When comic book fans hear the word "retcon," they almost instinctively flinch, as if preparing themselves to hear something stupid. That's because there have been a whole lot of bad retcons over the years. However, the idea of "retroactive continuity" has been around comic books practically from the very beginning Back then, it frequently was just a case of writers not paying attention because they figured no one else was, either (which is how Green Lantern had two very different origins in the Golden Age); but often, the changes were made deliberately (like how Batman went from packing heat to suddenly having always been against using a gun).
Here, then, are 15 of the very best comic book retcons. Note that we're differentiating from reboots, which is when a whole line of comics starts over and all sorts of things change. Those are not retcons. So, for instance, it is not a retcon that Cyborg was a founding member of the Justice League. The whole DC Universe changed, not just Cyborg's status as a founding member of the League. Now, if a writer tomorrow would reveal, "Oh, wait, you all thought Cyborg was a founding member of the Justice League, but he's not," that would be a retcon.
Also, we're only counting retcons that contradicted earlier stories, not new information that we never knew (like "Magneto survived the Holocaust" or "Matt Murdock dated Elektra when he was younger." You could make an argument that these are, in fact, examples of retroactive continuity, but they're so different than what is commonly considered a "retcon" that we're not going to count stories like that). We'll also try to avoid retcons that are just fixing earlier retcons, like "Peter Parker is a clone!" "No, he's not!"
When Louise Simonson and June Brigman introduced the Power Pack in 1983, the idea behind the characters was to do a hopeful, all-ages series about a family of superheroes. Simonson managed to keep that approach going throughout her time on the series, but by the time that "Power Pack" came to an end in 1990, things were bleak for the family. Their parents had discovered their secret, leading to a mental breakdown for their mother, and it turned out that when the horse-like alien, Whitey (of the Kymellian race), split his powers among them, the transfer also slowly turned them into Kymellians, as well, with oldest brother Alex being the first to turn. So the series ended with them headed off to see if they could fix things, with their catatonic mother along for the ride.
A year later, though, Simonson and Brigman returned for the "Power Pack Holiday Special," which quickly revealed that Alex and the Power parents were fakes created by the evil Snarks as part of a secret plot. The Powers reunited with their real brother (who was not turning into an alien) and they rescued their parents, stopped the Snarks and returned to Earth, all good as new (with the parents once again oblivious to their kids' powers). It was a very welcome reset.
During his run on "Amazing Spider-Man," writer Roger Stern introduced a mysterious new villain known as the Hobgoblin, who discovered the tools of Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin, and adapted them to his own purposes. It became a long-running mystery as to which established "Amazing Spider-Man" character was secretly the Hobgoblin. Stern, though, left the series before he could reveal who the Hobgoblin was. Later writers had a hard time deciding, as well. Peter David came up with a novel solution that was ultimately used. Longtime cast member Ned Leeds had recently been killed in "Spider-Man vs. Wolverine" #1, so David had it revealed that the dead Ned was secretly the Hobgoblin and that there was a new Hobgoblin that had taken his place!
There were a few things iffy about Ned as the Hobgoblin; one being that Ned was a pretty nice guy, so it was a shame that he turned out to be a villain. The other was that it seemed unlikely that the real Hobgoblin would be able to be killed off so easily. Thus, years later, Roger Stern was given the chance to reveal the "real" Hobgoblin, which was businessman Roderick Kingsley. Kinglsey has become a popular villain in recent years, as the Hobgoblin has taken to franchising both his identity and other villain identities to up-and-coming supervillains. It was good to see Stern's original choice get to be the "real" Hobgoblin.
Certainly one of the most controversial retcons of all-time, the revelation that Jean Grey did not actually die in "X-Men" #137, is a tricky one to judge as a retcon. For many fans, the journey of Jean Grey becoming the Phoenix and slowly becoming corrupted into the Dark Phoenix (to the point where she decided to kill herself rather than let herself become Dark Phoenix again) was one of the greatest comic book stories ever, and anything that would mess with that story would be seen as a bad thing.
