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.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Art of the Retcon 2: DCnU's Orwellian Timecrunch

The DCnU panel at the 2011 San Diego Comic Con.  Image Source: Grizzly Bomb.

I've already commented on DCnU in terms of the demographics of anticipated readers here, and comics archetypes here. DCnU also reveals a disturbing, and very Millennial, treatment of history and time. The Internet has completely transformed our understanding of both.  This is because computer systems allow any historical source to be ripped out of context and juxtaposed with something that popped up yesterday.  Even before the Tech Revolution, the idea grew in the 20th century. 

The most famous use of real life retcons is in Stalinist-era USSR, when apparatchiks who fell out of favour were erased from photographs, which I have blogged about here.  It was used in South America in the 1970s, when political dissidents 'disappeared' and their identities were wiped off the face of the earth, as though they had never existed.  In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell had his protagonist employed in rewriting old newspaper articles to erase records of people later deemed undesirable by the state.  This critique of oligarchical collectivism spawned his famous INGSOC line: "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past."

Now, I'm not saying that the core messages in DC's fictions have anything in common with murderous dictatorships. Rather, I am suggesting that the use and abuse of history has become widespread across cultures and political spectrums in the 20th and 21st centuries.  It used to be that the past was sacred.  What had been done could not be undone.  It could be reinterpreted by historians, but only within reason and in well-sourced and well-defended arguments.  Given Orwell's communist critiques, it's tempting to put a political spin on this - socialists call for revolutions, liberals like change, conservatives cling to the past.  But the dangerous Postmodern notion that rewriting or erasing history brings money and power is seductive to all who seek them.

Beyond the not-too-subtle transition from 'DC Comics' to 'DC Entertainment' that lurks in DC's press releases, and the common touch Marvellization of the DCU under the stewardship of Bob Harras and Dan Didio, I find the Stalinist-style retcons unsettling.  The selective retcon is troubling because it blatantly favours certain characters (presumably the ones deemed most bankable and interesting) and entrenches a retrograde view of DC's legacies, in which older characters are deaged and promoted at the expense of younger ones. DC's erasure of continuities is actually secondary to the primary goal of maintaining the eternal youth of its A-list superheroes.  DC is the Grand Old Man of the comic book industry, but that is the absolute last thing DC's leading lights would want to consider in terms of branding.  DC is more a Grand Old Man with a Peter Pan complex.

If DC has a fraught, come-here-go-away relationship with history, many of its fans do not.  The loyalty of most of DC's readers rests on their fascination with fictional histories and continuities.  No amount of DC's nay-saying is going to change that.  Even the most anti-continuity fan would acknowledge that the legacy-driven, multiversal DCU is a thoroughly time-oriented universe. 

There is a site devoted to the subject, which sadly hasn't been updated since late 2010: The Unauthorized Chronology of the DC Universe.  The Webmaster, Chris Miller, greets visitors with the tagline: "Welcome to the DC Universe ... where the past isn't what it used to be."  You can see his timeline of the DCU, spanning millions of years, here.  It would be great if the current powers that be at DC actually read Miller's site.  He says something important about how interest in continuity forges a fanbase:

The Allure of Constructed Reality

Here’s my attitude toward continuity: I like it. In fact, I find it downright fascinating, when used intelligently. Not just in comics, but in any fictional setting. Movies, television shows, novels, by a single author or “shared”—in almost every case, an attentive handling of continuity is the lagniappe, the little something extra that really grabs me and rounds out the satisfaction that should always come from losing oneself in a good story.

It’s important even in a self-contained work (in almost any narrative, future events should logically follow from present and past events, as a matter of basic causality and fair play with the audience), but it’s particularly important in serial fiction. Readers want to know about the world the characters live in, how it affects and is affected by the stories. Details accumulate from one tale to the next, building layers of depth and complexity that can’t be contained in any single story. This is especially so in fantasy or SF material (a realm that certainly contains super-hero comics), as the fictional world can be assumed to have several interesting differences from the mundane one outside the reader’s window. Indeed, those differences are often a critical part of the story.

Critics object that such things are a deterrent to “casual readers” (especially critics who seem more concerned with marketing strategy than creative integrity, the sort of people who refer to characters as “franchises”). For my part, I suspect that casual readers have never really been the main devotees of “genre” material, in any medium. From Sherlock Holmes to Star Trek, J.R.R. Tolkien to J.K. Rowling, it’s stuff that by its very nature either turns people off, or turns them into fans. And it therefore stands to reason that a publisher, in order to sustain a loyal fan base, needs to care about continuity.

