About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Comic-book time: Spider-Man, Mary Jane, and all (1)

I've been thinking a lot lately about the general issue of series or franchise continuity, which was certainly on my mind when I wrote a number of tie-in novels some years ago now. It arose again in one of my panels at the World Science Fiction Convention (though the latter was mainly about Arthur C. Clarke and the various continuations of the book and movie versions of 2001: A Space Odyssey).

Continuity issues become especially interesting in comics, where the same characters may be used in the same essential form over a period of many decades. To take an extreme example, Superman was created in 1938. Even if we assume he doesn't age beyond a certain point, the merely-human characters around him should age, so why isn't Lois Lane in her 90s by now? And yet, we want to be able to tell stories about these more-or-less mythic characters indefinitely into the future - don't we?

Frankly, I have no understanding of the methods that DC has used to solve this problem, though - setting Superman aside - it has often involved new characters and younger characters taking on the identities of costumed heroes as older characters retire. If anyone can give me a concise explanation of how it hangs together, or point me to a link that does so, I'll be delighted.

I do, however, think I understand how Marvel Comics handles these sorts of issues, and I've been sharpening up my understanding by reading what Tom Brevoort (one of the Marvel executive editors) has to say on his formspring page, where he has answered thousands of questions about how things work at Marvel. This provides outsiders with a fascinating insight into the way Marvel's continuity is shaped by commercial and broadly aesthetic considerations, which are not easily separated, and Brevoort certainly deserves plenty of kudos for taking on such a Herculean task (especially given the rudeness and obsessiveness of many of his interlocutors!).

If I've got it right, it basically works like this. First, all stories are taken to be happening pretty much now, i.e. at the time they released to the public. Exceptions to this are rare and minor: sometimes it is necessary for storylines to get slightly out of kilter with each other, as when a story arc that is told over a period of many months covers only a few days' events or if there is some special reason to jump six months within an issue or between issues. Thus, different books released in the same month may describe events that are not at exactly the same time. All the same, we normally assume that a new story is happening "now". Second, the events of Fantastic Four # 1, which was published in 1961 and began the main Marvel diegesis or continuity as we currently think of it, took place about 13 years ago. At the moment, therefore, they took place in about 1997. Back in the 1980s, they were thought of as having taken place only about, say, 7 years ago, so in 1987 we might have thought of the events of Fantastic Four # 1 as having happened in roughly 1980. However, the gap between those events and "now" is not currently increasing; thus, come 2020 we'll still be thinking of the events of FF # 1 as having taken place "13 years ago", which will then be about 2007.

As a general rule of thumb, we can think of the number of years ago that an event took place within the diegesis as about one quarter of the number of years since the publication of the comic in which the event was described. So an event described in an issue published around 1990 took place about 5 years ago. This is very malleable, though, and can't be applied mechanically. All of these "abouts" are important; Marvel doesn't want to be pinned down.

But note that the same event will probably still have happened only about 5 years ago come, say, 2015 (edit: for complicated reasons this might not be quite right). Also, with the 13-year gap not increasing, a time will come when we have to say, as our rule of thumb: one fifth of a year within the continuity per year in the real-world publication schedule. And so on.

Marvel sometimes likes to make topical allusions in its stories, such as referring to whoever is the US president at a time when a comic is published, but these sorts of references are considered to be automatically retconned away in the longer term. So, an issue published in 1977, when Jimmy Carter was taking over as US president, now has to be thought of as not containing references to Carter - Carter should not be referred to in a flash-back, for example. What is important is merely that the characters interacted in some analogous situation. Occasionally, there will be more explicit retcons, so that a character who supposedly fought in the Korean War will later be said to have fought in Vietnam; a character who supposedly fought in Vietnam might later be said to have fought in the first Gulf War - and so on. There's no need to republish or even revisit the story: it's sufficient for a later story to update later information. This places a lot of events that were mentioned a long time ago in a state of flux, but for the writers it leaves the discipline that characters remain essentially the same (however that is interpreted). We're supposed to think that something analogous took place, whether or not the detail ever gets specified; writers can't just play with the net down.

Occasionally there are characters whose histories are very closely tied to twentieth-century events. For example, it's essential to the original Captain America, Steve Rogers, that he fought in World War Two. However, Rogers retains his relative youthfulness because he spent 20 years in suspended animation, frozen in a block of ice. Um, actually the original 20 years now has to be thought of as much longer: over 50 years. It will continue to increase over time. Something similar applies to various other characters who are kept physically young by some narrative device or another, despite their lives being linked to historical events. Depending on the narrative device used, new problems can still open up, but Marvel will doubtless solve these as and when they become sufficiently egregious - if, indeed, anyone cares anymore. An obvious approach is to "reveal" that a character spent time in suspended animation at some point or points (as with Bucky Barnes, who has become the new Captain America). Other approaches, I suppose, could be the "discovery" that a character travelled forward in time at some point or maybe engaged in some space travel at relativistic velocities (as seen in Planet of the Apes). So far, Marvel has generally managed to avoid these sorts of scenarios, but there are at least a few characters for whom they may become necessary one day.

