Firing The Canons

What even is continuity?

A while back, word went around the intertubes that Tad Stones, creator of Darkwing Duck, had gone on record in an interview as saying that his show and Ducktales did not take place in the same universe.

The backlash against this was swift and vocal. How could he say that? Launchpad McQuack, a character popularized on Ducktales, was DW's sidekick. Gizmoduck crossed over and they made references to his and Launchpad's past employment.

I didn't read the offending interview nor even comment on it at the time. Internally, my response was basically "Yeah, well… that's just like your opinion, man."

Image result for well that's just like your opinion man"

Pictured: My response.

I thought it might be a bit of an ego thing, where he didn't want his show (which was more original than Ducktales, which had been adapted from a long-running comic universe) to be thought of as a spin-off. I wondered a bit if the elements of the Ducktales mythology had been foisted on him as a condition of having the show and thought perhaps he had harbored resentment over it.

But I didn't feel like it was worth arguing over. As a child I had been excited by the idea that the Ducktales universe was larger than one show centered on one city and one set of characters, and the opinion of one person couldn't take that away from me.

Then Disney+ came out and I started to watch Darkwing Duck for the first time since the 90s and... I kind of started to see his point?

Darkwing Duck may look like a Ducktales spin-off, but it doesn't move like one and it doesn't quack like one.

I had already noted with some amusement that when Drake Mallard eventually appeared on the 21st century Ducktales adaptation, he seemed to be surrounded by a bubble of different, altogether cartoonier physics (as Donald and Launchpad are, to an extent)... where most characters suffer the near misses and improbable saves typical of a lot of action-adventure cartoons, Drake would be subjected to classic cartoon violence of the sort I associated with Warner Brothers slapstick shorts.

At the time the episode aired, I thought it was an interesting choice to reference another studio's cartoons as a way of portraying Drake's never-say-die heroic willpower in a cartoon universe... but then I started watching the old series again, and I realized they had been referencing Darkwing Duck, which was always more slapstick and “toonier” than Ducktales had been.

After watching enough of the original series with the distant eyes of adulthood, I started to realize that not only is the classic Darkwing Duck not in continuity with Ducktales, it's not even in continuity with itself. Characters' origins change from episode to episode. Past events are only referenced rarely in either series, and this is not unusual for a show geared towards syndication from the days before streaming or even compact and affordable home media compilations... but in Darkwing Duck's case there's an unusually loose attitude towards the past.

Curious, I started researching for Stones's statements about the making of Darkwing Duck and I learned that far from being bitter and resentful, he just has a different approach to continuity. Broadly, he isn't a fan of it as a concept. He had told his writing staff to never be precious about holding onto the past, and if it was a question of keeping continuity between or even within episodes and pulling off a gag, to go for the gag.

He consciously modeled Darkwing Duck off a comic book hero, and the comic books he remembers most fondly are the ones where you can pick up a single issue, any issue, and get treated to a complete, self-contained story.

You know the players.

You know what they stand for and where they stand in relation to each other.

But you don't need to know what happened last issue, or three issues ago, or thirty years ago. If a character who was a reluctant threat in a past issue died at the end of it wants to bring them back because they make a neat villain, the writer can just bring them back as a card-carrying member of Team Evil without any explanation. Old friends who are close to the hero turn up once with no prior mention and don't come back again.

In short: the "continuity" that Stones enjoyed was the kind of continuity you get from the British royal family: the symbols remain the same and the rituals are observed, no matter who is in charge from year to year.

And that's not really what I generally crave, as a reader or writer. The kind of storytelling Stones was doing was common in Saturday morning cartoons in the 80s and before (just check out Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends on Disney+ for a very faithful adaptation of the type of comic story that was his source material), but I always loved when a series went deeper and gave a story (and characters) that grew and evolved from episode to episode and season to season.

A lot of Darkwing Duck fans saw the potential in the character and his adventures, and so when the cartoon that had been inspired by comics inspired its own comics in turn, they have tended to have more continuity in the modern storytelling sense, and even back in the 90s one five-part story crossed Darkwing over directly not just with the Ducktales characters, but also with the casts of Talespin (indirectly, as Talespin is set in a different era, regardless of any shared setting), Goof Troop, and Rescue Rangers... which sort of presented its own problems as Rescue Rangers cartoon definitely didn't take place in a world where humanity consisted mostly of anthropomorphic dogs and ducks.

But fans who had enjoyed the idea that their childhood favorites had a real existence that went beyond the twenty minute adventures we saw on TV loved it. I think I would have gone bonkers for it if I’d seen it, in my teens.

The older I get, though, the more nuanced my view on the value of canon and continuity becomes. It wouldn’t have been too many years ago that I would have been horrified at Tad Stones’s attitude, but having encountered his remarks at this point in my life, I find myself both more prepared to take them on board based on my own perspective, and I find them useful in further refining that perspective.

I definitely understand the value of not being boxed in by everything that has come before, especially in a long-running franchise. I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but along the way it has been very selective about which parts of its own canon hold weight in subsequent movies, and that's without getting into oddities like TV shows which treat the movies as having broadly happened while the movies cheerfully ignore their existence.

