Continuity, Fandom and Pop

Anyone with more than a passing interest in the geekier elements of mass culture – superhero comic books or genre TV, for instance – will be aware of the idea of continuity. If issue 44 of the Fantastic Four and issue 37 of Spider-Man, say, take place in the same ‘universe’, then continuity is the invisible force that makes them do so. Depending on who you talk to about what, continuity is a neutral neccessity, or the glue that turns entertainment into art, or a nightmarish entropic drain on creativity.

It seems to me it’s harder now to find people with good things to say about continuity than it was fifteen years ago. Back then, DC Comics had just published a series called Crisis On Infinite Earths, which dealt with the company’s wretchedly tangled backstories by simply declaring that none of it had ever happened and that Superman, Batman etc. would simply start their adventures again from scratch. This managed to please almost nobody. The fans who cared about continuity and knew all about things like the Legion Of Super-Pets were angry that their expertise and love had been not only rejected, but publically erased! The fans who didn’t care about continuity didn’t see what was wrong with just telling good stories and letting the c-word fly away with the monkeys – all this ‘solution’ involved was wiping out lots of great characters DC management found embarrassing or unmarketable (like the Legion Of Super-Pets).

The only people who were happy were people like me – 12 years old and a new DC reader, who suddenly found the company publishing comics designed precisely to get me to buy them. Even this couldn’t last. After a few years, DC writers realised that the best way to get some quick fan attention in a dwindling market was to bring back obscuro characters from before the Crisis, or – even better – to hint that the old continuity might still ‘exist’. In the mid-90s, when I gave up caring and then reading, DC put out a series called Kingdom Come which looked very pretty but which filled almost every panel with pandering nudge-winks of this kind; a joyless, tedious superhero Where’s Wally – hey, if you look in the background of the diner scene on page 325 you might see Prince Ra-Man! The series was a huge critical hit.

(If you don’t care a damn about comics – and with this sort of nonsense who can blame you? – the wider relevance of all this will hopefully become apparent. Keep scrolling!)

The DC Comics story shows how difficult it can be to get out of the binds continuity puts you in as a creator (or a ‘creative property owner’). But how does continuity get such a stranglehold on creative effort in the first place? It seems to be a property of serial or collaborative fiction, which most comics and TV shows are. Episode 1 is written, free of continuity demands. Episode 2 must then agree with Episode 1 – not so difficult. Episode 3, though, let’s say by a different writer, has to agree with Episodes 1 and 2. The longer the show runs, the more the weight of continuity increases.

Dr Who is a good example of this in action. The initial concept of the programme is easily grasped – an alien in human form, who can travel in time and space in a police box and whose background is unknown. As the show progresses, though, new elements get added. The Doctor is on the run from his people. All his people have access to time machines. The Doctor can change his bodily shape. He can only change it 12 times – or is it 13? He has an enemy called The Master who he went to school with. He can meet his own previous selves sometimes. His race are called Time Lords. They are all-powerful technocrats. No, wait, they’re aging and enfeebled politicos in silly robes. Now the Daleks have built a time machine. But they never seem to use it. And actually it turns out the Doctor’s mum was human anyway!

None – well, not all – of these ideas are bad. They mostly made for exciting stories. But once you’ve established any of these things you can’t take them back: the imaginative space available to writers is slightly constricted each time. There’s not much you can do about this, but the basic format of something like Dr Who remained flexible enough that the accretion of background, the furring of the conceptual arteries, need not have damaged the stories being told.

But continuity brings with it temptation for a creator. Serial fiction that boasts complex continuity tends to also boast a passionate and committed fanbase. Indeed you could argue that continuity is what generates fandom, since it creates a hierarchy of consumers – the people who ‘get’ the references and backstory and the people who don’t. Policing continuity – alerting the creators and fellow fans to errors, and coming up with ingenious explanations as to why they aren’t errors – gives the fan an opportunity to have an impact on the fan-object itself. Dr Who for many years in the 70s and 80s employed Hi-NRG kingpin Ian Levine as an “unofficial fan advisor”.