However, the revelation that the Phoenix from the Dark Phoenix Saga was a cosmic being that took Jean Grey's place (an idea originated by a young comic book writer named Kurt Busiek) gave the comics world Jean Grey again. She proved to be a very popular character, especially in the early 1990s as part of the "X-Men: Animated Series" and then later as part of Grant Morrison's classic "New X-Men" series. So, it seems hard to say that this wasn't ultimately a positive retcon... unless you're a Cyclops fan. This retcon was very bad for him, since it led to him looking like a total jerk when he dumped his wife and kid to run back to the resurrected Jean Grey.
During a long storyline in "The Avengers," leading up to him getting married to the Scarlet Witch, we were shown the history of the Vision. As it turned out, his body once belonged to the android hero of World War II, the original Human Torch, only with brain patterns based on the (then thought to be) dead former Avenger, Wonder Man. This gave Vision enough confidence to propose to the Scarlet Witch.
It is not that this approach was a bad one, per se, but the end result meant that a cool character, the original Human Torch, was now, for all intents and purposes, off limits. That is no fun. With that in mind (plus some continuity conflicts with the whole "Vision was in the Human Torch's body" story), John Byrne retconned the whole thing during his "Avengers West Coast" run, where the original Human Torch returned to service. You can debate whether Byrne should have done it the way he did (by having the Vision taken apart by a worried world government and restored without his emotions for Wanda, leading to their divorce), but the end result was a positive one, as the Human Torch has had a number of good stories since his return.
Since they were racing to get their Spider-Woman character to market so that they could trademark her and keep a cartoon company from doing a Spider-Woman cartoon series, Marvel's introduction of Spider-Woman in "Marvel Spotlight" #32 was put together very quickly. As a result, she ended up with an origin that was pretty out there. Writer Archie Goodwin revealed that Jessica Drew was actually a mutated spider, turned into human form by the High Evolutionary, who was famous for experimenting with turning animals into humans (or human-like versions of the animals, at least).
It is hard to relate to a person who used to be an actual spider, so in her very next appearance, writer Marv Wolfman retconned Jessica Drew's "evolved spider" origin as just a lie that she was told. That change gave a big boost to the character, who had a 50-issue-long series at the time and has returned to prominence in recent years after being made a member of Brian Michael Bendis' "New Avengers." It is doubtful that mutated-spider-Spider-Woman would have had as much success.
During the "War Games" crossover event, Stephanie Brown, who had recently been fired by Batman as his new Robin, tried to prove herself to Batman by activating an idea the Dark Knight had where he would end up in control of all of Gotham City's organized crime. What Stephanie didn't know was that for the plan to work, Batman had to be aware of it, as his undercover persona, Matches Malone, played a key role. In his absence, things fell apart and Black Mask stepped in to take advantage of the power vacuum. Black Mask also tragically killed Stephanie.
However, in a follow-up crossover, "War Crimes," Batman discovered that his old friend, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, the woman who had taken him in after his parents' murder, had actually decided to let Stephanie die of her injuries, as a twisted sort of protest as to how Batman lived his life. It made absolutely zero sense ("You risk too many lives, so I'm going to kill a teenager to prove that to you!"). Luckily, it was revealed later that Leslie had actually faked Stephanie's death so that she could live a normal life and she was willing to take the blame to help Stephanie get out. Once Stephanie returned, the truth came out. Batman apparently knew the whole time, which doesn't jive at all with what was shown before; but hey, at least Leslie Thompkins was no longer a murderer!
In "Batman" #47, Bill Finger and Bob Kane (in one of Kane's very last "Batman" stories) delivered a powerful story introducing Joe Chill, the man who killed Thomas and Martha Wayne. Batman confronts him and unmasks in front of him. In a brilliant denouement, Chill is killed by his fellow criminals after he reveals that he was responsible for the creation of Batman. They only realize after the fact that they never managed to find out Batman's secret identity. It was a great story, but it seemed a bit odd that such a major part of Batman's life was wrapped up so neatly.
Therefore, when given a chance to do some retcons after "Zero Hour," the Batman titles decided to retcon Joe Chill from the series, so Batman's parents' murder was now an unsolved case once more. While Batman obviously is driven by more than his parents' unsolved murder, it does seem like a better set-up that he doesn't know who killed them. It just gives him an extra little piece of motivation, particularly as the World's best Detective.
