Canonical foundations

How does canon figure into the way we consume stories?

Canonical foundations
Image: DALL-E (phrase multiverse digital art science fiction)


I've been thinking quite a bit about the intersection between continuity and story canon lately, and this week, I've written up my thinking about that when it comes to some of the latest developments in the film world.

But first up, a bit of an event announcement: I'll be at Trekonderoga on Sunday, August 21st in Ticonderoga, New York. I'll be speaking at the high school auditorium at 9AM. This should be a fun time: I'll be talking – of course – about the history of Cosplay. If you're in the area, stop by and say hello!

The entertainment world was rocked by something nearly unprecedented recently: Warner Bros. revealed that it wouldn't release its upcoming film Batgirl, despite the fact that the film had already completed its production and was due to be released to its streaming service HBO Max later this year.

The reason for the abrupt axing seems to have been the convergence of a couple of things:

  • A change in Warner Bros. entertainment strategy after its merger with Discovery: the studio is looking to refocus its efforts for the types of things that it'll release to its streaming service, and pay more attention to its finances, given that it has a huge debt load.
  • Test screenings for the film were reported as being terrible, with other outlets saying that they were on-par for an uncompleted film, and that one of the chief complaints is that audiences apparently were underwhelmed by the picture, given its smaller scale and scope as compared to its bigger siblings like Justice League or The Batman.
  • Batgirl was always intended for HBO Max, and was apparently not like one of the bigger, blockbuster-y films that you might see in theaters, and the effort to retrofit the project to fit that model would have been expensive, something that Warner Bros. is trying to avoid.
  • Cutting the film and their losses resulted in something of a accounting write-off for the project, meaning that it can't be shown.

But there was another thing that was underlying all of this: Warner Bros. Discovery, now run by CEO David Zaslav outlined that he'd like to see the DC franchise play out in a planned fashion, much like Marvel has done with the MCU. During a recent investor's call, he specifically cited Disney / Marvel's efforts to build a more coherent franchise: "There will be a team with a 10-year plan focusing just on DC. It’s very similar to the structure that Alan Horne and Bob Iger put together very effectively with Kevin Feige at Disney. We think we could build a long-term, much more sustainable growth business out of DC, and as part of that, we’re going to focus on quality."

That makes a lot of sense, because DC as a franchise is ... messy. As I noted in the piece from last week (sent to members, but it's open to all subscribers), the DC universe is a complete and utter mess, and it's gotten me thinking about the value (and hindrances) of a unified canon.

Enter the multiverse

Part of this stems from a legacy issue: DC has produced a ton of shows and films over the years, each effectively a standalone franchise or work in and of themselves: everything from the ABC / Adam West Batman series to Batman (1989) and its sequels to Warner Bros, the CW's entire Arrowverse franchise, Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, Pennysworth on Epix, Gotham on Fox, to the Snyderverse (Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Man of Steel, etc.) to The Suicide Squad, The Batman, The Joker and so forth. There's little connective tissue between them, even though the source characters are all part of the same world.

Batman is a particularly good example here: you've got a bunch of versions of the character or their villainous counterparts, all doing their own thing every time a new director comes onboard. The result is usually a collective groan from fans: we've seen his origin story plenty of times, and do we really need a darker take on Batman?

Part of the solution has been pull a fix from the comics: acknowledge all of these different versions of the characters sitting alongside one another in alternate universes. The CW franchise used this to pull Supergirl into its Arrowverse franchise from CBS after the network canceled the series. The same rationale allowed the CW to pull in characters (and bring back fan-favorite actors) from other shows, like Matt Ryan's Constantine. (And The Flash's Ezra Miller made a brief cameo on the CW series during another crossover event, something they're looking to put behind them, I'm sure.) It's also why we've got Michael Keaton from the 1989 Batman showing up in the Snyderverse strand of the franchise in that upcoming film (and the now-canceled Batgirl.)

