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Prepare To Be Adapted: The Curse Of The Retcon

“It’s magic, we don’t have to explain it.” – J. Michael Straczynski paraphrasing Joe Quesada ACT I This time I?m in a bad mood. A recent comic book retcon has put me in said bad mood, so I?m going to cover the good and the bad of retcons on TV and movies, plus comic books […]

“It’s magic, we don’t have to explain it.” – J. Michael Straczynski paraphrasing Joe Quesada


This time I?m in a bad mood. A recent comic book retcon has put me in said bad mood, so I?m going to cover the good and the bad of retcons on TV and movies, plus comic books (or graphic novels if you want it to sound less embarrassing).

First off, for you geek-tionary challenged, I?ll explain what a retcon is. Retcon stands for “RETroactive CONtinuity” and is the intentional altering of previously established facts in a work of serial fiction.

Now that I know we are all on the same page, let?s talk about what got me on this rant.

For roughly six years, J. Michael Straczynski (creator of ?Babylon 5?) had been writing the ?Amazing Spider-Man? comic book series. He did a few controversial things, but now his reign has ended. His last story arc was called ?One More Day.? In it, a sniper sent by Kingpin shoots Aunt May and she lapses into a coma slowly dying. The intended target was ?ol spidey, but the bullet hit May instead. You see, a year ago Spider-Man revealed his identity to the public during the whole ?Civil War? mega-crossover. That?s where the government forced all superheroes to reveal their identities or get arrested. With his enemies now knowing who Spider-Man really is, Peter Parker?s family became targets.

Spider-Man searches everywhere for a way to save Aunt May until finally he gives in and makes a deal with the devil. No really, he does. The demon Mephisto offers to save Peter?s aunt, but only if he gives up his marriage with Mary Jane. He agrees and now Spider-Man gets a major retcon changing roughly 20 years of history. No longer does everyone know his identity, Peter never married Mary Jane, Harry Osborne lives again, Spider-Man goes from his organic web-slingers (like they are in the movie) back to his mechanical web-slingers and Peter is back to living with his aunt.

OK, first off you need to realize that the co-writer (for “One More Day”) and editor of Marvel Comics, Joe Quesada, has been extremely vocal about his dislike of Spider-Man being married. Even though it has been that way for 20 years. Even though Marvel has alternate versions of Spider-Man ? sans marriage ? in “Ultimate Spider-Man” and “Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man.” Grr, Argh ? I am so annoyed.


OK, more on that later in the column. Now let?s talk about what I consider some of the best and worst retcons in TV and movie history. I?m sticking to science-fiction/fantasy/horror genre, so I?m not going to talk about famous retcons from shows like “Dallas,” “Newhart,” “Roseanne,” or the “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome” which started on “Happy Days.”

First off, what I consider the worst retcon of genre TV history. TNT?s ?Witchblade? wins that reward with its first season finale that rebooted the entire season! Everything is rebooted back to the events of the first episode. Except this time Sara Pezzini?s partner, Danny Woo, doesn?t die. It was a big risk and at first I was willing to see where they were going to go with it, but I felt it was handled poorly and didn?t logically make sense. It just seemed that threats from the first season just disappear, when they should still have popped up in a different way. I know a number of people, including me, who lost interest in the second season because of the retcon. I don?t know if it hurt the ratings. It is hard to say if Butler hadn?t been forced into rehab, if the show would have had another season or not.

The best retcon in genre TV history goes to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In Season 5, the series introduced a new character ? that had always been there. This is when Dawn, Buffy?s sister, suddenly popped up like she had always been there. No, this wasn?t a writing error. A bunch of monks turn a dimensional “key” into a human. She is sent to Buffy to be protected from the demon goddess Glory. To make sure Buffy protects her, the monks changed everyone?s memories to believe that Dawn is her sister and had always been there.

This was brillant! A retcon that didn?t take away something or rewind events, but instead added something. Since it was really just memories that were changed, then the previous episodes did happen the way we saw them. It?s just that the characters remember things a little differently. Plus, the characters discover the truth, which made it an even stronger retcon.

What are some other notable retcons in genre TV history? Hmm ? there is “Star Trek: Voyager?s” Season 4 two-part episode “Year of Hell.” In this story, a Krenim Imperium temporal weapon ship is erasing entire species from existence. The two-parter takes place over one year, hence the name, and Voyager becomes a target of the Krenim.

The ship gets damaged more and more. The crew faces a number of hardships, including Tuvok becoming blind after an accident. In the end, Janeway rams Voyager into the weapon-ship rebooting everything back to the beginning of the story.

I knew while watching the episodes that they would reboot it. When they start making big changes with characters in Star Trek” it is usually a big hint that they will reboot the episode. But why go back to the beginning of the episode? If they could have rewound it back only part of the way, leaving some of the changes, it would have been a powerful two-parter that no one would ever forget.

Gasp, it would have moved characters forward in a show where Ensign Kim never got promoted and the ship always seemed to be repaired back to new after every ship fight. I felt that this two-parter showed what ?Star Trek: Voyager? could have been.

Another retcon worth noting is the ?ignoring movie sequel syndrome.? The biggest offender is the Highlander franchise. “Highlander: II” is officially not recognized. “Highlander: III” doesn’t fit in with “Highlander: Endgame.” Heck, “Endgame” doesn?t even completely jive with the TV series.

Man, don?t even get me started on “Highlander: The Source.” It?s sad really. If the Highlander writers could just get their stories to agree with each other, I think the franchise would be far stronger.

Another obvious and more recent example is ?Superman Returns? which ignores ?Superman III? and ?Superman IV.?

