16 Types of Retcons
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Wikipedia has a good discussion of the basic meaning of a "Retcon" at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retcon
For my purposes I am lumping together the classic retcons that basically say "that story didn't happen the way you readers all thought it did - or it may not have happened at all, period!" with different approaches that are meant to achieve much the same goal, such as "It happened, but we're going to fix things so that it doesn't matter if it happened or not!"
With that in mind, here's my current list of different Types of Retcons, various excuses and approaches to the problem of changing the details and consequences of material that was previously thought to be "in continuity."
16 Types of Retcons
01. The Reverse-Change
02. Time Travel Undid It.
03. Built-In Retcon
04. Accidental Retcon
05. Genealogical Retcon
06. Retcon Erasure
07. Total Amnesia
08. Dream Sequence Retcon
10. Parallel World Retcon
11. Memory Implant Retcon
12. The Impostor Retcon
13. Mind Control Retcon
14. Ongoing Sliding Timescale Retcon
15. Practical Joke Retcon
16. Sweeping Retcon
01. The Reverse-Change
"It happened. But now we're going to do damage control and put everything back the way it was before that story happened, as much as possible without a blatant retcon."
Strictly speaking, this one is not really a Retcon in the sense of blatantly "rewriting" a previous story. But you know what they say: "If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it's probably a duck." By that standard, a Reverse-Change, or particularly several separate Reverse-Changes all happening back-to-back as a new writer arrives, can end up looking and sounding an awful lot like a Retcon where one writer is trying to hastily reshape characters and their continuity, stuffing everything back the way it used to be without rhyme or reason, to suit his nostalgic agenda.
"Reverse-Change" is the name I use for what happens when a writer says, "Gee, I don't like the changes in the superhero's lifestyle that a previous story arc made. So I'll put everything back the way it's supposed to be, in my opinion! If the changes that were previously made looked like they were supposed to be really Significant and Permanent, virtually impossible to 'realistically' undo, then that's just tough - I'm going to undo them anyway!"
In other words, if you interrogate this writer he will admit that the previous story still "really happened", it's just that he is firmly undoing the consequences of whatever happened in it. This means that in the long run, from now on, it won't really matter if it happened or not because after the key result of it has been Reverse-Changed, there will be no clear sign that the old story ever happened from the viewpoint of any reader who only starts buying the monthly title tomorrow morning.
Example: Any time someone dies a dramatic death at the climax of a story, and is subsequently brought back years later, this is a blatant Reverse-Change of the main consequence of the story that killed him, unless some other type of Retcon is invoked to tell us the guy didn't really die at all. For instance, when Kevin Smith brought back Oliver Queen, the original Green Arrow, it was freely admitted that Ollie Queen had still been blown to smithereens back in Green Arrow (first series) #100 just as we thought at the time. It hadn't been a dream sequence, it hadn't been a clone or robot double who got blown up, and Ollie hadn't been teleported away to safety .00001 seconds before the bomb went off. He really and truly died! But this had been magically Reverse-Changed by Parallax/Hal Jordan.
On the other hand, sometimes a character is killed for the sake of performing a Reverse-Change in someone else's life. For instance, it's said that in the late 90s, some editors at Marvel had decided that the decision in the 80s to let Peter Parker marry Mary Jane Watson had been a hideous mistake. It was time to perform a Reverse-Change to make him a lonely bachelor again, just as he had been in the old days when Stan Lee was writing him. So they put MJ on a plane and blew it up. This was a Change in her life, but the key point from Marvel's perspective was to set up a Reverse-Change in Peter's life by removing his wife from the picture so that in due time he could start flirting with other girls again, or trying to. It didn't work out well, and they had to reverse themselves again by bringing Mary Jane back, but the original motive had simply been to kinda-sorta "turn back the clock" in Peter's personal life without explicitly saying, "Yo, fanboys! We just turned back the clock several years on Peter's life!"
Other examples of blatant Reverse-Change: Kyle Rayner became Earth's Green Lantern in 1993 to replace Hal Jordan; now it appears that Hal Jordan is getting the job back. The long years of Kyle's tenure as the star of a Green Lantern monthly title have not been erased from continuity; but I suspect that after a transition period, we'll pretty quickly arrive at a point where anyone picking up a brand new Green Lantern comic book for the first time in 20 years would be able to say, "Yep, Hal Jordan is still the main Green Lantern in our neck of the woods; same as ever! I guess nothing has really changed in his life since the last time I was buying his comics regularly in the 1980s!"
