Comic Fodder

Blogging "Countdown": 1

Hey Ryan,

Welcome to the chat, and here's to some fun conversation about Countdown, which is at the present moment what you've called DC Comics' "spine of continuity": a central, 52-week comics event and core narrative from which the corporation's serial superhero comics will synchronize themselves for the duration. Countdown is carrying on the "Love Boat" format of its predecessor 52, with multiple independent storylines unfolding in the same periodical, but in the case of Countdown these multiple storylines do seem to point to one core conflict: as we learned in 52, the DC multiverse has been once again reconfigured; what we understand as "continuity" has been once again revised; this is going to cause some interesting troubles for all fictitious parties involved.

Our conversation about Countdown will inevitably spend some time talking about what it means to have a "multiverse," what continuity is, and why it is. With that in mind, I'm going to start with a digression, beg your forgiveness, and promise that we'll talk about the actual comic book very soon. Before we talk about Countdown, though, I want to talk for a bit about this continuity thing that is its central topic. I'd argue that "continuity" is often to comics fans what pornography was to SCOTUS Justice Potter Stewart: they know it when they see it, but sometimes the intrinsic definition is tough to come by. I'll offer two definitions: one appealing to the conventional wisdom, and one appealing to my contrary nature.

1.) Continuity is narrative consistency. You've talked in the past about readerly expectations of continuity as consistency, and I think there's a lot of truth to that: we're all reading a story that unfolds regularly, and we expect it to make some sense, and for the actions that happen within that story to have consequence. Continuity emerges from the desire of readers that this narrative work honestly as narrative, that cause generates effect and a follows b in a way that doesn't too badly insult one's suspension of disbelief. But I'm going to present yang to your yin and argue for

2.) Continuity (forgive me, I'm a recovering academic) is a contingent social contract enforcing a retroactive continuous narrative on a structure that is at essentially discontinuous. Superman is somewhere between 28 and 32 years old, and will always be so. Oh, and Superman is 75 years old and fought the Nazis. The consistency we can rightly expect with conventional serial fiction becomes a problem when your main characters must maintain a level of stasis across generations in order to sell blockbuster movies, roller coasters, and grocery staples.

Marvel solves that problem by fudging it, by quietly resetting the clock at regular intervals and being fairly vague about when Professor X and Magneto actually met. DC, on the other hand, actively manages continuity: the Nazi-fighting Superman lived on another planet, and died last year. As of fairly recently, the current Superman is kind of an extension of that handsome kid on Smallvile... ish... and is between 28 and 32. Like the 108 minutes in Lost, the clock of plausibility for this current understanding of how Superman makes sense is now ticking.

Full disclosure: I believe DC a.) fully realizes the implications of definition #2; b.) has evolved this management to a point where the pleasure of watching continuity being actively managed through fiction is a primary -- if not the primary -- reason to follow the DC Universe; c.) understands Countdown as just a part of an ongoing process of selling the foregrounded and mythologized management of DC continuity, for fun and profit, indefinitely.

I'll leave it at that and throw it your way. Does this sound at all plausible? Is continuity an achievable consistency, a postmodern groundlessness, or something in-between? And, regardless, why the heck is DC selling continuity management to its readership as a year-long event, and why do we buy it?

Best, Jason


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Jason lives in Austin, Texas. This post is reprinted from www.earthx.org.

Hey Ryan and Jason,

Jason: Great explanation and breakdown on continuity for the fans but I do wish that the folks at DC would get that particular memo.

For my 52 cents, I went into Countdown with greatly lowered expectations, as well as an open mind, following the previous year-long weekly “experiment.”

Yet as I write this, we’re three issues in and it seems that Team Countdown is bound and determined to make all of the same mistakes and then some.

The “story” as presented so far is rife with plot and continuity and just plain common sense inconsistencies.

Everybody and their uncle knows Jason Todd is the Red Hood who used to be the second Robin, Joker’s Daughter is unfazed that she crossed over to “another Earth” before she promptly dies, while Mary Batson seems to alternate between 15 and 25 years of age.

It’s bad enough that this “mystery” involving Joker’s Daughter is implausible but the reader’s simply aren’t being clued into the basic storytelling necessities.

It is one thing to ask the reader to suspend our disbelief, but don’t insult our intelligence.

Paul Dini and his writing team apparently have a plan as to where this series is going but it would be nice if they clued in the reader and kept the head-scratching WTF moments to a bare minimum.

I’m honestly of two minds between what I see as the promise or potential of the premise that Team Countdown seems to have laid out. Better yet, unlike 52, Countdown actually appears to have a thought out plot and a deliberate direction to follow.

The bad news is that the execution of said premise has been at best clumsy. Even worse, it’s a the continuation of a clusterfrak that started with the God-awful Infinite Crisis, continued with One Year Later and 52 and has infected nearly every book in the DC line up.

And another thing, starting with Infinite Crisis, continuing with 52 and now with Countdown, www.newsarama.com other comics sites holding court with various DC editors to take readers’ questions regarding exactly just what happened in that week’s issue.

Is it just me, am I just “old school” but if the storytellers have to “explain” just what happened in the story—wouldn’t that be a storytelling FAILURE???

The post-Infinite Crisis DC Universe—under Dan Didio's “leadership” has emerged as a Deliberately Confused mess. DC’s best strength—it’s individual character storytelling—has become its worst weakness and Team Countdown is only the latest of “the Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”

DC has shaken up the continuity snow globe so many times, it’s impossible to know what past stories “count” and what is no longer acknowledged as canon.

I’ve got three decades of comics reading under my belt and I can’t make heads or tales of what’s going on. I really pity the incoming new readers.

DC has at the same time managed to totally confuse both sets of readers—old timers like me with long-term historical memory and newcomers just looking for an understandable access point.

Of course, like that man said—that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.

Thanks for listening,
FanBoyWonder


PS: Hey Ryan, thanks so much for linking my blog http://fanboywonder.blogspot.com to your site. Every little bit helps—FBW.

-- Posted by: FanBoyWonder at May 30, 2007 9:23 PM

Hey FBW -- Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I think Ryan and I are moments away from touching on many of the points here, but one thing I wanted to mention now: your point on news sites "holding court with various DC editors to take readers’ questions regarding exactly just what happened in that week’s issue."

I think you raise a good point in saying that, by a conventional perspective, that's a problem. However, I'd argue that superhero comics as a whole have always been a little unconventional about that: superhero universes, for a lot of reasons, have a tough time meeting the sizable challenges of exposition in a large-scale serial form, and, from editor footnotes to Ask the Answer Man, they've maintained avenues for addressing those challenges with external commentary.

And now, they aren't alone: we (and I mean everybody we, not just comics-reading we) have an increased comfort with serial stories that adopt a sizable complexity and rely on annotation and external apparatus to flesh things out. For starters...

http://www.lostpedia.com/
http://en.battlestarwiki.org/
http://harrypotterwiki.org/
http://starwars.wikia.com/

I think DC is aware to some extent that, increasingly, the comics reading experience starts with the primary texts themselves and then cascades out as a community analyzes, annotates, and debates those primary texts (like we are doing now), and that their external discussions of Countdown are stemming from that.

And that's all I'll say for now... I'll probably end up riffing on all this some more later, I'm sure. Thanks again for responding!

-- Posted by: Jason at June 3, 2007 8:54 AM

Storytellers explaining the story? Sounds like you've been reading too many X-books!

-- Posted by: Foolkiller at June 13, 2007 10:55 AM