Thursday, July 29, 2010

Continuity Continued

One of the comments on my last post was that, though the title of the blog says "introduction" that post was more like a 3rd year course. I'm going to try not to do that, but feel free to ask questions in the comments if something I've said doesn't make sense. It's just as likely that I'm just plain not making sense as it is that it's going over your head.

In my previous post about comics continuity I talked about Umberto Eco and especially his suggestion that Superman can only work as a character if the timeline is unclear. The character must be timeless but the stories are necessarily timely.

The mechanisms that make comic continuity so confusing -- like alternate histories, flashbacks, tangents, and retcons -- are also the mechanisms that allow the story to continue to be told. If the continuity were simple or straightforward then comic book characters would need to die eventually. But a comic like Superman can't be stuck in an eternal present the way for example a gag-a-day comic like Hagar the Horrible is, because a Superman story requires some kind of threat or obstacle, which Superman overcomes. When he overcomes an obstacle, he changes his world and himself, which means that time has passed. As long as the character is mortal, time passing means movement towards death, or simply the end of the story.

To me, the complicated chronologies and continuities of comics seem like an oral tradition more than they do like a conventional literary tradition. Many people have written about literacy and orality, most notably Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word , and I'm not going to summarize Ong here except to say that conventional wisdom is that literate people think differently than do non-literate people. And by "literate people" and "non-literate people" I don't mean individuals who can or can't read, I mean cultures that have the technology of reading and writing. Even illiterate people withing Canadian (or American, or German, or whatever) think like literate people because the technology of literacy is all around them. And one of the most obvious impacts of the technology of literacy is the immutability of the past. Once something has been written down you can check it later. In an oral culture, stories literally exist in memory, so storytelling techniques are (unconsciously) designed to lodge the story firmly within memory. That's why there is so much repetition of tropes in fairy tales that come from an oral tradition. That's why folk stories often exist as rhymes or songs. That's why if you read The Iliad (for example) you'll find that every time anyone has a sacrifice the scene is described in the exact same words. The Iliad is taken from an oral tradition.

Part of what that oral tradition means is that the story seems (and is) fresh every time. The teller can edit the details, embellish on the story, continue past what had previously been the ending. Although Eco is right to point out that someone like Hercules came with an already-completed-past-tense-story, it is also the case that oral traditions by their nature constitute an open tradition. Hercules's story is over, but in an oral tradition the teller can change what that story was.

Comics, paradoxically, often function as if they were oral, although in practice of course they are not. That is part of the paradox of retcons. The current story can tell me that what I've heard about Superman's origin story is wrong. A new book can tell me that Superman's parents are alive and well and living in Smallville, even though the first Superman story -- in which both of Superman's earth-parents are dead by the time he moves to Metropolis -- is still available for me to check. In practice retcons pretend that I don't have the ability to check what has already been written. They pretend that they are a part of an oral rather than a literary tradition.

Partly that is because the disposability of comics (especially at first) meant that a writer could not count on his (and at first it was all "he") readers checking with what has been written already, but there's more to it than that. We'll talk more about comics continuity in a future post, but for now let's just leave it here: comics continuity often acts as though it is functioning within an oral tradition, even though it isn't. Very strange.

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