Q: I see that word, "continuity," an awful lot on the message boards, but I can't find it in my Pocket Webster's. What does it mean, and why are so many people so passionate about it?
A: I could write an entire book on continuity, but I'll try and get this done in under 1000 words. Let's start by looking at the word itself; the root is, of course, "continue," which means "to go on." And that's what continuity is, at its most basic: the always-continuing nature of the stories. (I note here that the word, and this discussion, applies most directly to the ongoing superhero series published by Marvel and DC). The stories go on; there will be another issue next month, and it will be a continuation of the adventures of the title character or characters. Serial fiction is by its nature in a state of continuity.
Q: Sounds simple.
A: I've only gotten started. Any continuation into the future necessitates a past, and that's the second, and more thorny definition of continuity: the past adventures that are being continued from. If issue 34 continues into 35, it must also continue from 33, which itself continued from 32, and on and on back to issue 1, and more than likely further than that (after all, characters are falling into obscurity and brought back from it, and series cancelled and relaunched, all the time).
Q: So, continuity is also the character's history?
A: Correct. Stratifying the concept, the basic, issue-to-issue continuity would be "microcontinuity," the overall history "mesocontinuity…"
Q: I know my prefixes; there's a "macro" in there somewhere.
A: You are correct. "Macrocontinuity" refers to the history of an entire fictional universe, and in comics, is almost the exclusive purview of Marvel and DC. (A cross-medium equivalent would be the Star Trek or Star Wars universes).
Q: Both science fiction franchises.
A: Macrocontinuity is mostly a function of genre fiction. The reason for that is the fans; very few people outside of that kind of fandom are dedicated (a less polite word would be "obsessed") enough to pull together disparate elements from dozens, sometimes hundreds of individual stories and try to make a pattern out of it. Macrocontinuity often arises from just such these efforts, either on the part of fans or on the part of creators (and it should be noted that genre fans and genre creators often share thought patterns).
Q: All right, I've got a handle on what it is. So why do so many people fight about it?
A: Because continuity can change. Remember, these are fictional constructs we're talking about, and fiction is by nature a fluid thing, subject to revision at any time. Especially in the case where new writers come along once every ten years or so, with their own ideas and concepts of what characters should be.
Q: They can change the whole history of a character, just like that?
A: Sure. It's happened lots of times, most notably with Superman in 1986. The old continuity was brought to an end via an Alan Moore two-parter, and, beginning with John Byrne's Superman: The Man of Steel 1, a new continuity was begun, with new ground rules in place. And the macrocontinuity changed to fit the mesocontinuity, removing Superman's place as a founding member of the Justice League, erasing Superboy and Supergirl from the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and more.
Q: But doesn't that ruin the suspension of disbelief?
A: It does if not handled properly. Obviously, some things about characters are sacrosanct, and not subject to change: Superman is from Krypton, Bruce Wayne's parents are dead, Hulk smashes, the X-Men are mutants. But the exact distinction between violable continuity and inviolable continuity is murky, because no two people see it exactly the same way. Moreover, the fans…
Q: I knew we were coming to this.
A: Yes, I'm sure many an editor has thought in his weaker moments that he'd have a great job if not for the fans. The fans' view of what can be violated and the creators' view are separated by a vast gulf of inclusivity versus exclusivity. Fans tend to take an inclusive view; their emotional attachment to the characters and stories of the past is absolute, and they have trouble reconciling a change in the history with what they've known for so long.
Q: Aren't most writers fans themselves?
A: Yes, but writers, at least the good ones, possess the ability to sublimate that attachment to the needs of storytelling. Some writers creatively try to write around minor (or even major) discrepancies, but others simply allow their story to contradict the past where it needs to. And, of course, not every discrepancy gets caught; not everyone can be Kurt Busiek or Mark Waid.
Q: It sounds frustrating.
A: It can be, on both sides. From a purely pragmatic point of view, the story now is what's important; it's what has to be on the shelves on Wednesday, it's what will shape the stories to come. At the same time, the story then has to matter (or there must at least be the illusion that it matters), or the whole construct falls apart.
Q: How would you like to see it handled?
A: Oh, my answer to this varies from day to day, but I think both sides have to engage in some give and take. Creators and publishers could stand to recognize the existence of the past, if not cater to it; the return of those little "*See Avengers 347 for all the details" caption boxes couldn't hurt. At the same times, fans need to take a more active role in keeping the illusion alive; no one can be expected to remember the entirety of 60+ years of published comics, and if Aunt Petunia gets drawn as a blonde in her next appearance, when John Byrne established her as a brunette, well, shit, tell yourself she got a dye job and move on. A willingness to accommodate on one hand, a willingess to forgive on the other. Such is the foundation of all good compromises.
Q: Like the Missouri Compromise!
A: *sigh* Maybe the next FAQ should be about continuity within *this* universe…