A lot of these fans would be vocally in favour of stories that nodded towards their fandom – and in doing so helped reinforce the hierarchy. So gradually more and more Dr Who stories would feature old villains, or nods to old stories, or little tidbits of “Dr Who mythology”. More subtly, stories were written to appeal to a fan’s perception of what Dr Who “should be” – more grown-up, more serious, more sci-fi, less effects-based. The show’s ratings, meanwhile, began to fall and kept on falling until it was eventually cancelled. There were all sorts of reasons for this, mostly related to scheduling, but the influence of fandom surely had something to do with it. By the end of its run the show was desperately inconsistent – pantomime comedy one year, continuity-heavy adult sci-fi the next: the ability to hook and keep a larger audience had vanished. Similarly, superhero comics now sell a fraction of what they sold 20 or 30 years ago: again, largely to do with changes in entertainment media and buying patterns, but the reliance on a loyal, pedantic and exclusionary core readership is hardly blameless.

(For a ‘real-world’ analogy, look at the British Tory Party – lurching around trying to win back voters, but always being cowed by the howls of its right-wing rump whenever it tries to move away from its own ‘continuity’.)

Maybe continuity-stricken decline is something innate in the serial form, then – a creative ‘aging process’ that can be fought off for a while but never defeated. But not all long-running shows suffer from it. Soap operas, for instance, almost never do. Eastenders fans may roll their eyes at an unlikely plot twist but the imminent return of Dirty Den is attracting comment precisely because it is quite unusual (in genre fiction, bad guys come back from the dead all the time) – and crucially to my knowledge there are not Eastenders fan communities who have been clamouring for this for years. Writing off an entire season as a dream is notorious because only Dallas has ever tried it. The sexual histories of ordinary Deirdre or boring Ken in Coronation Street are preposterous if considered in isolation – but they never are, and the other characters don’t walk around reminding each other of five- or ten-year old plot points. Generally what happens in soaps is all but forgotten within a year or two. The knowledge economy of fandom doesn’t seem to exist.

So what’s the difference between soaps and Dr Who, or the X-Men? The sheer size of the audience may have something to do with it: if the sense of belonging to a special club is missing, your ranking in that club becomes largely irrelevant. But plenty of daytime soaps don’t boast large audiences. The difference between fantasy fiction and other fiction plays a part, too – the foundation of continuity for Superman lies in establishing just what he can or can’t do with his super-powers. There’s already a layer of distance you have to understand to ‘get’ the stories. That isn’t the case for shows set in a notionally real world.

There’s also, I think rather crucially, a material factor involved. The production process for Eastenders is continuous – three episodes a week, every week, maybe a special at Christmas or a ‘soap bubble’ spin-off too. There is no time for much reflection in this relentless schedule, no opportunities for self-consciousness to break in. My suspicion – and I claim no expert knowledge – is that writers on Eastenders don’t have a huge amount of time for blocks, rewrites, or much fine-tuning: they either do the job or hand it over to somebody who can.

Self-consciousness is what got me thinking about whether the continuity blight applies to other areas of culture – pop music, for instance. A pop genre’s relationship with its history at first seems problematic in the same way as a comic or TV show’s relationship with its backstory – too much has often been done already, a new spin on sound is as hard to come by as a new Superman plot. The continual cheap availability of said backstory only amplifies that. But pop hit on the idea of regeneration long before Dr Who did – a style like rock seems able to keep on renewing its audience with new faces in the old roles, even if the sounds don’t change.

Yet pop moments pass, pop genres do decline – we know this, we feel it as fans. A possible definition of a fan is as someone who feels they have the right to say a thing has got worse. (They could be wrong, and other fans will tell them they are – fandom is almost never unanimous, which makes talking about it a tricky business.) Could these declines be related to the kind of self-consciousness which I’ve suggested hobbled my serial fiction examples? Pop’s relation to history may be something it can escape from with a lick of make-up and the right drum sound – its relation to its context is something trickier.

We are all familiar with the ways pop music aspires to artistic respectability – album-length concepts, symphonic arrangements, the pied piper procession of dance genres towards a phantom sophistication. But even on its own terms pop has its frameworks and hierarchies now – installation in classic record lists; the lure of posterity; even the simple validation of being thought and written about. And who does the thinking and writing? Fans. Well, critics. Pop music is somewhat unusual in that fans and critics are routinely considered as separate, even hostile groups, whereas in most cultural areas (think sport!) the more of a fan you profess to be the more vehement your criticism (or ‘discernment’) gets. Can pop fandom be harmful to the music’s development?

