There was a time when comic books strived to maintain continuity. Readers often can be sticklers when a character appears in more than one title. We want to know when each story takes place in relation to one another. A character can't be in New York in one story while appearing in another dimension in a comic published in the same month.
As certain characters rose in popularity, it made perfect sense that publishers would try to capitalize on that and have their character guest star in as many issues as possible. It was a toss up of how much coordination was given in keeping track of all the appearances. Eventually, readers simply had to accept that the popular character suddenly gained the superpower of appearing in just about every comic book title the publisher put out.
With more big and small events occurring in comics these days, characters are appearing in more titles than ever. We are sometimes getting an explanation where each story falls in a timeline but it's becoming more of a common practice to simply ignore the timeline. Does having a character appear in several stories enhance the reading experience or does it ruin the integrity of the publisher and writers?== TEASER ==
One of the first major crossovers that comes to mind is 1984's Secret Wars from Marvel. The twelve-issue mini-series kicked off in several character and team books with the heroes suddenly disappearing when investigating a strange structure that suddenly appeared. The following issue showed the heroes return, many with major changes as the mini-series began it's twelve month run. There was a lot of coordination here. The individual writers for the Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man titles and all the other characters involved had to know the outcome. Some characters got new costumes while some teams had new rosters. It was clear when Secret Wars took place in relation to each individual issue.
When Superman was appearing in four different monthly titles in the 80s and 90s, readers knew which book to read first. Put out on a monthly schedule, the cover of each comic had a number that told you which week it fell in. If Lois Lane was in Africa writing a story, the chances were she would still be there in the other titles or on her way back to Metropolis. Each issue often featured its own villain and showdown with Superman but there was an overall connection within this Superman-universe.
Spider-Man and Batman also had multiple titles. Spider-Man might be fighting Hobgoblin in 'Amazing Spider-Man' but battling the Spot in 'Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man.' Batman could be at the mercy of the Joker in 'Detective Comics' but also in another country talking to Ra's al Ghul in 'Batman.' It wasn't always clear when each story took place unless the editor put in an editor's note somewhere in the comic.
In the 90s, Wolverine, the Punisher and Ghost Rider all rose to popularity. It got to the point where you practically couldn't open a Marvel comic without seeing one of these characters. To this day, Wolverine remains one of the busiest heroes around. He has numerous solo adventures in his two solo books while remaining an active member of the X-Men, X-Force and New Avengers. It was in Wolverine #73 where Marvel decided to give us an idea how he manages to appear in so many different books.
DC has 'The New 52,' which has given all its titles a fresh start. We have seen a couple minor guest appearances in other books by Superman and Batman but each titles is focusing on the individual character rather than try to show their place in the new DC Universe. Marvel appears to have thrown out the idea of continuity. Some titles such as 'Captain America' and 'The Mighty Thor' are taking place in their own continuity. Fear Itself is the major Marvel event with both characters heavily involved. Their main solo titles make no acknowledgement to the event. Captain America, while struggling with the loss of Bucky and his shield being shattered in 'Fear Itself' has his shield back in 'Captain America' and is still in his old Super Soldier uniform in the pages of 'Secret Avengers.' To make things worse, unless I missed something, he was turned into the Spider King in Spider-Man's Spider-Island mini-event. We have no idea what the order of each story is.
Perhaps continuity shouldn't be so important. It just might be something we should let go of. Batman has 'Batman,' 'Detective Comics,' 'Batman and Robin,' 'Batman: The Dark Knight' along with other Bat-related titles such as 'Nightwing,' 'Batwoman' and 'Batgirl' he'll probably appear in as well as 'Justice League' and 'Justice League International.' With a less tighter control over Batman's continuity, readers won't feel obliged to read every single appearance. If one particular title isn't to their liking, they can choose to pass on it. 'Captain America' is giving us an interesting story that doesn't have to worry about where he's appearing in each Avengers title. 'Avengers: The Children's Crusade' with it's bi-monthly schedule has been one of my favorite stories this year. It screams against the idea of continuity and because I enjoy it so much, I really don't care how Doom's appearance relates to his Future Foundation time. DC finally released Teen Titans: Games, a book twenty-three years in the making. This book is 100% pre-'New 52' and I couldn't be happier to finally read it. It doesn't matter how it might fit in with any tweaks that have occurred to the characters. It's an exciting read with characters I love so that's good enough for me.
Also with 'The New 52,' there's been the question of what has happened before and whether or not those events and story arcs still exist or have been erased. This is a little bit different than worrying about regular continuity. Having Batman popping up in several titles in one month is one thing but if major story arcs are no longer considered part of his history, that's another story. Most of us know the story of Damian's...conception but that was later modified when Grant Morrison brought the character back. I don't want characters' history erased but worrying about when each individual story happens currently isn't worth fretting over.
Readers have to be flexible. Having multiple appearances of their favorite characters is a good thing (assuming they're all well-written). If we get hung up on which event happens before the next, it takes away from the reading enjoyment. Unless there are major repercussions happening, it shouldn't really matter. Comics are being collected and read in trade paperback format so continuity is becoming even less important. Superheroes can do a lot of amazing things. We just have to accept that one of those things is appearing in several good stories. As long as the quality is there and we're having fun reading them, when they happen in relation to each other doesn't really matter anymore.