This week on the podcast we’re reading Warren Ellis’s Planetary, which is one of my very favorite comic books. I highly recommend it to you if you’ve never read it, because I find that every time I read it I get a little bit more out of it, or that I notice some new additional nugget that I’d missed before. In particular I found a much deeper appreciation for it on this read through, having read and recorded long discussions about comics in the past year, and one panel stuck out to me in a way it never had before.
The protagonist of Planetary, Elijah Snow, is speaking to Sherlock Holmes circa 1920. Holmes is detailing to him the ideals—and failure of those ideals—of his generation of “the extraordinary.” The conversation ends with Holmes agreeing to instruct Snow in his methods, because “this is your century, and it needs you.”
This conversation stuck out to me because here we are in 2014—not quite a century from that fictional meeting, but close—and we are still largely dealing with the extraordinary of the 20th Century—its heroes and villains. They are characters with their own identities and lives, yes. But more than that they are fictional characters, designed and built as allegories for the woes of their time.
Iron Man for example, as conceived in the 1960s, was a stand-in for the technological might of the United States in the Cold War. He represented the western democratic triumph through science over the godless communists, as represented through his particular rogue’s gallery, with villains like The Mandarin, Black Widow, and The Crimson Dynamo.
I like Iron Man as a character, and his recent movies have been great. But he is very much a character of the 20th Century. The solutions that he provides—like many superheroes—begin and largely end with overwhelming force. The America of post-WWII was a country stepping to the fore on the world stage after a period of relative isolationism both before and after WWI. It was a country beset with worries both internal and external that superheroes sought to quell with the assertion that no matter what America was tougher, faster, stronger, and smarter than anyone else in the universe, and we weren’t afraid to bring all of our awesomeness to bear on anyone who threatened us.
That’s not the world we live in today. 70 years past the end of WWII our concerns, our place in the world, the problems we face, and the solutions to those problems are very different. Attempts have been made to repurpose those characters with the greatest mythic resonance to fit new roles, and to provide reassurance in the face of new doubts. In this I think Marvel has been the more successful in recent years, while DC has retreated into solipsistic escapism. But the more time goes on and the further we get from the gravitational pull of the 1900s, the more I believe that 1930s dilettantes and 1960s cold warriors don’t have the answers we need.
The passage of time is a tricky subject for superheros. On the one hand, narrative time as a whole is fluid. A single installment of a story—be it an issue, an episode, a chapter, or whatever—could cover a few minutes or a few months, if not far longer. The temporal distance of a turn of the page could be a second or a century. Some narratives jump from time to time so frequently that the idea of “now” itself loses much of its meaning.
On the other hand, the shared universe of comic book superheroes has traditionally presumed that every comic coming out in a given month is happening at roughly the same time, regardless of how much time has or is passing within a particular title. So you have situations where one character spends six issues on a single, intense story that takes place over a single evening. Meanwhile another character spends the same number of issues cruising around the universe having adventures that take place over six months. Yet at the end of those six months, when the two characters meet up in [this year’s big event] they remain synced up as though the same period of time had passed for both.
But on top of all that there is a third hand, which is the pace at which the story moves relative to our own modern world. Superhero stories are generally set “now.” Given that not every issue of every comic covers one month worth of time, however, it seems inevitable that a comic story set “now” is naturally going to slip further and further away from the actual “now” with each passing issue.
Marvel and DC have tried a couple of different schemes to account for this. For a while Marvel used a formula that 1 year would pass in the comics for every 3 years of actual time. More recently both Marvel and DC have used a sort of sliding timeline where a particular event—the beginning of the careers of the Fantastic Four and Superman, respectively—happened “about 10 years ago”, and all published events have happened since then (although with the New-52 this has been bumped down to 5 years).
But even that nebulous time frame is becoming increasingly tenuous, because while certain characters can have their origins easily moved through time, others cannot. Iron Man’s capture and subsequent invention of his first armor can just as easily happen in 1960s Vietnam or 2000s Afghanistan. Captain America’s history, however, is inextricably tied to World War II. When he first joined the Avengers he had only been frozen for twenty years or so. The present day Cap was frozen for about sixty, and popped out of the ice around 2004. The more time passes, the more Steve Rogers is a man out of time.
Batman isn’t explicitly tied to a particular timeframe, but much of his backstory is predicated on a very 1930s sensibility. The concept of an orphaned gentleman who—using his fortune to secure a first-rate education and world-class physical training—beats up criminals while disguising himself as a society dandy is a very obviously 30s-pulp fiction concept. By my math the Bruce Wayne of DC Comics circa 2014 was born around 1990 and took orphaned circus acrobat Dick Grayson in as a ward around 2009. Who the hell even has wards anymore? In what modern world would social services turn an orphaned child over to a random billionaire without any sort of oversight?
Even for those characters that can be moved, the changing times present something of an obstacle. Why was Bruce Banner working on gamma bombs in a post-9/11 world? How on Earth did the Kents cover up a crashed space-craft, or for that matter how did they finagle the adoption of an utterly anomalous space-baby without anyone questioning it? That might have flown in 1910s-20s Kansas, pre-satellites, pre-radar, and pre-SETI. But it seems a hell of a lot more dubious in the 1990s.
