Continuity: When less is more

by | Jan 17, 2010 | Commentary | 7 comments

From Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil that Men Do #4, by Kevin Smith and Terry and Rachel Dodson

From Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil that Men Do #4, by Kevin Smith and Terry and Rachel Dodson

If you’re like me, you enjoy Silver Age Daredevil. Not “enjoy” in the sense that you consider it to be a great example of the literary merits of the comic book medium, or even in the sense that you’re reading something that makes sense. Comparing modern Daredevil to its Silver Age equivalent is like comparing filet mignon to macaroni and cheese. They both pass for food, they are both enjoyable in their own way, but they’re not really comparable in any other sense.

Naturally, I have a preference for filet mignon and, more importantly, I don’t want anyone trying to rub mac and cheese in my face while I’m eating my steak (or vegetarian substitute, if that’s your choice). There’s no point in dragging old leftovers out from the darkest corners of the freezer when there’s perfectly good food in the house. If you’re wondering what I’m trying to say with this odd analogy (and no, I haven’t eaten in the last few hours so I would go for either right now) is this: Not everything that’s in continuity needs to be acknowledged. In fact, a lot of the time it’s much better not to.

In the panel above, which is taken from the fourth issue of the Spider-Man/Black Cat mini written by Kevin Smith, with art by Terry and Rachel Dodson, it’s not only Matt who is uncomfortable. It has me cringing too. Yes, any hardcore Daredevil fan will know that Matt was involved in an extended storyline during which he pretended to be his own twin. It was written more than forty years ago, and, aside from the entertaining nuttiness of it all, it was quite possibly one of the most ridiculous plot developments in comic book history. It’s perfectly okay to pretend it never happened.

In this case, I suspect that Kevin Smith is trying to flaunt his knowledge of continuity and score some points with the über-geeks, but the fact remains that it adds absolutely nothing to the story. If anything, it only serves to alienate new readers who are deliberately left out of the loop.

I’m not going to suggest that awkward moments like the one above are particularly common, but I will take this opportunity to throw in my two cents on the commonly discussed topic of comic book continuity generally. My opinion is that the concept of continuity is worth protecting. As primarily a Marvel reader (not counting the odd Vertigo TPB), I like the organic feel of a natural progression that comes from the shared Marvel Universe where slates are rarely wiped completely clean and characters have a past. However, past events generally range from central to the development of the character, to altogether forgettable. Being truly respectful of continuity means knowing which events have contributed to what makes a character special while allowing the less than stellar ideas gently slip into oblivion.

It’s okay to pretend certain things never happened. Mike Murdock doesn’t need to be mentioned, and the same thing goes for all the times Matt has faked his own death. Personally, I prefer to think of Daredevil’s trip to space in Daredevil #2, his piloting the Avengers jet in Daredevil #100 and the entire Jack Batlin era under Chichester’s pen as strange anomalies that are difficult to reconcile with the Matt Murdock we see today.

So, what are your thoughts on continuity and past events? Do you have a hard time – as I do – thinking of Silver Age Daredevil and modern Daredevil as the same character? And, how do we find the best balance between tapping into the richness of continuity and drowning in its complexity?


  1. Ian

    As Marv Wolfman once said “continuity means the best writer at a company is held hostage by the worst. ” and much as I enjoy Silver Age oddities I’d hate to shackle today’s writers by insisting it’s all remembered and referred to all of the time.

  2. Aaron K

    While I would, as Ian mentions, never want to shackle good writers with odd choices of the past, I think it’s a horribly distracting mistake when current writers simply ignore continuity in order to tell whatever story they might wish. To innocently and unintentionally commit a continuity error is one thing. Even to ignore a past event is often fine. But, to simply insist that past events happened radically differently than we all know they did is quite another and that’s where I think trouble arises.

    A reader like myself views a comic book as one extended story. Consequently, a healthy respect for the beginning of the story is essential to keep me engrossed. If Matt Murdock was blinded by radioactive waste, you can’t really change that to his being blinded by staring at the sun. That’s just not right. But, if you simply never again mention what blinded him, I don’t mind at all. If I were Matt Murdock, I would have already instructed my friends to never again mention that I successfully fooled them all that I had a twin brother who was really Daredevil for months. It’s embarrassing. And who wants to be reminded of their embarrassing past? We let it go and we change. But, if a writer simply stated that it didn’t happen? I’d go as berserk as comic geeks go.

    The key, for me, is respecting what other writers have contributed by not calling them liars. This does limit future writers, but I think it’s a worthwhile limitation. It maintains the characters that we know and love. If you want to tell a storyline that contradicts earlier chapters of the overall Daredevil story, go to the Ultimate universe or create a knock-off. Unless you want to write an elaborate dream sequence to explain it away, Matt Murdock flew a spaceship. The end. Now, let us never speak of it again.

  3. Darediva

    For me, the example you show is also cringyworthy. Mainly because the writer, Kevin Smith, is definitely going for the fanboy inside joke, including his own “second coming” debacle of Guardian Devil. Argh.

    I agree that some things about a character should not change, like the basic origin story. DD has a good one, so I’m happy to keep it. What can evolve is the tone of the stories told about a character, and I’m happy to say that we don’t have the same wisecracking swashbuckler (what the hell is that, anyway?) that Stan Lee started with, and we now have a more streetlevel type of story. There’s still plenty enough fantasy to park your disbelief at the door. I can do that. I don’t have to know how Matt gets changed in 5 seconds flat from Armani to spandex.

