Sunday, August 9, 2009

Reader Question - What is Continuity & Why is it Important?

Continuity. It's what seperates the men from the fanboys and has been at the heart of just about every comic book debate known to man. My thoughts on continuity were sparked in part by Eric's post about continuity on his other blog (don't worry, he's not leaving us, he's just using it as an outlet for other types of posts!) and the recent Amazing Spider-Man #601 issue where Peter got piss drunk, slept with a woman he barely knew and blacked out, forgetting everything he did the night before. I disagreed with the portrayal and thought it flew in the face of established continuity, which sparked some debate in comments and on Twitter over if it did or did not fit Peter's character.

Which leads us to today's reader question where I wanted to ask you all what do you think continuity is and why you feel it is or is not important to a story. So, what say you? What is your definition of continuity? What matters to you when continuity is a concern? Does continuity only apply to the appearances of a character across the line of books? Is it in relation to how the character acts from one issue to the next? Does it matter if Wolverine (or any character) appears in 20+ books a month? When does it become character development and not 'zomg continuity error!'?

Feel free to sound off in the comments below and I'll be back later this week with my response to the question while spotlighting some of your thoughts and concerns!


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21 comments:

Andrenn said...

An interesting question. To my continuity is working with what has been established with a character, like not drinking alcohol or because of a past event having a fear of kittens. Because of a past statement in the continuity of a character they can't just randomly show up out of nowhere if in a prior story they died or if they are walking but in their last appearance they got their legs blown off.

I do think it is important, as long as the writer uses continuity to his advantage. Such as using the fact that Red Skull had the cosmic cube to explain that he wants it again in a Captain America storyline. It can tell some really good stories and with continuity in mind it can help really build up a character's personality on prior events.

hydrogenizedsoy said...

I majored in English and History in college, therefore these two influences color my opinions regarding "continuity" in comics. First I've been trained to appreciate narrative consistency. I like it when characters, setting, and plot remain consistent over the length of the story being told (taking in account, of course, character growth/regression). My training in history prompts me to want the most accurate accounting of what has happened in the past. This makes comic book reading a sometimes frustrating experience as characters often undergo massive shifts in personality, race, gender, species, and sometimes are completely removed from their original context simply existing as a name or defined by their superpower.

Therefore, to me, continuity is an accurate reflection of a character's origins as it's been shaped over time. Retcons, such as Parralax, are ok by me because they are explained in a manner which is internally consistent and serves the story well. Continuity should always be respected, but never enslaving. People in real life can go through massive shifts in their lifetime, and they may experience revelations that shake them to the core (I recently had a co-worker who discovered that he'd been adopted and he's 52 and has kids of his own), why not comicbook characters? All I ask for is internal consistency and that a damned good story is being told.

I hope that answers the query, I kinda rambled a bit too much I think......

Jason D. Manger said...

As a long time reader, I can appreciate continuity for the "oh look at that, that's from issue #324 where so and so did this" factor. BUT, I do not condone sticking to continuity so closely that it limits story development. I feel that if you have a good story, then tell it as best you can and fit it in where you need to. I think big books like Justice League or Avengers or event books like Blackest Night should fit into a majority of continuity areas, but individual books like Batman or Spider-Man should follow it in a more loose manner.

Anonymous said...

In a completely unrelated comment I would like to say that her head is terrifying. It's like a demon bobblehead.

Klep said...

To my mind, there are two types of continuity: event continuity and character continuity. Event continuity deals with the things a character does. Character continuity deals with the things a character is. So, for example, the number of times two particular characters have fought each other is a matter of event continuity. Why a character gets involved in those fights is a matter of character continuity.

Event continuity is messy in comics, almost by necessity. Sliding timescales, shared universes, and the commercial need to have really popular characters make appearances in multiple books means that event continuity is going to conflict and run into problems. I don't consider that a huge issue as long as it doesn't get out of hand. Retconning Iron Man's origin story so that it happens in Afghanistan instead of Vietnam is the kind of event continuity conflict that I don't really find problematic. People who are familiar with the character will see what is being done and will go along with it, realizing that new readers need to be brought in with a frame of reference they understand.

