The concept of continuity is one of the most controversial topics in comics today. There are some who feel that modern comics cannot exist without a well-structured and maintained universe of stories: continuity. Still others feel that the whole idea of continuity is too constraining and that comics would not be held accountable to old stories written years, even generations, earlier. What it all boils down to is the fact that continuity is a manner of individual taste. Comic readers either love it or hate it but rarely are indifferent to it.
Small wonder then that a series like Avengers Forever, which relies so strongly on the 30-plus years of Marvel Comics continuity before it, has been equally praised and damned by comic critics and fans. Those who enjoy continuity thrilled to each issue. Those who do not partake of the continuity mind were left wondering what all the fuss was about. This, in effect, is a mirror of one of the greatest problems facing the modern superhero comic industry today. How can comics attract new readers without alienating the older ones? One of the reasons this is a problem lies in the very nature of comics themselves. Simply put, comics were originally meant to be a disposable medium. No one working in the field 30, 40, 50 years ago ever believed that the same characters would be read about for so long. They weren’t designed to have such a long shelf-life. So, it is difficult, if not impossible, to incorporate so much history into these characters, keeping them fresh and meaningful to a new audience. Which means that today’s writers and artists have to make a choice Do they go for the history or the rewrite? Do they embrace the history or ignore it? Kurt Busiek, writer of Avengers Forever, is clearly in the former camp.
Avengers Forever is a romp through the almost forty years of Marvel history with a wink of the eye and a determination to have it all make sense. The story revolves around a plot by the Time Keepers to keep mankind from achieving its destiny and reaching for the stars. Under their scenarios, such evolution would spark death and destruction for countless other races throughout the universe. To thwart humankind, they have their servant, Immortus, attempt to kill one-time Avengers/hanger-on, Rick Jones, who happens to hold the key to humanities evolution. Longtime Avengers foe Kang the Conquerer will not allow this (for some fuzzy logic reason), and, when Jones’ latent abilities pull together a squad of Avengers from various other ages, Kang joins with them to battle Immortus and the Time Keepers. What makes it so confusing, of course, is that time-traveling Kang is an early version of Immortus his adolescent self, metaphorically speaking. Busiek uses this glitch/opportunity to try and make sense out of many of the inconsistencies within Marvel history in general and Avengers history in particular.
Busiek admirably succeeds in doing so but the extent of the reader’s enjoyment depends entirely upon how important these problems are considered to be. For younger readers, none of this really matters and can be, in fact, a detriment. Many do not like being confronted with these references to ancient stories which they have no interest in or ability to find and read. If you really don’t care that this one character was, at different times, known as Rama-Tut, Kang the Conqueror, or Immortus, then you’re not likely to care about the explanation for how this can be so.
But, if you’re one of those who do care about such things, Avengers Forever is a great read. Throughout the story, Busiek delights in taking the reader on a guided tour of Avengers and Marvel history. Old friends reappear and old stories are both remembered and celebrated, no matter how badly they were actually written the first time. Some long forgotten characters are brought back and provide explanations for their original actions or why they existed in the first place. For an old continuity buff, this is pure gold it becomes almost a game to see how many references one can spot within a particular issue. Busiek has used so much Marvel history that a bibliography had to be added in every fourth issue to explain what came from where. Still, the problem remains. The actual plot of Avengers Forever is rather stale and uninteresting. It is primarily an excuse for prolonged fight scenes (exquisitely rendered by Carlos Pacheco) and time-travel shenanigans. Then again, the same argument could be leveled against a bevy of major comic publication these days.
Both Marvel and DC Comics have, in the past, published continuity-cleaning series that were meant to smoothen the past and start the characters over again fresh. It is amusing to note that, in most of these cases, the original continuity creeps back in one way or the other. John Byrne’s revision of Superman’s home planet of Krypton as a sterile, unemotional place is currently being rewritten in the monthly comics, returning it to the Krypton of the Weisinger and Schwartz era. Why? Primarily because the people writing today’s books had grown up with that vision of Krypton and wanted to return to that which they remember and are fond. There still remains the question of new readers, however. How much reverse-continuity will they stand?
Writers like Busiek have led the recent wave that embraces continuity boldly rather than pointedly, like those nasty, backroom trivia fights which result whenever continuity freaks gather. Will we see more series like Avengers Forever? Based on its success, it’s more than likely. Will future writers handle the continuity as adroitly as Mr. Busiek? Doubtful. In the end, whatever is done can be undone. The question is how skillfully it is handled. And if the reader is kept distracted long enough before looking behind the wizard’s curtain and see the old man pulling history’s strings.