Why continuity matters, dammit

Glenn Hauman

Glenn is VP of Production at ComicMix. He has written Star Trek and X-Men stories and worked for DC Comics, Simon & Schuster, Random House, arrogant/MGMS and Apple Comics. He's also what happens when a Young Turk of publishing gets old.

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13 Responses

  1. RD Francis says:

    I tend to agree. I tend to agree vehemently, but I recognize exceptions.Especially in modern comics, TV, and movie series, the creators have to understand that:1) They're creating a world, or at least a piece of one. That requires a degree of verisimilitude. In SF/fantasy/super-hero stories, you generally are introducing an element of the unbelievable into the story; strangely enough, this requires that everything *outside* that element be as realistic as possible for us to invest in the story.2) Their work is not ephemeral. If you're a Doctor Who fan (of more than just the past 5 years' worth of material), I hope you've read the ABOUT TIME series by Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles. In looking at Doctro Who from the 60's and 70's, they help make it crystal clear that, at that time, the show was aired once. If you missed it, you couldn't wait for the summer re-run, much less the video/DVD release, or infinite showings on some cable network. That meant that even the creators didn't necessarily remember the details of an episode two years ago, and such contradictions were understandable. Today, your show becomes a part of the permanent record, and you have no excuse (other than, you know, not giving a rat's ass) for contradicting major plot points or revelations from past stories.That said, the fan has to realize:1) Mistakes happen. Let's take the IT TAKES A THIEF anecdote. A weekly TV series isn't written by one person; sometimes (even today), it's not written by one consistent group of people. Sometimes, the team producing a weekly TV series has to make do with the best they've got, and doesn't have time to trim off the rough edges. If the story about the character's evolution into thievery is critical to the development of that week's plot, even people who recognized that there was at least a seeming contradiction might have decided that it was better to proceed with this than to rip an otherwise filmable story to shreds to deal with a point most of the viewing public would not notice. Totally hypothetical, of course – but also quite possible.2) Some things matter more than others. If the first episode of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND gave the skipper's name as Jonas Grumby, and the 14th episode of the 3rd season said it was Jonah Grimby (or Bob Banner), but no other episodes mention it – it's not that big a deal, in reality. it screws up trivia quizzes for decades, but not much else.3) If changes like these result in a stronger, more interesting character, then they're usually acceptable. If you decide that, rather than being the children of gypsies, or the abandoned children of Bob "Whizzer" Frank and his wife Madeleine (aka Miss America), the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are actually the children of Magneto, AND if this opens up interesting character conflicts and personal development opportunities, then that's probably OK. It helps to at least produce a hand-waving explanation that avoids completely invalidating the past histories of the characters. Of course, if it makes the character seem like a weak-minded fool who's giving up a lifetime with their wife for a couple more years with their aged guardian, and evidently giving a Satanic figure something he wants in the process, it's much less acceptable.Finally:Resolving problems like this from past stories is OK – sometimes. A quick comment ("In spite of getting into geology in college and trying to get away from the family 'business,' I still wound up becoming a thief like my father and grandfather before me") can be sufficient, especially if it doesn't seem forced. An entire story to resolve such a point can even be OK – but the story better be good on its own merits, and should be enjoyable to those who don't know or don't care about the discrepancies. A story, for example, like one of Roy Thomas' ALL-STAR SQUADRON annuals, where a one-off villain seems to meet various JSA members for no other reason than to infuse them with some sort of radiation that prevents them from aging entirely normally seems to exist solely to explain why WWII era characters are still viable super-heroes in their 60's (70's, 80's by now, probably). If that's the only memorable thing about the story – then the story probably wasn't good enough to be told.

  2. George Haberberger says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. Some comic writers say they feel hamstrung by adherence to continuity. Too damn bad. Make up your own universe if you need to change history.

