DC Comics have reset almost everything. It may as well be a total reboot at this rate. Batman, Green Lantern, Animal Man and the Legion of Super-Heroes sound like the least-touched so far, but for the most part all that’s old is new. As I’ve discussed earlier, DC do this every decade or so. Make the characters younger, change up their origin a little bit, make them more modern.
So how do the people on the other side of the road deal with things?
SPIDER-MAN AND SOFT RESETS
For the most part, we get little resets, little continuity changes on a per-title basis, often to set up for a story. Some of these get ignored or replaced swiftly, others stick.
Spider-Man’s Clone Saga was a mess. The original idea was the strange notion comic creators have about married superheroes. Peter Parker had been married to Mary-Jane Watson for years and in comic time had been aged accordingly. They were stable, sensible, it was seen as pretty dull, or like somehow there would be a lack of stories if the marriage remained. The truth is that all it does is change stories, but still, Marvel editorial wanted a change.
The idea was that Spider-Man as we knew him for many years had been a clone. He and Mary-Jane could retire elsewhere and the original, now calling himself Ben Reilly, could take over. He was single, had a redesigned costume and hung around the young hero team, The New Warriors. That lasted about five minutes, and the fans didn’t like the idea of this at all. It screwed with their past, so it was reversed.
The newer change in Spider-Man’s life has been loved and hated. The event, One More Day, saw Peter Parker and Mary-Jane sacrifice their marriage to THE DEVIL to be able to save old, frail Aunt May. It was out of character for Peter, but it was a way to get rid of the marriage (successfully, this time), to make him younger, to introduce new story elements, and to remove the recent outing of his secret identity.
The story itself is pretty much universally reviled, but what it caused has become beloved. Brand New Day had a more fun-loving Spider-Man, an entertaining supporting cast. In fact, the worst parts have been storylines like OMIT (One Moment In Time), which tried to define the change made things worse. Many people, myself included, have tried to repress what caused the status quo, and keep enjoying the revitalisation.
RETCONNING THE MUTANTS
The phrase “retroactive continuity” is an odd one. It’s where current stories pave over the past with new details. The X-Men are filled with this phenomenon.
For instance, the original X-Men were Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Iceman and Marvel Girl. Wrong! There was also Sage. You wouldn’t have known this until much later, but while he ran the X-Men in public, he also had a teenage mutant called Sage as his spy at the same time.
Okay, or what about Cyclops? We found out that he was raised an orphan, but later we found out that his dad became a space pirate with a keen moustache. But wait, no, also his orphanage owner was the mutant called Mr Sinister who was experimenting on him. Oh, and his parents had a third child that no one talked about. All of this wasn’t planned out ahead, it was added when the plot found it necessary, and a lot of it covers over the old ground, replacing what was in the past. There’s no explanation, just, yeah, somehow Professor X kept Sage out of the view of all the other X-Men.
Oh, and he had another team of X-Men between the original five and the team which had Storm & Wolverine in it. This replacement team had Cyclops’ unknown missing brother in it, too. And they were all killed by Krakoa, so he covered it up until said missing brother came back all pissed off. You didn’t know? Retroactive continuity.
This is something both companies use a lot, but Marvel uses this to patch holes more than DC’s outright rebuilding, which often absorbs the ret-conning.
ABUSING ALTERNATE TIMELINES
The other way of Marvel having their cake and eating it too is the Ultimate line of comics. With this alternate continuity, they can do whatever they want with established characters.
At first, the idea was like running the New 52 at the same time as having the old comics, pleasing both sides. By starting again from scratch, there was a jump-on point which was perfect for new readers. I became a fan of Spider-Man through Brian Michael Bendis’ ultimate title instead of the ‘normal’ Marvel title.
As time went on, it had its own continuity problems and relied on the once-wonderful Jeph Loeb to sort things out. The event to show that the Ultimate timeline would be completely different to the old Marvel, instead of a constant string of references to it, would be Ultimatum. This story wantonly slaughtered Marvel heroes, as being different to the normal universe apparently translated just to, “we’ll kill people” and nothing else.
There’s currently a rebirth of the fun Ultimate Universe which is trying to prove that it’s more than killing people you’ve heard of in comics before, ending the bloodthirsty run of issues with the death of their biggest icon, Peter Parker, Spider-Man.
Slaughter and continuity hiccups aside, this was a very good way of placating new and old fans, a safe diversion from having to do what DC’s committed to.
So are these better or worse than the DC approach to continuity?
My answer is yes.
Okay, the sensible response if that there’s no great way of dealing with continuity. In a constant medium such as comics, you either have to have the characters age and get replaced, have stories end, or you have to find ways to reset them.
In a recent interview Dan DiDio, the vociferous master of DC Comics, said that the old editor, Julius Scwartz specifically mentioned that the continuity needs an enema every ten years. Give it a lick of paint, make Superman and Green Lantern lose any grey they’ve accrued. Marvel does it in a subtler fashion, but that subtlety means that they can’t accomplish anything huge without us noticing. DC can rip the plaster off and make entire changes with their method, but that will also lose them fans.
Both work, both have huge pitfalls and are far less than perfect. If you stay the same you stagnate, or you clear out workable intellectual property by retiring them. If you do a soft reset then any actual changes which people notice will often be viewed as screwing with “their” hero. Any hard resets will have immediate, harsh reactions and might jolt people out of the fandom.
So both are filled with peril, and if one method worked over the other, then both companies would be doing the same thing.
The only real options are to cowboy up, get good enough creators to distract from the changes people find unpalatable and treat the fans right, neither pandering to or ignoring them.