The shared universes in which the superheroes of Marvel and DC operate can often lead to frustrations for continuity-focused fans. Characters will behave contradictorily from one story to the next, or somehow be in ten places at once, or be otherwise used in ways that are difficult if not impossible to reconcile. Alternatively, one comic might use the events, information, and/or cast of another without fully explaining the background of what’s going on, requiring the audience to maintain at least some familiarity with the entire line if they want to understand everything they read. Then there are the crossovers and events that interrupt or overpower regular series, again asking readers to pay attention to more than just their usual comics if they want all the story details. It’s hard to completely avoid this kind of bleed-through; even the most isolated titles will have a guest star or tie-in issue eventually. The challenge for each of us becomes figuring out how much continuity matters to us personally, how concerned we want to be with making everything fit and staying on top of all the goings-on in every comic. Then we can find the books that utilize the shared universes in ways that line up with or own attitudes, expectations, and wants.
My own views on continuity are something of a mixed bag. Basically, I think the massive, over-populated mainstream superhero worlds create opportunities for interesting, inventive interactions between the disparate characters, and this in turn can lead to more entertaining and original comics. The established histories and relationships can add efficiency to the storytelling, eliminating the need to develop the stakes from zero. And there’s a definite appeal in the long-form, soap-operatic drama of the shared universe, the never-ending epics that are the larger narratives of both DC and Marvel’s respective fictional realities. Watching individuals and groups of heroes (and villains) grow and change over the years, and being able to compare and contrast their many versions as time goes on, has its own value and rewards.
Then again, there’s an inarguable advantage for comics that need not worry themselves with what’s happening in any stories beside their own. Not being beholden to the present and future plans of editors and creators across a whole family of books is a much freer way to work, and the results are often fresher, less familiar kinds of narratives than those found in the typical Big Two superhero tale. So while I appreciate what the shared universe model can potentially add, I also acknowledge what it takes away, and in the end I find myself mostly drawn to Marvel and DC books that exist comfortably in their shared worlds without getting bogged down by them or leaning on them too heavily. It’s a little tricky to describe in this vague, general language, so I offer now an example of what I think is an ideal incorporation of continuity without letting it get in the way of authorial voice or narrative momentum: She-Hulk #8.
Since it launched earlier this year, the current volume of She-Hulk has been a nice mix of comedic law procedural and classic superhero fare. Jen Walters, the titular She-Hulk, starts her own law practice and, as is expected, the cases she takes on end up being pretty unusual, often giving her cause to use her superpowers as well as her professional talents. The story that begins in She-Hulk #8 revolves around Walters being asked by Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, to defend him in a wrongful death suit related to something that happened way back in 1940. The details of the case have not yet been divulged (presumably being saved for the next issue) but there are a number of continuity-related things that crop up as a result of Rogers hiring Walters as his attorney, and She-Hulk writer Charles Soule handles them all admirably.
As soon as he shows up, there’s the fact that Rogers suddenly looks his age, instead of being the eternally young stud he usually is. And we soon discover that he’s also no longer Captain America. I’m only superficially that Sam Wilson, formerly the Falcon, recently replaced Rogers as Captain America, but I’m not totally clued into why that change took place. Presumably it’s related to Rogers’ instant aging, but because I don’t follow Captain America—or any other books in which Rogers is a main character, if indeed others currently exist—I don’t know exactly how or why Rogers is an old man these days. Lucky for me, neither does Walters, so my surprise and confusion is shared by the protagonist of She-Hulk, and the lack of explanation I get as a reader is the same lack of explanation she gets as a character. As it turns out, Rogers’ elderliness doesn’t matter so much for the story at hand, anyway. He’d be on trial even if he were still in his normal state of suspended youth, so for my purposes and Walters’, the details of how he grew up so quickly don’t make a difference. If I was curious, I’m sure I could find out, but I don’t need to know that story in order to follow the one I’m reading in She-Hulk.
Rogers isn’t the only outside character involved (major spoiler in the next sentence, you’ve been warned). Matt Murdock/Daredevil also plays a role as the opposing council in the lawsuit, which is only revealed in the issue’s final page, acting as the surprise cliffhanger conclusion designed to bring us back next month. The case is being tried in California, specifically Los Angeles, since that’s where the supposed wrongful death occurred. Murdock just made a move out to California a few months ago, no longer able to practice law in New York due to events in the pages of Daredevil. In the abstract, it makes sense that he’d be there, even though it is a little shocking that he’d try to sue Steve Rogers, no matter what the specifics of the case may be. However, the real reason I bring up Murdock is that, while his move out west is certainly canon, in Daredevil right now there’s absolutely no mention of this case with Rogers and Walters whatsoever. She-Hulk is using Murdock in a way that makes sense based on his current situation, but that doesn’t at all connect with the stories being told in his book, and I much prefer that to having the two comics trip over one another in an attempt to keep everything perfectly tidy.
In the case of both Rogers and Murdock, then, She-Hulk respects the current shake-ups in the characters’ lives without feeling any obligation to overtly tie into their comics. This story is its own thing, influenced and informed by current continuity but not constrained by it. If it weren’t for the shared universe of Marvel’s comics, the idea of having old man Rogers hire Walters to defend him in court against west-coast Murdock wouldn’t even have been available to Soule in the first place. Not that he couldn’t have come up with that on his own, but the benefit of the community-created reality is that people can build on and borrow others’ ideas to enrich their own narratives, like Soule is doing here.
I suppose I’m espousing a kind of cake-and-eat-it-too approach to continuity, where everyone agrees on some common truths but still gets to tell whatever stories they want in the shared space, regardless of what stories everyone else is telling there, too. But where do you draw the line, exactly? How much are you allowed to ignore before your story becomes a straight-up argument against or contradiction of someone else’s? In She-Hulk #8, for instance, Walters ends up getting help from one of the duplicates created long ago by Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man. This particular dupe is a high-priced celebrity attorney, and Walters needs his firm to be the firm of record since she’s not licensed in California. The trouble with this is that Peter David made it quite explicit in X-Factor a while back that the real Madrox had reabsorbed all of his dupes as part of his retreat from the superhero lifestyle in favor of settling down on his family farm with his wife, Layla Miller. This is brought up in She-Hulk, and the dupe explains that he and Madrox struck a deal: in exchange for funding the farm, the dupe could stay separate and be free to live his own life. It’s a satisfying, perfectly logical explanation, but also a totally necessary one, since simply having a dupe walking around and doing his own thing without telling us why that was possible would fly in the face of a previously established fact about Madrox. So it’s a delicate balance that must be struck, and it’s not always easy to know which things can be left unexplained and which need this kind of clarification.
The Marvel Universe in which She-Hulk is set isn’t going to get less convoluted anytime soon, and neither will the DC Universe, for that matter. Even something like DC’s New 52, which in its early days claimed to be a true reboot, a way for the whole thing to start with a clean slate, ultimately only served as proof that the shadows cast by the histories of these companies are too long and thick to ever be truly escaped. Every new issue of every series published adds another wrinkle, another collection of details that instantly become part of the truth of these fictional worlds, at least until someone decides to undo them or retcon them or otherwise rewrite the past. These realities are only becoming bigger and more tangled every week, and there’s no obvious end in sight. Rather than try to make sense of all of it, which is nigh impossible, or to ignore it entirely, which is even harder still, I think the best solution can be found in reading comics like She-Hulk, books that take advantage of the evolving continuity without getting lost in its thickets. They’re out there, these series, and the more support and popularity they gain, the more likely they are to become the model, the standard by which all shared universe tales are measured.