Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Art of the Retcon 1: DC Does the Time Warp Again

This isn't an alternate timeline, this is the only timeline. Booster Gold #44 (July 2011).

Tomorrow, DC's solicitations for September comic books come out.  But for the past two weeks, they have been releasing news about their rebooted fictional universe that will arrive that month. For those who don't bother with pulp fiction, this matters because the company, which owns Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, is doing a complete overhaul of all its series, based on a gigantic crazy time warp storyline it's putting out this summer called FlashpointAnd it's the time warp story that interests me, because it involves the renumbering of all titles to coincide with the first historical transition in comics from paper to digital formats.  There's a history of DC's notorious reboots here at Comics Alliance.  Of this one, CA said: "Flashpoint Throws Out the Bathwater, Baby Reported Missing."

Since the beginning of this month, when the announcement of the time warp reboot came out, DC's fanbase has been in total uproar. That's because Flashpoint is apparently not just some alternate reality or other dimensional tale, which everyone could safely ignore. Due to the machinations of a villain from the future who can alter history, this new reality will be the only fictional reality for all of DC's characters by the end of this summer.  The best blog post title on this was at It's a Dan's World: "Clarice - Have the Fans Stopped Screaming?" DC writer Gail Simone did not soothe the mobs when she tweeted on 31 May: "Look, remember when McDonald's first made the McRib and all those people died? Then the survivors loved it? This is like that."

Aside from incredibly misguided 90s retro costume changes and a welcome return of John Constantine and some Vertigo characters to the DC Universe, there are four temporal dimensions to this wild 'n' crazy stunt. First, there is the meaning of continuity and retcons inside fictional stories that have run for decades. Second, there is the meaning of time for fans when they are reading serial fiction in a monthly paper publication, and what happens when that medium changes externally. Third, there is a generational angle to this relaunch. Fourth, our changing thoughts on time and the universe are having an impact on story-telling and narratives. This post looks at how the Millennial Zeitgeist encourages time-twisting to retcon an entire fictional universe.

Continuity and Retcons

In popular serial literature and long-running television shows, the ongoing history of a character is known as the character's continuity; editors and writers used to keep Continuity Bibles on hand for each character or for an ensemble cast, so that all the meandering details of decades' worth of plotlines could be kept straight.  You can be sure that if the writers did not have the details straight, the fans would call them on it! An example of a history of a specific character, or Continuity Bible, is the one I wrote on this blog for DC's character, Terra, here.

Retconning (Retroactive Continuity) is a writing technique peculiar to comic books, wherein time and/or circumstances are twisted in such a way that history (or sometimes the future) is partly or wholly rewritten for a character or several characters:
Retcons are common in pulp fiction, especially comic books published by long-established houses such as DC, Marvel and leading manga publishers. The long history of popular titles and the plurality of writers who contribute stories can often create situations that demand clarification or revision of exposition. Retcons appear as well in soap operas, serial drama, movie sequels, professional wrestling, video games, radio series, and other kinds of serial fiction.
I'm sure most people have wondered what they would do if they could go back and change some event in their lives.  In comics, it can happen, and with bizarre results, erasing some characters from existence, changing fates. There are three ways of retconning a story: addition (you didn't know the whole story, and when you find out the missing details, that changes everything); alteration (what you saw isn't what really happened - this is done especially when a character appears to have died and later turns up alive, or when the character dreamed a whole season's worth of episodes); and subtraction (the most radical retcon - when whole swathes of continuity are erased through magic, parallel worlds, a time warp, or similar experience where the whole fictional world objectively changes in the past, present and/or future - a change well beyond that of the limited subjective perception or knowledge of the audience and characters; this is a Twilight Zone type of retcon).

A villain has "changed history." Flash confronts Batman in a timeline where Bruce Wayne was murdered instead of his father, and the father became Batman.  Flashpoint #2 (Aug. 2011).

