The word "retcon" is shorthand for "retroactive continuity changes." They happen when previously established facts within a fictional narrative are altered to form a new narrative. The characters within the narrative will acknowledge the new facts and forget the old facts, but the reader is confusingly left knowing both versions. Sometimes retcons are small tweaks that go practically unnoticed, and sometimes, they land on this list as one of the biggest retcons in comic history.
Comic book characters and stories can go on for decades. Because they go on for so long and often need to change with the times, comic book stories are especially susceptible to retcons. DC has even held several heavily promoted storylines intended to clean up their mangled continuity, piling retcons on top of retcons.
There are many different kinds of retcons, but common themes are bringing back a deceased character, rewriting an established origin, or undoing events that have derailed the narrative flow of a series by rebooting reality back to a more advantageous paradigm.
Fans reactions are mixed at best, but it's all a matter of how well the writer pulls it off. If they can craft a story that makes the change palatable, the new continuity becomes a welcome part of the canon, but if it's not done gracefully, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Good or bad, here is the list of the biggest retcons in comics!
DC's MultiversePhoto: DC Comics
A lot of retcons come about by mistake, but in 1961, DC published what may be the first intentional and premeditated retcon. Their Universe had reached an unwieldy point where there were multiple versions of several of their most popular heroes. Heroes from the Golden and Silver Ages found themselves uncomfortably overlapped.In "The Flash of Two Worlds," it is revealed that the (older) Golden Age heroes inhabited a separate Earth (dubbed Earth-2). This division was intended to make things simpler, but had the exact opposite effect. Soon there were hundreds of contradictory Earths that had to be reconciled in 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths.Game-changer?
Winter SoldierPhoto: Marvel Comics
There's a saying about comic book deaths that goes "nobody stays dead except Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben." Now it's just Uncle Ben.
Captain America's greatest failure was losing his sidekick, Bucky Barnes, near the end of World War II. In a story that was a retcon of its own, Bucky was killed in the explosion that cast Captain America into a cryogenic state in the Arctic Circle. In 2005, Ed Brubaker invented a villainous Russian assassin called the Winter Soldier and revealed him to be a brainwashed Bucky. The retcon stated that Bucky was fished out of the Arctic waters by Russians, cybernetically enhanced, and trained to be a Cold War killing machine.
Since then, The Winter Soldier has become one of the most popular new Marvel characters of the last decade with Bucky even filling in as Captain America after Steve Rogers's death.Game-changer?
The Return of Captain AmericaPhoto: Marvel Comics
When Marvel wanted to bring back Captain America for the new The Avengers title in 1963, they had to write a retcon to explain Cap's lengthy absence. The real reason Captain America hadn't been in many comics during the 50's and early 60's is that the company had lost interest in him after World War II.
In Avengers #4, Stan Lee wrote a retconned history where Captain America had been lost in the Arctic Circle and frozen in a block of ice during the closing days of the war. He didn't die, but he was stuck there until he was found and thawed by The Avengers in present day. Pretty much everyone agrees that "He was lost and frozen," sounds like a better explanation than, "We kind of forgot about him."
Additonal rewrites were required to explain that the scant appearances of Captain America between the war and The Avengers Vol. 1 #4 had been the work of an impersonator.Game-changer?
- Photo: Vertigo
Swamp Thing started out with a pretty standard comic book origin. Alec Holland gets caught in an accident (chemical explosion), and gains the characteristics of some scientific phenomenon the writer didn't really have a handle on (vegetation). It was a bit bad, and was about to be cancelled, until Alan Moore came along in 1984 and flipped the script.
He retconned Swamp Thing’s origin so that the explosion caused vegetation to mutate into a "man". This laid the groundwork for a more philosophical run of Swamp Thing comics which served as Alan Moore’s first major splash as a mainstream writer while also introducing John Constantine.Game-changer?