Not Just Once Upon A Time!

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I thought I'd take some time to talk about "time," in comic book terms. Many moons ago as a young reader, it never really occurred to me that Peter Parker was in high school longer than I'd been in school, period. It barely registered on my subconscious when young and plucky sidekick Dick Grayson doffed his youth-sized green scale-mail underwear for the dark, full-length and decidedly more mature pants of his Nightwing uniform. I didn't think much about aging. I mostly just thought about Scooby-Doo, Super-Friends and where in the world my G. I. Joe with the fuzzy beard and the Kung-Fu Grip was hiding (my mother would find him in the laundry--the old clothes chute was hours and hours of fun).

But the inevitability of time has brought me fully to the realm of adulthood, and with it an awareness and appreciation of time. An awareness, it seems, that the comic book industry doesn't quite know how to handle. I can't really blame them, though. Dealing with time can be a monster of a headache.

Let's look first at the passage of time in comics. A continuous 12 issue run of a comic takes a full year in real time to produce, but the pages within don't necessarily reflect a full year in the life of the featured characters. Sure, a book like Batman: Year One does sort of represent a year in the life of Bruce Wayne, but 12 issues of Daredevil may not quite take you through even a week in the life of Matt Murdoch. And this is where things start to get confusing. Did Batman age faster than Daredevil? Did young Clark Kent become Superboy and then Superman and become a top notch reporter for the Daily Planet in the time it took nerdy Peter Parker to simply graduate and sell a few pictures to J. Jonah Jameson of the Daily Bugle, the only guy since Hitler to get away with that moustache? Fear not, because...drum doesn't matter! More on that later.

"Go ahead, Crom. Make my day."

No discussion of comic time can rely solely on chronological measures. There's the whole mess of "Time Travel" to consider too. From Charles Dickens and H. G. Wells to Bill S. Preston and Ted Theodore Logan to Booster Gold and Rip Hunter, time travel has been explained and attempted in almost every way imaginable. From time-spanning treadmills (when are the makers of Bow-Flex gonna give us THAT one?) to the Jack Kirby-inspired devices of Doctor Doom, superheroes have adventured from King Arthur's England to the 31st Century. Surprisingly, and contrary to common science fiction convention, there seldom seemed to be any lasting repercussions. Doom and Iron Man fighting in ye olde Camelot didn't usher in advances in science years before they were due. There was no sudden space-race in the 14th Century. The only common occurrence, it seems, is chronal relocation. In A Brief History of Time, the esteemed Dr. Stephen Hawking suggests that perhaps time travel is not possible, as we don't seem to experience much in the way of time traveling tourism. Such movements are commonplace in comics. Cable was raised in the future. Bishop and Shard traveled to the past in pursuit of the time-hopping fugitive Trevor Fitzroy. Professor Zoom, The Two-Gun Kid, even Conan the Barbarian have all journeyed through time in some way or another--admittedly Conan did it in an issue of What If...? which is still a favorite of mine. And if you think about it, one of Marvel's flagship characters is a time traveler: Captain America. Spending years bobbing in the North Atlantic, experiencing suspended animation in a block of ice, he was still very much a visitor from another time right up to his death.

As a plot device, time travel can be a lot of fun. Who wouldn't want to see Batman get his T-Rex for the Batcave the old fashioned way--by hunting it? Von Doom and Iron Man as opposed knights on the field of battle has become something of a minor tradition. And the far-future Legion of Superheroes pop into the 21st century or host visitors from there fairly regularly. Even the late, great Tommy "The Hitman" Monaghan rumbled with tyrannosaurs on occasion. DC fully embraced the concept with their DC: 1,000,000 story in 1998. I admit, I wasn't a huge fan of the story itself--I should probably give it another try someday--but I applaud them for trying to reach that far. I do recall being very happy with the brief spotlight that shined on Resurrection Man, an extremely fun and sadly missed title. I think like TV's Journeyman, he was a little misunderstood and some probably found it difficult to get into if they didn't start at #1. Currently, the two books I most look forward to from DC right now, Legion of Superheroes and Booster Gold, either are or have been time travel intensive. Booster in particular has been a blast. I love how they work in in and around the most memorable moments of DC history, and the plot serves as a nifty little contrivance for the return of Blue Beetle without exactly bringing him back from the dead. When you do time travel right, it can be very rewarding.

Now let me get back to an earlier point: None of this really matters. Here's why.

