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Retcon

From Academic Kids

Retroactive continuity – commonly contracted to the portmanteau word retcon – refers to new information later added to "historical" material or deliberately changing previously established facts in a work of serial fiction. The change itself is referred to as a retcon, and the act of writing and publishing a retcon is called "retconning".

Retcons are common in comic books, especially those of large publishing houses such as Marvel Comics and DC Comics, due to the lengthy history of many series and the number of independent authors contributing to their development. Retconning also occurs in TV shows, movies sequels, video games, radio series, series of novels, and can be done in any other type of episodic fiction. It is also used in roleplaying, when the game master feels it is needed to maintain consistency in the story or to fix significant mistakes that were missed during play.

Contents

Origins

"Retroactive continuity" was coined by comic book writer Roy Thomas in his 1980s series All-Star Squadron, which featured the DC Comics superheroes of the 1940s. The earliest known use of the term is from Thomas's letter column in All-Star Squadron #20 (April 1983). The term was shortened to "retcon" in 1988 on USENET to describe a development in the comic book Swamp Thing, in which Alan Moore reinterpreted the events of the title character's origin. (See "Examples", below.)

Kinds

Although there is considerable ambiguity and overlap between different kinds of retcons, there are some distinctions that can be made between them, depending on whether they add to, alter, or remove material from past continuity.

Addition

Some retcons do not directly contradict previously established facts, but "fill in" missing background details necessary for current plot points. This was the sense in which Thomas used "retroactive continuity", as a purely additive process which did not "undo" any previous work. Kurt Busiek took a similar approach with Untold Tales of Spider-Man a series which told stories that fit between issues of the original Amazing Spider-Man series, sometimes explaining discontinuities between those earlier stories.

Related to this is the concept of shadow history or secret history, in which the events of a story occur within the bounds of already-established (especially real-world historical) events, but have been hitherto unrevealed.

Alan Moore's additional information about the Swamp Thing's origins didn't contradict or change any of the events depicted in the character's previous appearances, but changed the underlying interpretation of them. This verges on making alterations to past continuity.

Alteration

Retcons often add information which effectively states "what you saw isn't what really happened" and then introduces a different version. This is usually interpreted by the audience as an overt change rather than a mere addition. The most common form this takes is when a character shown to have died (sometimes explicitly) is later revealed to have survived somehow. This is well known in horror films, which may end with the death of the monster, but when the film becomes successful, the studio plans a sequel, revealing that the monster survived after all. This has been done many times in superhero comics, so frequently that the term comic book death has been coined for it.

Sometimes retcons are used to keep characters from aging or to keep them contemporary to the audience. A character who served in the army during World War 2 might have his service record retconned to place him in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, etc. This is similar to a problem faced by many works of future history: the events they describe happening in years after the initial publication do not conform to history as it actually happens. To accomodate such discrepancies, retcons may be used in later stories which alter dates or other details. (See Star Trek examples, below.)

While retconning is usually done without comment by the creators, DC Comics has on rare occasions promoted special events dedicated to revising the history of the DC Comics universe. The most important and well known such event was the mini-series Crisis on Infinite Earths; this allowed for wholesale revisions of their entire multiverse of characters. It has been argued that these were not true retcons, however, because the cause of the changes to their universe actually appeared within the story, similar to stories in which a time-traveler to the past changes history from how he remembered it.

Subtraction

Sometimes retconned alterations are so drastic as to render prior stories untenable. Many of the retcons introduced in Crisis on Infinite Earths and DC's later Zero Hour were specifically intended to wipe the slate clean, and permit an entirely new history to be written for the characters. This is commonly referred to as a reboot.

Unpopular stories are sometimes later ignored by publishers, never referred to again, and effectively erased from a series' continuity. They may publish stories which contradict or explicitly establish that the previous story "never happened". An unpopular retcon may even be re-retconned away. Whether the publisher supports it or not, fans may use Krypto-revisionism to ignore a particular retcon, itself a form of meta-retcon stating that "it was never published". Similarly, fans may invent unofficial explanations for inconsistencies, the challenge itself becoming a source of entertainment. (See fanon, Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome).

Related

Retroactive continuity is similar to, but not exactly the same as, plot inconsistencies introduced accidentally or through lack of concern for continuity; retconning is usually done deliberately. However, retcons are sometimes created after the fact to explain such mistakes. It is also generally distinct from replacing the actor who plays a part in an ongoing series, which is more properly an example of weak or loose continuity (i.e. the different appearance of the character is ignored), rather than retroactively changing past continuity.

Retconning is also distinct from direct revision; when George Lucas re-edited the original Star Wars trilogy, he made changes directly to the source material, rather than introduce new source material that contradicted the contents of previous material. However, the current series of Star Wars prequels, do qualify as "new source material", and many fans have pointed out instances which apparently retcon elements of the original trilogy. (See below.)

