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14 Answers to “Why So Many Retcons?”
Years ago I tried to classify retcons into general categories. That piece, among others, can be reached via a link at the bottom of this post. But this time I’m going to look at the problem of retconning from a different angle, by trying to answer a popular question: “Why do the creators and editors of new stories about old characters keep inflicting so many retcons upon us?”
Sometimes it seems as if every time you finally think you’ve perfected your mental model of what the modern Batman continuity (for instance) says about the histories and current motivations of each major figure involved, some troublemaker in the industry erases ten percent of this old story, fifty percent of that old story, and one hundred percent of another story arc you have in your collection, in the process of making room for a supposedly “new and improved version” of the relevant continuity as he imposes his own retcons upon the larger structure! You are supposed to quickly realize what has happened and make all necessary mental adjustments on your own time! Why do they keep doing this to us? Over the last few months I’ve written down another motive whenever I thought of one, and here’s my current list of the different things which might be going through someone’s head as he or she contrived yet another retcon!
The 14 Answers
01. Ignorance or Forgetfulness
03. Removing an Embarrassment
05. Keep Them Young
06. Shock Treatment
07. Rehabilitate the Image
08. We MUST Restore the Sacred Status Quo
09. Turn a Character Into a Sock Puppet
10. Expand a Family Tree
11. The Total Amnesia Retcon
12. The Continuity Is Already Scrambled
13. Working Out a Personal Grudge
14. Never Supposed to Be in Continuity in the First Place
01. Ignorance or Forgetfulness
“Either I never knew about that boring old story, or else it had been so long since I read it (or at least a plot summary) that my memory garbled the details when I wanted to refer to certain relevant subjects in a new story. Now we’ve got a Messy Inconsistency on our hands. Too bad, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles!”
This is probably the most common cause for many of the inconsistencies which fans often label as “retcons.”
Sometimes the “retcon” is no more than a typographical error, here today and gone tomorrow, not to be taken seriously. I am told that The Elongated Man’s surname has sometimes been misspelled, as “Dibney” or “Digby” or other variations, by writers who thought they remembered it without looking it up — but his first appearance had clearly established his name as “Ralph Dibny” and that’s the way it has usually been rendered since then.
A misspelled name is trivial. But there are other times when a writer messes up on details which he never really knew, or doesn’t remember as clearly as he believes he does, and then after this is called to his attention he tries hard to stick to his guns and make the new version the official version even after the inconsistency with any previously published material is pointed out to him.
For instance! Before beginning his run on the “Batman” title a few years ago, Grant Morrison let it leak out that he was planning to bring back the son of Batman and Talia, who had last been seen as a newborn baby at the very end of the old graphic novel “Batman: Son of the Demon,” written by Mike Barr and published in 1987. The way Barr wrote it at the time, Batman thought Talia miscarried. The baby had never been heard from since. (In part because Denny O’Neil, during his long tenure as the editor in charge of all Batman comics, later ruled “Son of the Demon” and its sequel “Bride of the Demon” to be firmly out of continuity; the functional equivalent of Elseworlds tales).
Those fans who liked “Son of the Demon” were looking forward to seeing Morrison pick up where Barr had left off . . . but then they were disappointed to see that there were significant inconsistencies between how the child of Batman and Talia had been conceived in the graphic novel on the one hand, and how things were stated to have happened years ago according to dialogue between Batman and Talia in Morrison’s material on the other hand. (For one thing, in Morrison’s version Batman obviously had never known that Talia could possibly have become pregnant with his child in the first place! Things were done to his body without his consent after he had been drugged into unconsciousness, I gathered.)
Morrison has been reported as saying, in response to the criticism he started receiving from some of the fans who have that graphic novel in their own collections, that it had been so long since he had actually read Barr’s graphic novel that he evidently didn’t remember exactly how its plot had gone when he was trying to dust off the idea of “a child of Talia and Batman who was born several years ago” and then put his own special spin on the concept. In other words, he didn’t deliberately retcon away major plot points from Barr’s old story; he just forgot what those points had been and didn’t take the trouble to refresh his memory by rereading the silly thing before starting to write some “follow-up” material supposedly inspired by it!
“Problem? What problem? How many modern readers will really know or care if we fudge the details of this guy’s backstory for our own convenience, here and now?”
In this instance, the writer and the editor are both aware of what was established in a previous story — but they don’t feel the slightest remorse about twisting it inside out on the fly for their own purposes, and they may very well be working on the assumption that most of their modern regular readers in this day and age won’t lose any sleep over the drastic changes to a bunch of nitpicking details from so long ago!