It looks as though DC's Flashpoint aftermath, conceived by writer Geoff Johns (with Co-Publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio, among others, helping), might be the most radical subtraction retcon ever attempted in a fictional universe.  (Marvel has also tried similar big reality- and time-twisting stories and reboots, including: Age of Apocalypse; Heroes Reborn; House of M and Decimation (see comment here); Age of X.) If sales flag after this experiment, DC (with Time-Warner's gentle encouragement) may retcon the retcon, making the Flashpoint aftermath into a fake reboot, or a storyline that will be erased in a future crisis storyline, perhaps in 2012.  That is, this wild project might turn out to be a smaller, alteration retcon after all. 

Anyway, we've now reached the point where huge retcons are not done to tweak continuities to make different writers' contributions line up with each other.  This is a deliberate twisting of time and history inside the fictional universe for the sake of doing it.  It's a retcon for entertainment purposes only.  It doesn't solve problems, it creates them, on purpose.  This pattern had already started with stories like Brad Meltzer's Identity CrisisBut this universe-wide-scale of gratuitous retconning is unprecedented, it potentially goes past DC's first attempt at streamlining continuity: Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Why is DC changing the whole internal logic of its fictional universe?  The answer lies partly in the transformation of publishing technology; partly in generational tensions; and partly in the fact that that Tech Revolution is changing how we understand time and the universe.

Reboots, Retcons, Time Warps and the Decline of the Serial Print Medium

Action Comics #900 (June 2011) was a huge milestone in paper comics publication.  This is the second longest-running superhero comic book serial (following Detective Comics); it has been published since 1938 and #900 may represent the swan song of the medium.

What happens when the publishing medium itself changes?  This is an external condition that affects the mode of story-telling and, bizarrely, the content of stories.  The medium is the messageDC's multiverse has 52 Earths, the same as the number of weeks in the year.

With publishing tricks like One Year Later and 52, DC has been toying with monthly serial formats for awhile, turning them into weeklies, jumping ahead, looking back.  In this reboot, DC is renumbering even the two oldest nearly-continuously running monthly comics series, Action Comics (which just passed #900) and Detective Comics (for which DC is named, which just passed #870). Both titles started in the late 1930s. Flashpoint is being followed by 52 new series, all starting at #1, many of which have nothing to do with superheroes. Fans decry the new series in Flashpoint's aftermath as a cheap marketing gimmick or a total destruction of their most beloved characters. They also ponder whether this is an attempt on the part of DC to change Superman so that when the company loses the Superman copyright in 2013, they will retain control over the character. One of the character's creators, Joe Shuster, famously cursed the Superman movie in the midst of battles over compensation. Superman's creation is doubly ironic.  Firstly, one of the world's most recognizable American superheroic icons was co-created by a Canadian.  Secondly, the hero that most completely embodies the highest American virtures is surrounded by dark, decades-long bitter lawsuits over the pricetag that can be put on those virtues.  When we ponder the meaning of the current reboot as a 'business decision' it's worth asking what DC stands for.  Is it dedicated to getting money from any readers, anywhere, at any cost?  Or are its financial endeavours based on its accurate portrayals of heroism?  (For sites that discuss the struggle over the ownership of Superman and related lawsuits, go here, here, here, here and here.)

At Comics Alliance, David Uzumeri pinpointed the cause and nature of this reboot.  He says that it is due to the Tech Revolution, and the collapse of paper publishing:
First off, as I said, the decision to relaunch every title with a new #1 is inextricably linked to the decision to move all superhero publishing to digital. While it's easy to view it as a cynical attempt to grab new readers with a false "start," or say that they're throwing away decades of publishing history for a quick buck, consider that the new #1s represent not only a reboot of continuity, but a reboot of the publishing model. They're drawing a clean break not for the people coming into the stores, but for the much hoped-for new readers who will soon be following the entire DC Universe on their iPads and GalaxyTabs.

