Comic Fodder

Blogging "Countdown": 2

Howdy Jason,

I thought I'd provide a convenient hyperlink for readers who may have missed out on your kick-off to this discussion of DC's Countdown. If they did somehow miss it, I pity them, for their lives will be all the poorer until they click on the link and check out what you had to say.

As I did, in fact, read your post, I'm going to move along... But I'm going to go ahead and agree with your two definitions of continuity.

As you said: 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.

I think there’s another application of continuity that applies to your first definition, and if I may:
In the production of television and film there is an extremely concrete concept of continuity that is managed by the many employees which surround movie production. Continuity in this application refers to the microscopic control of each shot of a scene in a film. Often a scene may be shot over multiple days, during which employees are paid good union wages to ensure the actor will be wearing the same clothing in all of the shots within that scene, the lighting will remain constant (it will not be day in some shots and night in others), and props must remain consistent (ie: if the actor puts down a book with the cover open, in subsequent shots, the book will remain on the table, in its open state).

The basic idea is that any deviation from continuity immediately reminds the viewer of the movie of the process of the creation of the film, which detracts from the immersive experience of the viewing the film and implied seamlessness of accepting a story occurring entirely within the reality of the film and not on a set. If continuity gaffes occur enough within a film or are severe enough, the film itself can be ruined.

But aside from those incredibly long credits one might sit through to see some hidden scene, most folks at the local cinema don't think too much about who was the script supervisor on their latest Pirates of the Caribbean flick. But they would most certainly know something was amiss if Jack Sparrow had on his hat in some shots, but when they cut to a close-up, the hat was abruptly missing.

To some extent, this notion of managed continuity can be applied to comics, as it's invariably the mistakes and oddities that most often draw reader attention to the process of the comic's creation rather than simply accepting the narrative at face value. Straying from continuity as company policy as DC and Marvel attempted to do circa 2003 (in an effort to give creators freedom) led to a violation of readers’ trust. And certainly DC's inability to agree upon what, exactly, comprised continuity in the post Crisis on Infinite Earths-era led to the need for the whopping metaphor which was Infinite Crisis. The continuity of comics is so broken, it seems, that DC has made spotting the continuity problems and working to explain away the miissing hats (and occasional stray boom mic) a part of the narrative itself.

This segues nicely into the second point, which is that fans do seem to consciously or unconsciously, silently or loudly ask that continuity be managed by editorial. You mentioned that:

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.

There does seem to be an appreciation for DC’s management of continuity as a driving force in reader investment in keeping up with the DCU, but I also think that this sort of management is nothing new, with DC using continuity management as entertainment beginning with “Flash of Two Worlds”. And, heck, for years, the whole notion of an Earth-1 and 2 sold DC a lot of comics.

As much as folks seem to get their dander up over the multiple earths idea, it continues to sell comics. Certainly the last truly successful crossover in DC’s history, Infinite Crisis, featured no small amount of continuity reshuffling, as did the conclusion of DC’s best-seller, “52”.

Whatever, else the stuff does seem to sell, at least in brief spikes. But to one of your questions “Why the heck is DC selling continuity management as a year long event?”

I had a different answer to this question composed, but after taking a look at this week's DC Nation column and recent issues of "Countdown", I think I'd like to change my answer. Especially after Didio said:


Why bring it back? Simple answer? It was a great idea in the '60s (tip of the hat to legendary DC editor Julie Schwartz) and it's a great idea now -- if managed properly. And that's what we plan to do, and believe it or not there is a plan in place for all the goings-on in the Multiverse.

A rough translation seems to be that DC seems to realize that NOT managing those worlds is a far greater (infinitely greater?) problem than actively managing their universe(s) if the DC Universe is going to build and thrive. Perhaps there is a feeling at DC that a multiverse provided a potential for storytelling that the last 20 years of DC Comics did not. After all, Earth 2 (or Earth 3, now?) appeared in JLA a few years back, and nobody has blinked at dimension hopping or Elseworlds tales in those 20 years.