The "clean slate" reinterpretation of characters - as in movie and television adaptations, or the reintroduction of many superheroes in the Silver Age of Comics - is similar to a reboot retcon, except that the previous versions are not explicitly or implicitly eliminated in the process. They are merely alternate or parallel reinterpretations.

Examples

Comic books

  • When Alan Moore took over writing Swamp Thing, he wrote a story revealing that the title character was not Alec Holland transformed into a monster, but - to the surprise of both the readers and the character - was instead a monster that had grown from plant material infected with the memories and personality of the deceased Alec Holland.
  • Prior to Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC Comics featured characters who lived on a variety of alternate versions of Earth; afterward, these characters were said to have always lived together on the same Earth. Many characters' origins or back-stories were altered, and Superman, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, and other characters were fully rebooted. A second major set of retcons in DC Comics was in a similar event called Zero Hour, which rebooted the Legion of Superheroes.
  • The symbiote Venom was originally said to have merged with Eddie Brock because he was suicidally despondent and resentful of Spider-Man. However, it was later presented that Eddie had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the symbiote had chosen him as a host because the cancer caused him to produce more of the adrenaline that it "feeds" on.
  • Before the 1980s, Spider-Man writers stated that Peter Parker's love interest Mary Jane Watson did not know he was Spider-Man. It was later retconned that she had known of Peter's dual life since it began.
  • The Batman origin story Batman: Year One stated that Police Commissioner James Gordon was childless, contradicting stories set in the present involving his daughter Barbara aka Batgirl. It was then retconned that Gordon was the uncle and adopted father of Barbara.
  • In the Yu-Gi-Oh! manga, it is explained by Sugoroku Mutou (a.k.a. Solomon Moto or "Grandpa") in the first chapter that a team of British archaelogists took the Millennium Puzzle out of a pharaoh's crypt in the Valley of the Kings, and that they all died afterwards. In a later chapter, it is revealed that Sugoroku Mutou discovered the puzzle in 1960 in a tomb that had not been successfully breached by anyone else, including a team of British archaelogists.

Television

  • In the sitcom Cheers, Frasier Crane said that his father is a deceased research scientist. However, the spin-off Frasier featured Frasier's father Martin as an ex-cop living in Seattle. This was later explained as Frasier lying to his friends in Boston after having a huge argument with his father over the phone during the "Cheers years". He also never mentioned having a brother Niles in the earlier series.
  • An entire season of the soap opera Dallas was later dismissed as Pam Ewing's dream, including her ex-husband Bobby's death. Ironically, the spin-off series, Knots Landing continued as though the events of this season had occurred, and the two series never crossed paths again.
  • The final episode of Newhart revealed that the entire series had been a dream of Bob Newhart's character from the earlier series The Bob Newhart Show. Unlike most other examples, this was done for comedic effect.
  • A similar plot device was used in the final season of Roseanne, stating that Roseanne's husband had died of a heart attack at the end of the previous season, and the final season was all her self-delusion.
  • In the science fiction series Lexx, the key to the Lexx spacecraft is stored in the hand of the captain (episode 1.02, "Supernova") and is released as the captain dies (episode 1.01, "I Worship His Shadow"). In later seasons, the key is stored in the captain's brain (episode 3.08, "The Key") and can be released even when the captain's life is merely threatened (episode 4.01, "Little Blue Planet").
  • Retcon abounds in the British television series Red Dwarf - such matters as what century the characters originated from, how many people were on the ship and many others have been changed. Series co-creator Doug Naylor has gone on record saying that they have always had a very relaxed attitude to continuity, and if something could be changed for the better then they would change it.
  • In the 1970s TV series Wonder Woman, the character's backstory was altered during the second season. During the first year, it was established that Wonder Woman had never left Paradise Island nor encountered men prior to travelling to the US to help fight World War II. In the second season, the character dropped numerous hints that not only did she encounter various men centuries ago (i.e. a Chinese acupressure specialist she met "centuries ago", and references to historical figures supposedly met) but that she may have been active as either Wonder Woman or in some other crime-fighting guise as early as the 19th century.

