Narrative Darwinism, Dan Didio and Final Crisis: The Future of Comics Continuity

Posted by on Sunday, June 15th, 2008 at 12:44:30 AM

There has been – to understate – a bit of a storm around Morrison’s recent Newsarama interview regarding the lack of connection between the 51-issue weekly Countdown and the series it was leading to, his 7-issue (plus tie-ins!) opus Final Crisis. For those who didn’t read it, it essentially goes like this: Grant Morrison writes Final, submits it to DC; DC decides that like its predecessor, Infinite Crisis – and its far more distant ancestor, Crisis on Infinite Earths – it can’t show up out of nowhere, and needs to be led up to. There needs to be anticipation beyond the normal solicitation cycle.

Except, instead of the random Monitor appearances for COIE or the well-orchestrated miniseries and one-shots leading up to IC, it was tacked on without the participation of the primary architect of the event. I’ve seen a decent number of people claim that this was Morrison’s fault for not paying enough attention to Mike Carlin’s office and the fairly badly-received weekly comic they were outputting. This frankly utterly confounds me, as it’s not like Morrison is a writer unused to working within larger editorial dictates (‘Nuff Said Month, Invasion, etc.). He knows the system, he’s worked within it for quite a while, he’s used to having other people shit all over his stories. I mean, look at Xorn. He didn’t fail the system; the system failed him. This also isn’t the end of the world.

What the DC braintrust know – and perhaps act on to an unhealthy degree – is that all of this damage is eminently reversible. Tom Brevoort has stated on his blog (I’m sorry, I can’t find any references) numerous times that there’s no such thing as character, story or continuity damage that can’t be easily reversed via another story. This is how comics work, this is how fictional universes work. It’s narrative Darwinism.

The bad stories have always been outshined and replaced by the good in this field – hell, fuck this field, forever. I’m quite positive that there were untold legions of horrible Hercules stories told back in the B.C.E. that didn’t survive to this day. The stories that resonate with readers count; the stories that fail don’t. Countdown, as should be evident to anyone who was following comics within the past 58 weeks, did not strike a chord with readers as much as it smashed a guitar against the amp and gave everyone eardrum damage.

Narrative Darwinism. This is the term that always has, and always will, describe the mechanism that forms the center of these fantastic, bizarre, fucked-up worlds that provide so much entertainment and meaning. It’s a concept that Morrison understands completely. Contradictions are part of the game. Hell, they’re almost part of the fun. It’s all about merging and arbitrating between the conflicts.

In a metaphor that I’m sure will resonate with my fellow computer science nerds, think of a comic universe continuity as a giant CVS tree. For those not familiar with this, most software is designed by multiple people working over multiple files in multiple areas – CVS is the tool that lets you know that Tom’s changes to biteme.cpp will conflict with Jane’s. And if Jane committed her changes first, Tom will have to reconcile the changes he made before Jane’s with whatever Jane did. That’s how it works. The principle remains the same with comic book continuity, although there’s no algorithmic mechanism to deal with this – instead, it enters the court of public opinion. Which story did you like more? What do you want to read? And not in a direct, letter-column, call-to-save-Jason-Todd way – it’s a process that takes a great deal of time and also involves editorial dictation (see “Spider-Man: One More Day”, which was a top-down editorial decision implemented to deal with perceived gaps between fan perception and the character’s reality but has received a fair degree of vitriol from the fanbase).

So, now we have these two conflicting recent updates, named, hilariously enough, Countdown to Final Crisis and Final Crisis. It will be up to readership-dictated history rather than DC editorial to dictate which one will have the most effect, but considering the creative payload within each of these missiles, I’d bet on Morrison/Johns/Rucka/crew over Dini/McKeever/Graymiotti/Beechen/Bedard/crew any day. But, hell, I could be completely wrong; it’s up to future history to decide. I don’t know how the conflict will be resolved, or if it ever will be.

That said:

Mr. Geoff Johns, dude, if you can solve the massive continuity Sudoku puzzle (thanks to Mike Carey for that phrase) that is reconciling Countdown with Final Crisis with the same natural deftness that permeated throughout your Green Lantern run, I will buy you a pony keg of the beer of your choice and make sure it gets delivered to you somehow. Good luck, dude.

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