    I’m just glad that we all still have DD most every month to make us wonder what will happen in thirty days down the road. Goodness knows we came close enough for the title to almost be canceled at one point!

  4. Bill

    I think a little respect for the creators that have gone before, and their creative energy is ok. And a little pandering to the fans isn’t a big deal. I don’t have a problem with referencing the past. The truth is that if Matt wasn’t eternally like 33 years old he would be pushing 60. The world that was being reflected in the 60s and 70s (exaggerated as it was) was Matt’s world at the moment. Referencing that Mike Murdock, or Jack Batlin, or a stint in San Francisco happed is fine, and I think readers are smart enough to know that because of the nature of the medium, things didn’t happen verbatim as they happened back in the day or whenever. Some things can’t work (popping by Vietnam to entertain the troops or a Rolling Stone interview). But in Smith’s first run he used Mephisto, and Matt indicated that they had met before. A small nod to Nocenti’s run on the book that worked well with the story. If someone shows up from the past is Matt just going to pretend he doesn’t know him or her. “Number 9, who the hell are you?” just doesn’t fly. I like to think “most” of the stuff happened. I like to think his adventures were different when he first started. And the world changed. Becky Blake could have been left in the dust of the 80s, but when they returned her to the story, it was cool. Same vibe.

  5. PHB

    Well, I for one do like continuity. While it is impossible to reconcile all, I like when writers and artists do know past history. To me, the armor Daredevil makes me cringe more than a stint in Cali. The fact is that DD from 1964 to today is going to be different. Writers live in the present and their characters reflect that. Where old hornhead is lucky is that there have not been any earth shattering continuity problems in the run. Take Spidey, which is an absolute mess from clones to identity reveals to brand new day. Part of the reason DD is my favorite is because he is kinda what he is. So keep the site going – keep the comments flowing. This is so fun. And yeah, Kevin can be fanboy to the Max, but when he is at Jay and Silent Bobs Secret Stash in Red Bank, NJ – I heard him talking DD. SWEET

  6. Christine

    Thank you all for the comments! Continuity is always one of those topics that people usually have strong opinions on. I’ve read what you guys have had to say, and done some more thinking and I think the good news is that there are ways of keeping old comics with a lot of history new and fresh without contradicting that which has gone before. That leaves people free to decide for themselves whether they consider Mike Murdock to be a bad dream that “didn’t really happen” or a factual in-continuity event that we just simply don’t speak of.

    I absolutely agree that writers who are taking over a book with a long history should do plenty of research and be willing to ask an expert if they’re unsure about certain details that may be central to a story they’re working on. But the fact of the matter is that the number of events and important characters that still influence the modern incarnation of any character is small. I guess my final word on this is that respect for continuity is important, but that the more embarrassing and forgettable moments shouldn’t be dragged out of the closet unless absolutely necessary. There’s no need to contradict them, it’s just that the “don’t ask – don’t tell” approach works well in many cases.

  7. Aaron K

    @Christine et al – I just listened to the MOMB podcast on which you ably guest-starred. (Is that the right word?) You made some continuity-related comments that I think relate well to this post. It strikes me that there are probably different levels of continuity that need to be observed and respected.

    First, there’s the intra-book continuity that you discussed in this post. Do the events of Daredevil #2 affect/constrain the events of Daredevil #500? Should they?

    Second, there’s (limited) inter-book continuity. Do the actions of Daredevil, for example, in the pages of New Avengers affect the actions of Daredevil in his own book? Does the reveal in Mighty Avengers that Electra was a Skrull prior to taking over the Hand completely confuse/piss on all the events of the Murdock Papers arc? (That’s my way of saying that it does and it was stupid.)

    Third, there’s (full) inter-book continuity/universal continuity. Do the maxi-events in the larger Marvel Universe have an influence on the pages of Daredevil? Does the fact that Norman Osborn is ruling H.A.M.M.E.R. affect Daredevil’s life in the appropriate way? This level of continuity, I feel, presents problems the least frequently, especially on a quasi-compartmentalized book like Daredevil. But, if New Avengers didn’t reflect the new status quo post-Secret Invasion, that would be a horrible oversight.

    I think that, oddly enough, intra-book continuity is NOT the most important to preserve. While it’s nice for Daredevil #500 to be consistent with Daredevil #2, that really won’t draw folks out of their suspension of disbelief very much. (This problem naturally increases as the number of issues between the discrepancy decrease. If there are continuity issues between DD #500 and #501, that’s BAD.)

    Limited inter-book continuity seems the least important, if only because it’s the hardest to maintain and observe. You’re asking writers across dozens of books to be aware of the happenings in all books. And readers are least likely to bump into it.

    The universal continuity seems the most important for Marvel. If it were the case that Nick Fury were still running S.H.I.E.L.D. in Daredevil, but Norman Osborn is running H.A.M.M.E.R. in New Avengers, that’s horribly problematic. It’s indicative of wholly separate universes. One of Marvel’s great contributions to comic books was the shared universe, and the huge events of that universe need to be respected to maintain that sense of ONE WORLD. If J. Jonah Jameson is the mayor of New York in Spider-man, he’d better be Daredevil’s mayor too.

    As usual, I’ve rambled too long, but I think it’s somewhat useful to be more specific on the “continuity” that we’re either praising or reviling.


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