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Retroactive continuity (often shortened to retcon) is the deliberate changing of previously established facts in a work of serial fiction. Retconning may be carried out for a variety of reasons, such as to accommodate sequels or further derivative works in the same series, to reintroduce popular characters, to make a reboot of an old series more relevant to modern audiences, or to simplify an excessively complex continuity structure.

Retcons are common in comic books, especially those of large, long-established publishing houses such as Marvel Comics and DC Comics, because of the lengthy history of many series and the number of independent authors contributing to their development. Retconning also occurs in soap operas, movie sequels, professional wrestling, video games, radio series, series of novels, anime and any other type of episodic fiction. It is also used in roleplaying, when the game master feels it necessary to maintain consistency in the story or to fix significant mistakes that occurred during play, often under the synonymous (in this context) term "reality shift".

Origins of the term

The first printed instance of the phrase "retroactive continuity" occurs in All-Star Squadron #18 (cover-dated February 1983) from DC Comics. The series was set on DC's Earth-Two, an alternative universe in which Golden-Age comic characters proceed and age subsequent to their first appearances in real time. Thus by the early 1980s Superman was in his 60s and Batman had died and been replaced by his daughter, The Huntress, whereas on Earth-One, DC's primary universe, these characters are always perpetually young to early middle-age adults. All-Star Squadron in particular, was set during World War II on Earth-Two, so it was in the past of an alternate universe, thus all its events had repercussions on the contemporary continuity of the DC multiverse. Each issue literally changed the history of the fictional world in which it was set. In the letters column, a reader remarked that the comic "must make you [the creators] feel at times as if you're painting yourself into a corner," and "Your matching of Golden-Age comics history with new plotlines has been an artistic (and I hope financial!) success."

Writer Roy Thomas responded, "we like to think that an enthusiastic ALL-STAR booster at one of Adam Malin's Creation Conventions in San Diego came up with the best name for it a few months back: Retroactive Continuity.' Has kind of a ring to it, don't you think?" The term, possibly in limited use before All-Star Squadron #18, then took firm root in the consciousness of fans of American superhero comics.

"Retroactive continuity" was shortened to "retcon", reportedly by Damian Cugley in 1988 on USENET. Hard evidence of Cugley's abbreviation has yet to surface, though in a USENET posting on August 18, 1990, Cugley posted a reply in which he identified himself as "The originator of the word 'retcon.'" Cugley used the newly-shortened word to describe a development in the comic book Saga of the Swamp Thing, which reinterprets the events of the title character's origin by revealing facts that, up to that point, are not part of the narrative and were not intended by earlier writers. In this case, the revelation is that the titular character's memories are false and he is not who he thinks he is. Alan Moore's retcons often involve false memories, for example Marvelman (aka Miracleman in America), and Batman: The Killing Joke.

Types

Although there is considerable ambiguity and overlap between different kinds of retcon, there are some distinctions that fans have made between them, depending on whether the retcon in question adds to, alters, or removes material from the narrative's continuity. These distinctions often evoke different reactions from fans of the material.

Addition

Some retcons do not directly contradict previously established facts, but "fill in" missing background details, usually to support current plot points. This was the sense in which Thomas used "retroactive continuity", as a purely additive process that did not "undo" any previous work, a common theme in his work on All-Star Squadron. Kurt Busiek took a similar approach with Untold Tales of Spider-Man, a series which told stories that specifically fit between issues of the original Amazing Spider-Man series, sometimes explaining discontinuities between those earlier stories. Another series with a similar structure was X-Men: The Hidden Years.

Related to this is the concept of shadow history or secret history, in which the events of a story occur within the bounds of already-established events (especially real-world historical events), revealing a different interpretation of (or motivation for) the events. Some of Tim Powers novels are examples of this, such as Last Call, which suggests that Bugsy Siegel's actions were due to his being a modern-day Fisher King.

Alan Moore's additional information about the Swamp Thing's origins didn't contradict or change any of the events depicted in the character's previous appearances, but changed the reader's interpretation of them. This verges on making alterations to past continuity. Such additions and reinterpretations are very common in Doctor Who, though they are not usually referred to as retcons by fans.

The Star Trek books, The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh , by Greg Cox, detail the fictional Eugenics Wars, giving alternate explanations for real world events such as the Indian nuclear test of 1974.

The History Monks appear in Terry Pratchett's Thief of Time and explain anachronisms in the Discworld (such as Elizabethan theatre existing simultaneously with opera) by describing how history was previously destroyed by a magical clock and they have been haphazardly attempting to reconstruct it.

