Continuity can be a good thing. When stories build upon one another, they create a sense of importance and ground stories in a sense of reality. When references are made to past events, fans smile and nod because that means creators acknowledge the shared universe that they are contributing to. To take Batman as an example, Grant Morrison has gone to great lengths to take previously forgotten moments of Batman continuity (the International Batmen, the Batman of Zur-en-Arrh) and by simply mentioning them in his stories, they still exist which gives those once forgotten ideas from the 60′s a sense of importance because he is making them relevant.
The problem is that sometimes comics are so ingrained in continuity that they have no room to grow. Perhaps the finest example of this comes from Marvel’s Ultimate line of comics.
Designed to capture new readers with stories that were free from the confines of continuity, the Ultimate line gave a fresh take on classic characters which was inviting to readers who knew nothing about comic books. And this worked . . . until continuity invariably started to weigh the line down. Suddenly, this line of comics that was designed to be accessible to new readers had a natural history that was created because stories will invariably build upon one another and because of this continuity the Ultimate line couldn’t help but become inaccessible to readers because the stories it was crafting became dependent upon reading previous stories.
Yet, if every story arc was crafted in a vacuum that never referenced previous stories, there would be a sense that nothing really mattered and character growth wouldn’t occur.
Flashpoint is a perfect example of this problem. In that event, the DC heroes were in an alternate universe where the history of the DCU had been altered significantly. Therefore, all continuity in the DCU no longer mattered and there was no sense of consequence because the events would be forgotten once the original timeline reset. In the end, it was a series that didn’t really matter because continuity provides significance by allowing for character growth.
But perhaps character growth doesn’t really matter. After all, superheroes are like mythological gods in that they represent certain ideas and symbols. Maybe character growth isn’t necessary because these characters have no end in sight. If a typical story in normal books and films involves a character going through trials and tribulations to learn something in the end, and comics were held to this same standard, then surely characters that have been published for over 70 years have attained human enlightenment after all of the “growth” they have achieved over time. Then again, maybe their lack of growth also should tell us something about human nature.
I’m getting off subject now.
Perhaps the central problem with continuity is that it is the biggest contributor to the sense of nostalgia that permeates comics today. Fans want comics that call back to the comics they liked because these ideas are familiar to them. Comic readers of the 60′s believe that Batman is a bright and shining “Caped Crusader” while readers of the 80′s see him as a “dark knight” of vengeance and different writers use references to continuity to touch that sweet spot of nostalgia so readers can connect with that idea that they loved.
The problem is that by constantly referencing these ideas keeps comics from evolving and moving on. Batman is a character that allows for a diverse range of story-telling. His very nature allows for detective stories, far-out superhero tales, supernatural horror stories, and much more. Yet, some insist that Batman can only be one type of story because a certain type of continuity worked for them and they believe it is the only one that matters.
When fans close their minds to the idea of possibility, they are limiting the scope of what comics can achieve. When we hold continuity as being the utmost important thing to comics, then we are holding comics to the same compositional standards as novels and films when really, comics are something completely unique and should be treated as such.
Continuity should only be as important as the story necessitates. If a writer wishes to call back to a previous story in order to make a new point or to touch a sense of nostalgia, then that’s fine. Continuity should neither be seen as an enemy of comics nor as an absolute necessity. It is a tool to help create importance, but when it becomes the object of importance itself, then stories lose their meaning.