Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Continuity, Rules & Too Many Hobbits.

By Jay Stringer

beep beep beep

Before I hit you over the head with today's top-heavy blog, I have a quick announcement. Do you like Ray Banks? Of course you do, his books are awesome. Do you like Tony Black? Well, again, naturally, you're not fools. And do you like Russel D McLean? Why yes, because he has the finest beard in all of Dundee.

Well you're in luck. Because the three of them will be in the same place at the same time this week, at the Steps theatre in Dundee, this thursday (14th.) I'll be heading oop north to see what hijinks they can get up to.

Go on, you know you want to.

beep beep beep.

Dave's blog from last week set me thinking in a million ways. Most of it applied to comic books, but there's also some film, TV and books thrown in there.

First he talked about following writers rather than characters. We do that, of course, in novels. Aside from the many tie-in books to franchises like STAR WARS or JAMES BOND, we tend to follow the writer. In TV it's trickier, because the writer is not always a selling point. The internet makes it easier to track down, say, which episodes of DOCTOR WHO are written by Steven Moffat, or which X-Files are written by the potato guy. But the show itself is still the selling point, or those two cute vampires, or that dude with the moustache and the list, or other references that show how out of touch I am with the small screen.

Films tend to be sold with the concept, the lead actor and the director. The writer is usually an afterthought at every stage of the process, unless they're also the director, in which case suddenly the marketing men are really interested in telling us who the writer is.

Now, in comics, it's front and centre. Every few years the focus changes between writing and art, each one gets a few years as being the hip element. But no matter which discipline is on top, they're both listed on the cover. And that allows comic fans a choice. They can pick it up just because it's got Batdude in it, they can pick it up because they like the artist, or they can pick it up because they like the writer.

Or any combination of the above.

Me? For new comics I'm where Dave is. I follow a writer. I find a voice that I like, and I follow him or her wherever they go. I have loyalties older than that though. I'm still programmed to pick something up if Daredevil is in it. And I'll take a look if John Constantine or Batman are in it. And the same does hold true of film, books and TV. I'll pick up any new Indiana Jones novel that comes out (not exactly a boom industry) or any film featuring Batdude. But by and large I'm following the writers in those industries, too. When I see a film poster that looks interesting, I check out the small print to see who wrote it. I'm usually looking for the words "Christopher" and "McQaurrie," but that search is rarely rewarded. There was a time when I would pick up any comic that had the name Frank Miller attached to it, but we've long since agreed to see other people.

So I follow the writer in most things, but with an eye on the character, the larger story or the director involved.

But what this leads to, for those of us with geek blood, is questions of continuity.

The word gets used way to much. There are people out there who will declare war if a character is depicted with the wrong shade of hair, or is an inch to short, or if the writer doesn't drop in a reference to everything that's ever happened ever.

It's become such a dark and dirty word simply by it's mis-use. I remember when I was slating the Wolverine movie to anyone and everyone who would listen, and I was raising issues of continuity, and they would roll their eyes because I was just another geek moaning about something that doesn't matter.

But I like to argue for the kind of continuity that does matter. Internal logic. For instance -do i care whether or not Wolverine is portrayed as a six footer of as a five foot runt? Nope. Do I care whether he's Canadian? Well, That feels like an important part of the character to me, but I can accept if the film needs to tell it a different way. However, when the film has a villain who can produce a six foot sword out of his wrist, I want to know how he bends his elbows when the sword is retracted. If a character with mutant healing powers can be given amnesia by being shot in the head, I want to know how that works.

The only sense of continuity that really matters is to the telling of the story. Does it flow? Does it make sense? If it doesn't make sense, is it confusing in a way that's leading to something? Do all of the different parts of the story fit together, and has the writer done the heavy lifting?

Get those issues sorted first and foremost, then worry about the geekier details later. It's useless being able to reference what Bruce Banner was doing in 1996 if you can't remember what he was doing earlier in the story, or if you cant sell us on the motivation of what he's about to do. So get the internal continuity nailed down first, then as an added bonus try and fit the story into the history of the character as best you can.

But if we're following writers rather than characters, how do we deal with those larger issues of continuity? Dave has been binging on Doctor Who. It's a show with 50 years of history, but the quality writing of the episodes he's watched would (I assume) mean that he's not had too many sleepless nights about what the Doctor said to the bishop in 1972. You can watch the first episode of season 5 (31) as if it were a brand new show. Sure, the characters clearly have a history, but then all characters have a history. And if and when your favourite writer steps off the comic book or TV show, you can choose to follow. That can be the end of the characters story.

Here's the thing; We make our own continuity.

We do it all day every day, filtering what we need and what we don't. Which bits of our lives are important to remember and which aren't. Which movies exist and which don't.

When I think of the James Bond films, I think of a handful of films and ignore the rest. When I think of Doctor Who, I think of the many years worth of episodes that I've enjoyed and filter out the ones I haven't. I definitely ignore the fact that the USA/BBC TV movie decided he was half-human, which has never been referenced before or since. Writers tried for years in the tie-in novels to find ways to explain that strange bit of writing, but I just say, ignore it.

As a Batman fan I have to leave out whole decades worth of stories that don't fit with the time line I hold onto. When I read Spiderman I read it with no memory of the clone saga or of Spidey revealing his identity to the world. When reading Green Lantern over the past few years, I did so with no notion that Hal Jordan went insane in 1994 and killed all his friends before turning into a super-being, re-igniting the sun and getting reincarnated as a spirit of vengeance.

Being the Indiana Jones geek that I am, I have choices to make there, too. The films are canon. But the TV show and the books contradict each other ever so slightly, so certain rough edges have to be ignored. He went after items in the books that he also went after in comic books, so I have to simply go with whichever story worked best.

In books I'll take long running series, like Scudder or Rebus, and tend to think only of the four or five that are essential to the character. I'm also currently under the spell that Rebus ended a book earlier and that (until recently) Scudder's story skipped a few books in the early 90's and then stopped altogether after EVERYBODY DIES.

I spent many years in my youth continuing to buy comics out of duty, long after I'd stopped enjoying the story. I still have friends who continue to pick up titles that they don't enjoy every month simply because they want to see where the story or character is going. You can choose your ending at any point. I know that new issues of THE WALKING DEAD come out every month, and I hear good things about them sometimes, but I reached a story beat that felt like a satisfying close for me and I stopped buying the issues. And we each have an opinion over where Peter Jackson's RETURN OF THE KING should have ended, right?

And that's before we all get together to argue over with cut of BLADE RUNNER we want to roll with.

So these are my simple steps to a stress free life in the world of comics, films, TV and continuity;

-Follow the creator(s) that you like.
-Don't sweat on continuity as long as the story is making sense.
-Over time, build up your own version of continuity that allows you to sleep at night.
-Walk away whenever it stops working for you.

Hey, did I forget to mention the rule about slash fiction? I did? Well, here it is; Never, ever read slash fiction.


stringer belle said...

Excellent post. Waste toomuch time on being a continuity nerd, and you'll lose out on some bloody brilliant reboots.

When it comes to movies, I tend to view most stories as standalone unless somebody (you) tells me differently.

That being said, and since you did mention perhaps the one television show I could out-trivia anybody, it does make me smile when writers throw in little Easter eggs and references for the nerds. I believe this happens in Doctor Who a lot, but I only find out about it afterwards when I read about it on the intersads.

Dave White said...

Wow. Good post. Too much for me to really comment on, but I pretty much agree with everything. I write this as I watch David Tennant's final entry into the Who series.