Make no mistake, this entire endeavor is focused on the digital market. DC isn't dumb. They know print is dying. They know they have no chance at beating Marvel in the print market, as years and years of examples have proven. Rejuvenating the characters (literally) and providing a fresh start all across the line isn't about a quick sales bump in the direct market; it isn't about the direct market at all. It's so that people logging into comiXology to check out these digital DC comics they've heard about don't see an issue number in the 900s after Action Comics and throw up their hands.
Strangely however, Uzumeri perceives a rift between the current audience that buys the paper publication and a potential digital audience:
DC is burning a lot of bridges in the interest of building this new one, and if both the direct market and digital consumers don't come to this in sufficient enough droves, this is going to be an incredibly difficult, if not impossible, car to turn around. They're risking losing the support of both their existing retail partners and their hardcore fanbase in the interest of drawing an entirely new readership. While this is exactly the sort of drastic action digital comics proponents both here and elsewhere have been praying for for years, make no mistake, if this blows up, DC is completely screwed.
Why should there be a rift between people who read the print publication and the digital publication?  DC's entire fanbase is likely pretty tech-savvy.  And even if not, the digital format should be able to reach further than paper can.

There are two things going on here: one, with titles like Batwing and Justice League International, DC is struggling to push past its all-American roots to reach an international readership.  They've even dropped the 'of America' from Justice League of America, so that the series will be the Justice League.  In other words, the publishing medium changes and becomes more international, and the DCU has to be rebooted to become more accessible to an international audience.  But the other thing going on here is generational. 

DC's Legacies and Generations Problem

The last ten years or so, which happen to coincide with Co-Publisher Dan DiDio's dominance at DC, have involved a problem with generations.  Fans were dismayed to discover the post-Flashpoint reboot would not include a title devoted to the Justice Society of America or the classic Titans characters.  Not only that, it looks like the JSA and Titans have been erased from DC's continuity.  If it's true, it reflects a pretty clear legacies problem at DC that closely parallels today's generation wars between the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y. 

I've written about DC's problems with legacies and generations here.  Up to 2010, DC had four generations of superheroes that appealed to four different generations, who were their respective original target audiences.
Of course, because superheroes are superpowered and don't age much, DC faces a problem of always adding new characters to appeal to younger audiences.  The DCU is an increasingly crowded fictional universe, teeming with young knock-off versions of their originals - Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and other heroes.  The younger versions (also known as legacy characters) are meant to appeal to new fans.  And they do.  I've written how the first gen legacy characters the New Teen Titans - a latchkey group of teenaged superheroes abandoned by their elders - famously struck a chord with Generation X (here).

Tiny Titans #29 (August 2010).

In addition to constantly watering down their brands, DC is confronted with the problem of keeping their original heroes relevant to new, incoming readers.  Add to this the issue of having a new audience (Generation Z) that is international and tech-connected, who would be more likely have access to digital publications. 

Does DC really want to create fifth, sixth and seventh generation legacies?  They are already having this difficulty with the character Robin.  The only place where this is dealt with with tongue-in-cheek honesty is Tiny Titans, where the original Robin and Batgirl are being followed around by legacy characters in a running gag.

Tiny Titans #33 (December 2010).

DC's top editors (mainly Boomers with some obedient Gen Xers) have opted to do something that strangely reflects a real problem in the Generation Wars in the United States, which anticipates a Boomer and Echo Boomer consensus (see here, here, here, here and here), mainly at the expense of Generation X.

In other words, the heroic stories of the Silent Generation and Generation X have been erased, to favour a new fictional world of de-aged Baby Boomer heroes and aged-up Gen Y heroes.  Thus, the generational power structures of the workplace are reflected in pulp fiction.

More Bat legacy characters, Cassandra Cain (another Batgirl) and Damian Wayne (another Robin).  Tiny Titans #33 (December 2010).

How the Tech Revolution Erodes Our Grasp of Reality and Time - and Influences Fictional Narratives about Reality and Time

DC's two-week spate of annoucements is a textbook case of viral marketing, or even guerrilla marketing, for a product months before it is even produced. Sadly, marketing is inextricably part of the creative process surrounding a product now.  But this may be more redemptive than it seems.  These kinds of radical changes in story-telling would not be possible if technology had not eroded our sense of sequential continuity in narratives, and of reality.  Playing with time, spreading it flat on the surreal chessboard, cracks open subjective consciousness.

