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Comics 201: Nobody Else Knows Either; Or, Why Comics Continuity Does and Doesn’t Matter

3260719-4210215449-3899. So Asgard is in Oklahoma now. Or it was in Oklahoma, but now it’s on the moon? Who knows what’s going on with those crazy Asgardians.

The location of Asgard probably isn’t that vital to your comics experience, but it’s a useful bit of background if you’re reading a story where the characters go there. When your hero has been around for a decade or seven, there’s bound to be a lot of history behind them. How much and which pieces of that history you need to know can vary wildly from one book to the next, and it might get completely cancelled out in the next issue, anyway. Then there’s also the four other versions of that hero from three different universes and the one that’s a clone and the one from the future and their kid from a different future. The movie version is totally different, obviously. No, not that movie version, the other movie version. It’s no wonder a lot of people’s reason for not getting into superhero comics is that there’s just too much backstory to keep up with. If you or someone you know has struggled with comics continuity, here’s a brief self-help guide to to why all that history does and does not matter, plus how to tell a retcon from a reboot, and tips for navigating the many multiverses.

What exactly is continuity?

“Continuity” is mostly just a fancy way of saying “backstory,” but it encompasses a lot more than just one hero’s history. When we talk about a universe’s continuity, we’re talking about the continuous – see what I did there? – timeline of connected events that make up the giant sandbox of that universe. A story that actually seems to care about all that stuff is “sticking to continuity,” as opposed to the ones that just throw all the history out the window and do what they want, which I’m pretty sure editors usually discourage.

Do I really need to care about that stuff?

Everybody’s got that friend who tells you stories about people you don’t know without explaining who any of the people actually are. You know what I’m talking about. Like, Bobby and Melissa went to Luke’s and saw Shantel with Terry, and they got into a fight. Who are these people, and why are they so unexpectedly violent? More to the point, who cares? Now, say this same friend told you last week about how Melissa and Shantel had this epic break-up and how Melissa had been staying with her sister Terry, eating ice cream and crying for three days straight. Suddenly the other story has a little more drama. You know who the players are, you know the stakes, and you might even want to know what happened after the fight. When you go into a story knowing who everyone is and how they’re connected, you’re a lot more likely to care what happens to them. With comics, it’s impossible to know all the background behind every story, but a little bit of extra knowledge can make your reading a lot more interesting. Plus, a crazy detailed knowledge of comics continuity can make you both honored and feared in fandom and on the geek trivia circuit.

Why don’t they just tell you what you need to know in the comic?

Sometimes they do. A lot of ongoing series will have little “Previously on…” summaries on the title page of every issue, which can be useful if you missed an issue or are just jumping onto the story. If a character says something like “Am I gonna have to kick the Alpo out of you like last time…?” you might see an asterisk and a footnote at the bottom of the page with “New Defenders 125!” Depending on what’s happening, you might even get narration or dialogue explaining what the hell is going on. The thing about that kind of continuous explanation is that, if you’re a regular reader, it tends to get kind of like that other friend everybody has who starts every story with “My cousin, Melissa, and her girlfriend, Shantel…” even though you’ve known Melissa and Shantel for years. It’s hard to strike the right balance between enough information for new readers but not so much information that you’ll irritate continuous fans. Most writers and editors seem to aim somewhere in the realm of “regular reader who skipped the last few issues,” which tends to cover most of the right bases.

Okay, but you said we didn’t need to read every back issue of everything.

You totally don’t. For one thing, ninety percent of what happens in a comic isn’t going to be important outside of that one story arc. Hilarious as it is, you don’t need to know about that one time Hawkeye teamed up with Moon Knight to read either of their current series. Matt Fraction probably knows about that one time Hawkeye teamed up with Moon Knight, but Matt Fraction is a Grand Master of Nerd. Fraction aside, the fact is that most writers on superhero books probably don’t know every single detail about their characters’ histories. Though it’s unlikely that a writer will be assigned to write a hero they know absolutely nothing about, and any good writer will do their homework to catch any important background they might have missed, there’s ultimately just too much to keep track of. Any comic you pick up is bound to have some detail that contradicts some other detail in some other comic, and the majority of the time it won’t make one iota of difference. Does that stop overzealous uber-readers from taking every opportunity to point out something a writer got “wrong”, especially if the writer is a woman? Not even a little bit. Ask Gail Simone how many of her Tumblr messages are random bits of Black Canary trivia from anonymous users. Don’t be That Guy. Accept a little inconsistency and move on with your life. Another thing you’ll need to accept is that the moment you think you actually know a thing or two about comics continuity, everything will change. Either a storyline will come along to rewrite all the history you thought you knew or that history will get torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.

