When it comes to the “Big Two” comic book companies, DC and Marvel Comics, there’s one thing that both publishers seem to love using in their books,and that’s retcons. In fact, I would argue that comic books are the medium with the most established, not to mention accepted, use of retcons in modern media. For the uninitiated, a retcon is the short-form for retroactive continuity, essentially a storytelling device whereby a character’s past is altered, in such a way that the alteration is treated as if it was always there. Other serial dramas, such as soap operas, make extensive use of retcons as well, but comic books are a special breed. Retcons are used all the time, with one reason for their use being the multitude of creators to have worked on certain characters.
If a decision by a prior writer is decided later on to be in the way of a newer writer telling a story they want to tell, they will often establish a retcon, instead of simply ignoring the previous story. That’s part of what makes retcons in comics a unique phenomena, as for the most part comic characters have a consistent, long-running narrative, with writers preferring to not simply disregard prior stories, because of how continuity is structured, a veritable house of cards. Not to mention the potential ripple effect, if more writers were to take liberties with continuity. Comic book fans are traditionally fans of continuity - drawn to the long running, intricate structure and narrative that comic books employ. But in recent years, there have been a glut of retcons employed for various different reasons. From getting rid of a marriage in the case of Spider-Man, to streamlining an entire line of comics like DC recently did with the New 52. Is there a thing as a necessary retcon? Are readers simply feeling retcon fatigue, or is there more to it than that.
On a theoretical level, all things being equal, a retcon would never be necessary. But because of the nature of comic books with continuities stretching back decades, there are so many stories told. Not just with various characters but also by various writers. A coherent narrative in the shared continuity of either DC or Marvel Comics is nearly impossible. There will always be hiccups, and not everything will perfectly align. Even when Stan Lee was writing most of Marvel’s comics, there were discrepancies. DC’s largest, arguably most controversial change they ever introduced to their line was the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, in the mid-80s. Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped out everything that had transpired in the comics prior to that point, and then moved on from there. And to be fair, not everything was wiped out, but they simplified their universe, eliminating multiple realities and multiple versions of characters, redefined with their characters, and gave them a fresh new start. This was primarily done for commercial means, but also creative. The purge gave a relative clean slate for writers to work with. And coming out of that event, there were tons of retcons, running the gamut between small and large. Clark Kent became fleshed out as a character, not just a caricature, Jason Todd’s origin became uniquely his, as previously he was a Dick Grayson clone, Wonder Woman was no longer a founding member of the Justice League of America, the JSA had operated on the same earth as the JLA, just years earlier, during World War Two. It was a large, sweeping series of retcons, carried out at the same time, with a clear purpose and reasoning, which made it easier to come aboard DC Comics, made it easier for writers, and started the DCU anew.
However, although Crisis on Infinite Earths was a critical and commercial success, and launched some great comics in the post-Crisis period, the retcon proved to complicate matters down the line. The retcon of CoIE was worth the complications, but it did prove to complicate things further, leading to future events, such as Zero Hour and even Infinite Crisis, which would attempt to clean up some of the continuity messes left by CoIE.
Some retcons come about because the continuity of a character becomes confusing, and it’s up to a later writer to try and straighten the mess out in order to save a character. This is true of Magneto in the ‘80s, as John Byrne used him in a villainous role in Avengers West Coast, while at the same time over in Uncanny X-Men he’d been a good guy for a few years, running the New Mutants. Later writers had to try and clean up the conflicting stories, which made the character convoluted. It wasn’t the first time Magneto would be at the centre of a retcon scandal, either, as at the conclusion of Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men, Magneto went on a tear of New York, established concentration camps for humans, became addicted to a mutant power-boosting drug, and killed Jean Grey. There was a very vocal segment of X-Men fans who HATED the portrayal of Magneto in this manner (I personally disliked making Magneto into what he’d sworn to never become, although I appreciate the irony Morrison was going for), and so shortly after he left the book, it was revealed that it wasn’t the true Magneto who did those atrocities. However, by doing so, it made the resolution extremely complicated and convoluted, and also devalued and ruined and aspect of Morrison’s own story, which Marvel editorial had signed off on originally, until it got cold feet because of the reaction to the character’s portrayal. So as a result, instead of Magneto having disguised himself as a character named Xorn, then revealing himself and going on a killing spree, the new revised status quo was that a character named Xorn revealed himself to be Magneto, but he wasn’t actually, as he was always just Xorn. Although the retcon was universally panned as being ludicrous and poorly thought-out, it was also quickly accepted, because for many readers the alternative was a lot worse than a cheesy, incoherent retcon.
Retcons can also be used as a failsafe to get a writer or writers out of writing themselves into a hole. Spider-Man’s Clone Saga is a great example of many different retcons piling on top of each other, until finally toppling over on itself. When Ben Reilly returned to the Spider-Man books in the early ‘90s, his very appearance was a retcon, as the clone of Spider-Man was supposed to have been dead when dropped in a smokestack. However, it was instead altered so that Ben Reilly survived, and afterwards fled the city and wandered the United States. When he came back, it was later revealed that he was in fact the original Peter Parker, but when Marvel Editorial eventually realized that a Peter Parker-less Spider-Man was untenable in the long-run, they killed off Ben Reilly, and revealed instead that the lab results which said Peter was the clone weren’t actually correct, and he was in fact the real Peter Parker.
