Chris Claremont’s X-Men is a great example of canon done right. Copyright by Marvel Comics.
“Enchantment produces a Secondary World, into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity, it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. It does not matter by whom it is said to be practiced, fay or mortal, it remains distinct from the other two; it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, the domination of things and wills.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf: Includes Mythopoeia and The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth.
It’s always interesting to hear opposing opinions because it makes your mind think why you are in disagreement with certain statements and perspectives and it also allows you to go beyond your comfort zone; if you spend way too much time just engaging with people that agree with you, you’re bound to become a little lazy when it comes to analyzing content, especially when it comes to stories, which is the area I tend to focus on.
In that regard, there was an article done earlier this month that stated that canon wasn’t as important as fans of fiction tend to make it out to be and, being perfectly honest with you, this caught my interest. Not necessarily because of the content of the article or the author’s take in the matter, but because it made me think about how important canon is and since this blog is focused on comics, we’re going to talk about canon in that field, although you can apply this to Star Wars, Game of Thrones, The Witcher and any other fictional world you’re interested in.
For those that perhaps don’t know, canon is the material accepted as officially part of the story in the fictional universe of that story. It’s the set of elements, laws and factors that give that fictional universe logic and makes it much more realistic to the reader or viewer, even if it has a lot of fantastical elements. Tolkien, the legendary Lord of the Rings author, called this reality a Secondary World.
Batman’s canon has been the result of decades of writing and worldbuilding. Copyright by DC Comics.
In comic books, canon is mostly linked with the serialized runs that we have been reading for decades now and it defines not only the characters we enjoy but also the world they live in. It is mostly called “main continuity”. So that is how we know Bruce Wayne is a billionaire whose parents were murdered in an alley when he was a kid, that he lives in crime-riddled Gotham City and fights bad guys as the Batman using only his gadgets, financial resources, his skills, and brains. That was the canon that was quickly established by the Batman’s creators, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, but as time went on, several different writers have added more depth and many different elements that have become intrinsic in the Batman mythos (Alfred, Robin, his no-killing rule, his no-guns rule, his rogues' gallery, etc.), establishing a very well-defined canon that makes the character’s world and adventures a lot more logical and believable for the reader, even if it has fantastical or exaggerated elements–that is worldbuilding at its best.
The purpose of canon is to give readers or viewers a well-defined look of the universe they are enjoying and thus establishing adversities and challenges within the said universe. It’s no different to the rules we find in sports: they are meant to establish how the sport in question works and players and coaches need to work within that frame to get the results they want. If there are no rules, the story loses creative focus and it stops having meaning for the reader because there is no value to a universe that is constantly changing without any logical sense.
The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are examples of great stories outside of established canon. Copyright by DC Comics.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and considering I’m a huge DC fan, I can even go as far as mentioning some classics that they have done outside of the main continuity, such as Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns or Kingdom Come. These are phenomenal stories that show the potential of not adhering yourself to canon and experimenting with a lot of established characters to offer a fresh and different take.
That is all well and good, but that can also be a double-edged sword. For example, if one of the Watchmen spinoff storylines, such as Before Watchmen or Doomsday Clock, ever showed that there was another super-powered crimefighter in that universe, thus breaking the notion that Doctor Manhattan was the only one, it can make the original story somewhat weaker because it hurts the original narrative that Alan Moore established with Manhattan being the only man with superpowers in that universe and the consequences that it had within that fictional reality. One could argue “Well, who cares as long as it’s a great story?” and that could be a well argument if it’s written well, but that is hardly the case and it’s mostly done as a way to get outrage reactions or to shock people in order to get their attention.
And that is why canon is so important: it’s all about creating a spell. It’s about charming the reader. Make him or her believe that what he or she is reading is real and thus leading to emotional investment, which is what any self-respected creator wants to achieve. If there is no interest and emotion from the reader’s perspective, then you are doing it wrong.
When I wrote about Dan DiDio’s time as the main man in charge of DC Comics, I mentioned that outrage sales is not a good business model and canon changes motivated by the desire to create outrage or being “controversial” is not a good storytelling device, especially if you are going to do it a lot in a serialized medium like comic books–it’s just being lazy and uncreative.
Iron Man’s out-of-character actions in Civil War show what happens when canon isn’t respected. Copyright by Marvel Comics.
Killing beloved and important characters just to revive them a couple of months or years later decrease the reader’s emotional investment in the story and even in those characters. Turning heroes into villains like Marvel has done for most of the 21st century only to have them go back to the original status quo not only hurts canon, but it also hurts the value of the character from a moral perspective because they have crossed lines that should be taken seriously. That is how we got Nazi Captain America in Secret Empire, Cyclops as a radical mutant supremacist for the large part of the last decade or Iron Man acting like a tyrant and putting former brothers in arms in prisons he designed in Civil War.
