Blah Blah Blog – Five Year Rule

A post from the old Marvel blog about history and continuity and the different approaches to it that have been taken over the years.

Five Year Rule

October 6, 2008 | 1:00 AM | By Tom_Brevoort | In General

Back in the 1980s, there was a general guideline at Marvel that said it wasn’t wise to refer to continuity more than around five years old. There were exceptions, of course—typically relating to the origins of the characters. But when it came to typical storylines, if it was more than five years old, forget it—the readership had.

The theory was that even among the hardcore audience there was enough turn-over so that, by and large, any stories that were more than sixty months old had been forgotten. And while you wouldn’t go out of your way to contradict that stuff, you also couldn’t count on anybody remembering it.

This led to their being a vague line of demarcation within the Marvel Universe, one I’ve become aware of when talking to people who started reading the books during this period. They really don’t remember much of anything before 1980 or so, and their vision of the characters is based fundamentally on this decade.

Nowadays, however, it seems like the awareness of the audience has grown a bit, at least in general. There are more people who remember the ins-and-outs of stories published a decade ago, and any number of readers who had been following Marvel in the 1990s, dropped away for a number of years, and have since returned.

But all of these groups tend to operate under what I like to call “selective continuity.” Put simply, if they didn’t read it, to them it was never published. If a character returns from the past, and they have no idea how that character changed from back-in-the-day to what he is now, they become irritated, and expect the new story to cover that ground again (or, from their perspective, to cover it for the first time.)

MARVELS was really the first project in a long time to buck this trend, to actively put elements from the past back on the radar as story points. And the success of MARVELS made brought the use of vintage continuity back into vogue, at least for awhile. But this led to a different problem: while it was fun to connect the dots over forty years, very few readers remained who’d been there for all of the gyrations, and this use of the extended continuity often made it difficult to figure out who the characters were supposed to be. Continuity started to become an ankle-weight, rather than a springboard to new stories.

These days, we tend to walk the line a little bit, but we definitely hew a little bit more closely to the five-year-rule. But at least once a month something gets brought back from much earlier, and re-established on the canvas. So it’s a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B.

Of course, nowadays, many readers are equally confused by the different lines with their different continuities, and by the fact that some projects don’t quite fit into any of them. But that’s part of the price of dragging 45 years of history behind you.

More later.

Tom B

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