No, I don’t mean the camera company.
Canon is something that I have referred to numerous times in the two years I’ve been running this blog. Mostly, in reference to either Star Wars or comic continuity, but it applies to so much more.
The exact definition of “Canon” is: A general rule, law, principle, or criterion by which something is judged.
The second definition is: A collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine.
So what does this mean?
Well let’s start with one of my favourite properties, Star Wars. When George Lucas released his first film back in 1977, I doubt he was aware of what he would ultimately be creating. With the subsequent films being released in 1980 and 1983, he created a large and expansive universe that contained hundreds if not thousands of potential stories. Now up until 2012, George Lucas owned the Star Wars property and anything that came of it, this included all comics, shows, games, and books that would spin out of his creations. For years there were games and books being made in droves. The Heir to the Empire trilogy by Timothy Zahn was one of the best additions to come out of this all encompassing universe. This of course meant that there were lots of conflicting story lines and arcs that ended up being published, not to mention some pretty outlandish stuff. Mostly, it allowed for a massive sandbox of fans and writers to craft their own stories in the Star Wars universe and still be considered legitimate. Then Disney showed up in 2011. The plan to purchase LucasArts and all its subsidiaries began in 2011 when Bob Iger (CEO of the Walt Disney Corporation) contacted George Lucas about the purchase. It took over a year and some serious negotiations, but eventually on December 21, 2012 Disney officially became the owner of Lucasfilms for the small price of 4.02 billion dollars; half paid in cash and half paid in shares of the Walt Disney Corporation.
Now when Disney acquired their new IP, they already had plans in motion to revitalize the Star Wars brand with a whole slew of new products and media. The only problem was the convoluted timeline that had been created. Rather than starting their own timeline/universe; Disney opted for a different move. They took the original trilogy and the sequel trilogy, included those as their starting point and added The Clone Wars TV show as the basis of their new Star Wars universe. This effectively turned over 30 years of expanded content into nothing. Not wanting to piss the fans off too much, Disney kept all the expanded universe content under their Legends banner. This meant that that Disney now controlled what would be accepted as a legitimate story in their Star Wars universe and what would be moved to Legends if they felt it didn’t mesh with their overall plan or their “canon” universe.
Comics take a much different approach to what they consider canon. Most origins of popular superheroes are the original ones created when the characters first debuted, but for some this isn’t always the case. I’ll show you what I mean with one of my top characters, Jason Todd.
Jason Todd was introduced in March 1983 in Batman, he was created as a successor to Dick Grayson and the mantle of Robin the Boy Wonder. With Dick Grayson getting older and branching out on his own in the DC continuity, DC Comics realized they would need someone else to fill the void left by Dick moving on. Enter Jason Todd.
ORIGIN PRIOR TO CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS
When DC decided to introduce a new Robin, they wanted to keep it as close to Dick as possible so they could capitalize on his popularity and play it off like there was no change. Jason Todd was the son of circus performers Joseph and Trina Todd. One night while performing they were murdered by a criminal named Killer Croc. Bruce Wayne was in the audience and saw what happened. He brought Jason to his home and adopted him as his son. The only difference between Dick and Jason was the fact that Jason had strawberry blond hair. He, like Grayson, discovers Bruce is Batman and begins to fight alongside him, not having a costume of his own, Jason uses various pieces of some of Dick’s old costumes until Dick presents him with a proper Robin costume. Jason then dyes his hair black, like Dick, and dons the Robin costume becoming the second Boy Wonder.
ORIGIN AFTER THE CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS
Jason was a street wise orphan living on the streets in Park Row, East Gotham aka. Crime Alley. One night while on patrol, Batman returned to his Batmobile that he had parked in an alley (the alley his parents were shot in) to find young Jason Todd attempting to steal the tires off the car. Rather than apprehending him and disciplining him, Bruce saw potential in the young boy. Jason’s parents (Catherine and Willis Todd) were nowhere to be found. Catherine had overdosed when Jason was young and Willis was working as hired muscle for Two-Face but had disappeared suspiciously when an assignment went sideways. Bruce ensured Jason was placed in a home for troubled Youths to get him off the street and to see his potential. Unbeknownst to Bruce, the home turns out to be a front called Ma Gunn’s School for Crime where they trained young kids to become criminals for work with either a mob family or a supervillain crew. Jason helps Batman to take down some thugs and proves he is an able fighter. Bruce takes him on as Robin but refuses to let him join him on patrols for 6 months, until his training is done. Bruce noted that while he lacked Dick’s natural athleticism and acrobatic skills, Jason could prove and effective partner if he could channel his rage. Bruce also remarked that he felt if Jason went by the wayside, he would grow up to become part of the criminal element.
Comics use what is called “retcon” to establish their own canon as publications are produced. Mostly, retconning occurs after a publication has been created and the fans either disprove of it, or the creators want to do something else they feel will work better. Constantly having to adjust powers and origins can get time consuming though, so most publishers use massive events to establish a new history for a particular event. DC Comics used their Crisis on Infinite Earths to change their canon and retcon some new origins and characters into existence. Marvel Comics used a method very similar to this at the end of the Hickman run on Avengers that led into Secret Wars (2015).
Events are the main way that comics companies retcon their own canon because they normally involve large casts of characters and the consequences can be dire. Sometimes characters might die and a new person will need to step up and take the mantle (Miles Morales as Ultimate Spider-Man), sometimes characters die and are brought back to life later on (literally every comic character ever) and sometimes entire universes are reshaped to set up canon continuity moving forward (New 52).
Basically it boils down to this, there is no one right answer for “what is canon?”. Canon is whatever the creator/license holder deems to be allowed in the publication; in other words, it’s completely subjective. All DC comics take place in their multiverse, but the main stories all take place on a specific earth in a specific timeline; same with Marvel Comics. What happens in their motion picture universes are completely different than what happens in their comic universe, but each have their own canon timeline, history and rules. Obviously, this can get very confusing for some who just want to enjoy what they want to enjoy and not worry about whether Jason Todd is Red Hood in the movies and the comics and the games; by the way, yes, yes he is.
That’s it for this short Monday post, any questions feel free to ask! See you later this week!