First-Year Studies

Like a lot of genre fans, I have sort of a love-hate thing going on with the idea of ‘continuity.’

I’ve been immersed in the stuff for a half-century or thereabouts; I would qualify for a master’s or even a Ph.D in nerd culture if such a thing existed. I carry the fictional biographies of any number of franchise characters in my head: Batman, Sherlock Holmes, Conan the barbarian, and so on and so on.

Now, the fact that I possess this ridiculously encyclopedic knowledge doesn’t make continuity the religious fixation for me it is for some fans. I’ve often sneered at writers that get obsessed with explaining the origin of EVERYTHING (i.e., Geoff Johns telling us about Barry Allen’s bow tie)…

…but by the same token, I have to admit I get hugely annoyed with writers who don’t respect the work that has come before. (Like, for example, Frank Miller’s extended middle finger to Batman fans everywhere, from his second Dark Knight miniseries to today.)

So I enjoy continuity but I’m not obsessive about it. As a general rule, I tend to think that if patching some perceived flaw in a character’s backstory is the driving force behind a story, the story’s probably not very good.

But!

…sometimes these continuity-driven, fill-in-the-gap stories can be a lot of fun. Especially when they’re done well. Peter David once remarked about his Star Trek novel Imzadi, which gives us the history of the romance between William Riker and Deanna Troi, that a lot of the reaction from fans wasn’t so much about the quality of the book as it was a satisfied, “oh, so THAT’S what happened.”

To my way of thinking, that’s just about the ideal reaction to this kind of story.

This was on my mind this last week when I was able to scoop up three Batman-related origin hardcovers: Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty’s “Year One” trilogy featuring Robin, Batgirl, and Nightwing, respectively.

These are tremendous fun, and serve as great examples of the entertainment to be had in scratching that sort of continuity itch. But revisiting these did get me thinking of how this has really gotten to be A Thing in genre fiction.

Certainly, DC Comics has been making hay out of it for decades. I think the first time I noticed it was when Paul Levitz and Joe Staton got around to telling us the origin of the Justice Society in 1977.

DC had always been a little obsessed with its own fictional history; Secret Origins as an ongoing title has been around in all sorts of formats since the mid-1970s. But that JSA story was, I think, the first time that someone had taken a look at the original stories and retro-engineered an origin tale to fit. Along with that, we also had the occasional miniseries like World of Krypton and Untold Legend of the Batman and so on, but what really lit the fuse was Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One in 1986.

From that point on in comics it seemed like “Year One” stories were practically a license to print money. Certainly DC went back to that well many times. Many, many times.

Understand, I’m not saying these weren’t good. A lot of them were; I really enjoyed the stunt where all of DC’s Annuals went there in 1995.

And this odd little sub-genre continues to be a solid moneymaker for DC. Although if you are invested in the idea of the real story, “the one that counts,” well, there is a lot of heartbreak in store for you; because it’s gotten to a point where DC will reboot a character’s history every eighteen months or so. (I feel especially sorry for poor Mark Waid, who did a couple of really lovely Year One-style miniseries for DC that were both knocked out of continuity a short time later.)

Despite their short tenure as the “official” versions, I still like Waid’s the best, and I occasionally wonder why DC knocked them down so fast. In fact, they were both overruled, so to speak, by the same guy. What’d Waid ever do to you, Geoff Johns?

Just this last year Frank Miller came back to do Superman: Year One, which brings us full circle, I guess. The bloom is definitely off the rose here, especially for those of us who remember Miller’s work on Batman Year One and Daredevil: The Man Without Fear. There have been thousands of words expended on comics blogs trying to explain what the hell happened to Frank Miller; I don’t really have anything to add to that except to say that I’m as baffled as everyone else when he claims to love these characters, because it’s certainly not on the page. I honestly have no sense of WHAT Miller wants us to think about these guys, but they sure don’t come off as heroes.