In his book Man of Two Worlds, Julius Schwartz asserts that back in the 1950s, when he was involved in the “Flash Reboot” (creating Barry Allen to replace Jay Garrick, the latter not having appeared in print for five years at that point), the conventional wisdom was that the turnover rate in regular buyers of DC’s comic books was virtually 100% over a four-year cycle. In other words, the readers who had apparently lost interest in Jay Garrick several years earlier were not the same potential customers who would now be exposed to the concept of “Barry Allen is the Flash, a hero who runs incredibly fast” for the first time. “Showcase #4″ (Barry’s debut) was successful enough to suggest that there was some truth in the assumption that no one would care if Barry was ripping off the alias and general schtick of Jay Garrick, and the comic book buyers of 1956 certainly wouldn’t refuse to buy his adventures just because of unpleasant memories of having completely lost interest in Jay several years earlier.
That standard assumption about virtually all regular customers disappearing after no more than four years, steadily being replaced by a bunch of new readers who didn’t remember any of the “ancient history” from several years ago, gradually faded away as the industry changed and it became clear that some diehard fans were sticking around for decades and bellyaching long and loud if they didn’t like the way things got shifted around.
Despite which, some writers still embrace the “Apathy” attitude where the delicate matter of “respecting all the nitpicking details from a long time ago” is concerned. For instance, Jeph Loeb has said frankly and repeatedly:
In comics, for those of you who don’t read ‘em regularly, there is this thing called “Continuity.” Now, mind you, I sort of believe that continuity–or the rules of storytelling in the DC Comics Universe–goes like this: “Jimmy Olsen didn’t become Robin, the Boy Wonder, and everything else is up for grabs.”
(This version of his philosophy on the subject is quoted from a text piece Loeb wrote for the “Challengers of the Unknown Must Die!” TPB which collected a miniseries he had scripted and Tim Sale had drawn in the early 1990s. Loeb has expressed the same sentiment at other times, with variations in the wording.)
And to do the man justice, his sales figures do tend to suggest that many of his potential readers are not automatically repelled by that attitude as it is reflected in his scripts, as long as the readers end up enjoying whatever story he’s telling right here and now in the comic book they just bought, regardless of contradictions with what has gone before!
03. Removing an Embarrassment
“Man, that old story was a real stinker! I bet most of the fans who remember it will clap and cheer if we undo some of it with a retcon! They’ll understand exactly why we felt the need to surgically remove that cancer from our continuity! (Newer fans, who never read that stupid story in the first place, probably won’t object when we retcon it!)”
There are old stories and stray bits of continuity which the bulk of the fans presumably don’t know about or else don’t really care about if they do know, as I mentioned in the previous item. Then there are the bits which many of the fans hate with an undying hatred. They will definitely notice that those bits have been surgically corrected, but they are not expected to gripe about it much.
“Removing an Embarrassment” was probably a big factor in the decision at DC to let Geoff Johns do his “Green Lantern: Rebirth” miniseries in which we were told that Hal Jordan, once considered the best and the brightest of the old Green Lantern Corps, had only flipped out and become a villain for awhile in the mid-90s because he had been possessed by an ancient yellow fear demon without anyone realizing this at the time.
On a similar note: Jim Starlin once had Batman lock up a mass-murdering enemy (the KGBeast) in a compartment in the depths of the Gotham sewer system at the end of the saga “Ten Nights of the Beast” and then just walk away, obviously leaving the guy there to die from lack of air or lack of food and water; whichever happened to get him first. About a year and a half later, Marv Wolfman felt it necessary retcon this during a conversation between Nightwing and Batman, in which Nightwing said angrily that it was obvious from the circumstances that Batman had been seriously considering letting the KGBeast just die there, until a few hours later he had finally changed his mind and told the police exactly where he had left his imprisoned foe. (It also turned out — we were then told — that by the time the cops got down there to check, the KGBeast had somehow broken out of the trap and disappeared.)
“Let’s throw away just about everything that was ever done with that character, and start over with a clean slate! Make it a lot simpler for fans — and writers, and editors, and so forth — to keep track of just the continuity is! Meanwhile, we get to have tons of fun showing him meeting everybody and their brother ‘for the very first time’ all over again!”
The most famous example of this in American comics? The Post-COIE Superman Reboot. Virtually everything that had ever been printed about him before got scrubbed from history until further notice. This was supposed to allow DC to junk a lot of corny and embarrassing old ideas from his Earth-1 continuity, while making it much easier for new readers of Superman material to basically “get in on the ground floor” by finding it comparatively easy to collect everything important that would help them understand what was happening to each member of his supporting cast, what the origin stories and core motivations of his villains were, and so on and so forth, without constantly being hit over the head with editorial footnotes saying “All this was explained in such-and-such-a-story in 1965!” or whatever.
