This may or may not end up making sense. Proceed with caution.
The way I see it, continuity is icing on the cake.
I have two meanings behind that sentence.
First, that continuity is more or less great to have when it's there, but take it away and you'll still have a reasonably good cake.
Second, who the hell wants to eat a cake without icing?
And therein lies the dilemma for DC and Marvel.
See, it's occurred to me while reading various posts around the comicsblogoweb that continuity is at the same time both less important and more important than we generally think it is.
I still haven't made a point, have I? Oh, dear.
Here's the thing; if I want to read a story about Batman, there are certain elements I expect. I expect Bruce Wayne to have had his parents murdered, I expect that he's a smart-as-hell detective, and I expect that he's in Gotham City dressed as a bat righting wrongs.
Those are my core expectations.
The other stuff --- whether or not Alfred was a combat medic, whether this Robin is a delinquent, or an orphan, whether Harvey Bullock is a member of the GCPD --- doesn't matter to the character as a whole. I mean, it would be nice if things didn't change issue to issue, but if I start a new story arc or fill-in issue and The Penguin isn't walking with a limp like he was three issues ago, or suddenly the Joker's walking the streets a free man again, then who the hell cares?
To varying extents, Marvel and DC care, because we make them care. We (myself included) bitch and moan when something doesn't make sense, many times not because it's actually a detriment to a story, but because the writer/company has committed the unpardonable sin of being --- gasp! --- Unfaithful To That Which Came Before.
When it's really not that big a deal, it's just either forgotten or intentionally ignored, one would hope, for the sake of a better story. And I would argue that the times we get worked up over continuity is when it's a bad story we're reading anyway.
DC will go to extraordinary lengths --- I mean, ridiculous lengths --- to try and make sure that any given story they're telling has the right connections to past events, to the point that sometimes they get so wrapped up in making sure that all the pieces fit together in a quasi-logical way that the story becomes utter crap. And then they get so tangled up in this intricate web of stories that 20 years later they throw up their hands and say, "Superboy punched the walls of reality", which is just damned silly even if they did lay the groundwork for it for a year.
But on the upside, you get a sense that nothing happens in a vacuum, and that everything's happening in some coherent order which makes the sense of a shared universe that much more enriching and adds a sense of relevance to something that would otherwise be just bunch of heroes running around oblivious to what's going on around them and making no sense (I'm lookin' at you, X-Men and New Avengers).
Marvel, on the other hand, will absolutely throw continuity out the window in a New York minute if it suits their author/EIC/story of the month. Nick Fury, underground and in disgrace? Hell, no! We need him in Iron Man this month! JMS has a story arc that requires Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn to have had kids? Sure! Six of our characters have secretly been pulling strings in the Marvel U for the last 30 years? We'll rationalize it when we have to! That kind of stuff. And while it's frustrating because entire periods of "history" (which is in quotes because after all, these are only comic books) can be rendered null and void, completely unrational, or otherwise dismissed for the sake of a 6-issue arc that nobody will remember in two years anyway.
The upside of this approach is that you don't necessarily have to be familar with 10 years of the Fantastic Four to understand what's going on in any given issue. (I'm lookin' at you, Green Lantern and Flash).
Do we really want to put comic creators in a deep hole (deeper than the one they're already in) to begin with, having to worry about the last howevermany years of everything that happened in a particular character's milieu?
Of course not, because outside of hypersensitive fanclods, what we really want to read about are the characters in good stories. And if you've got good characterization and a good plot, then why bitch about the fact that Tony Stark is now Tony Stark, Jr.?
(I know, I know: physician, heal thyself.)
Continuity can either be a wonderful layer to a story, or it can be a plot-killing anchor. But I think that when it comes right down to it, it's best not to worry too much about it, unless we're explicitly told to do so a la DC's One Year Later.
(Which is why I'm avoiding 52. Its very purpose seems to be to explain continuity that hasn't even happened yet, instead of just following through and fast-forwarding ALL the characters OYL. At the very least, 52 should have been put off a year or so, I think, particularly in light of the fact that I think for the most part the OYL launches have been really good stuff.)
And as I made the point elsewhere, DC continuity reboots tend to be universal, whereas Marvel reboots tend to be character-by-character (with the notable exception of the Ultimate universe, which is a third solution).
I'm not sure that one is necessarily better than the other; it seems to me a case of either paying in installments or paying the whole bill at once.
The one place where I think continuity is more important than is typically worried about is in origin stories, because your origins are typically what define a character's core qualities. Batman's not the same guy if his parents aren't killed; Spider-Man's not the same guy if he's a popular high-school jock. The Punisher isn't the same if his family isn't murdered, and Superman's not the same if he's not from Krypton.
And if you screw with continuity too much there, you've got yourself a boatload of angry ex-comic readers and characters no longer recognizable to those who made them popular in the first place. That's fine for Hollywood, (which is where all the money is now anyway, I know)but not the comics.
Each and every one of us is getting older by the minute, and the older one gets I think the past becomes more important, which is why I think the current comic-reading demographic --- 25 and older --- cares so much about continuity. As we get older I think we strive to make some sense out of our past, to put some order to the events of our lives, to better take a measure of what's happened. I think it's human nature.
(Even for comic writers. :-) )
And that's why I think there's so much hand-wringing over continuity. We want things to make sense in the grand scheme of things. We want a history to rely on in decoding current events. We want something solid --- something we can point to and say definitively, "I know that happened" --- to use in comparison to ideas, events, and characters in our lives. Even the make-believe ones.
That's what makes Alzheimer's disease so terrifying to me. What would it be like to lose your own continuity? I saw a close family member pass away recently with almost zero memory of her family or friends or even surroundings. It's disturbing to watch. We need our past on a very basic level.
So there. Take it for what you will; continuity's a double-edged sword, but when it comes right down to it, the only times I can remember being in an real uproar over mishandled continuity is when the story/characters weren't good enough to keep me from overlooking it. And it's one of those things that's purely there at the discretion of the folks making the damn things, so I'm going to just treat it as icing; if it's there, great --- but if it's not, don't think too hard about it.
Just remember that at the end of the day, everything we read in comics is an Elseworlds story anyway.