Bobby Ewing‘s shower has nothing on comic books. They rewrite history as often as most people change shoes.
One of the earliest known examples of the application of retroactive continuity is when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes with every intention of having him stay dead, and then changed it to a fake-out in order to bring the popular character back for more adventures. A more recent example is the revelation that Tony Stark’s parents — his father in particular being a longtime source of inspiration for his work as Iron Man — were not his birth parents, even though he’s spent his entire life believing they were.
Our purpose here is not to villainize the retcon. When executed with great care and given time to grow organically, it can work. The death of Bucky Barnes’ retcon into the Winter Soldier is one of the best-received retcons ever — precisely because writer Ed Brubaker invested time into strong character work that made the whole thing plausible. It worked so well, it was incorporated into the highly successful Captain America film series. The crossover event Secret Invasion rewrote the backgrounds of several characters after shape-shifting Skrulls were revealed to have been hiding in plain sight for years. Likewise, this (very intentional) retcon was accepted by fans because it was smartly written.
The problem is, the majority of retcons in comic books are far from smart. They’re usually the result of editorially-mandated changes, or just plain lazy writing. Here are ten of them, from years past to very recent, that we still can’t quite swallow.
10. “Counter-Evolutionary,” Uncanny Avengers
You know how Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are Avengers and mutants? This unusual status has allowed both Marvel and Fox to lay claim to them for the big screen, causing some confusion among casual moviegoers. It’s also a real sore point for Marvel that the world’s most successful movie studio can’t use one of its biggest and best-known franchises.
Maybe “Counter-Evolutionary” was just a weird coincidence. But it seems much more likely that it was a middle finger pointed in Fox’s direction. Because surprise! Wanda and Pietro Maximoff aren’t mutants anymore!
Rick Remender retconned the crap out of them in this 2015 story arc, in which it was revealed that despite what these two characters have known to be true for decades, Magneto is not their biological father. Instead, they were engineered or experimented on or something by the High Evolutionary, and the whole Magneto thing was a red herring to hide the truth.
If it was done to spite Fox, it was a pointless gesture. The studio already has the rights to use the Maximoff siblings, and has featured Quicksilver in its last two films. It’s too late for Marvel to suddenly say Fox can’t have those characters just because of a dumb retcon.
9. “Heroes Reborn”
Way back in 1996, Marvel’s sales were lagging and a shakeup was needed. So the higher-ups had this wacky idea of turning over the Avengers and Fantastic Four to creators who’d had great success with Marvel in the past but had moved on to form their own companies in the interim. The arrangement saw Marvel farming-out production to external publishers for The Avengers, Fantastic Four, Captain America, and Iron Man.
As is customary for reboots and retcons, the story behind it is incredibly convoluted. Coming at the tail end of the Onslaught crossover, the Avengers and Fantastic Four seemingly sacrificed themselves to stop the villain. But (surprise!) instead, they were sent to another universe by the powerful, omega-level Franklin Richards, son of Reed and Sue. ‘Cause he’s cool like that.
This dimensional rejiggering gave creators Jim Lee and Rob Liefield the opportunity to rewrite their origin stories for modern readers. Most of their famous exploits were moved forward in time to the 80s and 90s, and they all got major overhauls, visually.
The new series were financially successful for Marvel, but one year after it launched, the Heroes Reborn initiative was dumped. The original versions of the Avengers and FF were brought back and everyone forgot the HR universe existed.
8. Identity Crisis
Boy, is this one tricky. It’s a story that retconned an old villain, featured characters learning that they’d wiped each other’s memories (the revelation of which was also a retcon), and eventually was retconned in its entirety by one of DC’s reality-altering crises.
In Identity Crisis, it’s revealed that Sue Dibny, wife of Ralph Dibny aka Elongated Man, was once raped by Doctor Light, who until then had always been something of a buffoon. Writer Brad Meltzer changed that by explaining that following his attack on Sue, the Justice League had Zatanna wipe Light’s memories and change his personality — and this was a tactic they’d used more than once. Plenty more happens in the 7-part miniseries, but in the end it’s revealed that Ray Palmer’s ex-wife, Jean Loring, had at some point gone mad and masterminded the whole thing as a way to reconcile with Ray. Sheesh.
Identity Crisis was celebrated, within comics circles and without, because of its literary quality. Instead of focusing on some universe-ending conflict with a monolithic evil, Identity Crisis was concerned with a more intimate story, a smart, darkly character-driven piece of the kind you don’t usually see in comics — particularly in DC.
But by the same token, a large number of fans hated it, because of its subject matter and how it presented these bright, hopeful characters with the kind of complex moral ambiguities they’d never before faced. Some even trace the dark, angsty turning point of DC’s modern tone straight back to this moment in time.