Note: I said virtually everything from Superman’s Pre-COIE adventures had been erased. On the other hand: John Byrne’s “Man of Steel” mini, often skipping ahead months or years at a time in order to bring us thoroughly up to speed on Superman’s life up until “right now,” made it clear that the “rebooted” Superman had already been a hero for some years before the “present day” adventures which would now be depicted in his Post-COIE monthly titles after the mini ended in 1986. Byrne and other writers at DC therefore tended to work on the theory that Superman had “already met” most of the other well-established heroes of the DCU at one time or another . . . but details on just when he had met each of them, per the revised continuity, were initially left very vague for the most part. (An essay published in the very belated printing of Neil Gaiman’s story “Green Lantern/Superman: Legend of the Green Flame,” from a script originally meant to be published in “Action Comics” in the late 1980s but then canned for a very long time, says that in those days it seemed that the Latest Official Answers to such basic questions as “Does Hal Jordan still know his buddy Superman’s secret identity?” seemed to fluctuate from day to day without warning. Neil Gaiman’s script was written when he believed the answer was “Yes!” and then it was rejected on a day when the answer was “No!”)
05. Keep Them Young
“If all of that old stuff still happened to this hero — such as fighting in WWII, for instance — then he ought to be getting awfully long in the tooth by now. So I guess it’s time to rewrite the chronology re: when his career started!”
I once did an entire list on ways to justify “keeping a superhero young” (or in some cases “restoring his youth” after he has visibly gotten middle-aged or elderly in previous stories). One of the ways to keep him young is to quietly sever his once-solid connections to certain historical events whose timeframes are well-known to the typical reader — such as the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Reagan Presidency, et cetera.
One name for this approach is: “The Ongoing Sliding Timescale Retcon.” It is basically the assumption (largely unspoken within the comic books, but it becomes evident to longtime fans as they go along) that all the stories since a certain hero’s “origin story” have occurred within a certain number of years leading up to the present day, regardless of any chronological markers embedded in that hero’s earlier stories.
As an example, consider the war records of two members of the original Fantastic Four!
In the 1960s, after Ben Grimm and Reed Richards had recently been created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, they’d occasionally reminisce about how both of them had seen combat in the Second World War. If they’d both been young servicemen in a war that ended in 1945, that implied that by the early-to-mid 60s they probably were around 40 years old, give or take a few, which fit well with the gray hair at Reed’s temples and made him and Ben seem older than the typical superhero, without overdoing it. This all made perfect sense in the early years of the FF title, but as time rolled past in the real world, and the Fantastic Four were still going strong and not looking much older (although Johnny Storm eventually stopped being written as a teenager), it made less and less sense to think Reed and Ben had been old enough to wear service uniforms in the early 1940s.
Therefore, thanks to the largely unspoken Ongoing Sliding Timescale Retcon, the idea was just quietly dropped. As far as I can tell, from the 1970s onward the idea of Reed and Ben being WWII veterans has never again been explicitly addressed in dialogue (except when they were being “roasted” in a humorous comic Fred Hembeck did in the 1980s, but I don’t think that really counts as “in continuity”). Marvel doesn’t jump through hoops to offer any elaborate rationalization of how Reed could look no older than he does today, over 62 years after the end of the war in which he was once alleged to have served valiantly; Marvel simply ignores previous references to that wartime service as something that must not have happened after all!
Likewise, Tim Drake was 13 years old when he debuted in 1989, but no one expects him to celebrate his 33rd birthday by the end of 2009. He may have aged about 4 or 5 years in the past 20. Among those of us who own copies of his earliest appearances, it is tacitly assumed that, in the automatically sliding timeline of the modern DCU, it “wasn’t really” 1989 when Tim was accepted as Bruce Wayne’s new apprentice at the end of the story arc “A Lonely Place of Dying,” even though that’s when those issues were published. It was just “several years ago, not long after Jason Todd died.”
06. Shake Things Up
“Let’s start a firestorm of controversy and really rattle our fans by making well-known characters do shocking things no one ever thought they would do! (Maybe they already did those things years ago, when no one was looking, and the truth is just now coming to light?)”
To my mind, this almost certainly was the key reason for the story arc known as “Sins Past” which was part of J. Michael Straczynski’s run on “Amazing Spider-Man.”
In it, we learned that Gwen Stacy had a one-night stand with Norman Osborn way back when, even though she was never in love with him, and then, when she was temporarily estranged from her regular boyfriend Peter Parker (in what had seemed like it lasted a couple of weeks, say, in the original continuity in the early 1970s), she had actually been living in Europe for several months, long enough to carry two fast-gestating babies to term, give birth, and leave them behind in France when she flew back to the Big Apple to be reconciled with Peter without telling him anything about what she had been up to lately. After Norman either murdered or contributed to the death of Gwen some time later (there is considerable disagreement among fans and pros alike regarding exactly what killed her), he secretly took over the task of raising the babies (who were maturing at an accelerated rate) to hate the evil Spider-Man whom they were taught to blame for their mother’s death. Someday they might even kill Spider-Man, if he was still alive when the kids, with their own superhuman metabolisms, were old enough to have a prayer of taking him in a fight.