Star Trek has used a number of small retcons. Some are just corrections due to inaccurate predictions of future technology. Like, how Khan Noonien Singh was supposed to have been defeated in the Eugenic Wars of the mid-to-late 1990s. Most of them are with alien races. For some reason, ?Star Trek? writers never seem to like their first take on a species and in later episodes make minor (or major) changes in appearance, behavior and background. Examples include the Vulcans, Klingons, Trill, Ferengi and the Borg.

So, there you go. Feel free to e-mail me or post on the forum your favorite or most hated retcons.


Now, let’s quickly talk about the worst and best retcons in comic book history.

The worst, in my humble opinion, is “One More Day.” I already talked about it earlier in the column. I felt personally insulted by it as a reader. I understand they want to bring back the feeling of the 1970s Spider-Man, but it ain?t the 1970s anymore. It would have been better to just let Aunt May die, which would have been a powerful story. Then, move forward with new energy.

Use that creative energy and try to write interesting stories about an older and married Spider-Man. Now I just feel like we are back to something I?ve already seen. Why should I care now if Spider-Man?s identity could be revealed? Been there. Why should I want Peter Parker to hook up with someone else? Anyone who has read the book in the last 20 years or watched the movies will feel like it is wrong and that he should be with Mary Jane. Loser Parker is old news.

It is ironic that they are now calling the stories after ?One More Day,? get this, ?Brave New Day.? Huh? How is this new?

Some of the other big offenders are also Spider-Man retcons. The ?Clone Saga? which involved a mystery man that looks just like Peter Parker who reveals that he is the real Spider-Man and was replaced years ago by a clone. There was negative feedback and things got changed back, but not after so many silly twists that my brain baby still kicks everytime I think about it.

The other is this silly ?immortal? Aunt May thing. She has died more than once and they keep bringing her back.

Another is the odd ?Heroes Reborn? retcon where many of the Marvel heroes who aren?t in X-Men books or ?Spider-Man? die and are reborn on another Earth with fresh reboots. This one didn?t last long until things were returned to normal.

The best retcon is 1984?s ?Crisis of Infinite Earths.? In a battle with the Anti-Monitor all the DC superheroes of multiple Earths fight. In the end there is one new Earth remaining and all of the character?s history are started fresh. It was a perfect retcon and while it caused continuity errors that to this day plague DC, there has never been story like it.


So, what is my final say on retcons? When you have a long series, especially with multiple writers, it is a given that mistakes are going to happen. That is OK and it is OK to use small retcons to explain it away. It?s also okay to use retcons to update with modern changes in history (the Eugenics War) or with new advances in make-up (the Klingon?s new look).

I?m also all for using a retcon to add something new, like the retcon introducing Dawn to ?Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.? Or start fresh with a new and modern take, like ?Crisis of Infinite Earths.?

But having a retcon just to get rid of something that the writer doesn?t like is not acceptable. An ongoing series, at least a good one, should move forward. I know it is commonly believed that comic book characters are pop icons that can?t change too much or they lose their marketability. But I don?t buy that argument anymore. TV and movies show us a different story.

More and more, the viewer expects character and plot development. The old way of episodic storytelling where everything returns back to normal after an adventure just doesn?t fly anymore. Compare character and plot development in a series like the rebooted ?Battlestar Galactica,? ?Babylon 5? or even ?Star Trek: Deep Space Nine? to older shows like ?Star Trek: TOS? and the classic ?Battlestar Galactica.?

Look how many different versions of superhero characters there are in TV and movies. What flavor of Batman do you want? There is the 1960s ?Batman,? ?The Batman? of the ’90s and now the darker ?Batman Begins.? There have been multiple versions of Superman TV shows too. There is a growing number of (for better or worse) reboots of shows: ?Battlestar Galactica,? ?Bionic Woman? and now even ?Star Trek.?

These reboots or different versions aren?t a bad a thing. I would rather have someone start fresh, than screw around with the original and risk frakking it up.
This pattern of having different versions, rather than rebooting a current series is happening now in comic books. You don?t want a married and older Spider-Man? There is a teenager Peter Parker in ?Ultimate Spider-Man? and a single Peter Parker in ?Marvel Adventures Spider-Man.?

Why stop a continuing story and reboot it back 20 years when the non-married version already exists? It is a slap in the face of those fans that have been reading and collecting those stories for all those years. Plus, it has a ripple effect. It affects other titles in the Marvel Universe. The unmasking of Spider-Man, which was a big deal in the mega-crossover event of ?Civil War,? now means nothing.

On top of it all, it was later revealed by JMS that Quesada just explained all the changes by saying that wonderful quote in the very beginning of today?s column. He even revealed that Quesada knew when Spider-Man?s identity was revealed that it would get retconned a year later, even though he repeatedly said in interviews that this was something that wouldn?t go away for a long time.

If you decide to build upon previous events, then you are playing the continuity game. If you want readers to stay for the ride, then you have to pay attention to what has come before and respect it. Yes, you may not have wanted something to have happened in issue or Episode X, but it did.

Get over it and move on or let someone else write it that can. If you don?t respect continuity and use the retcon for the dark side, then you start having people ask, ?Why bother?? Why bother reading for X years if at any point someone can decide to rewind and ignore events in the series history that they don?t like? Maybe that worked in the past, but I think readers (like TV viewers) no longer care for these big retcons.

Continuity is not some curse or just some silly fanboy obsession. It is a reality of serial fiction. A retcon, especially a poorly executed one, is a curse.

Until next time? Marx out.

Marx Pyle is a columnist and staff writer for Airlock Alpha, writing out of Vancouver, B.C. He can be reached at mpyle@syfyportal,com.

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