This blog was first published in October 2015.
Or, Talkative Necrons > Silent Necrons
Alan Moore Tells Us How It Is.
In 1986, in addition to writing the much-vaunted ‘Watchmen’, noted practising wizard Alan Moore also wrote a little Superman story. It was called ‘Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?’ and was intended as a sort of swan song for what has since been termed the ‘Silver Age’ of comics. This age was a simpler time, back when characters were allowed to be goofy as balls, because it was aimed at children, and children have the critical faculties of hanging beef. As a result, the Silver Age was filled with the most ludicrous kinds of storylines, with talking gorillas, cities in jars, and no real attempt to justify any of it. No, they were a time when billionaires could dress up as animals and work out their childhood traumas by punching impoverished drug dealers without their latent psychopathy ever being called into question, simply because the kiddies don’t want anything more.
Now, at the same time Moore was writing his Superman story, there was this whole thing happening across all of DC at the time. It was the very first big comics event they had run, and was called ‘Crisis On Infinite Earths’. It was a lot like Warhammer’s End Times only in skintight clothes and with more colours than a Pride parade.
Pictured: the closest comics have ever come to simulating an epileptic fit.
Because this madness was happening in the main continuity, Moore was forbidden to tell the story he wanted to within it, because the story he wanted to tell was basically ‘Superman’s last adventure’. So he did what any self-respecting writer with a good idea does: he ignored the multi-coloured silliness and wrote the damn thing anyway. Then, by beginning with single, well-chosen sentence, he made everything okay.
‘This is an imaginary story…” he started.
Meaning this story – now largely accepted as one of the finest Superman stories written – was not part of the canon of official stories. It was just a neat little idea Moore had had, a story he wanted to tell. It wasn’t ‘true’; it was imaginary.
‘This is an imaginary story…’ he wrote.
And then, because Alan Moore has been sent by higher dimensional powers to open the gates of imagination contained within the human race through the medium of stories about muscular men in tights, he stuck the knife in.
‘This is an imaginary story. Aren’t they all?’
Because, of course, all comic books are imaginary stories. Superman isn’t real. He’s never done any of the things we’ve read about. Neither has Batman, or the Flash, or Throne-help-me Captain-How-Is-He-Even-A-Real-Character Boomerang. Every story told about them is imaginary… And given that a great many Superman stories have been forgotten, but Moore’s little ‘imaginary’ one has not, it does raise a significant question: why is this ostensibly non-continuity story less valid than any other, just because it’s out of continuity?
This month, I’m going to be talking about canon, retcons and reboots. And I’m going to be largely positive about the concept, because that’s just how I roll. So, before we go any further, I’m giving fair warning to those people who hate even the idea of retcons, reboots and reimaginings: much like a candy store come closing time on Hallowe’en, there ain’t nothin’ sweet for you here, so you may want to stop reading now. I’ll understand.
The Best Tron
Monolith Games is the greatest game company no-one’s heard of. Their latest game, ‘Shadow of Mordor’ has had generally great reviews – as have almost all their games – but largely, they’ve gone unnoticed by most gamers. Like all the greats, they’ve got a small, deeply rabid fanbase, but the mainstream has kind of overlooked them.
I’m a proud member of that rabid fanbase, and I have been since the release of ‘Blood’ back in the late 90’s. For years, Monolith specialised in hard-edged, wonderfully designed FPSs that were never quite cutting edge, but which were always wonderful fun, not to mention high watermarks of game design.
For example, their first FPS was called ‘Blood’ and is a game where your weapons include a pitchfork, a flare pistol, a napalm launcher and a voodoo doll. I don’t care how realistically ‘Call of Duty’ can simulate the colour brown and casual racism… ‘Blood’ will always be better, because I can kill people in it with a motherfrakking voodoo doll.
And yes, it’s a shooting weapon.
However, one of their best games was Tron 2.0.
I liked the first ‘Tron’ film, mostly because the special effects were amazing; they completely convinced you Bruce Boxleitner was capable of conveying a full range of human emotions. There were some computer graphics too, I suppose.
However, truth be told, I always found the film a bit… Rubbish. There was no plot, and the MCP was just goofy and… Yeah. It’s a film I always wanted to like, instead of actually liking.
‘Tron 2.0’ on the other hand is frakking amazing.
Back on release, it was the official sequel to the ‘Tron’ film, and you can tell how seriously Monolith took this from the sheer depth of references to the film the game had. Yeah, it’s from the early 2000’s, so the graphics are super-dated, but the visuals are strong, matching the film well. The combat is crisp, the inventory system is inventive, the guns are clever and well designed… And it’s got the little details right. The main character’s name is ‘Jet’, which made me facepalm – seriously, could a character’s name be trying any harder to sound cool? – until the cutscene where you discover that his name is short for ‘Jethro’, on account of his super-nerd father is, of course, a massive fan of Jethro Tull.