Marvel's jumped in on this multiverse as well: it used the concept to draw in Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield's versions of Spider-man into the MCU as well as a central focus of Into the Spider-verse, and continue that as a major part of the next big thrust of the franchise, which has led to a cameo from X-Men star Patrick Stewart as Professor X in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. We've seen other bits and pieces of this through the Disney+ series Loki, and we'll likely be getting more with the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and Avengers: Secret Wars.

But with rare exceptions like Everything Everywhere All At Once (an excellent film that you should check out) the multiverse trope feels like a band-aid for decades of random licensing deals, an unsatisfying fix to try and bring everything together into a unified world that makes all of these inconsistencies congruent with one another.

The idea of a multiverse has long been a part of comic book world. DC points to a 1961 issue of The Flash as being one of the first to utilize the concept (there are a bunch of others as well.), but in his excellent book American Comics: A History, Jeremy Dauber notes that it was DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths that really helped cement the idea.

That story was born out of some structural elements of the comics industry: over the years, DC and Marvel had catered to fans by relaunching or rebooting their various superheroes, sometimes to give collectors a new #1 Batman to add to their collection as an investment, or because they just wanted to provide a new entry point for new fans to jump in. Crisis on Infinite Earths "released during DC's fiftieth-anniversary year, alluded to many earlier comics; its hodgepodge of a narrative reflected its mission's immensity, 'the excision of countless timelines and storylines' to create one simple, linear DC Universe. The result would be holy writ, its dogma canonized in narrative linear form in an official text," writes Dauber.  

The thing is, do we really need an explanation or justification for why Batman looks and sounds different between The Batman, Batman Begins, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman Returns, Batman, and Batman: The Movie?What does a multiverse bring to the table as a tool in the storytelling process, and when is it just a marketing gimmick for people in theaters to point and yell when their favorite story comes into frame?

I do think that there's a tendency for people to try and mash things together so that that they make sense in one timeline, and there's an element here of "let people enjoy things they like." Indeed, in his book All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told, Douglas Wolk notes up front that "every comic book that is both published by Marvel and set inside what looks like its main shared universe is canonical to every other one, unless it explicitly and irreconcilably contradicts them. That rule applies on a series-by-series basis, and it's usually easy to figure out. Does it matter? Only as much as you want it to."

A gimmick isn't always a bad thing: I enjoyed the hell out of watching Maguire and Garfield showing up on screen in Spider-man: No Way Home. It works well when it's the focus of your story, with books like Miciah Johnson's The Space Between Worlds or Aimee Picchi's excellent short story "Notes to a Version of Myself, Hidden in Symphonie fantastique Scores Throughout the Multiverse."

But it there's also an element where it lead to more convolution if you feel the need to fully understand the story, or when it's used as a patch fix for a constellation of unrelated projects that are now forming the basis of your franchise.

There's another trouble with continuity: the bigger it gets, the more unwieldy it can become. Marvel and DC have reset their worlds every now and again to provide new fans a safe entry point, and studios like Lucasfilm famously keeps a close eye on its canon, ensuring that all of its works fit within the same story world.

Continuity blues

The Star Wars Expanded Universe was built on the bones of the West End Games RPG elements, and ran from 1991 to 2012, encompassing hundreds of works that had to fit alongside one another, creating a massive, collaborative story that continues the adventures of the franchise's heroes. A strict continuity is needed if you want those ongoing stories to seamlessly hand off from one to another so that you don't have wild swings or changes that come out of nowhere and mess with that larger storyline.

But continuity also can cause some problems when authors wanted to do one thing, but Lucasfilm decided to go in a different direction. At its most basic, canon is an inhibitor of creativity: it lays down some hard and fast rules that you can't violate if you want your stories to make sense from point to point.

This is a pretty routine thing: anyone who's written a story that's told across multiple volumes will note that you'll want to keep things consistent for your reader or audience. Books 2 and 3 of a trilogy should, in theory, exist in the same continuity of Book 1. Telling a story across multiple creators and multiple volumes only compounds the detail and complications. In most cases, this isn't a problem: it's a minor error that you can either ignore or retcon. Move something a little more foundational, or introduce something foundational, and you have to work around it because you've made it part of that reality.

