Comics, Opinion

Mighty Marvel Monday: All-New, All-Different Continuity

Friendly reminder that the second season of Daredevil will debut this Friday on Netflix. I am very grateful that it’s this weekend and not next weekend, since next weekend is Wondercon. As with Jessica Jones’ release, I’m anticipating linking the best articles I can find that can be written in 24 hours. 

Until then, I leave you with this uniform porn promotional tweet. 

Also, WWAC is starting a new semi-regular feature looking at Women, queer, and POC creators. Today’s post looks at Marvel, so make sure to check that outBut this week, in the absence of any scandals, and in light of the previews and promotional artwork that’s come out this past week, I’m excited to take the opportunity to refocus on Marvel comics, and our new continuity. Which is the same as the old continuity. Maybe.

Comics is a medium, not a genre. But superheroes comics are a genre, not a medium, and long running superhero serials are a very specific kind of genre, for which the word continuity holds something of a different meaning than it would in other genres, or even in other media. As far as I (and Wikipedia) are aware, superhero serial comics were the first fictional narrative to employ retroactive continuity not just as a noun but as a verb. Continuity wasn’t just the agreed upon canon. Continuity was something that could be created, or destroyed, as needed.

That the meaning of continuity can change is important; precedential, because I think that in this age of reboots, what continuity in long running superhero serial comics means has changed again, or at the very least expanded. What do we mean when we use the word continuity? What do we mean when we use the word reboot? I’ve been interrogating this idea for awhile now, ever since Secret Wars and the All-New, All-Different reboot of the Marvel universe, as someone whose goal is to get as many people to read and enjoy Marvel comics. How do I explain what All-New, All-Different is to people who have never read comics before? Why do I even have to?

People mocked DC comics Rebirth announcement that “it’s not a reboot, and it never was,” but that is nearly exactly what Axel Alonso described All-New, All-Different as.

“This is not a reboot,” Alonso told CBR. “We are not erasing our history, or throwing away any old stories; we are building on our history.

Or, to be more accurate–two histories. The conflict in Secret Wars is that of the 616 Marvel Universe and 1610 Ultimate Marvel Universe colliding, and the resulting All-New, All-Different Marvel Universe is its aftermath. A more accurate analogy than Alsono’s infamous pizza analogy alluded to in that same interview would be that of a merger, in the corporate sense. For some, I suspect they would add the phrase hostile takeover. It’s taken me a long time (nearly a year) to wrap my head around what it means, but above everything, All-New, All-Different is a story about branding.

It’s not a coincidence that Sue Storm, and her children, Franklin and Valeria, were killed in Secret Wars #1. This was May 2015, the same week the final issue of Fantastic Four ( #645) was released. That’s a very on-brand message for Marvel at the time, with the impending release of the Fantastic Four movie from Fox that did not do well, to say the least. But it’s not just the cinematic battle playing out in Secret Wars. The Ultimate brand was where some of the more progressive Marvel moves came from. It’s in Ultimate verse we first saw Nick Fury as a black man, which was later adopted into the MCU. It’s where Miles Morales came from. It’s where my precious Big Gay Colossus is from. It’s also where Marvel editor Sana Amanat started.

The battle in the battleworld of Secret Wars is also a battle of continuity. It’s a narrative answer to the practical question of whether you can really have both continuities (Ultimate and 616) existing simultaneously. And because it’s written by Jonathan Hickman, it’s chock full of Fantastic Four goodness. It’s a story that for once, I’m glad I waited until it was finished to read it, because the changes resulting from the All-New, All-Different merger are something you can’t really see when you’re inside of it. It was messy and confusing and I kept waiting for it to end so that I could figure out where to begin. With Black Knight being the first title cancelled last month, it seems as though the endings have begun, which seems as good a place as any to figure out what the hell is going on.

Actually me when I looked at the All-New, All-Different titles.

Actually me when I looked at the All-New, All-Different titles.

It’s my belief that continuity in superhero comics genres (and specifically the long running serial superhero comics in the Marvel/DC mode) is an engagement mechanism to trigger narrative desire.

Let me explain. In my grad school days, I took a course on Literary Theory and Pop Culture, and this concept of narrative desire is basically the psychological rationale behind what “hooks” people on a particular text (meaning comic, tv show, book, etc.). Peter Brooks’ Reading for the Plot was one of our required texts for the course, and it’s really from his theorizing about narrative desire that I’m viewing the function of continuity in long running superhero serial comics. Part of Brooks’ basic argument is that we are driven psychologically to read because we need to make sense out of chaos. Our brains just aren’t happy if we don’t. Confusion sells. It’s why in medias res is one of the oldest narrative tricks in the book and why Lost stayed on the air for as long as it did.

