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Comic Book Dictionary – Obligatory Continuity

I’ve explained nepotistic continuity and paternalistic continuity, now today I will explore obligatory continuity.

As a quick recap, nepotistic continuity is when a creator has characters from his/her previous works show up in his/her current works. You can usually tell when nepotistic continuity is at hand, because a story will involve an obscure plot point from an old comic, and even if you don’t recall offhand who wrote that previous comic, odds are it was the writer of the current comic book.

Paternalistic continuity is when a creator is protective of a certain character, like Jim Starlin with Thanos.

Obligatory Continuity, however, differs from those other terms in that it is not really a voluntary action. The term occurred to me when I was talking with my pal Stony about how he felt Lex Luthor should be a better villain, because Batman has so many great villains, to which I joked, “Like Killer Croc!”

And it struck me – once a character has become “established,” future writers are pretty much obligated to use the character eventually, no matter whether a writer would, under normal circumstances, ever actually WANT to use this character.

This is why we keep seeing Killer Croc show up in Batman comics. Seriously, no writer is saying, “Aw man, FINALLY, I get to write the Killer Croc story I’ve always wanted to tell!” No, it’s just that Killer Croc has become “established,” and therefore future writers are obligated to EVENTUALLY use him, whether they really have anything to say with him or not.

The same goes for Penguin, Riddler, Mysterio, Mr. Sinister, Apocalypse, Vulture, Electro, Doctor Octopus and others.

It doesn’t matter whether creators really WANT to write about Mr. Sinister (because, well, really, who WANTS to write about Mr. Sinister? The guy is lameness on a stick), they’re obligated to – and, surprise, surprise – the X-Books are having a summer crossover centered around none other than Mr. Sinister!

It’s an obligation that writers have to deal with when taking on longterm properties, and it’s an amusing one, I think.

It also leads to stuff like Peter David coming up with a rather (unintentionally, I think) hilarious origin for the Vulture, as he feels obligated to eventually revisit Spidey’s rogues gallery, whether there is a story there or not.

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But Riddler, Mysterio, Doc Ock, and Vulture– especially Vulture— are awesome! But maybe that stems from “Well, I’ve got to use them. How are they cool? Let me figure it out.”

I think writers should just avoid characters they don’t have stories for. No one listens to me, though.

Still, the lamer someone is, the cooler I think they are– I can’t wait to do my Kite-Man story, for instance, or revamp the Clock King, or bring King Tut into continuity.

Oh, it’s not a question of how awesome they are, some are awesome, some are not – it is just the fact that the writers HAVE to use them, whether they have much of a story for them or not.

Rucka mentioned this sort of thing in one of the introductions to a Gotham Central trade. He writes about every person who wants to write Batman wanting to write a Two-Face story, presumably because that particular writer knows what makes Harvey tick. That bugs the crap out of me, because it would be nice if writers didn’t just feel it necessary to do that. If it’s by editorial fiat, okay, but too often the writer seems to think “Hey, it’s been a while since we had this character – I’ll bring him back whether it’s a good story or not!”

Of course, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the best Killer Croc story is when Moench sent him to the swamp to hang out with Swamp Thing. There’s no reason ever to use him again. Come up with some new villains, people!

Well yeah, but on the other hand, past one appearance in a Hine Colossus mini, no one’s used Sinister in years.

and there’s been full and lengthy X-Men runs in there by Claremont, Austen, Morrison, Whedon, Casey, and Milligan.

I half think that Carey actually DOES have something to say about Sinister. He seems pretty close thematically to a lot of the other villains he’s been using. And it’s not like he hasn’t been liberally coming up with new ones, either.

Sinister was just in Milligan’s X-Men run.

I thought it was about writers having to reference the death of Peter’s Uncle about once an issue and stuff like that, that that was Obligatory Continuity.

Was he?

I know he used Apocalypse, but I must have completely blanked on the Sinister stuff.

That was an incredibly forgettable run.

Sorry

Milligan did write that Cyclops and Phoenix miniseries that was the closest thing to a good Mr. Sinister story anyone’s ever written. Maybe he wanted to use him.

I’m not sure Killer Croc is actually a great example of Obligatory Continuity. My hunch is that a lot of writers *do* want to use him, at least in a sense, because he’s one of not-too-many Batman villains who can plausibly go toe-to-toe with Batman in a fight, and perhaps even have the upper hand.

