Crazy For Continuity
By John Byrne
Every once in a while, a spectre rears its head in the realms of fandom - especially internet-linked fandom. This spectre goes by the name "Continuity". Now, this is not the advertising studio run by Neal Adams. This is internal continuity in the comics. And the thing about that is, if you threw a stick in your average comic shop and hit six guys, you'd get six different definitions of "continuity" (not to mention six different spellings, most likely!).
Continuity has been defined as everything from slavish devotion to every line every written or drawn in a particular title (or even imaginary "universe"), to the panel to panel attention to detail that lends a certain verisimilitude to the work.
Funny thing about the first version, those who adhere to it are usually most adept at adapting to wild variants in "continuity" that occured before they started reading the book(s), but foam at the mouth at the least variant that comes after.
Now, one can certainly understand why many a fan would want a fairly high degree of internal consistency in the titles s/he reads, especially in these days when it sometimes seems the most vital elements of a character's history will be tossed out by some flavor-of-the-month writer who want "to tell a good story". (Funny defense, that one. I thought that was always our job!) Fans who have followed a character for more than a few years, as well as fans who are just venturing into this particular "reality", have the right to expect that, say, if the first story says Captain FoneBone was rocketed way from the doomed planet BoneFone as a child, then issue 100 should also say this, as should issue 306. There's no reason to suddenly say Cap is a mutant from the lost island of Atlantis, unless it's for some particular story arc, and all is to be restored at the end. (Or, Heaven forfend, unless one is doing Man of Fone, and the whole applecart is being deliberated overturned. But that's another story.)
Oddly, there are some writers who seem genuinely to believe this "now it's different than what you knew" kind of story arc can actually fool the reader. I knew one guy who wrote an arc for an established character in which we "discovered" that everything we knew was a construct created by one of the lesser villains. The writer played it as if this was really what was going on, and actually seemed to think the readers would gasp in amazement when all was restored at the end! (Don't ask.)
But, that aside, there are always elements of a character's history that must, perforce, be addressed and (alas) eliminated, from time to time. Say, that story where Captain FoneBone battled Hitler in the Bunker under Berlin in the closing days of WW2. Well, seems that Captain ForeBone has had an uninterrupted publishing history since his first issue appeared in 1939, and the writers and editors have always played Cap as if he existed in the present day, with the same supporting cast trotting along beside him. Do we find ourselves, at some inevitable point, having to reveal the Fountain of Youth Cap has under his sink, or do we merely start dropping out references to Cap's WW2 adventures? (This is not Captain America we're talking about here. Captain FoneBone didn't spend an undefined number of years as a popsicle.) Astonishingly to me, anyway there are some fans who would actually vote for the former. When I was doing Spider-Man: Chapter One I received a polite, reasonable letter from a fan who thought the "solution" to the whole "problem" of characters not aging in comics (something inextricably linked to "continuity") was to "simply" say Spidey's "radioactive blood" generated some kind of field effect which retarded the aging of everyone with whom he came into contact. Yoiks!!
Back to the central issue, here: what is Continuity, and, perhaps more to the point, what should it be?
Jim Shooter once said to me that as far as he was concerned Continuity meant if a hole got punched in the hero's HQ in one issue, in the next we might see a panel of that hole getting patched. I like to think it's a little bit more than that! I'd rather say that Continuity means most of the stories we've seen happened, they just didn't quite happen the way we thought they did. And some of them, bending under the weight of Time, didn't happen at all.
But it doesn't mean a throwaway line in issue 36 forever binds Captain FoneBone to a particular thread, motif, matrix, whatever. The bigger picture is more important. And that relates to the "to tell a good story" brigade, too, of course. If it is absolutely vital to your story that Cap indeed be a mutant from Atlantis, then, by definition, it's not a "good" story, is it?
Bottom line: Continuity is fun. Heck, the late, great Marvel Comics built their whole empire on Continuity (elastic as it might have been). That sense that, to be a True Fan, you had to Know It All. Unfortunately, there are times when that which I have come to call "Expert Syndrome" kicks in, and those who Know It All become obsessed with protecting the area of their expertise, forgetting that, had this kind of obsessive, anal detail-checking been in place from Day One, most of their favorite stories (in whatever "universe") would vanish in a puff of logic. Consider, to evoke his name again, the "history" of Captain America. Make his "return" to the Marvel Universe work, as presented in 1964 (or whenever it was) if Every Word Written about the character before that point had to be True and Invoilate!!
In other words, Continuity = Good Thing, as long as we leave behind the chisels and the stone tablets.