Zubby Newsletter #4: Connectivity and Continuity

An interview I did in November for a podcast called The Marvelists finally popped up online last week and a big part of the discussion I had with Peter and Eddie in that episode centered around “continuity” – acknowledgement of past events and character consistency based on their history.

The moment you start working with established characters and worlds (instead of your own original creations) you’ll encounter the opportunities and challenges presented by existing material. Contributing to a property may gain you some legitimacy, but that comes with other limitations. Even if you try to break away from past stories and do something ‘new’, the choices you make are in response to what’s come before.

I grew up collecting Marvel Comics and obsessed over the interconnected nature of the stories – the way things that happened in one series could ripple out and effect others.

Early on, a two page sequence in Kitty Pryde and Wolverine #5 really stuck with me – Wolverine is in Japan and receives a call from Professor X to let him know that James MacDonald has died. James and Logan’s friendship and rivalry appeared in multiple issues of Uncanny X-Men over the years, so seeing the events of Alpha Flight #12 referenced here and Logan’s reaction made that character death feel even more intense.

On the very next page, Logan and Kitty are training and an impossible winter storm blows in because, over in The Mighty Thor #349, a villain named Malekith unleashed the power of an artifact called the ‘Casket of Ancient Winters’ and its magic was disrupting weather across Midgard (aka. Earth).

Two little moments played out over two pages, neither of them important to the plot of the issue, but what they represented to me as a reader and collector was cause and effect – A subtle promise that the people working on the Marvel Universe gave a damn about what was happening across all their stories and how it could weave together in unexpected and exciting ways.

When I write stories using established characters I do as much research as possible so I feel confident about what I’m building on. I also do everything I can to acknowledge the hard work of my peers so past contributors know that what they built matters even as we keep adding more over the years.

And building really is what’s required, not trapping characters in amber, untouched and unmoved. The best stories push characters into new spaces, challenging them (and us) to imagine what might come next.

Endless reboots or repeats of classic plotlines don’t do it anymore, if it ever did. The best chance you’ve got as a creator taking the wheel is to understand and acknowledge what’s come before, think carefully about the intrinsic qualities that matter most to the character and their world, and then steer into uncharted waters to see what new material you can discover.

Since I started writing stories at Marvel in 2014, I’ve gained a reputation for acknowledging continuity in the Marvel Universe, but I also put a lot of research into projects for other companies as well. The Baldur’s Gate video games inform key characters and elements of my Dungeons & Dragons comics. Obscure bits of Disney Imagineering lore found their way into the Disney Kingdoms: Figment comics. The Samurai Jack animated series provided endless inspiration while developing the comic series.

In some cases I’ve used continuity as a springboard for making major changes to characters (like returning Betsy Braddock to her British body in Mystery In Madripoor) or been asked to rejig and tighten up timelines on characters (like the Life Of Wolverine digital comic series). It can be a lot of work keeping it all organized, but a lot of fun too.

If we do our job right we should be able to keep the promise of these amazing ongoing creative sandboxes without losing current readers who may not have read the specific stories we reference. That sense of history and consequence should keep readers coming back and encourage them to read past stories, not scare them away.

Speaking of Character Continuity…

The THUNDERBOLTS: BACK ON TARGET collected trade paperback arrives in stores this week.

This was my second chance to write the Bolts (lightning strikes twice!) but my first with Hawkeye at the helm, delving into his mid-life crisis around personal failure and burdens of leadership. Lots of deep cuts to past stories, but always presented clearly so new readers understand exactly what’s at stake.

I took a very Ted Lasso approach to this mini-series, mixing comedy and character drama together with classic Marvel super heroics and artists Sean Izaakse and Netho Diaz and colorist Java Tartaglia brought their best to every issue.

Thunderbolts has gone through quite a few iterations over the past 25 years and the through line that spoke most to me no matter which version I read was “redemption” – Can you change the arc of your future even when you’ve screwed up in the past? Whether individual characters succeed or fail, the journey should keep readers guessing right up until the end.

Speaking of Character Continuity…

UNBREAKABLE RED SONJA #5, our final issue, arrives this week. The mystery of two Sonjas pays off in spectacular fashion thanks to the hard work of line artist Adrián Manuel García Montoya, colorist Francesco Segala, and letterer Taylor Esposito.

For Red Sonja’s 50th anniversary I wanted to create a story that walked the continuity tightrope – acknowledging what’s come before while also pushing forward into unexpected places with a new villain who threatens the Hyborian Age.

Sonja’s origin has been retold at least three different ways over the years, changing to generate different continuities. At the same time, a lot of people who haven’t read Red Sonja assume she’s just a female knock-off of Conan the Barbarian, which she’s definitely not. In our final issue I take those three origin stories along with the assumptions/misinterpretations and forge them together so they can coexist and then move forward.

Here’s a sneak peek at a page of Adrián’s amazing ink work referencing a classic part of Sonja’s origin story-

Although I wrote some Red Sonja previously (the Red Sonja and Cub one-shot story in 2014 and a Conan-Red Sonja mini-series with Gail Simone in 2015) this was my chance to bust out a big solo story for fantasy’s ‘She-Devil With a Sword’. Getting to do that as part of such an important anniversary made it even more special.

At the end of Unbreakable Red Sonja #5 there’s an epilogue that teases an even deeper continuity cut, acknowledging the character’s literary origin as “Red Sonya of Rogatino” from Robert E. Howard’s ‘The Shadow of the Vulture’ in 1934 (making this a bit of an 89th anniversary celebration as well), but I’m not sure if I’ll get the chance to follow that teaser up with anything else or not. In any case, it’s been a fun ride. Big thanks to editor Matt Idelson at Dynamite for helping make it all happen.

Links and Other Things

  • The #VisibleWomen hashtag on Twitter started by Kelly Sue DeConnick is always a fantastic way to discover new talent for fun or possible future work. March 27th was the latest showcase and, as always, the quality and quantity of creative skill on display is stellar.
  • Dead Romans, my friend Fred Kennedy‘s new creator-owned comic about war, love, and bloody battlefields, launched last week. It’s off to a great start and the first issue has already sold out at the distributor level, so snag the first printing if you see it on the stands or make sure you pre-order the second printing.
  • Wayne Reynolds, one of the best designers and illustrators in TTRPGs, is putting together a Sketchbook of RPG Saints and it looks so good. Make sure you check it out before the Kickstarter campaign ends.
  • Sinix Design’s digital painting tutorials are wonderful, summarizing a lot of complex theory around design, rendering, readability, and appeal in easy to understand ways.When I have more time I want to practice a bunch of the techniques he covers, but in the meantime if you have any interest in making your own digital art I think you’ll really enjoy these: Beginner and Intermediate.

Thanks for reading!

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