Or perhaps that’s the *reason* he’s an Obligatory Continuity character now. It’s not so much that he’s a compelling or interesting character as that he’s an easy way to throw in a fight scene.

I call shenanigans! Grant and Breyfogle made up new villains for Detective Comics waaay more frequently than they relied on the established rogues gallery.

Although, they DID use all the classic villains, eventually. So I guess you’re right.

it’s not just the writers, but the fans demand this stuff a lot as well. I just started reading the Legion of Super Heroes(I had never collected the series before), and you would be amazed at the number of long-term readers who keep demanding that older plots, characters, etc be brought back.

the funny thing is, all that convoluted time travel, alternate history stuff they reference is the exact reason I never the read book before. go figure.

I’m not sure Killer Croc is actually a great example of Obligatory Continuity. My hunch is that a lot of writers *do* want to use him, at least in a sense, because he’s one of not-too-many Batman villains who can plausibly go toe-to-toe with Batman in a fight, and perhaps even have the upper hand.

Or perhaps that’s the *reason* he’s an Obligatory Continuity character now. It’s not so much that he’s a compelling or interesting character as that he’s an easy way to throw in a fight scene.

I think you’re dead on as to why Killer Croc keeps getting used, but it’s so silly, because they could easily invent NEW characters for the same role (as it is not exactly a refined role – “bruiser”), but they always revert back to Killer Croc.

A secondary annoyance about Killer Croc is how he has gradually devolved from “thug with a weird skin condition” to out-and-out literally reptillian “monster who eats people.” Not that either is especially compelling, but at least the former gives you the possibility of doing *something* other than “Killer Croc gets into a fight with Batman.”

A curious question just occurred to me: are there any characters who once were “obligatory continuity” characters, but who eventually lost that status? If so, why?

Great question, David.

I’m sure there are some out there, although I can’t think of any off hand.

Hobgoblin certainly counts.

Excellent call, Derek. You’re talking about one who WAS obligatory, but now isn’t, right?

It’s really inconsequencial at this point, but a quick check with a couple of people who follow the X-books more closely than I told me that Sinister wasn’t actually used in Milligan’s run, so that means he’s been out of the main books for a few years, and is thus presumably “fresh.”

I had forgotten that he was in Weapon X though so it’s not like he wasn’t seen at all, given how bloated the X-books are.

As for the topic at hand, I think one thing to keep in mind is that when there are so many Batman stories happening at once, it only makes sense that they’re going to use and reuse established characters because they’re part of the living world of the characters.

For instance, anytime organized crime comes up in Batman, you sort of have to think “Gee, I wonder what the Penguin is doing in all of this,” because he’s a key part of that element of Batman’s world. Now that’s a lot more organic than saying “Hey, I haven’t done a Killer Croc story yet. Better get on that,” but I imagine at least some of those Croc stories are logical, even if it’s just a matter of realizing you want to have Batman running through the sewers.

I have a lot more problem with something like Hush, where Loeb just wanted to shoehorn in a whole bunch of characters.

Sinister wasn’t used heavily, but he was there. :) Gambit and Sunfire go to him after becoming Apocalypse’s horsemen.

Ah yeah, you’re right. My bad (twice).

Drat. Faulty sources (including my memory) abound! I just didn’t have time to get to my former college RA, who just happens to be keeping a massive, obsessive compulsive database of his Marvel comics and the characters within from the late 80s on.

I’d make some lame argument about how that was just leading up to what he’s doing now and the next arc and it was an editorial set up, but I don’t think anyone would buy it.

Ah well. It was the tail end of the Apocalypse arc, so that was still a good number of years since he was used at all.

I’m not so sure they feel obligated to do anything, in the way you describe. If a writer decides to write a story where Batman battles Killer Croc, it’s because he thinks he can write a good story with Killer Croc*.

“Why not create a new thug” someone asks? I counter with “Why create a new thug when there’s one already around?” With a new character, you have to figure out their origin, motivations, etc. Once nice shortcut with serial adventures is you don’t HAVE to explain everything in the current story.

The alternative is a writer spending a year telling story after story where Batman battles Two-Face, because that’s the one story he wants to tell. I think if there’s any obligation, it’s to keeping things interesting.

