Breaking The Canon: Boon or Blasphemy?

I’ve always thought canon, i.e., the texts and rules that determine which trajectory a story can follow, is a wondrous thing. It tells us which stories matter, which texts and which rules are important. It gives us a list of OGs — the ‘main’ texts. It tells us which paths our favorite novels, comics, and film franchises are allowed to follow.

But What Exactly Is Canon?

And who are the people on whose hands lie the power to determine what is essential — or, rather, what matters?

Because that is what the establishment of canon seeks to determine, i.e., what media matters enough to be remembered by the people. Authors, scholars, critics, etc., usually decide what's canon and what isn't. Their own subjectivities — determined by the time they live in, gender, sex, cultural and personal experiences, alliances, and ideals, aside from a million other factors — get factored in when determining this ‘list of greats,' i.e., that which is canon.

Over the years, people have realized how exclusionary these many subjectivities can make (and have historically made) such a list. With that realization, the definition of what is canon and what it determines began changing again.

Does Canon Determine Originality?

Despite the fluidity of canon, a certain level of authority — emphasis on the ‘author' — has always been assigned to it. Interestingly, more often than not, it is authorship that determines the canon. It was designed to protect Intellectual Property and is intricately linked with copyright laws. So, the canon doesn't just decide what is important but also what is ‘original,' which, in turn, is often what is created by the ‘original' creator(s). The others are seen as unimportant alternative stories at best and bad imitations at worst.

For example, in the literary world, Penny Dreadfuls — flimsy serial mags that cost a penny and were loved by the masses — were assumed to hold little to no literary value. Their experimentations with famous literary characters like Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby were frowned upon and seen as cheap mockeries. After all, only Dickens' tellings of their stories were original. They were canon.

Relating canon with quality and originality and using it to determine what texts matter and which don't, thus, becomes pretty restrictive. It can exclude entire worlds, timelines, expanded universes, and significant fan creations.

For fans, this restrictive nature of canon can create a separate problem. See, we, as fans, have never been comfortable being just idle bystanders. Fan culture is participatory. So, creators don't and shouldn't just determine what canon is for the audience. Fans have agency of their own, and this has led to events where the audience has rejected entire established canons.

Take the case of Sherlock Holmes, for example. Author Arthur Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect the dauntless detective due to mass protests held by fans aghast at Doyle's decision to kill off the character. Fans, thus, have always held the power to change canon. This is even more true in the Internet era, what with Tumblr and Twitter making creators and decision-makers easier to access and influence. And this is as it should be.

Henry Jenkins, the father of modern pop culture studies, hinted as much in his book  Textual Poachers. There, he brought up the example of The Velveteen Rabbit — where the child's (i.e., the fans) imagination brings the rabbit (i.e., the story) to life.

A more recent example of fans' rejection of established canon can be seen in the case of JK Rowling's Cursed Child. The story follows the OG trio and their progeny as they seek to save the world from newer threats. By all definitions, it is supposed to be canon. But fans, more than a little disappointed at Rowling's treatment of their beloved characters and their story arcs, unanimously decided that Cursed Child is, in fact, not canon.

Similarly, in the Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom, it is universally agreed that M. Night Shyamalan's live-action adaptation just does not count. And what doesn't count cannot be canon.

The Question of Continuity

Changing the canon has, thus, always been a thing, with people consciously or subconsciously accepting its fluidity and subjective nature. Personal views and tastes vastly influence what you and I, as people, view as canon, i.e., what matters to us and what doesn't.

But that does not mean that established canon does not have its uses. It is the media equivalent of a homecooked meal, chicken soup for the sick soul. It serves as reference points we can always return to and take comfort from. Continuity in universes also leads to high rewards when we witness the entire picture just come together, and it all starts to make sense.

But what happens when this need for continuity makes things so convoluted that creators are forced to introduce alternate timelines and multiverses or to retcon entire expanded universes? What then is the point of it all when every cherished moment of character development and story arcs becomes redundant with the introduction of these new timelines, multiverses, and retconning?

Canon vs Creativity

But while the obsession with continuity and sticking to canon by hook or crook can be stifling, continuity in canon can lead to gloriously developed characters and story arcs.

So, why not just take the best of both worlds?

George Lucas once famously told Mandalorian co-creator Dave Filoni, “Continuity is for wimps.”

What if we started treating storylines as separate entities that can be returned to and referenced if and when needed? This takes away the oppressive nature of canons, leaves room for experimentation, and lets previous storylines just exist.

I mean, it's not like other fandoms haven't, rather successfully, done that already.

Take Doctor Who, Marvel, and DC, for example. They do not abide by canon as much as they do by a kind of status quo. Doctor Who doesn't have a long-standing story arc, no matter what we Whovians would like to believe. When it does have overarching plots, they wrap it up in the scope of a few episodes – or at most a season. Then it is on to the next story or arc. And we all know how easy it is to get into the series.

You only need to have a preliminary idea about who the Doctor is and what the Tardis does. That and a suspension of disbelief are all that's required to jump right in. And do we mind that? Not really. No one goes searching for loopholes and canon snares in Doctor Who. We already know what we would find, yet no one seems to mind. Does that affect the overall quality and how we feel about the show? Not really, mainly because nobody cares. It's excellent storytelling, nevertheless.

Spider-Man or Batman media work the same way too. They are written in a way that allows for jumping-in points every few years. Conversely, Marvel likes to pretend that it is all but one canonical main timeline. But almost all the great stories in the last ten years are built from scratch and do not rely on canon. Instead, they rely on creating the stories and characters from the ground up while acting as jumping-in points. This is true whether you consider Tom King's Vision, Matt Fraction's Hawkeye, Jeff Lemire's Moon Knight, etc.

DC has a long line of non-canon books that became so famous that they started being considered canon at one point. These include Batman Year One and the Killing Joke. Some universes have multiple entries telling the same stories (like Superman Birthright and Superman Secret Origins), often leaving it to the audience to decide what they deem is canon. They even bring it up in Tom King's Batman, where there is this running joke about how Batman and Catwoman remember their first meeting very differently (one remembers the original 40s meet, and the other remembers the version from their 80s counterpart). Essentially, in pop culture, canon has always been fluid. We have had great runs being deemed canon in retrospect. There are ‘technically canon' movies and books wholly denounced by fandoms.

So, this obsession with canon and continuity and what is allowed and what isn't just doesn't make sense to me. After all, isn't it all just about good storytelling? Every franchise, every piece of fiction, no matter how real our adoration for them, are all just stories. The question of whether a tale is canon is, thus, redundant. What matters, in the end, is if it is a good one.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Ananyaa Bhowmik is a neurodivergent and queer pop-culture journalist with the Wealth of Geeks. She has previously worked with brands like Sterling Holidays, Myntra, Bajaj, and the Loud Interactive. She is an independent scholar, cat parent, and performance poet. Her areas of research and interest focus on and around digital marketing, Canadian indigenous history, queerness in media, and pop-culture and fandom studies.