And in a more extreme example: John Stewart, the African-American Green Lantern, used to be an able-bodied man whenever he popped up in the Green Lantern titles or other DC books in the 70s, 80s, and well into the 90s. Then he received crippling injuries and ended up in a wheelchair. This seemed, at the time, to be a Permanent and Significant Change in his life. Then this Change was Reverse-Changed when he got a miracle cure. Then this Reverse-Change was Reverse-Reverse-Changed when he lost the use of his legs again. Then he regained the ability to walk in a Reverse-Reverse-Reverse-Change! (And if he subsequently gets crippled again, that will be a Reverse-Reverse-Reverse-Reverse-Change! And so forth! This could go on forever!)
02. Time Travel Undid It
"Yes, it 'really happened.' Temporarily. But then we went back in time and made it un-happen! Now nobody (or almost nobody) can remember any trace of it!"
In 1982 Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas were the writers collaborating on a five-part JSA/JLA/All-Star Squadron teamup, and at the end of it, the entire thing had been erased through time travel to prevent two catastrophes established in the first issue of the storyline from ever occurring.
That constituted a Built-In Retcon as well, since the entire five-issue plot presumably was worked out in advance so that the two writers could coordinate everything.
A Time Travel retcon was also used at one point in an effort to hint, and later "establish", that the fairly nice and sincere Terra of the early-90s "Team Titans" was actually a rehabilitated and amnesiac version of the evil Terra of the early 1980s who had clearly died years earlier in the Judas Contract storyline. Marv Wolfman, writer of the Judas Contract, also the writer of the earliest appearances of the Team Titans Terra many years later, has gone on record as saying that he never intended those two girls named Terra to ever turn out to be the exact same person. (Although I gather he didn't mind letting fans bite their nails trying to figure out if they could be! They had identical faces and powers and so forth . . . I think it was all a mind game; he was hoping to stir up interest by keeping longtime fans guessing and frantically searching for possible clues!)
(Actually, I think the main evidence "in continuity" at the moment is that a DNA test supposedly proved that the "nice" Terra of the old Team Titans group (most of which has since evaporated out of existence) actually has the same genes as the "evil and crazy" Terra of the early 1980s. However, in the DCU that doesn't prove a heck of a lot. One of the phony Supermen in the "Reign of the Superman" storyline in 1993 also submitted to DNA testing and passed with flying colors, even persuading President Bill Clinton to officially endorse him as the real Superman making a triumphant comeback!)
03. Built-In Retcon (Or Built-In Reverse-Change, I suppose.)
"Ha! Fooled you that time! When you looked at the cover, you really thought this story was going to Change something important in the hero's life, didn't you? But we wiggled out of it at the last moment!"
This is when the story seems to tell us that something Significant and Permanent has just Changed in a character's life . . . then, by the end of that same issue or story arc or whatever, it's all been put back the way it was before, even if that "seemed" impossible for much of the story. In other words, the writer (or writers) intended all along to Undo Their Own Plot Twist after they had played a few mind games with us for the sake of suspense. It's not a case of one writer trying to change something, and then a different writer coming along years later and retconning it in cold blood. I believe many Silver Age comics from DC were notorious for this sort of thing. The cover and.or splash page would show something outrageous happening, and then it was all some sort of hoax, gag, practical joke, dream sequence, or whatever, by the time we reached the final page of the story.
"The Death of Superman" and the breaking of Batman's back in "Knightfall" both fall into this category on a larger scale. They were not done and then undone within a single comic book, or even within a six-issue story arc that could be conveniently collected in a single TPB, but I never seriously considered the possibility that Superman would stay dead, nor that Bruce Wayne would stay in a wheelchair. In fact, Bruce's being in that wheelchair for roughly one year (realtime) prior to his finally getting a psychic miracle cure was a significantly longer wait than I anticipated when it all began - but it still ended, and I'm sure it waas planned that way all along, so I consider it a case of a Built-In Retcon. As opposed to deaths of other characters that were allegedly intended to be "permanent" and were left that way for many years.
Alan Grant said in an interview that he only got permission to write a story "revealing" that Anarky was the long-lost son of the Joker by promising an editor that he would later write a follow-up story "revealing" that Anarky really wasn't the Joker's son! But the Anarky series got cancelled just then, so Grant never did get around to implementing the theoretically "Built-In Retcon" that would "undo" his story . . . so as far he knows, Anarky still is the Joker's long-lost son "in continuity" until further notice.
04. Accidental Retcon
"Oops. I accidentally contradicted the previous doctrine on this point. Easy come, easy go!"
