A Hypothetical Case Study of How Not to Handle Continuity
Let’s say you’re writing a largely self-contained ongoing comic book title within a much larger shared universe. Let’s call your book… Sergeant USA! During most of your long-running story, Sarge’s lost his superhero identity and his place in the… Revengers. How do you mesh that with the universe’s continuity? Cleverly, at the start of your run you don’t allude to anything else going on in this comic universe, so that you can go on with your long-running story for as long as you like, and when you DO have to link back to the universe’s continuity you get to choose when all of it fits, start to finish. You can have your thirty-part, two-and-a-half years-running self-contained story while justifying Sarge’s absence from the Revengers in-between any two Revengers issues of your choosing, in retrospect. Damn you’re clever!
And then someone else comes along and messes with your simple but genius plan.
*Some spoilers for Sarge… Captain America and Avengers follow*
Let’s say the reason Sarge is off-the-board during your run is because he was framed for the murder of, let’s say, “General Lightning.” So, Lightning is dead! Like dead, dead. Definitely dead. No backsies. At least, that’s what you tell everyone. For some reason. Naturally, other writers decide to reference Lightning’s death, most prominently during two big-deal events in which Sarge is an active Revenger. Okay, that DOES constrain when your fugitive Sarge story takes place, but only a bit: all of it, from becoming a fugitive for the murder to clearing his name and returning to his proper place, has to happen before those references to Lightning’s death elsewhere in the universe. What’s the big issue here? Well, the issue is that Lightning is actually alive! What a twist! The General reveals himself to the world exactly at the same time as Sarge is exonerated. But you kinda forgot to tell anyone else working on this shared universe about that twist. Oops!
So, what can you do about the General being referenced as dead, and SEEN dead (his corpse robbed for something genetically unique to him, even!), in stories in which Sarge was an active Revenger again? How do we square that circle? Thankfully, you’re clever! (Don’t believe me? See the first paragraph. It says so right there.) You reveal that Lightning faked his death with the help of an ultra-realistic android copy. Down to the DNA, let’s say, to justify the aforementioned grave-robbing. Sadly, something comes to your attention: maybe that wasn’t so clever, as you established Sarge is exonerated and Lightning publicly revealed to be alive simultaneously, so there was no timeframe where anyone would have reason to believe Lightning was dead, realistic corpse or not, during events in which Sarge was already back in good standing.
Congratulations: by not communicating, you just made your Sergeant USA story unworkable in the comic book universe you’re working on. Good luck retconning yourself out of that one!
A Painfully Real Case Study of How Not to Handle Continuity
Unfortunately, Ta-Nahisi Coates’ Captain America (subtlety is not my forte) isn’t the only book in current Marvel comics to have trouble fitting into its interconnected world. We appear to have a larger problem. Specifically, we appear to have an Avengers problem.
Jason Aaron’s Avengers run has been going on for almost three years, since May 2018. Not that you’d be able to tell by reading almost any other Marvel comic! Most of the current roster has their own ongoing title —namely Captain America, Black Panther, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain Marvel. You will find no narratively relevant intertextuality with Aaron’s Avengers in any of those titles (except early on when he himself was writing one of them, 2018’s Thor). More than that, despite the earth-shattering events depicted in almost each of Aaron’s all-action blockbuster story arcs, you will find very few repercussions to any of those world-changing catastrophes in any other Marvel work. Largely, it’s as if they never happened. It’s as if Aaron was writing his Avengers run in a bubble universe of his own. Except he is not.
To name a few incidents that would, to say the least, make the front page: Namor declares war on the surface world; the Justice League pastiche that is the Squadron Supreme becomes the premiere super-hero team of the United States of America, now that the Avengers are out of their jurisdiction and into Wakanda’s; and an angry Egyptian God conquers Earth and terraforms New York City into an Ancient Egypt lookalike —and, though the Avengers take Earth back, we are shown that the damage isn’t magically undone.