7. Green Lantern: Rebirth
Way back in 1994, Hal Jordan went off the reservation. Falling into madness, he went evil and laid waste to Oa, the Guardians, and his fellow Green Lanterns. Now calling himself Parallax, he later tried to alter reality itself, until the heroes of DC Comics finally stopped him. It was one of the worst cases of character assassination ever, turning a beloved hero into the worst villain imaginable. It was also remarkably similar to the X-Men’s Dark Phoenix Saga. But where fans accepted and loved the Phoenix story because of how well it was done, Jordan’s downfall made fans lose their minds — because it came out of nowhere and was completely unnecessary.
Ten years later, DC finally heard fans’ cries and decided it was time for Hal to come back. It fell to creative mainstay Geoff Johns to find a way to redeem Hal Jordan and bring him back as the Green Lantern. His solution was that Hal never really went evil — he was possessed by an evil force, aka Parallax. Sound familiar? Yup, Johns played out the X-Men similarities to their conclusion by going full-on Phoenix Force with Parallax.
Retconning a good story is sacrilegious to comics fans, and can quickly turn fans into haters. But retconning a bad story, as was the case with Green Lantern: Rebirth, was welcome. And as such things go, Rebirth was a decent read. The part we can’t believe is that a retcon was necessary to clean up Parallax’s mess — and the only way to do it was to blatantly copy Jean Grey.
6. “Sins Past,” Amazing Spider-Man
It’s no fun picking on J. Michael Straczynski. He’s a genuinely talented writer who’s given the world some great stories. But “Sins Past” just ain’t one of them.
The idea behind “Sins Past,” which was a major storyline in Amazing Spider-Man in 2004 and 2005, was to fill in a gap in Peter Parker’s history with Gwen Stacy. Decades prior, there had been a period of time during which Gwen traveled to France under unexplained circumstances. JMS’ explanation was that Gwen was secretly pregnant, and she traveled abroad to give birth to twins. The writer’s desire was for Peter to be the twins’ father, but Marvel’s editors gave him a big, fat no way, because it would make young Peter seem much older. And that’s when Straczynski lost all control of his story, but was still contracted to try and make it work.
The Marvel braintrust decided that instead of Peter, the father of Gwen’s kids would be his arch-nemesis Norman Osborn. That’s right, the Green Goblin got busy with Spider-Man’s girl. Ew. JMS was forced to come up with a scenario where Norman would be at his most vulnerable and pathetic, allowing Gwen to take pity on him and share the most intimate of moments with the insane evil-doer. Gross. This retcon was so bad, it had the audacity to reframe one of the most pivotal moments in Spider-Man history: Gwen’s death at Osborn’s hands was now because she was keeping the twins from him.
JMS did his best with the writing, but nothing could save this trainwreck. Fans not only didn’t buy it, they rioted. For his part, JMS agreed, going so far as to try and retcon “Sins Past” right out of continuity with his swan song (more on that later). Marvel denied him this as well, which in his own words, pissed him off.
5. The New 52
You know this one all too well. Back in 2011, DC Comics ditched its 70-year continuity and started over fresh with all of its characters under a banner called The New 52. (It was hard not to think of The New 52 as “Ultimate DC.” It still is, in fact.) Officially, it was a “reboot.” But since this restart happened in-continuity (thank you, Flashpoint), it’s also legitimate to call it a retcon. One honking big, massive, all-encompassing retcon.
Longtime fans felt disrespected for having followed all those stories for so long, only to have them essentially thrown in the trash. But the move opened the door to newcomers in a big way, resulting in a major sales boost for DC’s entire catalog. From a business perspective, it was a shrewd move. And some of the revamps proved popular, such as Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s excellent work on Batman. But in retrospect, DC has acknowledged that some of the decisions made for The New 52 were mistakes.
Take Superman for example. Both Jonathan and Martha Kent were now dead, causing Clark to feel like more of an emo outsider (similar to his big-screen counterpart) rather than the bright beacon of hope he was known as. Instead of his iconic romance with Lois Lane, DC paired him up with Wonder Woman. He never quite gained the acceptance his progenitor enjoyed, prompting DC to kill him off and replace him with the pre-New 52 Superman.
Other New 52 changes were downright controversial. Some readers welcomed Barbara Gordon’s return to the role of Batgirl, but there was a huge outcry from readers with disabilities who lamented the loss of Oracle. An endless string of creative departures didn’t help anything, especially when several of them were deeply entrenched in political and social commentary. Many of the exiting writers and artists cited heavy-handed company control, pointlessly mandated editorial decisions, and ultra-last-minute changes to individual issues.
4. “Forging the Sword,” Excalibur
When Grant Morrison took over the flagship X-Men title, New X-Men, in 2001, he rebuilt mutantkind from the ground up and set in motion a long-term story that wouldn’t be paid off for another three years. Morrison introduced a number of new characters, including a Chinese mutant healer named Xorn, who had a white star for a brain and required a special mask to contain its energy. He fought alongside the X-Men and served as a popular teacher at the Xavier Institute.
