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A retcon is a turn of phrase used by comic readers and industry professionals to describe alterations in the existing internal history of a particular comic character or series of events. Short for retroactive continuity, the term can be applied as either an acting verb or a noun and is only recognized in the external environment of comic book creation. The phrase is almost never used within the fictionalized reality of the characters themselves, although there have at times been some exceptions to this rule.
Purposes of a Retcon
As a writing convention, a retcon serves the function of revising older material, which may be deemed unpalatable to modern readers by altering specific details. Ideally, it serves to strengthen an existing line of continuity while also providing fresh insights into a character's history.
Canon vs. Non-Canon
As a retcon basically recreates a comic book's internal reality, there is often great debate between which material should be considered authoritative (canon), and which material is outdated, and no longer part of the modern history (non-canon). Essentially, the introduction of new material always trumps pre-existing material. If Superman #75 establishes that Lois Lane has green hair, whereas Superman #5 established her as a brunette, then the green-haired Lois should be considered as the canonical authoritative version of that character.
Flashbacks are the easiest and most commonly used tool with which to introduce revisionist material. However, the inclusion of a flashback does not automatically render a specific event as a retcon. If the flashback provides material keeping in line with the author's original creative vision, than it is simply a reveal, and not a true retcon.
Types of Retcons
Adding new material
Some retcons involve inserting additional information into a character's known history. These revisions do not contradict previous material, but enhance and often improve the dramatic integrity of older stories. Writer Peter David often used this technique when scripting material for his run on the 1993 Aquaman series.
Removing old material
In regards to DC Comics, this is the most commonly used form of retroactive continuity. In short, it allows the writer the ability to look back upon older stories and say, "that never happened." The 1985-86 twelve-issue limited series the Crisis on Infinite Earths is the most notorious example of this style of retconning, as it effectively wiped away large patches of accumulated history that spanned nearly fifty years of DC publishing. One example of the Crisis' lingering effects on historical continuity is the Silver Age era Superboy. In the modern canonical history, Clark Kent did not become a costumed hero until he was an adult, and never adopted the identity of the teen hero, Superboy.
Altering existing material
Primarily, this story telling convention serves to modernize older material in order to maintain a sense of historical consistency. The original events are still considered part of the canonical continuity, but they may not necessarily have happened in the exact same fashion that readers may remember. Such revisions can range from inconsequential alterations to major drastic changes. This style can become dangerous if handled poorly, and there have even been instances where writers found themselves retconning previous retcons. Hawkman, Donna Troy, Power Girl and Hippolyta have all suffered biographical injustices due to mismanaged multiple retcons.
Known retcons in the DC Universe
For the sake of clarity, the Post-Crisis Earth will be referred to as "New Earth" for the remainder of this article.
The Multiverse is an unending plane of dimensional realities, each one consisting of parallel worlds with characters and histories congruent to one another, but with various differences. Originally, there was only one dimensional reality, and all known heroes, villains and their respective supporting cast existed within the same reality. In 1961, DC Comics established its first official retcon. In Flash #123 in a story entitled, "The Flash of Two Worlds," it was revealed that the super-heroes of the 1960s operated on a parallel world from that of the original Golden Age heroes. Although the Golden Age characters were active during a chronologically earlier era than their Silver Age counterparts, their dimensional reality came to be known as Earth-Two. The Silver Age heroes operated on a world called Earth-One. This retcon altered the character histories of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman who were acknowledged as having counterparts on both Earth-One and Earth-Two. Other famous heroes had counterparts who adopted their names, but were in fact different people, such as Jay Garrick the Golden Age Flash, and Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash.
Over the span of the next twenty years, more parallel Earths were created, each one brandishing their own versions of established DC heroes. Some worlds were created as a de facto resting place for characters purchased from defunct companies, such as Charlton Comics and Quality Comics. One world, Earth-Three, boasted villainous versions of the Justice League, while planets like Earth-S functioned as the universal home of the Marvel Family of characters.
During the Crisis on Infinite Earths, many of these parallel worlds were destroyed. By Crisis on Infinite Earths #10, only five parallel Earths remained intact. However, their existence was only fleeting. Dozens of super-heroes traveled back in time to the era of the Big Bang in order to face the cosmic being known as the Anti-Monitor. The end result was a reboot of the Big Bang phenomenon which effectively erased the concept of the Multiverse and created one streamlined universe with only one Earth. A new history was established and many characters who originally hailed from alternate Earths were now retroactively relocated to this "new" Earth. With the exception of a villain known as the Psycho-Pirate, the remaining characters in the DC Universe were unaware of events that existed prior to the cosmic reboot.
In seeking to clear muddy waters, DC Comics released a two-issue prestige format illustrated narrative entitled, The History of the DC Universe. This two-issue limited series established which characters and stories were inclusive to the new continuity, while affirming that many Pre-Crisis events should then be construed as apocryphal.
