Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I've been reading a lot of mainstream superhero comics lately, certainly more than I have in the last few years, and it got me thinking about continuity. You all know what I mean by "continuity": The concept of the "shared universe," where all of the superheroes exist and interact with each other, sometimes across titles, sometimes in company-wide "event" crossovers like Civil War or Final Crisis. There is a shared history, an accumulation of events to be drawn upon in the construction of a grand narrative.

Continuity in superhero comics is a strange, messy concept that is sometimes blamed for being a hindrance to new readers. Certainly this is often true. I read the new issue of Green Lantern Corps. last night, the latest chapter in DC's Blackest Night crossover, and I can't imagine it being anyone's first issue of the series. It would be completely incomprehensible without some knowledge of previous Blackest Night books at the very least, and you would probably need at least some knowledge of other events in recent Green Lantern comics to begin to understand what is going on. But that's just one example of what continuity can look like.

In the past, I've argued against the concept of continuity, pointing out that most classic comic books that have stood the test of time exist outside of continuity (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Bone). But recently, I've been thinking about what drew me to superhero comics in the first place, when I was a kid. Do you know what my introduction to superhero comics was? The Marvel Universe Series 1 Trading Cards. Yep, before I ever read a single superhero comic book, I had already familiarized myself, somewhat, with the characters via this set of trading cards, which offered not only character stats and biographies, but also cards summarizing major "events" that had taken place in the Marvel Universe, such as the first time Galactus had attacked Earth, or the Kree/Skrull War. I became entranced by the complex, evolving narrative suggested by these cards, and when I finally jumped into the comics themselves, I loved when the characters mentioned things I had read about, but not yet read. It created the sense of the Marvel Universe as a real place, where things actually happened and had consequences whether or not I had read them myself. I was welcome to participate, but if I walked away, the Marvel Universe would go on, and indeed had been going on for years before I started paying attention to it.

I had been reading comics for years before I finally got around to reading the comic where Gwen Stacy died, but I knew it was a big deal. Ditto the "Dark Phoenix Saga." I still haven't gotten around to reading the Kree/Skrull War, but I have some understanding of what it was, and why it mattered to those characters. So, the idea of the shared universe worked on me as a kid, and it works now. I recently started reading the first trade paperback collecting the Incredible Hercules comic book, and the first issue takes place in the immediate aftermath of the World War Hulk event, which I have not read. Thanks to the internet, I do have a basic idea of what that crossover was all about, though, and, just as when I was first getting into comics, that idea of the Marvel Universe as a real place comes through. The gimmick still works. It's fun.

For me, far from being a hindrance, continuity was one of the primary draws of superhero comics. I wonder if it is still the same for kids today? Perhaps not. Perhaps now kids feel as though they need to start at the beginning of a story to understand what is going on. Certainly that's more possible now. When I was a kid, I really had no choice but to read a summary of the death of Gwen Stacy story. Now, with all of the reprints available, it's all right there for you. You can read Spider-Man from the beginning, or pick up Robert Kirkman's Invincible trade paperbacks and have an entire universe contained in an easily digestible series of books. I guess that's good. I know that's good. But reading them that way, they seem like stories. When I first started reading comics, jumping in the middle of this unwieldy, ongoing narrative, comics was a place I could go to. I may not have understood everything that was going on, but the individual comics offered enough so that I could get by. It was up to me to fill in the gaps, to explore that world myself, to uncover its secrets. It was a hell of a lot of fun, one of the primary pleasures of a shared superhero universe with complex continuity.


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