*The exception being if it’s a crossover with “Infinite Killer Croc Crisis” where everybody is fighting Killer Croc.

Carey made Exodus interesting and he reused characters that haven’t been seen in a long time.

I think he genuinely wants to use Sinister. He seems interested in making him a significant X-men villain again which pleases me to no end. Sinister is a character that has somehow survived for years, he should at least be made interesting.

Wasn’t Croc a wannabe crimeboss when he was introduced — the guy whose machinations led to the deaths of Jason Todd’s parents? That was a lot more interesting to me than using him as a generic strongman.

Sinister is one of those characters whom I never understood — he was always totally lacking in motivation. But the Urban legend column about him finally made sense of the original stories, at least.

I’d say that the Wrecking Crew and Mr. Hyde over at Marvel are in thispossibly subsidiary category of “convenient continuity” as well; they seem to turn up everywhere eventually on the grounds that they’re superstrong villains for whom no motivation has to be established. HYDRA probably counts as well; if anyone can work out HYDRA’s current leader or motivation in most of their appearances from the 1990s-present it’d be a miracle. But if you need a generic terrorist group for the hero to face, HYDRA is it.

In terms of once obligatory continuity characters who’ve lost that status since, I’d have to go with the spate of recent DC casualties. Guys like Dr. Polaris, KGBeast, and the original Ventriloquist were all killed off after years of seeming like Obligatory Continuity characters. Polaris had long since become a generic yet oddly obligatory villain-of-the-month, and the KGBeast and Ventriloquist had foundered for years after their creators left the Bat-books. Of course, Paul Dini’s introduced that new Ventriloquist in Detective, so I may be off on that one.

And I’ll second the complaints about Killer Croc’s retconning from a disfigured human to a mutant animal-human hybrid. A crocodile snout on a humanoid body always looks more whimsical than scary — just ask Jeff Smith.

In my opinion, the best Croc story was in the DCAU, when the villains play cards and are saying that they came very close to catching Batman. Croc telling his story after the others had really grandiose plots, saying that he attacked Batman with a rock. A big rock. That was hillarious.

Actually, in that story, Croc was really Batman in disguise.
What a great episode that was…

I’d also put forward the idea that the larger fan base would be more likely to buy Batman vs Killer Croc than let’s say Batman vs Grotesk or Batman vs New Character X if all else(creative team, timing, whatever) is equal.

I’ve got nothing at all to back that up, mind you.

I’d say that shocking as it might seem, Doctor Octopus has dropped out of Obligatory Continuity status. He used to be a rock-solid Spidey villain, but he seems to have kinda dropped off the map since the Clone Saga (although someone who pays closer attention to the Spider-books will no doubt contradict me.)

Ditto with the Leader in the Hulk series–I know that he has been brought back since Peter David killed him off, but he was once practically earning overtime as a frequent Hulk villain, and now much less so. (Ditto with the Abomination, AFAIR.)

The Joker… I am sooooo sick & tired of the Joker, but every single writer at DC seems to feel obligated to use him again and again.

I’d say that shocking as it might seem, Doctor Octopus has dropped out of Obligatory Continuity status. He used to be a rock-solid Spidey villain, but he seems to have kinda dropped off the map since the Clone Saga (although someone who pays closer attention to the Spider-books will no doubt contradict me.)

Correct about being corrected; JMS used him in a dandy little three-parter wherein Ock got hired by a research company for his technology, then the evil CEO turned the tables on him and tried to kill Ock and stole the tentacle technology to make himself an awesome for-the-00’s Ock armor suit, and Ock of course broke out of the deathtrap and went after the guy, and Spidey was stuck in the middle trying to keep people from getting killed. This was post-Aunt May finding out too, so we got the nice “May finally figures out Ock isn’t really very nice” scene afterwards.

It was a pretty damn good story. JMS’s run on ASM prior to the horrible Goblin Kidz storyline was really very good, and even his stuff after that was readable.

Paul Jenkins also took a real shine to Ock, using him in a three-parter in Peter Parker and then as the second five-part arc in the relaunched SPectacular Spider-Man.

And since then he’s turned up in Millar’s Marvel Knights Spidey run and was recently seen in the final issues of Fabian Nicieza’s Thunderbolts run.