Despite the reference material supplied in the History of the DC Universe, the identifying of canonical, Post-Crisis events is still a subject of interpretation.
- See Multiverse for a more comprehensive account of the various parallel Earths.
Death of Parents
The exact circumstances behind the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne have changed considerably over the years. Also, the age of Bruce Wayne at the time of this incident has altered as well. In the Golden Age continuity, a mugger named Joe Chill shot both of the Waynes leaving a nine-year old Bruce an orphan. As Batman, Bruce ultimately finds Joe Chill, but the murderer is killed by a group of his own men.
The Silver Age version of this incident closely follows the Golden Age version. The only notable exception is that Joe Chill only shoots Thomas Wayne. Martha Wayne dies of a heart attack seconds after seeing her husband killed, as well as many background elements such as Wayne being taken in and raised by his father's brother Philip and having his own brother, Thomas Wayne, Jr.
In the Post-Crisis retelling of the origin, Joe Chill shoots both of the Waynes, but Bruce is only seven-years-old at the time. The Zero Hour timeline retcons Bruce's age, establishing him as nine-years-old at the time of his parents murder. More modern sources have now established that Bruce Wayne was in fact ten-years-old at the time of his parents' deaths and largely raised by a younger Alfred Pennyworth and Dr. Leslie Thompkins, removing the surviving family of the Waynes. Even the existence of the man responsible for killing Thomas and Martha Wayne is now called into question. Batman later met up with Joe Chill during the "Year Two" storyline, a storyline that culiminated with Chill's apparent demise. Following Zero Hour, it is now believed that the Waynes' murderer was not only never caught, but he was never positively identified either. To date, Bruce Wayne has yet to turn up a solid lead into his parents' murder. Some evidence exists suggesting that John Corben (the future Metallo) may be somehow linked to the murder, or even responsible.
Superman has undergone dramatic retcons over the years. The original Superman introduced in Action Comics #1 was born Kal-L of the planet Krypton (later versions of the character spell his Kryptonian name Kal-El). He crash-landed on Earth in the present, which at the time was publishing year 1938, and was adopted by John and Mary Kent. As Clark Kent, he worked at the Daily Star based out of Cleveland, Ohio. Later issues retroactively relocated him to the fictional city of Metropolis, positioned at an undetermined locale in the Eastern United States.
Originally, Superman was unique to his own reality, but a guest-appearance in a Hop Harrigan text story in All-Star Comics #8 (1940) established that he functioned in the same reality as other super-heroes such as the Atom, Flash and Green Lantern. Although The Flash #123 established the concept of parallel realities, it was actually Justice League of America #21 that provided the nomenclature Earth-Two. All of Superman's adventures from 1938 until the mid 1950s were now considered part of Earth-Two continuity, whereas all of his adventures published from c. 1955 onward were relegated to the continuity of Earth-One, thus creating two separate characters. DC Comics has never established a firm rule determining when Earth-Two stories ceased regular publication, and when Earth-One stories began, though it was clear that everything from the creation of the Justice League of America onward was unmistakably part of Earth-One continuity.
Much of the original storyline of the original books was re-established as the background of the Earth-Two Superman such as the character not knowing he was actually from the alien planet of Krypton growing up ignorant of his heritage until an adult, and never having a costumed career while a child which the Earth-One Superman did in his first specific origin story which specifically countered the earlier origin stories of the character. With two specific active versions of the character, many writers began to create ever greater differences between the two primary incarnations. Most notable between them was the fact that the Superman of Earth-Two aged and married Lois Lane of his reality, whereas Superman of Earth-One remained single and remained essentially the same age. Writers such as E. Nelson Bridwell and Roy Thomas went on to even directly change the early history of the Earth-Two Superman's career in the pages of All-Star Squadron and Superman Family. In the 1970s, the Earth-Two Superman and Lois Kent were featured regularly in a vignette in Superman Family series entitled "Mr. and Mrs. Superman" which mostly featured their early married life together in the very early 1950s which again retconned all of the actual printed stories of the 1950s that showed the characters unmarried and Lois still trying to find out Superman's secret identity.
The timeline for both versions of the character came to an end in the 1985-86 limited series Crisis on Infinite Earths. By the end of the storyline, Earth-Two and Earth-One were merged into a new reality, colloquially known as New Earth. Although Superman and Lois of Earth-Two survived the Crisis, their realities were erased from history. Superman of Earth-One and his entire supporting cast (including foes) were rendered apocryphal.
