Last year marked the 80th anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in comic books. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Man of Steel that eventually graced the cover of Action Comics #1 was actually the third iteration of the character. It was a challenge for the character to find his way into print, but after failing to get into the newspapers as a comic strip he landed a home in the relatively new form of media called comic books.
It was a dream come true for Superman’s creators, although I doubt that even in their wildest fantasies that he would still be around in the year 2019.
Fun fact, The Retros takes place in the year 2438, 500 years after Action Comics #1.
Creating characters can be exciting as their personalities, traits, powers, and supporting cast are developed. As time passes and other writers and artists add their take on a character, it’s not uncommon for inconsistencies to pop up. Whether they are oversights or changes that are made intentionally, discrepancies will appear. I have nothing but sympathy for the editor, writer, or artist as they craft stories for a character that has existed for decades. It’s not easy to honor their legacy and stay within the established status quo and boundaries (if you will) of the character. It’s tempting to shake things up, such as revealing a character’s secret identity or undoing something (like a marriage) but making such a drastic change can be a risk.
Some changes stick, some don’t. Some should, some shouldn’t.
For the most part, most of the major superheros are pretty much the same as they were when they first appeared in comics. For good or for bad, I suppose. Superhero comics, for me anyway, are comforting, I guess. I like that Batman is pretty much the same as he’s always been. Sure, there have been changes but he is fundamentally the same. It’s jarring to pick up a comic you haven’t read for a while and not being able to recognize anyone in it.
Of course, there is also the common problem of making a comic accessible to new readers but at the same time make it rewarding to the long term reader. When I worked at a comic shop there would be people looking to start reading X-Men because they liked the movie but it was intimidating to pick up a monthly comic that almost required reading three other titles with years of continuity and story development.
When I was creating Uptown Girl comics I made an effort to make very small changes to the status quo and to make every issue standalone, for the most part. I wanted each issue to be a good introduction the characters and their world. Sure, there were little nods and the like to longtime readers but nothing that I felt that was essential to enjoying the issue.
The Retros would be different. When the series launched on November 16th, 2015 I wanted to create a sprawling epic that had the feel of when I started to read the X-Men when I was 14. I loved that the X-Men had years of stories and mythology to catch up on. I loved that the team changed members constantly. I loved that anything could happen in the book.
Comics were, and always will be (for better of for worse) a world that required patience and effort from the reader. If you didn’t know who a character was, or why something was significant, the comic would rarely hold your hand or bring you up to speed. These days it’s easy to Google something, but when I was 14 I had to ask my friends who Havok was or why Crisis on Infinite Earths was significant.
Continuity is a double-edge sword. On one hand, it’s fun to have a series with years (or even decades) of history. On the other, it can prevent someone from jumping onto a new series. I enjoy this history in books I have been reading for a very long time. But it also keeps me from picking up a book that has been going for a while. It’s hard to have it both ways.
As a creator, I am aware of how this can keep someone from trying or sticking with a series. When people ask where they can read The Retros, I cringe a little because I know what is happening currently in the series. It’s not too easy to jump into where as Uptown Girl was very accessible for new readers.
I try to make it easier for new readers by breaking up the series into “seasons” that can be found by following a link on The Retros website. The collected editions help as well.
The Retros is now about to start it’s fifth year and I am happy that the series is more or less what I had wanted to create. It’s a sprawling epic where stuff happens, the team changes members and things happen to the characters that have last effects. Some stuff has been planned, others happened organically. In the third season the team fought a demon and the fight left Alie with severe burns all over her skin. She was scarred and still is. I never really planned for this happen… it just… kind of did. The fact she hasn’t healed shows that when stuff happens, it’s permanent.
Doing things that don’t go back to the status quo really pushes me out of my comfort zone, but I think that’s a good thing.
When I write, I will often throw out an offhand comment about… something and I rarely think about it afterwards. Sometimes this can paint me into a corner, though. Early on in The Retros the characters were talking about previous team members and Alie had mentioned how many previous team members The Retros have had.
