Earn Your Canon: The Art of the Retcon

Yeah, yeah, we all knew I wouldn’t be able to keep my gob shut about Marvel’s Original Sin summer event. Here there by SPOILERS FOR MARVEL’S ‘ORIGINAL SIN’. You have been warned.

I gave this one a chance because there are some pretty awesome elements once you get past the obvious LOL Death of Uatu the Watcher that opens the piece.

I love that the big bads aren’t only actual villains (as opposed to the 2000’s Marvel style of having heroes fight heroes), but they’re canon villains who aren’t just new guys who are super-chocolatey awesome without earning it (more on that later) but they’re Z-list villains rescued from the bowels of obscurity and shown to be competent and cool.

I love that Nick Fury has been abusing LMDs forever in order to protect the world from everyone else’s dumbassery and now, in his old age, is looking for a successor.

So yes, unlike Future’s End, this isn’t a pile of hot garbage.

But then you get to the important plot and… let me put it this way: when you want to say that something ‘actually’ happened in a way that is contradictory to what the audience expects, then you have to earn that right in the eyes of that audience. Original Sin fails at this for most of the titular ‘sins’ the heroes supposedly committed or were the victims of just like it did when DC first published it as Identity Crisis.

As I am fond of saying, I don’t really buy books ‘for’ writers. The best guide on becoming a better storyteller I’ve ever come across is actually the DVD commentary to the television show, Leverage where producer John Rogers holds court on all things storytelling. In the third season DVD, wherein the audience ‘discovers’ some here-to-for unknown (and previously irrelevant) talents, such as being good at singing and the violin.

Rogers comments that it’s only once you’ve gotten this far into a series that you can introduce things like this without them appearing to be more important than they are. This is the place where you have both established the characters enough that the revelation is surprising and interesting while also having enough characterization built up that you can write the reveal so that it makes sense.

For example, in one episode, we learn that the playful hacker, Alec Hardison, who has been nothing but geeky and proud of it, reveals that he was a violin prodigy as a kid. It’s shown and implied throughout the series that Hardison has an intellect such that he can achieve practically anything he puts his slacker mind to. At the same time, it has also been shown that he has a foster mother (Nana), who did everything she could to get him to apply himself. It’s surprising that Mr. Age-Of-The-Geek digs on classical violin, but also entirely apt that his Nana would have encouraged him to take up an instrument.

The violin thing is still a retcon—it was never part of his character until the moment it was shown to have always been part of him, but that retcon was ‘earned’ by being a believable addition to the canon.

Which brings us to comic book retcons.

There is a reason that ‘retcon’ is usually used in a derogatory manner and that is because of how they are used in comics. Now, to give credit where credit is due, some comic stories have effectively been going on continually for 60-70 years. Stories that were totally a good idea in 1940 might not be such a good idea these days.


Yup. This happened.

Add to that, the fact that a lot of older storylines were light on the detail or left big gaps, and it’s easy to see how new generations of creators might want t update or add to the lore. The problem is, they utterly fail to earn it. They look at the story and say ‘this is the story I want to tell and I will make it work no matter if it makes sense in connection to what else is known about the situations and characters.

Let’s consider a relatively good version of this: Wolverine’s ever-expanding past.

We first meet the furry little rage monster when he was sent to fight the Hulk (because the Canadian military felt like having a laugh that day). At that point, nothing was known about him and even his claws were part of the uniform. The reveal that the claws were retractable and part of him was, IMO, not really earned. He just showed up in another comic with the things popping out of his knuckles without any explanation. On the other hand, this was part of what I’d consider a good story: where Wolverine was given his adamantium bones and claws by the Weapon X project.

We would later learn more details, like how he’d previously been part of a superhuman commando squad, how after Weapon X, he wandered Japan and learned the way of the samurai (I might have used ninja in my introduction of Descendants-verse Japan, but the idea that you can learn how to samurai by just bumming around rural Japan is… wow.), and had several epic love affairs. It also turned out that he was born with bone claws, which made more sense than the idea that they gave a supersoldier random melee weapons.

…Then we learned via Grant Morrison that Weapon X meant Weapon 10 and the Weapon Plus program created a bunch of other, forgettable guys and also Fantomex. Oh, and Wolverine is actually part of a weird sub-species of mutant that are basically werewolves and… and…

What’s the difference between one of those paragraphs and the next? Build-up and story, AKA earning it.