In 1986, writer/artist John Byrne reintroduced Superman for the Post-Crisis environment in a six-issue limited series entitled Man of Steel. Through the course of the series, Byrne re-established Superman's origins as well as the re-introduction of his ever-growing stable of supporting characters including the Kents, Lois Lane, Lana Lang and Lex Luthor. One major alteration brought about by this revamp was the total restructuring of Kryptonian culture and history. A comprehensive timeline of key Kryptonian events was revealed in the four-issue World of Krypton limited series and supplemented by 1988's Action Comics Annual #2. Another major adjustment was Superman's place within the history of the Justice League of America. In Pre-Crisis continuity, Superman was a founding member of the League, and remained with them throughout the entirety of their tenure. In the revised history, Superman refused official membership, but agreed to help the neophyte heroes on occasion.
Superman's post-crisis history was rigidly maintained until 2003 when Mark Waid produced the twelve-issue maxi-series Superman: Birthright. Birthright introduced major alterations to established Superman history without any sort of catalyst by which to explain them. The changes made in Waid's story contradict many elements presented during the Byrne era, including De-aging Ma and Pa Kent, placing Lex Luthor in Smallville during his youth (done to reflect elements presented in the Smallville television series), restructuring Kryptonian lifestyle again and making it possible for other Kryptonians to survive Krypton's ultimate destruction (In the Post-Crisis revamp, Kryptonians were genetically bound to their home world, and could not leave the planet without dying).
DC's current editorial staff have stated that elements of both the Byrne era revisions and the Birthright storyline are part of canon continuity, selectively choosing elements of both. Such as currently Superman is again almost borne on Earth being only weeks old when he arrives on Earth and develops power slowly as he matures though having some powers as a teenager which he uses in secret thus never becoming costumed Superboy but still inspiring the later heroes of the Legion of Super-Heroes as a young hero. The Post-Birthright Krypton removed the genetic defect bonding Kyrptonians to their home world, and through this, DC was able to introduce more Kryptonian characters such as Supergirl (Kara Zor-El) and the Phantom Zone criminals such as Zod whose own son has been adopted by Superman and being raised as Superman's foster son Christopher Kent, alongside a superpowered though not normal-human intelligent Krypto.
Wonder Woman retcons
The history of Wonder Woman was altered greatly due to the effects of the Crisis. All of Wonder Woman's Earth-One and Earth-Two adventures (including her rogue's gallery and supporting cast) were removed from continuity. In the Post-Crisis environment, Wonder Woman did not leave Themyscira from man's world until some time after the Crisis. She was never a founding member of the Justice League of America, and she never dated Air Force colonel Steve Trevor. In fact, Steve Trevor was now cast in the role of an aging test pilot who later became involved with Etta Candy.
The excising of Wonder Woman from historical continuity affected the lives of several other characters as well. Wonder Woman was initially responsible for rescuing infant Donna Troy from a burning building and bringing her back to Paradise Island, where she eventually grew up to become Wonder Girl. This, among other things, cast Donna Troy into a continuity quagmire that took years for editors to sufficiently sort out.
Her absence from continuity also removed all presence of the Golden Age Wonder Woman. Without a Wonder Woman, the question was asked, "Who was adventuring with the Justice Society of America in her place?" In order to smooth over this omission, DC editors decided to retroactively insert the character of Miss America into the Wonder Woman role and establish her as an honorary member of the Justice Society of America. This decision was met with mixed criticisms from readers, some of whom felt that Miss America was not iconic enough to replace Wonder Woman and very little attention was paid to this retcon.
The removal of the Golden Age Wonder Woman created still more problems. In 1983, it was established that Wonder Woman had married Steve Trevor and gave birth to a daughter, Lyta. Lyta Trevor went on to join the Earth-Two team known as Infinity, Inc. as the hero, Fury. Following the Crisis, Infinity Inc. was retroactively relocated to New Earth and Lyta Trevor's history was preserved in the new continuity. However, her parentage was now called into question. In 1987, Roy Thomas created the character of Helena Kosmatos, Lyta's mother and the new Golden Age Fury. While the Golden Age Fury was intended to placate some fans of the original Wonder Woman, there was still the issue of Miss America's contributions to the Golden Age mythos.
In 1998, writer/artist John Byrne solved the Miss America problem. In one storyline, the Post-Crisis Wonder Woman died and was elevated to the status of godhood, becoming the Goddess of Truth. In order to fill the void, her mother Hippolyta was chosen to act in the role of Wonder Woman. During one of her adventures, Hippolyta traveled back in time to the year 1942, where she became a member of the JSA and remained there for several years before returning to the present. Historically, Hippolyta is now recognized as the Golden Age Wonder Woman.
Following the events of Infinite Crisis, Wonder Woman's placement in DCU History has been retconned yet again. She has been retroactively re-established as a founding member of the Justice League of America, replacing the role of Black Canary. Black Canary is now stated to have joined the League shortly after their formation, but she is no longer considered a founding member.
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Links and References