Retcon – Insulting or Smart?

Retroactive continuity. Retcon. For the last 30 or so years, this has been the bane of many comic readers existence. Publisher and writers reaching back into their storied line of titles and changing some to detail to allow them to continue in the way they want. After all, this is super serious and every story matters! Perhaps the best retcon ever written is DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. I think most retcons, regardless of the outcome, are done incredibly poorly. A few, while done sloppy, did lead to better stories. And a rare handful were not only done well, but lead to amazing stories.

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First the bad all around. Peter Parker wasn’t just randomly bitten by a radioactive spider, no no. He was chosen by totemic Spider God. In The Other story, Peter was mortally wounded and built a cocoon for himself. This resulted in new powers; biological web-shooters, wrist stingers, poisonous bite, night vision, and the ability to talk to arthropods. Don’t worry, it was soon forgotten. This is almost as bad as the eternally confused Hawkman at DC. One origin had him as the reincarnation of some Egyptian prince, constantly reuniting with his love, Hawkgirl. In the Silver Age, they completely changed that and made them space cops from Thanagar. DC still doesn’t know what to do with him.

There are plenty more examples of really bad retcons; Gwen Stacey had twins from Norman Osborn before he killed her; DC’s New 52, all of it; Magneto and Xorn (it’s a really long story); and pretty much every time they try to fix Wolverine. It’s all bad.

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Some retcons did lead to amazing stories, though the execution was abhorrant. The transition of from One More Day to Brand New Day in Spider-Man still angers fans. During Civil War, Peter revealed his identity, putting a bullseye on his family. Aunt May was accidentally shot and laid dying. Peter makes a deal with the devil, Mephisto, to save her. He wants Peter and MJ’s marriage as payment (?), making it like it never happened. MJ said yes, the marriage disappeared, and the old woman got to live again. Magic! The point was to make Peter single again without saying the “D” word. The editors thought Peter being married aged him too much, and this would allow for better stories. It was rocky at first, but many great stories came out of it.

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I don’t know where to put this, so I’ll drop it here. Superboy Prime’s reality punch (see Infinite Crisis) brought 2nd Robin Jason Todd back to life. Many still question the power of the reality punch. Bringing Jason back to life didn’t lead to good or bad stories really. He was alive, and they don’t know what to do with him. He just hangs around as Red Hood, doin’ stuffs. Jason Todd has done nothing that ever made me care about him, even dying.

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Again, not all retcons are bad. A handful go back and mine from past stories, or drop in a little detail to help streamline it all. In the mid 2000’s, we’ve had two of the best examples of this. Geoff Johns in his amazing Green Lantern run had to bring Hal Jordan back to life, along with redeeming him after his death. How you ask? The fear entity know has Parallax (a hell of a problem for cyclopses… science joke!) was trapped in the main lantern power battery. Parallax possessed Jordan, forcing him to do crazy things like, destroy his hometown and annihilate the lantern corp. This little detail not only fixed that, but explained away the quirky limitation of the lantern rings over anything yellow.

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The other amazing retcon did something no one thought possible, brought back Captain America’s sidekick, Bucky. It was an unwritten rule that Bucky was to be left alone. Ed Brubaker sad nuts to that and brought back Bucky as an assassin. Russians found the boy after the missile took him out. They replaced his missing arm with a mechanical one and put him on ice. They made him into the Winter Soldier, an assassin brought out over decades for high profile targets. Cap eventually found and rescued his friend. You may have heard of the movie centering on this story.

On a strange retcon note (upcoming pun), Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has expressed intrest in writing a Doctor Strange story.  He wants an iron clad contract that will prevent it from ever being retconned. Okay…

Retcons are a part of comic books. This will never change. I look at superheroes not as on going tales, but more like mythology. Just because something was changed, doesn’t mean that previous story doesn’t suddenly burst into flames.

What are some of your favorite retcons? If it has anything to do with Spider-Man, I don’t care. Let it go. Comment below!

I think people have moved on from One More Day to Doc Ock taking over Spidey.  

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28 responses to “Retcon – Insulting or Smart?

  1. I hate retcons too, especially because they leave the reader feeling cheated. It’s like saying, “all our previous stories don’t count, because it’s only the next few issues that are important”. The thing is that most writers do a retcon because they want to keep their characters inside the overall continuity of the comics world, which is itself a contradiction in terms. Most of the time, a reboot is a better idea than a retcon, but then you end up with lots of parallel universes all competing with each other.

    • I think retcon’s have a bad rap because of generally poor execution. I think how Brubaker brought Bucky to present day was an excellent retcon, adding something to past stories to tell more stories. But that can also backfire (see Gwen Stacey and Norman Osborn). I really don’t know what’s the better way to go about it. On one hand we have Marvel’s sliding timeline; on the other we have DC’s multiple Earth nonsense. I just look at the characters as mythology, and the story I’m reading is just another tale.

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