I won’t lie, I nearly spat my tea out laughing the first time I heard that. It’s a clever little character touch that didn’t need to be there, neatly illustrating the attention to detail the game developers put in: even the silly generic hero names are justified through solid characterisation.
Not to mention, the story’s really clever. There’s a virus infecting people, and he wants to use the famous Tron laser-***-plot-device to enter the real world. There’s all kinds of black ops shenanigans going on with the evil company behind it all as well, and it’s actually really rather good.
I love ‘Tron 2.0’.
Then ‘Tron: Legacy’ came out and declared that 2.0 was No Longer Canon. Except it was canon! They’d already said it was!
Turned out, that was irrelevant; ‘Tron: Legacy’ had its own story to tell, its own ideas to get across, and they conflicted with the vaguely R-certificate goings on in 2.0, so that was that. A once-proud official sequel, reduced to little more than an aging curio.
There wasn’t much (if any) outcry. ‘Tron 2.0’ didn’t really have the fans for that, and whenever I bring it up, no-one’s really heard of it. Which is nice, because I get to rave and recommend, and it’s always nice to get the chance to do that. But was I gutted that ‘Tron 2.0’ was no longer the canonical storyline? Especially given that ‘Tron: Legacy’ was, all said and told, mostly dull?
There’s two reasons for that. Firstly, I was never especially invested in the ‘Tron’ universe, and didn’t really give two tugs of the proverbial for the largely flat characters of the first film.
The second reason is, however, the more important one: I can still play the game. It didn’t go anywhere; it wasn’t expunged from existence. I can still enjoy the story, still giggle at poor Jethro and his silly name, still shoot hideous neon viral enemies with a glowy sniping program, and every time I do, I can quietly nod that I’m right to thing that the game’s story would have made a far better narrative than the extended Daft Punk video of the sequel. I’ve not lost anything through the existence of ‘Tron: Legacy’. In fact, as a ‘Daft Punk’ fan, I’ve gained a whole load of really very good electronic music. Yeah, the film’s weak, but that’s okay. It’s just a dumb action film; there’ll be another along in a bit that’s better.
There are other examples of changes like this, and you all know them. ‘Star Wars’ just dumped its Expanded Universe, on account of there’s some new films due out, and they’d rather like the Muggles who didn’t read every book about Grand Admiral Thrawn to be able to enjoy them. Which, you know, is actually a fair point.
You see, the thing about continuity – about canon – is that it’s a tool. And that’s something too few people are prepared to accept. They’d rather worship it, seemingly entirely for its own sake.
Every hobby, every interest group, has Gatekeepers: those people who, through their long time and years of investment in an activity, feel that it is their job – their right – to weed out the people who are truly serious about that activity from those who are simply dilettantes, dabbling for a while before moving on. And those Gatekeepers are, to a man, scum.
I took up weightlifting a few years ago. On my arrival, doughy with weight, I saw the other guys there – massive, juiced up slabs of manflesh, prickly with tribal tattoos and ithyphallic veins across every inch of flesh – and without a word, they made it clear: this is our Sacred Male Space. And you are not welcome.
Pictured: You must be this hench to go on the rides.
Now, I did the obvious thing and ignored them, but I won’t lie: it was hard. When you’ve got 300 pounds of angry steroids and rage squeezed into a 200 pound bag, eyefrakking you as it lifts the weight of a small car while you lift barely the weight of your own arms, well. You can’t help but feel intimidated. Unwelcome. Like you should leave.
Never mind that when the Ogryn in question began, he was just as inadequate as you. No, he’s a Gatekeeper now. He’s paid his dues. He’s part of the Sacred Circle and you ain’t, and it’s his job to make sure you know that you need to go.
As I’m sure many of you know, nerd culture is thick with the same kind of people
Take the ‘Star Wars’ thing I mentioned; there will undoubtedly – undoubtedly – be ‘Star Wars’ fans who honestly believe in their heart of hearts that the new ‘Star Wars’ films should slavishly follow the established Expanded Universe canon. And these self-appointed Gatekeepers (and they’re always self-appointed) are rarely shy about letting the rest of us know how disappointing we are. These extreme fans think that normal people – people with jobs and houses and cats and microwave dinners, who just want to watch a fun little film, smile for a couple of hours, then forget about it – have two options. When they watch the new films, and are massively confused when characters start talking about Mace Windu’s secret grimoire on the use of Vaapad, Exar Kun’s relationship with Satal and just how Sev survived on Kashyyk (BECAUSE HE DID! OF COURSE HE DID! IT’S SEV! HOW COULD HE NOT?!), these ‘mundanes’ have two choices.
