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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Retcon is short for “retroactive continuity,” a form of revision common in pop culture but that is also—according to my co-author Nathaniel Goldberg and me in our book Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith: A Philosophical Account—essential to understanding much more. Right now, for instance, the concept of retconning is taking on new legal significance.

I’m using ‘legal’ in the literal sense, ‘concerned with law,’ and in his article, Has The Word “Retcon” Entered The Legal Vernacular?, Josh Blackman identifies what is likely the term’s first appearance in an official law-related context: an essay by Ilya Somin published in the journal Cato Supreme Court Review in 2019. Somin describes a solicter general’s attempt to avoid a legal Catch-22 that bars certain regulatory cases from entering federal court:

“In a somewhat strange amicus brief on behalf of the federal government, Solicitor General Noel Francisco argued that Williamson County should be interpreted in a way that avoids the catch-22 by reasoning that the state exhaustion requirement only applies to cases brought under … the federal statute authorizing law suits for violations of constitutional rights … but not ones brought to federal court under … the law giving federal courts jurisdiction over ‘all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.’

“This argument makes little sense, because nothing in Williamson County distinguishes the two types of cases. [Regulatory] law expert Robert Thomas analogized the solicitor general’s argument to Star Trek producers’ lame attempts to “retcon” an in-universe explanation of why Klingons’ foreheads looked very different in later movies and TV series, beginning with Star Trek: The Next Generation, than in the original 1960s TV version (the real explanation was a bigger makeup and special-effects budget).” (159)

Somin is referencing Thomas’s analysis of Knick v. Township of Scott in a 2018 post on his personal blog, which is law-related but not official. The post is titled “Knick And Klingon Foreheads: Retconning Williamson County.” Thomas writes:

“And now having gone back and reviewed the SG’s difficult-to-comprehend argument, we are reminded of retconning. Because it seems to reach back and question the “continuity” of what were, we thought, “established facts.” 

“So the bottom line of the SG’s brief is this: Knick’s situation presents no federal claim sufficient to trigger federal jurisdiction … but there’s enough of a federal issue lurking about in a state … claim to trigger federal jurisdiction. Klingon foreheads, man.”

Thomas playfully but unfortunately cites Wikipedia for an incorrect definition of ‘retcon’: “a literary device in which established facts in a fictional work are adjusted, ignored, or contradicted by a subsequently published work which breaks continuity.”

The Wikipedia entry in turn cites a 2007 Telegraph article “One of these comic heroes really is dead” in which the author Sam Leith gets the definition of retconning correct. Describing the world of comics in which Captain America had just (temporarily) died, Leith writes:

“One of the main tricks is ‘retconning’ – that is, making retrospective continuity alterations, more or less subtle versions of saying ‘he wasn’t killed in the explosion, he was just, um, buried under a pile of rubble and lost his memory for 40 years, but now he’s back’.

Despite how the crowd-sourced Wikipedia page summarizes Leith, the described contradiction doesn’t break continuity. It retroactively reveals that continuity wasn’t what we all thought it was in order to avoid breaking it. That’s the opposite of ignoring established facts.

When Captain America returned a year after what is revealed to have been only his apparent death, Marvel illustrated Leith’s point: the gun used to kill him didn’t actually kill–the Doctor Doom technology instead unstuck him in time, allowing him to be rescued by his superhero pals.

As Somin mentioned, Thomas prefers Star Trek:

“compare the real-world explanation for why the 1960’s Star Trek show’s Klingons didn’t have butt heads, but the later-produced shows and movies did. The real-world reason was that the TV show had a bare-bones budget, so couldn’t afford the required intricate make-up. The later-produced stuff, having larger budgets, could. But to those concerned with an in-universe explanation that had to line up with the production realities, it turned out to be a big source of contention. Fandom as well as the later shows’ writers struggled to come up with a narrative that accounted for both Klingons with butt heads, and those without.” 

Thomas’s description suffers from a subtle form of retconning itself. Since the intricate Klingon make-up was created for the 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it did not exist during the TV show’s 1966-69 run. Though it’s also true that the original series operated on a much lower budget, Thomas would be equally wrong if he claimed that the reason that I do not now drive a 2031 Rolls Royce is because I can’t afford one. I predict that if such a thing as a 2031 Rolls Royce comes into existence it will be out of my price range, but that is not the primary reason why I do not currently own one. Thomas, presumably accidentally, retcons the idea of later Klingon make-up into an earlier decade treating it as though its use on the TV show were possible and even desirable but prohibitively expensive.

This case of retconning, even as an exemplar of bad retconning, avoids the even more aesthetically unpleasant recognition that Star Trek: The Motion Picture and all of the films and TV shows that followed it are not sequels of the original TV series. They are reboots. Or rather Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a reboot, and all that follow are sequels of it. Of course, the world of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is extremely similar to the world of the original TV series, but since no retcon can adequately explain how a planet’s population changed physical appearance in the course of an unnoticed decade, they are distinct worlds. And since later prequels insert variations of the 1979 Klingon make-up into the universe’s past, it now seems no change in appearance happened there at all. Even specific Klingon characters who appeared on the original TV show appear in later shows with ridged foreheads.

Regardless, Thomas’s use of ‘retcon’ in a legal context is strictly pejorative, what Somin summarized as “lame attempts.” His point is that the solicitor general attempted to insert a point of law retroactively, pretending that his newly devised distinction always existed. Because it clearly did not always exist, his retcon is rejected. The past existence of the new distinction could only be accomplished through a reboot, something as anathema to law as to Star Trek fandom.

Blackman also identifies the appearance of the word ‘retcon’ in three recent court cases—which I hope to explore next week.

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