On Continuity

There is some (well, lots, really) discussion of specific events from the Marvel comics New Avengers: Illuminati #2 and Avengers #'s 7 and 8. Keep that in mind, more spoiler conscious folks.

As someone who tends to be a fan of mythology based continuous universes in my choices of entertainment (i.e. the Marvel comics ‘616’ universe, the so-called Joss Whedon Buffyverse, Battlestar Galactica, other various and sundry geeky things), the subject of continuity, and by degrees the breaching of said continuity, comes up quite a bit. A perfect example of this would be the last two issues of Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers run (issues seven and eight), which have begun a storyline about the infinity gems that hearkens back to one of the issues of his New Avengers: Illuminati miniseries wherein the members of the Illuminati were each given an infinity gem (uber powerful artifacts of the Marvel universe that combine to create the infamous Infinity Gauntlet) for safekeeping. Iron Man received the Reality Gem, Mr. Fantastic the Power Gem, Namor the Time Gem, Dr. Strange the Soul Gem, Professor X the Mind Gem, and Black Bolt the Space Gem. With the Infinity Gems being what they are and the characters being as well established as they are, it seemed like a pretty big moment that would pay off some time down the line. I remember the rampant speculation (and I was definitely a part of this rampant speculation in my own way) that once Black Bolt was revealed to be a Skrull in the final issue of New Avengers: Illuminati, he had been a Skrull when the gems were distributed, and the way the Skrulls were able to sneak past Earth’s defenses and invade was due to Skrull Black Bolt’s specific use of the Space Gem to teleport his fellow aliens onto the Earth for infiltration, as well as helping out their ability to presumably move star fleets at the blink of an eye. It made sense. It was a logical continuation of the storyline. It didn’t end up being the case, which felt like a missed opportunity, but I can understand Bendis wanting to wait considering the Dark Reign and Siege events that were already planned out at that point to take place in the wake of Secret Invasion.

The issue arises when The Hood, a personal favorite villain of Bendis, begins his own Thanos Quest to collect the gems in Avengers #7, and manages to take Black Bolt’s gem (the easiest to take, considering his current status being dead, and no one else having the knowledge that he has the gem). But the Black Bolt’s gem he takes is the Reality Gem, which based on simple color analysis of New Avengers: Illuminati #2, was given to Iron Man. All the gems have an established color, and the yellow of the Reality Gem was featured in Iron Man’s panel, while the purple Space Gem was obviously given to Black Bolt. We have further, if somewhat spurious, proof that this was indeed the original intent from the Marvel Universe expansion of the dearly departed VS. System trading card game, which featured a cycle of the six Illuminati members as cards with their versions including the gem they were given. Iron Man is listed as “Protector of the Reality Gem” and Black Bolt is “Protector of the Space Gem.” One would assume (hope?) that someone from Marvel would have proofed that expansion as a licensed Marvel property, and I also know that the folks working for VS at the time (such as my former writer in arms Billy Zonos over at read/RANT) weren’t about to make a mistake like that.

The other funny thing about the situation is the fact that The Hood immediately makes use of his fancy new Reality Gem to effortlessly break into the Baxter Building to steal the Power Gem from Reed Richards, a feat that would not have been possible had Black Bolt possessed the Space Gem like he was ‘supposed to.’ He then immediately used the combination of the Power Gem and Reality Gem to put a whooping on the Red Hulk, something that again would have been basically impossible. Hell, I never really understood why the other gems even mattered beyond the Reality Gem, which can in theory do basically anything. Of course, this is comics, disbelief is suspended, and so on and so forth. That’s fine. The question now that faces us is how important we consider continuity within the framework of a consistent media-based universe and how we try to reconcile mistakes that may show up on a personal level.

