Audience Retconning

In a thread on the Comixscholars email list (way back in January,) one poster asked when the Gotham Police Department become corrupt. A number of replies came in with some discussion about how it wasn’t until the early 1980’s, after Batman: Year One and the Dark Knight Returns that Gotham PD became regularly filled with corrupt officers.

Others pointed out how the comic code didn’t allow for institutions to be portrayed as faulty before that. One poster (Dr. Kidder) mentioned that collectively, readers and creators, found this more compelling and the popular conception was ‘superscripted’ over the older take (as put forth by Dr. Julia Round.) This effect is so pervasive that even if you’re old enough to have read those comics in those days, like me, you may not actively remember the way it was before the change in the continuity.

In effect, fans like myself took over and overwrote the boundaries of the Batman mythos. This is slightly different than retroactive continuity. Retcons are usually initiated by the creator/editor/author while superscription happens on the reader end. This might be splitting hairs since the end result is basically the same but I wanted to explore the path and see where it leads.

Just so I don’t misrepresent Dr’ Kidder’s thoughts, here is a quote from our exchange of missives which discusses how the darker change became more acceptable…”I don’t know if Killing Joke is the appropriate breaking point, though. It came two years after Dark Knight Returns, and as much as I’m not a fan of Frank Miller (either his comics or his personality), I’d say it was just as, if not more, influential than Killing Joke. To understand Miller, though, I think you have to go back and look at O’Neal and Adams’ Batman, who was already sliding in the direction of “dark avenger” rather than the cuddly uncle from the TV show in the 60s, which, I think, is the image that all four of them–O’Neal, Adams, Moore, and Miller–were trying to dispatch.

What’s really interesting, though, as Round points out, is that once one version really takes root in people’s heads, they start to think of it as the ‘one, true’ version, as if the character was always ‘really’ that way, and it just took the right creator(s) to come along and reveal it, like Michelangelo looking at a block of marble and removing the unwanted bits. That ‘one, true’ version then blots out all the others, retroactively… until the next time someone creates the “one, true” version of the character that grabs that generation’s attention. It’s not actually about a timeless, reliable, core element of the character; it’s about a version of the character that suits that audience. American superhero comics are shot through with this fascinating desire to create the illusion of timelessness specifically by constantly changing their characters and settings.

I requested a bit more information from Dr. Kidder and he helpfully replied with the name of Dr. Julia Round and supplied a link to her website, with the paper she had written on the subject available on the site under the name Fragmented Identity: the superhero condition – it’s a downloadable pdf. The portion discussing superscription begins at the bottom of page 362 under the subheading Superscription and Absorbtion, but the paper is an interesting read. It’s main point seems to be that the modern superhero is a gothic symbol of fragmented identity and mentions that comics are capable of many simultaneous layers of meaning and depth in choice of color, panels and so on to far deeper things. It went into the history of the Swamp Thing, and how Gaiman had pulled from previous comics and literary sources in order to produce a comic that went strongly against the grain at the time. (Once you read it, you will realize I completely glossed over many of her interesting points. I apologize, I’m trying to get back to the superscription part.)

As you can appreciate, this is a very, very powerful force to understand when we think about how we ‘read’ comics. Do we mentally overwrite the previous history of a webcomic in favor of the new one? Is the time frame too small for webcomics for us to have seen this effect yet?

Here are a few examples I found…In 2007, the animated cartoon ReBoot! was created as a webcomic. In 2008, the Goats webcomic rebooted and I began finding a sprinkling of others like Melonpool, Altermeta, Cyborg Mice, Footloose, Velvet Rasputin (corrected from being mislabeled Catnose and bonus information provided) Boston and Shaun, Sore Thumbs and Starslip. If you can supply any others, please do so. Most webcomics simply end or go on indefinite haitus. (I’ve assembled a pdf citing some of the examples more in depth, if you’re interested.)

I’ve been looking for the audience’s comments that betray how they feel about a particular webcomic’s reboot and see if any superscription that happened or failed to happen. Most of what I found was simply discussion about how the art had changed, with a little, tiny bit of discussion about the changes in characters or setting. That was very rare, though.

The silence is deafening. This strikes me as odd because some webcomics have such devout fans that the slightest deviation from “the greatest thing ever” in a comment or review can inspire flamewars and threats of bodily harm. There can be no question that people feel as strongly about web comics as they do about print comics. So what can we say about superscription in webcomics?

Interestingly, Dr. Kidder thought superscription happens mainly when we’re dealing with corporate owned characters because corporations want their characters consistent for licensing over generations. Most webcomics don’t have that constriction and so as an audience we might not find ourselves having to choose between versions of a character or setting.

There may be a number of other related reasons as well. Most webcomics are not long form stories and many are newspaper style gag strips. Can you imagine any kind of need to force retroactive continuity on The Far Side? I’m not even sure how you would attempt to do that. “Okay, we’re only using rabbits going forward in this comic. When you read old strips, pretend that all the talking cows and chickens were rabbits.” Perhaps the overall tone and kinds of jokes that a gag comic uses could shift over the years enough to cause a reader to see the earlier comics differently based on later comics. I’ve seen Byrne’s comics pointed out as being misogynist in retrospect, even though the individual comic books were not focused on that topic.