The first option is that they should read all the ‘Star Wars’ books, learn the canon, and enjoy the subtle in-jokes with a smug smile of satisfaction.
The second option is that they should just sit there in their confusion and shut the frak up. If they don’t want to learn about the Expanded Universe, well, sucks to be them. They don’t get to enjoy the new film.
Some people may claim I’m being a bit extreme in the way I’m presenting this hypothetical fan, and maybe I am… But I’ve been on the internet a while now, and I’ve honestly seen far more outlandish claims, so I’m not sure.
I will say that I understand the pain they feel to have lost all that lovely canon. There’s some stuff in the EU I really like.
Pictured: NO YODA, I’M NOT READY TO ABANDON THE MISSION. I DON’T CARE IF YOU ARE THE GREATEST JEDI OF THIS AGE, THAT’S SEV WE LEFT BEHIND DOWN THERE! SEV! AND DELTA SQUAD LEAVES NO MAN BEHIND YOU DISGUSTING SCROTALLY-FACED HOMONCULUS!
The problem is that Continuity Lockout kills art dead. ‘Lost’ ran for seven seasons; if you came in at season five, well, sorry son. No way are you getting into this. Way too much has happened.
Now that’s fine if the quality of the thing is good; by season five, ‘Buffy’ was so good, everyone I knew was watching it. We were so into it, we watched all the way into the deeply disappointing sixth and seventh seasons. However, if the quality is bad, you’re stuffed. Established fans drop away, and you can’t make new fans, because they see the weight of stuff they have to watch/read/take in and just go ‘No. Life’s just too short’ and that’s it.
That’s before you even get to the other problems continuity brings. The [url=http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ContinuitySnarl]Continuity Snarl[url] where the fact properties tend to have multiple writers means that one minute, all the Borg are being killed in ‘The Best of Both Worlds’, and the next, an episode of ‘Voyager’ features humans who were converted into Borg during the battle of Wolf 359… Which occurred during ‘The Best of Both Worlds’, so how can they have survived when all the Borg were killed? (Because the writers weren’t paying attention, that’s how.)
Then there’s Continuity Porn, which ends up with episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ referencing events from 1965 in episodes so obscure that only three guys in Wales remember them, and one of them’s deaf now, so he couldn’t even appreciate it.
Done well, and used with care and attention, yes: continuity can be an amazing thing. It allows truly amazing stories to be told, with characters learning, changing, and growing over years – decades, even – to tell tales that truly resonate. ‘The Wire’, one of the finest shows I’ve ever seen, simply wouldn’t work without its meticulous continuity. ‘Archer’ relies on continuity for a frankly absurd number of its jokes. The white hot nightmare of Beecher and Keller’s love/stalking story across the entirety of ‘Oz’ is one of the most horrible, intense, and disturbing narratives I’ve ever encountered. ‘Regular Show’ has a genuinely interesting emotional continuity, with its slow deconstruction of Mordecai’s ‘nice guy’ persona serving as one of the most interesting things I’ve seen on TV in a while.
Not to mention the crowning glories that are ‘Legend of Aang’ and ‘Legend of Korra’.
Done well, continuity is a powerful tool for slow-burning, deep emotions.
But this is an imaginary story, and canon is simply an option. It’s the box the magic comes in, but not the magic itself. So there is space for alternatives. There is space for alternatives, retcons, reboots and reimaginings. Because it is a truth seldom acknowledged that such changes can, in fact, be for the better.
A Giant Space Squid? Really?
I mentioned Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ at the start of this piece. For those of you who don’t know, it’s one of the most vaunted comics ever written, largely because it was one of the very first to attempt psychological realism in comics – looking at what kind of people would actually decide to be superheroes, and their varying levels of insanity. It’s a great read, and massively influential for a reason.
This next paragraph will have spoilers for it, so don’t read on if you haven’t read it.
So, in the comic, the main ‘villain’ has a plan to save the world from nuclear annihilation by scaring humanity into co-operating with each other. Working on the theory that humans only co-operate when faced with a shared enemy, he invents one – and it’s a genetically modified, massive squid, which he teleports into the middle of New York, killing thousands.
At the time I first read the book, I had been really enjoying it up until then, but my first reaction to the sight of a holocaust generated by a genetically altered faux-alien space squid was not shock and horror.
