Last time I wrote about fictional universes, and how we know all sorts of facts about them that we’ve never been explicitly told. We know, for instance, that in the DC universe Pythagoras’ theorem is true, even if it’s probably never been stated.
(Although, come to think of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gardner Fox had used it as a crucial plot point in an Adam Strange story)
I said that we should think of reading a comic (or any other narrative, for that matter) as though we were making a big list of all the facts that are true in the world described in the comic. First we write down all the facts that are true in our world: e.g. 2+2=4; elephants are big; Superman Returns was arguably the best Superman-as-Jesus movie ever made. Then we add the facts that the comic explicitly presents to us: e.g. the Blue Beetle got shot in the head; Guy Gardner has a stupid haircut; Superman can, like, fly and punch through walls and stuff. Then we subtract any of the earlier facts that are inconsistent with these new facts: e.g. there was a Superman movie; Superman is a merely fictional character; there’s no such planet as Krypton. The result is the fictional world described by that comic (or novel or whatever)
Now I want to ask a stupid question: why bother with that third step? Why not just imagine a fictional world where it’s true both that there’s a guy called Superman who can fly around and all that jazz and that Superman is a merely fictional character?
The answer to the stupid question is, I hope, obvious: because such a world would be crazy! Or, rather, it would logically inconsistent, and we can’t imagine such a world. What, on the one hand, in this world Superman is flying around, saving the world, but at the same time he doesn’t really exist in that world? That doesn’t make sense!
So there’s an important constraint on creating and understanding a fictional world. To wit, a fictional world has to be logically consistent. When we, as readers, try to picture the world that the creators are trying to describe, we can only understand logically consistent worlds. And that means that we have to ferret out inconsistencies in our understanding of the world. For instance, if the story says there’s a guy called Superman, then we infer that, in this world, Superman is not a fictional character.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds and that a “great soul has simply nothing to do” with consistency. In which case, we’re all little minds when we read, because consistency is exactly the one thing we all care about when we read, or watch a movie, or otherwise think about a fictional world.
And we don’t just check for consistencies between story-facts and real-world-facts. The story as a whole has to be internally consistent. You can’t tell me on page 1 that the butler did it and then, on page 22 that the Joker did it—unless the butler is the Joker. Just as we have to throw out some real-world facts if they contradict story-facts, so we may have to throw out some story-facts if they contradict other story-facts.
And, lo, continuity is born!
The shared universe, with characters interacting and stories intersecting, is just an extension of the single, self-contained story. And so is “continuity” as superhero readers think of it just an extension of the internal continuity of a single story. If we read a single story about Superman, we expect it to be consistent from start to finish. If Lex Luthor shows up on page 2 with a broken leg and then again on page 21 with no broken leg, there had better be an explanation for it. The same goes, by extension, for continuity across stories and even across different series. If Lex Luthor shows up in Action Comics with a broken leg and in Teen Titans with no broken leg, then there’d better be an explanation for that too. Maybe the Teen Titans story happens before the one in Action Comics. Maybe he invented a broken-leg-healing ray. Maybe there’s really two Lex Luthors, and one of them is an evil counterpart from another world—nah, no one would ever believe anything as stupid as that. But one way or another, if these events are all happening in the same world, there has to be a way to reconcile them with one another. Otherwise we’re being asked to imagine an impossible world, and that’s something we simply can’t do.
So have I reclaimed continuity? Is the message: forget about the image of continuity-hound as Comic Book Guy and the ridicule of popular culture (not to mention Emerson)? It’s okay to wallow in your continuity-porn?
Hell no. Find out why next time.