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Marvel Boy: The Uranian

Marvel Boy: The Uranian

As I’m writing this, folks are arriving in San Diego and getting settled for the big show. It’s going to be a busy weekend as comics fight with movies and TV for convention-goers’ attention. And as SDCC continues to diversify – adding bigger and bigger names to its attractions – I figured that maybe it would be appropriate to do the same thing here this week. We’re typically focused on creator-owned adventure comics, but at the risk of stepping on Tom and Carla’s toes, I’d like to discuss something this week that’s mostly an issue only for big-time, corporate-owned, super-hero comics.

We’re talking of course about retroactive continuity – retcons – that controversial thing that happens when a character’s adventures have gone on long enough that they include embarrassing things that need fixing. Or at least someone thinks they need fixing. People of course disagree about these things and that’s where the controversy comes in.

What reminded me of all this is Marvel Boy: The Uranian. Marvel Boy’s a fellow who’s been through a lot of continuity changes, most of which are documented in the collected edition of Jeff Parker and Felix Ruiz’s mini-series. It’s an excellent place to get a snapshot of both the positive and negative aspects of retconning.

Retcons: Hero or Menace? Or, Who Crusades for the Crusader? After the break.

The Screaming Tomb!

The Screaming Tomb!

I understand why Marvel organized the collection the way they did, but it’s out of order. It begins of course with the recent mini-series, and then reprints older Marvel Boy stories in back. Having read none of it before, I disregarded the printed order and started with the reprints, working my way forward chronologically and getting the history of the character.

The oldest stories are from the ’50s Marvel Boy and Astonishing comics and they’re perfectly, wonderfully awesome. I like Adam Strange and all, but Marvel Boy is everything DC’s space pulp character should have been. Like Strange, he’s a citizen of two worlds: modern-day (at least at the time) Earth and a futuristic planet of wonders that provides him with the fantastic technology he uses on his escapades. Adventures take place on both worlds, opening the range of stories that can be told. But unlike Adam Strange, Marvel Boy is in full control of his comings and goings. There’s no tragic romance in which the hero is continually ripped away from his loved ones to add bitterness to the stories. Marvel Boy is pure, undiluted fun. Or was before Roy Thomas got a hold of him.

In the original stories, Marvel Boy helped Atlanteans fight pirates, defeated space tyrants, bandied with zombies and their vampire mistress, matched wits with a magician, plied against a pernicious pen, scrapped with savage suits (not businessmen; clothing), inspired a Uranian Youth Patrol, and dated girlfriends on both planets. None of which was apparently good enough for Marvel in 1975, because Fantastic Four writer/editor Roy Thomas trashed it all in FF #164-165, which are also reprinted in the new collection.

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The Crusader

One reason that most people can’t agree about retcons is that we all like different things and it usually has more to do with our first loves than with any objective measurement of quality. I remember watching the Barbara Gordon and Cassandra Cain fans going at it on the DC message boards back in the day about who the one, true Batgirl was. Those were some ferocious fights, as were the Hal Jordan/Kyle Rayner ones. But in all the shield-beating over who had dibs to which superhero name, no one ever mentioned Betty Kane and precious few brought up Alan Scott. ‘Cause none of the arguers had read those stories.

Same goes for retcons. If I like that Puck from Alpha Flight was born a little person and had fought valiantly against the physical pain and other disadvantages of that condition to battle evil, I’m going to be seriously pissed when you tell me that no, that was never true; he was actually a normal-sized guy who turned little when he trapped a demon in his body. On the other hand, if you tell me that Alfred Pennyworth wasn’t really the meddling son of the Wayne family’s original butler, but a faithful friend and surrogate father to Bruce for his entire life – I’ll be perfectly okay with that.

I wish I could say that Marvel Boy was a good control case, but I realize that’s not true. Though I didn’t grow up with the character, Parker’s use of him in Agents of Atlas has already colored the way I think about him. But then again, Parker uses him very differently than he was portrayed in the ‘50s. More on that in a second, but maybe Marvel Boy’s a good control case after all. He started off exceedingly fun; Thomas turned him into a raving villain.

Everything You Know Is Wrong!

Everything You Know Is Wrong!

