Friday, July 22, 2011

On Comics, Continuity, and Change

Yesterday, the folks at IDW publishing officially announced that they will be picking up the classic Marvel comics Transformers continuity, starting with an "issue 80 1/2" in Spring 2012.  Obviously, I'm thrilled with this news, and the irony that I find myself looking to buy any comic books so shortly after Wednesday's post is not lost on me.  But if anything could get me to do it, this is definitely it.

Of course, there's a lot of risk in such an undertaking.  Not just for IDW, but for those of us who are fans, as well. As almost any Star Wars fan who saw The Phantom Menace will tell you, picking up a well-loved story after a huge gap can easily lead to huge disappointment. In regard to the Marvel Transformers comic, at least one fan has pointed out that some of what made that series work was the constant pressure from Hasbro to keep introducing new characters to keep up with the toys they were trying to sell, and that this caused the writers to create stories and personalities that would likely never have come to exist if they were simply left to their own devices. Any new Marvel-continuity continuation, no longer having that recipe of obligations, may not be able to reach the same creative heights as a result. Even so, since writer Simon Furman tells us that the plan is only to go as far as "issue 100" and then conclude, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

My recent reflections on DC Comics' efforts to reset their universes' continuity also has me thinking through some of the difficulties inherent in setting up a long-running fictional universe. Besides the obvious fact that "it isn't real," fiction is not like real life.  Fiction, essentially by definition, requires story. Now, we have stories in real life, of course.  To be a "story" does not require that something not be true. But our "real life stories" flow inevitably from the much more mundane events of our lives that preceded that tale we actually want to tell. A married couple may, for example, tell the story of how they first met, but they probably won't include the details of the job interview that put them in the job or city that facilitated that chance meeting, or how their father's job caused the whole family to move some 15 years earlier, thus putting one person in a context that would make meeting the other possible.

Once upon a time, comic book stories were essentially "done in one" efforts, with little attempt to retain continuity over a period of time. You could read any story at any time, even out of order, and generally have the exact same experience. Real life tends not to work that way, and increasingly over the past few decades, the more popular fictional universes have attempted to duplicate real life in this respect. Going back to the example of Clark Kent's marriage to Lois Lane, readers like me came to expect to see the important steps along the way. And just as importantly, we expect future stories to build upon the events of the past, and not to contradict them. If Superman's friend Bibbo opens a bar in one issue, we expect not to hear him say he disapproves of drinking alcoholic beverages in a later issue.

Keeping continuity helps build a believable fictional universe, but there are still two major differences between a fictional universe and a real one. The first is that fictional universes tend to be a lot more interesting than most of our lives. Most of us never have to save the universe from total annihilation, but it sometimes seems like Superman (or even Captain Kirk) have to do this every other week. This difference usually isn't too much of a problem. While the writers certainly want to watch it so that they don't stretch plausibility too far, we expect the stories to be interesting, or we won't buy them.

The other major difference is harder to overcome: most fictional characters don't age in relation to the number of events they experience. For many years now, DC has used a sliding "10 year scale" for the bulk of their superhero universe. That is, Superman has supposedly been operating in public for 10 years, and thus all of the experiences we've seen him do should fit in that span. But even if we just try to work in "the major points," it quickly becomes apparent that 10 years just isn't enough. And when one realizes that Superman stories have been published for more than 70 years now, the need for the occasional "reset" becomes readily apparent. You just can't keep a plausible fictional continuity going on that long if you insist on keeping Superman (let alone, say, Lois Lane and Perry White) at approximately the same age that entire time. Even if one grants that the events of, say, a story that it took a few months of comic issues to read actually took only a couple of weeks or so to play out, eventually you're going to have the characters be too old to keep telling the stories the writers want to tell.

So, there are basically two choices: decide that after a certain point, a character needs to be retired entirely (I can't imagine DC ever doing this willingly with Superman, although the ongoing court case with the families of Superman's creators may certainly cause trouble), or recognize that you'll have to drop the excess continuity baggage from time to time.  DC is choosing to do the latter, as did Star Trek with the new movie a couple of years ago.

With all that in mind, I'm very much looking forward to revisiting the Marvel Transformers universe next year, but am actually not too bothered that it seems that we'll only get about 20 issues or so before it is set to be retired at "issue 100." Right now, fans are eager for more from that continuity, but a pre-determined end will help ensure that when we have to say "good bye" to it again, it will leave on a high note.

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