It was more…
I mean come on. A giant teleporting space squid? I’m supposed to take this nonsense seriously? Especially given how (generally) grounded everything else has been?
So when the film came along, directed by notable idiot Zack Snyder (a man whom I assume was the prides of his mother’s litter because he was the first of them to have thumbs), my hopes were not especially high.
Pictured: HEY THERE GUY HOW’S IT GOING YEAH, SO I LIKE SUGAR AND BOOBIES AND NOT TAKING MY RITALIN THOUGH NOT IN THAT ORDER HEY CAN WE GET SOME BOOBIES OVER HERE WOW IS ANYONE ELSE HOT I FEEL HOT HEY PASS ME THAT DUDE NO SERIOUSLY PASS ME THAT HEY YOU KNOW WHAT WOULD BE REALLY COOL ROBOT SAMURAI WITH MINIGUNS I SHOULD TOTALLY DO THAT DOES ANYONE ELSE FEEL SLEEPY SO WHAT’S OUR STATUS REGARDING BOOBIES ARE WE GOING TO BE GETTING ANY OVER HERE OR DO I NEED TO SEND OUT TO STARBUCKS FOR SOME MAN I NEED SOME CAFFEINE
I just kept wondering how the hell they were going to do the space squid and retain any semblance of credibility. Imagine my surprise, then, when the film’s resolution turned out to not just be good, but great. Not only was it powerful, it was actually significantly better than the comic’s, and not just because they ditched the stupid alien kraken idea. No, in the film, it’s one of the titular Watchmen who becomes the alien threat.
Doctor Manhattan is the story’s only genuinely superpowered hero. His power set includes complete control of all creation at the molecular level, and his character arc is all about how he’s slowly been drifting away from his humanity into something altogether more and less. With phenomenal, near godlike powers, while he remains affable enough, he’s no longer really able to care about individual – or collective – humans in any meaningful way.
And at various points in the comic, we see how detatched from everything he is: ‘the morality of my actions is lost on me’ he thinks at one point… That point being where he wins the Vietnam war single-handed by vaporising enemy combatants left, right and centre.
The film takes this idea and runs with it. The villain creates a machine which simulates Manhattan’s power to obliterate things, and aims it at various cities, nuking them and by so doing, convincing the various nations that they have to unite in terror of an angry god.
This ending just works so much better than the comic for so many reasons. It takes the novels’ overarching plot and brings the focus back on the characters. It makes Doctor Manhattan’s eventual stance (that the villain has done the right thing to preserve life) that much more personal. It even makes the very first scene where we meet Manhattan more relevant: in the comic, he’s just building some machine we never see or hear of again; in the film, the device turns out to be the villain’s doomsday weapon.
On every conceivable narrative level, in my opinion, the change to the end of the film – a retcon – is A Good Idea. Yeah, people may disagree (and I’m sure they will), but I contend that while the film remains only average, its ending is superior to the source material in every way.
There’s plenty of people out there who’ll tell you that you should never change a story once its been established; that retcons, reboots, reimaginings and the rest… They’re ‘always bad’. But ‘Watchmen’ proves this isn’t so, and it’s not alone. There are many other examples, but the people who instinctively, reactively, unthinkingly hate these changes will always ignore them.
And I think that’s a mistake.
Creators, Not Creations
When the Robert Downey Jr. ‘Sherlock Holmes’ film came out, some of my friends turned to me expecting to hear me rant about how awful it would be. After all, an American! Of all things, an American playing Holmes! Surely I, as a fan of the Great Detective since I was a boy, would be incensed by this beyond all reason?
Because I have Jeremy Brett.
Jeremy Brett filmed faithful adaptions of almost every Holmes story for ITV in the 80’s, and he’s amazing in the role. Not just good: amazing. Oh, I like Cumberbatch just fine, but on the best day he ever had, his Sherlock still wouldn’t be a patch on Brett’s. Which is great for him, because it means I don’t have to worry about him screwing up. I’ve got my perfect Holmes, so I can sit back and enjoy his interpretation of the character without worrying he’s going to get it wrong.
And I don’t just get to enjoy Cumberbatch. I get to enjoy everyone else’s attempts at the role – even an American’s. Jeremy Brett’s Holmes is the Platonic ideal of Holmes, so everyone else’s can be enjoyed by comparison.
What aspect of the character will they play up? His mania (Cumberbatch’s preference)? His Bohemian outlook (Downey’s choice)? His misanthropy and fundamental exclusion from the common ruck of humanity (the take favoured by Johnny Lee Miller – my current favourite modern Holmes)?