This is what keeps us coming back, what turns casual readers into fans—this sense of depth and context. We care about the characters and their world, and we want to know what happens to them, beyond the parameters of any single tale’s plot. (New readers should still be able to enjoy any individual story, of course—albeit not necessarily as much as fans. This isn’t a zero-sum game.) We want to see how the events and revelations of this issue, this chapter, this episode, carry over into the next, and the one after that. Conversely, it doesn’t matter how long ago something was stated to be canonical, only that it was stated within the context of the same fictional reality. Today’s story doesn’t necessarily have to rely on knowledge of what has gone before, but it shouldn’t contradict it either, not without a truly compelling reason.

That doesn’t mean turning a comics line into an endless series of big crossover “events,” although it does allow for character crossovers in a way self-contained material doesn’t. Nor does it mean telling stories devoted to mining the past rather than exploring imaginative new ideas, although it does allow new tales to be built on the foundation of old ones. Caring about continuity does mean acknowledging and respecting what has gone before in a given fictional reality, if only because you know that a significant chunk of the readership is going to notice if you don’t.

Some of us just can’t help it, in fact. Much of my perspective on this has been shaped and refined by online discussion with other thoughtful fans. As Edgar Governo (creator of the wonderful Historian of Things That Never Were site) has put it,
I think what we’re seeing is the operation of a particular turn of mind… some readers automatically keep track of the implicit and explicit chronology. They can’t shut it off, even when it’s obvious that a narrative’s chronology is being driven by the needs of a sloppily contrived ongoing plot, rather than any underlying plan or logic. … I think people with this turn of mind (especially when they're fans of a work, but not only then) have a need for their fiction to have at least as much historical, geographic, and other consistency as the real world does. It goes beyond wanting to infer the world that lies within an ongoing plot—we need it to be a world in the first place, capable of inference.”
Granted, meeting that standard is not an easy job. The more complex a fictional universe becomes, the more crucial it becomes to determine, What is canonical and what is apocryphal?—and the more difficult it becomes to answer that question, and adhere to the answer. It’s understandable why some writers and editors, if they’re confused or uninspired by what has gone before, might prefer the creative “freedom” of ignoring or revising it on the fly. Unfortunately, this exacerbates the problem for other storytellers trying to work within the same reality, and the reader is left to sort out the results.

Such an approach ultimately places (perceived) short-term business interests ahead of longer-term ones, never mind creative ones. If the continuity critics were right, comics sales should be soaring: continuity is widely being treated as optional and disposable, with countless stories rewriting the rules for their own purposes by authorial whim. “Good stories” should be ruling the day, because writers aren’t “shackled” by what has gone before, and new “casual” readers should be flocking to them! Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t seem to be happening. Picking and choosing what’s canonical on an ad hoc basis only makes things more confusing, not less.
The DCU’s long, rich, complex history, populated by a diverse and fascinating array of characters, is one of its greatest attractions. Its long list of reboots and retcons and inconsistent origins and multiple versions of characters is one of its greatest weaknesses. The surreal sense that reality can shift around you at authorial whim is not what most readers are looking for.
As Miller notes, another blog, The History of Things that Never Were, includes a list of DCU timelines that have been posted online; it shows how dedicated fans are to DC's history:

  • The Unauthorized Chronology of the DC Universe, compiled by Chris J. Miller, prides itself on standing out from the crowd, as it were, by being "complete, comprehensive, canonical, cross-referenced, original, and annotated."

  • The Unofficial History of the DC Universe is also meant to chronicle the events of the DC Universe as it now stands, "spanning from creation to the end of time," but at this point, it only covers events up to "13 Years Ago."

  • Loki Carbis has compiled The Secret History of the DC Universe, starting with the Zero Hour timeline and working from the timelines in Secret Files & Origins.

  • Michael Kooiman is only slightly more specific in his focus by offering a Chronology of the Pre-20th Century DC Universe

  • Jim Doty has written A DC Golden Age Timeline, which is just what it says it is, though it only covers the twentieth century.