In practice, it leads to some interesting things: I remember reading or seeing in a panel (I can't remember where off the top of my head) of an example of where Star Wars authors have to be particular about the detail that they drop into their works, and that at times, they can't use specific details (like names, places, items, etc.) for fear of causing a continuity error, but even more generally, erring away from using specific descriptions or imagery for fear of setting something in stone that future authors / creators will have to use down the line.

That's a restrictive thing for a story, something that seems antithetical to the creative process: a blank page with no preconceptions can yield unlimited possibilities. I keep thinking back to something that Brian Staveley said in my iterview with him last year: "for every word, every sentence you write, it's like you're building your own cage. You hope that the cage turns out to be a beautiful structure, but you're limiting your freedom with every choice you make."

This isn't, of course, to say that writing tie-in fiction or working in an established universe is not creative: it is. Author Karen Traviss had an excellent blog entry (which I think has been lost to the internet, sadly) about how there's still a lot of work that goes into tie-in fiction, and that there's a lot of creativity involved in working through those canonical restrictions.

And of course, there's nothing to say that studios like Lucafilm can't break out of canon when it wishes: just look at its series Star War: Visions, which invited Japanese animators to reimagine Star Wars, something that worked really well. And, DC has found that they can tell some pretty good stories if they give their filmmakers free rein to do what they want, and not worry about the larger, ongoing continuity that they've laid down: Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy stands out in this regard, as does Todd Phillips' The Joker or Matt Reeve's The Batman. And, there's weird side examples like James Gunn's The Suicide Squad, which uses some pre-existing characters, but which doesn't really seem to look back that hard at the other things in the world.  

Nuke the site from orbit, it's the only way to be sure

This is sort of where I think we've arrived with DC's franchise: the studio wants a franchise that makes sense. In many ways, continuity is something of a brand-retention tool for them to use: if you have a long, ongoing story that's told through many parts, you want to make sure those parts all fit nicely together, especially if they're all like-minded parts, like a stable of superheroes. Thinking of it as a product or content, you want something that's straight-forward and simple for audiences to consume.

Marvel's done a pretty good job with this, recognizing that each of their superheroes effectively serves as a sub-franchise with their own flavor (Iron Man, Captain America and Black Widow were something of grounded techno/political thrillers, Thor brought in some magic, Guardians of the Galaxy was pulpy space opera, and so forth), but which all existed alongside one another in a much larger, ongoing story. At worst, these franchises sort of played as commercials for the events further down the pipeline, without much in the way of consequences or really lasting impact for some of those characters, while at best, they worked alongside one another to slowly build up this larger narrative that culminated in Avengers: Endgame, and which is now in the midst of setting up another massive story.

For DC's new 10 year plan to work, I think they'll need to really do some thinking about what overarching story they want to engineer from the onset, and plan for enough leeway for their directors and writers to operate. And most of all, I think that they'd need to start fresh — again. The mechanism is there: a multiverse would allow them to nominally revisit or borrow some of those characters, but you'd need for a new world with new stakes to really have free hand to do that. Every existing film, TV show, and comic that's out there is a constraint on how creative they can be. There are some hard and fast things: you can't really do much to move the big strokes of a hero's origin story without losing the essence of that character, but you can incorporate them in new or interesting ways, like updating Tony Stark's origins to the war in Afghanistan (as rather than Vietnam.)  

And, DC has to commit to it: Snyder's universe was supposed to be that big, grand answer to Marvel, and that sort of fizzled out because of a string of lackluster stories. Either way it goes, DC's going to have an uphill battle ahead of them.

In the meantime, just enjoy what you enjoy.

