Retroactive Continuity (Retcon) in the Law

The first reference to the term "retcon" in a Westlaw-accessible court opinion.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From Judge Thomas M. Hardiman's panel opinion in Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society v. County of Lackawanna Transit System (3d Cir. Sept. 17, 2019):

In Lehman v. City of Shaker Heights (1974), the Supreme Court upheld a prohibition on political advertisements in buses' "car card" interior advertising spaces…. Lehman predates modern public forum analysis but has been retconned into that framework. See Int'l Soc'y for Krishna Consciousness, Inc. v. Lee (1992)Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Def. & Ed. Fund (1985).

And from Merriam-Webster's "A Short History of 'Retcon'":

Retcon is a shortened form of retroactive continuity, and refers to a literary device in which the form or content of a previously established narrative is changed. Retcons are often encountered in serial formats such as comic books or television series, where they serve as a means of allowing the work's creators to create a parallel universe, reintroduce a character, or explore plot lines that would otherwise be in conflict with the work. Essentially, a retcon allows an author to have his or her cake and eat it too, as it enables the return of dead characters, the revision of unpopular elements of a work, and a general disregard for reality….

If retcon manages to stick in the English language it would hardly be the first word to have been given an assist from the world of comics. Brainiac is thought to have its origins in an early issue of Superman, and the pejorative term sad sack had its roots in George Baker's comic strip of the same name.

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  1. What a Newspeak-sounding word! And come to think of it, wasn’t that exactly what Winston Smith, minor Ingsoc Minitruth official, spent his working day doing?

  2. That was a surprisingly editorial explanation of retcon from MW. The author of that segment clearly doesn’t like the practice.

  3. Is it really a retcon to incorporate an older result into newer analysis methods? It’s not a retcon when we explain why Newton was pretty close with modern theories. It would be a retcon if we said Newton developed these modern theories.

  4. So the judge reads comics?

  5. And this is the kind of stuff that brings me to The Conspiracy every day.
    “Essentially, a retcon allows an author to have his or her cake and eat it too, as it enables the return of dead characters, the revision of unpopular elements of a work, and a general disregard for reality….”

    God, what a concept! Jon Snow’s revival, I guess, qualifies as a retcon?

    (BTW, IANAL, so go easy on me please (you too, Rev)…)

    1. As I understand it, the idea of a “retcon” is changing details from an earlier portion of the plot in order to accommodate the new developments that the storytellers wants to incorporate it. We’ll see when the next book comes out (if it ever does), but even eight and a half years ago when I read it for the first time, I was pretty confident that Jon Snow was coming back.

  6. Can “backronym” be retconned into Merriam-Webster’s next dictionary?

  7. A great deal of retconning on this site, especially as to Civil Rights, the Soviet Union, Obamacare, and the Second Amendment.

  8. Well, as someone who was there when it was created…

    “Retroactive continuity” was, it’s believed, first used as it’s currently used by comics writer Roy Thomas per the suggestion of a fan at a convention. He was writing a series set in the 1940s using characters who’d originally appeared in 1940s comics. His stories were very consciously set around the stories which had first appeared in the 1940s, so in general he was retroactively adding new continuity to the existing such.

    “Retcon”, as an abbreviation (and both noun and verb), was first used by Damian Cugley in a post to Usenet’s rec.arts.comics newsgroup about 30 years ago. The meaning expanded to also mean, as was starting to become all too common in comics, a wiping out of past continuity, either with or without an explanation.

    So, for example, Alan Moore wrote a story where Swamp Thing, who’d believed and been written as a man turned into a plant-based humanoid, discovered he was actually a plant with the mind of the deceased human he’d previously thought he was. This opened up a lot of new directions for the character.

    On the other hand, after a continuity changing event, John Bryne got to redefine Superman, such that there was a six issue series where the character was just starting out (a redefined origin) and altered continuity from then on. For example, prior to Bryne, in the comics Ma and Pa Kent had died before Clark Kent left Smallville (yes, in the 1978 movie, Clark mentions sending his salary to a little old lady in Kansas). With Bryne, the Kents were still alive well into Superman’s adulthood. No explanation other than “This is a different continuity”. After various other continuity changing events, they’re dead from when he left Smallville again.

    “Retcon” has been used in several sf/fantasy oriented creative works, usually as the name of something that causes amnesia. For example, in the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood, agents use retcon pills to wipe the memories when someone learns about the organization or experiences things outside of the norm that the agents don’t want known to the general public.

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