The Marvel and DC comic book universes provide something that most other pop culture properties don’t. They have been in production continuously since the 1930s. Arguably, this is one storyline that stretches back as far as 75 years. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have contributed to these stories. And, those contributions have impacted the characters. This is a pretty unique state of affairs that offers some interesting possibilities and challenges.
Two of the challenges that are forever linked are these: How do you avoid getting bogged down in decades of continuity, and how do you ensure that new readers aren’t scared off by all the story that has gone before. Marvel’s solution has been to maintain one solid line, with occasional, individual, in continuity retcons and reboots. For instance, when Peter Parker made a deal with the devil to erase his marriage from history. Or, when The Scarlet Witch used her power to erase most mutants from existence. These tend to be quick bumps in the road that are easily explained. Other changes that don’t go over as well, say Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn hooking up and having babies, are ignored or retconned away.
DC, on the other hand, has a tendency to change EVERYTHING. Let me try to explain this using The Flash, since he’s an important piece in a lot of these changes. In the Golden Age (30s and 40s), The Flash was a guy named Jay Garrick. He wore a little metal helmet and solved crimes and stuff. They stopped publishing his book in the early 50s. In the mid-50s, they started fresh with a brand new Flash – Barry Allen. This one read comic books about Jay Garrick that partly inspired him. It turns out, though, that Jay and the rest of the 40s superheroes actually exist on a parallel Earth! Jay and Barry can cross over from one Earth to the other and hang out. This eventually led to a whole multiverse of Earths. There was an Earth devoted entirely to Captain Marvel and his family. There’s another one where the heroes are evil, and Lex Luthor is the only good guy.
Through the 60s and 70s, Barry and his sidekick Kid Flash (AKA Wally West) had many adventures. Barry married Wally’s aunt, who later died, and then was sent back in time as an infant, and, well, yeah. Complicated. In an effort to simplify all the bizarre continuity weirdness that had gone on, DC had a Crisis On Infinite Earths. This lead to Barry sacrificing himself and all the Earths collapsing into one. Barry stayed dead, for the most part, and Wally became The Flash. This lasted for a good twenty years or so, until Wally left this reality and was replaced by Barry’s grandson from the future, Bart. But, the audience didn’t like Bart much, so he was killed off and Wally returned. Except now he had two super-powered kids to raise. Then Bart and Barry came back to life, and once again I’m cross-eyed.
The New 52 reboot happened last year in another effort to clear some of this stuff up. So, now Barry’s the Flash again and there’s another Earth where Jay is the Flash. So far so good. Bart also exists, and may or may not still be Barry’s grandson from the future, but there’s no sign of poor old Wally.
Okay, so did you follow that? Pretty messy stuff. And, it’s all in an effort to keep things easy to follow. And, so long as you get one issue at a time, or follow a book from one month to the next, you should be fine. The thing is, so much in comics these days is about the collected editions. Trade paperbacks and hardcovers. If you buy a Flash collection from ten years ago, it’s going to be a completely different character in a completely different world than the one that appears in the monthlies. If you get one from ten years before that, you’ll have a whole new set of rules.
The long and short of what I’m trying to get at here is that in their efforts to make their universe less bogged down in continuity, they have managed to make it confusing. From decade to decade, it’s hard to tell what stories from the past actually count and what don’t.
Graham Becksted didn’t mention the San Diego Comic Con once. He is the author of Graham’s Grumbles the second blog by that name that is listed in Google results when you search for Graham’s Grumbles. If you would like to be his 68th follower (thank you, bots), he can be followed on Twitter @GrahamBecksted.