Continuity is an aspect of the comic book industry that is really only of concern to collectors and fanboys. To the casual reader that only picks up the odd issue of Superman or Uncanny X-Men, breezes through it and moves on, continuity just isn’t that important. Being a collector and a fanboy – though not a zealot, as some can be – I have an interest in continuity.
Somewhat interestingly, it’s an issue that only Marvel and DC really need to worry about. Only they have been publishing long enough to have thousands of characters and decades of stories to keep straight. At the time of this writing, Detective Comics is up to #855. Action Comics is on #879. Batman is up to #688. On the Marvel side (overlooking the ridiculous numbering changes over the years), Amazing Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk both just hit #600, Uncanny X-Men is up to #513 and a few other titles are a couple of years short of hitting five or six hundred.
Even simply considering those main titles and ignoring every other related series, mini-series and one-shots, that’s a hell of a lot of issues. Now think about this: Superman and Batman have had at least two concurrent monthly series for a few decades, Spider-Man has had two or three for as long as I can remember, and the X-Men… don’t get me started. Wolverine alone accounts for half the books Marvel puts out, I think.
Is it any wonder that continuity is a mess at these companies? Fortunately, I have the answer to the continuity woes. I can solve it! It will take discipline on the part of the companies and a willingness to do things very, very differently, but it will make continuity problems a thing of the past.
Just think – no more Crisis titles from DC!
Most of what I’ve read over the past 25 years has been published by DC Comics, and I have a strong affinity for those characters. If it seems like I’m using them and their titles a lot in my examples… well, that’s why.
First things first.
We need to accept that some titles will be considered in-continuity, and some titles won’t be. We already have that, to some extent, with DC’s Elseworlds and Marvel’s Ultimate universe. I’m going to take it further.
In-continuity titles will be marked with an icon.
If you’re familiar with Star Wars media, you might be aware of the various icons that are used to distinguish between time periods:
In-continuity titles need to be marked as such. Publishers would use a small icon on each cover, up near the company logo and issue number, that denotes the in-continuity status.
Okay, that was easy. Trust me, it gets worse. Next up…
No character may star in more than one in-continuity monthly title.
That’s right, one title. This means, for example, that DC would have to choose a single in-continuity title for Superman. Personally, I would select Superman to be in-continuity and Action Comics to be set out-of-continuity. I would select Batman to be in-continuity and Detective Comics (and the other 137 Bat-titles) to be set out-of-continuity.
Green Lantern would be in-continuity, and so would Green Lantern Corps, because the star of Green Lantern is Hal Jordan. Green Lantern Corps is a team book that Jordan shows up in from time to time, but he’s not the star of the book.
Characters may star in one additional mini-series per year.
A mini-series is defined, by me, as eight issues or less. More than eight issues, and what you’ve got is a maxi-series or, well, just a failed attempt at a regular series.
Team books are always in-continuity, but otherwise follow the same rules as character titles.
DC’s Justice League of America would be in-continuity, and the League would be allowed one additional mini-series per year, such as 2009’s Cry for Justice. Anything else would be out of continuity.
Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your point of view – this means that most of the X-Men titles can still be in-continuity because the majority of them are team books. The same rules apply though: only one mini-series per team book per year may be set in-continuity.
Titles for characters that are members of a team must gel with the team books.
Basically, if the X-Men are on a mission in space for six issues, I don’t want to see concurrently published Wolverine books where he’s on Earth. This rule doesn’t have to be super hard-and-fast because I don’t think that the titles need to precisely crossover every month – but when Superman leaves Earth for a year, I don’t want him showing up in Justice League of America, unless the JLA is out in space, too.
If a team is in another dimension for a one-issue mission, then fine, don’t worry about the solo character’s title. When it’s blatantly obvious (like, over a few issues) that a team member is in two places at once though, that’s a problem.
