Massive continuities are a blessing and a curse for the epic franchises that dominate popular culture. There’s a rich lore to draw on, but how do you keep the complicated backstories understandable to newcomers? DC Comics and Star Wars have taken very different approaches, that illuminate the importance of the past in pop adventures.
DC Comics has had a bit of a bad rap when it comes to its canon — which has been subjected to repeated reboots over the last 30 years, culminating in the current “New 52” continuity that was introduced in 2011.
The New 52 has been especially controversial among older fans, because it largely discarded previous continuities to present a new DC universe where heroes were still relatively new to their respective roles, a bid to create a simpler canon that would make DC Comics more approachable to newer readers.
But now, four years later, things seems to have changed once again. Now, DC is trying to balance the fine line between welcoming new audiences (all the more important now in an era where DC characters are being successfully adapted on TV, and are about to make a major headways into film as well) and pleasing the company’s diehard fans.
You can see this happening in two ways. First, there’s the currently ongoing event Convergence. Convergence works twofold: Although it’s not a complete reboot of canon like previous events, it removes the controversial “New 52” branding and effectively resets DC’s characters (and setting them up for new storylines — a new Batman, new powers for Superman, new looks for Wonder Woman, and so on). But at the same time, the event itself revolves largely on bringing back old versions of characters from before the “New 52” reboot and telling new stories with them. The focus is off the current continuity and the characters readers have been following for four years, in favor of what is essentially fanservice for those disgruntled by the recent reboot.
An extension of that fanservice also comes in a recent revelation from the Justice League comics. For the first time, we’ve been told that DC’s previous major reboots, beginning with the iconic 1985 story Crisis on Infinite Earths, are now all canonical events — that the DC universe has never been fully rebooted, just continually reset. Which makes all those decades of stories suddenly valid again.
The reliance on older incarnations of DC characters, added to the all-inclusive continuity, seems to be a way of saying: “Don’t like the current stuff? Well, okay: now the old stuff matters again”. It’s not just fanservice — Convergence is also giving closure to characters like Oracle, who doesn’t exist in the New 52 — but also a matter of offering old fans discontented with the current slate of comics a sense of validation, a sense that the stories they love have equal merit alongside the newer material.
It’s an interesting approach, especially as it currently comes at a cost of potentially turning off newer readers who are either only just getting into the comics, now that movies, TV shows and animated films have been introducing them to DC characters. Those readers risk being faced with a slate of Convergence comics, laden with callbacks and acknowledgement of years-old stories. And readers who came on board with the New 52 who are now being overlooked, in order to appeal to disenfranchised older readers.
And it may not be paying off — Convergence is underselling, in comparison to current New 52 series. Vocal fans may now be happier that all the old stories “matter” once again, but it comes at the cost of potentially alienating newer readers.
Star Wars, however, finds itself on the opposite path in dealing with its sprawling backstory. When it was acquired by Disney in 2012, the company made the decision that Star Wars’ popular range of “Expanded Universe” media, at that point just over 20 years old, would be rendered invalid.
A new team came in to create a new Star Wars canon that focused only on the six movies (and the upcoming new trilogy), plus the animated series Clone Wars and Rebels, and a handful of new books. But Lucasfilm/Disney also announced that going forward, every piece of Star Wars media would be a canonical entry in the new Expanded Universe. That means if you consume a Star Wars comic, novel, game, or TV show from now on, you’ll know that it actually “happened” in the same universe as the movies.
Like DC’s decision, this choice has multiple repercussions: although the former Expanded Universe had always had an at-best tenuous relationship in Star Wars’ vast canon, to many diehard fans it had become the official canon. Fans angrily lamented the loss of validity for classic stories — and secretly rejoiced that some terrible ones would no longer matter — and they felt as though “their” Star Wars was being sacrificed, for the sake of making the franchise look leaner and fresher for new audiences.
However, that new audience is precisely who Disney is currently looking for. Star Wars’ long and frequently contradictory back story was notoriously difficult for newer fans to engage with merely due to the sheer scope of it. And with renewed interest in the saga, thanks to the upcoming movies (as well as new generations of fans who grew up after the release of the prequel films, but watched Clone Wars), the Expanded Universe’s size may have been too dense and intimidating, and its death may have been necessary to engage these newer audiences.
Although the current state of the Galaxy Far, Far Away is a little threadbare at the moment, it at least seems to have been well met so far, given the warm reaction to Star Wars Rebels and the canonical stories set between Episodes IV and V being told in Marvel’s hugely successful Star Wars comics.
Unlike DC however, Disney’s decision raises interesting problems of its own. DC retroactively rendered its entire back catalogue canonical — which, while pleasing for long-term fans, does not really require all that much effort on the part of DC’s current creative staff. Star Wars, meanwhile, is attempting to weave a new universe where every piece of new media has a firm place in canon. In a sense, both universes are taking an “everything matters” approach, but for Star Wars, it’s only true going forward.
For now, with little new Star Wars content outside of the movies, this isn’t a problem. But as the franchise grows again in the light of the new movies (there are 20 books alone coming later this year in the run up to The Force Awakens, and there are now spin-off movies like Rogue One on the horizon as well), finding a place for everything to fit could end up being a daunting prospect.
Who’s to say that 10 or 20 years down the line, this new Expanded Universe won’t be in a similarly unwieldy situation as the old one was when it was scrapped? Thus far, Disney’s decision to essentially reboot Star Wars has paid dividends, but the decision to make everything matter could have lasting creative ramifications as the franchise gets bogged down.
So, who has the right approach? It’s difficult to tell right now — and perhaps more importantly, either approach is mutable enough that they may not matter in a few years time. DC could simply reboot their universe again, and once again claim that its humongous back story is in fact no longer canon. Disney and Lucasfilm could just as easily renege on their decision to have everything matter, and introduce stories that are labeled as being out of canon, in an attempt to keep things fresh.
But for now, both approaches prove one thing: The key to being around for decades is managing the tricky balance between honoring the fans who have followed you every step of the way, and engaging new audiences willing to step into these vast and important universes for the first time. Suffice to say though, finding that balance seems to be a huge challenge in and of itself.