But that’s a rabbit hole I don’t really want to go down. I will say that it’s a shame that Miller’s version is overshadowing another similarly-themed story. It’s one of the best takes on Superman’s early years I’ve seen, but it had the misfortune to come out almost at the same time as Miller’s. After something like a decade in limbo, it finally saw print a few months back: Man and Superman by Marv Wolfman and Claudio Castellini. Skip Miller and get this instead.

DC is certainly not the only comics company to milk the whole retro-continuity thing. Marvel sneered at the idea originally (I think it was Mark Gruenwald who laughed, “We got our heroes right the first time!”) But once they saw the money to be made, it didn’t take them long to get on board. Sometimes the results were embarrassments like Spider-Man: Chapter One or Heroes Reborn, but there were good ones as well. Kurt Busiek’s wonderful Untold Tales of Spider-Man and its companion Amazing Fantasy mini-series are brilliant examples of how to do it right. In fact, Untold Tales was enough of a hit it even inspired a prose anthology.

There was also the delightful Captain America prestige format miniseries from Fabian Nicieza and Kevin Maguire, recently collected in paperback. Long overdue.

More recently, we’ve had the early years of the Avengers documented in two mini-series from Joe Casey and Scott Kolins that I liked a lot, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes volumes one and two.

And Casey followed that up with Avengers: The Origin, this time with Phil Noto on the art. A little padded compared to the first two series but still worth a look.

And so on and so on. Although Marvel’s not anywhere near DC quantities on the Year One thing, they’ve definitely moved from their original sniffy dismissal to embracing the idea.

Nor was Marvel the only one to learn the lesson. Dynamite Comics leaned hard into the untold-origins thing with several different mini-series. We got The Shadow Year One

….Matt Wagner’s adaptation of the Zorro origin given in Isabel Allende’s novel

…the origin of Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows Year One, as told by Marc Andreyko and Guiu Vilanova…

…and even Sherlock Holmes Year One.

It’s worth noting that this is hardly the first time anyone has done a “Year One” riff on Holmes. Conan Doyle did it himself back in 1893, in The Adventure of the Gloria Scott. Certainly lots of writers have done pastiches of Holmes’ early years as a detective since then, enough that it could be its own column. (I will say that my favorite of these is Enter the Lion by Sean Wright and the late Mike Hodel.)

It’s not confined to comics. Lots of ongoing series have played around with the idea, in prose, TV, and film, as well. I mentioned Peter David’s Star Trek novel earlier and I can tell you that no group of fictional characters have had their lives more thoroughly documented than the crew of the starship Enterprise. I’ve seen a lot of online bitching about how Discovery shouldn’t have gone the retro-continuity route but I gotta tell you, Julie and I are there for it. We love Anson Mount as Captain Pike and when the show did the episode featuring Vina and the Talosians we just about levitated with glee.

Yeah, it’s blatant fanservice, but it was good fanservice. Julie and I have a soft spot for stories about the days of Pike’s crew anyway, ever since I showed her Early Voyages.

In fact, and I know this will shock the younger folks, but there was a time when all we had in the way of new Trek was books and comics. The folks doing the Star Trek novels had free rein to fill in whatever they liked back then, and they did. Frankly, they did it better than the ‘official’ versions a lot of the time. I’m thinking in particular of the “giant novels” from Pocket Books right around the time their Trek novels were getting their own imprint, after Vonda McIntyre’s The Entropy Effect turned out to be a bigger hit than anyone at Paramount thought it was going to be.

And though I like First Contact a great deal, in my head Federation from Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens is the real story of Zefrem Cochrane as far as I’m concerned.

Though Star Trek is certainly the champion of this kind of thing, with multiple seasons of two different TV series and dozens upon dozens of novels and comics devoted to retro-continuity patches of one sort or another, that doesn’t mean other SF franchises haven’t gone there as well. Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda put out a series of hardcover tie-in novels and the first in the series was exactly this kind of fill-in-the-backstory effort.

Likewise the TV version of Alien Nation had a series of tie-in paperbacks, and the first one, from Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens (yeah, again; they have a gift for this, apparently) was a retro-pastiche filling in the history of the day the alien refugees first came to Earth.

