When I was a kid, a friend of mine and I had a weekly ritual. When the school day ended, we made a mad, hell-for-leather dash across a four-lane highway to a small grocery store so we could check out the new comic books.
I never followed any particular titles consistently; I just grabbed whatever looked interesting off the rack. But comics storytelling is cumulative. Story arcs can span multiple issues, and continuity often extends across many different titles in elaborate, self-contained fictional universes. If you only pick up occasional issues here and there, it’s sort of like trying to start watching a soap opera in the middle of the season. For undisciplined readers like me, things could get a little confusing.
Continuity can make life tough for comic writers and editors, especially when you consider that some characters have been around for decades, accumulating intricate backstories in the same way that shipwrecks accumulate colonies of marine organisms. When this complicated web of internal mythology becomes problematic, comic creators use “retconning,” the retroactive alteration of in-story continuity.
Retcons usually take the form of a deus ex machina-like plot device that discards whatever aspects of the mythology are inconvenient and harmonizes between conflicting details. Thus when DC Comics decided to restore Hal Jordan of the Green Lantern Corps to its roster of heroes after Jordan lost his marbles, went on a cosmic killing spree, and died, it was a fairly simple matter to resurrect him and attribute his homicidal tendencies to possession by a cosmic entity.
Likewise, when the head honchos at Marvel decided that single underdog Spider-Man was preferable to responsibly married Spider-Man, they had only to put Peter Parker’s Aunt May in the path of a bullet. Next thing you know, Spidey and his wife made a deal with the demonic villain Mephisto, who spared the old gal’s life in exchange for the Parkers’ agreement to allow him to undo history so that their marriage had never taken place.
By the time Marvel decided to make Spider-Man a bachelor again, I was no longer a regular reader of comics, so I found out about it only when the same friend with whom I used to run across the road to buy comics told me. But even to an ex-reader like me, the news packed a wallop. Die-hard fans were even more upset. One reviewer called it “infuriating and downright disrespectful to anyone who has come to love Spider-Man comics over the years.” And little wonder. This one editorial decision erased over two decades’ worth of character development, sweeping it aside as though it had never happened with apparent disregard for the emotional investment of thousands of readers.
Also…well, Spider-Man’s wife was hot.
One of the reasons pseudohistory irritates me is because those who propagate it are practicing a similar form of cheap, lazy retconning when it comes to the past. The problem isn’t that somebody is proposing something new; that’s an integral part of the process of doing history, and we laud historians who make original contributions when those contributions hold explanatory power. The difference is that responsible scholars craft their interpretations to take account of the preponderance of the evidence, whereas pseudohistorians just set that evidence aside. They toss reams of primary source material and conscientious scholarship out the window like so much inconvenient backstory, while using out-of-context quotations and unsubstantiated anecdotes to the same ends as the deus ex machina plot device.
By ignoring a whole lot over here and adding a few bits over there, practitioners of bad history whip up a whole new self-contained continuity suited to their own preferences. They ignore all our evidence about the Founders’ religious inclinations based on a few spurious quotes, and disregard mountains of contemporary documentation about the Confederacy in favor of a few fabricated stories of black Rebel soldiers. It’s a distressingly cavalier approach to the business of understanding the past.
Granted, it’s a lot easier to play havoc with history in this manner than it is to try to make sense of all the evidence at hand, just as it’s easier to cut the Gordian knot of a character’s backstory with a lousy plot trick than it is to build on a mythology that’s been developed over years of storytelling. But there is such a thing as a responsibility to the truth; indeed, it’s the most basic responsibility of anyone who wants to do history. If your need for a past that validates your own inclinations overrides that sense of responsibility, don’t blame historians when they give you the cold shoulder.