Alteration

Retcons often add information that effectively states "what you saw isn't what really happened" and then introduce a different version of the backstory. This is usually interpreted by the audience as an overt change rather than a mere addition. The most common form this takes is when a character shown to have died (sometimes explicitly) is later revealed to have survived somehow. This is well known in horror films, which may end with the death of the monster, but when the film becomes successful, the studio plans a sequel, revealing that the monster survived after all. The technique is common in superhero comics, where it has been used so frequently that the term comic book death has been coined for it.

An early famous example in popular culture is the return of Sherlock Holmes: writer Arthur Conan Doyle killed off the popular character in an encounter with his foe Professor Moriarty, only to bring Holmes back, due in large part to audience response.

J. R. R. Tolkien in The Hobbit described the circumstances in which Bilbo Baggins won a magic ring from Gollum. However, by the time he wrote the sequel, The Lord of the Rings, his concept of the ring's nature had changed, at odds with the previous depiction. To explain this discrepancy, Tolkien retold this incident in the new work, explaining the original version as a lie inspired by the malevolent influence of the ring. However, later editions of The Hobbit incorporated the revised version of the story.

In many of his detective novels, Rex Stout implies that his character Nero Wolfe was born in Montenegromarker, and gives some details of his early life in the Balkans prior to and during World War I. However, in Over My Dead Body (1939), Wolfe tells an FBI agent that he was born in the United States. Stout revealed the reason for the change in a letter obtained by his authorized biographer, John McAleer: "In the original draft of Over My Dead Body Nero was a Montenegrin by birth, and it all fitted previous hints as to his background; but violent protests from The American Magazine, supported by Farrar & Rinehart, caused his cradle to be transported five thousand miles."

One of the better known retcons was in the TV series Dallas, where the character Bobby Ewing returned from the dead, after an absence of a complete season. His wife wakes up and sees him in the shower, and realizes that the whole previous season had been a dream.

Fans may invent unofficial explanations for inconsistencies, the challenge itself becoming a source of entertainment. Sometimes these fan-made explanations become so popular and widespread that they slip into accepted canon, and the original creators of the characters accept them. For example, in the film Return of the Jedi, the character Boba Fett suffers a horrible death. However, the character was popular, so some fans held that he had somehow escaped "off-screen", and later books, graphic novels, and even an official action figure accepted this conjecture and depicted Boba Fett as having escaped the ordeal. However, in the commentary for the Special Edition Release of the film, George Lucas stated that the death scene had been made more explicit to refute this interpretation.

It is commonplace for fictional characters appearing over a long period of time to remain the same age, or to age out of sync with real time; this is an ongoing implicit retcon of their birthdate. When historical events are involved in their biography, overt retcons may be used to accommodate this; a character who served in the army during World War II might have his service record retconned to place him in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, etc.

While retconning is usually done without comment by the creators, DC Comics has on rare occasions promoted special events dedicated to revising the history of the DC Comics universe. The most important and well known such event was the mini-series Crisis on Infinite Earths; this allowed for wholesale revisions of their entire multiverse of characters. A storyline in Spider-Man, named One More Day, culminated in the magical revision of history, eliminating the marriage between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, and subsequent developments in the character's history over the previous twenty years. It has been argued that these were not true retcons, however, because the cause of the changes to their universe actually appeared within the story, similar to stories in which a time traveler goes to the past and changes history from how he remembered it.

In live-action television series, real-world developments may prompt alteration-type retcons. For example, in Star Trek: The Original Series, limits in budget and technology resulted in the appearance of Klingons as bronze-skinned, vaguely Oriental people. When the franchise was revived with greater budgets and better makeup techniques, the appearance of Klingons was changed drastically. The new appearance was explained by the producers to be how they always looked, but that they could not be portrayed as such before. The difference was noted by characters in "Trials and Tribble-ations", an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, when modern-era characters travel back in time to the previous era, but dismissed by (modern) Klingon Worf as something Klingons "do not discuss with outsiders." This retcon itself was later retconned, in Star Trek: Enterprise, via a storyline in which it is revealed that the original, quasi-human appearance of the Klingons is due to a genetic mutation caused by an engineered virus.

Subtraction

Sometimes retconned alterations are so drastic as to render prior stories untenable. Many of the retcons introduced in Crisis on Infinite Earths and DC's later Zero Hour were specifically intended to wipe the slate clean, and permit an entirely new history to be written for the characters. This is commonly referred to as a reboot. This is often very unpopular, upsetting fans of the material that has been removed from continuity.

Unpopular or embarrassing stories are sometimes later ignored by publishers, never referred to again, and effectively erased from a series' continuity. They may publish stories that contradict the previous story or explicitly establish that it "never happened", for example by claiming that events in a previous installation were "just a dream". Likewise, an unpopular retcon may even be re-retconned away, as happened with John Byrne's Spider-Man: Chapter One.

