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It Doesn't Change Your Comics

“It doesn’t change your comics”. This is the mantra of people coming to the defense of criticized work in comics. Usually this is invoked when someone is upset about a story’s potential to change the accepted continuity in a way they don’t like. For clarities sake, here’s a sample conversation.

SpiderFan4Life: “I can’t believe they are taking away Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s wedding! That just craps all over the past 2 decades of stories.”

ChillDudeAwesome: “Chill dude, it doesn’t change those stories. You can still go back and enjoy them.....awesome.”

I’ve always thought this was an interesting argument since it can shape up two very different ways depending on how you look at it. It can be viewed in a very literal way or a pretentious epistemological way. First, the very literal way. Spider-man One More Day (among other things) changed continuity so that Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson never got married. So here I am as a Spider-man fan looking at my copy of Amazing Spider-man Annual 21 (Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s wedding) knowing that it no longer happened. Does that mean I can’t read my comic anymore? Of course I can always read it. In the most literal sense, it does not change the comic I enjoyed. In the argument's simplest form I have to agree with it. But this is where my feelings on epistemology come in and muddy the waters.

The second way to look at this argument is that while the comic doesn’t change, I do. Each of us has a set of internal biases in our way of thinking. These biases influence the way we perceive things. They are a filter through which we perceive the world around us. Some of those biases are easily identified. My religion, my age, my economic situation, etc are all obvious biases that I am aware I have. There are also more subtle biases that I possess that I can’t even begin to realize. We all have these biases, both the identifiable and the incomprehensible. We experience things and we filter them through our biases subconsciously and file them away as memories. Clearly our memories are less than reliable guides to reality. With that foundation in mind I have 2 copies of every comic I own. I have the hard copy sitting on my shelf and I have the bias-ridden-memory copy in my head. The copy on the shelf doesn’t change but the copy in my head is constantly in flux. Furthermore, my personal biases are also constantly in flux so the next time I read my favorite comic it will read differently than the time before. So which copy is more important? The one in my head or the one on the shelf? I think to a degree we all generally forget to acknowledge that there is a difference. By default that makes the copy in my head more important.

So here’s a practical example. Before Watchmen comes out tomorrow. Will it change my copy of Watchmen? No. I don’t expect Didio and company will come into my house and rewrite my over priced copy of Absolute Watchmen. (I hope not anyway. I’d at least want some advance notice because my apartment is kind of a mess right now.) But what their work on Before Watchmen will do is influence how I think about Watchmen. Even if I don’t read it, other people will and I don’t exist in a vacuum. The world around me will change and I will change with it. I’ll read articles that reference it, I’ll talk to people that reference it, I’ll see fan made art that references it. I will encounter information that I don’t even recognize as being connected with it. For better or worse, subtly without knowing it the way I think about Watchmen will change. What I ‘remember’ about the copy on my shelf will change. Really this perceptual change is the basis of all retcons, reboots, reimagining. That we can view things dynamically allows us to alter our context. I’ve illustrated how this shift in perception could be considered detrimental but intrinsically it’s neither good or bad. But it’s naïve to think that the lack of physical alteration to comics is the only factor to consider when charting the effect a retcon will have. My comics didn’t change but like it or not I did.