The first response, of course, especially in the age of the internet, is to react negatively in a public manner. This public manner has the added bonus of being almost entirely anonymous thanks to message boards and user ID’s that allow (to make up a name) BendisSucksLOL to let us know exactly what he’s thinking at all times, whether we care or not. These responses tend to be mean spirited, not particularly well thought out, and don’t actually accomplish anything of note. Most of what I’ve found on the ‘net as far as discussions of this generally seemed to be more questioning in tone (the “wait, didn’t Black Bolt get the Space Gem, or am I remembering incorrectly?”), which is a nice change from the sort of Comic Book Guy type of damning response we’re used to seeing these days from everyone with a keyboard and some spare time that gives all of us a bad name. Yes, Marvel hires editors that are technically supposed to catch things like this. Yes, Bendis wrote both issues, which looks pretty bad on the surface, though they were published nearly four years apart from each other. We all can dream that a guy like Bendis keeps meticulous notes about everything he’s ever written in every little corner of the comics industry, but such things simply aren’t feasible for your average working writer with the kind of writing load that Bendis has (dude writes a lot of books), and the sanity of your writer combined with the ability to actually release things even somewhat on time is usually a simple enough payoff for a continuity gaffe here or there. These books aren’t written by a robot. Accidents happen.

So where are we left here when something like this comes up? Are we right in complaining about the failure of editorial or the writer? Should we rail at the supposed redundancies of an editorial staff that can’t completely and totally do their job? Should we even care in the first place? Why does it matter? It’s simple enough to say that Bendis wrote Black Bolt having the Reality Gem in Avengers 7 and 8 because that’s what had to happen for the story to actually work, so that’s what happened and damn the critics. And you know what? He might be right. Obviously, I haven’t personally found any response specifically from Bendis to the community on the subject, and while it would be potentially interesting to hear what he has to say, I’m not dying to find out, nor am I condemning him for the error. It’s not unreasonable to look at things from the perspective of what needs to work right now opposed to what was written back then, and writers have to work in the framework of the story that is in front of them. The comics industry is a specifically thorny situation, as (1) these are generally monthly periodicals, so it’s like editing a book in sections, over months or potentially years at a time, which can lead to confusion and oversights, and (2) someone has to draw the damned things (not to mention inking, coloring, and lettering them), which takes time and adds more cooks to the equation. Indeed, the comics industry is set up in such a way that it seems very likely that it’s easier to have continuity errors in the comics industry more so than television or film or novels or other mediums where continuity is important. We learn to live with these things. The world doesn’t stop rotating because a cut on Peter Parker’s hand changes from the left to the right in different panels.

What’s more interesting is what this says about us as humans who enjoy these sorts of mediums and can’t stand the continuity errors when they show up. The brain runs on a sense of constantly establishing continuity. What is consciousness, really, than a consistent understanding of the world around the subject from that person or thing’s specific point of view? Consciousness is, for all intents, internal continuity with the physical world. We’re trained from the earliest of ages to understand that a world exists beyond our simple immediate perceptions. This is called Object Permanence. Things do not cease to exist when we can’t perceive them. The reason why Peek-A-Boo works as a game for incredibly young infants and not later in infancy, as when the person or object disappears behind something, the infant without a developed understanding of object permanence really thinks the person or object no longer exists, and might become scared or upset, only to be delighted when the person reappears, knowing all is safe and sound. Once the infant reaches the “well, you’re just hiding behind a chair; how stupid do you think I am?” stage, the game loses some of its appeal. At its basest understanding, object permanence really comes down to an evolved understanding of spatial relations, but one can easily extrapolate object permanence beyond the simplicity of the spatial to an overall continuity of our world view that applies to things beyond spatial relations. This is an easy way to understand why we as humans can get so upset when things don’t go right. It’s a primal call back to when our mothers disappeared behind a chair and we thought we were alone in this world for a short, cruel moment before our caregiver was returned to us (indeed, from the child’s perspective, peek-a-boo is a somewhat evil and tortuous game of yo-yo with its emotions).

I’m probably out on an undeniably flimsy limb right now, but I’m going to run with it as a thought experiment. It might not even be prudent to extend the idea behind object permanence to such a degree, and there might be some other technical term beyond my purview that explains this phenomenon to a T. I think this is why psychological horror can be so effective for some people when slasher or torture porn films don’t scare or affect them at all. Those films attack the viewer via a shared kinship concerning bodily harm; the reason Friday the 13th scares us is because we’d rather not be chopped to bits with a machete ourselves, and the thought of that actually happening understandably results in fear. The same could be said to be true with the Saw or Hostel films, just to a more calculated extreme. Of course, all of these films also often subscribe to the “Gotcha!” method of startle scares as well, which is more a case of being caught off guard and unawares, opposed to actually tapping into a more primal sense of fear. It’s the more subtle things that I think have true potential to tap into that primal fear. Something as simple as the reflection of a mirror not acting the way it should is enough to set off something; the human race has known how reflections should act for centuries, and the idea of a reflection ‘misbehaving’ (looking like something else, moving out of concert with the person, twisting the image, etc.) can be a thoroughly disturbing experience. It’s played for laughs in Evil Dead II, but hell, everything’s played for laughs in Evil Dead II. Still, it’s a trope that shows up often enough in psychological horror films that there has to be some reason for its popularity. There are more examples, but I think I’ll leave them for another time.

