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On comic books and continuity

When you look at continuity in comics tied to real-life events, you understand how things get messy. It’s easy enough to explain Wolverine and Captain America’s participation in World War II, thanks to their respective mutant powers and drug-induced enhancements. But Tony Stark taking shrapnel to the heart during the Vietnam War? Superman taking orders from Ronald Reagan? These things end up dating characters beyond typical explanations. Given no one wants to read about a 60-year-old playboy or middle-aged high school teacher (inevitable end for Peter Parker … well, except in The Amazing Spider-Girl), comic heroes have to remain timeless, and the stories work on a sliding scale of about 10-15 years.

This is where continuity gets tricky. So did those stories with Nixon or Reagan or Vietnam or Korea never happen? Or are they recalled in vague terms by creators? Is it better to ignore time-specific real-world situations altogether to avoid such anachronisms? Spider-Man had a “Brand New Day,” sure, but did Flash Thompson never serve in Vietnam? Did Robbie Robertson’s kid never get arrested for protesting said war? Did 9/11 happen in comics? Was there ever a World Trade Center? Maybe a super villain destroyed it, not terrorists? It gets messy. Should characters simply be revamped every five-to-ten years (as DC seems to do) or should the new stories go on with no regard to history beyond the previous issue or two (as some Marvel comics seem to be doing these days)?

I was reading Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s commentary on their current Wolverine arc, “Old Man Logan,” and Millar said, “To me, the children come along at the end of someone’s story—a hero’s story. If you have a hero with kids, somehow, it doesn’t always work. I think there’s something about a hero that he even needs to be a single guy.” Is this true? Did Spider-Man and Superman not work as characters once they “settled down?” Is the Fantastic Four any less interesting as a family dynamic? History would tell us “no,” given Reed and Sue’s marriage and parenthood has lasted for more than 40 years now. But it seems statements such as Millar’s are in line with Joe Quesada’s view of comic characters, hence “Brand New Day” getting back to whatever ideal of a free-swingin’ Spidey the editor-in-chief holds.

For me, I prefer to see character development. I want to see them change, develop, grow old, etc. — this applies to any sequential entertainment I consume, whether a TV series, film sequels, etc. This is why the mid-1980s Marvel Universe seemed just right — character development seemed natural. The Invisible Girl became the Invisible Woman not only because she was older, a mother, etc., but also because she experienced such tragedy and triumph. Kitty Pryde grew (in real time?!) from a timid, insecure 13-year-old to a battle-hardened, self-assured young woman. Peter Parker graduated high school and college, and after tumultuous relationships, finally came to realize Mary Jane Watson was not only the love of his life but his best friend and confidante. Magneto changed from a one-note villain to a complex pseudo-hero, always conflicted between his loyalty to Charles Xavier and his dedication to mutantkind’s advancement.

I would have been happy to see Franklin Richards naturally continue to grow into his own as an adolescent, see the conflicts and challenges Peter Parker would have dealt with had Mary Jane actually had and raised a child in the “mainstream” Marvel U, and generally see the “old guard” Marvel characters age as naturally as their successors (such as the New Mutants) did. And honestly, I think readers want to see that as well. Why do you think we all eat up stories like “Old Man Logan,” Kingdom Come, Marvel’s “The End” comics, etc.? I understand that properties have to be protected, but really — the success of those properties in commercial endeavors outside comics has little to do with keeping the characters in the comics the same. No version of characters or stories represented in movies, cartoons or video games over the entire history of American comic books has been dependent on consistency with the comic stories, nor have the comics been tied to the merchandising (generally speaking, again).

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