Continuity is a tricky beast.
When you’re telling stories about a character for years or decades, there have to be common ties. You need consistent places, familiar villains, and constants that can revolve around and tangle with the protagonist’s ongoing story. Ten years of one shot issues or unrelated mini-series don’t work as well. You get to know the main character better and care about him or her more through his interactions with the world around him, and if that world is constantly changing you’ll be expending most of your energy just to keep up with the different landscapes and people.
The flip side of the continuity coin is that years of history can equate to a giant mess. When dozens of different writers and artists play in the same pool, it gets crowded. Sometimes it’s a gross mix of algae and neglect, other times it’s a sparkling Olympic-sized playground with room for all. It depends on the characters and how long they’ve been around. Some superheroes have been around for over fifty years; it’s impossible to keep the chemical balances perfect in that water. And that much existing framework can intimidate new readers.
I’ve said it before and I’ve heard it many times: where do you start with reading comics? When faced with a shelf of current Batman issues that all seem to be pursuing different arcs how can you know where to begin? Hopefully each issue is set up so that a new reader can dive in without catching up on twenty issues, but I don’t feel like that’s a fair expectation. After all, we don’t usually jump into television series midway through the second season with the assumption that we’ll know what’s going on. In fact, I think it can be somewhat insulting. “Hey creators, I know you’ve worked really hard on the last ten issues but I’m going to jump in on issue #11 and be ticked at you when I can’t tell what’s happening.”
I’m a huge fan of recap pages, but I also understand bringing newbies up to speed in every single issue isn’t always possible.
Take a character like Superman. Comics featuring the hero have been published since 1938. Seventy years of stories. Just like any other character that’s been around for a while, there’s a huge stack of reboots and do-overs and history and not all of it is fantastic. There are times when the appearance of the same ole villains and love interests get stale, and I’m sure it has to be frustrating as a creator to work within the current boundaries of continuity. It limits the cast of characters, it can change what Superman knows, and on and on. Being freed from that pen has to be fun… and maybe a little scary.
When you can use the whole universe in your story, which parts do you focus on? You could single out one or two villains and a few companions, or you could do what Alan Moore and Curt Swan did in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow and bring in everyone.
It doesn’t seem like an idea that should work. Honestly, it sounds like a formula for disaster. But the last Silver Age Superman story is a perfect example of what can happen when the door is left wide open – I know it’s not the only one out there and I’m not saying I want more stories that are off the timeline rails, but they can be gems. This one in particular shines bright.
In the then-future of 1997, a reporter from the Daily Planet visits Lois Lane to learn about the tragedy surrounding Superman’s death. She relates the events through flashbacks. Superman’s villains start turning deadly and it all leads to the penultimate battle at the Fortress of Solitude.
Action packed is an understatement.
One of the impressive parts is that it manages to be that but not feel rushed. A crazy number of Superman’s supporting cast show up over the course of two issues: Bizarro, Toyman, Prankster, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Pete Ross, Krypto, Lois, Lana Lang, Jimmy Olsen, and many more. On the surface it seems like a recipe for a horribly over-mixed drink. It’s blended with perfection though. Where else would Superman’s closest friends be in his time of greatest need? He gathers them around to protect them, but they would have come running anyways.
The plot twists and runs to what becomes Superman’s last stand. The consequences are very real. Loved ones die. Krypto sacrifices himself in a heartwrenching scene. And finally, the last straw: Superman kills his greatest foe. He crossed the line he said he would never toe, and he very calmly hangs up his cape and gives up his powers.
Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow is successful across the board. From what I’ve read of Superman, it stays true to the character. That’s awesome, but I’m more impressed with how it’s a story that a newcomer to comics can read and love, someone like me who doesn’t know a ton about Superman’s background can devour and be enthralled and moved, and that someone who is fanatic about the hero and has connections to all the characters who appear in the issues can get excited about and love. It truly is a story for everyone, and when it comes to characters with a long history, that’s just not common.