Meanwhile, Mary Jane Watson-Parker had known about the babies almost from the beginning (according to the retcon), but had never dropped a hint to her husband about the terrible surprise which Norman might be planning to spring upon him at any moment.
These retcons did horrible things to the previously established characterizations of both Gwen and MJ, but evidently that was deemed unimportant next to the perceived value of really “shaking things up” and getting Spider-Man fans buzzing about such shocking and controversial developments!
(But let’s be fair: There was an upside! These retcons was revealed in such an illogical story arc that I later was able to amuse myself and other fans by writing a scathing parody which poked fun at its many plot holes. I guess every cloud has a silver lining, to coin a phrase!)
07. Rehabilitate the Image
“How are we supposed to keep selling books starring this person as a sympathetic character, after the way we previously dragged her through the gutter? I reckon we’ll just have to rinse off the sewage with a handy retcon and try again!”
Jean Grey, also known as Marvel Girl, Phoenix, the Black Queen, and eventually Dark Phoenix, went mad and committed genocide and then suicide in a now-classic storyline by Chris Claremont and John Byrne (which I recently have been parodying in my spare time). For about five years, the tragic combination of insanity, mass murder, and eventual suicide was Absolutely, Positively, Unquestionably the Official Continuity regarding what had happened to Jean, a founding member of the original X-Men. She was dead and gone, and given all those deaths on her conscience (five billion civilians!), it was probably just as well that she was gone. (The five billion deaths were, in fact, the major reason for Jim Shooter’s insistence that the original plan of just removing her superpowers at the end of the saga and then turning her loose, saying, “At least you can’t ever do it again!”, was not adequate punishment. I have to agree with him there!)
Years after Jean’s death, someone at Marvel — I’m not sure whom, except I’ve heard it definitely was not anything Chris Claremont wanted — decided it would be a really cool idea to start a new title called “X-Factor” and have its core membership be Professor Xavier’s first five students, the original X-Men from the Silver Age, now reunited after many years. Jean had been one of those five students. There was, however, the nagging little question: “How do we portray her as a superhero in new adventures if she still murdered a few billion people in 1980?”
Obviously, you couldn’t really reconcile those concepts. Obviously, then, she hadn’t murdered a few billion people in 1980! Someone else must have been taking her name in vain, posing as Jean Grey so successfully that her closest friends (including Professor X, one of the most powerful telepaths in the world) never had a clue! Neither did Uatu the Watcher, but then what does he know?
(Thus was begun the most infamous of X-Men traditions. “Jean Grey just died again? Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen, on how long it will last this time! And then how long it will be before she dies again! And how long after that before she comes back to life again! And then how long that will last . . .”)
08. We MUST Restore the Sacred Status Quo
“Some idiot moved the pawns around on the chessboard and ruined the way things used to be, as I fondly remember it from my younger days. It’s time to push those pieces right back to where they all belong; they never should have been allowed to stray from the proper configuration in the first place!”
The Clone Saga (in the Spider-Man titles of the mid-1990s) was meant to achieve something along these lines by “revealing” that the guy who had been calling himself “Peter Parker, Spider-Man” for about 20 years (mid-70s to mid-90s) was actually a clone of the original, whereas the original had been running around other parts of the country for the last four years or so (comic book time) calling himself “Ben Reilly” and thinking he was the clone and thus had no right to interfere with the “real” Peter’s life in the Big Apple.
The plan, or one of the plans (it got very complicated, and Tom DeFalco later said he had meant to have an emergency escape option to undo the whole “revelation” if that appeared necessary — long story!) was to somehow have “Ben Reilly” (Unmarried Spidey) take Married Spidey’s place as the regular star of all the Spider-Man titles henceforth, thereby getting rid of the marriage which many editors and writers then working at Marvel viewed as a colossal blunder which they had been saddled with since the late 1980s.
But as it turned out, the surgical removal of the marriage from the ongoing titles didn’t really happen (at the time). A few years later Marvel tried killing off Mary Jane by exploding an airplane with her aboard, as another means to the same end of undoing the pesky marriage, and more recently they went back to taking a fresh stab at using some sort of retcon to Restore the Sacred Status Quo; this time by having Peter suddenly lose his marbles and reach the uncharacteristic conclusion that making a pact with the devil (or a devil, anyway — Mephisto by name!) was a brilliant idea that couldn’t possibly backfire! One consequence of this was to rewrite history so that now Peter and MJ have never been married at all. Thus restoring the Status Quo in which Peter was a bachelor in the 1960s, the 1970s, and much of the 1980s. (I gather that “turning back the clock” also undid the way his secret identity had been publicly revealed during the events of the Civil War, thus restoring the Status Quo in that vital area as well!)