    • John McDonagh has his own Golden Age Heroes of Earth-1 Timeline, which is explicitly only meant to cover "certain important events" as opposed to serving as a comprehensive timeline.
    • Along similar lines, Michael Norwitz has compiled a basic Earth-2 Timeline, covering the original Earth on which DC's Golden Age stories were set. 
  • Michael Norwitz has also compiled or otherwise presented a healthy number of alternate timelines, both historical and thematic, which are rather speculative and liberal in terms of choosing characters and events to include in each world:

    • an Earth-2.5 Timeline, by Rahadyan Sastrowardoyo, featuring the Justice Guild which appeared in the animated Justice League episode "Legends;"
    • an Earth-3 Timeline, featuring evil counterparts of standard DC heroes, particularly the Crime Syndicate;
    • an Earth-4 Timeline, featuring heroes published by Charlton Comics;
    • an Earth-5 Timeline, featuring mundane versions of famous superhero characters;
    • an Earth-12 Timeline, featuring the Inferior 5 and other humourous DC characters;
    • an Earth-17/Dreamworld Timeline, featuring both Overman & the Justice Project of America and Sunshine Superman & the Love Syndicate, as seen in Animal Man #23;
    • an Earth-18 Timeline, featuring Marvelman and Big Ben from Warrior magazine;
    • an Earth-27 Timeline, featuring alternate versions of Animal Man and other heroes, along with Magnus of The Exiles, as seen in Animal Man #27-32;
    • an Earth-42 Timeline, by Anton Psychopoulos, featuring the Air Fighters and other Hillman heroes;
    • an Earth-238 Timeline, featuring Alan Moore's Captain UK and other characters designed as tributes to old British comic heroes;
    • an Earth-399 Timeline, featuring a divergent world on which Superman died and was replaced twice by clones, as seen in Animal Man #27-32;
    • a pair of Earth 412 and Earth C-Minus 4 Timelines, featuring tangents to the world(s) of Charlton Comics;
    • an Earth-597 Timeline, by John McDonagh, featuring a world from Marvel continuity where Hitler won World War II;
    • an Earth-886 Timeline, by John McDonagh, featuring the theatrical incarnations of Marvel heroes as shown in comic book adaptations;
    • an Earth-919 Timeline, featuring alternate-Earth counterparts of DC characters, as published by Marvel;
    • an Earth-1278 Timeline, by Douglas Ethington, featuring the theatrical incarnations of DC heroes as shown in comic book adaptations;
    • an Earth-1958 Timeline, by Lenny Carlson, featuring a world in which one version of the O-Men battles to protect their world against a Skrull invasion;
    • an Earth-1975 Timeline, by Lenny Carlson, with assistance from John McDonagh, featuring the heroes of Atlas/Seaboard Comics;
    • an Earth-1977 Timeline, by John McDonagh, featuring the surreal universe of comic book characters depicted in the Robert Mayer novel Superfolks;
    • an Earth-1983 Timeline, by John McDonagh, featuring a divergent world on which Captain America was revived in 1983;
    • an Earth-A Timeline, by Nathanial Parkson, featuring the Lawless League of America;
    • an Earth-B Chronology, by Douglas Ethington, featuring Silver and Bronze Age stories which contradict Earth-1 continuity;
    • an Earth-C Timeline, featuring Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew;
    • an Earth-E Timeline, featuring the Super-Sons, and the World's Finest team of the 1950's;
    • an Earth-K Timeline, featuring Michael Chabon's amazing heroes of Kavalier and Clay;
    • an Earth-S Timeline, featuring heroes published by Fawcett Comics;
    • an Earth-T Timeline, by Steve Chung, featuring Captain Thunder and other divergent heroes featured in Fawcett Comics;
    • an Earth-X Timeline, featuring "a noncanonical view" of the Freedom Fighters;
    • an Earth-Français Timeline, by John McDonagh, featuring Tintin and other characters from French comics in the DC multiverse;
    • an Earth-Prime Timeline, also by John McDonagh, featuring various mundane characters inspired by superheroes, as seen in Realworlds and other titles;
    • That Was The Year That Wasn't: An Elseworlds Timeline, by Ivan Schablotski and Michael Norwitz, with assistance by Nathanial Parkson, featuring the various alternate superheroes seen in Elseworlds titles co-existing (rather dubiously) in a single continuity;
    • an Angor Timeline, featuring the metafictional Justifiers/Assemblers, DC homages to Marvel superheroes;
    • The Princess Paragon (and Associates) Timeline, featuring the comic book universes depicted in the Robert Rodi novel What They Did to Princess Paragon;
    • a Rome-World Timeline, by John McDonagh, featuring a world from Marvel continuity where the Roman Empire never fell;
    • a Terra Gamma Timeline, by Lenny Carlson, featuring the superheroes from America's Best Comics, such as Tom Strong; and
    • a Terra Obscura Timeline, featuring the superheroes from Nedor Publications and elsewhere.
  • Ivan Schablotski, mentioned above, has also created an Earth-612 Chronology, dedicated to the world of the Mighty Mystics and the Legion of the Strange, along with other Vertigo-related amalgams and spoofs, which might ultimately be part of the Amalgam Universe.