Rucka mentioned this sort of thing in one of the introductions to a Gotham Central trade. He writes about every person who wants to write Batman wanting to write a Two-Face story, presumably because that particular writer knows what makes Harvey tick. That bugs the crap out of me, because it would be nice if writers didn’t just feel it necessary to do that. If it’s by editorial fiat, okay, but too often the writer seems to think “Hey, it’s been a while since we had this character – I’ll bring him back whether it’s a good story or not!”

Hope I’m using the proper HTML quote tag here.

Anyway, what I think you’re describing is not really obligatory continuity but something else, a phenomenon that I think Brian should include in the comic book dictionary, unless he already has…the “Defining Moment”
or “Miller Moment” phenomenon. As I understand it, before Shooter allowed Frank Miller to write Daredevil as well as draw it, the common aspiration of comic writers was to get an A-list character. Shooter thought it was dumb to break characters into A-list and B-list because you pretty much doomed a book to low sales and lower regard once you consciously classified it as inferior. (I wish someone would remind DC and Marvel of Shooter’s philosophy today, especially at DC where we’re constantly reminded of characters A-list and B-list status IN-STORY, pretty much dooming scores of characters to low sales and inability to carry a solo title)

Anyway, Miller shows why Shooter’s philosophy makes sense, he gets on Daredevil and knocks it out of the park. (Claremont and Byrne also are an example of how tis philosophy works when they take X-Men to stratospheric heights) If Miller tried it with Spider-Man, an A-list title, he wouldn’t have been able to get away with as much because the character is too important to be tinkered with much, and he’d have had less impact because there were already so many definitive, memorable runs and stories.

After people realized how you can take a less-respected character and make a name for yourself on it by writing that character’s definitive “Miller Moment,” we’ve been plagued with people trying to do “Miller Moments” with the same characters over and over again. ICeman has reached his “full potential” over and over again under different writers. How many times have we been subjected to the Nightwing story where he “FINALLY” comes out from under Batman’s shadow? Because everyone wants to do the defining “Miller Moment” for these characters, they tend to brush aside and ignore the character’s previous “Miller Moment” in order to write their own.

Which is what happens with Batman and Spidey villains all the time.

Y’know, Shooter has this horrible reputation, but an awful lot of what he says seems to make good sense.

Anyway, a couple guys occur to me as examples of how you can fall off the “Obligatory Continuity List:” Toyman and Doctor Light (well, Doctor Light was never actually *on* the list, probably, but illustrates the point.)

Basically, if a villain does something so heinous and so unforgivable (and isn’t essentially *defined* by his wickedness, like, say, the Joker), he becomes more or less useless for the future.

After their most notable recent stories, you pretty much can’t use the Toyman or Light without bringing up some pretty damn grim subjects – child murder and rape. Unless you really want to wallow in those subjects (and *not* addressing them would stick out uncomfortably, too), what can you possibly do with them? Not much. (Side issue, though, is that DC has had, I believe, at least two “new” Toyman characters since then, so perhaps it’s still obligatory to have *a* Toyman pop up periodically?)

Interestingly, DC seems to have become aware of this wrt the Toyman. In the “Ten Most Wanted” feature of the new Action Annual, there’s a suggestion that Winslow Schott might very well be innocent of that particular crime. If and when that happens, I suspect Mr. Schott goes back on the list….

Not comics, but last night I finally watched that Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman direct-to-DVD movie they put out three years ago. The bad guys are a partnership between Rupert Thorne, Penguin, and this new guy whose name escapes me. The problem I had the whole time (which probably says more about me than I’d like) is why the hell would Rupert Thorne and Penguin be working together? Add to that fact that Thorne contributed absolutely nothing to the movie except playing with a deck of cards and shooting a couple of guns.

Later in the film, they hire Bane to take care of Batwoman and we get yet another Bane / Batman showdown. My roommate turned me and said “Do guys just get a boner for Bane or something? Why does he keep turning up.” Sadly, when it comes to DCAU, if Batman needs to fight a physical powerhouse, the only options he has are Bane… or Killer Croc. And at least Bane isn’t an absolute retard.

