Crisis of Epic Proportion: The Case for Imaginary Stories

I was recently flipping through some website or another and realized that, despite my best intentions for the better part of the last two years, I’d never read Brave and the Bold #33 (second series, of course). This is pretty unusual for a bunch of reasons, not limited to: Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, Zatanna, Wonder Woman, and Cliff Chiang drawing any of the previous three. Entitled “Ladies’ Night,” this J. Michael Straczynski-penned issue of the series DC Comics described as Lost Stories of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow features Wonder Woman and Zatanna dragging Babs out for a night on the town in her civilian identity. Taking a girls’ night out, they describe, will be good for all of them and maintain the sanity needed for good super-hero decision-making.

What becomes more and more obvious as the evening progresses is that there is a bigger agenda behind Zatanna’s insistence on a night of carefree dancing. She has seen the future in a dream and knows that one day soon — maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow — Barbara will open her door to face a bullet that will leave her without the use of her legs. One night to remember forever is their gift to Babs in light of a future that cannot be changed by the likes of them. It’s a bittersweet, but ultimately endearing, tale of friendship, heartbreak, memory, and good old-fashioned Silver Age camaraderie we don’t get to see too often these days.

Given how touched I was by the contents of the story, it should have come as no surprise to me that it was controversial at the time of its release. I’ve since read a number of reviews and message board posts railing against the story, calling Straczynski’s plot and characterizations “weirdly sadistic,” tacky, cheap, and depressing. The idea that Zatanna and Wonder Woman could knowingly let Babs get shot by the Joker (in Batman: The Killing Joke, published 22 years earlier) was disturbing to some — and in all fairness to the story, to Zatanna and Wonder Woman as well. That they would make Batgirl go out dancing prior to this pre-ordained, heinous event seemed even callous to others. The amount of continuity hand wringing I’ve since read about this issue could turn coal into diamonds. And almost nowhere did I find one really salient, critical point:

It was just a dream.

Not just Zatanna’s prophesy, mind you, but the events of the entire issue were simply a dream from which Barbara Gordon (now Oracle) wakes, as revealed on the very last page. So, now, I have either encountered the largest pocket of commenters who didn’t actually read the story in question, or our lionization of continuity has reached such epic proportion that characters can’t even have dreams that don’t match up, minute detail for detail, with every story that has come before.

Now, I realize that this is a slightly disingenuous article to be writing in the wake of my involvement in Comicosity’s History of the DC Universe 3.0, where we painstakingly placed points of data from the first 13 months of DC Comics’ New 52 in a single, coherent (it actually is!) timeline. However, all things can be partaken in moderation, my friends*. With a month of continuity-laden zero issues behind us — some appropriately posing new questions for the next year of story arcs — maybe it’s time to remind ourselves just what about continuity is good, and not so good, for our comic enjoyment. What follows are common arguments I hear about continuity that still raise my hackles day in and day out.

Continuity made so much more sense in the old DC Universe. Let’s get the big one out of the way, shall we? Streamlined continuity, like hindsight apparently, is totally 20/20. The only reason it seems like The New 52 makes less sense is a) we fans don’t know everything yet and assumptions can lead to perceived contradiction, and b) we haven’t already agreed to communally ignore massive contradictions like we did in the old continuity. The pre-Flashpoint DC Universe made more sense to readers in 2011 because we already all consigned ourselves to ignore large portions of Hawkworld, reconciled that Martian Manhunter was always a member of the JLA (when truly, he checked out for nearly 15 years), and pretended that Death of the New Gods was really just a bad dream, since it literally was disregarded the day after hitting the comic stands.

Once something is written out of continuity, it’s gone forever. If anyone has proven this to not be the case in the last five years, it’s Grant Morrison. After decades of DC disavowing Silver Age mainstays such as Kathy Kane’s Batwoman, Bat-Mite, the Club of Heroes, the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, and any number of wacky science fiction adventures the not-so Dark Knight and his Boy Wonder experienced — with the stroke of Morrison’s pen, they’re all back in. And honestly, they make genuine sense, which is an outstanding feat in itself. The lesson here is that nothing is impossible. Cassandra Cain can’t exist because a younger Lady Shiva wouldn’t be her mother? Just wait. Nothing in comics is impossible. That’s what makes them so cool, and so unlike real life.