More than that, however, is the fact that many characters are tied—tonally, if not narratively—to their times of origin. Characters like Black Panther, Luke Cage, and John Stewart are closely tied to the civil rights era. Ant-Man and The Fantastic Four are very 60s-SF characters. The Ghost Rider is very much a 70s horror movie character.
The Guardians of the Universe from Green Lantern have been particularly ill-treated (and not just by Geoff Johns) by the sliding timeline. Conceptually they are your classic “big-brain” aliens. The ancient, wise, and ineffable elder race who know better than youthful, energetic humanity. But times have changed and people largely don’t believe in that sort of paternalistic hierarchy anymore. So the Guardians have been re-cast as dicks, whose job is to be dicks about everything and also wrong. About everything.
As much as I feel that there is a mythic resonance in the eternal character, constantly re-imagined for the modern day, I feel like something equally grand is lost when you unmoor these characters from their times of origin. Phil Noto (an astoundingly good artist whom you should feel bad for not knowing by name) has been doing a series of “candid photograph” drawings, which aside from being amazing have a level of emotional resonance to them that is missing from comic books most of the time.
I felt it when reading Marvels (and it was the one part of Marvels I really liked), and not many other places. Looking at those images, there’s a level of realness there feels absent from the actual Marvel Universe. There’s a weight of years that is both present and not present in characters like Cyclops, who has in one form or another been leading the X-Men for 50 years, yet within continuity he’s, what… 27, 28 years old?
I look back on a half-century of comics history, and there’s a part of me that very much wants to see a Scott Summers who has really lived through those times. A man who was raised with particular ideals, only to smash up against reality time and time again. Who has seen future after future where his people are hunted to extinction. Who has saved not only the Earth, but the entire universe on more than one occasion. And who is now pushing 70 years old and is openly questioning whether or not he’s spent his life in pursuit of a dream that will never come to fruition.
One of the great strengths of DC for nearly two decades was that its heroes were part of an ongoing legacy that stretched both forwards and backwards in time. You had the heroes of the golden age, the JSA. You had the heroes of the Silver Age, the JLA. And you had a generation of young heroes who were slowly growing up to take their turn protecting the world. Abandoning that ideal, as I’ve said previously, is one of the worst mistakes DC ever made.
You’ve likely heard the saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” One of the great strengths of the legacy system in the DCU wasn’t just the narrative sense that time was moving on. It was the fact that you had characters who were rooted in history. Who had lived and gained knowledge, and could pass that wisdom on.
In our own reality we frequently look to those people who lived through great historical events for wisdom. We look to people like John Lewis when we talk about the Civil Rights Movement, because he was there. We talk about current events like NSA surveillance and whistleblowers, and we can look to people like Daniel Ellsberg because he has been there before. The elders in our society speak with authority and weight because they represent our accumulated cultural memory.
We don’t have those sort of figures amongst superheroes because the people who would have filled those roles have been repurposed, rebooted, or retconned as present-day figures trying to deal with these issues utterly absent decades of life experience. In order to make sense of modern superheroes we are required to forget that Storm was orphaned when her parents were killed in the Suez Crisis, or that Superman boxed with Muhammad Ali, or that Captain America fought a conspiracy in the 1970s led by an evil(er) Richard Nixon.
The shifting timeline obliterates the triumphs, failures, and most importantly lessons of the past. It requires us as readers to accept that history doesn’t really matter. I don’t accept that, and I don’t want to forget history. I want to embrace it.
I want a Marvel universe where the Fantastic Four are a superhero team in the 60s. You can absolutely still tell new stories about those characters in that time period, but give them a specific timeline. Say the FF were active from 1961 until some time in the 70s, before a new line-up took over—as actually has happened more than once with the FF. Let those characters age, and in time be replaced with new heroes. Let the mutant rights issue evolve (no pun intended) as subsequent generations struggle with the issue of mutant/human co-existence.
I want a DC universe where Barry Allen, Oliver Queen, Hal Jordan, and Bruce Wayne all stayed dead, no take backs. Wally West’s career as the Flash had impact in large part because of his relationship with Barry Allen. Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne as the Dynamic Duo was far more interesting than anything that’s happened with Bruce Wayne since his return. Hal Jordan has added nothing to Green Lantern that couldn’t have been done with Kyle Rayner. If anything Hal Jordan is more meaningful and interesting as “the fallen hero.” A warning to the corps, if not the universe, about when happens when the most powerful surrender to fear and grief.
I railed against DC before because they have abandoned change. Now I’m turning around and leaving a challenge to both of the big 2 to go in the opposite direction. Change. Let your characters have lives. Let your worlds have a history, and move forward in a way that makes sense. Give new heroes—heroes that reflect the issues of the modern day—room to grow.
I love those characters. I grew up reading their stories, and as a scion of the 20th Century I’ll carry the lessons they taught me the rest of my life. I think they still have their place, and I’m sure there’s a lot of absolutely amazing stories out there as yet untold about those characters. But I feel that as part of the superhero genre growing up we also need to learn to move forward and find new solutions to the problems of today, rather than desperately holding on to the ones we all grew up with, and trying to drag them forward along with us.