There are essentially two ways to handle episodic serials, and the two companies are both associated with different approaches. DC usually went with the Sherlock Holmes formula, in which nothing of consequence happens to the characters. Ever since Fantastic Four #4 picked up immediately after where the third issue with Johnny Storm flying away in a hissy fit, Marvel usually had some sort of change from story to story. It may be the Illusion of change rather than a commitment to it, but it’s the norm in Marvel Comics for characters to find themselves in a different place at the end of a storyline than at the beginning. Developments and character interactions would often be reflected in the next issue, and sometimes for a long time after that.
For example, in Fantastic Four #31 Reed Richards meets Franklin Storm, the fugitive father of Sue & Johnny. In the next issue, Franklin is killed by the Skrulls. A few issues later, the team attacks the Skrull homeworld to avenge him. In Amazing Spider-Man #26, Peter Parker gets into a fight with Flash Thompson. Two issues later, the principal has a talk with him about it. This was innovative stuff during the silver age, and set the tone for Marvel’s approach.
Some of the best reviewed DC comics from the last generation are be the tie-ins to the various Animated shows, such as Mark Millar’s run of Superman Adventures or Dan Slott’s run of Batman Adventures. Perhaps one reason is that these reflect the spirit of the company the most. Nothing of significance happens to the lead or to any of the supporting cast, because that might contradict the main product. Aside from the tie-ins, self-contained works were still the company’s specialty, although the scale had changed. Instead of a ten page story in Action Comics, it was now a four part double-sized mini-series.
DC comics has a similar approach to Archie, in that most of the stories feature “default” versions of the characters. There can still be changes, but those usually happen quickly, over the course of one story, rather than as the culmination of a long-running subplot. So at the end of an Archie story, the gang at Riverdale is comfortable with their new gay classmate. At the end of a Batman story, the Dark Knight could have a new enemy in his rogues gallery.
The writers were still able to feature outlandish developments, before restoring the status quo at the end of the issue/ arc. So Batman’s new sidekick may die at the end of the story, saving his life. Bruce Wayne might be appointed Senator, but he’ll resign after an important vote. Superman would return from that alternate world in which an evil version of Jor-el became Emperor of Earth.
This difference in approaches between the companies generally extended to the movies. The first two Superman films featured resets of some of the major scenes, so that Lois Lane was resurrected and forgot Superman’s identity. There wasn’t much continuity between the Tim Burton directed and produced Batman films, aside from the addition of sidekicks. You could contrast that with the X-Men and Spider-Man films, which clearly built on the foundation of earlier films, and featured major transformations for the characters. In Act One of Spider-Man 2, Harry Osborn was Peter Parker’s friend. At the end of Act 3, he was ready to kill Peter.
It was also evident in the animated series. For the most part, the order of episodes didn’t matter for the Bruce Timm produced Batman and Superman runs, while the Fox X-Men and Spider-Man series featured long-running subplots.
It makes the books more accessible if the status quo of one issue is exactly the same as it was a few months earlier. A new reader doesn’t have to expend any energy wondering about how things have changed, while a returning reader can jump right back in if the things are exactly the same as when he left the book. Late artists and writers will be less of a problem, as the company could just put in fill‑in work in their stead, and no one would care as neither project will have had any change to the status quo, preventing any confusion regarding the intended order. Reprints are also more appealing if there’s no difference between these and the new material.
There are also some significant disadvantages to this approach. In his book Everything Bad is Good For You, author Stephen Johnson noted that stories in television and movies have become more intricate, relying on the audience understanding prior developments. Compare Arrested Development and Community to the Honeymooners, or the Lord of the Rings series to the Sean Connery James Bond films in terms of narrative complexity. This has also become true of comics, and the storytelling would seem infantile to anyone who has seen the Sopranos or Lost if the writers couldn’t reference prior continuity or relationships, or feature several ongoing (and sometimes) intersecting plots.
In recent years, DC has caught up to Marvel in terms of handling ongoing series in comics and film. Continuity is important in the new 52, while Superman Returns clearly left the characters in a different place for any potential sequel. The order of the films is also quite important for the Christopher Nolan Batman films. It’ll be interesting to see if they stick to it, considering how the opposite approach has long been part of the line identity.