Character continuity, on the other hand, is of paramount importance. If in the process of shifting Iron Man's origin story in time and place, Marvel were also to change the reasons why Tony Stark built the armor (say, he built it because he needed to score a sweet new government contract), that would be completely unacceptable because it would change who the character is and what his motivations are. It wouldn't be Iron Man anymore. Similarly, ignoring important defining events in a characters' past or certain defining traits can have a similar impact. Spiderman wouldn't be Spiderman without his sense of responsibility. Sue Storm wouldn't be Sue Storm without her love for and utter devotion to her family. Character continuity defines a character and when a writer screws it up, he's not only screwing up what has happened to a character, he's screwing up that character's very identity.

Eric in his post talks about how continuity comes into conflict with the publishing houses' desire to have 'ageless' characters, and he's right that those two things inevitably conflict. Unfortunately, where they conflict isn't with the relatively unimportant event continuity, but instead with character continuity. You can't keep a character ageless without screwing up character continuity. Keeping characters ageless means they can't grow as people. They're stuck at a single point in their lives, and they can't change. Character continuity demands that they change, because their past experiences should continue to influence them and change their future behavior.

When a desire for agelessness wins out over character continuity, that's when things get stale. Because the character can't grow, all stories about that character inevitably fall into a certain flat, boring pattern. Without character growth, you can't really tell any new stories, just pallette swaps of old ones. Instead of Batroc robbing a bank it's Hyde robbing a bank. Instead of Doom trying to destroy the Fantastic Four it's Annihilus. Same story, slightly different enemies, same outcome. Ageless characters become predictable, flat, and boring.

I encourage you to think back to your favorite stories in comics. I think you'll discover that almost all of them have to do with events that changed a character's life and made him or her grow, rather than the thirteenth time they stopped a bank job. It's those moments of putting character continuity first that make comics worth reading and worth coming back to time and time again.

David Miller said...

Valiant under Jim Shooter did continuity right IMO. It created an airtight world in which characters acted consistently and lived with a genuine timeline. I'd love to see that tried again on such a scale but I doubt that anyone has the slavish devotion that Shooter had to make it happen. As such, we have comic universes with much more elastic continuity, this makes me less interested in following the universe and more interested in following the characters and creators I like during the times I like them. That may be for the best because I couldn't follow a full universe of characters any more unless it was 4-8 books.

Sebastian said...

Andrenn, hydrogenizedsoy, Jason and Kelp all have incredible comments. A balance between a good story and slaving to years of established history can be hard to find. I especially agreed with the event/character continuity point. Both are very important but don't always necessarily agree. Sometimes it's just easier to envision the character as it's quintessential archetype instead of So-and-So who fought Fighter-x in Blank Comics #187.

David Miller makes an interesting one, too. I think it would only be a successful experiment for the short-term. Eventually, if the line lasted long enough, it would collapse on itself and be just as horrendous as the Big Two's continuity mess. Take, for example, the Ultimate Universe. Still, I think it'd be cool, like early Silver Age Marvel where everybody runs into everybody all of the time or post-Crisis DC where it seemed like anything was possible.

The Dangster said...

For me when Batman is on the outsiders, justice league and a couple of his own series you just gotta go with it and assume he's doing it all concurrently. better yet, take in all the stories that you like. It's absurd to nitpick this kind of comic continuity when the goal is just to tell the best stories about a popular character.

I know Kirk has a strict sense of what retcon means. For me retcon changes something and thereby effects the end result. I remember Kirk referred to Booster Gold's inclusion in The Killing Joke as a retcon while I feel like it doesnt change Barbara's crippling and his inclusion seems to be more of a "what else happened that night." For me a retcon is when a writer resurrects a character without explanation (Hawkman), changes an established event/fact (the Ion retcon), or disregards or ignores a series (such as 52 ignoring the back stories to tommmy lee edward's Question series and chuck dixon's richard dragon).

