Here's something that seems, on the face of it, to be a relatively simple question: When does the first arc of Jonathan Hickman's Avengers take place?
You'd think that the answer would be "now," wouldn't you? After all, the arc isn't finished, and the series is a flagship of Marvel's big current publishing initiative, which is actually called "Marvel NOW!" And, yet, depending on what other Marvel series you're reading, the real answer seems to be "sometime in the recent past, at least." There are two giveaways for this, and they're both in the first issue: Firstly, we're looking at a Hulk that isn't the one we're seeing in Mark Waid and Lenil Yu's Indestructible Hulk - the hair, of all things, is the giveaway - and secondly, we see Captain America switch from his old costume to his new one at the end of the first issue.
That means that "Avengers World" happens at some point before the first issue of the latest Captain America run, where Cap is wearing his new costume. But it happens after the first issue of the new Iron Man series, because we're seeing the armor that Tony Stark debuted in the first issue of that run while the character is on Mars. That "Avengers World" also features the Peter Parker Spider-Man suggests that it takes place before the most recent Amazing Spider-Man arc, which makes sense; new-costume Cap appears in #698, after all. But this week's issue of Daredevil features the first appearance of the Superior Spider-Man, who doesn't even get his origin story until next week's Amazing Spider-Man, so does that comic come from the future?!?
Let's not even get into the tease that Dan Slott dropped on Twitter when Marvel announced next year's Age of Ultron event, saying that at least part of that story took place before Superior Spider-Man - The Point One tease from last year showed Peter Parker firmly in place as Spider-Man, remember - because, well, then it just gets weird. Especially as Superior Spider-Man actually crosses over with Age of Ultron. At least we can all agree that Avengers seems to take place at some point in the past, and Uncanny Avengers at some point in the past before then (Old costumed Cap, for one thing, and also Cyclops being in jail in the first issue, while he's running around throwing arm-Xs in All-New X-Men, thanks to the events of AVX: Consequences, which wasn't even a Marvel NOW! book), with Avengers Assemble floating around at some point possibly even earlier than that (Old costume Cap again, but also old-armored Iron Man, which makes it pre-Avengers, at least), right…?
Part of the fun of the Marvel Universe has always been its interconnectedness; that characters from one book pop up in unexpected places and make references to things happening in other series that readers could follow-up on or not, depending on how interested they were in whatever Hank Pym was up to. These days, though, the number of characters who are appearing in multiple titles has turned Marvel continuity into some insanely complicated timeline that is best not thought about too closely, because to do otherwise risks madness and more importantly, spoiling the outcome of at least one story (To wit: Clearly the Red Skull doesn't do anything too terrible in the first Uncanny Avengers arc, because mutantkind is still running around in All-New X-Men, and Ex Nihilo can't remake the Earth in any really appreciable fashion in Avengers, because Daredevil's world seems just like it always has).
But what's the alternative? Well, if you're DC, you can either try and line all of your books up into one coherent "now"-ness, or something close to it. Take, for example, Justice League, which is currently lacking both a Green Lantern and a Flash because of events going on in their own titles (Justice League#15 even makes mention of an ape invasion in Central City in passing), with the Superman/Wonder Woman relationship being referenced in recent issues of Superman. Not all of DC's titles do this, of course; Wonder Woman continues to chart its own course, seemingly ignoring the character's appearances elsewhere (and especially her relationship with Superman), and the goings-on in the Batman titles will likely never stop the character from showing up elsewhere while his sales-boosting mojo is still strong; he'll just take a moment out from trying to stop the Joker to remind Cyborg that, yes, even with just half of his organic body, he's still more of a man than the filth that tries to hurt innocent people. That's how good he is at time management. He's Marvel's Wolverine, that way.
(DC actually has the best argument against cross-title continuity, in the form of Grant Morrison's JLA. Arguably one of the best runs of any Justice League title, it now requires an explanation for new readers of both Electric Superman and why Wonder Woman is temporarily replaced by her own mother who just so happens to look exactly like her. Really, who wants to deal with that?)
The right thing to do, of course, is to not care about it quite so much: Take each story as it comes, enjoy them as stories in and of itself, and then try to work out how they all fit together afterwards, if you really have to. Tom Brevoort, SVP of Publishing and editorial ubermensch at Marvel, has a great way of looking at it:
<blockquote>"Continuity is a wonderful thing, but continuity isn't more important than the stories themselves--that's a sure-fire way to get a lot of crummy stories that color within the lines but that few people are interested in. Continuity is a tricky beast as well, in that every reader's "personal continuity" is different, depending on what they've read and what they've liked. I can't tell you the number of times I've seen angry letters from readers who feel like we've violated continuity who had simply missed the story in which that situation had changed. Alternately, when you're talking about between Fifty and Seventy years worth of stories in an ongoing tapestry, there are going to be pieces that don't fit together very well, and times when a story done in, say, 1967 gets in the way of something that you want to do now. In those instances, the story is champ. And it's always been this way--back in the 1990s I spent many an hour with Mark Gruenwald working on the Marvel Universe Handbook and trying to make sense of how particular stories or situations fit together--and then, as now, we just did the best we could with it."</blockquote>
Which is to say, if Ex Nihilo ends up dumping an evolution bomb on Seattle and the entire West Coast ends up a mutant wasteland by the end of Avengers #3…? Well, maybe Daredevil was just too busy dealing with Coyote to notice all this time, and that's okay. Isn't this kind of thing what they invented No Prizes for, anyway?