Super Saturday: Universal Realignments

Okay, so I don't follow the superhero comics as closely as I once did. But I think I grok the following: this summer, both DC and Marvel are running near-identical universal-time-crisis-continuity-conflict-shakeup events; for DC called "Convergence", and for Marvel "Secret Wars". At the end, you'll have new alignments of each of those universes. For DC this is about the 5th time they've done that in the last few decades; whereas for Marvel, it's the first time in their history that they've retconned their entire continuity.

Why? Well, regardless of the reasons for spawning such events in the past, the reason in the case seems clear (esp. in the Marvel case): movies. Quite recently the movie-production for these characters seems to have became the tail that wagged the dog, upending the business, with the comics becoming merely a piece of add-on merchandising instead the principal art form. Marvel was bought by Disney, DC just moved its offices to Hollywood last month, etc. And since these continuities have become disjoint (movies vs. comics), you can sort of see why you'd want those properties aligned in terms of who the characters are, so customers don't get confused and frustrated.

But here's my point of criticism: Trying to align the movies and comics is untenable; a fool's errand. How come? The main problem is movies getting primary status but relatively infrequent releases , versus comics trying to be follow-ons but with a much faster monthly production cycle. Comics will always by their nature be veering off from the movie continuity, simply by their need to tell a greater number of stories; and when the movie producers/directors come through at a later time, and touch on those same characters (without heed for what happened in comics), they will then again be out-of-synch.

Example: Let's say any Marvel comics writers want to bring in the super-villain Titania for a story arc. To my knowledge she hasn't appeared in any property outside the Marvel-616 comic books; and she has a slightly complicated backstory in being created by Doctor Doom as part of the 1980's Secret Wars storyline. The writers (and I) would broadly guess that movie producers would not expect to use her any time soon. But if the movie producers do use her... then almost surely they'll re-write, re-costume, re-backstory the character in some totally unpredictable fashion, that serves the purpose of one particular feature film. Repeat that for every character that ever appears in future movies.

In summary: The comics are doomed to become mis-aligned with movies, simply by the need to tell more stories each month, to be using a greater number of characters and situations each month, and if the movie productions ignore that, then they will always be out-of-synch. 

Now, DC just had its last universal shake-up 4 years ago (Flashpoint, 2011). The Marvel cartoon which I liked the most, "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" was ended and re-booted to be closer to the movies after only a 2-year run. Obviously this pressure has caused the Marvel-616 continuity to be broken for the first time in history this year.

So my prediction is that these shake-ups will be more routine and more frequent in future years. Personally, I don't think it's a great idea because it fractures the fanbase (much like radically-different editions of a game like D&D). Will we ever have a consistent, strong continuity in superhero comics again? Possibly not; if the characters all become archetypal, and merely a million different faceted story-perspectives on the "idea" of each character, then the age of the compelling continuity and crossovers may have come to a close in the comics format.


  1. It IS a fool's errand and for more reasons than just that: the cannibalistic nature of Hollywood and the apparent inability of the comic book industry to let go of the old and create new, original material.

  2. Interestingly, the reverse of this phenomenon has been active in Japanese anime/manga for quite some time. Anime series based on manga properties are notorious for periods of "filler" episodes (of varying levels of quality, but usually interminable and deep in the 99% of Sturgeon's Law) while they wait for the original comic to "catch up". Which I suppose says something about production/publication speeds of those media. Of course live action, big budget movies are a whole other beast in terms of the speed and frequency they can be released.

    I think you're spot on about the relative prestige of the two media outlets, since the 90's comic creators have tended to view their printed work as a stepping stone to the ultimate endzone goal of a movie franchise. Which is too bad on a lot of fronts. How many beautiful plumaged comic book birds have been slaughtered, plucked, deep fried and served in a cardboard bucket at the movie megaplex?

    I and others have also facetiously observed that the endless tedious cinematic retreads of a hero's origin could be avoided if the uninitiated could perhaps pick up an inexpensive, colorfully illustrated pamphlet of some kind to get an understanding of the characters. (Someone recently said in relation to all the Spiderman reboots "If I have to see Peter Parker's origin story one more time I'm gonna shoot Uncle Ben myself.") Unfortunately this isn't an option for the very reason you point out in your post. To Hollywood, comics don't really matter.

    In the end I think comics are to movies as tabletop RPG's are to video games and all the other media that seem to be supplanting them these days. For the creators and conoisseurs of any of these media, I think the best stance is: You can have your megaplex and your multimillion dollar extravaganzas, and some cool stuff can happen in those spaces, but the real engagement is at the drawing board or around the table.

    1. That's a great example (anime/manga). It brings to mind some other example where properties started out in synch but had to diverge due to different production rhythms, such as -- Game of Thrones or Walking Dead (vis-a-vis books vs. TV shows).

      Or a little bit like old superhero comic strips in the newspapers where the 5 weekday strips were all filler and just suspended the action from color-comics Sunday to Sunday.

  3. Also, commerce is as commerce does, and all this rejiggering of continuities is brand management as much as anything else. Ideas as product.

    I've related before my experience in the toy biz, reading "Licensing" magazines where the stories and images that form people's mental architecture being treated as grain futures or factory output. Strange to see it.

    But in the end it is immaterial. Stories are stories, and their source or packaging don't matter. The good stuff sticks, the bad or bland just becomes what Philip K. Dick called "kipple".