It's not that I have a continuity problem...oh, no, I can quit any time I want to. I'm not a continuity freak, really. I just...well, I like checking facts sometimes and making sure they jibe with other facts. And if they don't, I like to figure out what it would take to make them jibe better.
That's what I told myself for many years, that I wasn't getting intoxicated by the details, the trivia, the niggling incongruities rattling loosely within the framework of the most complex fictional construct of all time, the Marvel Universe. Then, I admit, I found myself doing it a lot. Sure, I could quit when I wanted to...but I never wanted to. Cracking the texts, scanning the lines, looking for maddening bits of discontinuity. It took nearly getting hit by a falling bookshelf before I had to admit it to myself. I did have a problem. I reveled in obscure trivia, granting greater importance to the details than I did to the entertainment experience. So, after attending Comicaholics Anonymous for a few years, I finally got over my obsession, and I'm better now. I can even see a continuity gaffe without getting itchy palms thinking about how to correct it.
All facetiousness aside, the Marvel Universe is a paradise for the lovers of trivia. With thirtysomething years of stories piling up about the same fictional place, there's a whole lot of material there to immerse one's self in, if one is of such a mind.
Seems to me like we have three kinds of readers. First, there's the casual: a guy or girl who reads a couple to a dozen of our books for pure escapism, and if s/he notices anything askew between the character or story facts of one issue and another, shrugs it off. Then we have the borderline: a guy or girl who reads and rereads a dozen plus of our books, greatly identifying with a number of the characters, and if s/he notices anything askew it'll bother him/her, get him/her thinking about which story was more "accurate:, and maybe even prompt him/her on rare occasions to write in to point out the discrepancy.
Finally, we have the fanatic: a guy or gal who goes over a couple of dozen books with a fine-tooth comb, actually searching for those irritating gaffes and gaps and, upon finding one, feels duty-bound to inform the perpetrators of their offense and to offer a free explanation of how to rectify the error.
I used to be a glowing example of the latter type of reader, in my pre-pro days, even publishing my own fan magazine which delighted in the exploration and explanation of the minutia of elaborate comic book fictional realities. Since I used this fanzine as a portfolio for getting a job in the industry, let's just say that my reputation as a nut preceded me. In fact, once I was branded as a writer more concerned with reconciling ancient discrepancies than with telling whopping good yarns, I had to retrench and retool my professional reputation to beat the rap (plunging into a New continuity-free Universe helped).
All the while my attitude has been, "Hey, I don't like explaining old mistakes for their own sake-- I like using old untied loose ends as springboards and story grist for telling whopping good yarns." I think finally after fifteen years in the business, I've convinced my peers.
Continuity is a treacly, sometimes treacherous thing. Without it, no story would have a bearing on any other-- heck, no single story would have to even be self-consistent! But with too much accumulation of story stuff and character stuff and too many references to same, it can be daunting and disorienting for the uninitiated reader, to say the least. As many of you may know, my interest, knowledge, and background in the details of the Marvel Universe has gotten me the exalted position in the company of Minister of Continuity in Marvel Comics (or MC Squared). I'm the guy who patrols the corridors of the Marvel Universe, keeping track of things, preventing my fellow creatives from damaging our common universal backstory by heinous acts of commission or omission.
But discrepancies do crop up, often by mistake, and sometimes by design. There are any number of writers who have felt the need or the urge at some point or another to mess with the backstory or engage in revisionist history. I'll 'fess up, I've even done it in my own writing, for what I felt were valid, compelling reasons. (I won't bog this down with examples, but anyone so inclined can send a self-addressed stamped envelope in care of this fine magazine and ask me to send you Gruenwald's top ten list of dubious contributions to the Marvel mythos.)
Are there really any good reasons to muck with the status quo, or should the past be left alone, like the proverbial sleeping dog? Well, I think a writer may have a case to plead his/her editor for boggling with the backstory if: 1) there's something in the backstory that just plain doesn't make any sense; 2) there are conflicting accounts or details of how something happened and a retelling my set the record straight; 3) there's a missing chapter in the backstory, an element that's been glossed over in past accounts; 4) futzing with a few details will open whole avenues of new storytelling opportunities.
I don't think it's okay to muck about if a writer: 1) just wants to shake up readers for sensationalism's sake; 2) wants to undo a fellow writer's story for spite, or; 3) wants to wallow in inconsequential trivia.
Ah yes, but in light of the expanded retelling of Daredevil's origin in the limited series soon on sale, what do I think of the idea of playing with the backstory for the sake of updating it? To tell you the truth, I'm of two minds. I believe heroes' origin stories are often the weakest, most preposterous aspects of their mythos and are best gotten through with as best as you can and then brought up as little as possible. In this frame of mind, updating an origin is as deserable as giving a public exhibition of one's underwear.
The other half of my brain tells me that characters are intimately defined by the forces surrounding their origins, and for truly great characters the origins should be considered clay to be molded by gifted storytellers rather than a brittle, rigid stone tablet. But what if a gifted storyteller takes those basic elements of backstory and molds them into something quite distinct from and inconsistent with the original version of events?
Not long after my professional career began, I realized what could really account for all those discrepancies, discontinuities, and inconsistencies among the various stories. Transcriber's error. In other words, all the comic stories in the Marvel Universe took place but one way, the way they "really" happened. Unfortunately, we the readers weren't there and have to rely on a writer's account of what really happened. Some writers are very accurate in their transcriptions of what occurred, others are sloppy or have their own subjective biases in their treatment of the material. It's up to the reader to decide how much veracity to allot any given writer's transcription of story events.
So if Daredevil's backstory happens to be totally reshaped in the latest retelling (I don't know-- I've yet to read it), which is a more accurate transcription of what "really" occurred at Daredevil's inception, the original or the new?
Beats me-- you decide which one works for you. That's how I know I'm no longer obsessed with continuity as I once was. I've become philosophical about the very nature of inconsistency, rather than seeing every inconsistency as a call to arms.