And to return to the Baby Boomers' favoured creed of Postmodernism, we have suffered for some time from a Postmodern excess of egocentric subjectivity.  In classic literature, authors crossed that gap by building basic, fictional bridges into our reality.  They did this by inspiring emotional reactions from their audience or readers. The fictional piece 'jumped' through a stirring scene into the 'real world' of the reader.

Now, however, after decades of Postmodern deconstruction of the reader and his or her 'real world,' we know that there is no relief or release when we feel that response to a great work of fiction. That's because the transition of an experience from the fictional world into the reader's world is still trapped inside the reader's subjectivity (hence, fiction about fiction is 'metafiction,' but the levels of meta-meta-meta-fiction continue to pile up). According to Postmodernist theorists, our subjective viewpoints are fictions too, which we made up. There's no escape.  Everything is in our heads.  Because superheroes originally represented collectively-held (and therefore potentially objective) social virtues, Postmodernism has eroded almost everything these heroes stood for.  I've blogged about how Postmodernism transformed and damaged superheroic stories with its overbearing focus on infinite subjectivity, here and here.

To stand back from what this means, I thought about Flashpoint and its aftermath when I read a post complaining about the current state of 'serious' literature, "The Trouble With Fiction" (Hat tip: Skeptical Eye). The blogger, Karl, is complaining of a dreary excess of bourgeois, Postmodern subjectivity in the novels he tries to read.  He's saying that in these narratives, no one every breaks on through to the other side and reaches higher, universal truths because they stay trapped in their own mental worlds.  From the Say No to Life blog:
I have to admit that over the last number of years I’ve found it harder and harder to read fiction. When I say fiction, I’m referring to the corpus of so-called ‘high literature’ that constitutes the accepted canon. When I try to discover why this is so, I can only say that I find most fiction generally serves the purpose of life affirmation, consolidation of the status-quo and the validation of all the usual bourgeois values. Rarely does one find a novel that portrays what I take to be the most obvious features of life: its futility, its built-in structures of dissatisfaction, its vanity, the misery of the world and so on. Generally nearly every novel is an affirmation of the lives of its characters (which, when boiled down, generally means an affirmation of the life of the author) and an affirmation of the world. The message of so many novels amounts to nothing more than ‘Yeah, life is difficult, but hey, it’s all worthwhile really and we must keep the show on the road’. Only rarely does one discover a black gem of a novel that begs to differ.
The blogger who made this remark seems to be focussing on dark Gnostic alternatives as a solution. Over the past 150 years or so, the old Christian heresy of Gnosticism has run rampant in Western culture.  It defines most of our political ideologies, our academic and artistic theories, our popular fads, even some of our scientific methods.  This is possibly because Gnosticism provides the illusion of escape from a trap once couched in terms of faith, now depicted in terms of Modern and Postmodern subjectivity.  But it doesn't offer a real escape.  There's always another level of knowledge to acquire before you can reach enlightenment; the goal posts will forever move.  Gnosticism doesn't offer any real solace these days. 

So how do we break through the tyranny of Postmodern subjectivity?

Oddly, no release can come from the writer obeying the rules of narrative or maintaining logic inside the fictional universe. All that creates is an internal fictional subjectivity to mirror the author's subjectivity on the one hand, and the reader's subjectivity on the other.

Even though Postmodernism itself has transformed comics almost past all recognition, it's still the pulp fiction writers who deal with the ancient and classical genres of heroic story-telling.  Authors of 'high literature' abandoned heroic epics some time ago.  As a result, it's pulp writers who might find a way through the Postmodern mess. Maybe their retcons are a solution.

Today's writers of high literature might observe how pulp serials' writers can have total disregard for the rules of narrative, logical and narrative consistency, continuity, characterization and timelines. Even their linguistic frames of reference are different because the language is combined with images. Comic book writers can erase a character and negate whole, huge fictional histories, alter time and fictional realities, and in the blink of an eye, reconstitute them on different terms. Yet weirdly, comics writers can still assert that this is all part of the same ongoing story. And a 'completely different' character is 'still the same' - until the writer says the character isn't.