In terms of characters and their personality, it depends. With Peter having a one night stand, I can forgive this characterization. He was drunk so clearly he did things he wouldn't. And let's face it despite his geekness he managed to have an impressive list of attractive girlfriends. However I must object to James Robinson's Jimmy Olsen special where he had Jimmy Olsen "grow up" and sleep with his goth ex-girlfriend without alcohol really. He was never that assertive, attracted to goth chicks, he's been age ambiguous, nor would he do that. Robinson's writing on that was absurd and forced advancement to his story and not the character.

Anyhoo, these are just the things that come to mind when I think about continuity. I used to be super upset with continuity and how some writers stick or drop it. I think about what Alan Moore wrote in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow: "This is an Imaginary Story... Aren't they all?" I realize these all these can be erased all that matters are the stories you remember.

Matt Ampersand said...

Ohh, I like the "Event Continuity" and "Character Continuity" concepts. This goes to show you that we have one of the smartest comments section in all of comic-book-dom.

For example, I think Marvel is better at event continuity (far from perfect, though). All of the events that have happened since Fantastic Four #1 (and before) still happened. It may turn out that they didn't happen as we thought they did (examples, updating a character origins so that it's not tied to Vietnam War, or being the first ones to get to the moon), but they still happened. I like that, it gives the stories more weight, and it builds an extended universe, which is one of the aspects that I enjoy the most out of reading comics.

What DC comics does every ten or so years, is hit a big reset button, cherry picking what stories did and did not happen. This takes weight away from the stories, and from the event continuity. Marvel did the same thing, although not to the whole universe, with One More Day. The fact that we are almost two years later still trying to figure out what did or didn't happen in the past is absolutely the biggest failure I could imagine from Marvel. This is, to my knowledge, the first time they flat out said "These stories did not happen! Period." All other retcons had some in-universe explanation as to why they didn't happen the way we thought they did (the Phoenix/Jean Grey retcon) or revealing information the reader nor the characters knew (the Bucky retcon).

As for character continuity, I don't want characters to be ageless. I want them to grow up, to change, to evolve, as long as there is logic (and good story-telling, if possible) behind it.

Using the example Kirk mentioned above, I don't mind Peter Parker drinking alcohol. He may have not drunk it when he was 15, but he is an adult now, so it would be logic for him to have a drink if he wanted to. As a matter of fact, I remember an issue of JMS' run where he is having dinner with MJ and he is drinking wine (oh wait, those stories didn't happen, did they?). What is not logical is for a character that is completely based on the concept of power and responsibility to completely toss out the "responsibility" part and get so drunk that he blacks out. He may believe there is a reason to get stupid drunk (to get courage to talk to MJ), but to completely give up his morals in the process is either out of character or the next (retrograde, in my humble opinion) step in the character evolution. A small moral lapse, but a moral lapse nonetheless.

Does that mean that Peter is now going to sign up with Norman Osborn because it is too tough for him deal with the pressure? Or is he going to turn to a life of crime just because everyone else is doing it? I don't think so, because it wold go against his personal beliefs, which is above all else, what make Peter Parker the character he is.

Oh god, I just wrote three whole paragraphs about Spider-Man drinking. Turns out I AM a fanboy...

MOTHER, WHERE'S MY GRILLED CHEESE?!

Flip The Page said...

Paul Cornell sums up my thoughts on continuity in the UK volume 1 of captain britain; that continuity isn't something to run from and should be embraced.

if you stick your dick in continuity (LOEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEB) then things can only go wrong. the drunk spidey thing is forgivable as a character slip/development that led to him sleeping with the hottest girl in his circle of friends.

Christine said...

Great comments! I, too, find the distinction between event continuity and character continuity important, and it's a great way of putting it.

