A Comic Book Entry – Was It Always Like This Yesterday?

I have thrown around the term “retcon” a lot and assumed everyone knows what the hell I’m talking about.  However, it occurred to me that may not be the case and it also occurred to me since I generally rail against retcons (and as Tyrant-in-Chief said I wouldn’t allow retcons) maybe I should explain why (buckle up, this is a long explanation).

What is Time:
First, “retcon” is short for “retroactive continuity.”  Second, any superhero has two timelines.
1) Real time – the published history of the superhero.
2) Relative time – the superhero’s timeline relative to the universe’s timeline.
Third, the two timelines rarely coincide.  Even despite the compression or extension of a superhero’s real timeline versus relative timeline (that is, the real timeline is say, 70 years, but somehow the relative timeline is only 10 years), the real timeline rarely proceeds in an entirely linear fashion.  That brings us to retroactive continuity.

For illustration purposes, I’m not going to use an actual superhero.  I have a lot of preconceived notions about retcons as I’m sure my audience does, and we probably don’t agree.  Let’s consider Captain Otaku, who is more or less an expy of Captain America and stands for truth and accurate information.  Let’s say his debut comic was Nerdly Comics #25 produced in 1960.  A brief origin story is presented along with a brief adventure to show off the powers of Captain Otaku.  That’s his real timeline.  In one comic, a relative timeline has already been established – Captain Otaku gained his powers in high school and decided to become a superhero (Event 1).  Events happened between him gaining his powers and the adventure presented to us (Event 2) but those events have not been published yet or possibly even thought up yet.  Captain Otaku is a hit and gets his own book and his adventures proceed linearly from Event 2.  But then Captain Otaku #144 is published 1972 and tells a story about a Captain Otaku adventure between Events 1 and 2.  Technically this is retroactive continuity.  Event 1.5 now is and has always been part of Captain Otaku’s relative timeline.  As far as allowing a retcon, the real timeline has no significant bearing on the relative timeline except possibly as societal influences.

Reason to Retcon:
This process is not necessarily bad.  Many times this is used to fill out details of a back story or origin story, such as who was the mysterious professor tutoring Captain Otaku?  What was his fate after the event that gave Captain Otaku his powers?  How did Captain Otaku go from awkward teenager with powers to the hero presented in Event 2?  Who is that woman in the picture frame in Captain Otaku’s apartment?

I have only one criterion for changing a superhero’s past (or indeed their future):
1) Is this narratively necessary?

However, there are a lot of factors to consider with that single criterion:
1) What narrative possibilities are created with the retcon?
2) What narrative possibilities are eliminated with the retcon?
3) What are the consequences in the larger universe (such as interactions with other superheros) of including the event?
4) How does writing Event 1.5 effect all subsequent events in Captain Otaku’s relative timeline?

Items 1), 2), and 3) are questions that should be asked before including any event in a superhero’s timeline, even if Event 234 just happened and the writer is working on Event 235.  It’s 4) in the list above that is the most important.  It’s also 4) that is most often ignored.  I’ll clarify that as Tyrant-in-Chief what I wouldn’t allow are any retcons that do not meet the single criterion listed above (but I also wouldn’t allow linearly progressive stories that don’t meet that criterion either).

Let’s continue the tale of Captain Otaku:
He took to the world to rectify all errors concerning comic books so none would ever feel the burning shame he felt in displaying easily avoided ignorance, that same shame that drove him to commit himself to science and eventually led to the laboratory accident that gave him the Power Comic(book).  By Captain Otaku #144, he is a well-established hero and recently acquired a sidekick, Fanboy (with the power of nerd rage), just ten issues ago (we’ll call this Event 57).  Fanboy is an expy for all eager young sidekicks who got powers (such as Jimmy Olsen or Rick Jones).