Why can’t X use continuity more like The Walking Dead, Earth 2, or the Young Justice television series? I would never argue against the story-telling prowess utilized in these three fictional worlds. They are literally three of my favorite representations of cohesive, yet expansive plotting that reach far beyond their immediate needs to develop a full world of wonder for the reader/viewer. That said, each one is an isolated universe all to itself, sharing almost no links or obligation to any other publication or series. They embrace continuity to the extent that they don’t address anything outside their own books/shows, which is the exact opposite of what most fans demand when they ask for tighter canon. If you’re asking for more books like Earth 2, you’re really asking for books that don’t adhere to broad universe-spanning continuity. Had Grant Morrison’s JLA series mimicked this style of compartmentalization in 1998, I wouldn’t be so irritated today reading my hardcovers when Superman inexplicably becomes a blue-skinned being with electric powers for 12 issues.

Four Robins in five years? That’s impossible. I have to laugh every time I read this line because in a world where a solar-fueled aura protects a man from bullets, 7200 magic rings are worn by all manner of alien warriors, and an infinite number of parallel universes result in our own President becoming Superman on one, a simple shortened timeline is incredulous? Whether the current DC timeline is 5 years, 10 years or 15, it all defies logic. A certain suspension of disbelief is required to be a fiction reader of any kind, and here, nothing short of heroes aging literally one month of life per one month of publication (as in John Byrne’s classic Superman & Batman: Generations) is going to absolve us of making a critical leap of faith. I admit, it’s a slippery slope, but I’m pretty sure we haven’t hit bottom yet.

How dare DC have its heroines dancing to “Single Ladies” years before Beyoncé released it? Continuity fail!

Deliberately writing events out of continuity is always a bad thing. We all have our favorite stories. What is important to one person may not be important to another, and great disappointment can come with the realization that stories told in the future may not reflect the details of the first time you read them. But it’s important to note that continuity tweaking is not always a bad thing. Case in point: would it have been a stronger foundation for Jason Todd if his parents were still circus trapeze artists murdered by Killer Croc for helping Batman? Would it make Wonder Woman a more desirable character today if she could still become powerless by having a man simply bind her wrists? Do we really want to read about a world where everyone remembers Supergirl making out with a horse? For as many fans who are upset about the revelations last week regarding Tim Drake’s parents in Teen Titans #0, I strongly suspect many of these same fans are silently giggling to themselves in delight that the events of Identity Crisisare stricken from the history of the current DC Universe. It’s impossible to make everyone happy all of the time, but if a change can open up new, exciting story possibilities? Then I think it’s worth giving it a shot.

If a story is out of continuity, it’s not as good. It needs to “count.” This is perhaps the saddest thing I read about comic books every day. Brilliantly executed writing makes a story good. Exquisitely rendered art makes a story good. A sense of consistency in the way characters interact and represent themselves makes a story good. But consistency isn’t the same thing as continuity. Consistency in comic books is what makes Superman, and Batman still so relevant over 70 years after their creations. In a sense, it’s DC Comics’ elevator pitch for each one:

Superman is the last son of the destroyed planet Krypton, adopted and raised by kind-hearted human parents, who protects his adopted home with incredible powers. In his mild-mannered alter ego of Clark Kent, he is a reporter for the Daily Planet, working alongside Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen in Metropolis.

Batman is billionaire Bruce Wayne, a normal man driven to great physical and mental lengths to protect the innocent after his parents are murdered in front of him as a child. Working alongside his partner Robin and trusty butler Alfred, Batman protects Gotham City and the world from mad villainy.

Consistency means no matter what happens in a story, the 50 words above still remain true for each character. Their essence honors that and its understanding influences the decisions and outcomes written for them. It’s what makes a story “count.”

I have shelves and boxes of stories in my home (and massive storage locker) that no longer reflect the current continuity we follow as readers of DC’s New 52, and there’s no question in my mind that they count. These stories influenced me in ways I can barely describe growing up, as they continue to influence the writers and artists who work in comics today. That we have moved on to a new continuity in the modern age makes these tales no less poignant, and certainly no less dear to my heart.

