In the eight decades or so of American comic books, finding obscure things in dark corners to dust off and reinvent has become an industry unto itself. Indeed, one of the first known printed uses of the term “retroactive continuity” (more commonly “retcon”) comes from writer Roy Thomas in All-Star Squadron Vol. 1 (cover date February 1983), which referred to that book’s re-imagining of Earth-2’s fictional history. Comics have the luxury of stopping and starting their continuity at will, with DC and Marvel both twisting timelines to suit their evolving narratives. DC Comics rebooted their entire universe to write new chapters with old characters, while Marvel just recently revealed hitherto unknown facts about Bobby “Iceman” Drake’s sexuality as part of a wider time travel thread in X-Men. Likewise, comic books are free to pause the main story to drop in previously unknown facts or character biographies, and Brian K. Vaughan has become a master of this technique, leaving us hanging for months in Image’s Saga, only to return with a slice of character history that makes the story that much richer, even if it deliberately frustrates.
Comic book television, on the other hand, is playing with a different set of rules. It doesn’t come burdened with decades of history, but in some cases it has to at least acknowledge that it exists. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. exists within the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while it can’t go into some corners for fear of contradicting upcoming big screen ventures. By the same token, it does have the luxury of dozens of episodes a year to tell character-based stories, and frequently does. Yet for the most part they are operating in their own continuity, and the way they explore those dusty corners is just as telling about the strengths and weaknesses of comic book narratives as it is about the limitations and advantages of television as well. Here, four recent examples from TV illustrate how the medium of television has dealt with those narrative pauses to elucidate some exposition, and whether that has been at the expense of the show.
The CW’s Arrow, a loose but increasingly faithful adaptation of DC’s Green Arrow, began as an exemplar of this kind of storytelling (for better or for worse) in its first season. Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) returns to his native Starling City after spending five years on a “hellish island,” after which he becomes the hooded vigilante known variously as the Hood/Vigilante/The Arrow/Green Arrow as the show progresses. Those flashbacks were used to unfurl a mystery, at least at first, with most episodes peeling back a piece of time spent on the island to show us how Ollie went from pampered rich kid, to a deadly tattooed man with a bow. It initially made sense for the show, as it managed to deal with stories that the Green Arrow comics had discreetly partitioned off into standalone tales (Green Arrow: Year One and Green Arrow: The Wonder Year to name a few) without overburdening the audience with exposition in the pilot. However, as the series went on, it faltered when it felt obligated to keep using those flashbacks, and an adherence to the comic book structure hampered forward momentum. By the third season, the strain on the flashback motif was really cramping believability. It’s one thing to acknowledge that Ollie left the island during that time, but missions to Hong Kong and a return to Starling City years before the main storyline pushed credibility to the point of breaking. Having said that, the existence of this technique within the show’s infrastructure allowed the cameo of John Constantine (Matt Ryan) from NBC’s cancelled show to appear both in Ollie’s past and present, providing a complex (if somewhat rushed) relationship to unfurl for the sake of fanservice.
The Walking Dead hasn’t always been strictly faithful to the comic books that inspired it, but this sixth season has promised to be more faithful than ever. It’s certainly adhering to the aforementioned form. In a show that’s notorious for killing off beloved characters, the third episode of the current season ended with the apparent death of one of the original cast members. Two episodes later and there was still no resolution to that, but how the show dealt with the aftermath was to take a leaf out of Saga’s book. In a beautiful episode penned by showrunner Scott M. Gimple, ‘Here’s Not Here’ is almost entirely a flashback episode showing the recently returned Morgan’s (Lennie James) life before reuniting with Rick and his crew. The main cast are entirely absent from the episode, as we learn of Morgan’s mental breakdown following the accidental burning of his house. It’s an entirely introspective piece, as he encounters the former forensic psychiatrist Eastman (John Carroll Lynch) in the woods. Passing on his own practice of the philosophical martial art akido, the episode ultimate shows us how Morgan got to a physical and mental space to be able to join up with Rick’s group. Yet in a season that’s also seen some violently rude awakenings for several characters, it was a return to the original core message of the series, reminding us what humanity looks like in the face of overwhelming adversity. By allowing the show this time to breathe, it deliberately puts the hand-brake on the massive momentum the show had built up in just three episodes, controlling the pace and the speed at which information is delivered, artificially creating the same monthly gap that comic readers have to patiently wait through.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pulled a similar trick around the same time as The Walking Dead, giving a laser focus to Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) in the third season episode ‘4,722 Hours’. Referring to the amount of time the character spent on an alien world after being sucked through a portal at the end of the second season, it also follows an episode that ended with the apparent death of supporting character Andrew Garner (Blair Underwood). Without pausing for breath, the Craig Titley script launches us directly into the moments after Simmons arrived on the planet, and scarcely leaves her side for the duration. Like the Ridley Scott’s recent cinematic outing The Martian, it’s a triumph in human survival and scientific methodology. Like The Walking Dead episode, we watch Simmons come to a place of mental awareness, and when a new character pops up unexpectedly, the episode is structured in such a way that the audience is immediately dubious as well. In this case, it fills in a massive gap and changes the direction of the season for several characters, and was so powerful that we never miss the rest of the cast for a beat until one of them turns up in an epilogue moment.
This brings us to the problematic Gotham, which is effectively one long flashback series in the life of Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne. Like Smallville before it, Gotham has a fixed end point, one that even the most casual viewer will be at least aware of. Unlike the other shows mentioned here, this flashback motif hasn’t necessarily been used to give us new information, more often than not it simply takes the form of a sly wink to the audience to remind us that this character will eventually be Catwoman, or another one will go on to become one of Gotham’s greatest champions. It’s actually hamstrung by being a prequel, and unless something changes rapidly, it can only take us up to the point of the Batman universe before dragging it back again. A recent example of this is the character of Jerome (Cameron Monaghan), who was played to the tee as a spin on Batman villain The Joker. However, all Batman fans will know that the Joker’s origin is less than certain, and the show was forced to do away with him (but not his legacy) in the first half of the show’s second season.
What we are now seeing in superhero television is a willingness to experiment with a format that has existed in comics for decades. It’s not entirely the creation of comics, of course, and some of the experimentation on network television is a result of the ground-breaking work done on cable and streaming services in the last few years. It’s also indicative that comics and television are two similar but fundamentally different formats, and what works in one will not necessarily work in the other. Television shows don’t have the benefit of decades of continuity, so it understandably takes a few seasons for shows to develop the confidence to take these kinds of narrative breaks. Even so, the closer adherence to the materials – or at least their form – can only ultimately benefit the adaptations, allowing the shows to move in previously unexpected directions and add some of their own continuity in the process. After all, Phil Coulson and Melinda May are now in the Marvel comic book universe, so perhaps comic book television has something to give back to its source material as well.