  • Michael Kooiman definitely tops the list for specific superheroes with The Legion of Super-Heroes Chronology: Pre-Zero Hour and Post-Zero Hour, which are both very extensive.

  • As a tangent to his original Legion work, Michael Kooiman also put together a L.E.G.I.O.N. Chronology.

  • As if that weren't enough, Michael has also put together a Justice League Chronology.

  • On a somewhat related note, he has also compiled the Justice Society Chronology.

  • Sticking to superhero teams, Michael Kooiman presents The Power Company Chronology, by Loki Carbis, with extensive annotations by John Wells. 

  • Michael has even put together an Outsiders Chronology

  • The Teen Titans Timeline is reprinted from Titans Secret Files #1. 

  • A more specialised look at DC's Golden Age can be found in The Golden Age Batman Chronology, a look at the life of the original Caped Crusader, by Aaron Severson. 

  • Various continuity issues surrounding Barbara Gordon's history inspired John Wells to attempt a reconciliation by putting together Batgirl/Oracle: A DCU-Style Timeline.

  • In a similar vein (quite literally, in some respects), Wells also put together Flamebird: A DCU-Style Timeline, profiling the life and heroic career of Bette Kane.

  • Scott McCullar has put together The Unofficial Green Arrow Deluxe Timeline.

  • Proving the he can focus on individual heroes as well, Michael Kooiman presents The Swamp Thing Chronology.

  • The Sandman Chronology, compiled by Mike Harris, is a refreshingly consistent history of the world in Neil Gaiman's series, as Mike notes that there is little need for conjecture. Having said that, it hasn't been updated for some time. 

  • Lorcan Nagle has detailed The History of the Monarchy as seen in Doselle Young's series for WildStorm Productions. 

  • The Planetary Timeline, created by Mike Caprio with help from Chris Pinard, outlines events within the continuity of Warren Ellis's series of the same name.  

  • Kris Naudus proudly presents her Transmetropolitan Timeline, based on another series by Warren Ellis, though I must include a language warning along with this link. 

  • Kris has also completed a Cyberella Timeline, based on Howard Chaykin's comic book series. 

  • Remember Kris? She decided to make a Giantkiller Chronology as well, based on Dan Brereton's series. 

  • The Superman Timeline, compiled by David T. Chappell, is a list of major "Superman Events" that mixes actual dates and age references as one would expect in such a work. 

  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Chronology, by Damian Gordon, Michael Norwitz, and Philip Graves, is really a "League of Leagues," profiling various groups of literary heroes and their adventures through the centuries, as detailed in the landmark series by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. 

  • The Wildcats Timeline could stand to be somewhat more detailed, given the large amount of WildC.A.T.s/Wildcats material available. 

  • The Authority Timeline offers a brief glimpse into the history of the offshoot of Stormwatch featured in WildStorm Comics. 

  • The Astro City Timeline, by Martin Wisse, from the series by Kurt Busiek. 

  • Fans of comic book series derived from video games will be glad to learn of the Atari Force Timeline by Lee K. Seitz, which includes a discussion of continuity problems in the short-lived series. 

  • Craig Klein has put together a V for Vendetta Timeline, from the series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, as one large graphic, and he is quick to ask that you be patient while it loads. 

  • The Watchmen Appendix, compiled by Doug Atkinson, includes a timeline as well as summarising the differences between our world and the world of the Watchmen.

  • Plainly, a significant portion of DC's fanbase - but not all - is fascinated by temporal consistency in comic book serials.  Why would DC alienate this devoted and loyal fanbase in a bid to find a fanbase that doesn't care about continuity?  Aren't the new fans an unknown quantity?  Doesn't reestablishing a serial literary form on the basis of ahistoricism go against the very meaning of what makes a serial publication interesting?  One alternative is more sobering.  Perhaps DC does still care about continuity and it wants newly-won fans to care about continiuty, but only a rewritten DCnU continuity that promotes certain characters and ideas, especially a very blinkered, rigid understanding of DC's legacies system.