This is when the writer who contradicts a previous writer's work is not deliberately trying to clear up a mess, nor fill a logical gap in the old version, nor make an excuse for the introduction of a new character who is somehow closely connected to an old character, nor reconcile the previous efforts of two other writers who had already contradicted one another in published stories. . . no, the writer doing the Accidental Retcon simply doesn't know (or fails to remember) everything there is to know about a certain nitpicking point of past continuity and apparently his editor doesn't know either! (Or the editor knows perfectly well, but just plain doesn't care enough to lift a finger to stop him?)
The earliest appearances of the first Wonder Girl in the Silver Age "Wonder Woman" comics presented her as simply being Wonder Woman at a younger age, who sometimes teamed up with herself through time travel. But that wasn't always made clear in the scripts after her first few appearances, and Bob Haney may have gotten the wrong idea and assumed the two of them lived on Amazon Island as contemporaries, with Wonder Girl just happening to also have jet-black hair and wearing a similar costume because Diana was her role model. So he created the Teen Titans with Wonder Girl as a juvenile superhero living "here and now" in the modern world as she rubbed shoulders with Robin, Kid Flash, Speedy, and Aqualad. The popular theory goes that by the time anyone who knew better realized what was happening, it was too late.
Around that same time, Stan Lee wrote scripts that sometimes referred to the Hulk's secret identity as "Bruce Banner" and sometimes as "Bob Banner." This was a problem that began as an Accident, but was ultimately "resolved" by a deliberate retcon revealing that actually, his full name was "Robert Bruce Banner."
05. Genealogical Retcon
This is a Retconned modification of a character's family tree. They come in various shapes and sizes, some of which I've already been researching recently in connection with my "Superhero Reproduction" series. Here are a few variations that writers have used over the years when they suddenly want to set things up for a particular story where the emotion of "family ties" could be at the center of the plot.
A. Creation of a relative that Character X allegedly knew about all along, but never bothered to mention to his friends before. So the reader didn't know either. (Or possibly he had mentioned it to his closest friends offstage, as we retroactively learned, but never in front of the readers.)
B. Creation of a relative that Character X hadn't seen in years or decades, and may have thought was dead - so he never mentioned it to his friends before (or to them, perhaps, but not to the readers, as above).
C. Creation of a relative that Character X didn't know existed, so he never mentioned it to his friends before.
D. Sudden, drastic changes in what we thought we previously knew from other stories about a preexisting relative of Character X.
E. Creation of a newly discovered relationship between Character X and Character Y, two well-established character "in continuity" who have known each other for years without anybody realizing there was a blood tie!
I could provide examples of each of the above, but I've already been discussing such matters in detail in my "Superhero Reproduction" series, so I'll spare you - except to mention one particularly hard-to-swallow case I've never talked about before in any previous post, a Genealogical Retcon three decades old which has long since faded into obscurity, presumably because it was a terrible embarrassment.
Until just a few months ago, I had never even heard of Thomas Wayne, Jr., the long-lost brother of Bruce Wayne (apparently the Bruce Wayne who was the Earth-1 version of Batman in the pre-Crisis days). It appears that Thomas Jr. was only mentioned in two stories, in World's Finest Comics #223 (1974) and #227 (1975). The general idea was that as a little boy, well before the parents died, Thomas Jr. had suffered nasty brain damage in a car accident and was placed in a sanitarium for the rest of his life . . . except that eventually, as a grown man, he broke loose and became (briefly) a villain called the Boomerang Killer, although it seems this only happened because the poor brain-damaged fellow was tricked into it by someone else entirely whom Batman eventually apprehended. He then served as a host body for Deadman for awhile, but at one point (when Deadman had vacated his body) died heroically, throwing himself into the line of fire to take a bullet that otherwise might have nailed his brother Bruce.
Yes, you can stop groaning now. I know that's awful! I can certainly see why I never heard about it before! Some online references claim that it has since been retconned away, but it's not clear to me if DC explicitly announced in a letter column that the whole thing had never happened (or at least not on Earth-1, even if it had "really happened" somewhere else in the multiverse?), or if they just quietly let the entire thing fade away into limbo by never mentioning it again in any context at all, and by continuing to do occasional flashback scenes which consistently stated (or heavily implied) that Bruce was the first and only child Thomas and Martha Wayne ever had before they died. (As had been presumed to be the case in every other relevant story published prior to those two appearances of Thomas Jr., as well.)
06. Retcon Erasure
"Nonsense! That story never happened! Live with it!"
I first used this in connection with my Superhero Reproduction series, but it can apply to other situations as well. This is when an entire sequence of events (such as one or more linked story arcs, graphic novels, etc., about a particular character or team) is totally wiped away. It never happened. Nothing remotely resembling it ever happened. No character in modern continuity has the faintest recollection of it. All good fans will now please scrub their memories and stop arguing about the pros and cons of that old story arc and the long-lasting consequences it should have had on a hero's life, because It Didn't Happen!