Like these books, Brave and the Bold #33 may not be in continuity, as its major story beat consists of a dream Zatanna has in a dream Oracle has in a universe that we’ve disconnected from in the wake of Flashpoint (whew!), but the story touched me and resonated something about these heroes’ character that made me sit up and take notice. To claim that story is not as good because it doesn’t match up with a currently accepted sense of canon is just shooting oneself in the foot. Why look for reasons to dislike comics? It’s time to embrace continuity for what it is — a tool to assist in the creation of an enjoyable story, if necessary — not an end or story beat in itself. To paraphrase Alan Moore in the introduction to his legendary Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?: sure this is an imaginary story, but aren’t they all?

*A second irony that I referenced no less than a dozen past comic book titles by name in an article on the perils of too-stringent continuity does not escape me. I am regrettably no more immune to the effects of my devotion than the next person. Alas, like the new DC Universe, I too am a work in progress.


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  1. CharlesHB said:

    Imaginary Stories or Elseworlds as they became known are the *most* important. Much of what influenced comics today started outside continuity.

  2. MattNat said:

    Matt, I always appreciate that, though we have very different opinions on some things, you always state your view very eloquently. I can always understand your point of view even when I may not share it.

    Just one point to make as one of those people who really loves continuity: We don’t have a problem with streamlining, or even dismissing certain things. Usually, those things are stories that blatantly ignored/defied continuity and ended up as really bad stories because of it (shocking!). But often times, when a story is good AND the author uses the continuity past and present as a way of making that story richer , it shows how beautiful continuity can be (Starman, anyone?).

    People seem to have this idea that it’s either nit-picky continuity or absolutely fantastic story telling; that somehow continuity ruins stories or makes it its slave. No; as you stated, it’s a tool, and it’s a tool that can and should be used to make better stories. Shared universes are fun because of how they can and do fit together. You are annoyed that Morrison’s JLA featured electric Superman; I read those stories and love the fact that he didn’t blatantly ignore what was going on in Superman’s book, and instead USED it in his own stories (some would argue better than the Superman authors were!). Conversely, if every book in a shared universe completely ignored each other, then what the heck is the point of having a shared universe at all? Consistency is important, fun, and PART of telling a good story in this setting! With no continuity, stories can wildly contradict each other and just be annoying-to-bad. Having just spent all that time with making the new52 timeline, I assume you have to see this. “Continuity” and “Good story telling” are not enemies. As with almost all things in life, the best is not found in either extreme, but somewhere in the middle.

    Was the previous DCU continuity perfect? No, it wasn’t. I say that as a huge lover of the previous DCU continuity! I’m not dumb; I see where it has its goofs and flaws. But why write stories that specifically go out of their way to state that that timeline has been destroyed? Why couldn’t the new52 have just…existed? Put on a new “earth,” the old timeline still there, somewhere else? It’s one reason I have a fundamental problem with Crisis on Infinite Earths and Countdown and stories that go out of their way to specifically destroy entire worlds/timelines. Those stories DID influence a lot about me, my fandom, etc. And it DOES hurt to open up the pages of those books, see them saving the world, and to know, always, in the back of my mind, that someday, in their future, Barry Allen will be the cause of a problem that finally defeats them and destroys their world. No matter how much I enjoy those stories, that nagging feeling is at the back of my mind, because the current DC editors specifically stated such: that timeline has been wiped out. They succeeded where the Anti-Monitor failed. My thought is that if your story depends on the destruction of past stories, maybe it’s time to rethink that. I’d have a much easier time accepting the new52 if I knew that, somewhere on some earth that perhaps just was no longer the focus anymore, everything was continuing unabated.

    And no amount of people saying “Just get over it” is going to make that feeling go away. You say, “Why look for reasons to dislike comics?” It’s not a matter of looking; it’s a matter of them blatantly jumping out at you in a way you can’t ignore. When Pandora declares that the “old” timeline was “weak” and needs to be erased and re-written, that’s a terrible blow to someone who saw the strength, the stories, the growth, and the potential both realized and yet-to-come of the old timeline. When Superman stands up and declares all worlds destroyed that you had read since youth where the superheroes had saved them again and again–but this latest threat was just too much for them and now they are gone–that hurts, no matter what good stories may still come in the new post-Crisis timeline. And no, it’s not like Dan DiDio is going to come into my house and burn my old comic collection. But he’s sure hampered my enjoyment of a fictional world by specifically stating that those things didn’t happen.

