Capturing continuity

Freud used to say that the repressed returns. In today’s comic book marketplace, you don’t even have to be repressed. Indeed, scientists predict that, at the current rate of reprinting, every single comic book ever published will have been reprinted by March 2016. At which point the entire surface of the North American continent will collapse under the combined weight of unsold copies of World War Hulk: Frontline, The Essential Star Comics: ALF, and Bazooka Joe: The Classic Years: Volumes 1-37.

One of the odder reprint projects in recent years has been the decades-old continuity handbooks. Marvel has Essential-ized its Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and DC was at one stage planning to Showcase its equivalent Who’s Who. DC has already reprinted Michael Fleischer’s quixotic Encyclopedias from the 1970s which exhaustively, and exhaustingly, indexed every Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman story up to the 1960s.

These volumes are doubly redundant nowadays: first, because they’re out of date but, second, because of the internet—and wikis in particular. Pretty much every obscure detail of continuity is available somewhere online, if you’ve only the patience to find it.

So let’s have a trivia quiz about facts in the DC universe. We’ll start it off with an easy one:

1) Who is the alter ego of Superman?

Okay, you probably didn’t have to look up anything to answer “Clark Kent”. So try this one:

2) Who is the alter ego of Chameleon Boy?

I admit, I had to check that on wikipedia. What about this one:

3) Which of the following two cities has the higher latitude: Paris or New York?

Your first reaction might be: well, hang on, what? That’s not in the Who’s Who.

But, if you think about it, you’ll see that it is a legitimate question about the DC universe. In the DC universe, there’s a place called Paris, and a place called New York. So there’s got to be a fact about which city is northernmost, even if it’s never been explicitly mentioned in any DC comic [although perhaps some eager reader will direct me to an obscure panel from an old issue of JLE].

A bit of searching on the internet shows that, in our world, the answer is “Paris”. So it’s probably true in the DC universe, right?

Now, how about this question:

4) What is two times pi, to two decimal places?

Again, not something in Who’s Who, and probably not something that’s ever been explicitly mentioned in an issue of Booster Gold or whatever. But, in our world, two times pi is 6.28. So that must be the answer in the DC universe too.

This shows something important about fictional universes: their authors never tell us all the facts about them. As a matter of fact, they couldn’t possibly tell us all the facts, since there are indefinitely many of them. So how do we know that, in the DC universe, Paris is north of New York and twice pi is 6.28, if no comic about the DC universe has ever told us as much?

Here’s a simple answer: when we are told a story, we assume that the world it describes is just like ours. When Siegel and Shuster drew their first Superman stories, they didn’t need to tell their readers that physics and mathematics worked pretty normally in their fictional world, or that America had fought a bloody civil war in the nineteenth century. Their readers just assumed it, in the same way that we just assumed that Paris and Washington are located in roughly the same positions on DC-earth as they are on real-earth.

But clearly the simple answer is too simple. Consider the next two questions:

5) Is Superman a fictional character published by DC?

6) Do lots of people know that Superman is Clark Kent?

In our world, the answer to both questions is “yes”. But in the DC universe, the answer is “no”, of course. In the DC universe, Superman is a real guy and very few people know his secret identity (that’s why it’s a secret identity).

Here’s a slightly more complicated answer, then: when we are told a story, we assume that the world is just like ours—except when it’s not. So what do you do when you read a comic or watch a film? Think of it as writing out a list of all the facts that are true in the world that’s being described. First you assume that it’s just like our world, so you write down all the facts that are true in our world (of course you couldn’t literally do that, but it’s just a metaphor). Then you start adding facts that the authors tell you: all right, there’s this guy Superman. And he’s really strong. And he comes from some planet called Krypton. There’s three additional facts right there, additional to the facts in our world. Once you’ve added all the facts explicitly given in the story, then you cross off any of the earlier facts that contradict these new facts—so you cross off the fact that Superman is a fictional character, that no one has superstrength, and that there’s no such planet as Krypton.

And that’s what happens when you read a comic. What does this have to do with continuity? Find out next time, because this post is…to be continued.

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