Continuity and object permanence give us mental security. It’s a calming effect that lets us know what to expect from the physical world on a day to day basis. Einstein’s famous quote elucidates this: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That’s what object permanence saves us from. That’s what the overactive mirror represents: insanity. Insanity is the ultimate fear for the rational mind; the idea of being able to cogently understand the world around us while still being alive and conscious is a deeply disturbing thought. It’s like death without being dead, but instead you are constantly assailed by the world not acting in the way you expect it to. The entire physical world becomes a series of disobedient mirrors, and there’s no longer anything to trust. When you can’t trust your mind, where does that leave you?

I think the desire to make everything we read within a universe contiguous with itself is an extrapolation of this inherent need for the world to act like we expect it to. In the grand scheme of things, Black Bolt having the wrong infinity gem is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things; the only time in all of published Marvel comics history that it’s mentioned that Black Bolt has the Space Gem is that one issue of New Avengers: Illuminati. Had it been the case that Skrull Black Bolt did use the Space Gem as part of the invasion plan during Secret Invasion, it would probably be a bit more damning of an oversight. But that’s not the case, and The Hood really had to take the Reality Gem first in order for the rest of his plan to work and the storyline to be plausible. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made in the name of expedience.

Those of us who dedicate large amounts of thought, time, and money to such a universe (and given the overall geeky nature of most of these enterprises, it’s not a surprise that people become hooked on a universe. We’re personalities easily prone to addiction), tend to reach such a point that we strive for the fictional universe to be just as ‘real’ as our physical world, lumping the same expectations for continuous logic onto that universe as we do our own. Perhaps it’s escapism. Perhaps it’s some desire to justify the time and money expenditure. Either way, we look at something like Black Bolt having the Space Gem in one issue and the Reality Gem in another as something akin to a mischievous mirror. The universe we call our own by extension is not acting the way it should. Things feel wrong. The difference, of course, is the fact that this is a work of fiction written by human being, an inherently imperfect construct, and things like this will happen from time to time. Editors are put in place to try and keep such mistakes to a minimum, but all editors, with comic book editors in particular, have other duties, such as making sure the project is on time and within budget constraints, and making sure the writer, penciler, inker, letterer, and colorist are all working in harmony with each other. This is specifically tied to the book coming out on time, and (rightfully) is of greater import than vetting the individual details. Sure, Bendis wrote both books, and Tom Brevoort was lead editor on both books, but these guys have bigger fish to fry.

Continuity errors happen. They are not the end of the world. This does not mean that they are beyond criticism and shouldn’t be brought up at all, but when they are made into the emphasis (there’s something that feels good about italicizing the word ‘emphasis’) of the book or a review of the book or comments about the book, I think people are going about it the wrong way. There are extenuating circumstances, of course, as well as errors that are so egregious that they cannot be ignored and are rightly criticized. But if the story is good and the art is good and the overall package is good, that should be the focus, not one tiny aspect of it that might be slightly off of what it should be. Part of the reason why geeks tend to get such a bad rap in society, even in today’s day and age where geeks have essentially taken over the world (just look at the highest grossing films, as well as the voracious response to the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, the proliferation of World of Warcraft, or even the manic number crunching involved in fantasy football for just a few examples), is because of this ridiculous and overly dramatic response from the culture when things like this happen. It’s part of the reason I do my best to divest myself from such ideals. The world isn’t going to stop because Black Bolt has the wrong gem or Hour Man is referred to by a previous Hour Man’s identity or any number of other things that will show up from time to time. The huge amount of time, effort, and artistic merit that goes into these productions is often cruelly lost. It’s that one or two extra minutes that it takes to pull back and think about things before going off the handle that would make the world, and the internet, a better place. Will it happen? I doubt it. A man can dream, though.