    Can things be brought back? Sure. Pardon me if the idea of waiting 20 years to read characters I had been able to enjoy just a little over a year ago is not much of a comfort.

    When they make the extra effort to declare that the old universe(s) are destroyed, then it takes extra effort on MY part, when reading stories set in the old universe(s) to ignore their declarations. And that’s just annoying.

    You also mention suspension of disbelief. This is something that has to go hand-in-hand with being a comic fan. And it’s also going to vary from person to person. There are some things that are going to bother someone that don’t bother someone else. I have a friend whose suspension of disbelief CANNOT grasp of a world where Batman and Superman could co-exist. This boggles my mind, because I’ve grown up with that notion; I see nothing wrong with it. And yet the idea of Batman having 4 partners in 4 years BUGS THE CRAP OUT OF ME, because I just can’t wrap my head around how any of the development that we’re supposed to see now could have happened in such a condensed time. To someone else, this may not be a big deal at all, but it GNAWS at my enjoyment of the current Bat-verse something fierce. And don’t get me started on how it’s somehow okay to have 4 Robins but there can only be “one, true Batgirl.”

    Okay, this is just turning into a giant rant. Let me wrap it up by bringing it back around to your points. I really do understand them. I agree with most of them! Honestly, I hope many people come to know this new continuity and enjoy the new stories being told. I just feel sorry for them in 2032 when Crisis on 52 Earth happens and the Story Eater emerges from the center of the universe and devours entire timelines,past-present-and-future rendering all obsolete except for the new one. Future fans: it’s gonna hurt. Trust me.

  3. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    No worries. I will say, though, the door swings both ways on what the process of compiling The New 52 timeline did to me as a reader. Yes, it did assure me that my stories are succinctly sharing a broader universe, but the act of making it heightened my annoyance at an otherwise really fun comic – Birds of Prey #0 – because of a simple time discrepancy. Had I not been so focused on that aspect of the read, I wouldn’t have had a nearly unshakable dislike for the issue. Thankfully, I’ve managed to go back and reassess successfully. But it’s hard to uncork that bottle once the genie has been let out.

  4. MattNat said:

    That it is. And when the big reasons I got into DC comics were its shared universe, rich history, legacy heroes, and continuity…well, it was a very powerful genie that really, really doesn’t want to go back into the bottle.

  5. Keith Callbeck said:

    Great piece, Matt! For my 2 cents, some of my favourite stories are “imaginary” or non-continuity. But for those to have weight, there had to be something that it is reacting to.
    One of the all-time greatest Superman story, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” is self-contained and non-continuity, but it only has emotional impact if there is that larger whole that it is referencing. Post-modern comics – they only can be looked at in the context of other artifacts, not as individual objects.
    I am a great lover of continuity, but it’s a puzzle to be put together. And the puzzle sometimes has a few extra pieces mixed in from another puzzle. You might have to jam those together, but that’s part of the intricate latticework.
    As for where DC is now, I always get a smile when I hear how much people love the pre-FP continuity … except Superboy Prime… and Identity Crisis…and Infinite Crisis… and Final Crisis… and Emerald Twilight… and Zero Hour… and Birthright…And Arsenal… and Cry For Justice… and so it goes.

  6. Lee Stone said:

    Hey, Matt (and Matt).
    Okay… I’ll chime in for a bit…

    I think one thing that gets me all the time is how folks say people who like continuity are nit-pickers.

    You mentioned tv shows and really that’s the closest comparison to comics. They’re both stories told in a serialized format.
    Folks would say concern for continuity is a comic-centric problem but then… rewrites of previous stories, retconning prior events and erasing history is, too. If tv shows were to suddenly start rewriting prior seasons because the new writers didn’t like it then continuity would suddenly feel important to those viewers. They just don’t understand because they’ve never had to watch a show where the foundations set in prior seasons were treated like shifting sand.