There's something riveting in this blatant disregard for the temporal conventions that normally define our reality, space and consciousness in fiction. In comics, if something's not working, or has built up over decades, you can literally toss it all out the window and start fresh with the same characters. The bulk of the readership somehow deems this to be acceptable. Provided some nods to continuity are made, it's within their willing suspension of disbelief to look at a completely different character in a different world with the same name and say, "This is the same Superman, who's completely different."

This is only possible because there's always time to tell more: a print serial can last decades. Although serials have existed since at least the 18th century, we have yet to see if a serial title that is not a basic comic strip will last over a century. Even when comic book serial titles end, the successful ones are often restarted a few years later with new creative teams. The writers know that they are contributing to a collective writing enterprise, which will involve many writers and artists, many editors, many readers from different generations. Thus, the time warps inside Flashpoint are only possible because of the production timeframe of the medium itself. That timeframe is reflected inside the fictional universe - and that timeline runs in parallel (albeit more slowly) with the real timeline of its readers' lives. If that fictional timeline is ruptured and characters' pasts erased, as has been done in this case, the readers' long-term engagement with the characters is broken as well. 

Comics writers have increasingly accepted the possiblility that you can't really gnostically break through problems inside the fictional universe (or the universe perceived through the subjective viewpoint of the reader) unless you cross the Fourth Wall.  After the rise of the Internet, the comics industry has become highly integrated with its audience; there are annual comic book convention circuits and minute-by-minute raging discussion forums, fan fics and burgeoning fan sites.  There are film releases, accompanying television serials, product lines, and toy figure collectibles.  In this complex consumer environment, a writer can reach down, almost turning fiction into a piece of performance art, and wreck and erase everything that is collectively accepted as being part of the fictional universe. He or she can do this before the story is even told, simply by sending out a press release about the story in which he or she intends to do this.

It would be nice to hear what the characters think of DCnU. Playing with the Fourth Wall in Booster Gold #43 (June 2011).

But for this strange new experience to work, the Fourth Wall has to be crossed by both the creators and the audience.  You can't have the post-Flashpoint reboot without a summer's worth of crazy viral marketing campaigns that spawn thousands of desperate online fan discussions; those discussions would never take place unless the readers genuinely believed their opinions might be heard.  They get together and launch petitions and letter-writing campaigns to change solicited story outcomes that have not yet been published. They argue with DC's writers on Twitter, Facebook and in other discussion forums.  They scream loudest when they feel the company is changing things without consulting them.  They make solemn declarations about how much time and money they have invested in these stories, these characters, this company.  They threaten 'to leave' like a petulant spouse.  And they do this en masse

Fan clubs have existed at least since the Second World War in the United States.  But in cyberspace, this activity has increased exponentially.  In short, one way to transcend personal subjectivity in our grasp of fiction is to create a collective, online, interactive experience, where a mass of readers respond to the writer's media announcements about the story, and eventually to the writer's execution of the story itself. 

The fans are not entirely wrong in their expectations that they can have an impact: rabid fan reactions prior to the release of the story can potentially alter the fictional ending and outcome. The most famous anecdote involves Dan DiDio's editorial plan to kill off the character Dick Grayson.  Not only did DC's writers band together to oppose this, a baggage handler at an airport who had read reports of this plan refused to give DiDio his suitcases until the DC editor promised he would not kill the original RobinOne fan went so far as to say: "Okay, firstly: That airport baggage handler is a hero." In comics fandom, that is a famous story.

Confronted with the possibility (from a teasing DC press release) that the company may erase their favourite characters, the readers reaffirm which characters mean the most to them and why.  Yet this is something well beyond market research transformed into a strange affirmation of online community.