    DC turned 75 years old last year. It has a lot of pulp history under its belt.  Yet at the very moment when history should mean so much to DC and its leading creators should honour it (for example, by preserving the numbering of Action Comics (Superman's flagship title) and Detective Comics (Batman's flagship title and DC's namesake)), they seek to overturn that great legacy in a giant marketing ploy.  More precisely, they claim they are returning to a retconned, earlier pocket of DC history.   Bizarrely, the DCnU is a return to, and rejection of, the past.

    Every Day Is Like Wednesday summarizes DC's statements about what they are doing:
    This is an epic and ambitious initiative that ushers in a new generation of comics for DC Comics and will set the tone for storylines and characters for years to come. With all of the titles starting at #1, our creative teams have the ability to take a more modern approach – not only with each character, but with how the characters interact with one another and the universe as a whole, and focus on the earlier part of the careers of each of our iconic characters. A time when they didn’t have as much experience defeating all their nemeses. A time when they weren’t as sure of their abilities. A time when they haven’t saved the world countless times. It’s this period that is rich with creative opportunity as we show why these characters are so amazing, so iconic and so special. ...

    This is a new beginning which builds off the best of the past. For the stories launching as new #1s in September, we have carefully hand-selected the most powerful and pertinent moments in these characters’ lives and stories to remain in the mythology and lore. And then we’ve asked the best creators in the industry to modernize, update and enhance the books with new and exciting tales. The result is that we retained the good stuff, and then make it better.
    Ah, the art of the retcon!  Carefully hand-selecting the best of the past for you.  Oddly, DC is hand-selecting only the parts of continuity that make its characters more vulnerable.  The blogger, J. Caleb Mozzocco, says: "doesn’t making the god-like DC superheroes less sure of their abilities make them seem a little more like the traditional heroes-with-feet-of-clay characters of your rival publisher, Marvel?" Why yes, it does.  There's a causal connection between how one views and treats time and the associated power of moral archetypes.

    I got to thinking about the DCnU and new Millennial values: I've been reading DC Comics on and off for most of my life.  But I know I'm not the target audience for this nightmare.  Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm out of touch.  I can understand the corporation's perspective.  Out with the old blood, in with the new.  Maybe these changes reveal the rising values of the new Millennium and I just can't get on the bus.

    But maybe it's not just me.  And maybe DC is out of touch.  A lot of people are criticizing the reboot for its haphazard press releases, muddled marketing statements, disdain for the fanbase, evidently poor planning and above all - its chronal dissonance. In the DCnU, 75 years of DCU history is going to be crunched into 5 fictional years.  Every Day Is Like Wednesday jokingly referred the biggest question about the DCnU being whether or not the minor Titans supporting character, Terry Long, will survive. Someone commented: "Yes, but he'll now have a high collar, piping on his clothes, and no underwear."  The post is categorized under the tag: That One Time DC Comics Went Insane.

    Since when does wearing no underwear and rocket boots with piping symbolize a new heroism?  The high collars and buckles in Jim Lee's designs are a retro reference; they reveal that Lee mistakenly thinks that what was au courant in his twenties and thirties is one step ahead of what interests youth now, which it isn't. 

    I believe that despite DC's all-or-nothing statements, the DCnU is a set-up for the as-yet unnamed 2012 crossover event. It's the only way I can take any of this seriously or think any of it is going anywhere. If DC's leading creators and editors really intend these retcons to be permanent, fans will hold their breath to see whether September will bring what Mozzocco calls DC's "Viking Funeral." Somehow, despite the uproar and DC's disregard for everything it should stand for, I doubt that.  But where they end up might not be where they expected.  Even in an era when changing the past can bring power, and even though this is just a fictional setting, the past has its own integrity that can't be manipulated or altered.  As a result, history has a way of repeating itself.

    See all my posts on Comics.

    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 comment:

    1. To my readers: sorry for the broken links in the lists of timelines above. The quotation was a direct cut and paste from another site. I left the links in to preserve the ones that still worked. The quote rather was meant to prove the point that continuity is important to a large portion of DC's readers.