    Something else I realized… Two of the greatest stories ever: The Dark Phoenix Saga (X-Men) and Judas Contract (New Teen Titans) were mostly successful because they effected characters that have had a long history (and reader/fan investment). The readers have to feel for the characters in order to be concerned in their time of jeopardy.

    If those stories were done today, they wouldn’t have the same impact because everything just seems too temperamental these days. How can anyone hope to grab a reader and make him or her care about the characters if it can all just be swept under the rug tomorrow?

  7. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    I think I can reply by asking, what about All-Star Superman? Here’s a book that’s completely out of continuity, but has some of the most moving moments I’ve ever read in comic book form. It doesn’t rely on the last ten years of storytelling, but rather, is taking the archetypical elements of the mythos and creating something pretty darn powerul.

    I definitely am not “against” continuity, but I don’t see it as a requirement for a story to be compelling, powerful, or ultimately “matter.” These books, to me, are our modern mythology, and like tales of Zeus and his kin back in ancient times, they don’t always all line up or make sense with each other. That’s part of the magic of a myth. It’s larger than life. I don’t think television can do that like comics. It’s truly one of the things that makes fiction writing and graphic illustration unique.

    My feeling is, why limit a medium that can do so much more with fences that are somewhat obligatory in other media?

  8. Lee Stone said:

    I can see your points, Matt, and I hope you don’t think I’m being argumentative.

    Honestly, I’ve never really read All-Star Superman. But I have read Watchmen and several independent comics, such as Madman and Hellboy. Good stories CAN be done with little to no background or past history but they generally don’t get rewritten as they go along. Imagine if halfway through Watchmen they retconned Comedian dying and replaced him with Nite-Owl. It would make the rest of the story lose its sense of impact because what you’re reading now may not be what will be said to have happened later.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that if things have a tendency to be rewritten constantly it can make readers less subjective to making any kind of attachment to the characters.

    They should either toss continuity out the window entirely and treat comics like the Simpsons and Archie or spend the time that a writer of a novel or tv show does to ensure that the world is consistent.

    For example:
    The deli on the corner of 5th and Main might not be there now… but if it was there last week then I expect that it still was there ‘last week’. It may not be there now, mind you… It may have been demolished, exploded or sucked into another dimension… but last week it was there.

    Unless it’s a Simpsons/Archie-verse and the deli is being built there for the first time ever this week.
    And then next week they’re building a deli there for the first time ever…
    And then the next week a deli is being built there for the first time ever…

    Granted, characters can’t possibly go on forever without some writer intervening and refreshing them. Especially, when you take into consideration Halloween and Christmas stories that if they all happened would seem to make the characters somewhat immortal. How many Christmas stories can Superman or Wonder Woman have before aging a year, anyway?

    So rebooting/relaunching is inevitable and readers know this. It’s accepted. But if you build a new house, the doors and windows shouldn’t move until you tear it down again.

    On a tangent:

    I remember when DnA relaunched Legion. The Great Darkness Saga no longer happened. But it was something that was essential to the Legion. Ra’s Al Ghul stepped in to give them a worthy opponent but the story was cheated because it had the shadow of Great Darkness Saga looming over it. And yet, that story never happened. So, do they retell that story or try to do it better?

    It shouldn’t have had to compete, really. On it’s own merit, the Ra’s Al Ghul story was really good. But comparisons to TGDS undermined it.

    This is one of the problems inherent with relaunching/rebooting. There are simply some stories that define a character or group of characters. If you erase it then you run the risk of having to retread that story again later.
    Or doing something similar, “yet not quite the same”, that will inevitably draw comparisons to the previous story.

    In situations like that, those key stories should have been kept as part of the foundation to build from so things could move forward. Instead of going in circles.

  9. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    Your last point is why it’s important not to recreate the same story, which is something I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see isn’t happening with the New 52. But you don’t need to retain the original story in continuity to guarantee this. As long as a story is fresh and innovative, it will have a better chance of standing on its own either way. My interest in less adherence to continuity certainly shouldn’t be construed as an endorsement of retelling the exact same story without impunity.

    Madman, Hellboy and Watchmen (until recently, of course) don’t have the same issues as yet because they have had an exceedingly limited set of creators driving their destinies — sometimes even a single writer. They are more akin to my Walking Dead example.