09. Turn a Character Into a Sock Puppet to Further Your Agenda
“I’ve got an agenda to sell, and by golly, I’m going to mutilate the previously established histories and personalities of long-running characters in any way necessary, for the greater good!”
A few years ago I saw someone complaining about what Reginald Hudlin had recently done to Victor Von Doom in a Black Panther story.
The dialogue allegedly went as follows:
DOCTOR DOOM: I’ve always said the African is a superior physical specimen.
STORM: Finish the sentence, Doom. “Which compensates for his lack of intellect.”
DOCTOR DOOM: Generally true, yes, but clearly the Wakandan is exceptional! Perhaps a low-grade mutant strain in your peoples’ DNA.
I have not actually read that story. Although my own understanding of Doom, based on reading dozens of his other appearances in stories by many different writers over a span of decades, is that he regards himself as inherently superior to nearly every other member of the human race, no matter what they look like or where their ancestors came from. (With a handful of possible exceptions, such as Reed Richards. The alternative would be to admit that many of his brilliant schemes had been regularly foiled by a group led by a man who was his intellectual inferior, and somehow I doubt Doom would ever admit that, even if it were true.)
But apparently Hudlin was bound and determined to “make a point” about racism and use one of Marvel’s longest-running villains to do it, no matter what stood in his way — such as Doctor Doom’s previously well-established conviction that he was superior to just about everybody, and had never previously felt the need to waste time on the hairsplitting distinctions which other people preferred to draw between one racial group and another?
P.S. To be fair, when I first saw a thread a few years ago in which someone was complaining about this “retcon” turning Doom into a racist (instead of his just being convinced of his own intellectual supremacy in a non-racist sort of way), I observed that he hadn’t exactly made those sweeping and unkind generalizations about “the African.” Storm, pretending she could read his mind, had interrupted him by trying to shove those exact words into his mouth for no clear reason (not as far as I could tell from the excerpt I read of their conversation, anyway). One could argue that Doom simply didn’t bother to contradict her wild assumptions. It occurred to me that if I were a megalomaniacal villain in Doom’s shoes at that moment, it might have amused me to “play along” with a self-righteous superhero’s clueless attempt to psychoanalyze me on the spur of the moment.
10. Expand the Character’s Family Tree
“It’s about time to drag another long-lost relative onstage for some dramatic tension with the hero!”
Of course, in some cases this isn’t really a retcon in the sense of “explicitly contradicting” any previous statement from older stories. We are simply led to believe that somehow the hero never got around to mentioning that particular relative before (or in some cases, the hero never knew this person existed!). For instance: back in the Silver Age, there was a story I’ve heard about in which Bruce Wayne was visited in Gotham City by an older relative “from the coast” (the Pacific Coast of the USA, I’m guessing?); a private investigator named Bruce N. Wayne who was a first cousin of Batman’s late father Thomas. Bruce N. and Thomas must have been very close, once upon a time; I’m told that it was stated that our Bruce had actually been named in honor of the older one!
As far as I know — but I don’t know everything — there had never been any previous Batman story in which Bruce had said tragically, “I’m the last of the Waynes — I don’t even have any cousins on my father’s side of the family, or not close enough to count! There might be a few fourth cousins somewhere, I guess.” So the introduction of Bruce N., first cousin of the late Thomas Wayne, probably did not “squarely contradict” any previous Batman story; it merely was “something we forgot to mention before.” (And I am told that after his few minutes in the spotlight, Bruce N. Wayne has never been mentioned again in subsequent Batman continuity, so I have no idea whether or not he is “still” part of the Wayne family tree.)
On the other hand, sometimes the retconning of the family tree is done in a heavy-handed way that squarely contradicts things we were previously told. For instance! I’ve read that when Lightning Lad’s origin was first shared with DC’s readers in the Silver Age, it was made perfectly clear that he was the only person who had been exposed to some lightning beasts on the world of Korbal and somehow those beasts had charged him up with incredible electrical powers.
Later the Legion of Super-Heroes fought the Legion of Super-Villains for the first time, and readers were introduced to Garth Ranzz’s older brother Mekt (Lightning Lord), retconned in out of thin air, who was now stated to have been exposed to the power of the lightning beasts at the same time as the future Lightning Lad, but Mekt chose to use his powers for evil.