In Fantastic Four, Marvel Boy’s home on Uranus is destroyed and Marvel Boy blames Earth. Specifically, a chain of banks in New York City that once turned Marvel Boy’s dad down for a loan. So the hero renames himself Crusader and returns to Earth to wreak vengeance. If I’d read these two issues in the ‘70s, they’d be just another throwaway story about a cosmic threat in need of beating by the Fantastic Four. Reading them on the heels of the ‘50s stuff, they’re really depressing.

I don’t want to get down on Thomas too much. He was a writer with a deadline and a constant need for new villains to throw at his characters. Why not pull out this old dude nobody remembers from twenty years ago and retool him a bit? Or – as the case may be – a lot? But if no one remembers him, why use him at all? Why not make up a new guy with a similar origin? And if people do remember him, why go to such lengths to screw him up? What’s the point? I don’t have any more answer to that than I do to why Bill Mantlo made Northstar a half-elf.

The kind of ludicrous thing about retconning is how much it’s done and then undone. And then often done again. That’s going to sound ungrateful to Parker, but I don’t mean it to. I very much appreciate his rescuing Marvel Boy from Roy Thomas. He didn’t take him all the way back to his happy-go-lucky ‘50s persona, but he did redeem him with a major retcon of his own in Agents of Atlas that’s also reflected in the Marvel Boy collection. The Crusader, it turns out, wasn’t really Marvel Boy at all, but a back-up plan by the Uranians to complete their agenda for Earth in case Marvel Boy disappointed them. Which he did.

Yes, he is.

Yes, he is.

What’s ridiculous isn’t Parker’s explanation, but the need for it. I mean, the success or failure of a retcon is all in whether of not you’ve got the chops to pull it off and Parker does. I remember when Joe Quesada made his “Dead means dead” pronouncement right before letting Joss Whedon resurrect Colossus. Dead only meant dead if you couldn’t pull off the resurrection story with sufficient skill. Retcons should only be attempted by highly skilled writers who know exactly what they’re doing.

But what, exactly, constitutes Knowing What You’re Doing? Is it as simple as respect and care for the characters? Is it a fundamental writing skill that can be learned? This is where you all come in. I’ve already mentioned a few examples of retcons from both Marvel and DC that worked and didn’t work for me. What retcons do you appreciate most? Which do you wish someone would come along and undo? I don’t want to make too many rules about the discussion, but I’m less interested in hearing about out-and-out continuity reboots like any of the Crisis stories. I’m curious about stories that try to adjust continuity while still remaining in continuity. And finally, what makes the difference between a good retcon and a nasty one?

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Comments

3 Comments

Agreed; I have no problems with retcons under the pen of a talented writer able to smooth-over past wrinkles as Parker did with Marvel Boy.

I enjoyed reading this article after having just started reading Kurt Busiek’s “Avengers Forever” for the first time last night. Having not finished the story yet, but getting up to the retcon-filled Chapter 8 (titled something like “The Secret History of the Avengers”), I’m wondering how that was received at the time a decade ago?
(Busiek, you mad genius — LOVING all the references to obscure corners of Marvel lore in this!)

Steven R. Stahl

July 22, 2010 at 9:49 am

Retcons should only be attempted by highly skilled writers who know exactly what they’re doing.

But what, exactly, constitutes Knowing What You’re Doing? Is it as simple as respect and care for the characters? Is it a fundamental writing skill that can be learned?

You’ll hardly ever find highly skilled writers doing retcons, though, because they prefer to emphasize their creativity, originality, and craftsmanship. If a character and his situation isn’t suited for what he wants to do, he’ll create a new character.

Steve Englehart, for example, has rarely retconned stories. His handling of Mantis in AVENGERS: CELESTIAL QUEST was technically a retcon, but that happened because he was taken off WEST COAST AVENGERS #39 in the middle of the issue, DeFalco ended the issue differently than Englehart intended, and Mantis was eventually used in FANTASTIC FOUR for the purpose of writing her off. The retcon was a way of going back to Englehart’s characterization of her.

