Reaching Your Limit: Retcon
Now, one of my jobs is working at a comic store. I enjoy my job; it gives me the chance to hear others’ complaints and praises for a medium I hold so dear. Not to mention the conversations. For instance, over the last few weeks there has been much talk about if the new Penance is the most “emo” superhero ever created. Seriously. Although, after World War III, I think Martian Manhunter may take the prize.
This past Wednesday, the subject of Jefferson Pierce, Black Lightning, came up. Seems some people are not happy with all the recent changes to the character’s history. Why create an unmentioned niece just to get her killed? More importantly, when did he get a daughter? And not just a daughter, but one old enough to graduate from college. It changes the character, ages him, and so on. I’ve heard similar complaints about Hush. Suddenly, Bruce Wayne’s closest childhood friend, who had never been mentioned in over half a century worth of comics, shows up and he’s a bad guy.
How are these changes possible? Retroactive Continuity. A writer sees some flexibility in a character’s history and, with a tweak and a wink, bam – Green Arrow knew the whole time about Conner. Bam – Parralax was an evil fear entity. Bam – Aunt May knew the whole time that Peter Parker was Spider-man. Let’s a take a look at some of it’s classical uses.
Retcon and Beginnings
When Dan Garret was bouncing around as Blue Beetle during the Fox/Charleton years, the Scarab was simply a mystical artifact found during a dig in Egypt. When Ted Kord was flying around as Blue Beetle, the Scarab was merely a memento left to him by his uncle. Well, weren’t we all in for a surprise when it turned out to be an alien artifact left on Earth. Now, a certain level of global technology reached, the Scarab has revealed powers that neither the two previous owners, nor their writers, could have possibly imagined.
There have been countless changes to a character’s origins, each trying to be the “origin” that everyone else will use. Power Girl and Hawkman are great examples of the ever-changing background. There are so many reasons behind these changes and usually, since they deal with the character’s very foundations, they are accepted without too much complaint.
Retcon And Death
I remember when Moon Knight died. Now, I wasn’t reading the comic then but I remember the top ten list that Wizard put out that month; the top ten thing overheard at Moon Knight’s funeral. Number Two was, “Oh my god! They killed Space Ghost. I can’t…Moon Knight? Who the heck is Moon Knight?” Remember, when Wizard used to be funny. However, Charlie Huston and David Finch say the Moon Knight never bought it saving the world from Seth. Instead, he wound up crippled from a fight with Bushwacker.
In some ways the retconning of death has become the most acceptable usage. Jean Grey’s body got shunted into Jamaica Bay. Hal Jordan recreated Oliver Queen’s body. This goes on and on. In some ways the ability to change a character’s final reckoning has made death, which should be so permanent, just another plot point.
Retcon and Everything In-Between
There is a lot of off panel time during a hero or villain’s career. It is this space, after the first time a character put on a cape and cowl but before the ion bomb disintegrated them, that some of the most controversial retcons occur. For instance, the above mentioned creation of Anissa Pierce falls into this category but there are other great family history changes. Barbara Gordon, the Pre-Crisis- daughter of Commissioner James Gordon. After the little jump it turns out that he never had a daughter, rather son. So where does Barbara come in? Oh, well the future Batgirl/Oracle is actually his niece, whom he adopted after her parents died. The son lives in Chicago with his mother, the Commissioner and his wife having divorced. Wait there is more. Turns out that Barbara may in fact be James’ daughter because of suddenly revealed, a.k.a retconned, affair with his brother’s wife. She’s had more parental changes than a Maurie Povitch episode.
Relationships can spring up left and right. Storm, the weather-controlling mutant, and Black Panther, the ruler of the nation of Wakanda, have been around for a while, 1975 and 1966 respectively. Now, in those many decades there have been two hints that two had a mutual past. Once in 1980’s Marvel Team-Up #100 and then twenty years later in Priest’s run on Black Panther. However, no where ever was it suggested that the two were actually childhood sweethearts whose love for each other had never died. I think Forge especially might have something to say on that subject. Still, Marvel wanted a 2005 wedding and so it was written. Lost love is a great motivation and so Elektra gets thrown into Matt Murdock’s college years.
So this bears the question: when does retcon stop working? When does it hit that point where a reader cannot accept it anymore? I think it’s a question of plausibility and precedent, and if either are broken then a retcon does not work. One of the most basic requirement of comics is a suspension of disbelief. We have to say, “Sure that person can ride clouds.” We are already in the mindset to believe things simply by opening the cover. So when it turns out that Validus is the son of Saturn Girl sent into the past, it might not be our favorite storyline but we are o.k. with the retcon.
Changes made to a character outside of the superhero world, such as could Jefferson Pierce have an off-comic daughter, are less plausible for us to just accept. We expect our heroes and villains to act like people, just people with powers. Jefferson Pierce, as he was written for a long, is not written like a man who has a child. Therefore, the creation of a daughter requires us to suspend our beliefs on in how he is as a person. After all, to buy him being married with a daughter, just once we would need to see him mention a family. Something he never does.
This brings me to precedence. There are traits and actions that lead us to accept certain revisions to a character’s history. Connor Hawke is a great example. Oliver Queen was established as a promiscuous man and one who could obviously have an illegitimate son. So when Connor shows up, I see no problems with this. When Brad Meltzer, during his “Archer’s Quest” arc, changed it so Ollie was thee for Connor’s birth, it was also believable. There has to be something in a character’s past, whether it’s actions or simply a single panel that establishes a change in a character’s continuity.
Retconning is kind of a great tool for the writer. It allows them to throw in story elements that they’ve always wanted to be there, to tell stories they’ve always wanted to tell. However, it is such a thin tightrope that it is easy to slip and fall. A writer has to be careful because, let me tell you, readers do not readily accept these changes. Lord knows I've heard about it.