Near the end of Morrison’s run, a number of storylines converged with the spellbinding revelation that Xorn was actually Magneto, Professor X’s longtime frenemey. Magneto, having been an on-again/off-again villain for decades and presumed dead, was back with a vengeance. His entire Xorn persona had been a massive ruse in order to infiltrate and destroy the Xavier Institute and the X-Men. It was his most devious plan ever and it worked brilliantly, resulting in the Institute being demolished, Jean Grey dying, the human population of New York enslaved, and the city itself nearly wiped out. (Magneto was later executed thanks to a decapitation by Wolverine.)
Five months was all it took to undermine Morrison’s three-year, intricately-stacked house of cards.
Morrison’s big Magneto twist took place in a story arc of New X-Men that began in November of 2003 and ended in February of 2004. In July of 2004, Marvel published Excalibur #1, a new series that had nothing to do with Captain Britain or his friends. Instead, it detailed the cleanup efforts on Genosha, an island nation of mutants that had been decimated. And revealed at the end of that first issue was…Magneto, alive and well and totally not evil! He’d had nothing to do with all that death and destruction in New York, and was appalled that anyone could think he could. All because Marvel didn’t want to lose Magneto as a character. (Even though it had no problem killing off Jean Grey. For a second time.)
Xorn, it turns out, was a Magneto impostor. Who was under the influence of an evil bacteria that was sentient. And oh, he had a twin brother, too! The Xorn/Magneto thing has become so stupidly convoluted, even Marvel has refused to try to make sense of it.
Grant Morrison has stated publicly that Xorn was always, from the beginning, intended to be Magneto. And reading his run on the series, it’s obvious that that was the case, as hints are planted throughout the entire series. Everything builds to this incredible twist of Magneto’s return, badder than ever before. There was never any intention for Xorn to be a separate character.
3. “Like a Phoenix,” The Avengers, Fantastic Four, and X-Force
You probably already know that once upon a time (circa 1980), the X-Men’s Jean Grey was turned evil and destroyed an entire star system when she became possessed by an immeasurable cosmic power known as the Phoenix. “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is one of the most well-known (and beloved) stories in comic book history. At its end, Jean’s true personality resurfaced long enough for her to commit suicide to keep the Phoenix from killing anyone else. Her tragic, noble sacrifice was a defining moment in Marvel Comics mythology.
…Until it wasn’t.
Six years after her death, Marvel decided to resurrect Jean Grey. The House of Ideas wanted her back to join the other original four X-Men in a new title called X-Factor. But Jean couldn’t just return as if nothing had happened; the Phoenix had killed billions of people. So an explanation was required.
In the simplest of terms, the explanation was that the Dark Phoenix that committed horrifying atrocities and murdered billions was not Jean Grey after all. It was the Phoenix Force itself, which had manifested as a copy of Jean Grey with all of her memories and her personality. It was the Phoenix that went mad and turned genocidal. The real Jean, meanwhile, was being healed from near-death in a cocoon at the bottom of the ocean. Because of course she was.
Writer Chris Claremont, who penned “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” has stated his dissatisfaction with this retcon, as he intended for the character’s death to be permanent. “Like a Phoenix,” told in the pages of a crossover between The Avengers, Fantastic Four, and X-Factor, is an example of the worst kind of retcon: one that rewrites a poignant, powerful story that readers had emotionally invested themselves in, rendering all that shock and heartbreak pointless.
But Jean’s moving sacrifice wasn’t the only storyline ruined by X-Factor. There’s also the matter of Cyclops and his new lady. When Jean died, Scott Summers fell in love with a woman named Madelyne Pryor, who through cosmic coincidence, happened to look extraordinarily like Jean. They had a child together, and Claremont intended for them to retire and live happily ever after. But then came X-Factor, so when Scott got word that Jean was alive, he dropped everything — including his wife and kid — to rejoin her and help with the new team. It’s remarkable that somebody actually thought turning Cyclops into a deadbeat dad and absentee husband was a good idea.
Things went predictably sour for Madelyne, and when Marvel couldn’t figure out how to do right by her without making Cyclops even more of a heel, they turned her into a villain. Regardless, X-Factor marked a huge turning point for Scott. Fans often trace his character assassination back to this first shot, a trajectory that got worse when he later married Jean and then psychically cheated on her with Emma Frost. Years after that, he took on the Phoenix, murdered Charles Xavier, and became a wanted criminal.
2. Infinite Crisis: Secret Files & Origins
Prior to the events of 2005’s mega-crossover event Infinite Crisis, the DC Comics universe had gotten a little messy. Jason Todd, the second Robin, was inexplicably back from the dead. Several characters, like Superman, Hawkman, and Donna Troy, had conflicting origin stories. The Legion of Superheroes, the Metal Men, and the Doom Patrol went through multiple incarnations or reboots without explanation.
