Blah Blah Blog – Time

An entry from my Marvel.com blog of long ago, this one concerning the passage of time in the realm of comic books. Barack Obama was now President when Captain America was unfrozen, by the way.

Time

September 24, 2008 | 1:00 AM | By Tom_Brevoort | In General

A few more ruminations concerning continuity in comics. Let’s talk about the passage of time.

This is one of those areas that really is best left unstared at, in that examining it inevitably makes everybody’s head hurt in one way or another. But, being fans, we simply can’t not think about it, and the problems it creates over the long haul.

Let’s start off with a broad axiom: time passes differently even among different titles set within the same fictional universe. There’s no easy way to make it consistent, and it’s really not worth the enormous backflips you have to go through to try. (When it was launched, one of the conceits of the NEW UNIVERSE was that the stories all took place in real time. This meant that two-part stories were just about impossible, that the equivalent of thirty days had to pass between each issue, and that the standard cliffhanger needed to be avoided. It was far more restrictive than the benefit was worth.) So this means that Kitty Pryde can age five years in the time it takes Franklin Richards to age three. That’s simply the way it works.

Worse still is what the passing of time does to characters who are rooted into a specific event in history. Captain America, at least, has a built-in get-out-of-jail-free card, in that he was in suspended animation since World War II. But because of the sliding timescale (Cap himself is only in his thirties, and has only been Captain America for twelve years or so) this means that Cap was unfrozen when Bill Clinton was President—which can really mess with your mind if you think about it too much.

Other characters are forced to update their backstories as time goes by. There was a series of stories in the mid-70s in which Nick Fury was jealous of Cap because he’d grown older, having lived through all the years since the War, while Cap was in deep freeze. But a few years thereafter, once somebody realized how old Nick would really have to be today, the idea that he would regularly imbibe the “Infinity Formula” to remain young came into play—thus negating the motivation for that earlier story. (Strangely enough, nobody ever really addressed the other Howlers such as Dum-Dum Dugan or Gabe Jones, who are at least as old as Nick if not older. They can’t all be taking the Infinity Formula…)

This is the reason why Reed Richards and Ben Grimm never served in World War II, even though some very early FANTASTIC FOUR stories said that they did. The passage of time made those situations impossible, and it was more crucial to keep the characters young and vital in the present than it was to maintain a minor crossover with SGT FURY in the past. At this stage, we’ve seen that Reed’s grandfather was active in WWII.

More recent characters have the same problem. We don’t like to think about it much, but if the Punisher was a grown man when he served in Vietnam during the war, that would make him close to sixty years old today. Now, maybe that’s right at the cusp of still working—but a decade from now it’s going to be a real problem. And it’s especially tough in that the Punisher isn’t a character whose oeuvre really lends itself to life-extending superdrugs or magical life extensions. By the same token, the Vietnam conflict is so woven into the fabric of Frank Castle’s make-up that you really can’t pull it away from him. The same thing is true for Magneto, whose situation is even more difficult to reconcile given that he’s got a whole brood of adult-aged kids who also get tied to the timeframe of the Holocaust.

Over the years, I’ve seen many different fannish attempts to reconcile all of this—everything from the notion that the heroes all somehow exude an anti-aging agent that affects both them and the people they most often interact with, to the even-further-out notion that the stories we’re doing now must take place in 1973 if the characters are only twelve years older than they were when the Marvel era began. But to my mind, the best and only way to grapple with this issue long term is to not think about it too much—to simply accept that it’s one of the prices of continuous serialized publication for so many years. Former Marvel indexer George Olshevsky coined the term “contemporary reference” for any element of the Marvel Universe that was applicable at the time of publication (such as the identity of the President, or the number of birthdays or Christmases celebrated by a character) but which would change over time. That’s really what we’re talking about for the most part here. You can try to eliminate all contemporary references from your comics, but it’s next to impossible, and what you wind up with are stories that don’t have any relevance to anybody.

The passage of time—it’s part of the price of doing business.

More later.

Tom B

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4 thoughts on “Blah Blah Blog – Time

  1. I forget, did they eventually shift the Punisher to the Simcong War like Ben and Reed?
    My favorite stumbling block is Namor. I can buy him aging that slowly but the idea he was wandering around the Bowery from the early 1950s to the 21st century is one I find unaesthetic. As you say best not to think about it.

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  2. Yes, but who was President during the “Secret Empire” storyline? 🙂

    On another note, the “Life Stories” books have been quite a bit of fun, allowing the characters to actually age. While I wouldn’t want to see the regular universe go that way, I definitely want to see other characters given that treatment (especially something like The New Warriors, where they start as teens).

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  3. The Punisher is tied to Vietnam only in the way the Fantastic Four are tied to the Cold War Space Race. That is, it was the background of the time, but the specific events aren’t intrinsic to that time period. It’s not anything like the connection of Captain America and World War II. The Punisher didn’t join the military to fight world Communism, he doesn’t have an arch-enemy who was the protege of Ho Chi Minh, he doesn’t even think about politics in that sense at all. The only necessary aspect of his origin is that he’s former elite military. That works for any recent war, or even no war if he’s given a background with a special-operations squad deployed to various hot-spots.

    The deep problem is that he comes out of a very specific cultural moment in the 1970’s, with the men’s-adventure genre novel, and crime-vigilante movies. He’s a white male vigilante with a military look who likes guns and uses them, a lot. That’s all much more problematic for a mainstream comics character these days.

    The best fun fan theory I’ve seen is that Franklin Richards is constantly subconsciously messing with timelines and de-aging people, since as a kid he thinks people should be like when he last saw them. And he doesn’t age much himself, because he doesn’t want to grow up, and has the power (not) to do it, too.

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    1. Point one, yes — from the point of view of people who weren’t around for the Vietnam War era it probably doesn’t seem essential to tie him to that.
      I see what you’re getting at with the second point but I doubt it will have that much effect.

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