Scenario 1 –
The big reveal of Event 1.5 is that Fanboy is actually Captain Otaku’s second sidekick, and Event 1.5 tells the story of the fate of Captain Otaku’s first sidekick, Snark Girl (Fanboy’s distaff counterpart).  Captain Otaku faces a villain called the Mythos Mangler (think Silver Age Lex Luthor), who is unaffected by the Captain’s attempts to use the Power Comic(book) to rectify the misconceptions about Wonder Woman’s origins.  However, Snark Girl, with her power of cynical observations and ability to identify fridge and chomper logic, thwarts the scheme of the Mythos Mangler, but so great was the battle Snark Girl lost the will to continue what she saw as a hopeless fight.

Let’s review the factors for narrative necessity:

1) What are the possibilities created by this retcon?
a) The creation of Mythos Mangler – where did he come from?  How did he get his power?  Where did he go after his defeat by Snark Girl?  Why hasn’t he come back?  Will Mythos Mangler ever come back?  If he does, will he seek revenge?  Will he just seek power?  Will he go after Fanboy specifically?
b) More backstories with Snark Girl (i.e., continuing the retroactive continuity) – how did she join Captain Otaku?  How did she get her powers?  What happened to her after the fight?  Will she return?  What happens to Fanboy if she does?
c) Fanboy’s relationship to Captain Otaku – did Captain Otaku tell him he was the first sidekick?  Why hasn’t he mentioned Snark Girl before?  Why did Captain Otaku agree to take on another sidekick?

2) What are the possibilities eliminated by this retcon?
a) Captain Otaku training his first sidekick.
b) Fanboy as the first sidekick.
c) Captain Otaku loses some of his uniqueness as a paragon of virtue, so any stories that focus on that aspect of his character are eliminated.

3) What are the consequences in the larger universe (such as interactions with other superheros) of including the event?
a) Other heroes may feel sympathy for Captain Otaku because they too have lost sidekicks.
b) Other heroes may distrust Captain Otaku for not telling them about Snark Girl and Mythos Mangler.

4) How does writing Event 1.5 effect all subsequent events in Captain Otaku’s relative timeline?
a) Captain Otaku is now more flawed than he was.  He kept a secret and deliberately mislead Fanboy into believing he was his first sidekick.

To Allow Or Not to Allow:
Overall as Tyrant-in-Chief, I’d probably allow this kind of retcon.  I think on balance there are more narrative possibilities created than eliminated.  The effects on the timeline are minimal and make Captain Otaku a more flawed and perhaps relatable hero.  You may be wondering why I included the loss of uniqueness under 2).  I am the Tyrant-in-Chief, and therefore I am concerned with marketing these stories.   Too often, various media producers are all too eager to copy someone else’s success (and even more often the result is a shallow imitation at best).  Saturating the market with carbon-copy knock-offs and stories dulls the senses of the media consumer.  What was once unique is now boring.  Boring does not sell.  I also think that the two major comic book companies are all too eager to ditch their legacy to hitch their wagon to the hot new thing (DC is in my opinion especially bad about this).  Letting legacy characters grow and develop is important, but that does not mean turning legacy characters into other characters.

Scenario 2 –
Captain Otaku now has a very long-running comic book indeed, running into the modern day with Event 167.  Fanboy has become his own hero (leaving in Event 105) and Captain Otaku has mentored one more sidekick in that time and has just started mentoring Geek Girl.  He’s had numerous adventures with the Snark Knights, reconciled with Snark Girl over Event 1.5, tangled with Mythos Mangler repeatedly, and never compromised his principle to use the Power Comic(book) to correct misinformation and never use his powers for revenge.  Now a writer wants to retcon some backstory that would have occurred prior to Event 81 (so quite some time ago).  The big reveal of Event 80.5 is that Captain Otaku actually stripped away Mythos Mangler’s identity, leaving him destitute and homeless.  The villain previously showed as Mythos Mangler is now someone else pretending to be the original villain.  And Captain Otaku threatened to strip away Fanboy’s identity if he ever told anyone what he did.

