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. For example, Batman just celebrated his 75th anniversary. 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. At the time of this writing, both Marvel and DC are in the middle of overhauling their entire Universes with the Secret Wars and Convergence projects, respectively.
There are many different kinds of retcons, but common themes are returning a deceased character to life, 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 seem to hate retcons for the most part, but it's all a matter of how well the writer pulls it off. If he or she 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 ever to grace (or infect) the pages of comic books!
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.
The resurrection robbed Captain America of an edgy backstory, tempered his guilt, and initially rubbed comic fans the wrong way. They can suck it as far as Marvel is concerned, because Winter Soldier has become one of the most popular new Marvel characters of the last decade. Bucky even filled in as Captain America after Steve Rogers's death.
The Return of Captain America
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."
Other 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.
Steve Englehart had big plans for Star-Lord when he launched the character in 1976. Peter Quill was going to be a astrological messiah born under a special planetary alignment with muddled and alien ancestry. Then Englehart quit working for Marvel. Other writers came and went, toying with the character's purpose and origin, but it wasn't even clear if Star-Lord existed in modern times or the distant future. The Annihilation storyline ripped him into the main Marvel continuity, and Star-Lord finally found popularity in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.For Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Brian Michael Bendis cleaned things up with a welcome retcon. Star-Lord was now the abandoned child of an alien father and had lost his Earth mother to alien raiders. The orphaned youngster had retained only one possession from his youth... his father's space gun.
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.