My Thoughts on Continuity

I’ve talked about this before online, but I thought I’d capture the core of my position in one location.

Many continuing comic fans say, “Continuity is no barrier to readers to new readers. When I was a kid, I loved knowing that there was a bigger universe out there with more stories.” It’s a common thread among those who defend a tight continuity as an attractive element for a superhero comic universe.

I’m not sure people realize a key factor in that type of story: they were kids. They had plenty of free time to ponder and reread and and plenty of brainspace to keep all this stuff handy. Demonstrating mastery over obscure knowledge is very attractive to kids looking for feelings of accomplishment. (It’s speculated that that collecting and sorting instinct is also what made Pokemon so popular.)

The only time I’ve been heavily into continuity was when I became a Legion of Super-Heroes fan. I was in grad school. Once again, I had plenty of free time, I was in an environment with lots of encouragement to study and draw connections, and I was looking for a distraction from much heavier required reading.

I think most adults, unless they still have the knowledge from when they’re a kid, are looking for reads that are more stand-alone. Of course, balance and a diverse product line is great. Ideally, there would be a tightly connected comic group for those who want such things and equally good choices for those who want reads complete in themselves. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

But even more important, the key factor isn’t information — it’s enjoyment. Someone who’s really digging a story will overlook or patch in what they don’t know. Someone whose attention is wandering will start picking at all the things they don’t know and feeling left out because they aren’t involved in any way. When people complain a book is unfriendly to new readers, what they’re really saying is “this isn’t interesting enough to overcome the need for knowledge to buy in.”


27 Responses to “My Thoughts on Continuity”

  1. Rob Barrett Says:

    I don’t find adult responsibilities a barrier to understanding continuity, Johanna. I partially maintain my childhood mindset of going with the flow and assuming that things will be explained in time. But I also have something now to help out: the Internet. I don’t have to hunt down back issues to explain those little Marvel footnotes anymore. I can go online and figure out what I’ve missed and what I need to know in seconds.

    Granted, that doesn’t solve the new reader problem, but then I’d say that comics (in their traditional pamphlet format) are doomed at this point no matter what–and not because of anything DC or Marvel did. Magazines are dying too. Serial publication in paper form is a losing prospect.

  2. Stuart Moore Says:

    Johanna: Agreed. But two further thoughts:

    – The Legion and the X-Men are two special examples; for whatever combination of reasons, the fans of those books have always been attracted, not repelled, by the complex continuity. It’s part of the fun. The DC and Marvel Universes, taken as larger units, have a similar appeal. It doesn’t work as well with other properties — and it REALLY doesn’t work when you try to manufacture something like that from scratch. (In comics, at least.)

    – I tend to get suspicious when longtime comics fans complain about inaccessibility to “outsiders,” because often they’re complaining about the wrong things. I don’t think the fact that Spider-Man’s status quo is different in ULTIMATE and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN really matters to any new reader; you can pick up any issue of either one and pretty quickly figure out what’s going on. It’s only a problem to longtime fans who don’t like the continuity changes.

    That’s different from what (I assume) you’re talking about, which is stories that are very definitely, on the surface, hard to follow because of so much assumed knowledge of the world and characters. But the two issues get mixed up a lot in fan debate.

    On the comment: agreed about the internet. But why does everyone assume periodical comics are doomed? Publishing plans have changed a bit, and the format doesn’t work as well for indies as it used to. But DC and Marvel are still doing very well with it, and overall sales levels for the past twenty years (barring the early 90s boom) show slow, steady growth.

    Best,
    Stuart

  3. Joshua Macy Says:

    At one point I would have agreed with you about continuity being a barrier, but after the rise of continuity-heavy (nearly continuity obsessed) TV hits, I’m not so sure. Arguably it goes back as far as LA Law and Hill Street Blues, but the juggling of sub-plots in TV has really exploded. It’s spread way beyond the geek-fare like X-Files and Buffy, to thoroughly mainstream shows like The Sopranos, Deadwood, 24, Veronica Mars, etc. In fact, it’s becoming hard to name a drama that doesn’t expect viewers to pay attention to the show’s “mythology.” And I’ve heard, and voiced, similar objections to the comic fans complaint about jumping on points to the shows that everybody talks about–and gotten similar responses: just wait for the Season One DVD, it’s totally worth it.