I think it all boils down to this: it's a reset switch. Every video game console I've ever owned has had one. And yes sir, I personally have time traveled with them. sure, I was a couple hours older than I was when I started playing--it takes time to time travel, you know. But with that reset switch, I traveled back in time, to a point before I tried to fight the dragon without the magic sword I missed in the previous dungeon, or to a point before my idiot left tackle was called for holding on what would have been the game-winning 91 yard touchdown pass.

Or to put it another way, time travel or the manipulation of time is like a giant Flux Capacitor hanging on the wall next to a comic writer's keyboard. If ever a writer finds himself stuck in a corner, he or she can always flip the switch and rewind it to a safe spot to start anew. At DC, it's become an almost regular occurrence. Time and/or space has been wiped clean and relaunched repeatedly. The original Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985 erased the muddled mess that came of too many creators taking advantage of what I have to assume was rather lax editorial control. How else can one explain the multitude of Hawkman variations? Crisis cut it all down to a manageable level, but it didn't just alter inter-dimensional space. Timelines were altered and histories were redefined. And I think by and large that was for the better. Since then, DC has ran a much tighter ship, embracing continuity and weaving a very cohesive fantasy universe.

Booster looks bewildered. I know how he feels.

About 10 years later, DC did it again with Zero Hour, which gave the creators the opportunity to freshen up history and work out a specific universal timeline. Any pre-Crisis survivors were neatly woven into continuity, and various characters were reworked to reduce confusion (as in Hawkman's case) or to allow the traditional stalwarts, Batman especially, to regain some of their youth. After all, if Bruce Wayne aged at even half the speed of his readers, he'd still be pushing retirement age. Identifying loose starting points for certain caped crusading careers helped define specific "eras" better. The Justice Society survivors were now definitively older than their Justice League counterparts. Batman and Superman were peers, like rival top athletes who came into their sport at the same time. Of course, nothing is perfect. Certain events, notably Batman: Year One and Year Two, were cast out of continuity. Other events that at one time carried an Elseworlds logo were now very much in canon.

Another 10 years after that, Infinite Crisis represented another flip of the switch. Attitudes about the DC Multiverse have swung back around and once again there are more Earths, though not as "infinite" as they once were. Still 52 Earths should be more than enough for DC's creative minds to play around in. Timelines were fast forwarded, skipping Year One-style tales and simply thrusting readers into an often unfamiliar present. Batman's got a kid by Catwoman, and the once non-canonical son he sired with Talia al Ghul is present as well. What's more, the few pre-Crisis survivors, characters such as Power Girl and Psycho Pirate, have had their pasts returned to them, complete with the knowledge of what has come before. So I think it's safe to assume that you can mark your calendars for 2015 and expect another ride on the Wayback Machine.

As anyone who writes with any regularity will tell you, it's easy to write yourself into a corner. And in the medium of comic books, with multiple creators working on dozens of titles and hundreds of characters (all of which George Perez has drawn at some point) the odds that a story will find itself at odds with a set precedent is nearly as sure a thing as death and taxes. The use of the reset switch once in awhile is inevitable, but it's not without consequences. Not all resets work. Hawkman was a mess even after Crisis and perhaps Zero Hour as well in some ways. Jumping Aquaman ahead one year to find him turned into something out of "Pirates of the Caribbean" that ended up on the cutting room floor caused me to jump off of the book. You often hear of a certain issue being a good jump-on point for new readers, and that sort of phrasing seems to pop up more frequently with universal reboots, but I don't really think it really works. More often than not, it just ticks off the old readers. I'll probably tackle what I call the "Myth of the New Reader" in a future column.

I've said for years that Marvel needs to do a Zero Hour event, and with the Ultimate Universe and the Max line, they could probably benefit from a Crisis event as well. Wouldn't the reset of Peter Parker's life be more acceptable if Kang, Immortus, Dr. Doom, Reed Richards or Cable simply reshuffled the timeline for the whole Marvel Universe instead of Mary Jane accepting a deal with the Devil just to bring back Pete's decrepit Aunt May? If you're going to keep her around, don't ruin Peter's appeal with a magic trick, just use time travel and kick everyone back a few years. Or in May's case, go all he way back to when she was married to her first husband--Galactus.

