This started out as a reply on the DC comics thread, but after some thought I think it might do better as a more general thread discussing continuity in comics in general and across multiple companies.
I am seriously thinking DC should just flat-out officially reject continuity as a company directive and leave it in the hands of the writers and artists. Revamps haven't worked for them, and they never manage to commit to their plans long enough to allow any of it to pay off.
Not only would this free up a lot of effort and corporate machinery to redirect efforts to something more productive more easily, and be a very strong counterpoint to Marvel's own masterful if staid management system, discarding the entire guise of continuity and outright embracing contradictory elements seems like a very DC thing to do.
Comics are weird. A large part of the growth of DC and Marvel can be laid more or less directly to their embrace of a "shared universe" - and especially the merchandising that comes out of that - and to an extant the corporate growth of DC and Marvel has been determined by how they handled this shared universe, particularly with the constant need for new material and the realistic limitations of the medium - i.e. you can end a comic on a cliffhanger and pick it up immediately where it left off next month; this leads to weird things where comic book characters "don't age" and you can have nominally the same characters having met both Nixon and Obama during their respective presidencies.
And there's not a single neat solution. Marvel has been following a kind of collective amnesia where fans and allow themselves to remember the gist of origin stories and connections, but lose track of the fine details - especially after comic series started entering three digits - DC has largely foregone the amnesia by doing a reboot ever so often (to the point that even they have trouble determining what is in continuity at the moment!) Valiant during the 90s made a game effort, but the results were, I think, a little too technical for most fans, and for many casual comic fans story tends to trump continuity. That is, after all, why people remember The Killing Joke
and The Dark Knight Returns
but tend to forget about Bat-dog and Bat-Mite until a writer that grew up during the 70s brings them back in a wave of nostalgia, because Bat-dog is in their own personal headcanon and by Ghost they'll return them to the fold.
It's not a problem that you see in a lot of other media. Star Wars' Expanded Universe was probably closest, and even that dipped into comic books a fair bit. The Cthulhu Mythos comes close, but that's not a collection of properties under the control of a single entity, so a lot of what is in-or-out of continuity is pretty arbitrary, because there is no single set continuity.
DC editorial needs some control of its properties - and it needs some control on the direction
of its properties, if it's going to market them effectively, which is what DC corporate (Warner Bros, basically) wants. Beyond that, large-scale events across multiple books, which are big sellers for the Big Two, require a lot of editorial planning, crosstalk, and coordination - the whole point of Marvel's famous event-planning retreats. So if you want to do big events that sell well, and tie them in to ongoing movies and media, you need some hands-on control on the actual direction of the storylines - even if you leave the finer details up to individual series writers.
There is another way (there are, in fact, probably a very many other ways, but here's one): look at what Image is doing. I don't think it's much of an exaggeration to say that Prophet
has been one of my favorite titles in recent years, and it came about by taking a nominal shared-universe property and letting the creative guys go nuts
with it. Now, t'be fair Image has done this a bit before - and I can't pretend to know the inner details of how Image works, but I remember how it used
to work back in the 90s, where each creator basically had their own patch (WildC.A.T.S., Spawn, Savage Dragon, ShadowHawk, Supreme, Youngblood, etc.), and they did crossovers and shared-universe stuff basically as it appealed to the individual studios. Continuity, then, was really kind of loose, which fit the company dynamic - and arguably served them well when certain studios split off, which is how Wildstorm ended up owned by DC and the Midnighter and Grifter can star in Justice League Black or whatever.
Now? Well, now of course we can have John Prophet in the far future, with the ancient descendants of Team Youngblood. Continuity with the original 90s comics is weak; mostly handful of almost-familiar names and faces. Yet, that works for the kind of book it is, and the kind of story it's telling. It's also bold
, because it realizes that you don't need
continuity to tell these kinds of stories. And it's not alone. You look at titles like Bomb Queen, which look like they're in their own little 'verse, but the creators can use characters from the ancient Image continuity (well, the ones still owned by Rob Liefield, anyway). So what you end up with are several series that sort of loosely relate to each other - more like different derivative mythologies than a single timeline or story.
And that's okay, because I think that's where we're sort of headed anyway.