By Joshua Goldschmidt
Archived stories allow readers to examine how narratives and values shift through time, even as heroes remain fixed. Through engagement with the work of philosopher Hannah Arendt, this paper examines how DC Comics shifted the history of their characters to erase anachronistic content and hide unpopular missteps of old writers. It then contrasts this method of changing history with a different style of storytelling, one which acknowledges previous failures. This will illuminate how DC Comic’s has started to change the way they recognize a character’s past. Finally, the paper examines other exhibitions of this dichotomy in pop culture and compares them to how DC Comics have changed their storytelling in the contemporary era.
Keywords: DC Comics; retconning; comic book histories; Arendt
Introduction Like an agricultural year, an industrial process, or an essay, some stories possess “a definite beginning and a predictable end” (Arendt 1961). They are “fabrications” attempting to mimic the way humans think of humanity; with clear divisions between eras and happily ever afters. But some stories have no clear beginning or end, they morph as society changes creating an “eventual outcome the actor is utterly incapable of knowing or controlling beforehand” (60). Mythologies and unwritten histories are replete with these stories because new members take the source material and apply to their own lives. But these stories have also entered pop culture through products like comic books. Companies in this business have stockpiled proprietary characters since the 1930s whose stories never seem to end despite their age. Modern-day storytellers are challenged to fit these old story arcs, characters, and organizations into their ever-expanding universe.
The stories we tell (even the fictional ones) create an artificial world of collective consciences which help us define right and wrong. But often these stories are too outdated to represent the shifting and morphing collective conscience of the present. What do we do when our stories do not match our values? Do mainstream audiences’ side with the future and erase these old stories from our collective memories? Do audiences choose to engage in past stories and ignore societal changes and contemporary values? Or is there perhaps a third way, in which both the audiences’ values and stories are acknowledged?
In her preface to Between Past and Future Hannah Arendt (1961) uses a “riddle of [Franz] Kafka” to describe the battle ground of time’s effect on the present:
He has two antagonists: the first presses him from behind, from the origin. The second blocks the road ahead. He gives battle to both. To be sure, the first supports him in his fight with the second, for he wants to push him forward, and in the same way the second supports him in his fight with the first, since he drives him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not only the two antagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and who really knows his intentions? His dream, though, is that // Popular Culture//Radical Imagination – An Undergraduate Journal for SDS 441R 1(1) 13 some time in an unguarded moment – and this would require a night darker than any night has ever been yet – he will jump out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience in fighting, to the position of umpire over his antagonists in their fight with each other (10).
Franz Kafka, she notes, describes the past and future as a unidirectional battle between two infinitely powerful forces, past and future. These forces do not simply influence the protagonist like “a burden man has to shoulder,” but “press forward” the protagonist driving them to side with one force or the other. The presence of this man, who is only known as “he,” causes the “forces [of past and future] to deflect … from their original direction,” changing his own history and future (11). Therefore, to retain pieces of his history he must side against his future, blocking the possibility of change. Similarly, to progress to his future, he must attack pieces of his past which ground him.
Kafka offers a second approach in the riddle. While “he” operates in the interval between past and future, convergently relying on one and fighting the other, he ultimately wants to remove himself from them. He ultimately wants to remove himself from them. By creating a safe point away from his attackers, he could express objective judgement. In this space he can acknowledge both his past and future and judge their worth.
Western comic books embody this struggle; past and future narratives struggle for dominance, pushing writers to engage in retconning. A retcon, short for retroactive continuity, is a practice which imposes altered information to the reader’s view of a story, changing facts while continuing to tell a story with the exact same characters. It is commonly used to erase previous stories which are deemed unpopular but can also affect future stories. By making relevant specific incarnations of a character, one can “augment collective memory” changing the direction of their story going forward (Plencner 2015: 9). Like the Kafkan protagonist, DC Comics chooses to side temporarily with either the past or future.
Writers in DC Comics possess two ways to tell stories. One avenue balances the character’s place in the collective conscience and extrapolates these beliefs into stories. Since the collective conscience is constantly undergoing changes, these stories would always be ahead of their time or behind them. Writers routinely erase the pasts of characters (Hal Jordan, Batgirl) or reflavour them (Snagglepuss, JLD, Batman) entirely. Alternatively, a writer could recognize the storied past of DC Comics and build stories that refused to hide the out-of-touch elements of DC’s older narrative (Deathstroke, JLoC), placing them outside the event horizon. Ultimately, the way we choose to tell stories, by changing their emphasis as society changes or by retaining the “dream” of which Kafka speaks, influences not only comics but news journalism, social media, and any place where stories never end.
Comics past and future; Moral centres for our collective consciousness
In 2018 James Tynion IV refashioned Kirk Langstrom, formerly the villain Man-Bat, as a flawed and unlikely super-hero in his series Justice League Dark. Langstrom, usually an antagonist of Batman, turned himself into a half-bat monster while researching echolocation. In Justice League Dark, Langstrom refers to his time spent as a villain but explains that was caused by a mistake in the serum he took to become Man-Bat. In doing so, Tynion uses retconning to change readers’ understanding of the character.
