Continuity is both a threat and promise in continuing media. It promises you an engaging story that you can keep track of for episodes, or issues, or months, or years, and that will pay you off over and over again for sticking with it. Conversely, it threatens you with being unable to get into the story half way through its run, or worse, with a story that collapses under the weight of too much continuity -- especially if that continuity is in conflict with a desire for the characters to remain comfortably static.
When your favorite story jumps the shark, it's often because it should simply have ended already, or at the very least changed to become unrecognizable. It's that moment when you're watching Star Trek: Nemesis and you realize the Enterprise is top-heavy with senior officers who in any kind of real system would have been moved on to other commands many times over already. It's when you watch the Marvel universe fumble with the idea that the Fantastic Four always gained their powers "ten years ago," while trying to shoehorn decades of continuity into that space.
Comics, in particular American superhero comics, really labor under the weight of continuity. I grew up reading X-Men, but these days I couldn't possibly explain, without significant research, what's going on in any modern X-title (and there are rather a few more of them than there were when I read them). Similarly, I have no idea what's supposed to be happening right now in Batman's universe, either. The last two Bat-related comics I read? A recent all-ages Batman Adventures mini-trade and the most recent Gotham Central collection.
Recently, the big talk of continuity down has been the massive retconning of Spider-Man. To summarize very, very briefly:
Spider-Man has been married for about two decades now. Marvel editor in chief Joe Quesada has always believed this is a bad idea and limits storytelling, and wanted to get rid of that whole "wife" deal.
In recent years, Spider-Man has had his identify revealed to his Aunt May (who took it better than he expected, thank you), and, more critically, revealed his identity to the whole world. Oops. This led to the nigh-inevitable shooting of Aunt May, and then Peter and Mary Jane made a deal with the devil to get her back, in exchange for their marriage.
Yeah. Here's a bit of what Tales from the Longbox has to say about it:
They took a mature and growing character twenty years backwards because Joe Quesada didn't think he was "relatable" to his readers (who at this point are mostly adults) anymore. They've done everything short of having him back in diapers in their effort to make him seem younger again. But it's actually just pathetic that he's now a thirty-something guy who's never moved out of his aunt's house (although maybe that does make him relatable to many readers).
The problem with that argument is that for eight years now you've had Ultimate Spider-Man for your young, unmarried Peter fix. Alternate continuity, teenage, unmarried Peter Parker. Not to mention Marvel Adventures Spider-Man and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, aimed at younger readers and girls, respectively, and feature a younger, unmarried Peter Parker. The nice thing about the "core" universe book was that it was actually different by having a married, more mature Peter. But now that's gone, and all we have left are heaping servings of the same old shit, no matter which "flavor" you go for.
Quesada also didn't want Peter to get a divorce because that wouldn't be a good example for the children. IN WHAT FUCKING WAY IS MAKING A DEAL WITH THE GODDAMNED DEVIL MORE ACCEPTABLE?? Not only that, but pretty much every character along the way told Peter that altering reality was a bad move and pointed out the precious nature of true love. So now our "hero" Peter comes off as not only immoral, but a complete fucking moron for making what everyone else could plainly see was a horrible decision.
Good stuff. It also leads us to an important point:
This is not how you fix your continuity.
I was totally pleased when I saw the unfortunately named "Ultimate" line, as it allowed classic characters to be walked through the paces again without the weight of continuity, much like Batman: the Animated Series allowed for the Batman mythos. Similarly, the shoujo-market-targeted Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane lets us toss forty years of continuity and just enjoy the basic idea of Mary Jane and Peter Parker in their classic, teen form.
So given that, why try to collapse the "core" books, when these offspring are healthy and let you tell the classic, Parker-as-downtrodden-single-guy stories?
Well, because you make poor decisions.
Since I'm second-guessing Marvel editorial here, what would I do in their place?
I'd take my cue from how Japanese media companies treat many of their properties. Take Gundam, for example. Mobile Suit Gundam aired in 1979 and is, I'm told, a gripping tale of people in a war-torn world, carrying with it a constant message that war is, fundamentally, tragic. Mobile Suit Gundam was incredibly popular, and naturally there was a desire to revisit the ideas, the visuals, and other elements of the property in a sequel of some kind.
And there were sequels, but there were also other things. Offshoots, basically. Stories that used the best elements of Gundam, but did not attempt to fit in with those other stories, or try to shoehorn in years of continuity. Instead, these were "alternate universe" stories that had the same giant robots of Gundam, and perhaps elements of the setting, but that fundamentally didn't happen in the same world.
Consider also the Final Fantasy series of games. I'll borrow a sentence from the Wikipedia entry here:
Most Final Fantasy installments are independent stories; however, they feature common elements that define the franchise.
That is to say that if you look at one of the games, you know it's a Final Fantasy story on sight, but almost none of them have anything to do with each other, or are meant to happen in the same world or continuity. Just like you know that Ultimate Spider-Man is a Spider-Man story even without seeing the title (or even without seeing Peter in his costume), but it doesn't have to live in the same world as The Amazing Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, or any of the other "core" titles.
So what would I do? I'd keep moving the core title forward until it hit a natural conclusion (Peter marries and settles down, perhaps). Then I'd reboot the concept and give it another try. And so on, over and over again. Perhaps even in parallel. Rather than having four Spider-Man (or Superman, or Batman) titles that live uncomfortably side-by-side, ostensibly happening to the same character in the same world yet written by different people and only loosely connected, you could have four different takes on Batman in different worlds happening at the same time. m suggested the very neat idea of having era-oriented Batman titles, such that you'd have a 30s Batman, a 60s Batman, an 80s Batman, and a contemporary Batman all in their own titles.
Of course, this all wrecks the heck out of continuity. It requires an audience that, like many manga readers, can accept a story that actually ends after four, or six, or twelve volumes. I'll gladly be a part of that audience, though. I'm hoping that the continued presence, pressure, and influence of manga leads to more of a move in that direction. Rather than being put off by four X-Men titles that interact uncertainly and stagger under the weight of decades of continuity, I'd love to have one "full continuity" title shelved next to three exciting variant takes on the fundamentally sound X-Men concept.
Do that, and you'll have me spending a lot more money on comics again.