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Retroactive continuity (or informally retcon) is the deliberate changing of previously established facts in a work of serial fiction. The change itself is informally 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, long-established publishing houses such as Marvel Comics and DC Comics, because of the lengthy history of many series and the number of independent authors contributing to their development; this is the context in which the term was coined. Retconning also occurs in soap operas, movie sequels, professional wrestling, 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 occurred during play, often under the synonymous (in this context) term "reality shift".
Origins of the term
The first printed instance of the phrase "retroactive continuity" is in All-Star Squadron #18 (cover-dated February 1983) from DC Comics. The series was set on DC's Earth-Two, an alternative universe in which Golden-Aged comic characters proceeded and aged from their first appearance in real time. Thus by the early 1980s Superman was in his 60s and Batman had died and been replaced by his daughter, The Huntress, whereas on Earth-1, DC's primary universe, these characters are always perpetually young to early middle-aged adults. All-Star Squadron in particular, was set during World War II on Earth-2, so it was in the past of an alternate universe, thus all its events had repercussions on the contemporary continuity of the DC multiverse. Each issue literally changed the history of the fictional world in which it was set.
In the letters column, a reader remarked that the comic "must make you [the creators] feel at times as if you're painting yourself into a corner," and that "Your matching of Golden-Age comics history with new plotlines has been an artistic (and I hope financial!) success." Roy Thomas responded, "we like to think that an enthusiastic ALL-STAR booster at one of Adam Malin's Creation Conventions in San Diego came up with the best name for it a few months back: 'Retroactive Continuity.' Has kind of a ring to it, don't you think?" The term, possibly in limited use before All-Star Squadron #18, then took firm root in the consciousness of fans of American superhero comics.
"Retroactive continuity" was shortened to "retcon", reportedly by Damian Cugley in 1988 on USENET. Hard evidence of Cugley's abbreviation have yet to surface, though in a USENET posting on August 18th, 1990, Cugley posted a reply in which he identified himself as '... the originator of the word "retcon"'. Cugley used the newly-shortened word to describe a development in the comic book Saga of the Swamp Thing, which reinterprets the events of the title character's origin by revealing facts that, up to that point, are not part of the narrative. In this case, the revelation is that the titular character's memories are false and he is not who he thinks he is. Alan Moore's retcons often involve false memories, for example Marvelman (aka Miracleman in America), and Batman: The Killing Joke.
The term eventually crossed over into other science-fiction and fantasy sub-cultures and even into the fictional worlds themselves. In the BBC's Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood, "retcon" is the name of a drug used to erase people's memories, thus changing how they perceive the history of their own lives, which is much like one of Alan Moore's memory retcons. In Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, the Hobgoblin of the year 2211 carries a weapon known as a 'Retcon Bomb'; upon impact, it erases its target, and all memories of the target, from existence, though not erasing the consequences of their existence. This weapon has not been used since, because its inventor fell victim to one.
The term "retcon" was also used by the Birmingham University Treasure Trap society as early as 1987.
Although there is considerable ambiguity and overlap between different kinds of retcon, there are some distinctions that fans have made between them, depending on whether the retcon in question adds to, alters, or removes material from the narrative's continuity. These distinctions often evoke different reactions from fans of the material.
Some retcons do not directly contradict previously established facts, but "fill in" missing background details, usually to support current plot points. This was the sense in which Thomas used "retroactive continuity", as a purely additive process that did not "undo" any previous work, a common theme in his work on All-Star Squadron. Kurt Busiek took a similar approach with Untold Tales of Spider-Man, a series which told stories that specifically fit between issues of the original Amazing Spider-Man series, sometimes explaining discontinuities between those earlier stories. Yet another retroactive continuity book was X-Men: The Hidden Years.
Additions are among the better-received types of retcons, because nothing is actually undone, and because people generally appreciate the explanation of previously ambiguous and/or mysterious events.
