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Comic Book Dictionary – Retcon

Comic Book Dictionary is an occasional feature where I either introduce a term or explain how I use a term that is not always consistently applied.

Today we look at “retcon.”

Retcon comes from a combination of the words “retroactive” and “continuity.” It was initially used to just apply to ANY retroactive change to continuity. To wit, Superman being raised by Ma and Pa Kent was a retcon under this usage. It was something that was not part of Superman’s past (or “continuity”) when he was introduced but it was retroactively added.

My issue with this usage is that obviously, as you might imagine, pretty much ANYthing you do with a character’s past outside of their very first appearance is a retcon by this usage. It makes the term so common that it’s almost useless as a term.

An alternate meaning for the term, then, has developed over the years that suggests that it is instead retroactive continuity that specifically contradicts established continuity. No one ever said Superman was NOT raised by Ma and Pa Kent. No one ever said Spider-Man’s parents were anything, so it didn’t contradict continuity to reveal that they were spies. However, it WAS established that the early Spider-Man villain the Tinkerer was secretly an alien. Until it was later revealed that he was NOT an alien.

Those examples are a good deal more rare and it is THAT definition that I subscribe to.

So here at Comics Should Be Good, if you see me ever mention the term “retcon,” know that I mean “retroactive continuity that specifically contradicts past established history.” So not ADDED history but added history that specifically supersedes prior history.

35 Comments

Gee, why’d this come up? ;)

Hmm. What about the stuff that happened in Identity Crisis? Sue’s rape and the subsequent mind wipes? It’s added history that doesn’t necessarily supersede anything we’d seen before (for the most part), but it added a layer to things that by the nature of the plot reveals would have had to change things for how the characters lived and reacted. Ralph and Sue had never been shown dealing with the aftermath of the rapes (and never WERE shown dealing with it, amirite?), and we’d never seen any hint that the mind wipers in the League were carrying this deep dark secret until it was revealed in Identity Crisis (which is, to me, yet another argument for how bad the series was, but that’s not entirely my point).

Or am I coming at this the wrong angle?

(And IC just happened to be the story that came to mind most immediately. I’m sure there are other examples from better comics.)

Maybe retroactive continuity inserted by others than the original creator(s) should also count as a retcon? Even if it does not strictly change anything.

Maybe retroactive continuity inserted by others than the original creator(s) should also count as a retcon? Even if it does not strictly change anything.

But again, my issue with that is that stuff like that would come up with so much frequency that it robs the term of much of its utility. Jerry Siegel’s last Superman story was fifty years ago, ya know?

Roy Thomas defined the term very specifically when he popularized it in the pages of… was it All-Star Squadron? I think it’s a paragraph in the letters column in one of those issues. He of course carried the term over from one of the APAs, but his definition is very much like Brian’s.

Wikipedia is full of examples where character development and plot are labelled “retcon, ” because it varies from what Sheldon would do.

Alright, so: Crisis and Flashpoint: retcons? Technically the DC universes of old still happened, but they were overwriten like recording one movie over an old one on a videocassette. That’s as opposed to, say, DC spontaneously reintroducing the Doom Patrol in the early 2000s when they’d never been eliminated in the first place. That’s not an overwriten video–that’s you suddenly never having owned it in the first place.

So, is the latest Dinosaur Comics a retcon, or just adding to the rich history of Sherlock Holmes and Batman? And the Simpsons…

http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=2680

Was reminded of this old (but recently re-posted) column by Peter David, in which he goes into rectors and the undoing of retcons (which he calls stetcons): http://www.peterdavid.net/2014/07/11/retcons-and-stetcons/

Travis –

I think Identity Crisis qualifies as a retcon.

Brian’s definition is a good one, but there are still plenty of examples where the stuff could have happened between the panels, nothing is directly contradicted, but the characters and the original stories are completely changed by it.

For instance…

If a writer decides to add more detail to Steve Rogers’ childhood, create some childhood friends for him, detail some of the early events of his life, that is not a retcon. You can still re-read those old Captain America stories in the same way.

But if a writer pulls a Identity Crisis and reveals that Steve Rogers has always had a second personality as a sadistic serial killer and cannibal, and he’s been killing a lot of people between the panels, but he has never been discovered and his good guy personality doesn’t remember it, then that is a big retcon. You can’t read the original stories the same way.

There are a lot of gray areas.

Wolverine having a long career that stretches back to the 19th century doesn’t necessarily constitutes a retcon.

Wolverine’s real name being “James Howlett”? I think that qualifies as a retcon. All the times he told his friends in the X-Men that he is named Logan? The scenes read differently now. Originally, they’re moments of warmth, Logan finally opening up to them. Now, it’s Logan either lying to them or so amnesiac that he didn’t remember even his name. So it reads as either cynical or pathetic.