So I guess my beef in this regard isn’t so much with obligatory continuity, but just obligatory appearances. Sure, it’s sometimes a pain to read Batman books and think “Just how many crime bosses ARE there in Gotham??” but having people show up just because you’re too lazy to think of a new guy is pretty lame as well.

maybe some writers like Killer Croc?

It seems like the Ultimate books are the worst for this, yes, I know that in most cases this is technically the character’s “first” appearance, but it seems like they feel that they have to shoehorn in characters like Rhino, Shocker (who’s become a complete joke), and cameos from others. Not quite the same thing, but it’s become common for characters to show up “ultimized” rather than having anything new created.

The Ult. Shocker hasn’t ‘become a complete joke’ He always was. Every time he shows up, he gets his ass handed to him immediatly. That is the joke.

Actually, on thinking about this, a lot of Marvel’s B-list villains have dropped a notch or two on the “obligatory” list. Used to be, Rhino got an issue all to himself somewhere about once a year (as either a Spidey or Hulk villain); now he’s a one-page cameo, being taken out casually by Spidey or the Hulk before the writer gets to the “real” action. Batroc the Leaper used to be a Cap villain that got his own storylines, now he’s the warm-up act on page one. The Wrecking Crew, the Shocker, the Eel, the Blizzard, the Melter (actually, I think both the Melter and Whiplash are dead), the Living Laser…the list goes on and on and probably on. I think that familiarity has bred contempt for most of the second-tier villains; either you’re a Big Name Baddie, like Doom or the Red Skull, or you languish in obscurity for a while. Or you get killed. :)

And to return to a point another poster made, Jim Shooter’s horrible reputation wasn’t based on bad business decisions or practices; even his detractors agree that his ideas were very sound. His problem was that he didn’t have good people skills, particularly when dealing with some of the personality types that gravitate to the comics industry (“iconoclastic” is, I think, a good term to use) and particularly when he was trying to get Marvel’s business practices back on track after a fairly fast-and-loose downward period. (Remember, Shooter came on board before the X-Men turned Marvel into the steamrolling juggernaut of the comics industry.) He was forced to act as the heavy a lot of the time, and he was unfortunately so good at it that he wound up being forced out the door. :) (This is, by the way, just the impression I’ve gotten from various accounts of Shooter’s tenure as EIC; others with more knowledge can feel free to elaborate/contradict as needed.)

I don’t like this definition, or at least not your elaboration of it. You haven’t demonstrated situations where writers feel they *have* to use a character. In all the cases you mention, writers are probably using those characters because they like them (the folks who read Mr. Sinister stories in the ’90s are the ones writing them today) or are too lazy to come up with new characters or do research on more obscure analogues (if you’re a Batman writer and you need to write a fight scene, how many villains can stand toe-to-toe with Batman for a while, but are low enough on the totem pole that Batman can dispose of them without having to spend an entire issue on it?).

Which is not to say that obligatory continuity doesn’t exist. If you’re writing Luke Cage, you’re eventually going to write Iron Fist into the mix. But those instances are rare.

The summer crossover with Mr. Sinister was editorially mandated.

Mike Carey might very well enjoy writing Mr. Sinister, but it was not his decision to write Mr. Sinister. He was told to.

Oh. So do you think the “obligatory” part of the phrase should include the pressure editors and publishers put on their writers to use certain characters (to maintain copyright, say)? The definition made it sound like the sense of obligation to use the character was the writer’s alone.

Gotcha.

Sorry about that.

I mean pretty much any obligation – editorial, fan’s insistence on old villains showing up, or writers feeling that if they’re on the book for a long enough time, they really ought to use one of the “classic” villains.

sinister is cool because of fox’s x-men cartoon. end of.

Just a heads up: Both links in the first sentence go to the same article.

Which was disappointing to me, because I’m new to this blog and haven’t read the “paternalistic continuity” post and wanted to. (Oh, sure, I could search for it myself…)

Fixed it for ya, Alun.

Check out other definitons by just clicking on the “Comic Book Dictionary” category in the sidebar.

Mr.Sinister was once cool so was Apocolypse. They have just become “commercial” bad guys.
Sinister especially has downgraded to pathetic levels. He was once one of the few bad guys
who had an emotional impact. Now it’s like ” a milstone issue is coming up, let’s get
Apocolypse, Magneto, or Sinister ready!!” Too bad…..

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