by KC Carlson
One of the earliest superhero comic books I read featured a scene where Spider-Man was web-swinging down a cavernous NYC street, only to encounter another Marvel hero (Daredevil?), swinging the other way. (I’m shaky on the details because it’s been a loooong time since I’ve looked at that story, and I’m unable to currently research it since my comics are still in complete disarray after my recent move.) Regardless, I thought that random meeting was pretty cool. Mostly because it was the first time this had happened (at least for me). Today, we take such things for granted.
Wow. How easily we were entertained when we were young.
What I was witnessing was one of the very early Marvel examples of what is called a Shared Universe. That’s a fictional universe which more than one creator contributes stories to, building (what one hopes is) a consistent group of stories that share characters, settings, expandable plot ideas, and other storytelling elements. Both the Marvel Universe and what was known as the DC Multiverse (currently “The New 52”) are primary examples of the Shared Universe concept in comics.
Of course, my early (and probably misremembered) example mentioned above wasn’t Marvel’s first stab at a Shared Universe. That was back in the 1940s, when Marvel’s (then Timely Comics) early heroes met and fought (Namor vs. Human Torch) or banded together (the All-Winners Squad, Marvel’s first super-team).
That wasn’t even the first instance of a Shared Universe in comic books. The honor goes to the first appearance of the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3 (Winter 1940-1941), the first comic book where formerly solo superhero characters teamed to form an official organization of crimebusters. Writer Gardner Fox possibly wasn’t aware that he was introducing the concept to comic books; for him, it was probably just a cool idea. If one hero is good, then more would be better! Increased sales would prove this correct, so many comics publishers would love superteams and team-ups for decades to come.
Despite DC first coming up with the idea, they weren’t always very good at handling it. During much of its early history, DC operated under a system of editorial “fiefdoms” — with each group of books headed up by an editor who wasn’t beholden to what was going on in other books by other editors. That lead to many inconsistencies over the years. By the middle 1960s, when Marvel under Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others were building what we now know as the Marvel Universe brick-by-brick, DC had multiple versions of Atlantis, Mars, and seemingly, Wonder Women in their universe. In fact, several of the characters in Justice League of America seemed completely different in their own features, under different editors, than they did under Julius Schwartz in JLA. (Or they didn’t appear often, like Superman and Batman.)
The consistent (Well… usually. Stan was notably forgetful.) Marvel Universe was often seen as one of the major factors in Marvel’s early success.
CONTINUITY AND TIMELINE
Other than the Shared Universe, what also won over readers during the Silver Age was the establishment of both continuity and timeline. Both terms are frequently interchangeable in comic book discussions, but under the original definition (as it applies to film and similar media), continuity is about the consistency of stories, characters, objects (in comics, largely costumes, powers, weapons, or vehicles), and places or settings. Do the characters have the same personalities from issue to issue? (Sometimes tough to determine in the Silver Age, when some characters didn’t have much of a distinct personality.) Timeline deals more with the chronology (or order) of stories, as well as determining (or “ret-conning” to include) what is known as “canon”.
Canon is a sticky wicket, as it has many definitions (all stemming from some sort of “most important” concept), although the primary one for comics is along the lines of material that is considered to be “genuine” by the fan base. That’s tough, because comic book fans often cannot agree on anything, and canon may be determined by a single person writing a new story that either changes or eliminates previous stories or situations. Occasionally, these new tales take stories that were originally considered to be non-canon and retell them to make them inclusive. (Grant Morrison’s Silver Age Batman concept rewrites are a good example.) More often, stories change (or explain away) something in past comic book stories that (in their opinion) no longer makes sense, hopefully to make the new outcome better.
This does not always work. The classic example is the Mopee version of the Barry Allen Flash’s origin, where a magical imp was inserted to be responsible for the Flash’s origin. He was promptly and conveniently forgotten (except by Keith Giffen). In the modern era, the best example is Joe Quesada’s attempts to rewrite Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson’s relationship and marriage, which you either grudgingly accepted, or you stopped reading Amazing Spider-Man. Or, like me, you just moved on, ignoring the bits you didn’t like.
These Spider-Man stories have been Marvel’s most prominent recent attempts to change their past chronology. In the past, writers like Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart devoted a big chunk of their careers to fixing up Marvel continuity in the late 60s/early 70s. More recently, Kurt Busiek did a couple very enjoyable “fix-ups” of Avengers and Iron Man canon in the modern era.
These days, Marvel is more about evolution than revolution in dealing with their continuity. Many of their big “Event” stories are about Big Changes to the Marvel Universe, but they tend to go forward with a new status quo instead of rewriting the past.