One example I used in my Superhero Reproduction series was the way Denny O'Neil, during his time as the main Batman editor, decreed that Mike Barr's graphic novels of the late 80s, "Batman: Son of the Demon" and "Batman: Bride of the Demon", had never happened, that Batman and Talia had never had sex (in or out of wedlock), and thus Talia had never borne Batman's baby son, nor put the little nipper up for adoption after telling Batman she had miscarried.
The biggest example of the Retcon Erasure is probably the fallout from the Crisis on Infinite Earths. All previous stories about Superman and Wonder Woman, any versions of those characters, were now wiped out. Period. Earth-1, Earth-2, quirky little stories set in other parallel worlds entirely, didn't make any difference where they had happened, they were all gone. That's hundreds and hundreds of issues of continuity that was thrown out the window. Stories that were not just "all about Superman" or "all about Wonder Woman" (such as zillions of old JSA and JLA stories in which versions of one or both of those characters had been part of a group effort) were now presumed to not have really featured either of those characters, although the rest of the events of those stories might still have happened to the other heroes involved pretty much as shown in the old comics.
This was stretched to include the obliteration of the original Supergirl, by the way, but oddly enough, not the obliteration of the original Wonder Girl (Donna Troy). Rewritings and further rewritings of her origin, but not her obliteration from continuity!
(I am told that since then, it's been further retconned that somewhere along the line, perhaps during the Satellite Era when the JLA set up a geosynchronous satellite headquarters that served them well for a long time before Crisis, Superman had in fact belatedly joined them although he is no longer supposed to be a founding member or anywhere near a founding member of the old Silver Age JLA. But all that was far in the future at the time of Crisis and the first wave of post-Crisis stories.)
Similar things have happened to previous runs of the Legion of Superheroes, and possibly to the Doom Patrol. (There is a rumor afoot, however, that DC is already looking for ways to retcon John Byrne's retcon out of existence in order to retcon back into continuity the previous tales of various incarnations of the Doom Patrol. I don't know how much truth is in that, because after all, if DC doesn't like what he did, why did they let him do it so recently?)
Stan Lee did something in the 60s that appeared, at first glance, to also be a massive Retcon Erasure, and was probably intended to be, to the extent that he worried about it at all. He had the Avengers find and defrost a frozen-in-ice Captain America who claimed the last thing he remembered was in mid-1945 when he and Bucky were tangling with Baron Zemo. Now, a whole bunch of Captain America comics had been published post-World War II in the late 40s and early 50s, but Stan apparently had no use for them and decided it would be more compelling to grab a WWII veteran and suddenly bring him forward two decades into the 60s, where he'd feel like a fish out of water.
(Many years later, stories by other writers - mainly Steve Englehart and Roy Thomas, I think? - modified this retcon by explaining those other stories away with comments after Cap's disappearance in mid-1945, three different guys had subsequently worn the flagsuit, and the last of those successors had gone violently insane and finally had to be dealt with by Cap himself in the present.)
07. Total Amnesia Retcon
"It may have still really happened, but from now on Our Hero will consistently act as if he can't remember a thing about it, and neither can anyone else in the regular cast!"
This is generally implict Total Amnesia, nobody actually saying that amnesia has occurred, as opposed to the more explicit Mindwipe Retcon I will mention below. This type of "retcon" is what you might call understated. Nobody explicitly says that certain old stories have been Retconned to be Drastically Different, nor are we explicitly told by a reliable source that they have been Retcon Erased to completely remove them from continuity. It's just that all the surviving characters who logically ought to vividly remember certain events seem to have quietly developed Total Amnesia regarding those old stories, even in cases where it would be very logical for any realistic human being to say, "Man, this really reminds me of that time when we did such-and-such." Since all this is rather fuzzy, if writers and editors don't spell it all out for us in a letter column or something, or if we might have missed a single issue in which an excuse was provided and then never mentioned again, it can be very hard to judge where the boundaries lie between the Total Amnesia Retcon, the Retcon Erasure, the It-Was-All-A-Dream Retcon, the Accidental Retcon (what if the current writer never read a certain controversial old storyline, and so honestly doesn't realize that his "clever new storyline" actually ought to Strongly Remind Character X of those previous events that were remarkably similar), and other variations.