    So it seems to me that adults don’t really have any problem with the investment of time and attention to master complex continuity (the book Everything Bad is Good For You estimates that a Sopranos episode juggles 8-10 subplots, nearly all of which refer to events in previous episodes), *as long as the adults find the entertainment worthwhile enough to bother* As you said, it’s all about the enjoyment. The problem, IMO, isn’t really that there’s this knowledge gap that the new reader needs to overcome, but that the comics aren’t interesting enough, period. Simplifying the stories won’t necessarily improve them.

  4. Jer Says:

    What kind of continuity are folks complaining about that might be a barrier to new readers? Are we talking 80’s X-Men or Legion continuity here, or something different?

    I think continuity is only a problem for new readers when the writers assume that everyone reading the book knows everything about the character’s history that they know. Referring back to previous adventures can be fun, and really is part of the genre at this point. Coming up with good explanations for why dead villains should suddenly be alive again can also be fun (as long as the writers aren’t lazy about it, that is). Bringing back minor characters who have faded away is also fun (as long as the writer re-introduces them properly and makes sure that readers who have no experience with the character have a reason to be interested).

    I find it to be much more of a problem when writers assume that everyone knows the characters they’re writing and no introductions are needed — especially in this era of “writing for the trade”. Recently, I decided to pick up Birds of Prey – I enjoy Gail Simone’s writing and I always used to like the book back in the day. Unfortunately, my shop was sold out of the first One Year Later issue and I only was able to get parts two and three of the current story. When I was a kid, this wouldn’t have been a problem — even in multi-part stories there would have been SOME indication of who all of the characters were. Now, though, I’m lucky that I already happen to know who most of the characters are, because there have been very few times the characters have even been named in the book. There’s one character there that I’m assuming is Gypsy because her powers are kind of the same, but no one has used her name or her codename once in two issues — is she new? Is it Gypsy? I dunno.

    Sure, picking something up in the middle of a storyline is always going to cause some confusion, but there was a time when I would have at least gotten everyone’s name at some point in each issue. I think this type of thing is worse for getting new readers to care about what’s going on that general “continuity” issues.

  5. Joshua Macy Says:

    Stuart, isn’t that a little like saying “except for the thing with the iceberg, The Titanic had an uneventful voyage?” I’m one of the ones that assumes that the 32-page pamphlet is doomed, and I base that on what I understand the facts to be: that a top-selling comic today sells about 150,000 copies, which is what Sandman sold when it was regarded as a fairly marginal title (iirc, Gaiman tells the story of how Sandman went from being marginal to a top seller, all while selling about 150,000 copies, as the circulation of everything else collapsed around it), and was a number that would have caused a comic to be cancelled back in the past when comics were actually popular. A mid-list title currently sells about 20,000.

    Successful industries attract new entrants, dying industries undergo consolidation. Which direction comic books are going is obvious, at every level from publisher through distributor to retailer. Saying that circulation figures are up slightly from historically rock-bottom levels, as long as you ignore the brief period where the industry was revitalized, doesn’t really argue for long-term viability.

    Meanwhile, in March of 2006, video game sales softened 8%, down to a mere 20 times the dollar value what the combined top 300 Diamond comics sold. Heck, video game *hardware* sales slumped by 30%, losing the equivalent of the entire market for comic books right there. People are throwing tons of money at entertainment, and to a first order approximation none of it is going to comic books.

  6. Lyle Says:

    I don’t think the fact that Spider-Man’s status quo is different in ULTIMATE and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN really matters to any new reader

    Stuart, I think it does to a degree because they’re conflicting products. The natural inclination is to expect one Spider-Man comic be the same as any other Spider-Man comic (especially since that’s the case with the various 616 Spider-Man comics) so I think the alternate continuities make the franchise confusing; new customers need someone to tell them which titles they should be reading.