A couple of years later, readers were introduced to Ayla Ranzz, Lightning Lad’s twin sister, retconned in out of thin air for the occasion, who was now stated to be one of the tree siblings who had all been simultaneously changed by an encounter with some of the lightning beasts of Korbal!
Each new version of Lightning Lad’s origin story was shamelessly retconning what had been revealed in previous versions, but that was deemed trivial next to the “need” to keep making things more dramatic by dragging in another electrically powered relative!
11. The Total Amnesia Retcon
“If we all agree to ignore it, maybe it will just quietly fade away and be forgotten.”
In #03 on this list, I discussed “Erasure of an Embarrassment.” But there I was mainly envisioning obvious retcons which squarely address a very touchy subject and “explain” why there was something going on that didn’t meet the eye at the time, so it wasn’t really as bad as it looked. For instance: “Yes, Hal Jordan did all the nasty stuff he was shown doing in ‘Emerald Twilight’ and ‘Zero Hour’ and a few other stories, but his mind hadn’t just ‘snapped under pressure’ as you were led to believe at the time. An ancient yellow fear demon had previously gotten its hooks into him and was exercising more and more control, so it wasn’t really his fault! The same thing could happen to anybody!”
A very different approach is to simply never speak of an awkward subject again, and hope the worst aspects of it will fade from the consciousness of your old fans while any new fans remain cheerfully oblivious regarding what once happened, years and years ago. In this approach, if you’re the editor (or the writer) on the title or titles which would “logically” be expected to deal with the long-term consequences of whatever once happened, you don’t explicitly say: “That awkward concept from that old story is still in continuity,” and you don’t explicitly say: “That awkward concept has been Officially Erased from continuity as a public service.” You just try to avoid the subject entirely!
For instance: Last year I happened to learn from online discussions that there was a Silver Age story (in “Superboy #158,” published in 1969) in which teenaged Kal-El discovered that his birth parents, Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van, had survived the destruction of Krypton. They were frozen in suspended animation in a spaceship which had escaped the dying world in the nick of time, but they couldn’t be awakened just now or else they would slowly and painfully perish from massive radiation poisoning. So Superboy had to sadly put them back in deep space (he’d taken the ship back to Earth before he realized the part about the radiation poisoning), and leave them drifting in the middle of nowhere until such time as a cure might be found . . . someday . . . if they were lucky.
As near as I can tell from online resources, the “shocking revelation” from that story was never mentioned again.
On the one hand, I have not found any report of any Superman editor ever explicitly saying, in a lettercol or a public appearance at a convention or anywhere else in the many years between that story and the total reboot of Superman continuity in the Post-COIE era, “That was a flawed idea and as far as we’re concerned, it never happened to the Earth-1 version of Clark Kent. Maybe it was all a dream sequence, or it happened to the Superboy of some other obscure corner of the Multiverse, the guy from Earth-462 or something, but it didn’t happen in our mainstream Earth-1 continuity. Honest!”
On the other hand, I’ve read plenty of Superman stories from the 1970s and the Pre-COIE portion of the 1980s which had him refer, regretfully, to the deaths of his biological parents at the time Krypton exploded. He hoped to find a way to rescue his friend Lar Gand (or “Mon-El”) from the Phantom Zone without having him die of lead poisoning, and he hoped to find a way to restore the inhabitants of the Bottled City of Kandor to their proper size, but he never said a word about hoping to someday find a way to cure the radioactive problems which prevented him from defrosting his beloved parents for a family reunion. It was obvious that he “knew” they were dead and gone, ashes to ashes and dust to dust, with nothing he could do for them now except try to live up to their presumed expectations. No hint that he had learned differently during his years as a teenaged “Superboy.”
So the weight of the evidence suggests that the story from “Superboy #158″ had been neatly erased by a very quiet retcon, without anyone at DC bothering to admit for the record that this had occurred.
On the other hand: One could make a fairly decent argument that since DC never said the story was erased from Earth-1’s continuity, the evidence of Earth-1’s grown-up Superman’s consistent failure to mention that discovery as still weighing heavily upon his mind didn’t prove the discovery of his parents’ frozen bodies hadn’t happened in his corner of the multiverse after all; it only proved he didn’t remember it!
There could be various reasons for him to have lost the memory! Considering how many different excuses have been used in DC’s continuity (both Pre- and Post-COIE) to remove or seriously alter the memories inside a superhero’s head, there could be a huge gap between “that didn’t happen” and “I don’t remember anything like that.”
All this serves as a perfect example of the phenomenon which I once dubbed the Total Amnesia Retcon.
