Breaking the Shackles of Canon and Continuity

If canon/continuity are so integral to a story as to cause problems for its overall narrative, that story has more-than-likely been popular enough to run for years and years—think Doctor Who (which began in 1963), Star Trek (which began in 1966), Star Wars (which began in 1977) and the innumerable titles populating the stables of Marvel and DC comics. However, this longevity can also be a curse, because series such as these involve multiple writers who must adhere to the already-established canon/continuity to avoid contradicting previous events, character developments and interpersonal relationships. When a series has been running for more than fifty-years, as is the case with Doctor Who and Star Trek, this is no mean feat; when it’s been running for more than seventy-years, as is the case with Batman and Superman, this is almost impossible.

Once, such considerations weren’t given much weight as the artforms they primarily relate to—TV shows and comics—were viewed as somewhat unworthy of logical/narrative consistency. But with many examples of them now elevated to the status of to ‘high’ art, and with science fiction begetting an ever-more-obsessive fan base eager to pore over canon/continuity, this is no longer the case. How then do writers contribute to the continuation of a series without contradicting what has come before? While there are numerous different ways that they can do so, only two are really successful: the creation of prequels, and self-referentially tackling such contradictions head-on.

Most of the major long-running series have featured prequels. Being set prior to the already-established canon/continuity of a series, they allow an exploration of it without a rigid adherence to what has come before, opening up new narrative avenues for the characters and tropes that populate them and often allowing a change in perspective on the canon/continuity that follows.

For example, the Star Wars prequel series (1999-2005) helps explain how the bloated bureaucracy of the galactic senate and the inflexible attitudes of the Jedi left both wide open to their eventual demise, and thus gives context to Emperor Palpatine’s rule in the original trilogy. Another example lies in the TV show Gotham (2014-2019), which acts as a prequel to Batman. Beginning with the murder of 12-year-old Bruce Wayne’s parents, and centred on the character of Detective Jim Gordon (who would later become Batman’s ally as Gotham’s police commissioner), it details the corruption permeating Gotham’s institutions, explaining why Batman’s eventual presence in the city was both justified and necessary.

However, while their very nature seems to preclude prequels from contradictions of canon/continuity, a problem still arises: prequels still have to remain logically and narratively consistent with the already-established events, character developments and interpersonal relationships of the series they precede. While this problem might seem self-evident and thus entirely avoidable, it occurs nonetheless, with Gotham providing one of the best examples.

In their desire to emphasise the city’s corrupt nature as a justification for Batman’s existence, its creators embody this corruption in numerous classic Batman villains, including the Penguin, the Riddler, Zsasz and the Joker. This is where Gotham stumbles, as although it’s never really stated explicitly, most of Batman’s villains are canonically depicted as roughly the same age as him. In Gotham, though, these villains appear much older than the young Bruce Wayne of the series: the Joker appears to be in his late teens, while the Penguin, the Riddler and Zsasz appear to be twenty-somethings, creating obvious contradictions of canon/continuity.

There is an easy fix for these problems: don’t include such characters in the first place. Unfortunately, because prequels are often considered the ‘poor cousin’ of the series they precede, many of their creators seem to exhibit something of an inferiority complex and therefore include characters and tropes from said series as a way of burnishing their credentials, no matter the contradictions of canon/continuity that ensue—think Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery (2017-2020), who is Spock’s adoptive sister but is never mentioned in the original series, or the inclusion of the Death Star plans at the end of the final Star Wars prequel (why did it take the Empire twenty-or-so years to build the first one, but only four or five to build the second?). However, when they are handled confidently via their creators resisting temptation, prequels can be a satisfying storytelling device that allow fresh perspectives on the already-established characters, tropes and canon/continuity of the series that they precede.

Comics are the primary artform that self-referentially tackle contradictions of canon/continuity head-on, because many comic-book characters have been around for a very long time and thus have a vast bulk of content in their canon/continuity. Unlike a film series, whereby a new instalment might only be released every three or four years or even longer, or a TV series that only consists of a dozen or so episodes per season, a typical comic features a monthly instalment year after year after year (and that’s without taking into account one-off specials, crossovers or limited-release ‘event’ instalments).

How then does a writer keep track of all this canon/continuity? How do they resolve any contradictions therein? There are myriad answers to these questions, but Warren Ellis’ Batman/Planetary crossover and Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? have addressed them in fascinating and intellectually satisfying ways that can be applied to every other long-running comic series.

In his Batman/Planetary crossover, Ellis repurposes an age-old comic trope—the multiverse—to resolve the various contradictions of canon/continuity in the Batman series. Traditionally, the multiverse is used in comics to deliver alternate versions of established characters: a Superman who was raised in Russia rather than the United States, a Batman who is actually a vampire, a Spiderman who is an Afro-Latino teenager from Brooklyn, and so on. However, such versions typically don’t have any lasting relationship to their ‘real’ counterparts. In Batman/Planetary crossover, though, the multiverse ties together numerous alternate and ‘real’ versions of Batman as a way of reconciling contradictions of canon/continuity throughout the entire series.

