Image's 'Retcon' subverts an all-too familiar gimmick by facing it head-on

Image’s ‘Retcon’ subverts an all-too familiar gimmick by facing it head-on

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of Imagery, a new review series that explores the daring content that continues to come our way courtesy of Image Comics.  

By Courtney Ryan. Mention “retroactive continuity,” or “retcon,” when discussing comics and you’re likely to be met with derision and at least a few anecdotes about how a once beloved series capsized itself by altering an established history with clumsy characterization and improbable plotting.

The Big Two share the most guilt when it comes to retconning. That’s understandable, considering the vast number of issues, writers, and years that were necessary to properly define a series. And it’s not unusual for the retcon itself to get swept away, either when a new team takes over a book, or when a creator returns to restore order. Still, retcons are rarely handled gracefully. Naturally reader derision is as likely as it is fair.

As the Big Two have slowly been forced to share their space in the comic book realm with smaller publishers, a surge of completely original characters — free of any universal canon or copyright disputes — have entered the scene and freed readers of the dreaded retcon. One of the greatest liberators of comic book storytelling is Image Comics, which has often served as a playground for writers and artists to explore the stories that would take nuclear-level retconning to achieve at Marvel or DC.

This brings us to Image’s latest series: Retcon, a comic that its creators gleefully claim is the first to be retconned in its debut iteration.

Cover to 'Retcon' #1/Image ComicsRetcon #1-3

Written by Matt Nixon.

Art by Tony Cypress.

Letters by Matt Krotzer. 

High-stakes marketing. Image has marketed Retcon as a “high-stakes paranormal adventure,” built around a story that’s “like David Lynch doing a few episodes of X-Files.” With promotion like this, that “high-stakes” claim might as well have referred to the marketing team’s potential downfall if Retcon didn’t deliver. And with two names that probably won’t immediately click with many readers, it would be safe to tread cautiously into this series expecting that it won’t. Yet there’s an alluring uniqueness to Retcon that mirrors some of the darker moments in Doctor Strange or the fantastical pages of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, providing a great incentive to tread deeper into this series.

A simple story wrapped in a complex narrative. Despite its layered dressing, Retcon is essentially a classic hero’s tale — protagonist Brandon Ross must save the world from an evil power. To achieve this, he’s teamed up with a bulky detective who constantly dwells on 9/11, two occultists, and a supernatural tree. The catch here is that he’s already attempted to battle this evil before in several other timelines and has always ultimately failed. By revealing from the start that this plot can be, and statistically will be, retconned actually lowers the stakes. But Brandon’s mysterious origins, not to mention the paranormal people and things that he encounters, are compelling enough to explore no matter how many times they might end up reconstructed. This, I suppose, is the realization one eventually reaches as a long-time Wolverine reader.

Writer Matt Nixon is no doubt very familiar with the retcon as a literary ploy, having written several issues of Wolverine, one of comics’ greatest offenders of retroactive continuity. (Perhaps this is where he first started playing with the erratic stakes raised by multiple retcons.) Despite this being the story’s first go-round, Nixon does still achieve an air of bold inconsistency by dusting his tale with oddly anachronistic details. Brandon, for example, is a man possessed by a demon and employed by the US government to secretly battle paranormal activity. He’s also a naive barista who only took this highly secretive job to get out of a DUI.

There are also unique tonal shifts that set the story squarely in a strange revisionist domain. There’s Colonel Swan, who is at once a shrewd leader possessed by an unyielding thirst for power but is also a depressed pill-popper who refers to his wife as “honey” while he dresses for world domination. Meanwhile, an immortal witch with a terrific eye for mid-century modern furniture casts magic while her roommate plays video games. But rather than distract from the plot or prevent healthy character development, these nuances only add to the story’s overall mystery.

Interior panels from 'Retcon' #1. Art by Tony Cypress/Image Comics

Interior panels from ‘Retcon’ #1. Art by Tony Cypress/Image Comics

Exceptional art that transcends genres. If Nixon hails from a world of superheroes, artist Toby Cypress appears to draw from a fundamentally noir background, which he honed as an illustrator for the Viktor Kalvachev and Andrew Osborne femme fatale saga Blue Escape and as the writer and artist behind Rodd Racer. In Retcon, however, Cypress cooks up a genre-blending pastiche of gritty, paranormal, sci-fi, and horror styles, cast with mid-century modern sensibilities à la Rosemary’s Baby. His pages slip from oversaturated action sequences to grim depictions of curtain-drawn bedrooms. His fluid line work creates animated, even at times psychedelic, characters that remain lively despite the washed-out colors and heavy shadows that contain them. Overall, the art is an eerie and beautiful thing to behold while grappling with the oddities that shape the world of Retcon.

Interior panels from 'Retcon' #1. Art by Tony Cypress/Image Comics

Interior panels from ‘Retcon’ #1. Art by Tony Cypress/Image Comics

Ample space for further development. The beginning to Retcon feels like a prologue to a central tale to come. By the conclusion of issue #3, we’ve briefly met the seemingly important players and had a small taste of the kind of violence and hostility these characters face. One problem that I hope is resolved in upcoming issues is that none of the characters feel particularly real or like they have anything to lose in going against a force that literally wants to destroy the planet. Who are they outside of their personas? What drives them? What makes them weak? Learning the answers to these questions can go a long way in providing someone to root for, especially since an insubordinate barista who needs his DUI cleared isn’t exactly the most sympathetic of characters.

It will also be interesting to learn how the previous timelines have affected the one Brandon lives in now. Hopefully we’ll get to explore some of the retconned events and perhaps even have a chance to determine if previous episodes should have been erased or not. Otherwise we’ll be missing one of the crucial characteristics of a traditional retcon.
Still, with a unique twist on an all-too-familiar gimmick, the sublime art, and the fantastical elements that pepper its world, Retcon holds a promising future — one that could very well live up to the high expectations it has already set for itself.

8 out of 10

‘Retcon’ #1 hits stores this Wednesday.

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