An example of subtraction can be found in Disney's The Lion King series. After the success of the first movie, Disney released a group of books titled The Lion King: Six New Adventures in which Simba is said to have a son named Kopa. It is also mentioned in the storybook version of the film that he has a son. However, in the film sequel The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, Simba only has a daughter named Kiara. Kopa is non-existent and no mention is made of him. Kiara also has a different coloring and more feminine features than the cub shown at the end of the first movie.

Another more indirect example of subtraction includes the relegation of certain events into a so-called "secondary continuity". This is useful in franchises in which a large amount of expanded universe material exists. While the expanded universe material is not entirely discounted, it will be subject to critical review and revision in order to conform to the core source material. The rebooting of the Robotech franchise resulted in declaring only the original 85 episode series as canon and everything else (most notably all expanded universe material based on Robotech II: The Sentinels) as secondary continuity although revised Sentinels elements have been included in the 2006 film Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles. The comic book miniseries Robotech: Prelude to the Shadow Chronicles depicts a reworked form of the final chapter of Sentinels, heavily revising the version seen in the Jack McKinney novel Rubicon.

Related

Retroactive continuity is similar to, but not the same as, plot inconsistencies introduced accidentally or through lack of concern for continuity; retconning is done deliberately. For example, the ongoing continuity contradictions on episodic TV series such as The Simpsons or South Park (in which one character is killed repeatedly, yet returns without explanation in the next episode) reflects very loose continuity, not genuine retcons. However, in series with generally tight continuity, retcons are sometimes created after the fact to explain continuity errors.

Retconning is also generally distinct from replacing the actor who plays a part in an ongoing series, which is more commonly an example of loose continuity rather than retroactively changing past continuity. The different appearance of the character is either ignored, as was done with the character of Darrin Stephens on the television show Bewitched, or explained within the series, such as with "regeneration" in Doctor Who, or the Oracle in The Matrix: Revolutions.

It also differs from direct revision. For example, when George Lucas re-edited the original Star Wars trilogy, he made changes directly to the source material, rather than introducing new source material that contradicted the contents of previous material. However, the later series of Star Wars prequels did qualify as "new source material", and many fans have pointed out instances that apparently retcon elements of the original trilogy.

The "clean slate" reinterpretation of characters - as in movie and television adaptations of books, or the reintroduction of many superheroes in the Silver Age of Comics - is similar to a reboot retcon, except that the previous versions are not explicitly or implicitly eliminated in the process. These are merely alternate or parallel reinterpretations, such as the character re-interpretations of the DC animated universe or the Ultimate Marvel line of comics.

Literature involving retconning

In Stephen King's novel, Misery, the protagonist, Paul Sheldon, is forced to write a sequel to his book Misery's Child, in which the main character, Misery Chastain, dies. He at first attempts to retcon the events in that book, but his captor, Annie Wilkes, regards this as cheating and makes him create a sequel that doesn't actively deny what the reader already knows. The second attempt to bring Misery Chastain back to life (which Annie Wilkes likes) is almost an example of a comic book death.

Though the term "retcon" did not yet exist when George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, the totalitarian regime depicted in that book is involved in a constant, large-scale retconning of past records. For example, when it is suddenly announced that "Oceania was not after all in war with Eurasia. Oceania was at war with Eastasia and Eurasia was an ally" (Part Two, Ch. 9), there is an immediate intensive effort to change "all reports and records, newspapers, books, pamphlets, films, sound-tracks and photographs" and make them all record a war with Eastasia rather than one with Eurasia. "Often it was enough to merely substitute one name for another, but any detailed report of events demanded care and imagination. Even the geographical knowledge needed in transferring the war from one part of the world to another was considerable." See historical revisionism .

References in popular culture

In the British science fiction television program Torchwood, a drug used to erase the memory of characters is called "Retcon". Additionally, the use of the drug is often referred to by characters as "retconning". The nod to retroactive continuity is a joke meant to be shared between the writers and the viewers as a way of pointing out that anything done throughout the course of the series can easily be undone with a simple plot device, with a note to the fact that Torchwood's parent program, Doctor Who, has made frequent use of retroactive continuity during its several-decade run.

In Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, the Hobgoblin of the year 2211 carries a weapon known as a 'Retcon Bomb'; upon impact, it erases its target and all memories of the target from existence, though not erasing the consequences of their existence. This weapon has not been used since, because its inventor fell victim to one.

See also



Footnotes

  1. http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.comics/msg/45793eff7c060796?dmode=source
  2. Doyle, Arthur Conan (1893). "The Adventure of the Final Problem." The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
  3. McAleer, John, Rex Stout: A Biography, pp. 403 and 566; see also Over My Dead Body


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