Tynion reflects on his ability to alter DC Comics’ history in “Tales from the Otherkind.” In the tale Langstrom is compelled to record sightings of the Otherkind, a mysterious group of aliens. Gradually he realizes that writing about these aliens makes them more real; thus by collecting stories about them, he changed the DC universe (Figure 1). Langstrom is a stand-in for all storytellers who face a very real challenge in writing the past, whether fictional or non-fictional; by emphasizing aspects of the past, one interacts with it and therein changes it. Langstrom and Tynion each change the DC Universe, Langstrom adds to its past with the Otherkind while Tynion reduces Langstrom’s villainy.
Figure 1, Kirk Langstrom (Man-Bat) realized that writing down the past irreconcilably changed the DC Universe (Tynion, Fernández, and Martinez)
By changing a character’s past or their orientation to the future writers could make them immediately relevant to audiences. The capacity of a writer to change a character was only limited by the audience’s ability to recognize the character. Gail Simone, comic book critic and prolific comic book writer for all major comic book houses discussed the difficulty of changing a character’s history in an interview with Newsarama. Regarding her time on Batgirl: Simone remarked “I wanted to write by the improv credo ‘don’t negate,’ which means, even if you didn’t care for something, you try to make it work. You don’t say, ‘Oh, that … didn’t happen’” (Pantozzi 2011). So, while writers cannot disregard established facts of characters, they are able to manipulate the stories by changing their meanings, de-emphasizing the roll these stories played. In doing so, they alter the past or future.
Since conception, DC comics have dealt in morality with bannisters. Batman and Superman fight for what is right and good in our collective consciousness. But since morals change over time and comics have existed in the western world for close to 90 years many values have changed. Stories inevitably change too, to “buttress the narrative we find ourselves in” (Plencner 2015: 6). This means comics based on long-historied, popular characters (e.g. Batman, Green Lantern, Superman) must change their history to appeal to new narratives and values of the upcoming generation or grow out of favour.
While Tynion retcons for narrative reasons, Hope Larson modernises Batgirl and Robin to appeal more broadly. Re-imagined as contemporary teenagers the duo tell a relatable teen love story. Using subtle retcons, like acknowledging their out-of-fashion names, the story clearly places the characters as modern teens. By modernizing the characters, Larson seeks to appeal to audiences today.
Hope Larson is not the sole writer adapting comics for anticipated audiences. When comic book critic Gail Simone began to write Batgirl in 2011, she retconned the controversial and heavily criticized Killing Joke (1988) story. In the original tale the Joker paralyzes Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) permanently which Simone changed to a technological implant and three years of physical therapy. In an interview with Newsarama, Simone cites three reasons for changing Gordon: “creative potential, newsworthiness, and sheer commercial reality” (Pantozzi 2011).
Figure 2, The names of Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) and Richard “Dick” Grayson (Robin) are retconned to be “old-fashioned” as part of the modernization of the Batgirl stories to appeal to broader audiences (Larson, Wildgoose Marzan, and Lopes).
This means that characters’ pasts are changed to seamlessly integrate with future audiences. This is most notable in long-absent characters whose changes cannot be as subtle as Larson’s. Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles by Mark Russel portrayed DC Comic’s Hannah Barbara property Snagglepuss as a gay screenwriter in New York City. Snagglepuss interacts with Arthur Miller, Joseph McCarthy, and the Stonewall raids as he is gradually outed for his sexuality. By changing the character’s past in the present, authors can alter the future direction of a character, changing the way audiences connect with them. By mirroring the culture of the present comic book properties seek to remain relevant and command moral authority over their audiences.
Modern heroes in Modern Societies
Retcons also extend to the way we see our environments. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Green Lantern series. In 1968, DC Comics handed Dennis O’Neil the series. The comic featured Hal Jordan; a hero O’Neil called “a cop; a crypto-fascist … the [type of] mind that sent American troops into Korea and Vietnam” (Moore 2003:264). Heavily influenced by the New Left, O’Neil created an America which reflected what he saw; gentrification, drug abuse, and racism, using the character of Hal Jordan to examine these circumstances and question “liberalism.”
In the 2002 Green Lantern storyline “Hate Crime” anti-gay violence took centre stage, while the synopsis promised Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) would be “forced to examine just how vicious human beings can be.” The story modernized the environment in which the Green Lantern found himself to reflect the anti-gay violence in America at the time. Tom King retold the 1980’s Omega Men in 2013-2014, featuring a Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner). Overwriting the black-and-white morality storyline of the 80’s, he told a nuanced story of political dissidents influenced by his time as a CIA agent, but also by the weltanschauung of contemporary American sentiments. In 2017, Captain Atom, once a stalwart member of the Justice League, is treated with suspicion and sobriety in The Fall and Rise of Captain Atom, impressing modern American sentiments of the nuclear arms race into the story. Building these environments requires creators to have a hand in both the past and future of the DC Comic Universe as they need to create heroes who can stand up for what the future collective conscience desires while remaining aware of the reality in which people live.
