I have never read any of Astonishing X-Men. If I yelled that out on a busy street corner, it would remain an innocuous statement, something some weird guy said a little too loud. However, if I put that information out onto the Internet via Twitter, like I did, I would expect an irreverent retort from my social circle within seconds, much like what actually happened. While the pithy responses were predictable, they serve as an example of how interdependency and social credibility function within our sub-culture.
Geek cred is generated when ability meets knowledge, whether it results from someone sharing a funny video or memorizing the minutiae of the Marvel Universe. If I know who Squirrel Girl is, it strengthens my bond to the community and offers the possibility I might do something beneficial with that information. So, it comes as no surprise when geeks exert peer pressure to keep one another active in the consumption of the media we love. However, there’s a troubling aspect of our interactions that we often ignore – we will never be able to read everything.
As a lifelong geek, I’ve always felt that all of my free time needs to be spent either consuming or creating media. When I read a book, I know I have friends that want to discuss it with me. When I produce a podcast, there will be people asking me when the next one will be out. Even when I take a break from writing to play a videogame, I occasionally pause to take notes on a future article for this site. It can be tiring from time to time, but what keeps me going is that I always shy away from any piece of media that is mired in continuity.
In 2001, I retired from reading any comic series that required me to keep up with more than a decade of developments in order to understand the most recent issue. It has allowed me to switch to reading trades that I normally would have overlooked, which seems fair compared to the cost of losing track of some of my favorite series. So, in the interest of social science and as a contribution to the community, I decided to flip through a copy of Uncanny X-Men #535 to analyze the nature of continuity.
As you’d figure, a lot has changed in the X-Men universe in ten years. While reading the issue, I came up with a list of questions and included some of them below, in the spirit of showing as much of my work as possible. The publishable ones are as follows:
- Why is Colossus alive?
- What is Utopia?
- Where is Utopia?
- Since when does Namor show up in X-Men comics?
- Why is Kitty wearing a fishbowl on her head?
- What is S.W.O.R.D.?
- Who is Nemesis?
- Why does that guy have an arm off?
- What is going on with Magneto and Emma Frost?
- Why is the Danger Room a robot?
- Does anyone have any idea what a Breakworld is?
Obviously, the X-books are a constant source of continuity-inspired queries such as those. In order to begin to catch up on the current X-Men storyline, I would have to read Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run, House of M by Brian Michael Bendis, and the Utopia crossover from Matt Fraction. For any other answers, I could consult Wikipedia or ask some friends to fill me in on the details, but as I’ve seen already, it can take some time. All in all, my efforts would set me back a few nights and about a hundred dollars. For the same amount of effort, I could pick up a self-enclosed series like Atomic Robo and skip over any and all concerns I might have about continuity. In doing so, I would also be missing out on the important connection between continuity and geek cred. However, before I move on and allow anyone to accuse me of passing judgment on any band of merry mutants, let it be known that all of the above can be applied to any ongoing comic series, whether it’s Batman, Spider-Man, or even Spawn. The problem isn’t with books such as Uncanny X-Men, but with the construct of continuity itself.
As a culture that assigns value to information, we geeks have done an excellent job at establishing a system of social credibility. However, as books become mired in continuity, fans tend to crave more of the same, as it allows those with the right knowledge to retain their geek cred. In turn, the content builds a barrier to entry for others, due to the inherent cost involved, both in time and money. It also produces the odd side effect of devaluing books that are free of canon, as readers view them as less relevant. By assigning worth to certain books in such a way, we’re reinforcing the idea that being a part of the comics community means participating in a sort of meritocracy, which, in turn, hurts us more than it helps. While we have a reason to appreciate those with knowledge, being a geek is not about being the best — it’s about contributing to a sub-culture that accepts us for who we are.
As a weird kid that would think to yell out things on street corners, the X-Men reminded me that there would always be a place for me in the world. Years later, I’ve become some sort of mutant hybrid man-child that self-identifies as a member of the geek community. While I will never gather the geek cred associated with keeping up with all of the books from the Big Two, I’m content with the life of a comics fan that only dabbles in canon. With resources like wikis and social networks to fill in the gaps of my knowledge, approaching a book like Uncanny X-Men is as painless as it’s going to get, barring an outright reboot of the series.
My issue with continuity will always remain with our social approach to it, as I wish we geeks would welcome new fans, instead of defending a reason to keep them from reading. Anything that keeps us from connecting and growing as a community isn’t something we should be associating with Charles Xavier. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some Astonishing X-Men to read.