What?! Why would they do that? That’s stupid!

Well, the retcon and the reboot are well-established frenemies of continuity, and they’re not always a bad thing. I mean, sometimes they’re pretty stupid, but not always. A retcon is what happens when a writer introduces “retroactive continuity,” which is like saying, “You know that thing that happened? Well, this is what really happened.” It’s the “lol j/k” of comics writing, and like any storytelling device, it has the potential to be really awful or truly awesome, depending on what gets rewritten and whom you ask. Undoing significant events in a character’s history can undermine character development and diminish a story’s impact, but it can also be a useful way to erase problematic or offensive backstory, of which there is more than enough. Reboots are a little more dramatic, like the nuclear solution to your continuity problems. Given the popularity of big screen reboots in recent years, I’m gonna guess you’re already familiar with the concept of throwing everything out the window and starting over. The way comic book reboots work is usually through an especially massive event, which we’ve already talked about, or by spinning off a whole new universe. DC is the reigning champion of the reboot event, having used the landmark Crisis on Infinite Earths to cut off whole chunks of existing continuity and reducing the number of dimensions in its multiverse. Since then, they may have gone a little overboard, what with the New 52, but out of respect for DC fans, we’re not going to talk about that.

What about the new universe thing? It seems like there’s a lot of different “universes” in comics.

So many universes. Dear gods, so many universes. That’s actually another thing you can thank DC for, since they introduced both the superhero reboot and the concept of the “multiverse” by creating a new version of The Flash in 1956, the having him meet the original Flash in 1961 and saying that the two heroes existed in separate universes. The two universes were creatively named “Earth-1” and “Earth-2,” and other “Earths” have been added on as needed. Even though Crisis on Infinite Earths helped clean up some of the superfluous ‘verses floating around, the DC multiverse is still as vast and convoluted as ever, and DC has a handy map to aid in your exploration. DC may have originated the multiverse, but Marvel has gleefully followed in the tradition. Instead of rebooting one hero and having the others follow suit, Marvel decided to reboot their entire continuity by launching the Ultimate universe in 2000, the idea being that starting everything over would give new readers a chance to jump onto the beginning of a story without having to deal with decades of continuity. In theory? Great idea. In practice? No comment. Marvel also led the way in bringing superhero continuity to the screen with the Cinematic Universe, which has been, y’know, fairly successful. The Marvel wiki has a nice breakdown of the various ‘verses, but here’s the ones you really need:

  • Earth 616, known as the “main” Marvel continuity. Almost any Marvel comic you pick up takes place in 616, unless the title tells you otherwise.
  • Earth 1610, the “Ultimate” universe, where everything is awful and Captain America was president that one time. All these comics have “Ultimate” in the title, so you can prepare yourself for the angst.
  • Earth 199999, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Avengers-related movies live here, along with all the associated TV and Netflix series. There are also tie-in comics, most of which are worth avoiding [Editor’s note: Except SHIELD!].

There tends to be a bit of universe-hopping in comic books, including team-ups between DC and Marvel, so even sticking with one universe won’t keep you from running into unfamiliar continuity. No matter which earth you look at, it’s pretty much one big soup of backstory and who’s whose kid from the future.

Screw it. I’m just gonna read indie books.

A valid choice; but before you throw your hands up in consternation, there’s two things you should remember: 1. A good story is a good story. 2. Wikipedia is your friend. Find out what other new fans are reading, and ask your comics guru for the best of the best. Ask if there’s any background you need going in, and pray that the person you’re talking to can limit themselves to the necessary details. If you reading a story and run into something confusing, like Asgard floating over a field in Oklahoma, don’t hesitate to consult your favorite info sources for an explanation. The best superhero stories will keep you engaged regardless of your continuity knowledge, and that extra bit of history will only help you get more out of them. Feeling a little more confident? Good. Now go read some comics!  

Catch up on past Comics 201 posts: The Great Publisher Debate Crossover Events What To Know

Jordan West is an obsessive writer, dedicated cosplayer, and fake geek girl living in Minneapolis. Specialties include ultra angsty fan fiction, feminist commentary, and co-captaining the WTF Comics Club. Follow Jo on Facebook for ongoing hijinks.

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