Of any type of medium, comic books always feel like the closest imitation of real life to me.Obviously insane, completely unrealistic things happen in comics, but the format and the structure of the medium mirrors reality closer than anything else. Novels, movies, television shows, plays – they all have beginnings. They all have midpoints. And they all have narratives that end. Life doesn’t work that way. Certain events in people’s lives follow that model. Individual lives themselves operate that way. But life itself? Life doesn’t end when the war is won or lost. Life doesn’t stop when someone dies. Life just keeps right on going regardless.
This is how the narrative in comics functions. A major story arc concludes, a catastrophe is wrapped up, a character dies, but then what? There is still an issue that needs to be sold next month, so the story just keeps on going. Of course, this leads to an ugly word within these fictional universes: continuity. Continuity is everything that has ever happened within a fictional world. It is its history, and, like history, it gets complicated.
If someone wanted to learn about the History of the United States, where would they start? The Revolutionary War, perhaps? Or would it be better to start with the French and Indian Wars to give it context? Or maybe the founding of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607? Surely the “discovery” of the “New World” by Columbus in 1492 would be a safe bet. But that person would really need to go back to medieval cultural and economics and trade routes to get a good idea of what the hell Columbus was even doing meandering out in the Atlantic Ocean for no apparent reason bumping into random land masses and decimating the local populations with smallpox. Sooner or later they just have to say, “screw it. I’ll just start here, and I’ll pick it up anything I missed as I go.”
That’s what jumping into comics is like. At least, it’s what jumping into Marvel or DC comics – with decades of continuity – is like. I think the first Batman comic I read was Batman #650. It was not “new-reader friendly,” it was at the end of a story arc, and I really had no idea what was going on, but it was still fun, and I enjoyed trying to figure out all the nuances and details.
A lot of readers are intimidated by that prospect. They don’t want to miss things, and they hate the idea of being behind, of “not getting something,” or missing a detail that other readers would get and then feeling stupid. A lot of people don’t like the subject of History for that very reason. I have heard people say “if I can’t start with #1, I don’t want to bother.” Try thinking of it this way: when meeting someone for the first time, people rarely say, “Tell me all the details of your life beginning with your birth and continuing through to this very moment. If I miss a single detail, I’ll be lost, and then this relationship just isn’t going to work.” Instead people get a name, a few simple details, and then they go from there.
Honestly, if somebody even asked me to give them my full biography, I’m not sure how much I could say. I’m almost 30 years old. I can remember maybe 1% of my life in vivid detail. It works out to about 110 days, and that might even be an overstatement. Granted, I can remember certain fragments of things happening across more than 110 days, but if you were to ask if I have a full 110 days worth of memories, 2640 hours, I’d probably have to say no. Even if I did have that many hours of memories recorded in my mind somewhere, I have no idea how accurate they’d be. My wife and I routinely remember things happening in different ways (I’m usually wrong), so who knows.
The inaccuracy of memory is the biggest difference between continuity and history, between comics and life. In any debate about what Spider-Man said to Doctor Octopus right before foiling another of his nefarious schemes in Spider-Man #357, one only needs to go find the actual issue and look it up. (I have no idea if Doc Ock was actually in that issue. Just roll with me on this.) We can only guess what Catherine of Aragon’s final words were to Henry VIII. I think we could probably guess pretty accurately, but it’s still just a guess.
Real life is catching up, though. Nearly everything a person says or does has the potential to be recorded. It’s mostly voluntary at this point with Twitter and Facebook and other social media sites. It’s more involuntary for public figures like politicians, which is why conversations like this happen:
“Senator, 12 years ago you said your values were ‘x, y, and z.’ We have recorded proof of it. Now you’re saying they’re ‘x, y, and w.’ How can we trust a man who can’t even keep his own words straight.” With comics, we get fights like “Batman once said criminals are ‘a superstitious and cowardly lot,’ but now hes punching them in the face instead of trying to just scare them first!” In both cases, we can either forgive the minor inconsistencies and just roll with it because that’s how life works, or we can freak out about it and wail that everything is not a statuesque paragon of tightly plotted perfection. All too often, we succumb to our obsessive-compulsive urges and go with the latter.
For the most part, people seem to be okay with meeting strangers midway through their lives and filling in gaps as they go. This goes for comics, as well, where readers are willing to jump on board with Captain America or Iron Man or any random hero even if they aren’t familiar with decades of history. But once the dots start not lining up within the backstory, in real life and in continuity, things turn ugly. “I trusted you!” we cry, “I believed in you! and now it’s all a lie!” This is when reboots happen.
Reboots are basically the equivalent of someone burning their house to the ground, destroying all evidence of their previous life, and moving to Alaska or Hawaii or New York to start life anew under the name “Don Draper.” Everything that happened to Dick Whitman, and everything he ever said or did, still happened – he’s just pretending it didn’t because nobody else knows and everyone is calling him Don, now.
We can all pretend that Wally West was never the Flash. We can all pretend that Arnold Schwarzenegger was never Mr. Freeze. We can even all pretend that none of the superhero costume redesigns from 1992-1995 never happened. But in each case, we’re lying to ourselves. We can either embrace it, learn from it, and keep going (like we do with all of our mistakes in life). Or we can start a lot of fires and run far, far away, and just hope and pray nobody ever asks too many questions.
I know how I’d prefer to live.
Embrace continuity; embrace life.