On television, Babylon 5 did In The Beginning…

And the revamped Battlestar Galactica did a movie about Adama’s early war service in Blood and Chrome.

Sooner or later it seems like every pop culture franchise goes there. Even though Casino Royale— both the original Fleming novel and the Daniel Craig movie— serves as an origin story/launch point for James Bond, that doesn’t mean people haven’t gone back to fill in the gaps. There’s the John Pearson “biography” and the Young Bond series of novels in prose…

…and more recently, the comics version of James Bond’s induction into the Secret Service during the Second World War.

I haven’t got around to the comics yet, though the collected editions are on the shopping list. But Pearson’s and Higson’s prose Bond pastiches are excellent.

Likewise, although the first Doc Savage novel The Man of Bronze is a little bit of an origin story, that didn’t prevent Philip Jose Farmer from doing his own, Escape From Loki.

Farmer was a little annoyed to find that Mike Barr had beat him to it in the comics, in this DC annual from 1989.

(I hate to admit it, because I like Farmer’s Wold Newton stuff a lot, but I think Barr’s is better.)

Conan the barbarian is another character whose life story has been exhaustively documented, multiple times in multiple media, by various hands–by my count there are at least three different versions of Conan’s time with the pirate queen Belit, four if you include Howard’s original short story. When it comes to the pastiche stuff I favor the comics, particularly the ones written by Roy Thomas and Kurt Busiek. But I was very pleasantly surprised by the prose novel Conan of Venarium by Harry Turtledove, filling in the story of how a teenaged Conan helped defeat a brutal occupation of his village by the Aquilonian army. Picked it up on impulse when I stumbled across the hardcover in a Goodwill and loved it.

Even Nero Wolfe got the Year One treatment. Robert Goldsborough has been continuing the series with the blessing of the Rex Stout estate, and he finally got around to it a few years ago.

The trouble is, much like the Star Trek stories I mentioned before, the unofficial version is a lot better. That would be “Firecrackers” by Charles Burns, originally published in the Wolfe Pack’s Gazette. You can find it for free online at the Gazette’s home page. It’s also in print in this volume, The Archie Goodwin Files. (Along with my own Nero Wolfe story “Memo For Murder,” he added in a blatant act of self-promotion.)

Actually, I don’t get a penny from the Wolfe story, it was strictly a fanfic thing done for love. But Goodwin Files is a cool book if you’re a fan, and “Firecrackers,” especially, is terrific.

I could go on and on. Especially with the advent of fanfic sites and so on, I think you can find Year One/untold-origin stories for almost any series franchise out there. Even the Wizard of Oz, and I thought that had been pretty well strip-mined.

With one glaring exception. At least, I think so. We live in a world where almost no series character is allowed to lie fallow for long, especially in the mystery/adventure genre. Along with Nero Wolfe, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond, there have been continuations for Robert Parker’s Spenser, Gardner’s Perry Mason, and Spillane’s Mike Hammer, among others. I don’t think there have actually been any untold origin stories for those folks yet, but I suspect they’ll get to it.

But no one has taken a swing yet at John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee.

I don’t know if “no continuations” was in MacDonald’s will or what (it was in Sue Grafton’s; there will be no more Kinsey Millhone) but the McGee books are still in print and still popular. I’d think someone would have gotten the estate to unbend by now, especially with a movie with Christian Bale on the horizon.

The hell of it is, MacDonald left a number of tantalizing hints about McGee’s actual first adventure throughout the series that add up to a pretty clear narrative. According to asides and brief reminiscences seeded throughout the twenty-one novels, we know that Travis McGee returned home to Florida after the Korean War to start a business with his brother, only to find that his brother was dead– either murdered or possibly a despairing suicide– and the money they planned to use for the business was gone, stolen somehow. For whatever tricky legal reason, there was no recourse through the justice system. So Travis set about stealing it back, through a con game that involved a beautiful female ally. He was at least partially successful, though it almost went very bad at the end, with McGee and the girl hiding in a remote swamp area; a team of killers in pursuit and McGee badly wounded, the girl desperately trying to keep him conscious, with McGee drifting in and out of hallucination. “Talking to the dead brother,” he says casually in one book, and in another the scar from the old wound is described as “puckered and twisting.” It can also be inferred that this is what McGee’s best friend Meyer refers to when he says, “I think I know what it is in your past that gave you a distaste for most kinds of permanence.”