Image: Andrew Liptak

Currently reading

What have I been reading? I'm still playing round-robin with a bunch of titles, but here's the short list:

  • Phasers on Stun! by Ryan Britt. I've been enjoying Ryan's history of Star Trek in recent weeks: it's a fascinating book that posits that one of the reasons that the franchise has been so successful and enduring is that it's being continually updated and reimagined.
  • The Hand of the Sun King by J.T. Greathouse. I've been picking away at this epic fantasy from Greathouse for a little while now, and he's got a very engaging writing style, one that's drawing me in each time I sit down to read it.
  • Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. This one's long been on my to-read list, and I'm enjoying her writing and the slow burn of this story.
  • Damascus Station by David McCloskey. This one's a little different, but the cover drew me right in. I've been looking for a good political thriller lately, and it's doing the trick for me.
  • The Middling Affliction by Alex Shvartsman. This is a fun urban fantasy in the vein of Jim Butcher's books, and I'm looking forward to reading more.

I also literally just picked up a super-cool looking book: The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey Through Imaginary Medieval Worlds by Larisa Grollemono and Bryan C. Keene, which looks like it's tracing some of the influence that the art of the medival world has on fantasy.

Further reading

Andor trailer

You might have realized by now that I'm a bit of a Star Wars fan, and the series that I'm most excited for is Andor. A new trailer came out recently, and I mused a bit about what the potential for the series holds.

The beginning of a revolution
Andor is coming! The next live-action Star Wars series is inching closer to its release, and last week, series star Diego Luna visited Good Morning America to bring along a full trailer for the series, a couple of months after a teaser dropped at Star Wars Celebration. Teasers usually just

August books

In case you missed it a couple of weeks ago, I put together the monthly list of SF/F/H/etc. books hitting stores in August that you should check out.

23 sci-fi/fantasy books to check out in August 2022
Stories of prophecies, dystopian worlds, and strange futures

Because August is such a packed month, I ended up putting together a second one to capture some of the ones that I missed / didn't have space for the first time around.

A mid-August book list
14 more SF/F/H books to check out this month

Cosplay interviews

I'm still doing some publicity for Cosplay: A History. First up, I spoke with the folks at WGN News in Chicago for their morning show. Here's the segment:

And, I spoke with ABC Radio for a segment about the book, which you can find the print version of here.

Related to all of this: if you've picked up a copy of the book, please consider leaving a rating and/or review on places like Amazon or Goodreads. It just takes a moment, and it helps with the visibility and discoverability of the book for those browsing.

Dragon Awards

Dragon Con announced this year's finalists for the Dragon award, a prize that started out as a sort of anti-Hugo, but which seems to have become not quite that in the years since it was first announced.

Here are the finalists for the 2022 Dragon awards
A solid book list

House of the Dragon approaches

The New York Times profiles the upcoming installment of HBO's Westeros franchise, noting a couple of interesting things:

  • Author George R.R. Martin was somewhat out of the loop in the later seasons of Game of Thrones as the showrunners opted to take the story in their own direction.
  • It's sounding increasingly clear that GRRM's end to the series will be pretty different from what we saw in the series.
  • Despite the controversy over the finale, HBO seems pretty confident that GOT fans will return for this series.
  • With the recent cancellation of Batgirl and the change in corporate ownership, House of the Dragon and its price tag is a bit of a gamble, and its success or failure will determine how enthusiastic the network is for more stories in the same world. That's no small thing: they spent a lot of money to keep Martin in house, have a bunch of shows waiting in the wings, and it seems like this series was a bit of a hail mary to begin with, as execs pushed for a return to the world.

Another profile/interview dropped a couple of days ago, this time from Vanity Fair, which has a whole bunch of details about the coming series, which drops on Sunday.

Marvel's VFX problems

There has been a bit of a stir going on in recent weeks / months over the strain that Marvel is putting on its resources as it ramps up production on a whole bunch of projects, and as some of its higher-profile films have come in under expectations, ratings-wise, while others have garnered criticism for how their special effects look.

Part of this comes down to the way it uses its special effects contractors, and it looks that it's really squeezing some of those places pretty hard to meet constantly-shifting deadlines. Linda Codega of io9 has an excellent overview of the problems that the industry is facing.

