It’s been a while, but this series of articles started off with an examination of Moonhead Press’ Batman fan comic “The Deal”, wherein I argued that the story just about missed the point of Batman. From there we moved to another fan comic, Dean Trippe’s “Something Terrible,” a moving, and more down-to-earth, story whose main character is guided through his traumatic childhood experience by the hope offered by fictional characters like The Caped Crusader. For the third and final article in the series, I want to return to Moonhead Press, this time adding their follow-up to “The Deal”, the Superman story “God’s End”, to the mix. I’m afraid it won’t do much to help their track record.
While personality-wise the Batman of “The Deal” is, more or less, Batman, the Superman of God’s End is probably the farthest thing from the Man of Steel imaginable. Reflecting on social and environmental issues similar to those tackled by the Bill Hicks quote in “The Deal”, “God’s End” has Superman fulfill his lifelong mission of standing guard over humanity by… destroying humanity, and the rest of the earth along with it.
Yeah, it’s as weird as it sounds.
To return to the main theme of my last two columns, I want to ask (and hopefully answer) the question of what exactly the significance of a work being (or not being) “in” canon really is. In my piece for Broken Frontier referenced before, I argued that “The Deal,” and by extension fan fiction in general, represents a daring step outside the bounds of canon, opening up a whole world of potential expanded mythos created by and for fans. In part I would still argue that that is partially true—fan fiction is a better vehicle for meaningful stories than most have yet realized—but, as Joe Krawec showed in her response to my article, canon does not, or at least should not, override a character’s core mythos, even in official publications.
At the same time, Krawec brilliantly demolishes my claims regarding the significance of a story’s status as canon, or lack thereof. Having argued that stories like “The Deal” could not be told within the confines of mainstream continuity, and thus must remain relegated to the domain of fan fiction, I neglected to consider stories like The Dark Knight Returns or Batman Year 100 that, while existing outside the official canon, nonetheless can and do shape readers’ perception of the characters they feature in profound ways.
Canon, a mainstay of comic fandom that Krawec eloquently describes as “that big bible of approved stories which make up the official first-life of our superheroes,” ultimately means next to nothing when it comes to our perception of the characters. What does mean something is how our perception of those characters shapes our understanding of their stories.
Our own personal conception of what Batman is, or what Spider-Man is, stands gatekeeper over these non-canonical stories, and ultimately over all stories about those characters. A story that fundamentally captures and reinvents the core essence of a character, like The Dark Knight Returns, may be in, but a story that may be intriguing and entertaining without necessarily being as significant—Gotham by Gaslight is a random example—can be “out,” if we want it to be.
For a reader like Dean Trippe, Batman is a symbol of hope, the protector of the innocent and the comforting counterpart to all that goes bump in the night. For many readers—I would like to think most readers—Superman is the superhuman protector of humanity, the farthest thing from a world-destroying genocidal maniac there could be. And it is on both of these counts that Moonhead Press fails. They do not fail because they exist outside canon, but because they represent fundamental breaks with the continuing heart and soul of their main characters.
The overriding point here is that continuity is not all-powerful, decreeing what “really happened” or what “counts” when it comes to particular character’s history, and neither is it defined in absolute terms. Official canon can be altered in small or large ways, and is altered all the time. Far beyond the abstract notion of canon, the only force with the power to decide what “counts” and why it counts is the reader.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at two categories of stories that fall outside the realm of official continuity: fan fiction, and DC’s Elseworlds stories and that brand’s successors (the Earth One books of recent years come to mind) or, if you like, Marvel’s now defunct What If…? The most obvious similarity between these two types of stories is that they fall outside the officially sanctioned boundaries of continuity. In neither case do the creators or the editorial hierarchy of a given character’s corporate owners mean for you to take these adventures as “real” or, if you like, canonical.
In that sense, at least, DC Comics has some level of authority to decree what “counts”—Crisis events or other happenings of cosmic proportions may reset official continuity or otherwise muddle the significance of past stories altogether. The creative leadership of the company could conceivably issue a list of books that “count,” and tell the reader that these are all the past stories that will ever count for the purposes of their characters’ future adventures. But—and here’s the important point—it is still up to the reader to make the decision. Here is the fundamental break between two related but distinct concepts, which we can call canon and continuity.
The terminology I have chosen to describe these two ideas is admittedly somewhat arbitrary, but whatever you call them I don’t think it’s a distinction without a difference. Canon can be understood as whatever body of stories is held to have “really happened” by those who are in a position to issue such proclamations; canon presumes to limit and define how a reader perceives a given character. Continuity, on the other hand, is the reader’s perception of that character, whether consistent with its owner’s desires or not.
Continuity, then, is a construct that exists only in the reader’s mind, a construct that may or may not conform to the officially determined canon. Continuity, unlike canon, is subject to both internal and external determining factors. When it comes to continuity, a reader can even ignore a story he or she does not like and come away with an image of the characters unsullied by that unfortunate turn of events. The fact that the undesirable story may be counted as “canon” by the character’s owners is irrelevant, as long as the reader is willing to override that determination.
And, despite appearances, that isn’t meant to be a dig at the concept of intellectual property. The distinction between canon and continuity, though, is based on a fundamental principle that predates such notions, and that is perhaps the first rule of literature: The primary importance of any literary work lies not in the intention of its author, but in that work’s effect on its readers.
So what does all this have to do with Moonhead Press and their confused attempts to pay tribute to the world’s two most well-known superheroes? Well, I think the fact that these stories garnered the amount of attention and response that they did underscores the fact that our understanding of continuity’s significance is, if not quite defective, at least a little deficient.
Just as you wouldn’t read a canonical story that you don’t enjoy simply because it is canon, neither should you not read a story that you do enjoy just because it happens not to rise to the standards of officially sanctioned canon. This is as true of Elseworlds and Earth One as it is of fan fiction and Moonhead Press. The fact that, in my view, the Moonhead stories are not especially worthy additions to the characters’ mythos does not mean that fan fiction can never contribute meaning to a character’s story. In fact, every time a fan reads a comic, she or he is contributing to that story, even creating it insofar as it becomes a part of his or her own conception of that character.
With “Something Terrible,” Dean Trippe taps the essence of an iconic superhero in the same way that Moonhead Press has twice failed to do. It may not be as significant as Frank Miller’s similarly non-canonical Dark Knight miniseries, but it does go a long way toward demonstrating that readers have more power over their beloved characters than they have yet admitted to themselves. The power to shape your favorite worlds belongs to you, every bit as much as it belongs to the writers and artists who build those worlds with you.