During the "Emerald Twilight" crossover, a distraught Hal Jordan decided that he was going to fix the destruction of his hometown, Coast City (which had just been destroyed by Mongul and the Cyborg Superman during the "Reign of the Supermen" crossover), by any means necessary. So he took on the entire Green Lantern Corps, killing his good friend Kilowog and Sinestro along the way, plus stranding dozens of Green Lanterns without their rings as he absorbed the entirety of the Central Green Lantern Power Battery. Now calling himself Parallax, Hal then tried to alter time itself during "Zero Hour." After being defeated, he seemed to redeem himself during "Final Night," when he sacrificed himself to restart Earth's sun. He then became the new host of the Spectre during "Day of Judgment."
However, the world is probably better off with Hal Jordan as a Green Lantern, and thus Geoff Johns had to come up with a way to get that to happen. The thing he came up with was that Parallax was a living entity within the Green Lantern Power Battery that was responsible for the yellow weakness. It possessed Hal and turned him evil. So once it was defeated, Hal was back as Green Lantern again and the Corps were restored. The end result of the retcon was a positive reset for the series.
This one is a bit tricky, as it could be argued that this is closer to something like "Matt has an old girlfriend he never mentioned named Elektra." But we think this is a bit more than that, as we were given a number of origin stories for Daredevil and they all showed how Matt Murdock began to train to become The Man Without Fear. None of them, however, involved any outside help. So it was indeed a retcon when Frank Miller revealed that Matt had been trained by a blind martial artist expert named Stick.
The introduction of Stick allowed "Daredevil" to evolve into more of a ninja adventure series, which was a popular style of story at the time (so popular that a certain parody comic making fun of the trend, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," became a hit of its own) and "Daredevil" fit really well into that type of story. In years since, Daredevil's ninja training has become a major part of his background, both in his own series and even more prominently in the "Daredevil" TV series. Not to mention that it is just a better idea period that there was a reason why gaining Radar Sense would also make Daredevil such a great fighter.
Alfred the butler did not join Bruce Wayne's employ until "Batman" #16. He served for many years after that, except for a point in time when he was presumed dead (he wasn't dead, but was rather transformed into the villainous Outsider), but his origin stayed consistent -- he started working for Bruce Wayne when they were both adults.
This changed when Frank Miller did "Dark Knight Returns" in 1986, where he revamped Alfred and made him more like the sarcastic butler that John Gielgud played in the "Arthur" movies. At the same time, Miller also retconned Alfred's past and made it so that he was the Wayne butler before Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered.
This was a major shift in the Batman mythos, as now Bruce and Alfred developed a father-son relationship that they never had before. Coupled with Alfred's new sense of humor, Alfred soon became one of the most important characters in the Batman universe, a role he has maintained in the decades since.
One of those great mysteries where no one was particularly curious about the resolution was "Who was Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver's parents?" The answer was revealed in "Giant-Size Avengers" #1, where they discovered that their parents were the Golden Age heroes Miss America and The Whizzer.
However, that revelation did not sit well with other Marvel writers, so eventually, in a clever piece of joint continuity, "Avengers" did a storyline that confirmed that Wanda and Pietro's mother was not Miss America, but instead a woman named Magda. Meanwhile, in an issue of "X-Men" at the same time, Magneto is shown reflecting upon his dead wife -- Magda!
This retcon was a secret shared by readers until the "Vision and Scarlet Witch" mini-series, where Quicksilver's then-wife, Crystal, gave birth to their child. Magneto showed up and claimed her as his granddaughter.
In the years since, the relationship between Magneto, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver drove a number of stories, most famously being "House of M." Recently, though, it was revealed that Magneto was not actually the father of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver! Drats, re-retconned!
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought Captain America into the Silver Age in "Avengers" #4, and in that story, they revealed that Bucky Barnes died in the same explosion that sent Captain America into suspended animation. For decades, the joke was that there were basically two characters who you could never bring back to life - Uncle Ben Parker and Bucky Barnes.
However, when he relaunched "Captain America" in 2005 with artist Steve Epting, that's just what Ed Brubaker did. Tom Brevoort famously quizzed Brubaker before allowing him to bring Bucky back, forcing Brubaker to prove that the story was worth such a big retcon, and boy did it prove to be worth it!
