Here is my understanding of the word retcon and my part in its coining.
In the summer of 1988 I was an intern at Hewlett Packard. They had their own
special netnews-like system, and it was gatewayed with USENET newsgroups,
At that time, fans of mainstream comics (meaning superhero comics published by DC and Marvel) were used to treating comic-book continuity seriously, and writing in if they spotted contradictions. This is not in itself odd—you would expect consistency between episodes of any serial—but in comics the serial had lasted four or five decades. Over the years more and more quirky facts would be established for the sake of one story or another, accumulating in to a straitjacket for writers and a barrier for new readers.
When, in the early 1980s, British writer Alan Moore was given Swamp Thing to write, his first proper story was ‘Anatomy Lesson’, in which the protagonist discovers he is not a man transformed in to a monster, but a plant creature with the memories of a man. At a stroke this opened the way to all sorts of trippy stories as Swamp Thing exploreed his newly discovered potential—and yet continuity had been preserved: the facts of old stories (at least most of them) remained undisturbed.
And Then Everything Changed
DC decided to break the continuity straitjacket by having a story, Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which beings with the power to erase universes and rewrite history fight over the multiverse, thus bringing the rewriting of continuity in to continuity. The aim was to collapse the interesting parts of Earth-1, -2, -3, -X, etc., in to a streamlined, consistent history. There were two problems with this.
First, they failed to create a satisfactory shared, consistent history: writing dozens of comics to a frantic monthly schedule does not allow for enough coordination. In fact many comics started their post-Crisis version of the character after other comics had already interacted with the pre- Crisis version. Second, they had opened Pandora‘s Kettle of Worms: having rewritten history once, why not do it again?
Nowadays continual rewrites are taken for granted, but in the late 1980s it was a hot topic.
As I participated in the discussions in
rec.arts.comics I coined the term
retcon (from retroactive continuity) to refer to things like what Alan
Moore had done, as distinct from changing history and declaring old stories
to be wrong. We can use it as a noun, as in
Making Swamp Thing a plant elemental was a retcon.
Or as a verb, like so:
Swamp Thing was retconned in to a plant elemental.
It means something like ‘was discovered always to have in fact been a plant elemental’.
It was not a completely new concept: the obvious non-comics-book example is the return of Sherlock Holmes after apparently having fallen to his death, a perfect example of continuity (the ‘facts’ of the story) being preserved, but the interpretation altered through the revelation of new information.
Neither was the term new—unbeknownst to me, in the early eighties, Roy Thomas had used the phrase retroactive continuity to refer to his comics’ stories set in the past that revealed things about characters in other comics set in the present.
The word retcon was used by other people and appeared in the
The thing is, the term was obsolete almost from the start: DC had decided that continuity could be discarded, and today rewrites, reboots, and reimagining of characters are a commonplace. it follows that carefully slipping new facts in to an old storyline is no longer necessary, and in fact is pointless since there are no old storylines left and any oldish storylines will be overwritten soon anyway.
People started using retcon to refer to changes to history generally, whether it preserves continuity or not. For example, post-Crisis, Supergirl was retconned from Superman’s cousin to non-Kryptonian alien matrix thing.
In the TV series Torchwood, people who have witnessed things they should not are addressed with a ‘little misdirection, a little retcon …’ (the context implying that it meant editing of memories or falsification of evidence). In a later episode the amnesia drug they use turns out to be called Retcon; I think this detail was added to justify the earlier (mis)use of the word. In other words, the drug Retcon was itself a retcon.
Is Retcon a Word?
The former entry for retcon in Wikipedia has been renamed ‘retroactive continuity’, on the grounds that retcon is merely an abbreviation.
This is unfortunate as retcon and retroactive continuity are not synonyms. While you can just about claim that Swamp Thing being a plant elemental is retroactive continuity in the sense Roy Thomas used it, you can’t say that the reboot of Supergirl was, much less the recent New 52 effort from DC. The New 52 is more or less the opposite of what retroactive continuity is about: facts are not preserved, so there is no continuity, retroactive or otherwise. But it does fit within the broader definition of retcon.
I don’t think there is a canonical definition of what makes a word, but I will offer these two arguments in favour of retcon:
My original definition was not interchangeable with retroactive continuity, so it is not a mere abbreviation;
Enough people use it that the meaning has mutated over time, and that change is outside of my control.
The second point shows it is a part of the living English language, changing to adapt to new circumstances and new audiences.
I would like to cite my original USENET postings, but alas! I have not been able to roll back Google’s USENET archives (now part of Google groups) further back than 1990. The oldest references I have found are when retcon was already being discussed as a word distinct from retroactive continuity (e.g., the abovelinked FAQ and this article from Tom Galloway in 1991).
I have distinctly mixed feelings about the retcon article on Wikipedia. It is nice to have my name in Wikipedia, but it is a shame the article itself is a bit of a mess. Apart from the insistence that retcon is the same as any other concept that has been expressed by combinging the word retroactive with the word continuity, it then goes in to TVTropes mode and tries to enumerate every instance of changes in ongoing serials—intentional or otherwise, in-continuity or otherwise.
Wikipedia is an encylopaedia, not a dictionary: there is no need for an article that does nothing but give the word a definition. While it might make sense to have an article on the concept of retconning an ongoing series of fiction in order to rescue the writers from editorial decisions made in the past, a note in the entries for affected series might suffice.
The wikidionary entry for retcon is reasonably clear, though I am unclear as to why it talks about soap operas rather than comics.
I coined the term retcon in 1989 and since then it has escaped and become its own thing: my tiny footnote in the evolution of the English language.