ESTABLISHING CANON THROUGH ELIMINATION
DC, on the other hand, devotes many of their event stories to dealing with continuity and canon issues, beginning with their first major one. Crisis on Infinite Earths attempted to handle their biggest problems — multiple versions of major characters, including villains, and places, with not just multiple Earths, but multiple Atlantises as well. That Crisis could have been huge. Creators were suggesting full-out restarts for most of the major characters, but DC management were frightened by the prospects, slow to commit, and not prepared for a full re-launch at that time. Superman was rebooted (although not completely), Wonder Woman was restarted months later, and Batman got a lame “soft” reboot that left most readers confused. (So they killed Robin instead.) Other DC characters got reboots as well — notably Flash, as Barry Allen died in Crisis on Infinite Earths — and Hawkman (which didn’t work out so well, so DC kept trying).
DC has constantly been tinkering with their timeline and continuity over the years. (I plead guilty with my work on projects like Zero Hour and the infamous Legion of Super-Heroes reboot.) While at DC, I noticed that certain individuals (including myself) would occasionally succumb to the easy approach of “Oh, let’s just blow it all up and start over from scratch” only to be brought back (usually slapped) to reality. Imagine my surprise when they actually did that about a year ago. Unfortunately, instead of feeling excited about it, I kinda felt left behind (as did other older readers).
“COMICS THAT MATTER”
There is a nebulous concept in current fandom of only wanting to buy “comics that matter”. As a way of negating publisher attempts to expand their popular franchises to get more money from customer pockets, fans want to determine what’s canon to them personally instead of having publishers dictate which comics are important.
Obviously, for publishers, everything they publish that’s set in their universe is canon. At DC, this is blatant: There are 52 canon books published every month. If you want to read the DC Universe, you read 52 comics each and every month.
For most readers this is financially impossible, so they have to start making their own rules to figure out which books are important to them. Perhaps they eliminate the former Wildstorm characters. Or don’t bother with the Vertigo-lite comics in the line. Maybe they like the dark books but think kid-gang superheroes are dumb, like the Titans-related or LSH-related books.
Over at Marvel, decisions are tougher. Because of the movie, everybody’s an Avengers fan these days. Marvel has made it pretty hard to decide which is the “core” Avengers book — Avengers or New Avengers — so maybe most folks get both. But there are dozens of additional Avengers-related titles every month. How to choose from those? The risk is that if it’s too hard to choose, a reader might not get any.
The more popular Avengers characters (Cap, Iron Man, Thor) have multiple series and minis. Cap fans probably get Captain America (and maybe Winter Soldier because it’s so good). The recently canceled Captain America and ??? team-up book? Probably not. Those stories don’t seem to matter as much. So they’re probably not canon. (Although everything at Marvel is eventually canon. It’s those crazy Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe guys who make sure of it!)
Remember when Marvel used to publish several different Spider-Man titles a month? Back then, it was easy to spot which ones were less than the best. (Hint: NOT Amazing Spider-Man). Flash forward to today, and all those “lesser” Spidey titles are gone while Amazing is published at least twice a month. Clever Marvel, not giving readers the choice any more.
As sales on individual titles keep dropping, the big publishers find themselves having to publish more and more titles just to maintain the same bottom line. Current readers are frequently rejecting those titles immediately if they sense they don’t matter. Obviously, publishers need more titles that “matter”. But to do that, they need to figure out how to keep their top talent, as well as developing (and promoting) talented newcomers. Which means those creators need incentives to stay rather than going to Hollywood. Fans perceive that long-time established creators (like Geoff Johns or Brian Michael Bendis) are more likely to produce stories that are considered in canon. A story written by first-timer “Joe Baloney” will be much more scrutinized, and more frequently rejected, until “Joe” is writing a franchise book or three.
Our guidelines for how we perceive the importance of continuity and canon are changing even more rapidly than DC changes universes. Perhaps paying attention to continuity and shared universes is already an outdated notion, although the direct market clings to it. Will terms like Shared Universe, Continuity, Timeline, and Canon still matter in 40 years? Will DC and Marvel still be publishing comics? Will comics, as we know them today, still even exist by that time?
Sure! But I bet you won’t be able to fold them in half and put them in your back pocket!
(Thousands of comics fans just screamed in unison, “Then it’s not Mint!!” I love comics.)
KC CARLSON: Worked at DC Comics from 1989 to 1997, where one of his non-resume jobs was walking the continuity. Which took all day, because NYC has fire hydrants about every 100 feet.
WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you.
Classic comic covers from the Grand Comics Database.