“Retcon” is a portmanteau of the words “Retroactive continuity,” and if we’re going to be honest, one of the most important concepts in superhero comics. The basic idea is that you can rewrite the past in order to make the story you want to tell possible.
This idea matters a lot more in serial fiction than it does in stand-alone works. Neil Gaiman has a great line in The Sandman Companion to the effect of “In a novel, if you get to the end and realize you need a gun in the desk drawer, you can go back and put one in. In comics, you have to put a lot of guns in a lot of drawers to make sure you can finish a story.” No matter how many trap doors a writer puts into a series, though, when things need to be massively changed, they take to retconning. All it usually takes, as in Batgirl, is a concise retelling, generally through a flashback, of the new history, and then that’s the new truth.
Any superhero’s history is rife with retconning and reboots, which tend to make them insanely and hilariously complicated. (For a great take on this, check out Comics, Everybody! a web-comic series that condenses decades of retconning into one hilarious strip at Comics Alliance.) Retconning is one of the things –along with improbable cleavage and silly powers– that can give superhero stories a bad name. It’s hard to argue with this kind of storytelling device, though, when you consider that many of these stories have been running continuously for forty-plus years; if writers didn’t have these trapdoors, the stories simply couldn’t continue, and nothing new could ever happen.
Reading Batgirl #2 and getting a better look at Mirror, the current villain, is fascinating while thinking about the idea of timelines in comics and the principle of retconning. Mirror, it is revealed, was the sole survivor of a horrific car accident that killed his entire family. Guilt- and grief-stricken, he’s become a religious zealot and is killing people in Gotham who made narrow escapes or “should” have died previously.
On its surface, as several reviewers complained after the first issue, it’s kind of a bizarre and opaque motivation for a villain. Right after this reboot and retcon, though, I think it’s an extremely piquant way to get at the importance of a changeable past and improbable odds in this genre. A force for probability and logical consequence is one of the most deadly things possible to a superhero; their entire premise depends on odds being thwarted and downright miraculous events being commonplace. A character that normalizes history wouldn’t just threaten Barbara Gordon, this Batgirl in this series, it’s a threat to the entire suspension of disbelief that lets comics as a whole work.
Gail Simone has gotten some criticism for this reboot so far, but the more I think about it, the more impressed I am with the depth of her work. I can’t wait to see where this goes.