Now, has Namor followed up on his threat in any way outside of Avengers? Well, he sports his new edgy look in all of his appearances now, but his bellicose intentions have fizzled away, despite the rather good Invaders title by Chip Zdarsky, Carlos Magno & Butch Guice that attempted to follow up on that thread. Has the Squadron Supreme shown that they are now the USA’s new Mightiest Heroes, appearing in other books in that capacity instead of the Avengers or even alongside them? Except for a cameo or two, no. Most egregiously of all, has Khonshu’s successful conquest of Earth been referenced anywhere else? Not even a little bit. Not even the Avengers title deals with the aftermath seriously; it’s handwaved away by showing a few construction cranes dismantling Khonshu’s pyramids in the background. Easy as pie!
Similarly, Aaron seems to be completely uninterested in what’s happening to each of his Avenger members in their own books. Is Tony starting to be uncertain of his humanity and becoming convinced he’s a mere AI duplicate of the true Stark? Aaron would rather ignore all of that completely and instead tell us a story about Tony’s father being a servant to Mephisto (you read that right). Are Black Panther and Captain America quite busy in outer space and on the run, respectively? Aaron will not spare T’Challa and Steve for even a few measly issues to accommodate those long stories within Avengers. Is Captain Marvel — oh, wait, no, Aaron will not do anything with Carol at all, which I guess is one way to avoid continuity conflicts.
When asked about this mess, editor Tom Brevoort outright said they essentially do not track continuity in any meaningful way, except “when Thor or Iron Man get a new costume.” Broadly, however, he is “not stressing too much on what day what Thor adventure happens.”
At this point you may be asking yourself, what’s so wrong with that? Or, in other words:
Why Does Any of This Matter Anyway?
You would be forgiven for concluding that keeping such obsessive close track of continuity is nothing but a nerdy pastime for people like me. And you’d be mostly right — I am an obsessive nerd, and the average reader needn’t concern himself with when exactly each story in a shared universe takes place in relation to each other. The point I’m trying to argue, however, is that writers and especially editors should know. They don’t have to always show their work on the page (we’ll get back to that), but they at least should know, not only to avoid major gaffes but also to enrich their stories.
A truly shared universe is a gift of added depth in worldbuilding and characterization. As much as the Brevoorts of the world would insist that strict continuity is a constraint (and I’ll gladly admit it can be, if that’s the only thing one cares about), the truth is that fictional universes like Marvel’s are so popular and enduring partly because the interconnectivity of the so many disparate stories within these universes holds them all together. When a book that is marketed as the flagship Avengers title appears to take place in its own bubble —but only sometimes, inconsistently, only when it’s the easy way out— the illusion of a shared universe is broken.
And you know what? It didn’t use to be this way.
A Nostalgic Digression on Footnote-Mania
I’m not one of those “back in the good old days” people, especially not regarding comics. Superhero comics are better-off now in almost every conceivable metric that one could consider, unless one is blinded by nostalgia or, as it happens unfortunately often, bigotry.
All of that said, I miss the once-frequent editor’s notes so much. So. Much.
If you were to read any given Bronze Age Avengers comic, you’d find numerous references, both in-story and in editor’s notes, to previous issues and other titles that would help the reader get a grip on when that particular story takes place. This is crucial when you are trying to follow a character’s journey through comics history. Back then, whenever Thor had a particularly long epic quest in Asgard or somewhere in outer space, he was missing from Avengers for the duration, or at least for a few issues in which that quest was supposed to fit in, and when he returned you’d be told where he’d been in a helpful editor’s note, or even in the actual story if you can believe that. Is Tony Stark in trouble with the law? He’s got to step down from Avengers chairmanship and will be gone for a while. Has Steve Rogers abandoned his patriotic mantle because he’s in conflict with the government? You won’t see Captain America in Avengers during this time, that’s for sure.
All of this is almost unthinkable nowadays. This is in no small part because story arcs used to take up two or three issues at most, while in these decompressed times they’re usually six issues long, and sometimes much longer, so it’s not as easy as it was to keep track of continuity between every story arc as they are happening, since in some cases they won’t be resolved for months or even years of publication. That is, however, no excuse for editors not to communicate with each other. They should still try to make sense of when their stories are taking place for the sake of the cohesion of this fictional universe and the characterization of their heroes.