From the column, Didio takes heed of the majority of folks who may not like the idea of a multiverse and/ or are confused by the idea. If an engaging storyline is what it takes to help define those worlds and the rules which define them (we'll get to whether it's engaging later), and possibly put a little sugar on the medicine for the kids who aren't sure this is for them. Those Dan Jurgens back up stories explaining the multiverse from the "Flash of Two Worlds" tale of yore are certainly an extra bit of sweetener.

With sales figures as low as they currently are, and with the internet providing instantaneous reaction to the goings on of comics, perhaps DC is doing three things

1) Reacting to falling numbers by recognizing that continuity may play a part in maintaining higher sales figures.
2) Finding the last point in DC's publication history where sales figures and characters were at an apex (and where characters were still their original selves and not a "re-imagined" version of the character)
3) Publicly managing the continuity so that readers can see the changes as they occur and not see the changes as a sudden, abrupt shift

I'm not sure I hit on all of your points, but I think we're off to a decent start. That said, this whole thing was your idea, so if it fails, I lay the blame squarely at your feet. Also, this is a lot of work. We should have just found panels of Titano and photoshopped in funny jokes in his word balloons. But before I sign off... a few questions I think we might want to ponder before deciding if DC is yanking our chain with this Countdown business or not.

If you're anything like me, you must spend hours each day floating in the tub pondering this constructed shared narrative universe stuff. If the tale of the DCU is a single narrative (now in 52 parts) being told by multiple authors, is there any hope for a single, continuous narrative without continuity gaffes? Is continuity part of the story? What kind of story is it if it has no end as long as DC Comics continue to see print? And what kind of hazards or benefits can we see when your story operates on 52 separate vibrational frequencies?


Up, up and away,

Ryan



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Ryan is your resident reviewer of DC Comics. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas. He likes Superman.
ryan@filmfodder.com

Hey Ryan and Jason,

As I’ve been following along with your debate I can’t help but hope that the powers at DC (and Marvel to be fair) are reading it and taking note.

At DC at least, continuity or the lack thereof has been a long standing problem. The original CRISIS on Infinite Earths was designed to streamline its then 50 year history and get its pantheon of characters into something resembling a manageable state.

Unfortunately, CRISIS worked all too well and DC missed its chance to reboot its universe and start over directly at the end of CRISIS #12.

First there was John Byrne’s Man of Steel re-boot the following year after CRISIS, followed the next year with Batman Year One with George Perez’s Wonder Woman starting over somewhere in between. Drip, drip, drip as subtle changes are made and remade impacting the DCU.

But I can pinpoint the exact moment when it all came apart and the DC Universe (and it’s readers) have been feeling the effects ever since—the first issue Hawkworld, the mini-series and later continuing series featuring a Modern Age, militarized view of Hawkman and Thanagar.

It’s not that Hawkworld was bad…quite the contrary…it was very good.

Hawkworld’s lasting sin was a sin of omission. A sin that could have been prevented by just three little words in the first panel of Hawkworld #1—“Ten years ago.”

But the Hawkworld editor wanted the new adventures of Hawkman to take place in present day and in doing so he launched a thousand little retroactive continuity problems.

But on continuity—allow me to interject the words of the original “Continuity Cop” Robert Greenberger into the mix. The following comes from his recent column in www.comicmix.com.

“We can all be forgiving of not being consistent with obscure stories from 20, 30 or even 50 years ago. But stuff that contradicts itself from the major continuity-resetting event of the last year, is unforgivable. Editors and writers should be following a singular road map and they should all be capable of doing efficient research so when they use a supporting character or villain, it’s consistent with the last known appearance. When that does not occur, the reader is annoyed and the talent comes across as sloppy or uncaring.

”It’s not unrealistic to expect such consistency, and the consumer should be demanding that the product delivered make sense. It’s incumbent upon editors and writers to check with one another. Given the wealth of research material in print and online, it is no longer a daunting task to find background information on even the most unremembered people. Editors should no longer be accepting lazy artists crowding pages of gang shots with characters that may no longer look like they do or were even alive at the time of the story – thumbing through 22 year-old copies of Who’s Who should no longer be accepted.