Likewise, a webcomic is typically created by one or two persons and do not often (if ever) change hands creatively. The creative vision tends to be consistent – as consistent as the creators choose to be, anyway. Imagine if Superman comics were only ever created by Segel and Schuster, instead of thousands of artists and writers. How many less super powers would Kent have? Now imagine how things would be different if we all had to make comics within the comics code and we could never have corrupt police.

A webcomic creator can make a sudden change in their characters, even removing them entirely for a time and then bringing them back later totally different – all fully within the realm of the comic’s concept. None of this necessarily requires a reboot of the webcomic in the traditional superhero comic sense.

Webcomics change, possibly far more than superhero comics from the big publishers will ever be allowed to. These changes are also far more gradual and tend to stay within the purview of a single creative vision so they are simply far less jarring than changes that have to be explained away in superhero comics.

For some movie examples, take Highlander or the Matrix series of movies. And how many video games have lost your attention because you liked the first and second games in the series but the third had changes which didn’t match up the game before?

In the strictest sense, it may require a major shift in audience reception and expectation to be defined as superscription. Minor superscription (and my apologies if this is stretching the term too much) happens all the time. If that means it no longer resonates with you, then you simply stop reading it and refuse to superscript it. How many webcomics have you abandoned reading when the creator went in some crazy direction with it? On the other hand, superscripting a comic becomes trivial to accept if you like the change.

Isn’t this just splitting hairs? What is the point?

This superscription and retcon might be something that readers only think about when they prefer the earlier version. And since print comics have different writers and editors over time, they are probably more likely to require retconing, reboots and superscription adjustments than webcomics do. Dr. Kidder was of the opinion that webcomic superscriptions are largely unremarkable, and he’s probably right. Dr. Round said that she wasn’t sure that both terms were needed.

Being contrary and willing to split hairs like I am, I still think that when creators make changes to their webcomic, it’s a good thing for them to be aware what they are asking their readers to accept. Much of the continued success or improvement of their rebooted comic may depend on how well the changes are suited for their audience and being accepted. It might be a small thing, but a Bat comic’s tone changes significantly on whether or not the Gotham PD helps or hinders Batman.

Much might be learned from good and bad examples of this. Please feel free to contribute your thoughts below, plus any links to rebooted webcomics you know of.

[Edited to add Sore Thumbs.]


  1. Hello there,

    Thank you for the mention in your excellent article. However, I would like to make some clarifications.

    There is no such comic named “Catnose.” That’s the trade name of VAS Littlecrow’s comic art department, and the nickname for the webcomic known as the “Nine Lives of Catnose.” This title started out as a bi-weekly newspaper comic strip in Minnesota State University Moorhead’s student newspaper and eventually evolved into a monthly webcomic for the adult star and model portal website, Lemmecheck. It has never undergone a reboot at any time. The Nine Lives of Catnose is currently in rerun status until early 2012 when we will release new episodes. The reason each comic looks so different is because of the length of time that passed between comics which only tended to be created when I had time off from my careers at the time.

    There are comics under the Catnose Comics brand, namely in the Velvet Rasputin line, that have undergone reboots. Here’s the list:

    * Rasputin Catamite (a.k.a. Velvet Rasputin) has undergone a reboot where the story starts at much earlier point than the original. When the rebooted story reaches the 1990 period, it will simply be redrawn with tighter text. The reboot excludes the chibi puppet portion of the story, which was always meant as a parody of the comic itself when I got sick of doing it, and one portion that is offline which will be introduced and redrawn for Rasputin Barxotka. However, it is my intention to remain as faithful to canon as possible.

    Here’s the reboot:

    The original also remains online out of respect for early fans, but on a separate site to prevent newer fans from screaming, “spoiler” when the New and Old webcomics merge:

    * Polska, Sucka! (a.k.a. Sucka!) which started out as a print comic is technically rebooted, while at the same time not being rebooted. Here’s the full explanation of that confusingly weird comic’s confusingly weird reboot story:

    All other comics are spin-offs rather than reboots. These may undergo cosmetic changes or simple repackaging.

    * Rasputin Barxotka’s first 24 pages were originally part of Rasputin Catamite, so they look very different than the first ones, so they are getting redrawn with tighter text to better fit the current style of art and story:

    The original episodes will remain online, but I will not reveal how at this time.

    * Upir’s Mark Blog, originally started out as a flame war mini-series for Killer Dyke entitled “Get Lost”: (See production history blogs.

    *The Dissident Priest side-story was removed from Rasputin Barxotka and placed on a separate website because the story was strong enough to exist on its own merit, but didn’t really add anything to Rasputin Barxotka in terms of the long-term story structure.

    I hope this clarifies things, and I once again thank you for the mention in your highly informative essay.


  2. Pingback: Catnose - An Open Response to ArtPatient’s “Audience Retconning” Article

  3. delos

    I sincerely apologize for the mistake and I’ve updated the link in the article to go to the link above (and added it to the PDF, as well.)

    There are precious few reboot references and you’ve provided a great deal of information for us to see how it was handled and why things went the way they have.

    I’m interested to see a comparison from your perspective on how the new and past audience reaction differs in your Velvet Rasputin reboot. I hope you’ll explore it in a future blog post. We all might be able to learn a lot from you.

    Thanks again for the correction.

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