Another part of that process involves the readers reminiscing about the impact certain stories and characters had in their lives over several decades - and what it will mean to them if those fictional continuities are all changed or wiped away. If those fictional decades are summarily erased, fans lament the loss of those stories that accompanied the passage of time in their own lives, as they would lament the loss of a long-standing friend.  This occurs partly because serial literature is so utterly different from novels and even television dramas in terms of the length of the story-telling experience.  Some fans follow these stories, month after month, for their entire lives (or at least large chunks of their lives).  Their apprehension of the story is integrated into their personal subjectivity.  Erasing the fictional history of characters, or a group of characters, is like erasing parts of the actual, personal histories of the readers themselves, when they read those original stories, many years ago.

On these bases, namely, the establishment of online communities around pulp stories and the evolution of personal commitment to those stories and characters, an interactive online consensus is reached between the readers and the story-tellers about which story will be told. This is the Post-Postmodern story, which alters time to rupture the subjectivity of the Postmodern.  Let's see how DC fares, having broken and remade this strange connection between fiction and reality.

All DC Comics stories, characters and the distinctive likenesses thereof are Trademarks & Copyright © DC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

If you're not reading this post on Histories of Things to Come, the content has been scraped and republished without the original author's permission. Please let me know by following this link and leaving me a comment. Thank you.


  1. Thanks for putting it all into words. It's frustrating how some things can be swirling around you so much that you find yourself tripping over them yet they're still evasive when you try to grasp them.

    There's an often repeated story about an author (I think it was Raymond Chandler, but I can't swear to it) who was being interviewed by someone who was clearly a fan of the author's work. The interviewer seemed to have a beef with the way the author's books had been adapted into movies and asked him how he felt about his books being "ruined". The author reached over his shoulder to the bookcase behind him and said, "What are you talking about? My books are right up there where they've always been." In a digital age when 'published' stories can be retroactively edited to conform with altered continuities or deleted entirely, that anecdote will have taken on a very different meaning. In the original telling it merely illustrates that there are different perspectives. There are those who see the movie without ever having read the book and vice versa. To that author, it didn't matter how the story played to an audience he wouldn't reach anyway and a better made movie wouldn't improve his books, either. But in future retellings it will sound like a cautionary tale.

  2. I would agree pblfsda. This is very different from having a different interpretation of a story carried over into a different medium. This is akin to Orwellian Nineteen Eighty-Four changes of history, or Stalinist removal of people from photos. The difference is, it's happening in a fictional world.

    While I tried to point out some of the positive dimensions to this development in the post, there is something deeply disturbing about DC's cavalier erasure of Titans' entire continuity from 1964 to 2004 (if that is in fact what's happened). I don't follow the JSA, but their fans are extremely upset.

    Explaining *why* it's happening - the Superman lawsuit, the switch to digital publishing - does not alter the implications. It looks like the blind corporate machine is grinding out of control, fixated on a few basic ideas (for example, the inflationary Bat bubble), to the detriment of everything else.

    Retcons may inspire a dialogue and communal consensus about story-telling, as I suggested. Even so, they are radical story-telling tools. They should be used with caution and respect, which certainly are missing here.

    At present, DCnU has been unilaterally declared. Whether the consultation with fans I described here will come about is debatable. I think people are still having trouble understanding what it means to retcon *everything*. This could be much bigger than COIE.

    It's tempting to say this whole bizarre 'bright idea' could collapse under its own weight. But that's not guaranteed.

    The issue at the heart of all of this is what do these heroes stand for? What values do they embody? Is the industry that generates stories about those values synonymous with said values, or does it just feed off them to make money? Erasing the TT and NTT continuities smacks of 'just making money.' It also shows a lack of understanding of how the Titans form a lynchpin in the DCU.

  3. And I would add to that, that the sudden removal of 40 years of stories in the Titans franchise reflects the new conditions of digitized cyberspace. Printed matter has a permanent quality. That made the retcon teams move with some care. Even Wolfman did not seriously tamper with certain franchises, like the Titans, in COIE.

    But digital publishing implies that temporal precedent is meaningless. The body of narrative that is built up over time used to be respected. DC published indexes to issues to summarize the outcomes of stories across decades. That instinct for precedent set in a tangible paper medium is disappearing. It's being replaced with an 'anything goes' format,t that picks and chooses across time, space and character as it wishes.