Retroactive continuity

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Retroactive continuity (often shortened to retcon[1]) refers to the alteration of previously established facts in a literary work.[2] Retcons may be carried out for a variety of reasons, such as to accommodate sequels or further derivative works in the same series, to reintroduce popular characters, to resolve chronological issues, to reboot a familiar series for modern audiences, or to simplify an excessively complex continuity structure.

Retcons are common in pulp fiction, especially comic books published by long-established houses such as DC, Marvel and leading manga publishers. The long history of popular titles and the plurality of writers who contribute stories can often create situations that demand clarification or revision of exposition. Retcons appear as well in soap operas, serial drama, movie sequels, professional wrestling, video games, radio series, and other kinds of serial fiction.


Origins of the term

The first published use of the phrase "retroactive continuity" is found in Elgin Frank Tupper's 1974 book The theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg.[3]

Pannenberg's conception of retroactive continuity ultimately means that history flows fundamentally from the future into the past, that the future is not basically a product of the past.

The first known printed use of "retroactive continuity" as referring to the altering of history within a fictional work is in All-Star Squadron #18 (cover-dated February 1983) from DC Comics. The series was set on DC's Earth-Two, an alternative universe in which Golden-Age comic characters proceed and age subsequent to their first appearances in real time. Thus by the early 1980s Superman was in his 60s and the Batman had died and been succeeded by his daughter, The Huntress, whereas the Superman and Batman of Earth-One, DC's primary universe, are perpetually young to early middle-age adults. All-Star Squadron in particular, was set during World War II on Earth-Two, so it was in the past of an alternate universe, thus all its events had repercussions on the contemporary continuity of the DC multiverse. Each issue literally changed the history of the fictional world in which it was set. In the letters column, a reader remarked that the comic "must make you [the creators] feel at times as if you're painting yourself into a corner," and "Your matching of Golden-Age comics history with new plotlines has been an artistic (and I hope financial!) success."

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