    • Sean D. Martin says:

      Exactly. I honestly can't remember which noted writer it was, but I surprised to see him complain about all the restrictions paramount had placed on Star Trek stories and how it was really a pain that he couldn't do with the characters some of what he wanted.Since he'd recently mentioned the understandable conditions one must deal with if you wanted to "play around in Marvel's sandbox", I was surprised by the hypocrisy or at least lack of self-awareness.That said, given some of the characters in modern comics have a publishing history going back a few generations, it's hard to not have some (or even lots) of continnuity glitches.

  3. Cynthia Finnegan says:

    I agree completely.

  4. Paul1963 says:

    From the world of TV, here's a nifty one: If I recall correctly, The Odd Couple told at least three completely different stories of how Oscar first met Felix. And that's a show that was only on for five years, and went into syndication almost instantly.And I'm right there with you, George. Superman is married to Lois Lane. That's the status quo if you want to write the character in 2009. Deal with it. I'm looking at you, Joe Quesada.

  5. Sean D. Martin says:

    I like a well-controlled continuity. It rewards me for my many years following a character or series, it feeds my inner trivia geek when I catch references to stories from long ago, and it is comforting to know that the creators respect the characters and, by making the effort, the fans (specifically, me).But as noted above, given some of the characters in modern comics have a publishing history going back a few generations, it's hard to not have some (or even lots) of continuity glitches. So I'm okay with the changes that take place over time and don't expect to take a comic from then and place it next to one from now and have them consistent. I haven't figured out yet, tho, how long that then-to-now gap should be. As a long-time (decades) comic reader I figure I can't complain that the comics of today don't make much note of events/characterizations from 20 years ago. But shouldn't they remember what happened 5 years ago?What's a reasonable "continuity gap"?

    • Glenn Hauman says:

      It's not just comics. There's a lot of continuity buildup in a wide variety of characters, from Robin Hood to James Bond.I think continuity gaps that expand beyond the span of the actor playing the part (or the creator of the "work", be they writer or artist) is too long. But is it too much to ask that a single creator keep his own created world straight?

      • Glenn Hauman says:

        And I say that while thinking of at least one published case from a friend of mine, which required a bit of sudden backfilling and the creation of a clone, because he suddenly found himself in a continuity error.

      • Sean D. Martin says:

        Interesting mentions. I wouldn't have thought of continuity being an issue for either Robin Hood or James Bond.Robin Hood seems to be the same story over an over. I wouldn't expect much consistency between the Errol Flynn and Kevin Costner versions, for example.James Bond movies I wouldn't expect consistency in; they're such escapist over-the-top deals. Nothing glaring should happen. But that any girl he's ever known completely disappears by the next movie, for example, never bothered me. (The novels are another matter. I haven't read many but would expect more continuity there since they're generally written by one person.)

        • Glenn Hauman says:

          Even with the same Robin Hood root story, we get variations. For example, is there a Saracen in the story? (Hi, Mark!) Does the story feature mysticism or not? (Hi, Bob and Bo!)

  6. Tom K. Mason says:

    Some mistakes are more easily forgiven by the audience than others. The "It Takes A Thief" anecdote is just lazy storytelling. You're not supposed to forget your main character's origin story – they could've easily made either version or both versions a lie and incorporated it into his character. I don't know about ITAT, but many of the adventure shows of that era did have one main show runner or head writer on staff and all scripts – because almost all of them were freelance – would get a final polish through his Underwood to keep the tone as consistent as possible and it was his job or his assistant's to keep track of continuity.Now almost all writing is done on staff so everyone lives the show day-to-day. There are usually a couple of writer's assistants whose job it is – among countless other tasks – to keep track of that kind of stuff (favorite color, catchphrases, parents' names, allergies) as it's mentioned in scripts and load it into a spreadsheet. The script coordinator and script supervisor are also around to double-check the work. Still, mistakes happen. You just have to hope they're small enough that the audience doesn't view it as disrespect.

  7. mike weber says:

    …which was what made Batman TAS and the "Adventures" comics so good – they were able to pick and choose from the long history of the Bat use the God Stuff, ignore the Dumb Stuff.And they chose what to use and what to forget good.