Historically, I feel Marvel has greatly favored this very quiet, "Let's sweep it under the rug and never mention it again one way or the other!" approach over such heavy-handed, "in your face" methods as the explicit use of the Retcon Erasure ("We hereby declare it didn't happen at all!") or the Parallel World Retcon ("Okay, maybe it happened somewhere in time and space, but not on our current 'mainstream' Earth"). DC has been more willing to use both of those excuses to get rid of something embarrassing. Although DC has also had its fair share of lame stories that quickly sink without a trace and are seldom (or never) heard from again in future storytelling, whether or not any editor ever gets around to announcing an explicit Retcon.
To give an example: In the first story arc he did about Spider-Man, J. Michael Straczynski introduced the spider-powered character Ezekiel and had Spidey think at one point something to the effect that it's a weird new feeling to fight alongside someone with identical powers. To anyone who remembers the "Ben Reilly" character from the infamous, long-winded Clone Saga of the Spider-titles of the mid-90s, that is a bizarre statement. Unless we are to assume that those events were so traumatic that Peter Parker has now managed to completely blot them out of his memory? (Frankly, I couldn't blame him if that's exactly what happened!)
08. Dream Sequence Retcon
"Man, what a crazy dream I had, that one time! So vivid, so colorful, at the time I honestly thought it was really happening to me!"
I once read a book about creative writing that assured us that if you want to be absolutely certain your novel is rejected by any self-respecting editor even if 99% of it is great stuff, then you should ensure that your final paragraph contains a horribly cliched and disappointing "surprise twist" that basically invalidates nearly everything that has gone before, such as:
And then she woke up and it had all been a bad dream! THE END.
That may be true in the field of mass-market paperback novels. It's not true in the field of superhero comic books.
Variations on this one can include: It was all a drug-induced hallucination, it was all a computer simulation of what "might happen" in certain circumstances, it was all one character's attempt at fanciful creative writing about himself and his friends, it was all a TV show or other dramatic production loosely based on the supercharacters in question . . . you get the idea. I could name examples where one variation or another has been used as a sudden revelation at the end of a story, making it a Built-In Retcon that was now being spelled out for us just in case we hadn't smelled a rat earlier from the clues (such as the strange, apparently Significant and Permanent, Changes that the story seemed to be making in the regular cast). But in other cases it's only years after it all started that we are retroactively told to disregard the entire thing as someone's flight of fancy rather than an accurate report of what the characters "really" said and did.
"Yes, it really happened. But Character X can't remember it anymore, so it will never have any influence on his future actions, so that's as good as if it never happened at all! Right?"
This may technically be a variety of Reverse-Change, but I think it deserves its own category. The Mindwipe Retcon can also overlap with the Built-In Retcon if the necessary Mindwipe occurs at the end of the same story as the events that are being erased from the character's memory. For example, early in John Byrne's work on Superman, he and Marv Wolfman collaborated on a three-part tie-in with the "Legends" event, in which they had Supes get stuck on Apokolips with amnesia and be brainwashed by Darkseid to a) become the inspiring leader of the Hunger Dogs in their revolution against Darkseid's tyranny, b) lure these angry rebels into an ambush where a whole bunch of them got slaughtered just as they thought they had almost won their war, and c) believe himself to be Darkseid's own biological son. Finally, Orion came to the rescue and used a Mother Box from New Genesis to restore Superman's proper memory and enough of what had happened lately to let him realize he was very mad at Darkseid, but the Mother Box carefully edited out the bloody parts about his having lured many Hunger Dogs to their deaths as a false messiah in the service of Darkseid.
In other words, we readers still knew it had happened - but Superman didn't. Neither did any of his friends back on Earth. Therefore, as far as he was concerned it hadn't happened, and might never be referred to again in any subsequent story, even if he came face to face with Darkseid again (as he presumably would at various times).
Other examples: Professor X used to do this frequently to tidy up loose ends at the end of a story, as did Doctor Strange. A couple of years ago, Wally West, showing a fine contempt for other people's freedom of thought and mental privacy and other weird concepts that some superheroes might actually be idealistic enough to take seriously (the poor deluded idealists!), shamelessly arranged a global mindwipe to miraculously recover his previously-revealed-to-the-public secret identity by making billions of people forget all about it. I hear that Iron Man has done the exact same thing!
10. Parallel World Retcon
"Sure, it happened. Yes, it really, really happened. Just not on the exact same world/timeline/whatever as most of the comic books published in this series. But somewhere in the depths of interdimensional time and space, it 'really happened' and you can take comfort in that if you liked the story!"
The countless parallel worlds of the old DC Multiverse made this excuse easy to apply.