I would say “Identity Crises” for Sue Dibney is a retcon. In Justice League Europe, her and Ralph Dibney had a comfortable, flirtateous sexual chemistry. With Identity Crises showing she had been raped, her flirtation with Ralph changes to a physically abused woman who seeks acknowledgement solely through sex with her husband. It also changes her motivation from “I love my husband and help him solve crimes” to “I was brutally raped and now help my husband pursue justice.”
Goodness, I hated “Identity Crises.”

I dislike retcons in general, but what really grind my gears is the editorial-mandate-reboot so common at DC nowadays…(and THAT one from Quesada, too).

“No one ever said Superman was NOT raised by Ma and Pa Kent.”

Er, yes they did. Action Comics #1 explicitly states he was raised in an orphanage. Superman #1 changes the story and says that the Kents left him at the orphanage but then changed their minds and went back and got him and raised him as their son. It is the textbook definition of a retcon.

I think it’s a bit of a problem to apply the term to the early Golden Age,* before shared continuity aspects came in. Few comics of the late 1930s into the early or even mid-1940s really even bothered staying consistent from issue to issue over a given run of comics. As Thad notes, Superman’s backstory and powers change rapidly in his first few years, and the same goes for Batman’s M.O. and moral code, the Green Lantern’s specific powers, and so forth. (How many people remember that Alan Scott’s original powerset was flight, hypnotism, and control over metals, and that *all* nonmetals could injure him?) I think the term retcon becomes anachronistic in eras where there’s no “strong” model of continuity in the first place.

* Partly because so much material is out of print, it’s easy to forget that a lot of what we think of as Silver Age-style shared continuity was already the norm by about 1946. The Justice Society had a lot to do with that. By the end, you had stuff like Jay Garrick mentioning a superspeed trick he learned during a previous JSA story in a Flash Comics adventure, and the story intended for Flash Comics #106 (and eventually published in a Lois Lane comic about the other, heroic Thorn) wrapped up the Thorn’s plotline by having her defeated by the Flash and then ferried to Wonder Woman’s Paradise Island for treatment courtesy of Green Lantern.

How does one qualify Marvel’s “The Sentry” and DC’s “Moon Maiden” stories?

The original mini-series with The Sentry was more of an intellectual exercise, something between a parody and a pastiche. A kind of tongue-in-cheek retcon.

Sadly, Brian Michael Bendis took the joke seriously…

It’s funny how the definition of “Retcon” has changed in the 30 years since Roy Thomas first introduced it in that All-Star Squadron letter column. What Thomas was practicing was more often than not story insertions that went out of their way NOT to contradict the original stories or even inserted elements that explained old story elements. Now, more often than not, it’s used when a writer is OVERTURNING the original continuity.

Wolverine’s real name being “James Howlett”? I think that qualifies as a retcon. All the times he told his friends in the X-Men that he is named Logan? The scenes read differently now. Originally, they’re moments of warmth, Logan finally opening up to them. Now, it’s Logan either lying to them or so amnesiac that he didn’t remember even his name. So it reads as either cynical or pathetic.

The first time Nightcrawler (and the readers) learned that “Logan” was Wolverine’s real name was in the story where the two of them head up to Canada & fight the Wendigo with Alpha Flight. The exchange went like this:

Heather Hudson: LOGAN! You’re back!

Nightcrawler: Wolverine… She called you “Logan”?

Wolverine: Yup.

Nightcrawler: Is that your name?

Wolverine: Yup.

Nightcrawler: You never told us.

Wolverine: You never asked.

That scene is a lot of things, but it doesn’t contain a whole lot of “Warmth” or “Opening Up” to my mind. :)

Er, yes they did. Action Comics #1 explicitly states he was raised in an orphanage.

It only says that the baby was TAKEN to an orphanage. It says nothing about who raised him. The origin in Superman #1 works right off of the Action Comics #1 origin (which makes sense, of course, since it was Siegel just elaborating on his own work). Action #1 mentions a passing motorist who brought the baby to the orphanage. Superman #1 says that that motorist was the Kents, who then came back and adopted Clark.

So the Ma and Pa Kent example fits.

The first time Nightcrawler (and the readers) learned that “Logan” was Wolverine’s real name was in the story where the two of them head up to Canada & fight the Wendigo with Alpha Flight.

LEPRECHAUNS!!

http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2014/05/28/if-i-pass-this-way-again-we-first-learned-wolverines-real-name-from-a-leprechaun/

The mind wipes had plenty of precedent, as Meltzer demonstrates (I read several of them, back in the day); but, the rape of Sue was a retcon, in my book. Ralph and Sue were never shown to have darkness in their lives or back history. They were Nick and Nora Charles, for the superhero set. It flew against all established history and personality, even though it didn’t directly contradict anything.