Look guys, I like Morrison as much as anyone else. His devotion to being goofy as well as philosophical is admirable… but he has a nasty habit of being sloppy with his retcons. Weapon Plus in and of itself made sense. It had already been shown that there were other candidates for the adamantium procedure like Deadpool. At the same time though, the actual reveal essentially plays out in an info dump about how Wolverine knew nothing about any of this other stuff. Not only that, but the group apparently sat on its ass waiting for Morrison to reveal them with little explanation why Weapon XI et all haven’t been active at all until now when they’re very public (ie, they want to give these guys a Saturday morning cartoon show. I am not kidding).

Not. Kidding.

The werewolf mutant thing is far worse because there’s really no reason for it even in-story. The idea is that there’s a bad guy who s a lupine supremacist or something and he’s all about another legitimately wolfy Rahne ‘Wolfsbane’ Sinclair. Apropos of nothing, he reveals that the wolf mutants are all part of a bloodline that includes the notable-in-his-non-wolfness Wolverine and equally totally-not-a-wolf Sabertooth because… BECAUSE. I suspect the whole thing was to just get Wolverine into the book.

The problems here are two-fold. One, it was a very stupid idea. There are other ‘sub-species’ plots floating around the X-verse, from Nightcrawler being part of a line of demonlike mutants to Cannonball being a supposedly powerful External, but they never have sticking power for one reason: splitting mutants off into sub-species takes away from the core ‘these people are a minority’ conceit of X-men. It tries to make the characters artificially set apart from a group that historically struggles together even when they fight one another and ends up diluting the more subtle meanings in the series.

The second problem is that it isn’t satisfying. Well woo hoo. Wolverine is really a werewolf (did you know wolverines aren’t wolves? The writer of this didn’t) does that inform us of something interesting or deeper about his character like his Japan stuff? Does it explain something left murky before like Weapon X? No. It just says that this new villain is tangentially related to Wolverine and… yay? I don’t understand what is important about this. And that is something you should never hear about their plot twist reveal.

In short, they didn’t do the work to make the retcon worthwhile to the audience. It wasn’t earned.

Before I get to the semi(remember I like parts of Original Sin)-rant everyone here paid good money to read, Allow me to talk about this on a more personal level.

There are a few retcons in the Descendants that I’ve put in over the years for various reasons; some planned, some not. I seeded appearances from George for five years so that the reveal of how Alexis came to discover Tome’s plot actually meant something. It’s still a retcon because from your perspective, it changes a lot of what you thought you knew. My hope is that the reveal made things more clear and interesting for you.

Another, more subtle one that wasn’t planned is the nature of Faerie. If you go back and read Rise of Morganna, you will find a lot of world weirdness. The ‘biome-land name’ naming system, the ‘Faerie can’t kill Faerie’ Laws, the Vault and Thorn skyline, etc. These go against things we learn later both in the story (oh just wait until next week’s chapter of the main story…) and in the forum games, where Faerie is a blue-sky Death World with various warring kingdoms.

The subtle retcon can be found in a throw-away line in Tome: On the Green, where a character notices a dome of vines and green mist on the horizon. Instead of the place Morganna landed being the whole of Faerie, it’s now implied that it was a messed-up region of Faerie for some unknown reason.

I personally feel that the new Faerie is better for storytelling and has more variety and artistic freedom for me to work with. At the same time, I’m not actually invalidating what happened in Rise. As you’ll see, I’ve woven the whys of what was originally the product of a less ambitious author into part of the larger DU. I have put the work in to earn that and I hope I actually did.

And so, we come to some of the ‘Sins’ of Original Sin.

First, we have one that, like Future’s End, caused me to laugh long and loud instead of feeling whatever flavor of drama was intended. Ready to hear it? First, you might want to check out Linkara’s Review of the first Iron Man comic just so you have his ‘drunk Tony Stark voice in your head. Now are you ready? Excellent:

It turns out that Tony, after an argument with Bruce Banner and while as drunk as Robert Downey Jr in the 90’s, sabotaged the gamma bomb experiment that ultimately transformed Banner into the Incredible Hulk.

Analysis #1: The Hulk is the result of a drunken prank. Banner’s life being screwed aside, it was a stupid prank too, as absolutely nothing would have happened of Banner hadn’t left the bunker during testing.