Several years ago, Mark Waid introduced us to "Hypertime" in his "The Kingdom" limited series. When I first read about it, I got the strong feeling that he was basically saying, "Let's restore the flexible options that the old Multiverse gave us; only to be polite, we'll call it something else!" I admit that the Hypertime concept is more complicated, because particular timelines are supposed to be able to break off from the "main timeline" of a particular character's experience . . . and then merge right back into the "main timeline" later on . . . fluctuating back and forth. "No, that story from way back when about Batman's childhood isn't 'in continuity' right this minute, if you want to be fussy - but it was 'in continuity' when it was published, and it may again be in continuity later on, as the timelines shift and rearrange themselves and so forth! Isn't that a cheery thought?"
Of course, some stories, such as DC's Elseworlds, Marvel's "What If?" issues, and much of what happens in Marvel's ongoing "Exiles" series, have this "Parallel World" loophole as a Built-In excuse from day one. (Sadly, Marvel has never yet gotten a clue about how incredibly useful it would be for them to really duplicate DC's Elseworlds approach on a large scale, but I continue to dream of the day when that will change!)
11. Memory Implant Retcon
"Er, you know that story you so vividly remembered in flashback once upon a time? Well, you can forget it. Didn't happen after all!"
In other words, certain things which Character X distinctly remembers with vivid detail, in flashback scenes in a previous story where he was recounting his own origin story to a close friend, for instance, were totally false - not because he'd been hallucinating or lying or drifting in and out of different timelines (the Hypertime problem), but because some pesky troublemaker had deliberately inserted Memory Implants into his head; possibly so Character X wouldn't notice he actually suffered from a tad of amnesia regarding the Actual Events occurring at that time in his life or previously. This sort of thing has allegedly been done to Wolverine in particular, and I think the Post-Crisis Superman upon occasion. (I have heard that the modern version of Superman once said that he has heard about or "remembered" so many different versions of pre-explosion Krypton that he'll probably never know for sure what the place was "really" like!)
12. The Impostor Retcon
"It didn't happen in a dream sequence. It didn't happen in a parallel world. It didn't get Erased so that it never happened at all. Yes, I admit it! It all happened, right here in the 'real world', just as you remember - except I wasn't the Guilty Party! Someeone stole my face and none of my friends noticed the difference!"
Probably the most notorious example of this is the way the Dark Phoenix Saga was retconned in 1985 so that Jean Grey, one of the founding X-Men, could be brought back to join her fellow founders as the starting line-up of the new team book X-Factor. Every word of dialogue and every action, including the destruction of billions of people when their star blew up, had still happened as portrayed in that legendary Claremont/Byrne collaboration. It was just that the central character, the beautiful redhead variously calling herself "Jean Grey", "Phoenix", "the Black Queen", and "Dark Phoenix", the lady who went murderously insane and finally let herself die on the moon in order to stop herself from causing further genocide and devastation, hadn't really been the original Jean Grey who had appeared regularly in the first hundred issues or so of the Uncanny X-Men title before being replaced by a phony, as we now learned.
Other excuses include robot doubles, identical twins, people who have had plastic surgery to duplicate someone's features, parallel-world analogs, second-rate imitators dressed up just like a classic character, clones, masters of disguise, natural shapeshifters such as the Skrulls (remember how Johnny Storm's marriage to Alicia Masters was retconned away by Tom DeFalco?), and probably other dirty tricks that I am forgetting at the moment.
13. The Mind-Control Retcon
"Yes, it all happened! Yes, that was really me you saw doing those things! But you shouldn't hold it against me because I wasn't myself at the time! Someone was pulling my strings!"
I think it was when I first saw the cover of Green Lantern (second series) #49, the middle installment of the three-part "Emerald Twilight," with Hal Jordan leering at his hands with lots and lots of power rings on his fingers, obviously drunk with power, that I said something like, "Oh no, it's the Dark Green Lantern Saga!" (Or I may have originally called it the Dark Hal Saga, I'm not sure which.) I could see the parallels a mile away with the Dark Phoenix Saga a mile away!
Of course, that was in 1993 and I already knew that what had happened to retcon the Dark Phoenix Saga several years earlier. So from Day One, I took it for granted that sooner or later Emerald Twilight would get retconned similarly, to one degree or another. Not necessarily erased from continuity (though that would be nice) but stuffed full of "excuses," "revelations," "reinterpretations," or whatever it took to give Hal's fans a feeling that the real Hal hadn't turned into such a bad fellow as that storyline made him look like. And I was right, although it was definitely "later" rather than "sooner", and they're using the Mind Control Retcon instead of the old reliable Impostor Retcon that was used on the Dark Phoenix Saga.