    Joshua, I’d say the difference between Veronica Mars and X-Men is that VM is a standalone product. (I won’t go into Lost with their “alternate reality game” spin-off book and etc, I think they’re playing a dangerous game there.) The idea of catching up on VM doesn’t seem daunting like catching up on X-Men… though The X-Files suggests that these shows have the same problem as comics, the audience can only go downhill as the story alienates viewers — after a few seasons new viewers see these shows as unapproachable without hours of DVD rental.

    I tend to see continuty-heavy TV series like manga series. Their continuity is self-contained and you don’t expect to be penalized for sticking to one series. (Though there are a few manga series where that’s a problem.) If Nana looks interesting, I don’t worry if I’ll be able to follow it for not having read other Shojo Beat titles.

    Jer, I agree, continuity isn’t a problem in itself it’s how continuity is handled. I don’t think it was just my age that drew me into Legion comics in the Levitz era, the continuty didn’t take away from the story (by leaving me confused from unexplained story threads) it added to the series’ richness. That requires a difficult skill, though, making exposition dialouge interesting.

    I suppose that’s the main problem. Continuity used to feel like a carrot that made me want to buy more comics but now it feels more like a stick.

  7. Joshua Macy Says:

    That’s an interesting point, Lyle. I tend to think of continuity, even in comics, as being more of an intra-title thing, which is probably just a bias because of which titles I read and the fact that after the Eclipso event in DC, I made it a point never to chase cross-over events into the various titles. To the extent that publishers try and tie every title into one big ball of string, that is significantly different from something like 24.

  8. Dave Carter Says:

    It should be pointed out that, while Veronica Mars is critically acclaimed (and a darn good show, IMHO), it is not popular from a ratings standpoint, and is constantly in danger of cancellation (The CW picked up the 3rd season with a 13+9 order). It’s the TV equivalent of a book like Manhunter.

    Even a ‘popular’ continuity-heavy show like Lost gets a smaller percentage of what a popular show got 20+ years ago. Part of that is because there are a bazillion cable channels, but overall television viewership is down too. As dramas have gone from chiefly episodic to serial (L&Os & CSIs being the exception), their audience has fallen.

  9. Joshua Macy Says:

    Well, I included Veronica Mars because I like it, and 2.3 million viewers is still approximately 2 million more people than the #1 comic the month I looked at (Infinite Crisis #5). And Desperate Housewives has an order of magnitude more viewers than that. Whatever problems pamphlet comics have, it’s not that there aren’t enough people in the country willing to follow continuity-heavy entertainment to form a viable market.

  10. JustinJordan Says:

    “As dramas have gone from chiefly episodic to serial (L&Os & CSIs being the exception), their audience has fallen.”

    I’m not sure if you’re implying a causal relationship or not. Dramas (and everything else) get lower ratings than they used to, but it’s arguable whether serialized drama has anything to do with the decline.

    I’d say the reliance on serial stuff is actually a response to declining ratings rather than a cause, myself.

  11. jabolo Says:

    My problem with continuity is primarily that the mass of details tends to constrain the development of new ideas by constraining the author. And this is not a medium like television where a series is expected to last no more than 10 years (at best) and where air time and production costs are such that the creation of multiple spin offs is usually viable. Comic continuity has decades of baggage where the numerous contributers most likely never intereacted directly.

    A much better approach is a creator oriented one, where the writer takes the most archtypical (even stereotypical) aspects of the property he is assigned and uses that as a barebones launching board to address new issues and themes. (i.e. Morrison’s New X-men)

  12. jabolo Says:

    and i don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most continuity heavy comics are usually the worst. and this is coming from someone who knows the canon.

  13. Alan Coil Says:

    My goodness, a comics discussion without rancor. Sweet.

    Perhaps television viewership is down because viewers are tired of searching for their favorite programs. It’s much easier to just wait to buy or rent the dvd set.

    Also contributing to waiting for the dvd is that you know you will get a full season to watch, not just the 8 episodes that you truly enjoyed, but the show got cancelled anyway.

    Another factor may be that the 6 (now only 5) broadcast televison networks have become so compartmentalized. If you read the Top 25 list every week, you can see that broadcast television is dominated by Law & Order and L&O clones and also by reality shows. If you don’t like those, there is not much to watch.

    Relating this to comics, many people are simply waiting for the comics to be collected before they buy them. Usually. it’s cheaper that way. You also get complete stories that way and do not risk not being able to find that elusive missing issue.