If you survey retcons, you’ll likely find that the people who employ the “Everything you know about ____ is wrong” or “That didn’t happen; this did” types of retcons rely heavily on formulas for their stories. If a writer talks about “going back to basics” with a hero, he means writing him as a simple archetype who can be summed up in one sentence. The character is very easy to write, but he’s also dull. Eventually, the hero will be handled by someone who wants to be creative; he’ll alter the character, possibly develop him a bit. Readers who want originality will be excited; those who want formulas will hate him. If the next writer uses formulas — “back to basics” time again.

I’ve been involved in a bunch of arguments online involving retcons; the arguments happen because those who like what the retcons do don’t think about them critically. If there’s a conflict between a retcon and the original story, it doesn’t matter,they say, or it’s something to be attended to later, because the original story no longer exists. If there’s a conflict between a retcon and the original story, though, because plot details are wrong, characterization is off, etc., the solution (for the editor) isn’t to ignore the conflict(s), it’s to consider the retcon invalid and have a creative writer rectify the situation.

“Avengers Disassembled” is notorious because it was a defective retcon, with multiple conflicts between Bendis’s storyline and older issues of “Avengers” series. As time has passed and stories have been written, implementing a fix specific to “Avengers Disassembled” has become more difficult. The only practical solution now is to posit that the Scarlet Witch was channeling the power of a deity (e.g., Ikonn), and that the state of the Marvel Universe is a mixture of reality and illusion — people who appear to be dead are alive; people who appear to be alive are dead — and/or that the ending of HOUSE OF M didn’t return the heroes to the real world. They just moved to a different dream world, and M-Day didn’t really happen.

The basic situation in CHILDREN’S CRUSADE is a mess because Heinberg retconned Byrne’s retcon, and tried to say that Byrne’s imaginary, soulless children were actually children, bodiless, but with souls that Wanda retrieved from a metaphysical trash bin, and that the children might have been born to other parents, but were hers, sort of, because they had those souls she retrieved, and powers that she gave them, despite those powers being different than the power Billy had in Englehart’s VISION & SCARLET WITCH #12. It’s too apparent that Heinberg didn’t read the VISION & SCARLET WITCH maxiseries, or didn’t pay attention to the material.

I doubt that the idea of treating defective retcons as junk to be ignored and gotten rid of, as efficiently as possible, would be popular. One man’s retcon is another man’s exciting change. But if a conflict exists, and the writer and editor can’t justify it except to claim that “Continuity shouldn’t interfere with a good story,” or to say that one more defective retcon doesn’t matter, because the Marvel Universe is a mess anyway, then they’re arguing that they should be fired. Practically anybody can write formula fiction; writers who do that are interchangeable. The writers who create and innovate stand out.

SRS

If I were a professional writer working on a established series, I would never retcon away existing material *unless* there was no other choice. For example the Fantastic Four’s origin had to be changed because originally the reason for their spaceflight was to reach the Moon before the soviets did- obviously that doesn’t apply anymore. IF I wanted to make changes, I’d work them into new stories- for example, if I wanted a character who has always been shown to be a coward to be seen in a better light, I would write a story where he grows a spine, and not just start writing him the way I wanted from the get go. It’s the whole point of having a shared universe to begin with- to expand on what’s been done by others, not impose your own selfish vision.

Speaking of which, that’s another problem writers have- many just don’t have the kind of vision needed for shared writing. They just want to write about a specific character (and his supporting cast) and either ignore the rest of its setting or establish plotlines that later cause trouble for other writers. For example many Batman writers have claimed in interviews that they’re interested in the character but not the fact that he’s part of the larger DC universe and then write stories that leave the fans wondering “but wait, why doesn’t X character intervene in this?” An example was the No Man’s Land story where Gotham city was ruined and expulsed from the US, supposedly because rebuilding it would be too costly. Too bad this storyline came shortly after a similar thing happened in nearby Metropolis where everything was fixed *pretty fast*. Why wasn’t the same done with Gotham? Never addressed that I know of; they just wanted a “Batman ala Mad Max” type of story (which isn’t a bad idea actually) and instead of setting it in its continuity, they forced it into the main DC Universe.

Note I’m not saying writers shouldn’t be free to invent new versions of stories or characters; but obviously not everyone’s vision can fit together. It’s up to the editors to decide what to use, what to reject, and what to feature in out-of-continuity books. In fact, most of the big troublesome retcons were the fault of editors, not writers (see: the mess that was the Post-Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity.)

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