While these retcons to a character’s environment can seem minor at times, it places the characters within our social reality, and in doing so, places the moral authority of these heroes into the reader’s Figure 2, The names of Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) and Richard “Dick” Grayson (Robin) are retconned to be “old-fashioned” as part of the modernization of the Batgirl stories to appeal to broader audiences (Larson, Wildgoose Marzan, and Lopes). // Popular Culture//Radical Imagination – An Undergraduate Journal for SDS 441R 1(1) 16 lives. Thus, by relating to these characters stories, their morals permeate and influence the values of its readers.
Modernizing environments while maintaining character origins
With the large amount of retconning underway, one may wonder what its purpose could be. Consider, for example, that many comics rose to prominence during a time where the American public were uncritically interested in stories that heroically portrayed American interventionism. While well-and-good for fighting Nazis, a super-hero’s intervention in foreign countries becomes more problematic as American wars and imperialism begin to lose popular support. Since “[a]ll political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power … they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them” (Arendt 1972: 140). New writers sweep older stories as they retcon to tell their own stories.Retelling these narratives in a different manner allows readers to forget parts of the story that make them uncomfortable and emphasizes those that make them proud. These “originary moments” when properties shift “from one [moral narrative] to the next” are when the origin myths are weakest and when the truth can be seen most clearly because the focus is still unassertive (Plencner 2015:5). For many writers, by peering through the cracked origin myths they can construct objective realities, like the Kafkan protagonist out of the firing line. These are stories wherein environments take on modern characteristics but the heroes are constructed in the way we imagine they have always been. At these points we see the “he” from the Kafkan riddle, the stand-in for the present, truly take his form as arbiter of time. Readers are forced to ask what they admire in these heroes.
Gene Luen Yang, writer of New Super-man and the Justice League of China, told the Washington Post that to be American, “we have to look at both the good and the bad and the pretty and the ugly of our history” (Betancourt 2019). This is illustrated by Christopher Priest and Pete Woods’s Justice League: Justice Lost (Figure 3). The 2018 storyline questions whether the Justice League has any right to interfere in national conflicts, dredging up the same black-and-white story which many writers try to avoid; Superman versus Nazis. Yet Priest distils Superman to an indecisive super-human, a vestige of apolitical modernity. He asks why audiences expect Superman to intervene in conflicts they themselves want no part in. By separating Superman from the social reality of the modern audience, Priest forces them to differentiate between what is ethical and what a super-hero would do.
Figure 3. After crash-landing into an African tribal conflict, the Justice League is told not to interfere (Priest, Woods, and Schu).
Priest is part of a growing number of creators who choose to focus on the forgotten aspects of origins. In Christopher Priest’s series Deathstroke, the titular character is haunted by his actions as a supervillain, whether that means infidelity, brainwashing, rape, child neglect, or murder. Priest refuses to shy away from Deathstroke’s sins even as the villain attempts to save the world and become a better person. Priest, himself a Baptist minister, uses the idea of an eternally damned villain to ask, “who does not deserve a seat at the table?” He dares readers to say that Deathstroke cannot be reconciled with the current iteration of DC Comics, knowing almost every legacy character has a similarly murky past.
In March 2019 DC Comics released their 1000th issue of Detective Comics, one of their longest running and most profitable series. O’Neil returned to write a simple yet morally ambiguous story, in which Batman is forced to reflect on his excessive use of force. Batman’s violent actions are only stopped by the horrified intervention of his childhood caretaker, a reminder to all readers that Batman is just a man in a costume and as easily lost as anyone (Figure 4).
Figure 4 Leslie Thompkins tells Batman that his violent search for justice is merely “self-serving” and inexcusable.
Heroes and villains are not the only characters receiving exposure from this movement. Gene Luen Yang reintroduced Ching Lung, a villain created in 1938 who embodied the “Yellow Peril” culture of America. The character is a product of DC Comic’s Sinophobia; a fact which Yang aims to publicize. Lung’s racial overtones are near explicit in Figure 5.
Figure 5 Ching Lung explains that he, as the embodiment of the Yellow Peril, is the catalyst for superheroes (Yang).
In the comic Lung tells a fellow villain that without him, “there would be no superheroes at all.” Yang, and by extension DC Comics, acknowledges the early role of racism in the formation of superhero comics and in a way this is an apology; while the story is set in modern-day Shanghai, no one could mistake the villain for anything but tacky xenophobia. Yang shows how, in DC Comic’s rush to retcon, they have left these characters with ugly yet important pasts by the wayside.
Stories carry with them “the changing self-interpretations of man throughout history, which, though may be quite irrelevant … are still the briefest and most succinct witnesses to the spirit of whole epochs” (Arendt 1961: 59). If society is a curve, then these stories carry with them the instantaneous rates of change through which we can see society. But some creators choose to loop back to their points of origin, not just in comics, but in similar forms of media too. In the 24-hour news cycle, it is easy to become confabulated as news stories update in real-time and delete errors. In social media, content providers can simply delete items that become passé or unpopular. In Canada, politicians constantly restart dialogues which are long overdue. It is important that failures are acknowledged because of what they represent; a reminder of a painful past, a marker in history and a place from which to begin healing.
Josh Goldschmidt (he/him) is in his final year at the University of Waterloo. He is in the Social Development Studies and Business program and is having a blast!
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