Middle-earth rights

The bedrock film rights for J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth recently changed hands: I've done a bit of a writeup here. (Sent out to supporting members, but it's accessible to all subscribers.)

Middle-earth real estate
The rights holder for J.R.R. Tolkien films and other projects is changing hands

Review: Edward Ashton's Mickey7

Earlier this week, I reviewed Mickey7, a new novel by Edward Ashton about a member of a space expedition that's designated as the mission's "expendable." He's backed up and resurrected anytime he's killed, allowing him to take on more dangerous tasks, like fixing a radiation-filled compartment, or something along those lines. It's an interesting read, and I had some thoughts about the state of space colonization and how it's depicted.

Review: Mickey7 by Edward Ashton
The baggage that lingers under the surface

Spider-man @ 60

Spider-man officially turned 60 this week, and there's been a lot of reflection about his (and sometimes her) longevity. Aaron Morrison of the AP wrote up a piece about Spidey's appeal to diverse audiences, and spoke with me about how the character draws in cosplayers of all ethnicities.

He also spoke with a fan named Tyler Scott Hoover, who had this to say:

You will get those who argue, if you turn Spider-Man Black then you can turn T’Challa white. Spider-Man was never really defined by his ethnicity, but more so his social status and the struggles he went through. That’s even more relatable for people of color and different ethnicities, because there’s a lot of struggle involved in life that you have to persevere through.”

This helped a couple of things click into place for me. While gender-bending is a pretty common cosplay practice, race-bending ... is not. (just look for the avalanche of stories that'll come out around Halloween about some dumb college students dressing up as Native Americans.)

Hoover nailed something that I hadn't quite been able to articulate: there's an element of power dynamic and appropriation here, especially with characters that are from traditionally marginalized communities. Spider-man's struggles aren't intrensic to a white identity, but Black Panther / Storm / Luke Cage, and others are deeply invested in the stuggles that Black Americans face.

As Spider-Man turns 60, fans reflect on diverse appeal
NEW YORK (AP) — Spider-Man fandom is in Tyler Scott Hoover’s blood — but not because he was bitten by an irradiated arachnid. His father had collected Marvel comic books featuring the character since the 1970s.

Queer X-Men renaissance

X-Men has always been a book that's been sympathetic to marginalized communities, but a new series within the world has reignited interest in the superhero team. For The New York Times, my buddy Kwame Opam profiled a particular community of queer podcasters who've been following the developments – and history – of the series closely.

Wagon train to the arctic

Last year, I published a big essay on Clarkesworld about space travel and colonization, and how we shouldn't really use the wild west as a framework for how we imagine that. I've republished it on this newsletter, and you can read it here:

Wagon train to the arctic
Science fiction should look to the arctic, not the wild west, for inspiration

That's all for this week. Thanks as always for taking the time to read it.

This newsletter has been in a little bit of a lull this summer, the consequences of a) starting a new job, and 2) having a book come out. It's been a busy and productive year! Now that I've settled into a comfortable rhythm with both, I'm turning a bit more attention back to this newsletter. There'll still be some cosplay stuff: I have plans to write out some "lost chapters" from Cosplay, stuff that didn't quite make it into the book because of time / fit, and hopefully if we ever do a second edition, we'll include some of them. Stay tuned for that.

I've also got a small stack of longer pieces that I'm working to hammer into shape, and should be getting those out in the coming weeks, months.

All of this is to say, thanks for sticking around and following along. Here's the usual pitch / plea: if you like this newsletter, please consider telling your friends about it or share it on social media. It's your support that keeps this going! If you'd like to help support it, you can sign up for a paid subscription here:

If you subscribe, you get access to a Transfer Orbit Slack channel (if you are a subscriber and don't have access, lemme know and I'll send you the link), in which we've been chattering about the news of the day. It's a fun environment: I and others have been dropping links and other things of note, and it's helped to shape some of the things that I write about here. Thanks in advance: it means a lot and is genuinely helpful in keeping this going.