Recently I was having dinner with someone and he asked me what music I liked. Never a favourite question, but this time I gave it some thought. The music I liked best, I decided, tended to be the music that shows least self-consciousness. Creative people working under pressure of time, or working with little hope of a wide audience, or working with no apparent pretension that what they’re producing will last or be highly thought of, produce it seems to me some of the most entertaining, unpredictable, or surprising pop music. And this applies across what we think of as ‘pop culture’. In the UK comics fanzine Battleground, small press cartoonist Luke Walsh once wrote about how the best Marvel comics of the 60s and 70s were the romance or western ones, where the worst-paid and most-ignored writers and artists would bash out stories at an appalling rate, barely caring about quality, consistency or even sense. The results weren’t great art in any sense but they had, Walsh claimed, a bizarre vigour born out of nobody involved giving any kind of shit about how they ended up, just as long as they hit the stands on time.

I don’t know whether Walsh was right, but his idea struck a chord, and more celebrated examples of production-line comics seem to bear him out. Jack Kirby, Robert Kanigher, most of the superhero writers of the 60s worked at a phenomenal rate, knocking out concepts and ideas designed to thrill or just amuse rather than to last. The Silver Surfer is by any standards a mental, gimmicky, crass, and basically stupid idea. He was also stupendously successful, one of the first ‘fan favourites’. I would very much doubt that he could have been dreamed up in anything other than a hothouse atmosphere, where deadline pressures meant that everything has a chance of making it off the drawing board. Doctor Who, likewise, started off being made one episode at a time, in punishing 40-week runs, under the threat of cancellation most of the time. This working environment resulted in almost everything – Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, TARDISes, screaming companions, regenerations – people now remember about the show.

The pop music equivalents are, at different ends of the success scale, hit factories and the sort of bubbling ‘scenius’ Simon Reynolds has written about. Producers in both situations are pushed into this kind of constant, forced creativity (to write the next hit; or to keep up, to have something new to play out). A fair bit of crap is no doubt produced, and a lot of formula work, though even formula work is great if the formula’s a good one. But some people seem to thrive under those kind of conditions, more so than if they’re given free artistic rein. It’s cruel but true: my favourite pop tends to come about when a genius is forced to work like a hack.

Where does it all go wrong, then? All the stuff I’ve been talking about has this in common: it worked best when nobody involved thought that anybody would give a damn about what they were doing in the future. Leftover comics were pulped; old Dr Who episodes were wiped by the BBC; soul or reggae sevens would be recycled into new hits. I’m not saying this kind of destruction was a good thing – the quality of the work isn’t affected by it one way or another – but it proves the contempt production-line pop culture was subject to. It was nothing. And as soon as it started to become clear that it wasn’t nothing, self-consciousness crept into the creative discourse, the hacks (quite rightly) demanded more money and more freedom, the fans demanded more of a voice, and some brutal spark it seems to me is lost.

None of this is new – the great Nik Cohn was saying much the same about pop almost 40 years ago – but it leaves the fan-critic in an awful position. In his weblog recently, Matt Ingram talked about jungle, and Simon Reynolds’ writing on jungle, and made the point that Simon Reynolds actually created jungle for a lot of people, by giving it a context, by pointing at it and saying, this thing you despise is good and here’s why. And the dread question is – in doing this, did Reynolds (and the other writers who popularised the scene) have a hand in turning jungle into the waste of energy it became in his and many other eyes?

If it wasn’t for Reynolds I’d have never listened to jungle, and if it wasn’t for jungle I might not be listening to anything much these days. So I’m glad he did write about it. But it leaves me feeling nervous as a writer, a critic, a fan. At least in theory: writing about pop is fairly safe, at least on this micro-level. But writing about other kinds of ‘junk’ culture – smaller scenes, unknown soldiers and unsung pleasures – seems potentially perilous; not because it is bad for us, but because we might be bad for it.