Let’s review:

1) What are the possibilities created by this retcon?
a) Why did Captain Otaku take away Mythos Mangler’s identity?
b) Why did he threaten Fanboy?  Is this why Fanboy ultimately left in Event 105?  Why didn’t Fanboy leave immediately?
c) Who is Mythos Mangler really?
d) Why did Captain Otaku never use his power this way before?  Did he use his power like this before?  How many times?

2) What are the possibilities eliminated by this retcon?
a) A villain trying to tempt him to that first transgression (wiping out someone’s identity)
b) Any conflict Captain Otaku might have with more ruthless Snark Knights on how to deal with misinformation.
c) Any story centering on the good relationship between Captain Otaku and Fanboy.
d) His character loses more of its uniqueness as a paragon of virtue, and those stories are gone.

3) What are the consequences in the larger universe (such as interactions with other superheros) of including the event?
a) Captain Otaku will be treated with suspicion and may never be trusted again by the Snark Knights.
b) Captain Otaku will be treated with suspicion and may never be trusted again by his sidekicks.
c) Captain Otaku may be thrown off the Snark Knights until it has been proven he’s sorry for what he did.

4) How does writing Event 80.5 effect all subsequent events in Captain Otaku’s relative timeline?
a) All of his interactions with Fanboy are now effectively a lie.  With a threat that great, Fanboy’s continuing association could only mean Fanboy is frightened of Captain Otaku.  This also means the amicable separation of Captain Okatu and Fanboy in Event 105 is a lie.
b) All of his interactions with Mythos Mangler are now effectively a lie.  Captain Otaku would have known the villain he faced was not the same because he wiped out his identity.
c) Actually, all of his interactions with anyone that focus on him being a paragon of virtue are a lie.

To Allow or Not to Allow:
Overall, as Tyrant-in-Chief, I probably wouldn’t allow this kind of retcon.  On balance, there are about as many narrative possibilities created as eliminated.  However, the possibilities that have been created are quite similar to other characters.  Is this to say there would be nothing new or interesting about Captain Otaku going through this kind of arc?  Not necessarily.  But is it worth losing the other potential arcs for a darkening and edgening that’s already been done time and time again?  Well, I am biased, obviously, but again I would say no.  I also take into account that Event 80.5 does effectively render the subsequent events as lies.  I see that as a betrayal to the fans of Captain Otaku.  This does not deepen his character; this completely changes it.  The first scenario, Event 1.5, makes Captain Otaku into a flawed hero, but still a hero (especially as he did reconcile with Snark Girl).  But the second scenario, Event 80.5, makes Captain Otaku into a fallen hero or perhaps even secretly an anti-hero (as the possibilities created would include whether or not he ever used his power in such a fashion other times).  A flawed hero is not the same as a fallen hero or anti-hero.  I would rule out this retcon because it completely changes the character of Captain Otaku.

Ultimately the decision to allow a retcon goes all the way back to the first rule I have as Tyrant-in-Chief – Maintain continuity and internal story logic.  To me, continuity is not limited to just keeping events in chronological order and making sure important cosmological entities don’t just disappear from the universe because someone forgot.  Internal story logic is also not limited to such things as ignoring events or characters because it’s difficult to tell the story otherwise.  Continuity and internal logic are also part of those characters.  To turn Captain Otaku into a fallen hero/anti-hero as presented breaks the continuity and defies internal logic as his character was never shown as so extreme before, and there hasn’t been any event to show his redemption.  In fact, to allow the retcon in Scenario 2 creates plotholes which must be followed up with more retcons.

A retcon can be good or bad, but careful judgment must be exercised when allowing it.  In general, I’d say both big companies are pretty bad about what they allow.  As Tyrant-in-Chief, I probably wouldn’t allow most retcons for the reasons listed above.  I would hear my writers out, of course, but it is much easier to not screw up continuity than try to fix it later.

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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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