    And of course, comics are dominated by superhero comic books. I happen to like superheroes, but I also enjoy other genres, too.

    As to comparing television audiences with comic book audiences, I don’t think that really works. Concerning the broadcast networks only, the shows are essentially beamed free to your home. Once you have purchased a television, you really don’t consider the cost of these free programs as a factor. What does it cost to use your television every month? Maybe $1 a week? The cost is included with the rest of your electric bill, so you don’t even notice. Imagine what the circulation of a comic book could be if the publishers could send a copy to your house for free every week for a year. Once you got hooked, would you continue to want the comic book? Possibly.

    As to continuity, it is essential to creating a believable story. My most used example of non-continuity is the character of Mike Seaver on Growing Pains. It seemed that every episode that featured Mike, he got into trouble for being a selfish jerk, then had to apologize to being a twit. Then the next time, he would do it again. I quit watching that show very early in the run, A couple years later, I watched another episode and it was just as before. I felt it a complete waste of my time.

    But too much continuity is also bad. I had to quit reading comics for almost 2 years during the early 80s. When I tried to get back into the X-Men books, I was completely lost. Later, there ended up being too many X-titles, each with their own characters. One of my favorite comic books today is Astonishing X-Men because it uses mainly characters from the Claremont/Byrne run in Uncanny. A lot of the continuity from the last few years is mostly ignored.

    But continuity has to be there, too, for long-term readers. Otherwise, the publishers could just re-write a five-year run of a comic to update the slang and cultural references. Without continuity, Spider-Man could meet Captain America for the first time every year or two.

  14. Johanna Says:

    I’m thrilled to see such an informed, wide-ranging discussion. Thanks, everyone.

    One point that I forgot to add originally: I think continuity becomes a particular problem when people write stories about nothing but. Jer mentions “Coming up with good explanations for why dead villains should suddenly be alive again can also be fun”, which is true, but writing a story with no purpose or plot beyond publishing that explanation is not very different from fanfiction. The unfamiliar reader is likely to have little interest in the subject.

    (I had the same problem with Gypsy in BOP until my kind readers here informed me.)

    Regarding alternate title versions, my perspective might be skewed by being burned. Before I got back into comics with LSH, I tried with the Teen Titans. I looked for back issues, and I was happy to find some that were fairly close in number. Only they turned out to be from completely different runs, because I didn’t know the difference between the New Titans and the New Teen Titans and regular and Baxter paper. Left a bad taste in my mouth.

    Except for 24, all of the TV shows mentioned so far are critics’ darlings with relatively small, dedicated fanbases. Taking off of Justin’s point, I’m amused by watching declining markets (like TV Guide’s last years of digest size or scripted network TV) often try to emulate comic gimmicks like tighter continuity or crossover guest appearances or alternate covers. Now even DVDs are doing it — what’s with two different Princess Bride releases that have little significant difference from the edition they already put out?

    Lyle, good points, especially about carrot/stick.

  15. Rachel Says:

    When I was a kid, I did read comics that were part of a greater storyline. When I missed an issue, I didn’t really care. By the hundredth or so read-through, I’d figured out what happened in the previous month.

    But, my mother never liked “to be continued.” Whenever I made my little crayon comics, she’d want to see a beginning, a middle, and an end. No cliffhangers. No “to be continued.” (Much of her dislike of such devices has influenced my comicking. Hence, all of my stories get told in one go!) She was the same way about reading any of the comics I brought home with me: She just wasn’t interested if you had to read them all to get a “bigger picture.”

    Now that I’m older, I feel the same way. I’d rather spend my money and time on a complete graphic novel or an issue of Lenore (which has no real continuing storyline that I can make out) than shell out three dollars every month to follow a series that I will:
    a. Probably never finish due to the distant location of my comic dealers, hectic lifestyle, and financial constraints
    b. Probably never order back issues of
    c. Probably grow bored with when they change artists (as happened back with Gen 13)

    I just don’t have the attention span for this kind of thing anymore. Heh, strange that I’m saying this as an adult rather than when I was a child!