The challenge for the writer is to figure out how to keep us reading without dragging out the chaos for too long, or resolving the chaos in an unsatisfying way. (That’s why deus ex machina is also still around, and still generally unsatisfying) Since some literary theory and narrative theory is based off of psychoanalysis, with the concepts of Freud, Lacan, and the other psychoanalysts, applied to the reader (in lieu of a patient), a lot of the discussion surrounding narrative desire (indeed, the name itself) is couched in the language of eroticism, with good storytelling being like a having extremely satisfying sex with a good partner, psychologically speaking, and bad storytelling being the mental equivalent of having your partner finding their own satisfaction, rolling over in bed, and then asking “was it good for you?” One of these approaches  is all about the reader’s satisfaction (and ideally, the reader and writer’s mutual satisfaction), while the latter approach is all about the writer pleasing himself (and sometimes, no one is pleased at all).

Marvel continuity is a giant puzzle of narrative desire, and readers are responsible for finding their own satisfaction. We have to. Or we stop reading. We make sense of the chaos through the comics that we read, but also, inevitably, through the people around us, since it’s logistically difficult (if not impossible) to read every comic ever written in order, and also an intellectual strain to have to make sense of all that we’ve read. Marvel and DC have the worst information architecture that relies heavily on fans creating wikis and other websites, and also on the communal oral tradition of comics. It’s a group effort. And it’s not a coincidence that when people talk about how they first started reading comics so often other people are involved in the process.

But I’ve run a little far afield. The purpose of this week’s Mighty Marvel Monday is to begin making sense of continuity in the All-New, All-Different Marvel universe now that we’re several months in, and now that we’re starting to see promotional artwork for the upcoming Civil War II.

Marvel also continues to roll out new series and new promos with that series. This past week, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about what it was like to write Black Panther #1, and shared some preview pages in preparation for its debut next month. He’s also been tweeting about the process and sharing more behind-the-scenes stories.

I’ve been following Coates’ posts about this on The Atlantic and twitter, and appreciate his candidness about the process, and general tone of appreciation and optimism. I hope his good humor sticks around post-release. I’ve never read a Black Panther comic in my life, though I am familiar with the character thanks to his appearances with the Fantastic Four, but everything I read makes me more excited for it.

My friend asked me the other day if she’d have to read any other Marvel titles in order to understand Black Panther, and it got me thinking. Would Black Panther be a good comic if it was intended to be read by people who only want to read Black Panther and not any other titles? And by that same measure, would Black Panther be a good comic if it was intended to be read by people who are reading all of Marvel’s current lineup? I don’t know if there are any of those people out there, to be honest. I feel like most of the people (myself included) read a few titles and ignore the rest, not necessarily out of disdain, but simply for financial reasons.

I don’t want to be punished for my fiscal responsibility. Fans of the tv show The Vampire Diaries aren’t punished for not watching The Originals, or vice versa. The two shows share the same universe, and many of the same characters, but they still function as separate shows. However, I don’t want too much separation, either. (I was trying to think of a television spinoff show that decided to ignore all the continuity of the original, but coming up blank. If you think of one, let me know.)  In this same way, a good comic in this genre (long running serial superhero comics) is one that doesn’t require you to read any other titles in order to understand the narrative within it–but it makes you want to. These days, with reboots, renamings, renumberings, and cancellations (RIP Fantastic Four) there are no more originals.

What we do have is All-New, All-Different. So where do you start?

 

Well, I’m starting alphabetically.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be going through the All-New, All-Different titles and reading them (and reviewing them) using this question of continuity. A-Force through Weirdworld

 

ICYMI

 

The Captain America: Civil War press machine is in full force even though we’re still almost two months away from the release. On Thursday, Buzzfeed and Tumblr hosted a real time Q&A with Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, Robert Downey Jr, Chadwick Boseman, and the Russo brothers, and although this one might be my favorite, all of the answers are worth reading.

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  1. snotboogie

    March 26, 2016 at 8:36 pm

    Trapper M.D. more or less ignored MASH the show and Trapper was the only character from that show involved. He says something about Hawkeye in the pilot when waking up from a dream but that’s pretty much it. Show stood on its own.

    1. Kate Tanski

      March 27, 2016 at 1:23 pm

      Thanks for the example–another friend of mine mentioned the relationship that Facts of Life had to Different Strokes, so the fact that this was common practice in the 80s makes me wonder if there’s a generational element in terms of those under 40 expecting more from their spinoff continuity than a one-liner.

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