Kleefeld on Webcomics #23: REAL Retroactive Continuity

By Sean Kleefeld

For comics that have been running for years or even decades, the notion of retroactive continuity has been one that’s frequently been embraced as a means to keep characters relevant with the times. For example, Iron Man’s original debut in 1963 was decisively tied to the Vietnam War but almost four decades later, much of his audience is too young to have any real knowledge, let alone appreciation, of that conflict, so the character’s origin was updated to take place during the Gulf War of the early 1990s and then again to Afghanistan. Those are more contemporary references and, at least in theory, more relateable to 21st century audiences.

Generally, this type of update is handled with a “retcon.” It’s usually a simple retelling of the original sequence with some of the details changed. In some cases, it might just be a simple re-wording, in others, there might be inherent design alterations. But whatever the changes, they have to be put out in a new document. Which means that there have been a number of different comics published that tell different origins of Iron Man. Depending on which one a person happens to read, they might come away with a very different perception of how Tony Stark first created his armor.

Webcomics have an advantage in this regard. The art pages are stored on the creator’s own website, and are not (usually) saved by the individual reader. Which means that if someone -- anyone -- wants to go back to read the initial installments, they’re all going to refer to the exact same piece of art stored online. But that piece of art is controlled by the creator, and can be changed.

Sean T. Collins and Matt Wiegle started Destructor towards the tail end of last year. The story was progressing along smoothly when, with their last update in June, Collins noted that the previous two pages had been altered to better coincide with the latest page. Going back through the comic, of course, simply yielded the modified pages; had Collins not said anything, it’s unlikely many people would have noticed. Intrigued, and armed with some wicked Google-Fu skilz, I was able to uncover what had been altered.

The change is relatively simple and seemingly inconsequential: switching the glowy yellow bits to glowy red bits. But whatever the reasoning behind it, it’s a change that won’t have anyone questioning why the energy changes color between pages. It’s only through a fair amount of effort that one’s able to track down the original image and make a comparison. If someone did remember, “Hey, weren’t those glowy bits yellow before?” checking against the existing pages would never show that; it would only present the updated art in red. It’s only because Collins pointed out a change that I thought to even look into it.

Ethan Young’s Tails was changed, though, in an effort to remove questions about some of the character relationships. Young was repeatedly asked whether his protagonist was adopted because some readers felt he bore little resemblance to his parents. What Young realized was that readers were reacting to the parents’ white hair as if it were blonde, which contrasted sharply with the main character’s black hair. The mistake is somewhat understandable, as the comic is not colored, but Young received the question often enough that he decided to go back and tweak the parents’ appearance to more closely resemble their son’s.

Fortunately for Young, as you can see, simply changing the parents’ hair color makes a fairly significant visual change. And, although I haven’t followed up with him on this point specifically, I strongly suspect it has in fact dissuaded anyone else from asking about his character’s lineage. Because here again, a reader would to make a serious and concerted effort to track down the original art files to make a comparison.

It’s said that anything that goes online will be around forever, even if you delete it. I was working with that very principle, in fact, to track down the original art files for these two examples. But the effort needed for that type of search is far beyond what the majority of readers might be willing to put forth. And it’s still infinitely easier than the almost impossible task of tracking down distributed copies of physical works just to make a slight story alteration!

Related Posts:

Kleefeld on Webcomics #22: Webcomics Of The 1700s

Kleefeld On Webcomics #21: The Speed Of Thought


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