  16. David Oakes Says:

    I was going to say that it is all a question of quality, that if it is good enough, you will be willing to overlook gaps like “Who is that girl in the car, and why is she invisible?” Continuity then becomes a bad word, because the more a writer uses it, the more they rely on it, and the more gaps there are that have to be overcome. To that degree continuity becomes self defeating. (For bad writers that *rely* on it, and can’t introduce plot exposition at organic opportunities.)

    But after Rachel’s reply, I think there might be something else going on. Over the years of The Great Continuity Debate a number of people have mentioned how they were more willing to accept gaps when they were young. Usually this gets written off as “youthful enthusiasm”, or “kids don’t know any better”, and continuity is seen as a sign of low quality literature. But kids *don’t* know any better.

    When you are a child, your entire world is a tale filled with continuity and no plot exposition. You don’t know who the invisible girl is (or who the Invisible Girl is), but you don’t know when the Magna Carta was signed or how to fill out a 1040 EZ either. Or why you should care about any of these things. Every day of your young life is a process of filling in the blanks, and “Gypsy” is no different from “1215” or “Adjusted Gross Income”. You know that you don’t know, and you are trying to fix that. It’s all grist for the mill. But when you are an adult, you know how to fill out a 1040. You have decided the value of the Magna Carta, and remember the date or not. And if you don;t already know who Gypsy is, well, that’s just too bad. There are planes to catch and bills to pay, and you simply don’t have time to figure out what you don’t know. You have spent a lot of years circumscribing your world and becoming comfortable with everything inside it, and you aren’t about to disrupt that for a comic book.

    That’s not to say there aren’t bad comics. (And books, and movies, and soaps, and computer data bases, and math classes, and ice cream, and and and.) Even if greater knowledge is a good thing, not every use of continuity actually informs the story and gives you a glimpse of the larger picture. Sometimes it is nothing more than how Dr. Doom got out of a situation when you never read how he got into it in the first place. But we should at least be able to enter into a story with neutral judgement. Too often we confuse childish simplicity with the childlike wonder that comes from not knowing enough to make a more detailed assessment. (And confuse vague morality and implicit characetrization with the sophistication of adulthood. But that is a whole ‘nother barrel of bad comics.)

    Continuity: it’s not just for kids anymore!

  17. JennyN Says:

    Have been following this discussion with interest and some amusement. I can’t talk much about continuity myself – I have the Byrne/Claremont run of X-MEN and #1-50 of NEW TEEN TITANS and that’s enough, thank you – but it does explain the tone of some comics commentators when they first began to get to grips with manga a few years ago. So many reviews of, say, vol.5 of CARD CAPTOR SAKURA would include a remark like “There’s a complicated storyline which includes a lot of characters but no explanation of what’s going on!” The idea of a story which would begin by introducing its main characters and plot premises in vol.1 and then continue developing them until The End, without crossovers from any other story or need to hoard them for the indefinite future, was quite new and exotic. – JennyN

  18. Stuart Moore Says:

    Joshua: I don’t have Neil’s quote at hand, but I don’t think you’ve interpreted it correctly. Yes, there was a period when books like SANDMAN and, later, PREACHER, climbed the charts while remaining stable in sales. That period coincided with the decline of the early ’90s speculator market. But I can tell you from first-hand experience: There has been absolutely no time in modern comics history when 150,000 copies constituted a “marginal title.” Things haven’t changed that much. (I’m pretty sure SANDMAN rose in circulation as it went on, too, though I don’t have those numbers handy anymore.)

    Nobody claims that the sheer number of comics bought today is equal to that of, say, 1944. But that’s an entirely different entertainment culture you’re talking about. Over the past twenty years, individual title sales have dropped on average, yes — but the overall number and dollar amount of comics has not; in fact, it’s risen slightly. And the average price of a comic, while it climbed quite a bit from the mid-80s through the boom, has not risen much at all over the past ten years. (The price of the cheapest comics has gone up, but as far as I can tell that’s been offset by the major companies publishing fewer higher-priced prestige-format periodical items.) To be fair, it may be rising again NOW — but I don’t think there’s enough data yet to tell what that means for the industry.