Once a title is designated in-continuity, it stays in-continuity for at least two years. No switching around the status in an attempt to put similar titles concurrently in-continuity when they shouldn’t be. If DC were to choose Batman for in-continuity status, that’s what they’re stuck with for a two year period, minimum. They can’t flip-flop Batman and Detective Comics on a monthly basis – that defeats the whole point of what we’re going for here.
Every in-continuity book is required to participate in every company-wide crossover.
…for as long as the event is being published. That’s right, no more giant “THIS WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING” crossovers that don’t really change anything because the X-Men can’t be bothered to show up for it. Marvel has really done a number over the years of making sure that the X-Men are safely tucked away in their own little corner of the Marvel Universe. Civil War? The X-Men had a weak tie-in mini-series that didn’t amount to much, and they barely showed up in the pages of Civil War at all.
In the 1995 X-Men crossover Age of Apocalypse, the entire Marvel Universe was destroyed and rebuilt. The only titles affected by this change were the X-titles being published at the time.
DC isn’t much better. 2008’s Final Crisis didn’t affect anything. Oh sure, some characters died – Batman and Martian Manhunter most notably – but death isn’t the handicap it used to be, as Lister once said. Quick – name one title that had a Final Crisis tie-in. Did you say Justice League of America or Batman? I hope you did, because those were the only two. No other DC title tied into what DC was calling the biggest event in the history of human written communication. I might be exaggerating, but they sure did hype it, didn’t they?
A seven-issue mini-series that requires 12 additional mini-series and one-shots to comprehend while having nearly zero ties to any existing regular series… look, let’s be honest, Final Crisis sucked. My rules would have prevented that from happening – or at least, given us readers a fighting chance. Let’s look at Final Crisis under my rules:
- Final Crisis would be a 12 issue maxi-series, and being a company-wide crossover, would be in-continuity. Not seven issues, twelve. The story was rushed and crammed into too few pages. Give it room to breathe.
- One additional mini-series would be allowed. Remember, no more than eight issues.
- Company-wide crossovers get one additional benefit under the new system – they get to have bookend issues. Final Crisis would have been allowed a one-shot at the beginning to set up the story and a one-shot at the end to wrap it up and serve as an epilogue.
- Every in-continuity title being published by DC would have to participate for the entire year that the event is going on. Each title would have had a Final Crisis label above its logo and the story would directly tie-in to whatever was happening in the larger Final Crisis storyline.
There you go. I just solved Final Crisis, from a logistics standpoint at least. I still think that Morrison was drunk when he wrote most of the script, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I think he’s a brilliant writer, but even brilliant writers produce a dud every now and then.
Character aging? Solved.
The reason we got Crisis on Infinite Earths in the mid-80’s was to clean up DC continuity – due in large part to the problems with character aging. Superman fought the Nazis, yet was taking part in adventures clearly set decades later – and as a result, we got old Superman on Earth-2 and young Superman on Earth-1. Why have two distinct characters? I have the solution to character aging, which will make giant universe-cleansing projects and character reboots completely unnecessary.
Heroes and villains (and anyone else the publisher deemed worthy, like Lois Lane or Mary Jane Watson, for example) would be given access to a device or trait that either turns back the clock every ten years or simply makes them stop aging. The best part about this solution is that publishers could decide which characters are able to use this. Batman remained the same age since his debut in 1939, but it was decided that Dick Grayson would grow up in the 1970s and 1980s. He went from an early teen to, it looks like, about thirty or so. Bruce didn’t age at all, comparatively. With my solution to the aging of characters, this would be explained in-story with a plot device.
And that’s it. That solves the continuity issues at Marvel and DC.
Everything else that the company publishes will be non-canon or out of continuity, which, when you think about it, is incredibly liberating. Think of the freedom that the writers will have! Instead of being slaves to events, they can focus on characterization and storytelling. The companies will please casual readers and hardcore fanboys alike. Rich company continuity and tight storytelling will be far easier to accomplish when editors aren’t trying to keep track of a dozen Superman books, twenty-three Batman titles and 247 X-Men monthlies.