Comic Book Continuity
January 2, 2010 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Comic book nerds! Please help me to understand continuity as it stands now in the DC and Marvel Universes.

I grew up on the comics of the 70s, 80s, and very early 90s and continuity seemed to be a pretty straightforward deal. I fell out of reading comics and seem to remember that at some point at Marvel they started some comics over at #1. My question is this: Is there still continuity with the DC/Marvel comics of the 70s/80s/90s or has there been a radical shift and there is a new continuity? I'm aware they are two different companies so it might be different with both.
posted by josher71 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Marvel continuity, though convoluted, is consistent from the 60s through today. Sure there are lots of continuity errors but no grand reboots.

Now the restarting at #1 for Marvel, you're probably thinking of the great line relaunch in the 90s which took place after the Onslaught crossover event where some characters went into a "pocket universe" and only lasted for about a year.

After Onslaught they also started issue numbers over at #1, but slowly those numbers transitioned back to the common numbers. In Amazing Spider-Man as it neared 600 (I think it was 600) they'd put both numbers on the cover, and then when it hit 600 the "renmbering" was just abandoned.

Now there is the "ultimate" Marvel universe which is totally separate. In the 90s they rebooted every franchise in an "alternate universe" with more "realistic" storylines and new continuity that repeatedly paid homage to the primary Marvel universe but was its own deal. This is an ongoing, parallel universe to the regular Marvel universe and Marvel EIC Joe Quesada has said that the two universes will not crossover, saying if they ever do "we have officially run out of story ideas".

So that's Marvel, where I spend most of my time. DC...that's a mess. They keep rebooting everything through Crisis on Infinite Earths and the like, but then some new authors don't follow the rules set and go back to old rules sounds to me really convoluted and headache inducing. But all of my knowledge of it comes from this Wiki article

So someone else may be able to shed more light on that.
posted by arniec at 8:35 AM on January 2, 2010

There was actually kind of a 'bubble' in comic books in the 1990s, both in sales and in the value of the books. People noticed that historically, major events were worth more so it seems like we had 'event inflation' where comic book companies would crap out 'events' every few months. I think Onslaught was about where I gave up on comics, it seemed like it was just a few months after some other "major" event in the marvel universe, at least with X-men. I also thought they were getting too expensive. When I started collecting it seemed like they were about $1.00 to $1.25. At the end I think they were like $3.50 or something.

Maybe things have calmed down since then.
posted by delmoi at 9:31 AM on January 2, 2010

Brief DC answer: well, we have the parallel universes back again, sort of. The Batfamily is still there, but has evolved in ways that might either shock you or have you smiling with glee. Superman and the kriptonians have turned into a Second Cold War issue that is boring me to tears. The Flashes are ALL back, and I can't be bothered to make sense of any of their lives anymore. The Green Lantern part of the continuity, now there's the big win IMHO. Other corps, the War of Light, the Blackest Night, I haven't been this entertained by superhero (well, they are supercops, no?) stuff in a long, long time. JLA/JSA/whatever is on the other hand dreadful right now.
posted by Iosephus at 9:40 AM on January 2, 2010

(Being clearer: GL is probably unrecognizable for you, but definitely very worth putting the time to get on track. JLA/JSA/etc you will probably understand from any random issue you pick, but that's probably the problem, I might guess. And I forgot: all the Apokolips/New Genesis stuff is gone, gone, gone. Will not spoil the how of it for you, but read around Final Crisis, which is pretty good by itself but had some horrible tie-ins.)
posted by Iosephus at 10:04 AM on January 2, 2010

I'd like to expand a little on what the others have said, and separate out "why some comics restarted at #1" from "what's the current status of continuity".

The real reason why most of the comics titles that have restarted at #1 have done so comes down to one thing: they sell better. The readership of the Big Two superhero comics publishers, Marvel and DC (Big Three if you want to include Image, which formed when several of the most popular Marvel artist/writers formed their own company), has shrunk considerably from previous years, but the remaining readers tend to be the hard-core ones who will, for example, buy multiple copies of the same issue because they have different covers--even if the "variant" cover is just an uninked, uncolored version of the "main" cover--either in the hope that the more rare variant covers will become more valuable in the future (this sort of speculation was pretty much burst in the 90s, but short memories &c.), or out of some obsessive-compulsive desire to have a "complete" collection of the title's run. Re-starting a title's run at #1 not only tends to encourage the speculators to buy multiple copies, but also--in theory, at least--encourages new readers who may have been daunted by years or decades of in-title continuity to jump on the title; quite often, the new #1 is a new start for the title, either in terms of having a new character take over the role of the superhero, a new writer and/or artist who promise to take the book in a radical new direction, or some other ostensible reason for renumbering, such as resetting continuity. These books almost always get a corresponding sales bump that may double or even triple the book's circulation for a while, and that bump will almost always return to the status quo once the readers discover that it's really just business as usual, the hot new writer or artist leave the title, and so on. At any rate, as far as continuity is concerned, most of these neo-#1s fall into three categories:

1) Official continuity resets/reboots (mostly in DC, since they've reset their continuity so many times--in Crisis on Infinite Earths, Infinite Crisis (a sequel to the previous series that tried to fix many of the problems that it created), and Zero Hour. These have involved plots that are cosmic in scope--they literally rewrite the entire universe--and are usually meant to simplify continuity, either by removing inconsistencies in characters' backgrounds or restarting a character's backstory from scratch. (Both Superman and Wonder Woman got the latter treatment after the first Crisis.) The problem with this approach is that fans who don't care that much about continuity generally wonder why it's necessary in the first place, and fans that do care usually find new problems with continuity.