    There’s no doubt that trade paperbacks have bitten into the sales of marginal-selling books — which isn’t really an unhealthy thing overall. But even taking that into account, the overall periodical market has not declined. What’s changed, for DC and Marvel in particular, is that it’s harder to maintain periodical sales on a marginal title.

    And I wouldn’t describe the early ’90s as “the period where the industry was revitalized.” It was more of a blip, an unsustainable boom fueled by a lot of complex factors like the then-recent decline of sports cards, which left a lot of collectibles “shops” desperate for something new (comics) to invest in, which they did hugely and unwisely. That’s why I don’t include it in the calculations; it wasn’t sustainable, and it wasn’t about people reading comic books.

    Best,
    Stuart

  19. Stuart Moore Says:

    Lyle:

    “I don’t think the fact that Spider-Man’s status quo is different in ULTIMATE and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN really matters to any new reader

    Stuart, I think it does to a degree because they’re conflicting products. The natural inclination is to expect one Spider-Man comic be the same as any other Spider-Man comic (especially since that’s the case with the various 616 Spider-Man comics) so I think the alternate continuities make the franchise confusing; new customers need someone to tell them which titles they should be reading.”

    I hear you, but I really think you’re overthinking this. New customers will presumably pick up the book that looks most interesting to them or the one somebody recommends. The products don’t conflict unless you already care about the concept of continuity.

    If the status quo in a given book is confusing or incomprehensible, sure, that’s a problem. (To go back to Johanna’s original entry.) But as long as that’s not true, and as long as Spider-Man is Peter Parker and swings around on webs, I don’t see the continuity differences as a barrier to new readers. Even someone with no exposure to comics is used to clicking on LAW & ORDER reruns and seeing Michael Moriarty one night, and Sam Waterston the next.

    Best,
    Stuart

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  21. Lyle Says:

    Stuart, I\’m thinking of how I\’ve approached comics in the past and if I went into the store after buying and enjoying a Spider-Man comic, I\’d be looking to buy other comics that said Spider-Man and expecting the premise to be the same in each one or different in each one. If I were really interested in keeping up, I\’d go onine and try to research the differences (the internet was a huge factor when I picked up comics again) but that requires a decent amount of dedication (particularly out of a new customer).

    I\’m partially projecting my own experiences here. After Crisis, I dropped comics but floated in and out of comic shops occasionally for the next decade. Unfortunately, I\’m primarily a Legion fan and that franchise was incredibly confusing in the 80s/90s, between the five year gap, L.E.G.I.O.N. (a book that looked like it\’d be a Legion series but wasn\’t )really and then Legionnaires (which looked like the Legion era destroyed by the five year gap — how\’d that come back when the regular book still looked so grim?). When my questions about these books weren\’t quickly answered in the first issue, I moved on to other media.

    David, good point about learning/relearning. I think that brings retcons into play, as well. When I dropped comics after Crisis, a big part of my frustration was the little bits that contradicted the stories I read — what I previously learned. I was okay with \”Who is Donna Troy?\” being asked once, but after that story I didn\’t want to hear Donna say \”I don\’t know who I am.\” because I read a good story that already answered her questions.

  22. Johanna Says:

    Lyle, good points … but the question of how much our experiences individually match the market/potential audience as a whole is a tough one.

  23. Andrew Burton Says:

    > what they’re really saying is “this isn’t interesting
    > enough to overcome the need for knowledge to
    > buy in.”

    I think video games are about the best balancers of this out there. Almost every MMOG and even first-person shooter has reams of back story — the HALO games take place over two games (almost three), three books, an alternate reality game (ilovebees), and even have some apocryphal material that predate the game itself… However, none of that hinders people playing the solo games or playing the multi-player XBox Live versions. Bungie has created this marvelous balance so anal nerds (like me) can dig into the universe just as easily as gun happy gamers can sit down and kill time with friends.

    Continuity isn’t a bad thing by itself, but treating it like canon is. Continuity should be an Easter Egg for people, not homework.

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  25. Dwight Williams Says:

    Comics continuity, for me at least, was almost the only kind of homework I actually considered fun when I was first getting interested in it as a kid. For some reason that sense of fun remains in force, although the form and nature of that fun’s evolved over time for me as I age further.

    It’s never really gone away, though…

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