What makes the existence of the Clone Saga notable is that it was originally conceived as a way for Marvel to get rid of the marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson without having them get divorced. The marriage had been forced upon the Spider-Man writers by editorial when the Spider-Man newspaper strip was going to have Peter and MJ get married. But the writers weren’t satisfied with this, so concocted a story whereby the supposedly dead clone returned, eventually discovered he was the real Peter Parker, and took over as Spider-Man and took back his identity, thereby giving readers a single Peter Parker, without nullifying the marriage that had been featured in the books for the last few years. The clone and MJ could remain married, even have a baby, but be moved out of the books, so that Spider-Man would now be single.
Just because they failed to accomplish their goal in the mid-90s didn’t mean that Marvel was done with their concept of returning to a single Spider-Man, as over a decade later in 2007, Marvel finally bit the bullet and ran a storyline not just eliminating the marriage, but also retroactively removing it from continuity, so that it never happened in the first place, but instead Peter and MJ were simply dating throughout all of the prior stories. The storyline has been universally panned, much like the Xorn debacle, with Peter making a deal with Mephisto, essentially Marvel’s Devil, to save his Aunt May at the expense of his marriage with MJ. Now, ever since then, through Brand New Day and Big Time, Amazing Spider-Man has gone through a creative renaissance and is perhaps the best it’s been in years, but it was all at the expense of Peter/MJ’s marriage, as well as Peter making a deal with the devil.
Comic book readers are a cynical sort. When characters die in comics, readers are very sceptical about just how permanent the death will end up being. For years, the tenant was that in comics the only characters who stay dead are Uncle Ben, Bucky and Jason Todd. And yet by the mid-2000s, two of those characters, Bucky and Jason Todd, had returned to life. But they had very different receptions upon return, as well as extremely different methods of retcons used to bring about their return.
For Bucky, it was perhaps the cleverest retcon of all, which Ed Brubaker brilliantly put into motion during his first arc writing Captain America. Ever since Avengers #4, back in 1963, Bucky was thought dead, killed by an explosion, the same explosion which sent Captain America rocketing into frozen waters, putting him into suspended animation. But Brubaker’s retcon almost wasn’t one at all, as he pointed out that there was never a body. That’s one of the core elements comic readers know is necessary in order for a character to POTENTIALLY be dead for good, and yet no one had ever really pointed out this fact. Brubaker devised a brilliant storyline where in fact Bucky only lost his arm in the explosion, was found by the USSR, and put into suspended animation, brainwashed, and periodically taken out of suspended animation to carry out top-secret missions for the USSR as an assassin. It was an elegant retcon, which didn’t actually change any prior stories, didn’t reduce their importance, but instead gave the Marvel Universe a new character to play with, which had close ties to Captain America, and would have a big impact on his character and his stories.
The story of Jason Todd’s return, however, is a very different story, and nowhere near as successful. The first glimpse and idea of Jason Todd coming back to life as an anti-hero set against Batman was teased in Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee’s Hush, where at the end of an issue one of the enemies Batman was facing was revealed to be a slightly older version of Jason Todd. However, it was then revealed, in-story, to have been Clayface, playing the part. But DC realized they had struck a nerve in fandom, who were excited about the prospect, and so it was subsequently retconned that when Batman first fought the Jason Todd-lookalike, it was in fact the real Jason Todd, and then in the middle of the fight Clayface subbed in for Jason Todd. Although readers liked the idea that the character had returned, the way in which he was re-inserted into that story was clumsy, subpar writing, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense, both in-story, and for Batman as a character, who certainly would have noticed a sub-out. When it came time to pull back the curtain and reveal how Jason Todd survived at all, they went the lamest route possible, and instead of crafting a well-thought-out story concept, instead used the re-appearance of Superboy Prime into continuity to blame his resurrection on Superboy Prime PUNCHING REALITY SO HARD THAT IT CHANGED AND JASON TODD NEVER DIED, INSTEAD WAKING UP BURIED ALIVE IN HIS COFFIN! It was the absolute laziest way to bring back a character, not to mention the most nonsensical and illogical, but fans were interested in seeing the character come back, and so it was accepted.
In closing, it’s perhaps impossible to adequately label when a retcon is necessary, and what factors can help make a retcon necessary. Most retcons have operated in a way to add additional back-story to a character, but their most drastic and noticeable use is when they’re used to explain away a character resurrection, and reconcile character behaviours which contrast with how a character is normally written. Retcons can both enrich a character’s continuity, adding further dimension and shape, but also make certain periods of their history hard to understand, or make it so indecipherable than the reader cares more about the result than the path to getting there.