By that name, I didn’t mean: “Everybody who was involved in an old story Definitely Got Amnesia and doesn’t remember the crucial events from that adventure any more.” (Although this has been known to happen.) All I meant was: “Getting the memories scrubbed out of their heads may be exactly what happened, but nobody has said so to us. Or it may be that the story didn’t happen at all, according to the latest whims of the editors and writers currently working with those characters — but again, nobody has said so to us! All we can say for sure is that the characters never mention those events any more, even at times when it would make perfect sense for them to be vividly reminded of those events because of the obvious relevance to whatever they are talking about right now!”
So it’s ambiguous — either the characters got amnesia about certain events in a scene which we never saw, or else the entire story got erased, in a retcon which we never saw. We are left to scratch our heads and try to guess which is the case, because the publishing company has no intention of telling us!
12. The Continuity is Already Scrambled
“Story A contradicts Story B, and both contradict Story C . . . and now I’m supposed to take over the title and find a way to make everybody happy when I deal with the subject? The continuity nuts will burn me in effigy for ‘shameless, self-indulgent retconning of previous plot twists’ — no matter what I do!”
Sometimes you just can’t win. Stories in previous years, probably written by other people, have already blatantly contradicted one other on points which at least some of your fanbase strongly cares about. If you, as the new writer on the title, touch on a certain volatile subject at all in a new plot, then you will inevitably be “disrespecting” at least one of those older stories which dealt with the same general subject, no matter how good your intentions are! The best you probably can do is to figure out what you think “should have been” the continuity all along, and start writing as if that is, and always has been, “the way it is.”
While the Golden Age was still going on, a story was published in “Superman #76″ which showed us how Superman and Batman learned each other’s secret identities. By sheer coincidence they were assigned to the same stateroom on a passenger liner, and when an emergency came along, both men tried to inconspicuously change into costume in the dark, but just then a light shone through the porthole and they each saw what the other guy was silently doing . . . so that was how they “first met” in their secret identities and how they each learned the other fellow’s secrets.
Or how they learned these things for the first time, anyway. Over the next few decades, other stories were told which offered mutually contradictory accounts of just how and when Clark and Bruce, and/or Superman and Batman, had “first met” and/or “first learned” each other’s secrets, with some of those stories being set in their teenage years, long before they used the aliases “Superman” and “Batman.”
I gather that by the early 1980s it didn’t matter how well you understood and loved the old continuity on the subject of “When did Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent first meet, and when did they first learn each other’s secrets?”, because if you were writing scripts for DC, and if you talked about any “answer” to those questions in a new story, then you would inevitably be contradicting, to some degree, some or all of the other answers which had been offered over the years! And you had to assume that some of your alert readers would promptly notice your “mistakes”!
Roy Thomas, who enjoyed tackling this sort of puzzle, finally a story published in “World’s Finest Comics #271″ in which he tried to acknowledge, and reconcile as best he could, all of the previous efforts which dealt with such matters. I’m told that he did a pretty good job of it, but I’m sure he had to contradict various details of this, that, and the other thing in his effort to lay down the law with one unified Official Version of how the Bruce/Clark friendship had “really” developed over the years in the Earth-1 continuity (I hear that he also worked in mention of the differences in the Earth-2 continuity on that subject, somewhere along the way).
13. Working Out a Personal Grudge
“Does that clown think he’s a better writer than me? I’ll show him! I’ll write stories that poke holes in some of his recent stories! Serves him right!”
In an interview he did for CBR years ago, Jim Shooter talked a bit about how things stood between Chris Claremont and John Byrne back in the early 1980s, after the end of their classic collaborative run on the X-Men. Claremont stayed with the X-Men and Byrne moved on to start writing his own scripts in other titles. Apparently the parting of ways had not been entirely amicable. Shooter said:
They had a falling out. And so John Byrne goes on to do Alpha Flight and other things. Chris gets other artists and marches on with X-Men. In the various other books he was doing, FF, Alpha Flight, whatever, John would do these stories… like if Chris was using Doctor Doom in an X-Men story, then John would do a story that proved that the Doctor Doom Chris had used was a robot.
And he would have snotty comments, like you think I would have said something as stupid as what this robot said. This would happen a lot.
Then Chris would want to fire back. But Chris had better editors who were more on the ball. John, I think would seek out editors with whom he could get away with that type of stuff.
That motivation for retconning bits and pieces of someone else’s scripts is just plain sad. What else can I say?
14. Never Supposed to Be in Continuity in the First Place
“Gosh, did we forget to say, within the actual comic book which contained that weird story, that it all had Absolutely Nothing to do with the ‘regular continuity’ of the characters in question? How silly of us! I guess now the fans are getting awfully confused about whether this new stuff was a sneaky retcon, or what! Oh well, they’ll just have to get over it!”