Enter Infinite Crisis. As had been done with the classic Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, DC took advantage of the multiverse-shattering events of this story to reconfigure the universe and retcon all those discrepancies. The fact that DC chose to do this isn’t the problem. As you’ve probably caught on by now, retcons are so common these days, readers have come to expect them.
The problem is the method writer Geoff Johns used to explain it. At the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths, four heroes — the Superman and Lois Lane of Earth-2, Alexander Luthor of Earth-3, and Superboy of Earth-Prime — sequestered themselves in a “paradise” outside of the multiverse. In this vaguely-defined pocket dimension, Luthor began manipulating Superboy-Prime, suggesting that they should all escape back to the real world. (They were able to observe things outside their dimension via big crystals. Don’t ask.) Superboy, growing increasingly frustrated by the darkness he saw in the modern heroes, began punching through the crystal walls that contained him and his three friends.
According to Johns in Infinite Crisis: Secret Files & Origins, Superboy-Prime punching through those crystals, er, walls of reality, caused ripples that spread across time and space, bringing people like Jason Todd back from the dead, altering origin stories, and so on.
Whether because those silly crystal walls were so ill-defined, or because it seemed that Superboy-Prime was simply employing his fists in an obnoxious temper tantrum (the first of many), the DC universe was radically altered thanks to a petulant teenager pounding on the bars of his cage. Thus, the infamous “Retcon Punch” was born.
1. “One More Day,” Amazing Spider-Man
It’s the retcon to end all retcons. It was so heavy-handed, executed so lazily, so insulting to readers, that it felt like the publisher was intentionally sabotaging itself. It was even done intentionally, in-universe, by the very characters it affected. So much for subtlety.
While regarded as largely responsible for Marvel’s big sales turnaround in the decade after 2000 thanks to a number of editorial directives and talent signings, Joe Quesada‘s tenure as Editor-In-Chief will always be marred by this blight upon humanity. When it comes to Spider-Man, Quesada for years stubbornly clung to the notion that having Peter Parker marry Mary Jane Watson had been a huge mistake.
Quesada felt that it aged the character, since Spidey had been conceived of as a teenager (who was, over 75+ years, allowed to grow into a 20-something) who was a nerdy, socially unpopular, cash-poor loser. In other words, as most readers were growing up, he was one of us. Quesada saw him marrying the girl — and not just any girl, but an incredibly beautiful girl who was way out of his league — as a betrayal of who and what the character was. He also believed that married characters had far fewer options available to them, plot-wise.
Readers and critics felt differently. Even writer J. Michael Strazcynski, whom Quesada had personally recruited to revitalize The Amazing Spider-Man, hated the idea. And rightly so. Straczynski had just spent seven years demonstrating that a married Peter Parker could work, and work beautifully. JMS’ run on the title, while not without a bump or two in the road (see #6), was celebrated by fans and critics alike for making Spider-Man comics creatively relevant again at a time when Sony’s movies far out-shadowed them.
But faced with an editorial mandate, JMS did his duty and put pen to paper when asked by Quesada to dissolve the Parker marriage. No one wanted to see Peter and MJ divorce — that would age the character even more — or separate, and MJ was too important a character to kill off needlessly. So it fell to the world of magic to make it happen. In a now-infamous meeting with the demonic Mephisto, Peter and MJ bargained away their marriage in exchange for saving the life of Aunt May, who’d been shot by a sniper. Mephisto would change history so that May had never been shot — and Peter and MJ had never gotten married.
The overall idea came from Quesada and the Marvel braintrust, and specific points of the erasure were the subject of some heated debates between Strazcynski and Quesada. Basically, Straczynski was intent on rewriting history in a way that made logical sense for everything to add up, without losing anything unnecessary from Spidey’s history; Quesada felt less of a need for every detail to fall in place. They could just cherry-pick the bits they wanted to lose and keep, because magic.
“One More Day” was JMS’ swan song on the series, which is a shame considering how it turned out. He disliked the story so much that he tried to have his name removed from the last two issues — and Quesada had basically written those bits anyway. Straczynski took his share of the blame, but history remembers Quesada as the one ultimately responsible. The writer and editor may have argued over the whole thing, but the real losers were the readers. The entire series relaunched the next month under the “Brand New Day” banner, and despite Marvel’s assertion that “nothing in Peter’s history changed except the marriage,” The Amazing Spider-Man embarked on a long string of new stories with new characters that all but ignored everything Straczynski had done.
Incidentally, Amazing Spider-Man has more recently seen Peter Parker launch his own technology business which has grown into an international empire. Because, you know, being CEO of a global enterprise doesn’t age him at all.
Which comic retcon sticks out most in your mind? Let us know in the comments.