When this line was written, I thought I would go back and tell stories about earlier incarnations of the team. However, as the series progressed, the story veered into a different direction and it was determined that this number was too high. As of this writing, I think Fly-Girl is the seventh person to join the team. I think I tweaked this dialogue when this story was collected in a book.
It bugs me to see inconsistencies in what I write. On one hand I could shrug it off and move on with my life, but when something clearly contradicts continuity, then I think it needs to be fixed, either by editing or through storytelling.
The example above demonstrates something called ‘laying pipe’, where something is sort of mentioned in a casual way but will lead to something bigger later on. I do this often in The Retros, whether I know how it factors into something planned or just leaving the door open for something else.
Recently in The Retros we flashed back to when Alie and Katrina were dating and what led to their break up. I can’t help but see parallels between being a superhero and being dedicated to one’s job. Sometimes duty and responsibility can impact a relationship. Alie loves/loved Katrina, but she has an obligation to the team.
This was foreshadowed years ago at the end of the first season.
When I wrote this page, I thought it would be interesting to explore the personal life and relationships of the characters. This page showed Alie’s commitment to the team, even if it meant losing someone she loved. This is an example of laying pipe, but I had no idea who Alie was talking to. I left the door open to telling this story, but I didn’t know what the story was.
I don’t recall at what point I realized the Alie and Katrina used to be a couple, but it happened naturally as I was writing the second season. Alie and Katrina ran into each other and there was clearly some tension. The tension was not intentional, it just… happened. It didn’t take too long to figure out where that tension came from.
I have forgotten how… almost vicious this scene was. I think Katrina was originally meant to be a little scatterbrained or something? Of all the characters in the comic she is the one who has changed the most. These days she is one of my favorites to write.
Sometimes an offhand comment is just meant to be an offhand comment and I don’t plan on revisiting it. I don’t reread my work too often. I probably should to avoid contradictions and inconsistencies in the series, but I am usually too focused on what is happening next rather than looking back.
Early on in the first season, Lucky and Sputnik were talking to Fly-Girl about the team. This little exchange was mean to be a casual conversation about something most people would think was pretty horrible. I wanted to show that terrible things can happen to people who risk their lives for the world and for those in the line of duty, so to speak, they have become a little numb to it. Gallows humor, I think it’s called.
But when I reread this page it came across too harsh. I wasn’t comfortable with it. It made Lucky and Sputnik too uncaring. It seemed callous and insensitive. So, I wanted to address it, but the problem was how to fix it. Who lost their head? I decided it clearly could not be someone human, it couldn’t be someone alive. That left only a handful of options. I thought about a robot, but I wanted to do something different. If I couldn’t use someone living, what about someone who wasn’t alive?
So, that’s how Zom-B ended up becoming a Retro. This is an example of a problematic moment, in this case an offhand comment leading to a solution that I think fixes the issue in a fun and surprising way. I doubt anyone remembers this moment from all those years ago, but this is what I mean by rewarding a long time reader but not alienating a newer one.
The members of the team are inspired by trends in comics over the years. Skull Phantom is a nod to the ultra-violent/psychopathic characters from the 1990’s, for example.
Zom-B is a wink to zombie/horror comics such as The Walking Dead or I, Zombie. The challenge was coming up with a reason why Alie thought a zombie would be a good addition to the team so I hope I came up with interesting abilities for him.
The fun of cartooning is being surprised by what I am doing. By keeping the writing spontaneous and organic I see stories go in different directions than I planned. For example, in the current story arc Alie is headed to a different planet with Sybexa and Sputnik. Originally Lucky was going to go with and leave Sybexa in command of the team. But before I knew it Katrina became not only became a Retro, but the leader as well while Sybexa and Sputnik are off for an adventure.
Again, doing stuff that is different than what was planned can often lead to problems down the line, but sometimes the problems are fun to fix.