Back in 2011, I wrote a piece for Sequart about the nature of continuity and the many techniques that Marvel and DC had used to remedy the problems that come with it. While it isn’t the most complex essay I’ve ever written, I couldn’t help but return to it as DC’s Rebirth books have dominated the comics’ scene for the last year or so. Actually, in the piece I assumed that DC was about to embark on an initiative more similar to Rebirth than that of the actual New 52. We cover more about the confusion surrounding the intent of that initiative in the second episode of Season Two, which you can watch here on the site. At the end of the Sequart piece, I came to the conclusion that continuity was an endorsement of the fan base, a way of telling the reader that their interest was appreciated and that their time had not been wasted. As time has passed, my belief in this has only grown.
Perhaps part of the reason I’ve returned to this concept is the specific period in which the first piece was written. It was published about a month prior to the New 52 and just shy of a year before the release of The Avengers. Comics were in a time of transition and under the assumption that their popularity was about to explode. Merchandise and presence in other media was growing rapidly with projects like Cartoon Network’s Young Justice. Conventions were growing from small gatherings of comic book fans into the pop culture fan fests we have today. While comic book characters have certainly become a much bigger part of the pop culture landscape since this time, the comics themselves haven’t gained the steam that they would have in an ideal scenario. The industry found itself attempting to woo customers who evidently weren’t there; When the changes were made to placate dissenters, there was little measurable result. While the box office is filled with comic book creations, the industry never quite recovered from the slump of 2010 or really even the near collapse of the mid-nineties. Yes, the digital and trade paperback markets once expanded but have plateaued in the past few years. A lot of what was being counted on as the future of the industry didn’t do as much as the industry had hoped. So, how did DC use continuity to bring back some of the readers to books they had abandoned years earlier? By showing they cared.
One of the things that helped was a simple and deliberate act on the part of Flashpoint writer Geoff Johns. He left a lot of questions. Now, some of these were answered in the early New 52 crossovers but there were a few glaring omissions: Just who was it that re-assembled the universe, why they did and where did Wally West go? The latter being perhaps the most important, as Wally was at the forefront of DC continuity in the last 30 years. The linchpin of the Crises of the past, Wally was almost ignored when the relaunch began. It is a move indicative of the New 52’s eventual rejection of the past and a point which many fans took issue with. Combine this with rampant continuity inconsistency in what was supposed to be a streamlined version of the DCU, Johns was able to return to backtrack to the concept of Flashpoint by deciding that something was wrong with reality. This is in itself genius. By simply stating something is wrong, the company could continue telling the new, intriguing stories while planting occasional fixes until the situation comes to a more specific climax. It also allows you to see what concepts are connecting with the customers and which can be officially turned into problems and removed. Once this premise was established, little changes made some big differences in perception. One that must be noted is Superman’s almost immediate return to his classic shield. If we want to nitpick, the logo has gone through constant change over the years, but this version is recognizable as the most common iteration. Characters like Wonder Woman, Nightwing and even The Eradicator all returned to more familiar visages as well. While these changes may seem to be sort of banal, here they aren’t. One must remember that superheroes are not only fictional characters, but symbols. They are literally iconic. Restoring the iconography of a character sends a very clear narrative message, as did taking it away.
Superman also serves as a great example of Rebirth’s restoring of past plot-lines and a study of how committed readers actually view the narrative being played out. It is no secret that part of The New 52’s goal with Superman was to restore him as a young, single man and to update Lois Lane into a modern young reporter. The funny part about this is that if one wanted to make a claim that restoring “classic” versions was the key to Rebirth, this situation almost proves you wrong. In Grant Morrison’s Action Comics, Clark basically starts a square one, taking Superman back to his populist roots and making him a figure who neither trusts nor is trusted by authority. Lane reverts to a wily reporter, though dropping the total romantic obsession with the Man of Steel. Clark Kent once again can live in relative anonymity and Lois can once again pursue Superman’s origins. So, if The New 52 actually did bring Supes back to formula, how come a lot of readers didn’t stick around? Its a simpler answer than you might think. Many Superman readers weren’t really around for that era, I myself am 31 and didn’t start reading with even relative consistency until 1992 or so. Yes, I understood and appreciated the earlier Superman work but during most of my tenure, Lois and Clark were married, Superman had come back from the dead and the Justice League was a long established concept. The New 52 attempted to take Superman back to what worked in the early days, but that formula had been messed with so effectively for so long that it was no longer the most recognizable version of the character to readers. Continuity had done what it does at its best, made improvements. Superman in the New 52 didn’t feel like a return to Superman’s roots but an entirely different character. His experiences and stories made him into a different type of hero, and re-introductions of concepts and characters conflicted with popular stories from his past. Someone who had read decades of Superman issues might not have been able to jump back in. This can function just fine when presented a certain way, but when a character is presented as the definitive version and has ignored a lot of what brought the fans to the table, some fans are going to take it as an opportunity to end their devotion. Many did.
DC’s eventual solution acknowledged this, as the prelude to Rebirth literally returned to the Pre-New 52 Superman to comics in Superman: Lois and Clark, penned by longtime Super-Contributor Dan Jurgens. Here, the two Supermen are literally different characters, and it’s the more familiar one that comes out of the wreckage. Bluntly, the New 52 Superman was killed off. Well, they kind of mess with that a little into rebirth but, yeah, he died at one point. As Rebirth began to roll, Superman had a wife (Lois) and a child, Jonathan. I’ll be the first to admit that the kid threw me off. It seemed like too overt of a stunt. I say overt because one has to acknowledge that stunts are part of good action storytelling, but a writer never wants to shoehorn something too obnoxious in. Then I read it and it became clear what it really was. The appearance of Jonathan Kent is not a stunt but an endorsement. Not only can the story go on for Superman, but it actually had while we weren’t privy to it. It is a sign that what has happened to Superman is, even now, just the beginning of where it can go. In early Rebirth issues of Superman, Peter Tomasi worked to restore not only the narrative, but assure readers that the persona lost to Flashpoint had returned. As more is revealed every month and the timeline re-established, DC’s renewed commitment to continuity is perhaps most evident in the Superman books. Characters have re-appeared in classic form and the mystery of Mr. Oz is going to be key to the next few steps of rebuilding the DCU. (Yes, I know that his identity has been revealed, I’m trying to get people to read these books though. Yeesh.) Not a cheap gimmick at all, Jonathan Kent is continuity at its best. He’s already expanded into Super Sons with Batman’s son and current Robin, Damian. Damian’s now substantial time as Robin has already served similar purposes. The next step in the never ending battle and surely the source of new adventures for years to come.
Maybe in 20 years, someone in their thirties will look back fondly at the days when Superboy first showed up. Maybe that’s what got them into the medium. Maybe that’s what continuity is really about.