Recently, I pointed out that one of the major sticking points for a lot of creators and readers is the little details that people start to hold onto as they become bigger and bigger fans. One of the extensions of this is that there’s an ever building feeling that you must defend the “continuity”. It’s a common thing to witness, people who start to argue about the details they know in order to try to defend their particular version of how the universe is supposed to work. And you know what? That’s fine.
What isn’t fine is when you start to use it as an excuse to never ever let anything change. You’ve seen it, you know it happens, there are plenty of people who wanted to get into reading comic books, fantasy stories or sci-fi novels who were scared away by the idea they had to do homework before they could get started. There’s an ever present grumbling whenever someone in the stories gets a new detail added to them that doesn’t mesh with their image of that character. And, of course, who can forget our friend the black Storm Trooper?
Yeah, some people lost their shit over that one, all in the name of “continuity”…
Continuity, You’re Doing It Wrong
For serialized stories, continuity is a must. Some people who’ve seen the word misused in recent years cringe at that concept, but the truth is the same regardless. Continuity is that sense that each part of the overall story is following a natural progression from the stories that came before and will lead into the stories that followed. If you read a series of novels out of order, you may get lost, but if the series never had continuity to begin with – everyone gets lost. Because of that, all good stories have some degree of continuity in them and the idea of continuity becomes much more important as the number of entries grows and you need to keep it straight.
But where it sometimes loses people is when the series in question has been receiving new entries for decades. It becomes harder to keep it all straight after a while, and if the series in question happens to have more than one new entry a year, it becomes downright impossible. Look no further than the bloated continuity of comic books to see where it can get wildly out of control if the same characters can have a regular publication over the course of 70 years but claim to have only lived 10 of them.
So one of the great barriers of entry to these sorts of franchises is the idea that people don’t know where to start. And, for the most part, the fans usually don’t help. Enter any comic book store and you’ll find at least one person who becomes adamant that you can’t be a real fan of a work without reading (a), (b), or (c) entries in that world. One of my friends infamously points out an episode of the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon informs someone that they can’t purchase a more modern comic book unless they take time to read DC’s multiple “Crisis” events first.
That’s the wrong way to go about this, guys.
Unfortunately, we as a community try to use the continuity as a means of taking ownership of what we’re reading or watching. If we know everything about it, we can feel good for having “mastered” the subject. It makes us feel as though we’ve got the greatest degree of control of this one aspect of our lives. And if you doubt this is the motive, put two nerds in one room together and throw down a question like “which superhero would win in a fight?”
The problem is we often find ourselves in a constant state of challenging each other to validate our mastery of the subject. This is fine when dealing with people who’ve been in the subject as long as we have, but it becomes an intimidating situation for someone who hasn’t been inducted into the ranks but wants to try. We often chase away newer people by overwhelming them with information that flows freely from us as a simple reflex after years of trivia laden gladiatorial battle with others of our kind. And the problem is…that means our community sometimes struggles to grow. In fact, stagnation is something that some of our members want to happen.
There’s another aspect of mastering the subject which is reflected in an episode of Futurama. One race of aliens in the series is a group of brains that goes around the universe gathering all of the information in the universe. When their mission is complete they will literally know everything there is to know in the universe. But, to maintain that, there must never be any new information to ever come about… so they have to destroy the universe and make sure that never happens.
Fans do this sometimes too.
One of the recent examples that springs to mind is that Catwoman was revealed to potentially be bi-sexual. I say “potentially” because it was also implied that she might have been infatuated with the idea of being Catwoman itself, but let’s face it, she’s probably Bi. Anyone who has ever followed the character knows that she has had hints of this forever and it was always kind of implied that Catwoman was interested in just about everyone. But the reaction out of at least one section of the fandom was that her being in any way interested in women was breaking the character and ruining continuity.
It wasn’t that it was really breaking anything, she had always implied to be interested in everyone at least a bit and one of her closest friends in the past was openly interested in women anyway. She’d always kind of just been an ambiguously omnisexual entity and that was always kind of part of her. But for these people who resisted this change, they felt as though it somehow ruined it because it was a fundamental change to their personal image of who she was. It’s not that it had really broken continuity, it had just changed their version of continuity.