In brief: the Gotham City of Planetary has no Batman, and so when a killer whose methods defy description shows up there, the Planetary team are called in to apprehend him. Upon arrival, they immediately realise that the killer has a superhuman capability; specifically, his powers cause a “partial multiversal collapse” in which “multiple Earths occupy the same space,” with disastrous consequences for anyone caught in the vicinity. In effect, whenever the killer uses his powers in Gotham City, his immediate surroundings are overwritten by different multiversal ‘versions’ which are protected by different multiversal versions of Batman. These versions aren’t just alternates, though: alongside versions representing Adam West’s portrayal from the 1960s’ TV show and Frank Miller’s version from The Dark Knight Returns, versions roughly analogous to those from different eras of the comic also appear, including a then-current version wearing the then-current costume, a brooding version evoking his depiction by artist Neal Adams in the early-to-mid 1970s, and a gun-toting version evocative of the original created by Bob Kane.

By depicting each ‘real’ and ‘alternate’ version as originating from a different multiverse, Ellis is offering one solution to the contradictions of canon/continuity in Batman: they’re actually just a matter of perspective. Here, rather than a single line running from 1939 to the present, Batman instead consists of a series of parallel histories existing independently of each other which we only see as a straight line because of our familiarity with his tropes, origin story and rogues’ gallery, and because each individual ‘history’ is released under the Batman title. Thus, without a single contradiction, Batman can simultaneously be a gun-toting young man and a fascistic old man who disdains guns and every version in-between.

Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? takes a very different approach regarding contradictions of canon/continuity in Batman. Revolving around a funeral for Batman attended by friends, foes and Batman’s disembodied spirit, it features a series of eulogies by said friends and foes that contradict each other: Catwoman describes how he died in her arms after being shot by a mugger, Batwoman relates how he died sacrificing himself for the city, Alfred tells of how he and some of his friends created and portrayed Batman’s rogues’ gallery as a method of staving off Batman’s depression, the Joker talks of his own depression after succeeding in killing Batman, and so on.

As the eulogies draw to a close, Batman’s disembodied spirit leaves the funeral, instantaneously finding itself in a shadowy room with his dead mother, who asks him if he has learned anything from his confusing funeral. He replies:

“I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what the story is, some things never change. I protect the city. I rescue people. I investigate crimes. I guard the innocent. I correct the guilty. I fight until I drop, and one day, I will drop.”

What follows this monologue is the revelation that each time Batman dies, rather than move on to the hereafter he is instead reborn as the baby Bruce Wayne and enjoys a childhood with his parents before they are yet again gunned down in Crime Alley, precipitating his transformation into Batman. And with this revelation, Gaiman offers another solution to the contradictions of canon/continuity in Batman: his history is cyclic, not linear. In this way, the reason why multiple contradictory versions of Batman can exist is that each version is the ‘pivot’ around which each particular cycle revolves, and that we once more only see Batman’s history as linear because of our familiarity with his tropes, origin story and rogues’ gallery, as well as the fact that each cycle is released under the Batman title.

In the end, it is a rather tragic explanation for the contradictions of canon/continuity in Batman, for he is destined to eternally experience a cyclic existence in which he enjoys a few years of happiness before a shocking act of violence irrevocably changes the rest of his life.

There are also other ways of confronting contradictions of canon/continuity, such as ‘retcons’ (retroactive-continuity) and ‘break events.’ Examples of both can be found in the rebooted seasons of Doctor Who.

Firstly, because its earlier series ran for such a long time, when it was rebooted in 2005 the BBC needed something to ‘break’ the Doctor free of the past in order to attract new viewers unfamiliar with the prior canon/continuity. They settled on the Time War, an off-screen event in which every other Time Lord and all the Daleks were killed and in which Gallifrey itself was destroyed, effectively eliminating many of the tropes that gave rise to the Doctor’s canon/continuity. However, while this device was initially successful, the growing desire of the show’s writers to see classic pre-2005 tropes reintroduced negated this success, as they needed to be contextualised and explained, an impossible feat without reference to what had come before.

The problems with retcons can be seen in the 2019 series finale, which explained the Doctor’s recent groundbreaking regeneration into a woman—prior to this, the Doctor had only ever been portrayed by a man, with the assumption that Time Lords/Gallifreyans never changed gender when they regenerated. To resolve this contradiction, the finale revealed that rather than a native-born Time Lord/Gallifreyan, the Doctor was actually an abandoned alien that the early Gallifreyans had found and brought back to their planet, with his/her biology being the basis for Time Lord regeneration; furthermore, a series of flashbacks showed both male and female incarnations of the Doctor preceding the ‘first’ Doctor, a consequence of the Doctor’s non- Gallifreyan origins.

This new information retroactively changed the Doctor’s canon/continuity, explaining why he had regenerated into a she and leaving the assumption that it was purely coincidental that incarnations one-through-twelve were male. The problem here, as with so many other retcons in so many other series, is that such an explanation can be seen as a pat resolution to these contradictions of canon/continuity and requires a leap of faith on the part of the audience, two issues that often create more problems than they solve.

As is now obvious, techniques such as these ultimately prove to be either unsatisfactory or little more than quick fixes, leaving the creation of prequels, and self-referentially tackling them head-on, as the only real ways of successfully confronting contradictions of canon/continuity.

(Originally published in Aurealis #142, July 2021)


One thought on “Breaking the Shackles of Canon and Continuity”

  1. Wow! I enjoyed this impressive article tremendously! Thank you for your work, and for posting it. (I haven’t had access to Aurelius for a while, so reading it here is wonderful.)

    I’ve been reading around in Lawrence Weschler’s project, All that is Solid: A Taxonomy of Convergences. Your excellent analysis seems to me to stride a road in and out of a couple of his categories, possibly shouldering them aside with your essay’s clarity. A fresh take.


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