If you had told me in 1993 that it would take over a decade before Emerald Twilight was retconned or "excused" at all, I would have laughed at your wild suggestion that DC would be able to withstand the heat from the angry fans for more than, say, two or three years, max, even if they weren't planning all along to retcon this story pretty soon after they had done their best to boost sales by "pretending" to have Hal go bonkers. I very badly wanted to believe that this story was merely intended to be the beginning of Hal's equivalent of Superman's recent death and "replacement" by a bunch of pretenders to the name, or of Batman's time in a wheelchair after "Knightfall," things that looked like Significant and Permanent Changes in those two heroes' circumstances at first glance, but were intended all along to eventually be Reverse-Changed or Retconned to somehow get everything important back to the Sacred Status Quo. I read the first few issues about the new guy, Kyle, before I lost interest, but in the early days it never seriously occurred to me that he would be the Official Green Lantern for any great length of time. Okay, I admit it: When I'm wrong, I'm wrong!
14. The Ongoing Sliding Timescale Retcon
"I know I said in 1994 that it happened 'ten years ago,' but that doesn't mean you should assume it actually happened in 1984! It means it happened 'ten years ago!' I don't care if it's been another ten years since I said that! Okay, at most, maybe it now happened 'eleven or twelve years ago!' Does that make you happy?"
This is one that veteran fans of DC, or Marvel, or both, come to take for granted after awhile, whether or not anyone ever spelled it out for them. For example, in early issues of the Fantastic Four (which began life in the early 1960s) Reed Richards and Ben Grimm were old friends from way back when. More precisely, at one point they were reminiscing about how, roughly twenty years earlier, they had both been young men engaging in battle with the Nazis during World War II in their separate ways. No superpowers at the time, just their own skills and cunning to carry them to victory.
Well, Reed and Ben are still old and dear friends today, but the whole World II thing kinda faded out of the picture a good many years ago. Considering that we are fast approaching the 60th anniversaries of V-E Day and V-J Day, Reed and Ben would probably have to be at least 80 by now if they had fought for years during that war, even if they began when they were each only about 18 years old. (Captain America, of course, also fought in that war but cheated by spending most of the subsequent decades on ice. Just how many decades he spent on ice is upgraded every once in awhile as the years roll past, but the basic excuse is flexible enough to cover that.)
Similar "ongoing" retcons occur as people who used to be veterans of the Vietnam War, for instance, cease to be, because it's been decades since the U.S. Armed Forces finally pulled out of that war. Batman's post-Crisis story "Ten Nights of the Beast" in which he worked to protect President Ronald Reagan from the KGBeast should not be taken to mean that "today" Batman has been fighting crime ever since the 1980s as part of his "current" continuity. Characters whose earliest stories used to be firmly connected to the Soviet Union of the Cold War days also have a bit of trouble now (although I saw someone cleverly suggest that in the timeline of the mainstream DCU, perhaps it's still only been "a couple of years" since the old Soviet Union fell apart instead of over a decade as it's been in real life?).
Marvel allegedly prefers to say that at any given time, these days, everything that's happened in or after their Silver Age comics (beginning with Stan Lee's and Jack Kirby's collaboration on Fantastic Four #1) has happened within the last 14 years. The more stuff that happens, the more crowded that 14 years of recent history has been, until further notice?
DC published an official timeline as part of their Zero Hour miniseries in 1994 which claimed, in effect, that the modern age of heroes had begun with the debuts of Batman and Superman as costumed crimefighters "Ten Years Ago" (although the Golden Age heroes of the original JSA had existed long before them). That was in 1994, but of course that does not mean it has now been "Twenty-One Years" since Batman, for instance, started his crimefighting career. Maybe twelve or thirteen at most?
15. Practical Joke Retcon
"Yes, you (the viewpoint character) really thought you saw and heard such-and-such. But hey, kid, we were just pulling your leg to see how gullible you were!"
For many years, Lockjaw hung out with Marvel's Inhumans, teleporting them hither and yon without complaint and being treated like a pet dog that had no great insights to offer in conversation, since he couldn't talk. Then, in the 1980s, John Byrne "revealed" in the Thing's monthly series that Lockjaw was, in fact, one of the Inhumans, fully capable of normal conversation if he cared to make a special effort. He just happened to look like a large dog as a result of his childhood exposure to the Terrigen Mists.
Years later, Peter David decided that was a silly idea and "revealed" in a retcon that the whole thing had been a practical joke a couple of the Inhumans pulled on Ben Grimm. Lockjaw is a smart and teleporting dog, but not a member of the Inhumans by genetic heritage, and has no conversational skills at all. (I don't know just how Byrne reacted to this, but I do know that over the years he has gone out of his way to retcon other people's work upon occasion, so he hardly has any right to complain when someone else does the same thing to one of his less logical ideas.)