    But when you have 70+ years of creators (or even 150+ creators in a single year) working on a broad universe, the expectation that everything constantly reflect back on itself is unrealistic, and to some degree, potentially self-harming to the hardcore continuity advocate.

    The argument that it’s all or nothing, you throw it all out the window or spend the time to make it perfect, isn’t one I would subscribe to. But I would say it’s important to look for the essence of a story and enjoy it for what it is — in continuity, a dream, a hoax, an imaginary story, or just simply an awesome story whose positives far outweigh its perceived flaws. The constant focus on these over story, art and consistency is my biggest beef with some areas of fandom today.

  10. CharlesHB said:

    On the one hand Comics can do things other mediums can’t, communality across them is logical consistency within the story. And that’s important to all story telling. Continuity is just another way of saying the story is consistent within the rules laid down by the writer/s & editorial diktat. If we take Moore’s Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow, it exists outside canon as an imaginary story, but it like All Star builds on themes that are consistent within the Mythos, but breaks the diktats that otherwise bound Superman Comics, through death, permanent loss of powers, and Lois & Clark, but at the same time obeys the rules, eg Superman could never be with Lois because he was Superman, once Gold K takes his powers away forever they can be together.

    Imaginary stories are ways to push the envelope and allow the writers to explore consequences that break conventions, but they can’t break the suspension of disbelief that logical consistency supports and visa versa. They can, to mix my Publishers ask, What If, Superman were Russian, Batman a Vampire, but to make that work they use the same rules/mythological language to do so.

    In other words Imaginary Stories / Elseworlds can’t exist without continuity / story rules to draw themselves as distinct. They also serve a practical purpose to test ideas, to prove & disprove whether ideas can, should or might make it into canon. This wow factor makes the best of these OOC’s, the best stories in comic books.

    That said having rules and sticking to them doesn’t in itself make a good story. Superboy Prime punches reality, that’s a rule, but it sucks, but only because it stretches even comic book suspension of disbelief too far.
    So you can have both continuity/rules and still get it wrong by breaking trust with the reader with bloody stupid concepts.

  11. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    I think that’s a reasoned approach. Again, it’s not so much that I argue continuity should be done away with completely (I am rarely an all-or-nothing debater), but that it shouldn’t dictate whether a story is good, as good, or better than any other. It’s a tool, perhaps an important one directly or indirectly, but not creative content in itself.

  12. Tessa said:

    I recently read the first 2 Ultimates miniseries for the first time, and was blown away by them. I’d read a few Avengers comics here and there over the year, but none in a very long time (for Marvel, I mostly just grew up on the classic X-books).

    Maybe there was a ton of great continuity with the Avengers from over the years, but I was absolutely blown away by what they were able to accomplish by throwing all of it away and starting over more or less from scratch. The flawed, realistic characters and questionable motives that nevertheless led to genuine heroism when a true villain worthy of the team made an appearance. The word epic gets thrown around a lot, but the story really felt like it lived up to that billing.

    You couldn’t have told that same story with nearly the same impact if it were set in a continuity where the Avengers had been around for decades of stories — the fact that they were brand new is a lot of what *made* it so amazing.

    So that’s kind of how I rate the New 52 books. Did they manage to tell interesting stories given that they got a chance at a fresh start? Or did they simply end up treading over the same ground, not as well. The books that I’ve liked the most have really tried to do something with the fresh start. Supergirl and Batgirl have been somewhat uneven titles, but both characters feel like they’re really taking advantage of their new beginnings. Batgirl really feels like someone who lacks confidence after finally regaining the ability to walk. Supergirl really feels like a girl from another planet who sees everything here as somewhat alien.

    Would I personally have made Barbara Gordon walk again? No — Oracle was awesome. But it still feels like something interesting is going on with the character that I’m interested in reading about. (Even if they end up retconning her back to Oracle in a couple more years.)

  13. Matches Malone said:

    Good stuff. I can’t argue with any of your points. The heart of the DCnU is that the stories you’ve all read, happened, but maybe not the way you remember them. This allows for retelling of the classics, if necessary, while at the same time, allowing for different and new interpretations of characters and events.