“Take a picture. It’ll last longer.”
—Unknown, common phrase
“You can’t take a picture of this; it’s already gone.”
—Alan Ball (1957-present), Six Feet Under episode 5x12, “Everyone’s Waiting”
History, it’s been said, is frequently written by the winners, usually because the losers are too dead to pick up a pen. This allows for biased first drafts of history books, which in turn are altered by local or national governments and, in time, can even be completely eliminated by leaders decades or centuries later.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of political figures and organizations have altered history at a whim for any number of reasons, mostly political, sometimes personal, always wrong. Any reader of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, books which use the retroactive alteration of history as major plot points, will be able to tell you exactly how Joseph Stalin “changed” history not with a time machine, but with a pen, caring little if the resulting concoction actually held up when examined. Pat Buchanan maintains that Britain and France’s dealings with Poland were directly responsible for a majority of World War II. Kim Jong Il, meanwhile, long maintained a story regarding his birth that mashed up the Three Wise Men, All Quiet on the Western Front and FernGully before he was shamed by science, which proved his story wrong, thus forcing the dictator to never mention it again. As recently as May, talk show host Sean Hannity claimed there has never been a death resulting from radiation.
Once again, however, art imitates life in some of the most bizarre aspects of reality.
One of the most controversial storytelling tools is the use of retroactive continuity, or “retcon”. Most prevalent in television and comic books (though most assuredly not confined to either), retcons have, over the years, been viewed by fans in a variety of ways: as a necessary evil, as a storytelling crutch, as an excuse to shock readers, or even for a writer to leave his or her mark on a given franchise. For example, one of the Futurama movies retconned the popular episode “Jurassic Bark”, wherein Fry’s dog Seymour lives a lonely life for years after his owner’s disappearance via a complicated time travel plot and an explosion. The writers of Lost received a lot of negative feedback when they introduced new castaways Nikki and Paulo in the third season of the popular drama, adding insult to injury by acting like they had always been there. When the characters were met with such hostility by the fans, they were killed off fairly quickly and humorously in one of the most self-aware episodes of the show’s run.
Retcons, as a whole, have a long and storied history, especially within the realm of comic books. Of late, they’ve become notoriously disreputable among an increasingly divisive fanbase. Some fans are set in the way of how things used to be that they can’t accept Maxwell Lord becoming a murderous supervillain or Norman Osborn being the father of Gwen Stacy’s heretofore-unknown superpowered offspring. Some fans may be jealous of the current crop of fans-turned-professionals who claim they would have never resurrected Jason Todd or Bucky Barnes no matter how good the story would have been.
And therein lies a massive disconnect that exists between fans and the material; unlike Stalin or Kim Jong-Il, who altered history for their own oppressive purposes, comic book retcons can be used as, if not a force for good, one for accessibility. This was the plan behind Marvel’s decision to alter roughly twenty years of Spider-Man continuity by magically removing the marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson in “One More Day”, thereby removing much of the complication from the webslinger’s life (or, some would say, most of the dramatic conflict) and giving him a supporting cast once again (others would say surrounding him by bland, unremarkable characters). However, as can probably be guessed, both the retcon and the method of the retcon (a Faustian bargain) were met with a colossal amount of ire by vocal fans. While the subsequent “Brand New Day” created a readership for vacuum for old-school fans, many new readers were created to support the easy-to-follow, three times monthly series. The gap may have been filled, but the betrayal felt by many fans has not yet been healed.
When DC decided to bring back the multiverse, and with it the many “crises” that come with it, the all-purpose excuse of “Superboy-Prime punched the walls of reality and altered history” more or less became known as a “retcon punch.” Characters remembered things differently than how they appeared on the printed page? Reality punch! Certain stories didn’t happen? Reality punch! Major revisions to an entire universe? Reality punch! Jason Todd never died? Uh, yeah, reality punch, too, I guess.
For a character so firmly rooted in the grit and grittiness of the hellish urban legend that is Gotham City, to be accidentally resurrected six months after death by an angry adolescent from another universe was hard for a lot of fans to swallow. Eventually, though, fans warmed up to the idea, and he has since been prominently featured in titles like Green Arrow, Nightwing and the chart-topping Batman and Robin.
Additionally, many fans felt increasingly vexed not just at Brian Michael Bendis’ re-insertion of Paul Jenkins’ creation, the Sentry, into the mainstream Marvel Universe, but felt that the character was being unnecessarily shoved down their throats. What many failed to see, unfortunately, was that Robert Reynolds and his various alter-egos and fluctuating histories were a walking riff on modern-day retcons, lampshaded during a fight involving Hank Pym’s and Norman Osborn’s teams of Avengers against a Cosmic Cube-fortified Absorbing Man at Project Pegasus in the latter days of Mighty Avengers, wherein writer Dan Slott was able to make a not-so-subtle dig at the “Distinguished Competition’s” Superboy-Prime excuse. Contact with the Cosmic Cube allowed the Absorbing Man’s punches to alter his opponents, splitting the Sentry into not just his usual superheroic appearance, but his Void and Robert Reynolds identities as well. Additionally, Karla Sofen, posing as Ms. Marvel in Osborn’s Avengers, reverts back to her old Moonstone costume, lamenting that being “‘reality-punched’ [is] the stupidest…thing I’ve ever heard of.”
Conversely, for decades many fans felt that Jason Todd, the second Robin, and Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s World War II sidekick, should never be revived. However, the stories of their returns (allowing for the one or two odd caveat, including Superboy-Prime’s now well-known “reality punch”) were met with more acclaim than scorn, with Bucky going on to become Captain America following Steve Rogers’ demise at the hands of Crossbones, an agent of the Red Skull.
This bizarre dichotomy—the idea of an alteration of a fictional history provoking a greater outcry from comicbook readers than totalitarian historical alteration in the real world—is puzzling, but not altogether shocking. After all, comics provide the same sort of an entertainment that a Lost or a Futurama can provide: a respite, however brief, from real-world troubles that also reflects them, but can still involve spaceships, smoke monsters, super-soldiers and dark knights.
But like the positive futures and heroics depicted within these fictions, we must remember the world is full of villains who would strip even those imaginary heroes from us, and leave this world in an even weaker place than they found it. For without our stories, how are we to learn from reality?
Reality punch, if it were mixed with just a little bit of creativity, I’d sure drink it.