The canon debate is a good way to drive your average comic book fan into a frenzy.
The most popular comic book characters have decades of stories under their belts. As the industry has evolved, series representing a continuing, shared story has become the norm. The days when creators hit the reset button after each issue are long in the past.
A constant cycle of reboots, retcons, celestial interventions and reality re-writes leaves fans with the question: did that story happen? Because of the changes wrought to keep tangled character histories in some semblance of workability, which tales are canon?
The canon question can be a serious undertaking for devoted fans. Whenever DC or Marvel re-writes its characters’ timelines, what stories can be relied upon? Which happened?
A glib answer, of course, is that they all did. If you’re a fan and you hold the comic book in your hand, then clearly it happened. Even if the publisher later decided it didn’t.
That can be a frustration for fans. Part of engaging a reader in an ongoing story is the need to define the rules of the fictional universe. Batman may once have regularly rocketed to outer space and been transformed into elemental creatures by extra-dimensional wizards. Those kinds of tales from a prior era often don’t meet the “seriousness” test that a publisher like DC deploys to decide if stories remain part of a character’s timeline.
DC’s numerous attempts to reconcile its far-wandering stories have resulted in “bright line” declarations of canon that often raised more questions than they answered. The New 52 was intended to be a fresh start for the line. It led to fans torturing themselves to figure out which older stories remained “valid” in the new timeline. It got so bad that DC is re-writing the timeline again with Rebirth.
In some ways, Marvel has made things even tougher on itself. The company has never done a wholesale reboot of its line. But the piecemeal tinkering Marvel has performed instead carries its own spate of canon issues.
After Peter and Mary Jane Parker made their deal with the devil to “undo” their marriage, what parts of Spider-Man’s past remained intact? How did the machinations to move Miles Morales into the main Marvel Universe alter his own Spider-Man history? When characters bop through time to change tragic outcomes, what else unravels? Does a particular writer forgetting that something happened strike it from canon? If not, how are contradictory stories reconciled?
This obsession with continuity and canon might puzzle casual readers. But the publishers know they have to take this seriously. An editor or writer might occasionally get exasperated with fan demands to know “did this story happen?” But they always buckle down and deal with it. Because they know that’s the bargain they’ve made with their fan base. If you want them to invest in your ongoing character journey, you’ve got to provide the rules of the road.
This focus on character canon is unlikely to go away. Perhaps publishers could keep that in mind when altering their universes. Figuring out in advance what you’re keeping and what you’re discarding and making that clear to fans seems like it should be a basic part of maintaining a fictional universe. Yes, sometimes there are “surprises” that arise from a continuity shuffle. Stuff creators want to tease out. That’s fine, fans can accept that kind of delayed communication, as long as they know there’s a plan.
But resetting your timeline and then just expecting fans not to worry about it isn’t going to happen. If you want them to embrace your canon, you’d better know what it is yourself.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on June 15, 2016.