Recently, I’ve been reading Bob Batchelor’s Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel, a biography about the comic book industry’s most iconic frontman. One of the things that struck me was how much fans enjoyed Lee’s attempts to connect the Marvel Universe he co-created with people like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, giving it an editorial direction and establishing the feeling of a shared world among the characters. This led, in part, to Marvel’s success.
Many comics fans, like myself, appreciate the world-building and lore that gets developed in the shared universes we pay $3.99 per issue every week to read about. Done well, a shared universe can be fun to explore, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has shown us. However, shared universes can also collapse under their own weight, as what might otherwise have been good stories get overloaded with too many attempts to set up future stories in other books or movies (something the MCU has also demonstrated. Looking at you Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron, or Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in DC’s case).
A lot of the conversations I currently see in the Twitter-verse call into question the need for continuity. Many fans say that what we need are good standalone stories that don’t require buying multiple tie-ins for endless events that all promise to be the hyper-mega culminating story but have diminishing returns. Or in DC’s case, attempts to fix continuity end up creating more problems than they sometimes fix, like Doomsday Clock and now Dark Nights: Death Metal.
Alan Moore once talked about the need for narrative consistency within comic book stories. Readers often want to feel like the story “counts” as a part of the character’s history and journey, hence the emphasis upon continuity. Surely there is a way not to betray narrative consistency while allowing creativity to flourish.
Someone involved in the comics industry once told me that there’s nothing worse than the fans who say things at conventions like “in issue #301 the character said THIS, but in issue #322 they said THIS.” That kind of narrative micromanagement is too much to ask any writer or artist to maintain. However, J.R.R. Tolkien often tried to proactively “smooth out” inconsistencies in his Middle Earth narrative. Thankfully, comic book stories are no strangers to retroactive continuity.
Space for creativity, however, doesn’t mean there should be a wholesale betrayal of a narrative thread or the concept of continuity. I don’t need to iron out all of the details of why Superman can appear in a Green Lantern book when he’s lost inside the Phantom Zone in his own book. I can give that a pass. I WILL be concerned if he’s married in one book and not the other.
I have seen this done well, and I have seen this done….let’s say “less than” well.
Take DC Comics’ Rebirth initiative.
DC spent about 2 ½ years seeding their comics with various plot devices and hints about Dr. Manhattan and an elusive “Three Jokers” mystery. But then there was a shift in DC’s decision direction away from the Rebirth/Doomsday Clock/Three Jokers thread and toward Snyder’s Metal thread. Sure, there is some attempt now to course correct through Synder’s Dark Nights: Death Metal, but it has the air of needing to correct an editorial mistake that fans reacted badly to.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited for Death Metal! For the record, I was ok with the Metal and Rebirth threads existing side by side. In fact, at first, Snyder referred to Dark Nights: Metal as Rebirth’s “strange twin.” But there was no real narrative explanation for abandoning the original Doomsday Clock/“Superman Theory” plot threads that were supposed to catch up “one year later” (yes, I know. There were delays in release, but there was time to build a compelling build-up to Doomsday Clock while also honoring Snyder’s narrative thread). Doomsday Clock and Three Jokers were teased in main continuity for years. Now, their status in continuity has been called into question (even though both series are now practically complete). Even Tom King’s forthcoming Bat/Cat story has had its status in continuity made unclear.
Whether or not some of these narratives should’ve existed in the first place is another question. Still, when the planning and thread are laid in continuity, and those things are abandoned halfway through their arc, narrative trust with the readers is broken. Not that writers must be absolute slaves to continuity, but some consistency is nice.
When narrative trust is betrayed, it is an example of bad world building and poor curation of the characters.
Now, let’s look at a different example: Marvel Comics, circa 2012-2015.
Marvel had multiple narrative threads running in their universe around this time, particularly in their Avengers titles. Springing out of Avengers v. X-Men and the end of Brian Michael Bendis’s run on the franchise, Rick Remender and Jonathan Hickman were both telling universe-spanning Avengers stories, but those stories were going in very different directions from each other.
Remender’s Avengers narrative focused on Captain America’s attempt to ease human-mutant relations by forming an Avengers Unity Squad consisting of both X-Men and Avengers team members. Hickman’s tale dealt with an expanded Avengers roster, also consisting of some former X-Team members, which dealt with larger than life universe-ending threats.
Adding to this mix of status quo changing narratives, Brian Michael Bendis was up to some time-traveling shenanigans in both Age of Ultron and All-New X-Men. Rick Remender was also writing Captain America at this time, writing a story that saw the characters aged up and replaced by Sam Wilson, the Falcon. Jason Aaron was telling an epic narrative in Thor that eventually bled over into the event comic Original Sin, which itself lightly tied into Hickman’s own run.
Now, if you try to line up all of these authors’ narratives, you cannot make them line up perfectly in a way that makes sense. I know because I’ve tried.
But these narratives don’t blatantly contradict each other either, and even nod to each other at times. None of them go out of their way to undermine the others (even if pinning down EXACTLY when Thor becomes unworthy across Hickman, Remender, and Aaron’s runs is a little tricky). Each author told their own stories and did minimal damage to the other narrative threads.
I will forever see DC Rebirth as an example of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory, but I’m hoping Snyder’s Death Metal can put things on a steady path and that Jim Lee and the folks at DC create a world where creativity can flourish, and as the Justice League said in Snyder’s last issue, “Every story can count.” And that’s the point. In a shared universe, we, the readers (particularly those of us interested in world-building), want the stories we love “to count.”