16. Sweeping Retcon
"I'm not just changing or erasing one or two old stories; I'm rewriting lots of stories at once and it's your place to just grin and bear it!"
Most of the types and examples of retcons that I gave above tended to assume that something pretty small and specific was being retconned in one way or another. One dead character was being brought back to life. One character's apparently "unpardonable" actions turned out to have been commited by an impostor, or were the result of nasty mind-control by another person. A certain story, or larger story arc, or some other carefully defined subject, was now being declared to have been a dream sequence, or undone by time travel, or occurred in its own little parallel world, or something of the sort. But in most such cases, it may well be that 99% of the existing continuity of a particular character or team is still in good shape after a few superficial changes are made!
In a Sweeping Retcon (or a Shameless Retcon if you want to call it that) huge sections of continuity are suddenly getting stretched out of shape, but not simply thrown away entirely as in the Retcon Erasure above. Often, no special effort is made to provide anything remotely resembling a plausible "excuse" for why all those old stories got certain things totally wrong, although after making mental adjustments for the Sweeping Retcon, we are meant to assume that most of those old stories "still happened" somehow, in a butchered form. If that makes no sense to us, that's our problem!
Example of a Sweeping Retcon: Sometime in the mid-90s, maybe a little after Zero Hour (I'm not sure just when it started), Denny O'Neil, then the main editor of all the Batman titles, decided to impose a big retcon upon the post-Crisis Batman. The main idea is expressed below, but it is paraphrased in my own words; I don't know exactly what words he used to express it to his writers and assistants after he made his decision, but I know what the general meaning of it had to be judging from the results!
1. Batman is an Urban Legend, he has always been an Urban Legend, he will continue to be an Urban Legend for the foreseeable future.
2. "Urban Legend" in this context means that no one has produced any proof to satisfy the general public in the DCU that "Batman" even exists! NO photographs. NO videotapes from security cameras. NO television clips. NO media interviews. NO official statements from the Gotham City Police Department or any other government agency confirming that they know for a fact that he definitely exists (not even if he captured the Joker for them yesterday night - for the twentieth time!). NO well-documented public appearances as part of any version of the Justice League.
3. Implicit Assumption: By now he must have encountered thousands of people face-to-face (or face-to-mask) in the course of his many years of strenuous crimefighting. Cops, criminals, lots of innocent civilians. (And wouldn't he have been driving around in the Batmobile some of the time?) But it doesn't matter, because none of the thousands of eyewitnesses are taken seriously enough to constitute "proof" in the media that Batman really exists as more than just a scary rumor in the shadows of Gotham City.
4. If any of this blatantly contradicts a bunch of old stories we've already published as part of the Official Post-Crisis Batman Continuity over the last several years, then you know what? That's tough! The fans will just have to learn to live with it!
(And for your information, it did in fact squarely contradict a lot of Post-Crisis stories.)
You will notice that nowhere is there any trace of a really good excuse for how to do "damage control" regarding any specific story they had previously published that had Batman walking around in broad daylight, Batman rubbing shoulders with various street cops, Batman being recognized at a glance as the famous Batman by any civilians he bumped into during a case, Batman being mentioned as the guy who caught the crook in testimony given in a courtroom scene, Batman being mentioned in the newspapers, Batman and Robin being filmed by a security camera in a clip which was then played on television and provided a young Tim Drake with the vital clue that let him realize Dick Grayson was Robin and therefore his guardian Bruce Wayne must be Batman . . . this Sweeping Retcon of Denny O'Neil's was not just undoing one or two specific storylines that most of the fans of the mid-90s wouldn't really know or care about anyway after they were gone; it was rewriting history on a much larger scale, conflicting with many stories at once for no apparent reason!
Incidentally, this, the Lamest Retcon of Denny O'Neil's Distinguished Career, was finally Reverse-Changed last year during the "War Games" crossover event in the Bat-titles. I hear that the current writers on the Bat-titles seem to be promoting the idea that Batman is still supposed to have been an "unproven and unfilmed Urban Legend" of Gotham until just recently, but TV cameras finally got some good footage of him last year and now he is publicly known to exist. My personal suspicion is that the decision to finally, belatedly undo this particular Retcon in that fashion was prompted by a desire on the part of O'Neil's successors to let him "save face" by not blatantly retconning his retcon as if it had been a bad idea all along (even though it was!); instead they simply chose to Reverse-Change it so that it no longer applies to any stories writers want to do about Batman "here and now," on the theory that this is just as good as far as opening up future opportunities is concerned.