Sagas in Panels #3

Jeff Hargarten

Superhero Super Bowl spots

“Captain American: The Winter Soldier” continues Marvel Studios’ Phase Two development and will be released April 4. The lengthy Super Bowl ad spot is the longest trailer for the film yet and actually gives a fair amount away. Those who aren’t interested in potential spoilers should definitely not read Screen Rant’s thorough shot-by-shot analysis of the trailer. Gotta say, the movie looks great.

Sony’s “The Amazing Spider-man 2” is another film looking to build upon a shared universe and is slated for a May 2 release.

There are still no trailers or further glimpses of Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” despite its planned August release. The lack of cinematic previews hasn’t stopped rumors that Marvel is already planning a 2016 sequel to the film. That would reveal lot of confidence in the movie on the part of Marvel Studios if true.

Understanding retcons, reboots, relaunches and multiverses

Many of the most popular comic books and their characters are decades old. For instance, Batman turns 75 this year. As a result, consistency within a character’s history and storylines can be difficult for writers to maintain throughout the years. Most comic book titles are fleshed out by multiple creative forces over time, so changes to continuity — both minor and radical — are commonplace within the comic book medium.

Shared universes in comics, while not a new thing by the 1960’s, were popularized by Marvel under Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others from its famous Bullpen. Marvel’s characters kept crossing over between titles, like when Spider-Man would appear with the X-Men or the Avengers would get involved with the Fantastic Four. It helped immerse readers in a fully fleshed-out world where events built upon each other and cause and effect produced logical consequences from one book to another. Shared universes were developed by multiple publishers and helped make comic books seem more realistic and engrossing, along with giving readers incentives to pick up or subscribe to multiple books just to keep up with the story.

Continuity is a popular discussion topic within comic book circles as fans and creators alike try to organize and make sense of everything that’s happened within their favorite titles. There’s great debate among fans over what’s considered canon and what’s non-canon. As a result, getting into comic books can seem rather esoteric and intimidating — a huge barrier to new readers.

Because many comic titles, characters and their shared universes are so longstanding, changes to who and what they are become necessary to adjust to the current day and age, provide more diversity and for writers to take creative license and avoid being shackled by established events. Whether it’s bringing dead characters back to life (like Spider-man’s Aunt May) changing the race, gender or sexual orientation of a character (Nick Fury, The Question and Batwoman respectively) or simply changing a hero’s identity (The Flash has been both Barry Allen and Wally West), switching things up for a character keeps comic titles from becoming boring, stagnant and predictable while allowing writers to explore contemporary themes and challenges.

But those creative changes can present serious problems for a comic universe’s continuity. Writers therefore employ a number of ways to tell diverse storylines while still trying to make sense of a title’s established history. The most significant ways are by using retcons, reboots, relaunches and parallel universes.

One of the more challenging and interesting evolutions within comic book storylines are retcons — short for “retroactive continuity,”  a storyline permutation often within sci-fi and fantasy genres, or really any creative work set in a shared universe. Retcons can take the form of changes to a characters origin or identity, deaths, resurrections or any change to historical events previously established in the comic title’s timeline. These are often achieved by means of time travel, interactions with parallel universes or simple unexplained changes to the canon (these are the most controversial among fans).

A reboot completely wipes the slate clean for a title and requires no prior knowledge of the old versions of characters or events. Within films, Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” is a perfect example of a reboot. Within comics, there have been numerous reboots, though they are often explained in the context of massive universe-bending events like D.C.’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths.”

A relaunch is simply the ending of a particular comic title for replacement by a new one, like recently when “The Amazing Spider-Man” ended after several decades, only to start again from Issue #1 in April of this year. Marvel recently relaunched all of its books under new titles.

Parallel universes have also been a popular comic book staple, allowing different versions of events and characters to coexist in alternate dimensions.

D.C. has been using parallel worlds the longest, starting in the 1950s. Its worlds include Earth-Two, various Elseworlds titles and much more. Its timeline and continuities are often divided between Pre-Crisis and Post-Crisis worlds, in reference in 1985’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” a 12-issue retcon project that used D.C’s multiverse to completely rewrite its series lineup, update its characters and make its canon simpler and more cohesive.

Marvel has also made extensive use of multiple dimensions, establishing a rather large multiverse, each universe with its own purpose and designation, with Earth-616 being its primary comic book continuity, Earth-199999 being the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Earth-92131 representing its animated properties, and so on.

The multiverse storytelling model allows for new titles to be launched using the same characters without affecting established canon and can make comics more accessible to new readers. It allows for much more creative freedom. One of the best examples of this was Marvel’s “Ultimate” imprint (Earth-1610) featuring reimagined superheroes in modern settings facing 21st century issues.

Both D.C. and Marvel had have their fair share of retcons, relaunches and reboots. D.C.’s most recent one is its controversial “New 52” lineup, which has received mixed reviews. Marvel, following the events of the “Avengers vs. X-Men” storyline, recently relaunched all of its titles under the “Marvel Now!” initiative, which is primarily a rebranding effort, but has also redefined its landscape.

To help unravel the huge mess comic book universes can be, here are some helpful lists and articles:

D.C. Multiverse List

D.C. Historical Timeline

Time and Time Again: The Complete History of DC’s Retcons and Reboots

Marvel Multiverse List

The 15 Dumbest Superhero Retcons of All Time

Top 10 Retcons that Improved Characters

8 Best & Worst Comic Book Retcons

Ctl-Alt-Delete: Retcon, Relaunch, or Reboot?