I think the decision to backtrack Peter to his bachelor days shows the danger in mucking with time--magically, scientifically or otherwise. It's a fact that much of the comic book consumer demographic is skewing older these days. Sure, kids still read comics, but they're up against a multi-billion dollar video game industry as well as television and movies to entertain their increasingly short attention spans. The way Marvel handled the Peter Parker situation has caused more harm than good, in my opinion. I've asked local comic shop employees and fellow patrons for their thoughts and found that a sizable percentage of these folks have quit reading Spider-Man altogether. The retailers told me that they're ordering less stock. Those that still read it are compulsive completionists, and at least one shopper who falls into that category admitted that he bought them because he's got a continuous run of Amazing Spider-Man going back well over 25 years and didn't want to break the streak, but had no intention of reading the stories now that Peter and Mary Jane are no longer "The Parkers." With this article in mind, I asked these people if there was a more acceptable way to arrive at the same result, and the words Zero Hour came up several times. Mostly though, folks felt that if Mr. and Mrs. Spider-Man were going to break up, they should have done it the same way everyone else does: divorce. It's not like it doesn't happen in comics, and there are a lot of possibilities in that scenario. The Atom's wife ended up becoming a murderer. Hank and Janet Pym manage to coexist in varying degrees of success. Would MJ stay in the Avengers Tower while Spidey is on the run with Dr. Strange's Avengers? Or would she end up with Wolverine, who is determined to bed every redhead in the Marvel Universe eventually?

An editorial meeting at either company.
You thought I was joking about the Wayback Machine?

The vibe I was getting from the folks I talked to was overwhelmingly supportive of change, with the tricky caveat of: "As long as it's done right." There's no way to know until the deed is done if it is, in fact, done right. People are fine with sidekicks growing up, and the public doesn't seem to object much to marriage in comics. Joe Quesada and company decided Peter Parker was more interesting as a single man. Magically, the Spidey-verse has returned to a 1970s atmosphere in terms of tone and personality (thankfully though, no muttonchops, bell-bottoms or brown plaid). Meanwhile, the Black Panther and Storm were married and now share panel space in both the Black Panther comic and the Fantastic Four. Does that mean T'Challa and Ororo were less interesting as single people? What I take it to mean is Black Panther and Storm have aged. Marriage is an act of maturity (or should be, anyway). It's a milestone moment that marks a set point in a person's life, and indeed the passage of time as the couple shares their adult lives with each other. Holidays and even seasons are much the same thing. Every summer baseball game and picnic on the grounds at Xavier's, every time Daredevil has to punch out a department store Santa robbing a bank on a winter's night, every time Franklin Richards blows out his birthday candles, we as readers are marking the time, subconsciously or otherwise. I know there are a lot of opinions about the role of continuity in comics, and I'm of the opinion that it's vital. And I think time and continuity are fundamentally intertwined. There's a logic to it that helps people make sense of things.

Recently, another conversation on the subject yielded the theory that for every 1 year in comic time, 3 to 5 years pass in real time. Spider-Man debuted in 1962. Let's do the math: if he was about 15 in his first appearance, and it's now 2008, that's 46 years. Divide that by 5 years and it's just over 9 years. So add 9 years to the original 15 and he would be...24? Now see, that seems to young somehow. Maybe because I was under 10 myself when I first met the character, and now that I'm squarely in my 30s it seems weird that I would pass him. If we divide by 3, we'd end up with about 15 years, making him right around 30. That seems perfectly plausible to me. At 30 he'd expect to have an wrinkly and invasive relative to deal with, be established at a job, and hope to have a hot wife. That's the American Dream, at least it would be if May would hurry up an die. But the problem I have with it is if I were geeky enough to go back and count every time the artists, using real life for inspiration, drew a winter scene or a summer scene and counted time in that manner, Pete would probably be closer to 60. So while I understand the theory here, I also take note of the physical evidence of time's passage within the confines of Spidey's universe and they just don't jibe. Time is a trippy subject. I guess I should just be thankful that Marvel and DC at least attempt to keep things straight with varying degrees of success.

I think when DC powers up their Flux Capacitor and resets things, it generally works because they reset everything, whereas Marvel seems overly selective, allowing some characters to grow up (New Mutants, New Warriors, Power Pack, Bucky the Winter Soldier) while others seem trapped in a Mobius loop, doomed to replay the same 15 years of their life over and over (Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four to some degree). That's why we accept a grown-up Robin or three. Tim Drake has matured a great deal and probably deserves a chance to become his own hero sometime fairly soon. It's also why we cringe at things like Tony Stark suddenly becoming 17 again, as he did back before the Heroes Reborn fiasco. After all, how can he be 17 when he originally built his armor to save his life while in a POW camp in South East Asia? He was an adult male with Tom Selleck's moustache and severe stubble during his drinking years and then suddenly he's a baby-faced wunderkind? Thankfully it didn't last too long. Hopefully the Parker Annulment won't either. You know how I'd fix it?

Time travel, naturally!