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Posts Tagged ‘Concepts in Fiction’

This is indeed a disturbing universe

Posted by Matt on September 15, 2011

One of those curious features seemingly exclusive to genre entertainment is the idea of the shared universe (and the related concept of continuity), exemplified by Marvel and DC’s years of comic book world building. As far as I know, which admittedly is rather limited in many areas, they are the most successful examples of this concept; the expanded universes of popular franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, which are fairly vast, feel more like throngs of officially sanctioned fan fiction that are tossed aside by the folks behind the “real” product. This is likely a byproduct of those two franchises coming from more expensive mediums and being “expanded” by books, comics, and video games, which will always feel disconnected from the central parts of the lines. No, Marvel and DC’s comics have always been comics and only follow the lead of other comics, so they really come together as a whole.

There is certainly an appeal to the concept of the shared universe. There is the idea that it makes each story feel part of a greater whole, even though that really only exists in concept and not really in practice. Although I find the idea of superheroes as the new mythology to be misguided at best, laughable at my most cynical, there are parallels to be drawn there. For me personally, I kind of like the idea of all these disparate characters and ideas just existing in the same space. It feels…like breaking the rules, I guess? Wizards and space aliens and robots and modern street toughs just shouldn’t all converge like that due to some unwritten rules of fiction, and so knowing that they can and will is a delight. For silly people with silly imaginations like me, that is.

But you can’t simply have these characters and stories be able to come over for a visit, oh no. There needs to be synchronization. Giving other creators the ability to compromise the integrity of another creator’s story is bad for everyone. This hasn’t stopped them from doing this (see: New X-Men), but again, in THEORY, the idea is to make sure all the stories “count” (by which I mean their individual meaning, as little as it may be at times, should be respected by the other creators), and that means some content policing if one is to be part of the universe of stories. That is where continuity comes in. Removed from the imaginary context of these stories, it doesn’t seem particularly necessary – why should it matter how one thing is references or one character is described, as long as it serves the story at that moment? The individual stories are rarely ever harmed by a lack of line-wide continuity. But, considering that a lot of these publishers may want you, the reader of Book A, to think about picking up Book B, making sure those books don’t explicitly contradict each other and confuse you is a reasonable goal. Continuity can be both a hindrance and a help, depending on when and how it is applied.

Continuity can be limiting on some of the stories possible within that line’s sphere of influence, especially in the case of often well-deserved satire. The people upstairs have been known to tolerate such things at times, but push it too far and they may fight back. Things like that, however, are simply the sacrifice one must make when taking part in a grand project like this.

The fictional universe is at its best when all that policing is done by genuinely creative people, all who respect each other’s work, and who take part in the concept to essentially help each other out creatively. To riff and homage each other, essentially. A real communal atmosphere, and one that seems to be sadly absent from most examples of universe-building.

It wasn’t always that way. It’s hard for me to say that the environment was really less corporate in the past, I really have nothing to back that up. But I think the thought processes behind it were different. In the 60s, when Gardner Fox created the JLA and Earth-2 and all the other things, he was paying homage to the comics created by him and many others during the 40s. When Stan Lee (or whoever actually came up with the idea, it’s really hard to tell with early Marvel for someone less studied in the history and evidence like myself) had his characters meet up, it was because the idea of these costumed people filling the streets of Manhattan, and little nods like Spider-Man trying to get a job with the Fantastic Four were amusing.

The creator’s ideal in the fictional universe and the goal of those who take part in it should be that of a toy box: you have freedom to use the toys already in there in whatever way you want (just don’t break them), but the expectation is that for every toy you take out, you add one for someone else to play with. Take a penny, leave a penny. Contribute to the greater whole, etc., etc. It makes more a greater creative environment, where you know that not only will the others respect your contributions, but they are willing to further them and give you more story opportunities.

Where the problems creep in is when the contributors to the shared universe become too reliant on the elements introduced by their predecessors or contemporaries, warping a story into a arcane, spot-the-reference bit of purposeless fan wanking. If bits of continuity are used for their own sake, rather than to enhance the current story (or even another one), they make readers feel like they should be either paying more attention (for all the wrong reasons) or buying the other books (for all the wrong reasons). The latter is something economically desirable for the publisher, sure, but how likely will it be that they’ll create a sustainable number of obsessives? These things should be able to stand on their own, and can possibly be enhanced by taking part in the wider context of the shared universe; they shouldn’t need to be decoded. Which is not to say that obscure fan service is always a bad thing; it can be a great deal a fun for folks in the know. But it needs to be earned, and it can’t make the thing unreadable to a whole segment of the audience.

So, I’m a little wary of this approach. On one hand, it can lead to some great stuff, where talented folks can work on each other’s ideas and make them even better; plus, it can be kind of fun. On the other hand, it can also be terribly limiting. The appeal is definitely there, which is why the comics have been able to implement it rather successfully over the last few decades. But it’s not easy to create, and definitely not easy to maintain. I would say it’s a high risk, high reward idea, but is the reward really all that high? It seems more like high risk for a unique reward, one that is rarely seen and a little spectacular when done right. That sounds a lot like genre fiction in general, really.

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