And this illustrates what I think is the best way to approach critical thinking about retcons, reboots and their ilk. Rather than seeing original works as sacrosanct, borderline holy works to be left alone, we could instead choose to see the originals as a ‘baseline’ for what comes next. Because something always comes next; it’s how we know time is happening.
What matters isn’t the characters, or the creation – it’s the creator. The artist responsible for the art is what matters. The artist and the artist’s design. And that’s as true for wargaming as it is for anything else.
The Once-Silent Kings
The original Necrons were clearly indebted to H.P. Lovecraft more than anything else. An unknowable army of space-undead, enslaved to Elder Gods from the depths of space? Brilliant idea.
And so creepy. They didn’t say anything; they just killed you and you had no idea why. Never running, never attacking with speed, simply walking and scouring, until all life on a planet had been scoured, right down to the bacterial level… Terrifying.
But, from a creative point of view, limited.
Because how much player freedom is there? As they were originally written, the Necrons were definitely scary, but hugely constrained. You could have a self-designed C’tan, but otherwise, that was it. Your army was going to be silver, they were going to have green Gauss blasters, and that was your lot.
And that’s before we even acknowledge that ‘anonymous threat planning to consume all life’ is already the Tyranids’ hat.
But then the revised codex dropped and it was a revelation. With the C’tan revised and now the Necrons’ slaves, the Necron leadership itself was pushed to the front. In doing so, the army suddenly became incredibly characterful. Trazyn and his desperate space kleptomania (and friends in the Inquisition); Imotekh and his storm rules that make him the equivalent of a wrestler, walking to the ring as his theme song plays; crazy Nemesor Zahndrekh, who treats his every enemy fairly because he’s bonkers and thinks they’re all Necrontyr like him… There are some great characters in that codex.
And you know what? If you like those creepy old Necrons, the life-scouring ones, you can still have them. Because the C’tan didn’t change. They’re still there, only now, they’re far more powerful. It’s entirely possible to have a Necron army that represents the old style, with row after row of enslaved Necrontyr pushed ahead of a laughing star-god.
The ‘new’ (well, more recent) Necron fluff is accommodating to that style. It provides more options, and in wargaming, it’s generally the case that more options is always better than less. Where the original codex was available in any colour, so long as it was black, the new codex lets you play in every colour – black included.
That’s me using a metaphor as well as stating a literal truth, by the way.
A Matter Of Religion
The word ‘canon’ is a religious one. It refers to those volumes of a holy text that are ‘official’, and therefore ‘true’, and those that are merely ‘apocryphal’, and thus not.
It’s always unbearably sad to me, that geek culture – one that should be built upon a bedrock of imagination, one that embraces all the freedoms of fantasy – should so often find itself policed by people possessed of the same kind of orthodoxical obsession and holy fervour that ends with books on a bonfire.
The act of retcon is not inherently wrong, in and of itself. The reimagining is not wrong, in and of itself. The reboot is not wrong, in and of itself. All that matters is the work of art itself. Yes, there are more bad reboots than can be counted, more terrible reimaginings and more awful retcons. We all know them, we all see them and we all despair of them.
But the idea of canon is as much of a trap as it is boon. It’s a fundamentally limiting concept, and when it ties the hands of those creators who come next, instead of allowing them to do exciting new things with what has already been established, well: of what use is it? The idea that art, once made, is sacrosanct, is inherently ridiculous.
These are imaginary stories.
For those of you who still remain unconvinced, I’d like to leave you with one final example of a reboot that was utterly successful. One final example of a reimagining that should hopefully sway you into treating every piece of art on its own individual merits, not despising it simply because it’s ‘unoriginal’.
This final example’s called ‘Watchmen’.
Charlton Comics was an American comic book publishing company that existed between 1946 and 1986, although it began under a different name in 1944.
In 1983, Charlton Comics’ superhero characters were bought by DC Comics. Alan Moore intended to use these characters as his protagonists when writing Watchmen as a limited series in 1985, although DC executives realised that allowing Moore to use them would make them unusable in the future. Instead, Moore created original characters that were based (sometimes quite loosely) on the Charlton Comics superheroes, and several of the Charlton superheroes (including Captain Atom, the Question and the Blue Beetle) were introduced into the mainstream DC Universe during that company’s Crisis on Infinite Earths cross-over.
Yup. ‘Watchmen’, probably one of the most important comics ever written, a piece of art so definitive that it became the template for almost everything that followed in the medium from then on?
It was a reimagining.
Art should be judged on its own merits, no matter its origins, because if you choose to close your mind to non-canonical stories, to reimagings and revisions, you’re going to miss out on some great stuff without ever realising.