. I’m finding these musings about being a character fan of superheroes very interesting. It seems that most people define it as a negative thing, as if these people buy into hype, see creators as interchangable, and generally drag “the industry” down. When these people hear “character fan” they think of someone gleefully consuming shitty comics in a room lined with cases of unopened action figures.

    However, does someone who loves, say, Spider-Man but only reads “good” Spidey stories qualify for this category? Let’s face it, people who read superhero comics are looking for at least SOME escapism. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with harmlessly identifying with a character in a way that makes someone take a second glance at a book.

    Perhaps I’m being too literal-minded. Are people are using “character fan” as shorthand for “emotionally stunted obsessive compulsive who bitches about continuity, writes threatening letters to creators, doesn’t own a shirt without that character on it and won’t read anything else”?

    @zero democracy: I once heard an explanation that superhero universes are basically giant sets of Lego. You are encouraged to add to somebody else’s creation, take them down and rebuild them at will. The “miser’s coat” definition makes much more sense if you don’t believe that superhero universes were supposed to be shared from the get-go. It’s also a lot less juvenile 😉

  3. Retcon. Punch.

    anyways some things of CM’s past has been kept, they mention his fatass days alot early on

  4. To be fair, Catman was “introduced” as a Cat-themed Batman-ripoff thief in the 50s. It’s perfectly possible to draw a hypothetical trend line between that and his current Batverine version and completely miss out the psychotic phase. If you want to include it, call it a dark time in his life. When they finally released him from the asylum, he was the broken, flabby mess that got tortured by Green Arrow before going to African and being “reborn”.

    Comics writers do it themselves. I can remember when they were having summits about Infinite Crisis and someone pointed out that Maxwell Lord lost his mind control powers when he was shoved in a cyborg body. Dan Didio basically said “f**k it, did anyone here like that story?” and they made some throwaway remark in a comic about him getting cloned organs to replace his robot bits.

  5. I’m a fan of Cassie Cain Batgirl and Young Justice, but I stopped buying titles that featured those characters when they stopped being objectively good, and while I haven’t paid money for one of their books and they haven’t been entertaining in years, I’d still consider myself a fan of the characters.

    Interesting point about continuity, however: is it a valid criticism of the fanboy when he’s invested enough in a character to care about background details that by rights the writers should also be aware of? We can laugh at their obsessiveness, but is it really any different than someone knowing the names of every player in a sports league or every play in their favorite Superbowl? Does any other entertainment medium have the same fast and loose ‘take it or leave it’ attitude to elements of continuity in a serialised narrative that comic books have?

  6. @zero democracy: I would like to see Superman going back to socialism, just so we get a reaction shot of Green Arrow weeping in a corner and telling Dinah that Superman is upstaging him.

    @Lugh: @AlLoggins: Good points, both of you. There isn’t anything wrong with liking a character, knowing him or her, and expecting a certain consistency be maintained.

    The sticking point, however, is that every view of a character is subjective.

  7. Counterpoint: Read how JMS writes Tony Stark/Iron Man and try to reconcile that with the 40 years of history the character has.

    There is a very valid case to be made when it comes to “that’s not the character, that’s the writer”. Exhibit A: Peter Parker wondering how the hell Tony Stark knew about his spider-sense. If Spider-Man hadn’t been saying “my spider sense is tingling for 40 years, maybe that wouldn’t be so hilariously wrong.

    In the comics industry, there is very rarely continuity of direction, and at times it is plainly obvious that there is little direction at all as writers can and do get away with writing the same character in opposite directions at the same time. When two people tell opposite stories about a factual event, both of them cannot be correct (although both of them can be wrong). When two writers write one character in opposite directions, we as readers cannot accept both accounts as canon without also ingesting a heaping helping of cognitive dissonance.

  8. […] Creator Intention July 16th, 2009 by Esther Inglis-Arkell I wrote, a few posts ago, about selective continuity, the practice of admitting some parts of continuity into your vision of a character and setting […]