That all sounds like it would be amazing. I’d love to see that story. Hell, I’d be thrilled to take a shot at writing it myself if nobody else wants to.

Hey, MacDonald estate? Call me.

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Housekeeping note: I haven’t been as regular here as I’d like. I really do try for a weekly schedule, but recent events have conspired against us. I won’t bore you with the litany of crap we are dealing with at the moment, because it sounds like Eeyore. It would depress both you and me. I’m doing the best I can to get back to my usual once-a-week thing, but I think I’m going to be biweekly here for a while.

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8 Comments

  1. Oh, I guess you haven’t seen about the Perry Mason “prequel” series on HBO/Max/whatever iteration of it that it’s on. It’s apparently his origin as a somewhat shady PI, before becoming a lawyer. It looks super grimdark from the pictures I’ve seen, which isn’t what I associate with the Perry Mason stories I’ve read. I hope it’s better than it looks, but at least there are a ton of books (and didn’t you say the TV show is on Amazon Prime, the Raymond Burr version?)

    1. The Burr one is on Amazon Prime, yeah. I forgot about the new one; from the reviews it sounded more like a ‘re-imagining’ or something, since I don’t see how you go from shady P.I. to brilliant defense attorney, including apparently college and law school, in a single season of a noir miniseries. I mean, even cheating out of it with a montage it sounds… well, awful.

      Apart from all that Max Collins HATED it– and he’s certainly no purist, he even likes the Armand Assante version of I, THE JURY. I figured if Collins noped out of the new Perry, it had to be irredeemably bad. So I haven’t bothered.

      1. From most accounts it’s an “only the names have not been changed” version (a subgenre of sorts that’s worth an article of its own).
        JLA: Year One went out of continuity well before the New 52: Wonder Woman got back into the original JLA lineup with Infinite Crisis. Possibly even before that — I think Dan Jurgens idea of Doom Patrol, Metamorpho, Challengers, etc. preceding the JLA by a few years had already died and that was a big part of Year One (which I also liked a lot).
        Escape From Loki was dreadful (my review: https://frasersherman.com/2018/10/31/the-secret-origin-of-doc-savage-sort-of-escape-from-loki/) but according to Savage expert Will Murray a lot of fans assume “they met in a prison camp” is canon. I would love to see Doc in the 1920s though: working to complete his medical training while Monk and Ham keep dragging him off to speakeasies and trying to get him laid (and then of course, shit blows up).
        I cannot for the life of me see the point of a Barnabas Collins Year One, given that Dark Shadows covered his origin thoroughly in their first time trip.
        The JSA origin is a little different from these others, as there hadn’t been any origin before that one.
        Way back when I was running a D&D campaign I’d planned to throw my players into a series of parallel worlds, including Oz, but the very early years (they’d help Glinda battle the Wicked Witch of the South to establish her domain there).
        While you don’t list ’em, Superboy, Superbaby, Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot all seem like versions of the Early Years. And of course, the multiple stories where Superboy meets Batman or Green Arrow (I really enjoyed rereading that one, as the whole point is that Superboy doesn’t affect Ollie’s destiny at all).
        The Joe Casey Avengers stuff is really good. They even manage to make sense out of the whole Yellowjacket/Wasp marriage arc.
        Howard Chaykin’s Shadow miniseries gives us a year one of sorts as part of the backstory. Too bad it was horrible.

