Title aside, this column is not about accidentally killing anyone. We'll tackle that topic right before the column on "where's a good place to bury the bodies?" No, this topic is one suggested by another of my faithful readers (of which I suspect there are five, excluding myself, my girlfriend and my dog - no, he doesn't read them, but I make him look at the screen until he wags his tail in approval - he's my editor) and the topic is continuity. In comic books.
There is a fine line between respecting continuity (making sure the character you are using isn't dead) and obsessing about it. (fans wondering whether Barry Allen's characterization in JLA: Year One is ruined because he doesn't have a crewcut. I am not making this up.) Much brou-hah-hah was created on Usenet when the Paul Kupperberg-edited Flash #134 came out. It was a terrific story, possibly the best Flash story I have read since "The Return of Barry Allen." It dealt with Jay Garrick and his old enemy, the Thinker, and Jay's attempts to recover the Thinker's helmet to save his old foe from dying of cancer. There was just one problem...
He was already way too late. The Thinker had been killed (in a story Kupperberg wrote) in a Doom Patrol/Suicide Squad special. Yet there he was, alive and kicking, in Flash #134. Did it bother me? Not particularly, I assumed that the Thinker killed in DP/SS must have been someone else. Besides, the story was excellent.
But...it is a rare level of story that continuity can be discarded so easily. Byrne thinks he's writing these kinds of stories, because he disregards continuity left and right. This is why I no longer read John Byrne. DC and Marvel have a history. Working there means working in a rich, shared universe with traditions and history going back to the 1960s and before. You cannot trade off the popularity of this history while simultaneously discarding whichever parts you find inconvenient. If readers know that the next issue of Wonder Woman, their favorite story in Superman could be rendered imaginary, they're going to have less emotional attachment to stories they're reading.
Stories should build on the past, or else you wind up with the problem comic-book movies have, having to re-establish everything everytime because there is no history that is known. If Superman killed the Phantom Zone criminals in a previous issue of the title, you can reference that when you need to explain why he doesn't kill. If he didn't, or if it's been retconned, you have to spend valuable story time in that issue to create those scenes. It slows down storytelling considerably if there isn't a history there.
What it comes down to is, anyone can create good characters. Kirby and Lee were good, but they weren't untouchable. But there's a sense of real history with DC and Marvel characters, because they actually *have* grown and had adventures for 30-odd years. You can't use that when it's helpful and discard it when it's inconvenient. I much prefer my characters with their history as intact as possible.
Randy W. Lander
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