Schroedinger’s canon

I’ve written before on the subject of divergences in fictional continuity and what qualifies as “canon” or not. As it turns out, the subject has come up again in relation to my two most recent posts.

I’ve already discussed my feelings about Daredevil volume 5. I enjoyed the end of volume 4 because for once, the story ended happily. But as Orson Welles pointed out, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” (A quotation I learned from White Collar, a series whose ending proved that sentiment apt… but I digress.) When Secret Wars happened, it undid the happy ending, or overwrote it, or possibly just continued past it–I don’t know, Secret Wars’ relationship with “canon” is weird. But the writers are treating it as a soft reboot, so volume 5 feels more like a reset than a sequel, and I felt a little cheated that the ending that I wanted was wiped away.

I also recently learned that the CW is working on an Archie Comics TV show called Riverdale. Overall, I’m very interested to see what they make of it, but having posted on the subject recently, my first thought was “…crap, Jughead probably won’t be asexual in this one.” (All right, my second thought, right after “Hey, Jughead is one of the twins from Suite Life of Zack and Cody.”) Maybe I should give Greg Berlanti and the CW some credit; by my count, the relatively small Arrowverse has more canonically queer characters than the entire MCU, though that’s a depressingly low bar. But while queer representation in media is improving, asexual representation remains vanishingly rare, which is why I was so excited over Jughead in the first place.

So, what’s the one true canon? Is Matt Murdock’s happy ending gone for good? If Riverdale says Jughead is straight, does that override the comics saying he’s asexual, or do the comics win by dint of coming first? And for that matter, what if there’s an earlier Archie comic where Jughead is into a girl? Does “canon” mean the original version, or the latest version, or the most popular version?

Just as Kate Griffin came to my rescue last time, by writing a rather more coherent post about the varying incarnations of characters across media, this time I’ve been given some perspective in the form of a post by Max Gladstone. You should really read the whole essay, but I’ll quote the part most relevant to my point:

The Expanded Universe doesn’t go away just because that story’s done.  The tale, well told, remains. […] Honoghr doesn’t disappear.  It’s still out there, rebuilding.

That resonated with me. The stories as I want them to be are still there. Comics-Jughead is still asexual, Daredevil at the end of Volume 4 is still living happily ever after in San Francisco. It doesn’t matter if another writer has come along and done something differently; the old stories aren’t any less valid than the new ones.

You can’t ask questions like “Is Jughead asexual?” out of context. Or, to give another cross-media example, is Clint Barton deaf? It depends on whether it’s the Clint Barton of the MCU or the comics, and possibly on which era of comics canon you’re talking about. Sometimes characters even enter a Schroedinger’s-cat-like state of being both alive and dead; Game of Thrones has pulled this more than once, as did the manga vs. anime versions of Fullmetal Alchemist. Some adaptations diverge from the “canon” portrait of a character deliberately, which is how we have a black Nick Fury in the MCU and a female Watson on Elementary. It’s perhaps instructive to pay attention to which characteristics are deemed so vital to a character that they persist across continuities. You might see a Clint Barton who isn’t deaf, but Matt Murdock is always blind–even when he isn’t Daredevil, as with Spider-Gwen‘s Murderdock. Riverdale‘s Jughead may or may not be asexual, but you can bet their Kevin Keller will be gay.

There’s a reason I keep putting “canon” in quotes here. Canon is not monolithic. In the notorious labyrinth of comics continuity, or when a work gets remade or rebooted or adapted, canon becomes able to encompass multiple, often contradictory states. Does canon contradict itself? Very well, then it contradicts itself! Canon is large and contains multitudes.

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