You, reader, may still remain unconvinced that this would be something worth the effort. Even if you like the idea, you may believe that this is not a practical thing to do. Thankfully, none of this is theoretical: it’s already being practiced, to an even fuller extent than I’ve outlined here, in another corner of Marvel comics.
There is A Better Way to Do It: The Way of X
After the world of X-Men was relaunched by Jonathan Hickman with House of X & Powers of X in 2019, there was an explosion of X-books, all of them interacting in their own ways with the core concept established by Hickman: the mutant nation of Krakoa. This X-Men era has been a remarkable success both critically and commercially, and it has shown no signs of slowing down. I would argue (and so would the writers and editors involved) that, if there is a “secret sauce” responsible for this success it’s their constant communication. This was true to some extent from the beginning of the new X-line, but the pandemic forced them to establish more direct and continuous lines of communication via videoconference and a private chat room.
The result speaks for itself. It’s not just that you could map every one of these many X-title issues chronologically with little room for doubt and nary an inconsistency, but that the writers and editors in these books feed off each other and improve their stories based on suggestions of their peers and on what others are doing in their own books —which they are wholly aware of, because they all pitch their ideas to each other in the first place, making sure they are all informed from the word go. This isn’t just about keeping continuity on track — honestly, it’s not about that at all, but about creating a fertile ground for creatives to work in and share their ideas. A coherent continuity is but one of the many positive by-products of this method. This may be the most truly interconnected shared corner of the Marvel universe ever, and that makes it feel more real, more tactile and consequential, than anything else in Marvel, or likely anywhere else.
So it can be done. It has been done. It has provable benefits in terms of story —and, for those who don’t care about all that artsy stuff, it’s also critically and commercially favorable, because creating an universe this interconnected and authentic compels readers to experience all of it.
The question is, then, why doesn’t anyone else do it? This is very much a new approach to storytelling, even in the already highly collaborative medium of comics, so we can’t expect everyone to adopt it immediately. Not everyone should, to be clear — auteur-driven titles that don’t connect to anything else currently happening in the universe still have a place at Marvel. Historically, some of the best stories that you could recommend to a new reader are of that mold, precisely because you don’t have to worry about anything else while reading them. But, as I argued earlier, the Marvel universe is so popular and enduring precisely because, at its best, it truly feels like a universe. So let’s make it so, shall we?
Let’s Fix This Mess
The Avengers and related hero titles don’t —currently— have a good reason to have an Avengers office as interconnected and communicative as the X-Office. Maybe they don’t have to! Don’t get me wrong, that’d be an ambitious goal I’d readily endorse, but it’d take a complete rethinking of what the Avengers could be and I’m not even aiming that high for the purposes of this article. Without having to entirely change the way they do things, the Avengers office could still learn a thing or two from their mutant counterpart: by establishing more direct and frequent lines of communication, the flagship writer could mention and even rely on the goings-on in the related solo titles with no fear that they’re getting the continuity wrong. Perhaps they could even be inspired by those solo stories to enhance their own instead of dismissing them entirely! In turn, the writers and editors for these Avenger heroes could keep a closer track of what all other heroes are doing in their own stories and in Avengers and take advantage of story opportunities afforded by that knowledge before those issues are on shelves and it’s too late. This desired sense of consistency among the line doesn’t even have to depend on line-wide events or direct crossovers between books; mere mentions of what other characters are doing, and of major developments in other books, can be enough.
I’m not asking for much here, which may mean two things: that this may be too much of an anti-climactic conclusion for this long a rant; and that I’m in the bargaining stage of my grief regarding the Avengers. I’ve certainly gone through denial and anger with the current run. Now it’s time to be depressed for a while, then back to denial. That’s how it works, doesn’t it? If I circle back to bargaining, I’ll come back and tell you all about what I would do with The Avengers if the way they work could be wholly rethought and restructured both in-universe and out.