Analysis #2: Given that a few years ago, it was revealed the Hulk never killed anyone while rampaging and in the meantime saved a bunch of people in the process. Therefore: Drunk scientist massively inconveniences one man, saves millions.

That’s Iron Man’s sin. He did something drunk and stupid… and saved like everyone on Earth in doing so. His big, dramatic sin was being a huge hero to everyone not named Bruce Banner. And while he’s going to be popping iron butt-plate and green toenails for a very long time, that’s a pretty nifty sin all things considered.

Is it earned?

Let me ask you this: has there ever been any indication that Tony and Bruce knew each other before the gamma bomb? No? Right. I might accept if Starke got drunk and screwed Banner over without Banner even knowing about him, but if they knew each other before… why have they never acted like they had a pre-Avenger’s history? This isn’t about continuity minutia, this is saying these guys had a secret relationship (shut up) way before they say they did and never, ever reference it… because.

Again, if you never explain why this new thing is only just now coming to light (Tony might want to stay quiet about it, but why Bruce?), you aren’t really doing the work necessary to make the retcon work. And this retcon can work.

Drunken sabotage was completely in-character for Tony Stark prior to the storyline dealing with his alcoholism. He very much would have done something like this, but again, the writers didn’t go that extra stretch to connect just the right dots.

Meanwhile, we have Spider-man, where the ‘Sin’ is that Peter wasn’t the only person bitten by the radioactive spider and now the other person who was is being targeted by Murlon, the villain from the deplorable storyline The Other, where it turned out that the spider was an agent of mystic forces… or something.. connected to totemic powers and Murlon is a monster that eats totemic power people. Jim Butcher did the whole treatment much better in his book Spider-man: Darkest Hour, but I digress.

First of all, and completely off topic here, but that’s not a sin or a dark secret. If someone who actually mattered to Peter’s story and character had been bitten and hid their powers all these years, like say Mary Jane, Flash Thompson or even Gwen Stacy and Peter never noticed because he was wrapped up in his own crap? Well I will read that for quite some time. Especially if it was Gwen and she survived by turning into a (wo)man-spider for a while (more on this later). Seeing as it’s a nobody that Peter had no reason to care about… I don’t care either. She could turn out to be awesome for all we know, but we actually know she’ll likely be dead by 2015.

Second, we once again fail to earn this one because there is going to have to be a lot of explaining to do on why this lady isn’t dead or a monster. I’m not sure how well-versed people are in Spidey-history, but just the act of being bitten has nearly killed Peter several times. It’s also nearly turned him into a hulking half-man, half-spider at least once. It’s also made him ping as radioactive a few times and all these were solved by either him knowing science, or going to a more sciency superhero for help. None of whom I can assume this Silk person knows.

I get why she didn’t become a superhero. I get why no one’s heard of her. But… why isn’t she dead? I can almost promise you we won’t find out and it’s in that line of thinking that the value of this idea dwells. Again, I like the idea of another person having been bitten and their life taking a much different path than Peter’s with Peter now finding out what might have been and finding someone with whom he can commiserate with in terms of the complications caused not by being Spider-man, but a victim of the Spider totem thing– and yes, this could also partially redeem The Other.

And that’s why this is only a semi-rant. Original Sin has some good ideas, but they would have been better if they were standalone stories with better (and longer) development. Where Future’s End is a steaming pile, Original Sin is just… not done. And I don’t mean that there are still issues coming out, I mean the story isn’t completely thought through.

I will give it the faint praise that it’s shaping up to be much better than Identity Crisis, and I can’t help but be delighted by the idea that the horrifying thing the X-men are facing is the idea that Cyclops might be allowed contact with the kids at the Jean Grey school. Yes, the writers all seem to understand that Cyclops is such an irredeemable villain that he shouldn’t be allowed near children while Wolverine (who is dead now or something) is.

In parting, I’ll just say that retcons are like most things in writing. It’s not that you shouldn’t use them, it’s that if you’re going to use them, you need to commit to do the due diligence and make it work. You cna’t just make it happen.

You have to earn it.

By the time you read this, A Magitech Crisis (The Descendants Basic Collection, #4) should be available for $2.99 at an ebook retailer near you. Except Apple because they always take like a week.

Okay, so right now, it’s up at AmazonScribdPage Foundry more to come as they come online.

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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