Continuity Begins at Home

One thing I’ve noticed about continuity is how many people don’t really care about it. Another is that people who DO care tend to care a LOT. There was a panel at OzCon, in which I was one of the speakers, about continuity in the Oz books. One topic that came up was that, since L. Frank Baum created such an immersive world, readers want to see it as a place with a consistent history. On the other hand, they’re good enough that we can forgive the occasional mistake. Besides, Baum presented himself as a historian, not all-knowing, even though he wrote in third-person omniscient. If he’s getting these stories from sources in Oz, as he says in his introductory letters, he must be filling in a lot of the gaps himself, because who remembers entire conversations? Then again, in the same letters, he credits certain ideas to his readers, so it’s not entirely consistent even there.

I guess I see him and the Oz authors as a bit more than historians in terms of how accurate their details are, but still fallible. I’m fine with disregarding short contradictory or unlikely statements, but less so with discarding entire episodes.

When a franchise includes multiple media, it’s typical that there isn’t going to be total continuity between them. This is definitely true with Oz, as Baum worked on the scripts for several plays and movies, and they often differed in significant ways from the books. What this sometimes leads to is a sort of lateral borrowing, where a writer will pull elements from one medium into another. When I had seen Ant-Man and the Wasp, I did a little bit of research on the characters, and was interested to learn how many of the characters had the names and certain traits of ones from the comics, but were different in significant ways. TV Tropes has several tropes pertaining to this sort of thing, and I can’t remember which one is which. Sometimes the characters just appear in the other medium with no real explanation, and other times their back stories are changed to fit the different continuity. That happens sometimes with Oz. The stage play of The Wizard of Oz includes a character called Pastoria, the former King of Oz.

Then, when Baum wrote Land, he mentions Pastoria as a former king. He doesn’t appear to reclaim the throne, though, and there’s no indication that he worked as a streetcar conductor in Topeka. When Ruth Plumly Thompson introduces him as a character in Lost King, there still isn’t, but she might have been inspired by the play in giving him a working-class occupation during his exile.

I’ve read part of IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series (which is to say the ones that I could borrow through Comixology Unlimited), and it does a lot of that sort of thing, drawing in characters and elements from pretty much every previous version of the story, and there were quite a few by that point. I’m mostly familiar with the original cartoon series, and yes, Krang, Bebop, and Rocksteady are all there. But Krang is specifically tied to the Utroms, who were in the original comic series and not in the cartoon (well, aside from Krang himself, and he was never specifically identified as one).

There’s also an attempt to tie together the two origins for Splinter, that he was Hamato Yoshi and that he was Yoshi’s pet rat, by instead making him a mutated rat who’s the reincarnation of Yoshi. I think the trick is keeping in enough continuity for the fans to appreciate, but also not confusing newcomers by requiring too much prior knowledge. It seems like a lot of comics these days rely too much on prior knowledge, even though they’re going to reboot a lot of that stuff eventually anyway.

With Oz, I make some pretty obscure references, but I try not to make understanding them necessary to enjoy the story. How well I succeed, I couldn’t say.

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5 Responses to Continuity Begins at Home

  1. I’d say you succeed quite well, but then again I’m biased! ;) You pretty much summed up the key to writing in an expanded universe. If the reference in question is key to the story, then it requires lengthier explanation. If not, then it’s sufficient for coloring, which lends the story necessary verisimilitude, which is a nice word that means a layer of truthfulness that makes the story feel like it’s authentic, something that’s crucial in fantasy-fiction. To establish verisimilitude, good writers spend a lot of time inventing back-story when creating a new world/universe, most of which the reader will never see. That’s called “world-building.” With Oz and other long-running series, the world has already been built by the works of others. The writer needs to merely access it, which a good writer does, taking the time to read and research the universe before plunging into it.

    At the outset you mentioned that there are some who don’t care about continuity. Those are generally casual fans who are really only after a quick fix. They’re not interested in going beyond a movie or two, and so have no real investment in the characters and world. They just want to be entertained for those two hours. These make up the larger moviegoing audience. Book readers, on the other hand, tend to care more about things like characterization and continuity because they spend considerably more time with the stories they read. As long-running fantasy/sci-fi series have become the norm, readers rightly expect a degree of consistency from story to story. Continuity isn’t just window dressing, but a reinforcement that this secondary world that they’ve been spending so much time in is “real” and that its people, places and things matter.

    Stories matter to all of us. But for the serious fan, it matters more, whereas for the casual fan, that story is just one of many they’ll flirt with, but never get into a relationship with. Not everyone wants that depth, which requires a commitment of time, energy and resources. And to be fair, some just haven’t found that story that speaks to them on a deeper level.

    Baum was really the first to kick off the long-running fantasy series that is steeped in the idea that it’s real, and yes, his approach was imperfect, but he was the first to go a step further in the “let’s pretend” game by a) writing a long-running fantasy series, and b) claiming to have received these stories from real people living in a real place. In a sense, he began fandom as we know it, and he set a precedent that men like Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, George Lucas and numerous others would follow in various ways.