Once again, people resisting the feeling of change and needing to control the world and the way it proceeds made people respond in stupid fashion. The truth is, this is one of the two major problems with continuity that causes our community to seem closed off and hostile when we want to be viewed as open and accepting. The creators in question hadn’t contradicted the history of the character, they’d simply added to it. At no point did they imply that Catwoman wasn’t interested in men, she’s always shown a clear interest in them, they were just saying she also saw interest in women. Nothing subtracted, only added, and that’s part of how you build a proper continuity anyway. Change is not a problem, it’s necessary.
Another example that recently put a highlight on this was the debate over the recent direction of Batgirl and a callback to an event that happened almost 3 decades ago.
As I said myself not long ago, I was unsure with the direction Batgirl was going in because of features that seemed to suggest a regression of the character. The Barbara Gordon I always knew was always the smartest person in the room, so when I heard that her new costume (which, I do like the design of, don’t get me wrong) was going to be assembled from things she found in a thrift store… it didn’t sound like someone who had learned from past mistakes. Barbara had been shot in the past, so the idea of abandoning clothes with at least the conceit of kevlar in favor of stylish street clothes seemed counter-intuitive to the character.
But, as the series has progressed and I’ve seen more of what the creative team has been doing with her, I’m willing to say they’re just trying to take her in a different direction with the continuity that she has. This is not a Batgirl who hasn’t learned, this is a Batgirl who is trying not to be dominated by her past. That’s a distinction that requires some notice and requires our respect. So of course, that also means it’s completely counter to a cover that was revealed not too long ago.
If the current Batgirl is one who is trying to move beyond her past and the mistakes there-in rather than be dominated by her fear of them…this is not how you demonstrate it. The Batgirl creative team didn’t have input on this cover as far as I was aware, these alternate covers being created by other artists within the company as part of a month of Joker covers for all titles. But the company itself didn’t seem to recognize this didn’t mesh with the current style.
The recent direction of Batgirl has started to draw new fans to the character, fans who had previously been put off by the darker and edgier narrative before, and this cover did not sit well with them. Why should it? It’s the antithesis of everything they had been drawn to. But, of course, continuity nerds had to step in and say that the image needed to be there because of course the story it references is the “most important” event to happen between Joker and Batgirl.
But that demonstrates another problem with continuity and the way we treat it within the geek community: we never move beyond old events. It’s especially true with the creative teams themselves. Many times, stories written in the modern day are anchored entirely in events that happened decades ago. Barbara Gordon was shot by the Joker in 1988, but we still have to reference it at almost every turn 27 years later. Understand that for a moment and realize that this is an event in the history of a character that happened before many of the readers were even born. So why are we beating that dead horse still? For continuity’s sake?
There have been three other Batgirls in the time since that story was published, and three Robins, two of whom died and came back from the dead (one of which then going on to become the next Batgirl), and even Batman himself has been removed from action twice in the space between Batgirl being shot by Joker and then recovering in the present-day reboot. But we continue to lean on the old continuity crutch and insist that we cannot move beyond things that happened ages ago. The fact of the matter is: we as a community need to start seeing continuity in a completely different light if the things we love are to survive us when we pass.
Continuity is not meant to be the thing that drives story, it is the thing that is meant to make sure the stories that happen today still make sense. It is not to be the thing that drives the plot, but the thing that drives the actions of the people and places within the plot. Good continuity, in a series that has continued for decades, is the thing that drives characters to behave the way they do without constantly being confronted with these ghosts of the past. You shouldn’t have to know the entire history of the character to understand what’s happening to them, the character (and creator) should know it so they know how to react to what’s happening to them.
We shouldn’t have to know there was a clone of Spider-man thrown into a smoke stack in the 1970s so we understand why there’s suddenly a guy swinging around named Ben Reilly. We shouldn’t need to know about a massive crossover event written in the 80s to understand why there’s an “Earth 2” in DC comics. We don’t have to know the complete history of Middle Earth to understand why an evil ring that warps people’s souls is a bad thing. We don’t need to know the entire history of Star Trek to understand why people in the Federation follow the Prime Directive. And we don’t have to know the complete history of Doctor Who…
To be able to appreciate this moment.
(I write novels. They’re a series, but I promise you they can be appreciated mostly on their own in any order you decide to read them in. I also have a twitter account, I might share information there in the form of #AlterFacts… but I promise you won’t need to know any of it, it’s not a test.)