There is also the fact that there are changes in the characters’ canon that are made throughout the years mostly to fit a writer’s specific narrative than to elevate or develop them. For example, in recent years we got the “revelation” that Howard Stark was never Tony Stark’s biological father. Let’s leave aside decades of storylines based on Tony’s relationship with his father and the fact he is the spitting image of Howard for a moment and let’s focus on just one question: Why? How this does make his character better? It was mostly done to generate outrage reaction from readers and it has failed to catch on for most of the past decade (and I don’t blame them).
Gwen Stacy’s affair with Norman Osborn shows when canon is broken just for shock value. Copyright by Marvel Comics.
I’ll admit that one point is a little close to home because I’m a big Iron Man in the comics, but another example worth pointing out is the one made by writer J. Michael Straczynski in his phenomenal Spider-Man run in the early 2000s when he made the revelation that Peter Parker’s long-time murdered girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, had been sleeping with Spider-Man’s nemesis (and Gwen’s murderer, no less), Norman Osborn, also known as the Green Goblin.
This change in the canon not only doesn’t offer anything of value to the Spider-Man mythos, but it also hurts the established canon of the relationship between Peter and Gwen, making her death a lot less poignant and heartfelt. Now, I’m no Gwen Stacy fan (I honestly never cared that much about her), but I’m objective enough to see that this was a bit of a cheap trick and I say this in a very respectful manner to Straczynski because I think he is a phenomenal writer.
Telling stories based on generating controversy and destroying what fans have loved for so many years doesn’t work. One by one, bit by bit, readers or viewers start losing interest and investment with these characters because they start to realize that nothing matters: that there’s no care or value in what they are reading and the constant changing of mythos and canon decreases the value of the Secondary World.
That is why I have so much respect for Jim Shooter’s time as Marvel’s editor-in-chief in the late 70s and early 80s: he made a lot of emphasis on maintaining a tight continuity and respected a lot of what came before his tenure, allowing runs like Walt Simonson’s Thor, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Frank Miller’s Daredevil or Chris Claremont’s X-Men to elevate and develop these characters while staying true to their roots and what was done before by previous writers. It wasn’t easy (nor should it be), but it was done in a way that was everlasting; now most fans go back to these runs when they want to enjoy these characters at their absolute best and a lot of long-time comic book readers started their fandom thanks to these runs–it’s a testament to the importance of canon and respecting it in order to build a stronger story.
My personal favorite comic book story of all time is Green Lantern’s Sinestro Corps War, written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Patrick Gleason. In order for this story to happen, Johns took decades of lore and storylines to form the DC Universe, gathering some of the strongest villains such as the Anti-Monitor or Superboy Prime in the process. It’s a story heavily rooted in canon and I wouldn’t change a single thing about it because that makes Sinestro Corps War a lot more powerful: the fact we are seeing this epic intergalactic war with heroes and villains that have been developed and built for so many years. There is a sense of reward for the reader in that regard and that is amazing.
Dick Grayson (left) and Wally West (right) are examples of character growth through canon. Copyright by DC Comics.
Peter Parker until One More Day, Dick Grayson (Robin/Nightwing/Batman) or Wally West (Kid Flash/The Flash) are examples of what happens when you respect canon and push said characters forward; they have been evolving before our eyes and we have seen them growing up, some of them leading teams (Dick), some of them getting married (Peter and Wally), some of them taking new mantles (Dick and Wally) and even some of them having a family (Wally). They went from kid superheroes to seasoned adult heroes while staying true to what they have always represented and we saw their growth with our eyes, thus making the experience a lot more meaningful for us, the reader.
The problem a lot of modern writers have with a canon they didn’t establish is because they think these characters and universes are beloved regardless of what they do with them–it’s a weird perception that thinks value and interest cannot decrease. If you change Spider-Man’s entire backstory, abilities and pretty much everything we have known about Peter Parker in all these decades, there is a very good chance you are going to lose fans because that is no longer the Spider-Man they care about–they liked the character for a certain set of reasons and if you take that away from them, you are bound to lose readers and certainly not a small amount.
Sinestro Corps War, my favorite comic, proves how canon can make a story a lot better. Copyright by DC Comics.
That is why we always go back to comics to the classic status quo. Not because comic book fans don’t like changing (we do if it’s done well; if that were not the case, Dick Grayson would still be Robin or Wally West would still be Kid Flash), but because that classic status quo is the result of decades of stories cemented in the minds of millions of readers and what has cemented those characters in the collective consciousness. You think of Superman and you think of the red and blue suit, Krypton exploding, the life in Kansas as Clark Kent, his powers and his weakness to kryptonite. You think of Spider-Man and you think of a struggling kid from New York that got bitten by a radioactive spider, lost his uncle because of his selfish acts, who does his best to save people and who wears red and blue tights with a mask.
These elements, along with many others, are cemented in our minds and they have defined these characters for so long that altering them just for a couple of cheap clicks and boost some sales for a couple of months comes off as extremely cynical and disrespectful to fans that have been invested for so many decades in this Secondary World.
I have no ill will towards the author of the article that inspired this post; he has his opinions and I have mine. And my opinion is that canon is a fundamental aspect of storytelling that can enrich any story and, properly used, it can make the reader or viewer fall in love with the world they are getting to know.