    If there’s a downside to this level of fandom, it’s the danger of becoming nitpicky. I haven’t seen this as much with Oz fans, likely because they tend to skew older and are used to imperfect continuity from the outset, but I used to see it all the time with Star Wars fans (Star Wars having an ever larger body of interconnected stories). Breaches of continuity were often met with hostility, as if the writer had committed a grave offense against God, king and country. Oftentimes, these mistakes could be pretty easily fixed by a creative retcon, or chalked up to historian error, but less mature fans didn’t always see the forest for the trees.

    To exacerbate that, in some cases, the writer clearly showed he didn’t care about what’s come before, and was either too lazy to do any research or too arrogant in thinking that only his story mattered. In those cases, fans are within their rights to complain (especially if they’ve paid good money for it) and ignore the work altogether.

    Yet, despite the continued castigation that this approach gets, Marvel and DC (amongst others, including most recently Disney’s Star Wars) continue to turn a deaf ear to fans, overturning years of continuity in favor of reboots. They get away with this due to three factors: 1) attrition: fans who stop following and supporting their stories for various reasons, 2) an influx of new fans who don’t know the prior works, 3) fans who treat stories like sports teams, and won’t stop buying them no matter what because its the brand that matters.

    While there are other factors (e.g., financial reasons being a primary one), it’s usually the publishers who are the ones that cause #1: attrition. They bring on writers who ignore what came before, or change things so drastically they alienate their core fanbase. Publishers tend to ignore the value of core fans in favor of new fans don’t know better. What a smart publisher does is bring them into the fold, turning a new fan whose just dipping her toes in the water into a serious fan. This requires that balancing act of building on what came before, while at the same time making it easy enough to understand for someone just coming into it. Thus the core fan-base grows.

    Short-sighted publishers (which is most of the corporate ones who don’t understand the nuances of storytelling) instead tend to base their decisions on the assumption that the general public is too stupid and lazy to follow a long-running series, and so they reboot it every few years to ensure that new fans “don’t get lost.” This not only engenders a culture of casual fans who flit from one property to another, and never stick around because none of it has any depth, but it also creates bad blood as serious fans are tossed aside and, understandably, speak out. This leads to a tarnished IP, which further drives away people because instead of a community of fans (which is what fandom is), the publisher has created a hostile environment of disenfranchised fans vs. new fans who don’t understand (or want to understand) all the rancor. See Star Trek and Star Wars for examples of this.

    Then there’s the #3 type of fan who isn’t discerning and is loyal only to the brand. Thus, he won’t vote with his dollars. Publishers count on these types to stick around, and indeed they tend to stay on the ship even as it plummets into the depths of the sea.

    Thus, what we’re seeing now in various fandoms across the art/entertainment industry is a lot of divisiveness and hostility, and in this environment the trolls and troglodytes thrive. It’s why we’ve seen a rise in racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. in fandom. It’s not that any certain property attracts these types, but rather that in a sea of vitriol, these kinds of vicious people (who exist in all fandoms) feel free to raise their voices. The publishers then exploit this by painting all complaining fans with a single brush, further exacerbating the problem.

    The good thing about Oz not being part of a large conglomerate corporation is that the stories are fan-driven, and while that means an endless sea of “re-imaginings” and not a few poorly-written efforts to wade through, it also means that core fans are driving the stories for core fans. And that’s a beautiful thing.

    • Nathan says:

      I think it’s possible to be a fan of an entire series and not care much about continuity, but I guess it’s more not caring about it to a large extent. I’ve certainly heard Oz fans say they’re concerned with whether fan-written Oz stories work with the Famous Forty, but not necessarily whether they work with each other. But then, some of these stories are difficult to find.

      I think there’s a difference in writing stuff that isn’t intended to be part of the regular continuity and something that intends to replace it. I’ve come across both of those in Oz fandom; obviously Gregory Maguire wasn’t intending to work in the same world Baum established, although he made plenty of references to it. But it kind of bugs me when people don’t even bother to find out if someone else covered a topic they want to address. I’ve seen people who don’t want to read the Thompson Oz books, which is fine in and of itself, but if you’re going to come up with your own idea for, say, Ojo’s past, I think you should at least acknowledge that it’s been done. Because really, if you’re saying nothing but Baum counts, aren’t you also saying YOUR writing doesn’t count? But then, there have been Oz books written by people who are only familiar with Baum but still don’t contradict (or only very minimally contradict) the later authors.

  2. I enjoyed this discussion, Nathan and Joe.

    Whether I consider something “canon” has something to do with the quality of the writing. But I like what Nathan says about acknowledging what’s been done regardless.

    • Nathan says:

      I think everyone considers whether something is good, which isn’t entirely fair as poorly written stuff can still fit into continuity. On the other hand, if it isn’t worth reading, why bother?

  3. Pingback: The Magic of the Written Word | VoVatia

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