From what I remember of letter columns in the Batman titles of the late 1980s, the editors found it necessary to say, more than once, something along the following lines (paraphrased in my own words), in response to concerned readers: “Frank Miller’s ‘Dark Knight Returns’ is not The Absolutely Official and Unavoidable Future for Batman and Superman and any other characters who appeared in that graphic novel. It’s just Miller’s personal vision of one way Bruce Wayne’s life might develop by the time he’s 55. If you don’t like to think that this is the way he’ll end up, then don’t worry about it!”
On a similar note: A few years after DKR was such a hit, DC started a new monthly Batman title called “Legends of the Dark Knight.” At least three times in the first two years, DC’s editors found it necessary to allude (in the title’s letter columns) to the idea that any story arc published in LOTDK was not necessarily binding upon the regular continuity of Batman as he appeared in other monthly titles which were supposed to be integrated into the larger DCU. But, of course, there was no such warning offered as boilerplate in every single issue of LOTDK, so it’s perfectly understandable that in recent years I’ve encountered people on one fan forum or another who are confused on the subject of whether one memorable story arc or another in LOTDK should automatically be taken at face value as something the modern Batman “must remember” from the early years of his costumed career.
And then in the mid-90s, Denny O’Neil evidently gave the green light to a massive project called “The Long Halloween,” written by Jeph Loeb and published in 13 monthly installments. Various plot points in “The Long Halloween” and its sequel, “Dark Victory,” contradicted things which had previously been stated about one character or another in “modern continuity” Batman stories. For instance, “Knightfall,” a story arc published in 1993, contained a sequence in which Bruce and Selina were meeting face-to-face for what was evidently “the very first time” in their unmasked roles, with neither person showing any faint suspicion that the other had a costumed identity as well, nor that they had ever clashed before when both wearing masks. But just a few years later, in “The Long Halloween,” it amused Jeph Loeb to have Bruce and Selina dating each other regularly in a storyline obviously set in the early years of Batman’s career, before he had even met Dick Grayson.
There was an obvious contradiction here. The best explanation I’ve heard — and it makes as much sense as anything, although I can’t swear to its accuracy — is that when Loeb wasn’t even trying to sell this “Bruce and Selina had a romance ages ago” concept as a Great Big Retcon to Modern Batman Continuity at the time he submitted his plot ideas for “The Long Halloween,” and that Denny O’Neil (the Batman group editor all through the 1990s) didn’t think he was approving any such retcon to the events of “Knightfall” when he gave TLH the green light.
The story goes that Denny O’Neil regarded the 13-part “The Long Halloween” miniseries as the functional equivalent of most of the story arcs published in “Legends of the Dark Knight,” which — as I mentioned above — were in a “fuzzy continuity” status of “Maybe something resembling this story could have happened to the regular version of Batman, once upon a time, and maybe it didn’t. You get no guarantees. If you see obvious inconsistencies with the continuity set forth in other titles such as ‘Batman’ and ‘Detective Comics,’ don’t sweat it!”
But of course none of this (assuming it’s true) was spelled out at the time for the sake of any innocent young fan who wandered in off the street and happened to pick up an issue of TLH, nor was anything along those lines ever clarified in the reprint editions which collected the entire epic.
That’s it for the 14 Motives I came up with on my own. As always, I take it for granted that my first attempt to analyze such a complicated subject is bound to have room for improvement. If you can think of any motives I completely overlooked, or you see any flaws in my explanations and examples for the answers I included, then please say so! If you want me to consider adding another possible answer to a future draft of this list, however, then it will help immensely if you mention at least one specific example of a case which illustrates your point.
Meanwhile, here are some links to many previous posts I’ve done over the last few years, comprising what I have come to think of as my “Numbered List” series. Every once in a while it amuses me to think about some odd aspect of the superhero genre, and to try to list and explain all the different approaches I can remember for that sort of thing, or all the different reasons that ridiculous things keep happening..
12 Motives for Killing a Comic Book Character
17 Excuses for Bringing Back a Dead Character
16 Types of Retcons
19 Ways to End a Superhero’s Romance
22 Ways to Show a Superhero Killing Someone
9 Categories of Continuity
5 Types of Superhero Team Members
Secret Identities: 10 Ways to Unspill the Beans
Superhero Finances: 10 Situations
13 Reasons to Use a Deathtrap
14 Functions for a Superhero Costume
10 Types of Superhero Successors
14 Ways to Rehabilitate a Disgraced Hero
14 Motives for Becoming a Superhero
12 Tricks for Keeping Superheroes Young
13 Reasons to Quit the Superhero Racket
12 Rationales for a Hero-Versus-Hero Slugfest on the Cover
What To Do With a Supervillain After You Catch Him: 12 Options
14 Motives for Becoming a Supervillain
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