I agree that character continuity is vital and is really what breathes life into a fictional character. These characters may not be real flesh and blood beings, but they can (and should) have personalities, motives, and (with time) personal histories. When these things become totally random, characters become interchangeable and their stories less meaningful.

When it comes to the "personal history" part of a character and whether every little thing that has come before - such as something from a story written decades earlier - needs to be referenced or remembered, I think a real world comparison is valid. We all remember quite vividly big milestones in our lives such as a graduation, the loss of a loved one or a particularly interesting journey. At the same time, we often don't even remember what we ate for dinner three nights ago. But that doesn't matter; the big stuff matters. It's the same thing with comic book characters. Not all stories and moments carry equal weight. A writer taking over an established character should have a firm grasp of that character's personality and meaningful milestones in the character's "life," but I see no need for an encyclopedic knowledge of the exact number of times Spidey has fought the Green Goblin.

When it comes to the event/shared universe side of things, I happen to really like the idea of the shared universe. However, I think that we need to abandon the idea of everything matching up perfectly. I like the idea of having character's pay little visits to each other outside of their main book(s), but if you constantly need to be hyper vigilant about what that character happened to be doing the previous week in his own book, it takes the fun out of it and limits storytelling potential. There are certain minor inconsistencies that we're just going to have to live with. Of course, there are also major inconsistencies (most of them avoidable) that are problematic such as there not being one clear idea of how Norman Osborn views his leadership role with regard to Dark Reign. That's just sloppy, quite frankly.

Thomas said...

I like continuity in a comic book I have read over a longer span of time, I love when characters develop, when they have to deal with the decisions they have made, right, wrong or completely out of their league. I find it funny when long lost thought parts of a story come back to haunt my comicbook hero, and I usually are there for the long run, when and if I decide to join a series.
But the problem with joining a long running series, only because a new writer is on bord, or a new event is looming on the horizon, is the continuity, all the events that happend before I have no idee of. The sentences, the jokes, and everything else I miss, only because I have no idea about the things that happend before. I´m just loosing a great deal of the story there, and what others are realy enthusiastic about, I can´t even follow or appreciate.
And this I think is the reason why we are regularly having those Universe changing Crossovers, to make it possible for new readers to actually read a series without continuity, with a new start, new rules and new readers, only to realize in 5 to 10 years, that the next Universe changing Crossover is needed!
That is what Marvel, DC and everyone else out there want´s, People that actually read and buy their storys, and the only way to attract new readers is a new jumping on point. And mistakes and errors are inevitable because you can´t make it right by everyone. So some will like it and some will hate it, but it doesn´t matter, as long as there are people out there how will buy and read it!
And with the storys that might be lost, there are still there, they have still happend, in another time and another place, and they are still good, even if they don´t matter anymore, they are now an Elseword or What if Storyline, like the ones we have now, eventually will become in 10 Years.
And I have a son and a daughter here, who started reading comics nearly 2 years ago, because their father did, and they could and can be really annoying, about why, how, what, who, because, if, and me not having an answer for everything they want to know is sometimes not easy. So thank you internet! ;())
So it is sometimes easy to give them something and to tell them, they have to find out for themselves, because from here on out, everything is new, the clock is reset, everything is possible and they can be there from the beginning to the inevitable end, to read their story, with their heroes!
And sometimes, as much as much as I love continuity, I hate it another time!

Anonymous said...

In my mind , there are two types of writers in the industry. There are people like Geoff Johns , Mark Wait and others who write with the mentality "...what would X character do in this situation?" Then there's people like Bendis and Millar , both excellent writers , that tend to write more with the "...wouldn't it be cool if...?" mentality. They tend to write any and ALL characters with their own voices , rather than the voices those same characters have had for decades. To those types of writers , continuity can be brushed aside in the name of having a really cool splash page or a "shock" moment. I don't really prefer either type. I see both the strengths and weaknesses of both. But I've been reading comics for 30 years so , yes , lack of continuity does rile me sometimes. For instance , in the recent Marvel Divas series , Firestar's cancer scare irked me something fierce. Back in Busiek's Avengers run , Hank Pym built Angelica a special outfit that siphoned off the radiation her power's caused , forever getting rid of her cancer scares. So much for that , uh?