Film

  • By their very nature, the Star Wars prequels are loaded with retcons in the broader sense of the term, such as a previously unmentioned relationship between Yoda and Chewbacca introduced in Revenge of the Sith. A scene in Attack of the Clones explains a stormtrooper bumping his head on-screen in A New Hope, by showing that Jango Fett - from whom the stormtrooper was cloned - had a tendency to do the same. The prequels also contain some overt revisions of history, such as The Phantom Menace revealing that C-3PO and R2-D2 knew the Skywalkers, despite their apparent unfamiliarity with Luke's family and Tatooine itself at the beginning of A New Hope (explained by C-3PO's memory wipe at the end of Revenge of the Sith, coupled with the ambiguity of R2D2's unintelligible dialogue).
  • In the second Highlander film it is revealed that the Immortals are aliens from the Planet Zeist, although no mention of this is made in the first film, and exposition as to the nature of "The Game" is inconsistent with the implications of the first film. These developments are largely ignored in the subsequent films, as well as the television series, which also retcon Connor's triumph in the original Highlander as merely a major victory, rather than the final battle of "The Game".

Literature

  • J.R.R. Tolkien rewrote the way Bilbo Baggins acquired his Ring in The Hobbit, to better suit the story he wanted to tell in The Lord of the Rings. Narratively this was explained by depicting the original version as a misrepresentation perpetuated by Bilbo – already under the Ring's influence – and only later corrected.
  • In his sequels to the prose version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke made slight alterations to background history in order to keep each novel consistent with progressing developments in the real world. He also changed the location of the deep space monolith from Saturn to Jupiter to conform with the movie version of 2001 by Stanley Kubrick. Clarke has explained this by stating that each sequel to 2001 exists in its own continuity and follows the film rather than the book.
  • In the book Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm is said to have died at the end. However, in its sequel, The Lost World, Ian Malcolm's death turns out to be a mis-reporting of the incident, bringing the books into line with the movies, in which he did not die. Additionally, characters who survived in the book but were killed in the film (such as the lawyer Gennaro and the gamekeeper Muldoon), are mentioned in The Lost World novel as having died shortly after the park incident (i.e. from illness or a plane crash).

Star Trek in various media

  • The Star Trek: The Original Series episode, "Space Seed" referred to the Eugenics Wars as a conflict taking place in the 1990s. Greg Cox's series of Star Trek novels, written after the 1990s, attempted to retcon the wars into shadow affairs hidden by real-life major conflicts, but the producers of the TV series don't consider the novels to be canon. A 1996 episode of Star Trek: Voyager ("Future's End") was set in a year when the wars should have been raging or recently completed, yet no mention of them was made. A 1998 episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ("Dr. Bashir I Presume?") contained a statement in the script that suggested the wars took place in the 22nd Century (although this has been acknowledged as an error). A 2004 episode of Star Trek: Enterprise stated that the Eugenics Wars were a wide conflict in which 30 million people died, but without identifying the timeframe; the producer of the series, however, stated that the Eugenics Wars as referenced in the episode still occurred in the 1990s.
  • When Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in 1980, Gene Roddenberry claimed that the radically different appearance of the Klingons in the film was how they were always supposed to have looked, but they didn't have the budget for it in the 1960s. In the 1990s, an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine featured three Klingon characters from the original series, made up to fit the new look. However, the later episode "Trials and Tribble-ations", used footage from the original series with old-look Klingons; Commander Worf acknowledged their different appearance, adding that it was "a long story" that Klingons "do not discuss with outsiders". A two episode arc of Star Trek: Enterprise ("Affliction"/"Divergence") in 2005 indicated that Klingons resembling the 1960s portrayal were the product of genetic engineering using augmented human genes, essentially retconning the retcon.

Video games

  • In Myst, the brothers were trapped in Trap Books, in the void between the Ages. If the player frees them, he is trapped himself. Originally, Atrus burned the books, thus trapping his sons forever. This was revised, to say that the brothers were not trapped in the void, but in desolate Ages.
  • Similar to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Kilrathi of the Wing Commander movie were different in appearance to those in the Wing Commander games. Chris Roberts claimed that this was how they were always supposed to have looked, but they didn't come up with their definite appearance while making the games.
  • At the end of the video game Super Mario Bros. for the NES, Mario seemingly kills Bowser, who falls into a pit of lava. His reappearance in later games is never explained, though fans have offered some ideas.
  • At the end of the Halo: Combat Evolved, the ending strongly suggests that Master Chief was the only survivor on either side of the war. However, in Halo 2, Sarge Johnson shows up as a major character, explained only in the novelization of the game.
  • In Pitch Black, Riddick describes his ability to see in the dark as the result of a black-market surgery he acquired in prison. In the video game Escape from Butcher Bay, based on the film sequel The Chronicles of Riddick, it is shown that his ability was granted to him by a mysterious female voice in his head.
  • Several games in the Castlevania series have been retconned. See the main article for more information.
  • When the development company that created Twisted Metal and Twisted Metal 2 left their publisher, Twisted Metal 3 and Twisted Metal 4 were designed and released without their involvement. When the original developer later returned and created Twisted Metal: Head-On, a direct sequel to Twisted Metal 2, the events of Twisted Metal 3 and Twisted Metal 4 were disregarded.

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