“Marvel and DC both have editors with long-term recall of places and characters, as well as deep libraries with easy-to-research material. Part of the job needs to be doing your homework so the reader gets the best possible story. The story needs to make sense with a beginning, a middle and (hopefully) an end that is consistent with what the reader has read the month before. Anything less should be unacceptable.”


I would humbly pile on to what Mr. Greenberger says by suggesting that DC’s continued careless and perhaps even deliberate inattention to storytelling detail is poised to have a negative reader backlash.

Look at the Star Trek franchise and the current state it finds itself. Sure Star Trek is 40 years old but the DCU starting with Superman is pushing 70 years.

As a long time Star Trek fan (but not a “trekie”, I just dug the shows but never wore the ears or drank the Romulan Ale) I watched with dismay as the shows not just repeated the same formula over and over and over again but with the movies in particular, the Trek creators would seemingly just put SOMETHING/ANYTHING out knowing that they had a built-in fanbase and the fans would come….until they (or enough of them) stopped coming.

I see that same inattention to detail and arrogant disregard of the fans/customers at DC. This does not make for good storytelling. It’s not so much the lack of story continuity that is hurting DC (although I for one am tired of trying to figure out what stories “count” as well as the constant retro-conning) as is DC’s total lack of concern that the only thing constant in the DCU is inconsistency.

As with Star Trek, the Super Hero comic book genre (DC and Marvel) is bleeding by a thousand self-inflicted cuts. Lack of story continuity has led to degraded long-term storytelling quality.

With Star Trek this had the result of turning off and driving away potential new fans/viewers while old die hard fans either dwindled in number or they just plain turned off and tuned out.

Bottom line: Continuity should be storytelling Job One in comics or otherwise let’s just stop bothering to number each comic and every issue can be #1.

Yeah I know, I was off to the races with this rant but thanks for listening anyway.

FanBoyWonder

-- Posted by: FanBoyWonder at June 3, 2007 10:43 PM

I would suggest that DC is in the process of turning the machinery around to ensure that continuity DOES count. Keep in mind that for the years leading up to Infinite Crisis, Continuity was considered to be out of vogue as writers were given star treatment (with editors who were complicit in ignoring continuity) in order to allow writers to write continuity bending stories thanks to their oft stated lack of interest (and in Superman's case, Chuck Austen's outright disdain) in characters to which they'd been assigned. So, yes, continuity was especially messy at the end their for the sake of short term jumps in sales.

Right now DC seems very interested in some form of continuity, but spent some of the last year getting their editorial teams working to that mindset. It does seem that the OYL/ 52 narrative hump may have caused some difficulty in informing many writers and editors as to what constituted continuity, and, man... can you blame folks at the company for being a bit baffled? However, the past several months have pointed toward a more coherent universe once again.

I was in grade school when COIE occurred, but was well aware of the series. In some ways, I suppose had I picked up the Hawkworld series I might have understood this was a Hawkman, Year One sort of series (I've still never read it). I just don't think anyone at DC thought the universe would be allowed to become so messy over the next twenty years when they made changes such as Hawkworld. I would also point to Legends and the re-launch of Wonder Woman as huge question marks for continuity questions.

Absolutely DC and Marvel would do well to keep a researcher or two on hand. I know that as a reader I feel tremendous frustration when continuity gaps occur within anything approximating a calendar year. (Killing a character and then bringing them back in another title with no explanation is simply sloppy).

Keep an eye on the Superman titles, JLA, JSA and Countdown. I think DC is spelling out continuity in those books. That said, I was pretty pleased with Johns' reconciliation of the many versions of Hawkman, and I guess DC was, too.

Perhaps I'm giving Didio too much credit, but it seems he grasps the necessity for continuity, perhaps due to a background in television and the consistency that casual reviewers of programs rely on in order to understand a program.

At any rate, thanks for reading and commenting. I'm hoping you stick with us and keep up the chat.

-- Posted by: ryan at June 3, 2007 11:26 PM