        1. Well, Geoff Johns wrote INFINITE CRISIS, too, didn’t he? So I think the point stands.

          I actually liked the first two issues of the Chaykin SHADOW quite a bit but he couldn’t stick the landing. THE SHADOW STRIKES did a Year One as well, now that I think about it. For my money that was the best version of the character in comics, but given who wrote it, it’s never going to get a collection of any kind.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    I liked Escape from Loki; so, there’s that. Chaykin’s Shadow? I was okay with it; but wasn’t overly enamored of the whole Lost Horizon thing,; really didn’t like the modern period stuff, much; but, then again, I don’t think pulp heroes work outside a pseudo-1930s world. Well, not often. Tim Truman’s Spider was pretty good, but was morphed enough to work in its own weird mix of Grimjack, Scout and the pulp Spider.

    My favorite Sherlock Holmes year One is still Young Sherlock Holmes, no matter how silly parts of it are. The good stuff is very good, which makes up for some of the rest.

    Geoff Johns never wowed me much, since I had read most of his stories 10-20 years before. Well, not everything, but that seemed more and more the trend. I liked earlier more than later. But, yeah, bow ties don’t need origins, anymore than fedoras and whips did in Indiana Jones. He worked in a lab; a bow tie was just sensible, compared to a necktie.

    Captain America, Sentinel of Liberty was all kinds of awesome, until Kevin maguire couldn’t keep up. I read an interview (in the TwoMorrows feature on his work) that he and Fabian were trying to fill it with the action/adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I think they accomplished rather well. Made me go find a German dictionary to translate the names of some of the Red Skull’s goons.

    One of my favorites of the continuity expanders of Star Trek was the Kobayashi Maru book, where each of the characters tells the story of their test. It was an interesting mix of variations and actually spoke well of leadership in emergency situations. Kirk didn’t just cheat; he kept obsessively retaking the test because he refused to believe that there was a no win situation (as related in Wrath of Khan); but, the actual cheat scenario is quite fun. Sulu looks to preserve life, rather than seek confrontation, Chekov gets blown up then learns about teamwork in a different no-win scenario. Scotty is the most fun, as he practically dismantles the ship to fight the endless stream of Klingons and gets into theoretical areas that shouldn’t work. Nice character studies.

    Untold Tales of Spider-man was the only Spidey title I ever bought for more than a few odd issues (apart from certain stretches of Marvel Team-Up). Never a big fan; but, I liked Busiek’s take on those years. Similar love for the early Legends of the Dark Knight tales from people like James Robinson and Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale, Moench & Gulacy and a few others (not so much the Morrison one).

    I loved Babylon 5 and In the Beginning has some great new stuff; but, the attempts at de-aging don’t work very well and the idea of Franklin and Sheriden having met before B5 doesn’t really work when you see their first meeting and early episodes together, rather than In The Beginning. I could never buy that they just kept secret. it just seemed like JMS forgot that they had never met before B%, unlike Ivanova. The whole secret mission thing didn’t really work for me, compared to the rest of it, which linked up the various pieces about the Earth-Mimbari war.

    I still say that JMS got the captains mixed up; Sheriden had more of a fighter jock personality, while Sinclair seemed more of a ship driver, based on my naval experience. JMS had them as the opposite career path. Civilians!

  3. Would E. Nelson Bridwell’s “The Origin of the Legion” from 1968 count as the same sort of thing as the Justice Society story that you mention? An example of someone taking “a look at the original stories and retro-engineered an origin tale to fit”?

  4. papercut fun

    I really love the days when “tie in media” could just run fast and loose with backstory because you knew the story would never be told otherwise. Today’s intellectual properties are so well guarded that it seems impossible to do much with it because the corporation who owns it just might want to tell that story themselves someday. I’ve been rereading DC’s Star Trek comics recently from 1984 and 1989 and, while not an origin series necessarily, it was fun to watch them create adventures that happened “between movies” and then have to quickly react when the movies came out and nullified the stories. But it didn’t matter because it was fun. You don’t really see that kind of charm and artistic freedom these days. Everything is so buttoned down and careful not to expand too far from the established source material.

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