Shall I compare thee to a sandbox? I asked the Marvel Universe in my column two months ago. As those of you who read this column sacrilegiously know, I discussed in some detail the fun I had as a writer toiling in the sandbox of the Marvel Universe, how I felt that working within the framework of such a broad and breathtaking shared fictional backdrop as the M.U. was exhilarating heady stuff.
This month I’d like to talk about the sandbox some more, this time not as someone playing in it, but as one of the its designated custodians. First, let me tell you about my superior’s job. As editor in chief of Marvel the company, Tom DeFalco is the designated highest authority of Marvel the universe. It is his job to arbitrate on all life and death matters in the universe. If a writer wants to kill an established character, you have to get Tom’s approval. If a writer wants to bring a character back from the dead, you have to get Tom’s approval. If a writer wants to change a character’s name, costume, powers, marital status, origin, or anything major about an established character, you have to get Tom’s approval.
So what’s left for me, the senior executive editor, to do? My job is to coordinate guest appearances, approve all names of characters (even Tom’s) so we can avoid duplication whenever possible (how many Destroyers do we have anyway), and plain ol’ keep track of the state of the universe in general. Many fan-folks would call this keeping track of continuity, but not me. In my opinion, consistency is a more descriptive term than continuity. We all know stories continue, some smoothly, some by fits and starts. I’m concerned that they continue consistently. That’s why I call it consistency. It’s a big job, whatever you want to call it. We currently publish about 40 books set in the contiguous universe, and by the end of ’92 it will be up to 50 books. This custodian job is only part of my responsibilities as exec ed, and no matter how hard I try, things get by me into print that hurt the sense of a consistent universe. Believe me, anything that hurts the universe hurts me, too – so completely do I identify with it.
So just how do mistakes, inconsistencies, and discrepancies happen? I’ve identified several major ways. The first of these are honest errors committed by conscientious people. You get the wrong reference. You forget to check a certain previous appearance of a character that turns out to be critical. There’s a glitch in communication between creative people working for two separate editorial offices. Differing schedules and work habits mean that one writer has to go ahead with his or her part of a storyline a second writer will be tying into but hasn’t reached yet. Things like that. A good recent example of this latter example, I was a party to. In INFINITY GAUNTLET, Quasar was erroneously depicted in his interim costume instead of his third and final costume. Why did this happen? Why did I allow it? Because at the time IG was being drawn, the design for Quasar’s final costume had not been completed. You may be happy to know that a later issue of QUASAR explained the costume discrepancy, but even we couldn’t explain why Makkari was reported as among the missing in IG but was active in QUASAR during the IG crossover. Sometimes a writer and editor don’t even think something is significant enough to check out, and it slips out of the house without the parties who would be able to see the error in it.
Discrepancies and inconsistencies also occur when there are purposeful revisions done for aesthetic reasons. The eight Hulk stories told in RAMPAGING HULK magazine are my favorite example.Their writer decided that there would be nothing wrong with depicting certain meetings between the Hulk and various early Marvel Universe figures which took place prior to the “historical” first meetings in the pages of early Marvel Comics (and now MARVEL MASTERWORKS). A later INCREDIBLE HULK writer’s story declared these eight stories to be merely movies of an alien filmmaker named Bereet. In other words, they hadn’t “really” happened. Why was this done? The second writer believed that the continuity-implant stories in RAMPAGING HULK undermined the integrity of the stories they supposedly fit in between. For instance, showing a meeting of the Hulk and Avengers prior to the historic meeting of the five AVENGERS #1 undermined the uniqueness of AVENGERS #1. Consequently the writer set about to rectify it. This was before I have my present position so I had no say in the matter. I’ll let all of you decide if he was justified or not. The end result, though, was stories presented as legitimate to the readers turned out not to be.
The third way discrepancies and inconsistencies creep in are those purposeful monkey wrenches thrown into the underpinnings of the universe by mischievous (some might say spiteful) creative people. It’s true (and you read it here first): there are a number of writers who take perverse delight in undermining the work of others because they don’t like that other writer’s work. This is frequently justified by the rationale for discrepancy category two, aesthetic reasons. We occasionally have one writer no-so-subtly sniping at one another: one writer declaring that any of Character X’s appearances he didn’t write were actually appearances of a Character X robot…or a character in one book claiming to be supreme in some way, trying to steal the thunder from a character in another book who makes the same claim…or pulling a “Dallas” and declaring another writer’s work to be a dream or delusion. It’s my job as custodian to try and prevent feud material from making it into print, but it’s hard to be 100% effective when one doesn’t see the book until it is completely done and has to leave the house in an hour or it will miss shipping to stores on time. The writers we have working at Marvel are an extraordinarily talented bunch, but sometimes their talents are skewed in peculiar directions. Marvel’s editors have an expression for writers do a lot of undermining of others’ work. We say So-and-so “doesn’t play well with other children.” Sad but true, there are times when cranky children kick precious sand out of our sandbox.
Another reason some writers like to throw a purposeful monkey wrench into the works is to mess with readers’ sense of “reality.” By revising or even jettisoning portions of a character’s backstory, a writer can shock a reader out of complacency (“What, you mean everything I know about Character X is wrong!?!”), throwing what was previously established into a cocked hat (like the negation of Vision and Scarlet Witch’s kids, or Alicia being a Skrull for the last few years) or shedding new light on old events (the insertion of Trickshot into Hawkeye’s origin or Stick into Daredevil’s). This is done just for fun by some writers (“Boy, this will have fandom buzzing!”). For others, this is done by what they perceive as necessity (“As much as I hate to make Alicia a Skrull, I think getting Human Torch out of his marriage is worth it”). Writers must be wary, however – fans can turn against you when they think they’re being messed with just the for sake of messing.
Another way discrepancies happen is when editors fall down on the job and don’t check or clear things they should. Some may do it deliberately: perhaps they suspect that if they were going to check something out, it would get shot down, and they fear upsetting their poor fragile writer for various reasons, some admirable and some cowardly. When things aren’y checked, we end up with needless duplication, ill-advised revivals, and aggravating inconsistencies. Here’s a recent case in point of system failure. A recent WEB OF SPIDER-MAN featured a brand new Firebrand, the original being an Iron Man villain who was killed by Scourge. Had this been checked with me, it wouldn’t have happened. I’d have said no to a new Firebrand on these grounds: 1. The original was a student radical, a real late 60s – early 70s type. I feel this was fine for then, outdated now. 2. DC had a Firebrand character since the 40s, and whenever possible I want to avoid sharing names with our competitors. Had this been checked with me, I would have first had the editor check to see if any of our currently existent fire and heat related villains would have served the story’s purposes (there’s five I can think of). If not, I’d have had them change the character’s name and visual so he would have been a completely new character instead of a retread. Why did Firebrand slip between the cracks? In the transition of the Spider-Man books from one editor to another, each thought the other department did or would do the approval process.
I have still more to say on this subject; namely, the effect of all these discrepancies on the sandbox of the Marvel Universe. But there’s enough grist in it for a whole ‘nother column. Stay tuned, and let me know what you think of all this in care of this magazine.