This kind of retcon often adds information that 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. The technique has been used so frequently in superhero comics that the term comic book death has been coined for it. The first famous example in popular culture is the return of Sherlock Holmes: writer Arthur Conan Doyle killed off the popular character in an encounter with his foe Professor Moriarty, only to bring Holmes back, due in large part to audience response.Doyle, Arthur Conan (1893). "The Adventure of the Final Problem." The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
Fans may invent unofficial explanations for inconsistencies, the challenge itself becoming a source of entertainment. Sometimes these fan-made explanations become so popular and widespread that they slip into accepted canon, and the original creators of the characters accept them. An example of a fan-created retcon is in Star Wars. In the film, Return of the Jedi, it appears that the character Boba Fett suffers a horrible death in the belly of the Sarlacc along with many insignificant aliens. However, the Fett character was extremely popular and few fans were pleased with his inglorious death. Popular casual speculation held that he had somehow escaped "off-screen" and later Star Wars books, graphic novels and even a Star Wars Unleashed action figure accepted this conjecture and depicted Boba Fett as having escaped the ordeal. How exactly Fett survived is not specified. In certain novels involving Boba Fett, he says that he detonated a bomb inside the belly of the Sarlacc, blowing him out of the stomach. It is important to note, however, that though George Lucas acknowledged that "some people think he survived anyway" when talking about the character in the commentary for the DVD version of the movie, he did not confirm or deny Fett's fate. However, in the commentary for the Special Edition Release, Lucas admitted that the beak was added to the Sarlacc and shown to devour Fett to make his death incontrovertible.
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 goes to the past and changes history from how he remembered it.
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. This is often very unpopular, upsetting fans of the material that has been removed from continuity.
Unpopular or embarrassing stories are sometimes later ignored by publishers, never referred to again, and effectively erased from a series' continuity. They may publish stories that contradict the previous story or explicitly establish that it "never happened", for example by claiming that events in a previous installation were "just a dream". Likewise, an unpopular retcon may even be re-retconned away, as happened with John Byrne's Spider-Man: Chapter One.
An example of subtraction can be found in Disney's The Lion King series. After the success of the first movie, Disney released a group of books titled The Lion King: Six New Adventures in which Simba is said to have a son named Kopa. It is also mentioned in the storybook version of the film that he has a son. However, in the film sequel The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, Simba only has a daughter named Kiara. Kopa is non-existent and no mention is made of him. Kiara also has a different coloring and more feminine features than the cub shown at the end of the first movie.
Retroactive continuity is similar to, but not the same as, plot inconsistencies introduced accidentally or through lack of concern for continuity; retconning is done deliberately. For example, the ongoing continuity contradictions on episodic TV series such as The Golden Girls reflects very loose continuity, not genuine retcons. However, in series with generally tight continuity, retcons are sometimes created after the fact to explain continuity errors. Retconning is also generally distinct from replacing the actor who plays a part in an ongoing series, which is more properly an example of loose continuity (i.e. the different appearance of the character is ignored), rather than retroactively changing past continuity. An exception to this can be when the difference in appearance is explained, such as the case with "regeneration" in Doctor Who.
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 introducing new source material that contradicted the contents of previous material. However, the later series of Star Wars prequels did qualify as "new source material", and many fans have pointed out instances that apparently retcon elements of the original trilogy.
The "clean slate" reinterpretation of characters - as in movie and television adaptations of books, 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. These are merely alternate or parallel reinterpretations such as the character re-interpretations of the DC animated universe or the Ultimate Marvel line of comics.
Literature involving retconning
In Stephen King's novel, Misery, the protagonist, Paul Sheldon, is forced to write a sequel to his book Misery's Child, in which the main character, Misery Chastain, dies. He at first attempts to retcon the events in that book, but his captor, Annie Wilkes, regards this as cheating and makes him create a sequel that doesn't actively deny what the reader already knows.
- Retconning: Just Another Day Like All The Others at websnark.com An essay on the advantages and disadvantages of the various types of retcons.