With all the Comics, movies, TV shows, and more that have come out for franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, and DC, there’s a word that comes up a lot: “CANON”. You’ll see it in lots of articles and YouTube channels, and discussed in blogs and forums all over the place. You’ll see people comment that this is canon or not, and see a lot of debates about it, too!
So what is? What exactly is “Canon”?
Well, let’s break it down. The simplest way to put it is that canon is the overall body of lore from a group of text/source material; however, part of the job of that text is to define what is “true” or “untrue”, and within that canon concerning official continuity.
For this discussion, let’s stick with a simple example: I’m primarily going to use the new TV Show, “What if?” that’s being produced by Marvel, and talk about how it compares to the comic it is named after, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and what the new TV show means in relationship to the overall body of work at Marvel.
But before we get deep into this, let’s define “Canon”. There are two definitions to “canon”:
- Canon: (noun)
- A general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged.
- A collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine.
“Canon” then, in terms of fiction, refers to the body and collection of work accepted as authentic. A story, fact, or character inside the accepted canon is accepted as being ‘true’, while something outside the canon isn’t. This is why debates get so intense about movies like “The Last Jedi” – is it canon because it was made by Lucasfilm, or is it not canon because it wasn’t made by the original author, George Lucas? A question for another time, but this is why canon is important to fiction fans. Knowing what is “true” or “accepted” within the body of work helps keep everyone on the same page.
But back to Marvel, and “What if?”, because this brings helps illustrate this point.
“What If?” comics are alternate reality stories; essentially, they are fun brainstorming sessions asking the question, “What If?” a different event occurred in place of the established one. “What if the spider that bit Peter Parker bit Flash Thompson instead?” would be a good example.
Flash Thompson in the comics wasn’t at the science demonstration where Peter got bitten. This issue of “What If” asks the question of what if he had been there and been bitten instead of Peter, gaining the powers of Spider-Man.
However, the story doesn’t retcon what actually occurred, it is merely a pondering on how events may have transpired differently. It is accepted right from the start that these tales are untrue, and transpire differently than the actual events.
In this sense, since the story is from Marvel writers, using Marvel Characters, and is an official piece of Marvel Lore, it is technically part of the overall “canon” of Marvel works. This is an official “alternate” story, telling the tale of what would happen if Flash Thompson was bitten instead of Peter.
People can reference these tales when talking about the “What If” series and be talking about official Marvel Lore, and it’s accepted that “What If” lore is out-of-continuity for the rest of the true Marvel canon.
The story is a non-canon tale in regards to official Spider-Man lore; there is one official “true” accounting of events regrading a radioactive spider and who it bit, and how that boy became a hero.
So something like a “What If?” story from the comics would be considered “canon” in that regards to Marvel’s overall comic book lore, but not to Spider-Man specific lore. This is why things can get confusing and why they have to be defined. Flash Thompson didn’t become Spider-Man on that fateful day; saying that he did would be untrue to Spider-Man lore even if you pointed out at the panel in the “What If?” comic that it happened and pointed at the Marvel logo yelling, “It’s official!!!”
The same can be said for the Cinematic Universe as well: the tales in the animated “What If?” show will be alternate, (“untrue”) tales of what could have occurred. It’s officially produced by Marvel, and will be considered a part of the overall Marvel “canon” and lore, but not as a resource for reference concerning what actually occurred in continuity.
I know, I know… you’re thinking, “NERD ALERT!!!” Or at least, if you haven’t yet, you probably are now! But hopefully, this helps define what canon is and what it isn’t. It can be REALLY tricky! Star Wars, He-Man, Transformers, A Song of Ice and Fire, (and the “Game of Thrones TV Series); there are MANY franchises that span decades, crossover between different platforms of media, and have can have stories written by multiple authors.
Which are considered true? Which aren’t? How do you determine the truth? For example, take the Force users from Star Wars. The Original Trilogy’s Force users look VERY different from how they appear in video games like “The Force Unleashed”. Luke Skywalker struggled to pull a lightsaber out of fresh snow; Starkiller in The Force Unleashed was pulling down Star Destroyers with the Force. This is a titanic difference in power levels for two people who are Force Users. The characters and stories supposedly take place around the same era in the same universe, so how can there be such a big discrepancy?
I’m going to write a blog later about trying to authenticate sources. But hopefully, you have something to chew on till then!