Post Hype Machine: Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Art of Strategically Leveraging Continuity

The comic industry has a short memory, as titles are hyped on the approach to their first issue and often forgotten shortly thereafter. On to the next is the typical mindset, with what’s new leading the way for readers, comic sites and beyond. Post Hype Machine is a recurring column on SKTCHD built to move against that trend, as it will exclusively be looks at – that’s right, I’m not calling it a review, I’m calling it a “look at” – titles in their second arcs or later.

Continuity is one of the weirdest parts of superhero comics. In some ways, it makes a lot of sense. Everyone’s lives have “continuity” in the strictest sense of the word, as we each have events in our lives that inform what comes next. Comics being serialized naturally plays off that, and it can comics feel more realistic, even if few of us have clones, time travel or have died and been reborn.

But at the same time, we also don’t have a legion of people following each of us around saying things like, “Actually, David, you had Popeye’s Chicken when you were seven years old” after I claimed to have never eaten it before the other day. 12 Continuity in life is an internal framework. In comics, it’s almost a report card, acting as a key determinant for whether or not any given comic creator passes or fails. In that way, it’s less that continuity is the issue and more that our relationship with the idea as comic readers is a bit wonky. Still, it can be problematic, if only because we have ample evidence that many of the best comic stories are selective at best in terms of how they leverage comic history and completely dismissive at worst, with those ideas of “best” and “worst” even being relative. 13

Think of some of the greatest superhero stories ever. All-Star Superman, The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come – let’s shortcut this and say really any title that lived under the former umbrella of “Elseworlds” at DC fits – and a whole slew of others are undeniably great, and one of the key commonalities amongst them is they exist in a realm outside of continuity. This gives creators a bit more freedom to tell the best stories they have in them, regardless of what suit Superman is wearing at the time or which iteration of Robin is completing the dynamic duo. They just tell a good story.

Marvel has always been a bit weirder about this kind of thing, though. A huge, huge part of what makes Marvel Marvel is that they’ve effectively been telling the same story since Stan and Jack first opened the Baxter Building’s doors, save for an Age of Apocalypse here (even though that is actually in continuity!) or a Nextwave there (which actually is as well!). It’s a single direction all the time, even if that line gets rather drunk at times. 14

While Marvel has mostly been militant about that larger idea, there is one element they’re a bit more lenient about, and that’s how stories fit into continuity. While I’d argue almost every story they’ve ever told – save for a whole slew of What Ifs – have been in continuity in some way, sometimes they get a little fuzzy when it comes to the whens and hows, allowing for stories to exist outside the regular story flow. That ambiguity doesn’t seem like much, but it can deliver a rare level of freedom to creators that helps unlock some quality comics. Two perfect examples of that are currently coming from the same writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Coates was someone I was initially dubious of, at least in terms of comics. Not because he was a writer from outside the medium jumping straight into the deep end or anything. It was because the early parts of his Black Panther run struggled to balance action and conversation, leading to at times glacial reads that left me looking for a cup of coffee or a comfortable pillow to rest my head on. I took a break for a bit, and when Marvel rolled out its Fresh Start, I decided to give Coates the same if only to see how he was doing these days. 15 What I found was a writer who had grown comfortable with the rhythms of the medium and, perhaps more relevantly to this piece, someone who has also proven adept at balancing when he should ignore continuity and when he should leverage it, a gift that takes a lot of writers quite some time to really figure out. His work on Black Panther and Captain America have been all the better for it.

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