Retroactive continuity — or “retcon” — is a perhaps too commonly used device in comic books. The worst retcons, as most fans know, is when a superhero’s origin itself is retconned. Why mess with the origin? Well, as these five examples show, sometimes messing with an origin story is for the best.
Iron Fist was created to capitalize on the Kung Fu craze of the 1970s and his origin goes like this: Danny Rand was a child who was brought to the hidden city of K’un-L’un and taught martial arts. Eventually, he becomes a master and defeats a dragon called Shou-Lao the Undying, gaining the power of the Iron Fist (basically, he can channel his chi through his fist). Although never explicitly stated, it’s basically implied that Danny is the first to wield the Iron Fist power...
...until Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction’s series The Immortal Iron Fist, where Danny learns that not only isn’t he the first to wield the power, the last user isn’t actually dead: Orson Randall, the Golden Age Iron Fist, who learned to channel his chi through bullets. Oh, and there was also a badass Chinese Pirate Queen named Wu Ao-Shi who used chi-enhanced arrows. Needless to say, this just made Iron Fist’s origin all the cooler, especially as more stories were told of the previous Iron Fists.
By the time of the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, all of the DC writers knew that Barry Allen was going to get killed off. And they were pretty okay with it. When first introduced, Barry was a great character, but as the Silver Age ended and characters and writing became more sophisticated, both writers and readers began to realize that aside from being the Flash, Barry was...kind of boring. He was a police scientist and...that was it. He wasn’t tortured like Batman or an alien like Superman. Writers tried to introduce some darkness (like making him kill the Reverse-Flash and then stand trial), but it didn’t really work. Readers just didn’t really care about him anymore.
So when Allen was resurrected in Final Crisis and Geoff Johns retold his origin in The Flash: Rebirth, he made a bit of a controversial decision: Barry Allen’s home life was now depressing as hell. His mother was murdered and his father was blamed, eventually dying in prison himself. Some fans decried this as an unnecessary retcon; after all, Barry was one of the few heroes whose parents were still alive. So why do this?
Well, it turns out that the retcon was part of the plot: the Reverse Flash traveled back in time and killed Barry’s mom himself to cause Barry pain. And this aspect of his origin proved to be so popular that they pretty much decided to use it whole cloth for the television show.
I mean, it’s better than that retcon where Barry’s powers came from a “Heavenly Help Mate” named Mopee. We do not talk about Mopee.
Speaking of Crisis on Infinite Earths, boy did it cause a lot of problems. One of them was the origins of Power Girl: pre-Crisis, she was the cousin of Earth-2 Superman and, in fact, she lived on Earth-2.
Post-Crisis, there was no Earth-2 and DC was dedicated to making Superman the last Kryptonian for realsies this time. So Power Girl’s origin became...nebulous. Eventually, she was revealed as the granddaughter of the Atlantian sorceror Arion and had been frozen in suspended animation for thousands of years.
And then, later on, she meets Arion again and he tells her that he was totes lying about that whole thing. Because of reasons. And then, a few years after that, she meets the Psycho-Pirate who messes with her head, bringing up a ton of new origins for her, until, finally, her true origin is revealed: she is the cousin of Earth-2 Superman.
This was kind of amazing. Because Earth-2 still no longer existed. And the fact it made no sense was woven into her character and it, well, made sense. She shouldn’t exist and yet she did.
When Peter Quill, the Star-Lord, was first introduced in Marvel Preview #4, he was, how shall I put this, an asshole. He was a NASA astronaut when an alien called the Master of the Sun arrives at a space station to choose someone to become “the Star-Lord.” The Master of the Sun...does not choose him and Quill becomes pissed, so much that NASA discharges him. So instead, he steals a ship, goes back to the Master of the Sun, and takes the place of the astronaut he chose.
Steve Englehart, Star-Lord’s creator, said that he meant him to begin his superhero career as an “unpleasant, introverted jerk” who would eventually change and redeem himself. Except Englehart left Marvel soon after and never got a chance to do that. Add the fact that the story he wrote pretty much takes place in the future and Star-Lord really didn’t have much of a chance of emigrating into the main Marvel universe.
Until Annihilation, that is, when Star-Lord was reintroduced suddenly. He wasn’t the massive jerk he used to be and he was living in the present day, too. The explanation for all this was, basically, “don’t ask.” Eventually, his origin was completely retold by Brian Michael Bendis, who smoothed out his jerkiness and made him much more likable. And also not from the future.
Wesley Dodds was a Golden Age superhero called the Sandman. He wore a gas mask and a trench coat and he put criminals to sleep with his gas gun. It was all pretty cool, until brightly colored tights became more popular and he switched to those and got a sidekick named Sandy the Golden Boy.
But never mind that. Much, much later, Neil Gaiman came out with a very good, very influential series also called The Sandman. This wasn’t about Wesley Dodds. This was about Dream of the Endless, the Sandman, the personification of dreams itself.
The series began in 1916 when Dream was captured and, since he was the personification of dreams, this resulted in some very bad things: a sleeping sickness that spread through Europe, a man who can’t sleep any longer, and...Wesley Dodds, who dreams of a man with red eyes and is suddenly consumed with the desire to put criminals to sleep. So the Sandman was inspired by the Sandman. A later retcon even had Wesley Dodds’ prophetic dreams caused by Dream during a meeting he no longer remembered.
And since this all happened without any brightly colored tights or Sandy the Golden Boy, everyone accepted that it was a good idea.