Klep said...

@Anonymous - I don't want to get this too far off topic, but that suit prevented her from getting cancer caused by her powers (until she matured into them). It wasn't an all-purpose anti-cancer suit, and she could still get cancer in other ways.

Mike El said...

There's a really great article at http://lorendiac.livejournal.com/1903.html#cutid1 about this very subject... he actually talks about NINE different degrees of continuity.

Anyways, to me personally I tend to give the icons a lot more leeway as far as continuity goes. And a lot of times, if the story is well told, I can live with minor inconsistencies... for instance, I did feel a little skin-crawling when Peter woke up next to Vin's sister, but I didn't think it was going to inspire a entire thread like this. Meanwhile, I'm apparently the only person I know who is bothered by Superman fathering an illegitimate son in Superman Returns. Not that I have any problems with children born outside of wedlock, but because it's SUPERMAN. Arguably the most recognizable icon in pop culture history, and someone who was a very large role model for me as a child.

Batman is a great example of a person whose character continuity is constantly different, depending on the writer. And I'm totally happy with a lot of them, no matter how different they are, because a lot of these changes made for great stories (I think the Planetary/Batman crossover was an excellent celebration of that). But then you take a character like Johnny Blaze, in Hammer Lane. I LIKED Hammer Lane, I really did, but it was so far removed from the Trenchcoat Johnny that I was introduced to, I never digested it as an in-continuity story.

Anyways, I guess continuity of character is important to me, unless the change in minor enough to forgive, or the payoff story-wise is so good that I can overlook it.

Wallscrawler616 said...

To me, continuity takes on two forms. There are the actual events that occur in a character's history--the physical issues that are a documented chronology of the character. The other form of continuity is the sense of the character, the little bits of personality that we garner from reading the issues. In a sense, it's the difference between watching a biography on someone and having them as a friend.

I suppose that's an appropriate metaphor, really. When I'm not friends with a character, when I don't care much about them or haven't known them, it doesn't bother me when they act in a way I'm not accustomed to. It doesn't bother me that Gwen Stacy did the nasty with Norman Osborne, because I'm not attached to either character. I'm their biography, reading about their lives.

When Peter Parker, the guy I've grown up with (so to speak), does something wildly contrary to what I feel like he should do, it feels a lot like a betrayal. It's your college buddy suddenly screaming an obscenity at a bi-racial couple. The twist to the character you've grown accustomed to is jarring, especially when it's contrary to what you know about them.

By the same token, though, continuity should not be the weight around a character's neck. Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men run was amazing because he blended continuity with his own interpretations of the characters and events. Logan's reversion to James Howlette was funny on its own, but knowing that it was the James Howlette persona was a bonus bit of a chuckle for the readers. Conversely, his reinterpretation of Emma Frost's secondary mutation was innovative, but tweaked some of Grant Morrison's original concepts of her change.

In the end, I don't know. I don't think it's necessary to have an encyclopedic knowledge of continuity, and I don't think it's necessary to slavishly adhere to storylines and plots set up by previous writers (otherwise, isntead of being a mutant, Wolverine would be a hyper-evolved . . . wolverine). At the same time, I think it's important to keep a continuous core to the character, a sense of self to the character, and if that changes, it should have the same impact on the character as it does on the reader.

Nicholas James West said...

Perfect continuity in comic books would be very difficult. It seems like there needs to be a balance. I loved the 1980's Marvel Universe where everybody was accounted for month to month (even Wolverine!), but is that kind of a world possible today?

Continuity matters, however, character is more important to me. I hate it when characters act, well, out-of-character.

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