I mean, there's little that says directly that the Defenders couldn't have fought the Hand in the same New York that eventually becomes a virtual ghost town in Avengers: Endgame, but if the movies never in any way acknowledge that, we are in full-on "if a tree falls in a forest" territory. Cloak & Dagger established that Luke Cage exists in their continuity, but nothing in any Netflix show says Cloak & Dagger exist.

You can choose to believe that all live-action Marvel shows that tie into the MCU are part of the same universe and I myself like to believe this, but it might be more accurate to say that each one is its own thing, in which (for the most part) the events of the other things also happened. Except when and where they did not.

Meanwhile, no one has yet really pulled off a feat like creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe again, and while Warner’s attempt to jumpstart their own version with DC has failed, it has splintered off into what may be several different little sub-universes that have their own successes.

That’s without even getting into the TV shows or the idea of an explicit multiverse of story worlds that exist within the world of a story.

To change gears a bit, there's a popular fan theory regarding the James Bond series that is so popular every time I bring it up, I get someone saying "I thought that was confirmed?"

Under this theory, "James Bond" is a code name that goes with the designation of 007. The fact that we daw Daniel Craig's character become 007 under the M from the previous Bond is cited as support for this... but the same movie establishes his name is definitely James Bond, and he goes on to interact with other characters and concepts that similarly had previous incarnations in the series.

And then in Skyfall, Craig's Bond has a car in storage that belonged to an earlier version of the character, which is very out of place in his reality, but which he clearly has a sense of a past ownership of.

Does this argue for the theory, or against it?

Before Skyfall, it was easy to say that Daniel Craig represented a hard reboot of the franchise.

Afterwards, it's murkier.

The interpretation that makes sense to me is that every James Bond movie is telling a story about James Bond, much like those Silver Age comics that Stones referenced would have told you a story about Batman or Spider-man. Depending on the story being told, different elements of previous stories may or may not have happened, and of course some aspects of the story change as well. To try to fit all of the movies into one ongoing story requires us to believe that not only does MI-6 assign recruits a new name, but also an ancestral estate in Scotland and an optional dead wife to grieve.

I'm not saying you can't headcanon James Bond as a legacy identity (or a Time Lord, if you prefer)... just that doing so requires you to be selective about canon in exactly the same manner as assuming that it's all one man up to Daniel Craig (and possibly after) requires.

On a similar note, I saw the new Charlie's Angels film this afternoon for entirely non-gay reasons having nothing to do with a desire to be used as a bathmat by Kristen Stewart, and I found it interesting that it had been billed as being a continuation of the McG movie series and the original TV series.

But Sir Patrick Stewart is playing a very different version of a character previously played by David Doyle and Bill Murray... and with that character having died between the events of the two previous movies. While the new movie establishes "Bosley" is now as of the new movie a codename that can be bestowed on anyone who meets the requirements, Sir Patrick's Bosley is photoshopped into stills with the previous casts to firmly establish he is and has been THE Bosley.

So is it a continuation? A reboot? An alternate universe? You could call it any of these things, and I think the publicity called it a continuation in a (probably vain) attempt to dodge the predictable grumbling about reboot fatigue.

What it is, is a story. It's a story about the Angels of the Townsend Detective Agency and John Bosley, and for purposes of this story, it's assumed that some portions of previous stories might more or less have happened.

And that's really just how storytelling works, how it's always worked. Even the most heavily and intricately plotted show will wind up ignoring, reimagining, or inventing past events as needed, when the alternative is to tell a worse story now in service of preserving a story that already happened and was enjoyed, and will also still exist no matter what a future version does.

As a writer and a reader, I enjoy when a story hangs together within itself and when there is a sense of both a storied past and a wider world beyond the confines of the page or stage we see.

But in the end, each story has to be free to be its own thing, whether it does so in a way that continues the past, or honors it, or ignores it.

“Canon” and “continuity” can be a fun intellectual pursuit for fandoms. The modern notion of story canon was basically invented by Sherlockians, who took a bunch of stories that were published as Stories About Sherlock Holmes and strung them together as best they could into The Story Of Sherlock Holmes, much to the bemusement of their author.

For instance, any Sherlockian can tell you that Watson’s middle name is Hamish. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, on a good day, could just about get his first name right. The middle name never appears in the text, any more than Sherlock Holmes’s birthday does… but the fandom regards these things as canonical because they are part of the fabric they stitched together in order to make sense of a narrative that was never viewed as a continuous story.

This is where I am now: there may be things that are definitely in the text of the story (or a text of a story) and there may be things that are definitely added by a fan’s imagination, but the distinction between “official canon” and “fan canon” is very porous, because there is no canon without an audience to assemble it.

So Tad Stones’s opinion on Darkwing Duck still is just his opinion, but it’s become my opinion. His cartoon didn’t happen in the same universe as Ducktales, but maybe in a universe where the events of Ducktales more or less mostly happened. And Ducktales may have shown a universe where the events of Darkwing Duck would, more or less, mostly happen,

Whatever you hold in your head as canon to reconcile the two… it’s going to be personal to you.

But that’s just how stories… go.

The story you know, the story you love… it’s always going to be the story in your head.

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