Blah Blah Blog – Five Year Rule

An entry from my long-ago Marvel blog, this one talking about an editorial philosophy that fell to the wayside for a bit.

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 that 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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5 thoughts on “Blah Blah Blog – Five Year Rule

  1. Fraser, that’s pretty much how I felt from 1962 forward when Marvel made continuity obvious to me. By 1963, I began to feel very sorry for editors and creators who tried to maintain a cohesive and entertaining continuity – and understood why Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were trying to start over with a new continuity. Captain America and Namor not recognizing each other, no one remembering the original Human Torch (until Burgos wanted his copyrights back), those sorts of things.

    Within the next couple of years, I lucked upon a copy of Alter-Ego and then some other fanzines, and I began enjoying the Marvel continuity. But I looked for beginnings and endings to things like “the story of Peter Parker growing up,” actually prompted by the last panel of Amazing Spider-Man #33.

    Gardner Fox’s alternate Earths concept helped me decide that my favorite stories belonged to Earth-MVB (My Very Best) and, for instance, post-Ditko Peter Parker, would be other continuities. So far, it’s been 60+ years and works pretty well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nobody remembering the original Torch when everyone remembered Namor and Cap struck me as odd.
      I can understand the logic of reserving the good stuff for your favorite Earth. Lord knows there’s a lot of continuity I’d like to flush from my concept of DC and Marvel.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I really enjoyed how in the late 90s some books had a reference page in the back (for continuity heavy stories like Hobgoblin lives of Avengers Forever – not needed for everything of course) – better than in the story themselves. Roy Thomas also did this in the back of the Conan magazines when he referenced old stories or characters. The recent Marvels series by Kurt Busiek would be fun to have one of these in the back. They always lead to digging up some fun old stories.

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    1. I remember Thomas discussing Belit when he introduced her and pointing out that other than her love for Conan, she’s a pretty vicious piece of work. Which he followed through on over the course of their adventures together.

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