On the Ret-con
Through the eyes of One More Day
This essay was originally performed as part of January’s Bright Club Manchester event.
Comics have always been about big ideas, about heroes taking on villains in classic good versus evil battles, about robot butlers getting you laid, about twenty-something reporters dressing up as primary school girls, about teenage superheroes dressing up as hippies. They’ve always been full of big ideas, big muscles – effects reading
But there is one character that throughout it all, has probably had it worse than any, and still does to this day and that’s Spider-Man
Over the years Spider-Man has experienced terrible emotional trauma, beautifully conceived storylines that have resonated across decades of comic publishing, as well as these.
How about the time when it turned out that Peter Parker’s now dead ex-girlfriend had secretly had an affair with his long time nemesis and had given birth to two super-powered villains who were somehow older than him?
How about the time when Peter Parker’s parents came back from the dead and turned out to be evil robots?
Or what about the time Spider-Man mutated into a giant pregnant spider?
What was happening was that the title was becoming a mess of insane backstory, convoluted mythology and just general shittiness. So the publishers, Marvel, decided to retcon it.
Ret-con: is the alteration of previously established facts in a fictional work
The idea of a ret-con or retroactive continuity is nothing new within the comic book industry, or pulp fiction in general. An oft-proclaimed problem amongst both comic book fans and those new to the titles is the vast backstory and convoluted storylines for each and every character – their relationships, origins, and sometimes even future have been determined for decades and keeping up to speed with them, and doing something different, new and interesting with them can often be one of the hardest things a writer can come across. So one of the most often used methods of dealing with this is the ret-con.
There are three main types of ret-con, Alteration, Addition and Subtraction.
Addition: The adding of previously unknown secrets about a character or character’s such as the revealing of a secret brother/sister/father/mother/robot butler that you never knew about.
Alteration: Tailoring a character’s origin or prior stories so that said character can somehow still be alive about definitely, definitely being cremated that one time. Or when Marvel made Nick Fury black.
Subtraction: The removal of pieces of history from a characters’ backstory that readers, writers or editors find annoying – like superpowers, relatives, or even sometimes, a marriage.
And that’s what happened to Spider-Man.
There’s a famous statement at Marvel comics which goes something along the lines of, “we don’t want change, we want the illusion of change.” Character’s can die, break up, delete reality, and murder the entire cosmos – so long as it can all be undone in the space of 24 pages.
Sometimes the purpose can be creative – the writer wants to tell an exciting story and wants to introduce some new jeopardy into their lives. Sometimes it can be editorial – the editors want a character to be a in a certain position so he removes some past bit of information or just brings someone back from the dead for the hell of it. Sometimes, it can be fan service, when a past writer has done something the fans hated and the ret-con is used to wipe the slate clean.
In 2007, Marvel had something of a problem on their hands. Spider-Man had gotten married his long term girlfriend Mary-Jane Watson and had essentially grown up, he had probably even forgotten about turning into a pregnant mutant spider. It felt natural, it felt like the culmination of a character arc. It felt like the story of Spider-Man was coming to a close.
The editor in chief at Marvel, Joe Queseda was annoyed with the direction the series was taking. He decided the best way to get Spider-Man back to how it used to be – break the marriage apart. Why? Who knows. Maybe he liked the Spider-Man he had grown up with: the single, goofy, sixties Spider-Man with girl trouble. Maybe he just wanted to see things change dramatically. Maybe he’d just had a massive argument with his wife and thought, ‘fuck marriage.’
Marvel, who had just been taken over by Disney couldn’t be seen to endorse divorce in their comic books. So they had to come up with something else.
So what was the ret-con, what incredible piece of storytelling did Queseda use to get Parker back to basics?
In a rather bizarre subtraction, Marvel’s version of the devil, Mephisto shows up. He offers to take their marriage. That’s right. The Devil shows up to annul a marriage. Marvel, a company who couldn’t be seen to support the concept of divorce are absolutely fine showing the positive aspects of dealing with the devil. When questioned about the logistics of the whole decision, Queseda famously responded, “It’s magic! We don’t have to explain it!”
And how did the fans take to this? I’d like to bring up some reviews from Amazon to illustrate the general feedback.
This was a real slap in the face for long-time Spidey fans. And by “slap” I mean “kick”. And by “face” I mean “balls”. I hate this book so much I’m thinking of making a deal with the devil to have it erased from history.
I’m certainly done reading Spider-man. It’s like cheering for someone who’s too stupid to put on pants!!!
This is comics. A world where the devil can show up just to annul a marriage, where someone’s aunt can become a god-like being for fifteen pages only for it to never be mentioned again, where the son of an archer can get addicted to heroin, become impotent and then murder some tramps whilst protecting a dead cat whom he believes to be his daughter; to be a comic book fan, you can’t be like those guys on Amazon, you have to embrace the silliness. Embrace the mutant pregnant spiders, embrace the robot butler, embrace the dead cat.
The old lore of comics is true – these characters can’t change, they just have the illusion of change.
When you break down the concept of retroactive continuity, really there is only one other medium in which it’s incredibly active. TV. More specifically soap operas. Comics are essentially soap operas, we’ve got evil twins, fake deaths, unresolved cliff-hangers, massive explosions, and they’re all set in Australia. On the basis of this, I would like to propose a number of changes to popular soaps so that they can potentially come up with some interesting new stories.
There actually turns out to be several ways other than Essex.
The Rover’s return to exact revenge.
The guy that runs the restaurant in Hollyoaks turns out to be a robot, (actually happened?)
Right now, in the pages of Spider-man, Peter Parker is dead. The new Spider-man is his long-time nemesis, Doctor Octopus, trapped in the body of Parker; essentially stealing the plot of Freaky Friday, with added spandex. Only there’s something hanging around in the background somewhere – a ghostly presence of a mild-mannered nerdy school-kid, just waiting for someone to come along and make everything better again.