2) Parallel universes/alternative realities. Again, this was started by DC; after they recreated characters like the Flash and Green Lantern with new secret identities and origins, they retconned an explanation for the change: the previous characters had, and still were, having their adventures in a parallel dimension, thereafter referred to as "Earth-2"; the two dimensions would eventually have regular crossovers. Marvel picked up the concept a few years later with a dimension in which the Squadron Supreme, a very-thinly disguised version of DC's Justice League of America, existed, and eventually had a regular series called What If? with one-off stories of, for example, what would have happened if Spider-Man had joined the Fantastic Four (DC had had a similar conceit for years with its explicitly out-of-continuity "Imaginary Stories", although without the parallel-universe explanation.) Marvel eventually spun off a number of alternate continuities, starting with the post-Onslaught "Heroes Reborn" project that ultimately failed and the Ultimate universe which is still going strong, as well as other comics lines (Marvel Knights, MAX, the younger-readers Marvel Adventures, and others) which take place outside regular Marvel continuity, as well as eXiles, which is basically the TV show Sliders with random versions of X-Men characters.

3) Just because: as I described above, sometimes a title is restarted and renumbered because it comes to the end of a storyline or "era" and would make a logical jumping-on point. Probably the best example of this would be the Avengers, which ended a 500+ issue run (although, confusingly, it had also been restarted-at-#1 previously before reverting to the original numbering so that they could have an official issue #500) with several of the members being killed and the Avengers officially disbanding, before forming the New Avengers, which included Wolverine and Spider-Man--the former being (officially) an antisocial type who already had a hand in several X-Men books, and the latter having been either turned down or rejected for Avengers membership more than once--officially because Joe Quesada thought that Marvel should have its own version of the Justice League, and unofficially because Wolverine and Spider-Man were Marvel's most popular characters and would give the series a sales boost (which they did).

Hope this clears things up, a little.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:11 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Aaaaand I need to clarify a little: the titles that fall under #3 above are still officially in continuity.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:13 PM on January 2, 2010

There was a complete stop of old continuity in a break away plot with both companies. Then new continuity in both.

The new continuity is fluid. Things are written and then rewritten and then changed because of marketability, mistake, whims of the current writer, or because it's windy on Tuesday and Wendy's frosty machine was broke.
posted by FunkyHelix at 1:15 PM on January 2, 2010

Just to clarify your question: Is it that you're looking to get back into comics, and you're afraid the continuity will make them impossible to read?

Because one thing that has definitely improved from the 80's/90's is that most "mainstream" comics (at least, in my humble nerd opinion) are now going to greater lengths to catch people up. From a business standpoint, requiring knowledge of 30+ years of continuity has shut out a LOT of potential markets, and around the same time the Marvel movies started to take off (Spider-Man, more recently Iron Man), Marvel has take a few steps to make its comics easier to jump into. For example, every single "flagship" Marvel comic (maybe all of them, but I haven't kept up with all the books) has a summary on the inside front cover of every issue. So you can pick up any ol' issue in the store and immediately be up to speed. I don't know if DC is doing something similar.

Anyway, if you're interested in jumping back into comics, I'd recommend starting at a bookstore and getting one of the recent trade paperbacks, like Dark Reign or (few years back) Civil War. Those are complete mini-arcs, and you'll after paging through one you'll get a sense for what characters you'd like to follow. Then it's a matter of hitting the regular issues until you find a writer you like - a lot of writers openly "own" their runs in a way that wasn't common a few decades back, and there are a number of celebrity writers who've gotten into the game (like Joss Whedon's run on Astonishing X-Men, and Kevin Smith's Daredevil arc back in the early 2000's).

Good luck, and let us know how everything goes!
posted by ®@ at 2:56 PM on January 2, 2010

Another thing about the trade paperbacks, most comics these days are written for the trades. Most stories are written in arcs, with fewer one-off stories, with the idea that they can be collected and sold in trade form. With that in mind, do head down to the bookstore to check them out.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:16 PM on January 2, 2010

Response by poster: I actually am still reading the trades (Planet Hulk, Civil War etc...) I was mostly just wondering if these stories were now something totally new or if, no, this is the same Hulk that fought Doc Samson, or the Iron Man that had the armor wars etc...
posted by josher71 at 4:58 PM on January 2, 2010

I actually am still reading the trades (Planet Hulk, Civil War etc...) I was mostly just wondering if these stories were now something totally new or if, no, this is the same Hulk that fought Doc Samson, or the Iron Man that had the armor wars etc...

Oooh, good question. These are the same characters, but for Marvel you won't find previous continuity referenced past a five year span or so. House of M...Civil War...those things definitely happened, but most of the universe changes that resulted have played themselves out and/or are rarely referenced.

Go further back than that, and odds are the storylines you're reading have already been retconned or rendered inert by subsequent changes.

In a sense, this makes the current batch of Marvel comics a LOT easier for the casual reader to pick up, but on the other sense, you get a lot of repeating stories. So much so that the X-Men and Spider-Man lines have become pretty stale.
posted by greenland at 9:15 PM on January 2, 2010

Response by poster: Greenland, does this mean that, in effect, there is no continuity with what happened more than five years previously?
posted by josher71 at 7:54 AM on January 3, 2010

No, that continuity is still valid and those events still happened in the Marvel universe. It's just that Marvel's comics, these days, don't really bother to build on or reference that continuity.

Oh, and actually, I should tell you that Spider-Man is the exception here in that he DID recently have some of his continuity wiped out. We just don't really know which parts, except that it caused him and MJ to never get married. Ironically, this was done so continuity-free Spider-man stories could be told. (And for the most part, this is holding up. You can pick up any Spider-Man issue any time and jump in to the story pretty easily.)
posted by greenland at 11:03 PM on January 9, 2010

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