Brubaker's idea was that Bucky was rescued by the Soviets, who then put him back together and brainwashed him into becoming an assassin. They would then put him into cryogenics after every mission, so he has barely aged in the decades since they first began using him. Due to his cyrogenics status, he has gained the nickname "The Winter Soldier."
Captain America naturally isn't happy to learn that his old friend is now an assassin, so he helps break through the brainwashing. Bucky returns to the side of the angels and ultimately takes over as Captain America when Steve is believed to be dead. When Steve returns, Bucky ultimately gives up the identity and begins operating as Winter Soldier once again. With a blockbuster film based on the concept, the Winter Soldier has proven to be an excellent addition to the Marvel mythos.
When Len Wein and Berni Wrightson introduced Swamp Thing, his origin was your basic monster set-up, as scientist Alec Holland was caught in a mysterious explosion and transformed into a creature made up of pieces of the swamp; a "swamp thing," if you will. This was the set-up for a number of years, including an excellent ongoing series (the sales of which actually went up after the transcendent Wrightson stopped drawing the book, which is just astonishing, but you have to give Wein a lot of credit for that). For a time, Alec Holland even regained his human form!
Anyhow, during a second "Swamp Thing" series designed to tie in with the "Swamp Thing" movie, Alan Moore came on board. His first issue wrapped up all of the plots of the previous writer and also ended with Swamp Thing seemingly dead. This led to the legendary "Saga of the Swamp Thing" #21, titled "The Anatomy Lesson" (drawn beautifully by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben). In that story, Moore reveals one of the greatest "everything you thought you knew was wrong" reveals of all-time, which is that Alec Holland didn't become a creature made up of the swamp; rather, the swamp was animated into THINKING it was Alec Holland!
This changed the character of Swamp Thing for good, allowing Moore to try out all sorts of trippy new ideas for the character, including his embracing of the Parliament of Trees.
There are certain ideas that are so ingrained into our views of comic book history that it is hard to imagine that they were once retcons themselves. One of those ideas is that the original Golden Age heroes of the DC Universe co-exist with the "modern" heroes on a separate Earth. When Barry Allen, the Flash, debuted, it was specifically shown that Jay Garrick, the original Flash, was a fictional character in this continuity.
However, five years later gave us the legendary "Flash of Two Worlds"...
... and the DC Universe would never be the same again. That issue revealed that Jay Garrick still fights crime as the Flash, but he does so on an alternate Earth, which was then dubbed "Earth-2." Soon, this allowed all of the other forgotten Golden Age heroes to make comebacks and enabled DC Comics to establish a legacy of heroes that they otherwise were not planning to do; a legacy that served them well for decades to come (and hopefully decades still to come, if the Justice Society of America can make a DC Rebirth comeback).
The all-time best comic book retcon has to be how Marvel handled Captain America and Bucky's life in general. You see, once World War II ended, Timely Comics was still publishing Captain America stories, so Steve Rogers became a schoolteacher back home (Bucky, meanwhile... well, it's never really shown what Bucky did when he returned home) and continued to fight crime back home as Captain America, just no longer Nazis or Japanese villains. Eventually, after Bucky was seriously injured, Cap even added a new sidekick called Golden Girl (the secret identity for his love interest, Betsy Ross).
Then "Captain America Comics" ended at the close of the 1940s. A few years later, the series was revived, written by Stan Lee and drawn by a young John Romita, with Captain America and Bucky (who was back in action, with Golden Girl not mentioned anymore, despite Betsy Ross being in the series) now fighting Communists! That series ended after just a few issues were released.
Fast-forward to 1964, when the Marvel Age of Comics was in full swing. Stan Lee wanted to bring Captain America back, so he and Jack Kirby came up with the idea in "Avengers" #4 to have Captain America return, only now he never made it out of World War II!
He and Bucky were seemingly killed before the war ended. So now Cap was a "Man out of Time," left without his partner, awake in a world that has moved on in his absence. It was a wonderful hook that served Cap extremely well in those early years. Later writers then explained who those Captain Americas were that fought after the War and against the Communists, and it ended up with some great stories (especially when Steve Englehart had the Anti-Communist Captain America become a recurring villain). What a wonderful retcon!
What is your all-time favorite comic book retcon! Let us know in the comments section!