Put me in the boat of hating Identity Crisis, for that element, Jean Loring, and mindwiping Batman, with Superman being okay with it.

John –

LOL

LEPRECHAUNS!!

Oh, shit, you’re right.

Like any right-thinking individual, I have done my best to purge that story from my memory. YOU WIN THIS ROUND, CRONIN!!!! ;)

LEPRECHAUNS!! is when the readers learned Logan’s name. He also told Mariko his name after he met her.
But the rest of the X-Men had to wait another 20 issues or so before they found out.
Then 30 years later we all find out Logan is not even his real name.
What a jerk.

Didn’t identity Crisis also have Sue’s rape mindwiped, at least from Sue? That would allow Sue’s original history to remain at least partially intact, wouldn’t it? Not that I want to argue on behalf of Identity Crisis…

Didn’t identity Crisis also have Sue’s rape mindwiped, at least from Sue?

I don’t believe so. You’d think they would have tossed that in there, but I don’t believe they did.

I dunno, I think mindwiping Sue’s rape would have made a terrible story decision EVEN WORSE. “You were horribly violated, and, oh, yeah, we’ll make it so you won’t even remember it and all of us who DO know about it will have to walk on eggshells around you and never ever ever mention rape. Because no, you definitely weren’t raped, Sue! (Zatanna, reup the mind wipe spell!)”

Oh, agreed, but that’s in part why I figured they did it. That story seemed to be all about making terrible ideas even worse (“We didn’t just murder one of our only vestiges of light in our universe – she was PREGNANT, too!”)

The thought was mindwiping a rape victim boggles the mind.

I still refuse to refer to Wolverine as “James Howlett.” His name is Logan, damn it! You can’t tell me otherwise! Nyah nyah nyah, I can’t hear you! :)

Seriously, I haven’t follow any of the X-Men book regularly in a decade or more. Well, okay, I followed X-Men Forever, but in THAT reality Wolverine’s real name was still Logan. So, honestly, I don’t care what Marvel calls him nowadays. Out of sight, out of mind.

Sort of like how I’m not paying attention to the truckload of retcons that are apparently being offered up by “Original Sin” because, again, I’m not reading it.

Remember to vote with your wallets!

@Darth Weevil: In regards to Peter David and retcons, I am still amused by how he retconned the retcon (or, to use his terminology, stetconned) the Hulk: Chapter One annual written by John Byrne that revealed the Strulls were responsible for Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk. Mr. Cronin himself previously covered that one…

http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2011/10/07/meta-messages-peter-david-has-some-fun-with-hulk-chapter-one/

I certainly do not blame David for doing that, since (as I commented back then) Byrne’s retcon invalidated one of the best stories from PAD’s Incredible Hulk run, “The Closing Circle” from issue #393.

It’s funny, I have no great investment in Wolverine as a character, but the James Howlett origin just seemed to me like a joke at his expense.

So does having a second person bitten by the radioactive spider constitute a retcon or not?
No – because it was never established that 2nd perosn wasn’t bitten
Yes- because we have had earlier Spiderman origin stories showing him holding the dead spider that had just bitten him

We need a term for something that is not technically a retcon, but retroactively changes the tone of old stories. Sue Dibny’s rape would be one example.

Jeff, while it’s true there was plenty of mindwiping during the Silver Age, it was also taken as completely uncontroversial, not as this unspeakable and unthinkable thing. Which is not to say it’s a good idea, but IC hardly fits.
And yeah, it was dreadful.

In answer to Adam’s question I would classify Crisis on Infinite Earths and Flahpoint as “Supercontinuity” events which trigger a reboot of continuity – some series completely rebooted (all continuity erased and re-started from scratch) while others only partially rebooted (some things remain in continuity, other things removed).
These reboots tend to be poorly thought out and can be followed by smaller reboots (Mon-el’s removal from Legion continuity) or retcons (was Tim ever Robin?)

a Reboot is a bigger change than a retcon -although the pre-reboot continuity still exists within the “supercontinuity” and can be referenced or restored (so characters who’s continuities were removed by Crisis on Infinite Earth such as Superboy Prime still managed to appear).
A retcon is never associated to a supercontinuity event (though it can be retconned to have been) and all causes of them are outside the supercontinuity in the real world.

Omar, I was just reading the second Injustice Society story (1948) and I see what you mean. We have a cast of villains almost all from individual hero books (Huntress, Fiddler, Sportsmaster, Icicle) and the Harlequin crossing over from Green Lantern with her “I’m only a crook because I’m in love with him” motivation.

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