The general effect is that no character can be more than 12-13 years older than at the time of Fantastic Four # 1 or such later time as when the character was first introduced. There can be isolated exceptions, as when a character such as Hope Summers travels in time, grows older in a different time period, then returns to "now". But if we assume that Reed Richards was about 30 in FF # 1 he is now about 43 (he did have a 40th birthday at one point). Sue Storm may have been about 19 at the time, in which case she's in her early 30s. Johnny Storm was a younger teenager, and is now still in his 20s. Ben Grimm may have been a similar age to Reed, in which case he's also in his early 40s, though I have no idea whether he ages physically in his rocklike form as the Thing (if Marvel has ever told us, I missed it).

It's a bit vague with the X-Men, with some inconsistent information floating around about how old they were at the start, but if Cyclops was 18 at the start he's now about 30. Beast should be slightly older and the others slightly younger (Iceman may be about the same age as Spider-Man, whom I'll get to below). Marvel has been inconsistent with Emma Frost who may be anything from late 20s to mid-30s. Wolverine is over 100, but he scarcely ages compared to us. Marvel's "first mutant", Namor, also ages far more slowly than we do, so it doesn't matter that he's now 90 - he's still youthful.

Magneto's age at the time when he first appeared in (Uncanny) X-Men # 1 (1963) may require some ironing out one day, since he didn't appear very old ... but it's essential to his character that he was born in the 1920s. In any event he's physiologically about 40, having been rejuvenated to his physical peak or "prime" not that long ago within the continuity, and his raw power level has recently been restored to what it was at 20. Marvel may also have to address the situation of his children, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, one day: they are seemingly about 30, but as time goes on they must have been born more than 30 years ago. I'm not sure where I saw this, but some fans have suggested that they spent some time in suspended animation as part of the High Evolutionary's experiments. That's kind of neat, but who knows how Marvel will eventually handle it ... if the company ever even sees a need to? There's also, I think, a problem with retconning away Professor X's birth relatively early in the 20th century, given his connection to Israel in its early period.

This brings me to Spider-Man, perhaps the most iconic Marvel character of all. When he was first introduced in 1962, in Amazing Fantasy # 15, Spider-Man was in high school. With Marvel time being so malleable, that was maybe 10 or 12 years ago. Depending on exactly how old he was then, he is now in his mid- to late 20s, and Marvel prefers the idea of "mid". I guess, for the sake of argument, we can plausibly think of Spider-Man as, hmmm, say, 26.

In 1987, Marvel married him off to (one of) his childhood sweetheart(s), Mary Jane Watson. Mary Jane is a beautiful and successful model, and I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time to give Spider-Man, a.k.a. Peter Parker, a glamorous life with such a spectacular life partner. A bit of wish-fulfilment fantasy for the fanbase. But we now have to think of Peter and Mary Jane as being in their very early 20s when the marriage took place. In recent (real-world) years, Marvel decided that it is too limiting to have Spider-Man married: it cuts out a lot of possible storylines and makes the character appear "old", at least to contemporary teenagers ... a demographic that he is emphatically supposed to appeal to. The Marvel movers and shakers found a way to retcon out the marriage, elaborating this at length in a more recent story arc, and have even managed to cut him lose from having Mary Jane as his girlfriend. This leaves open other love interests for Peter Parker, and the possibility of all kinds of soap-opera plots going into the future.

There has been plenty of outrage from the fans about this decision, as well as some support. The powers that be at Marvel stand by the decision. They defend the aesthetic merits of the story, but more importantly they insist on the need to free up the character in a way that preserves what they see as its original essence ... and keeps Spider-Man attractive to a young demographic into the indefinite future. A clear implication here is that they want to keep him in his mid-20s forever, or at least indefinitely, and the idea seems to be that the current gap of 13 years since Fantastic Four #1 will not be opened up further any time soon. It's about as far as they want their iconic characters to age.

That has other implications, though. It's okay, I guess, that Reed Richards will always be, say, 42 or 43 ... but is it so okay if we never get to see Reed and Sue's son, Franklin, age beyond 8, or if little Luna Maximoff, the daughter of Quicksilver and Crystal, never gets beyond whatever she is at the moment (about 6 or 7)? There's a certain emotional pay-off in watching characters get older and develop in new directions. If Marvel doesn't want to do that, right now, it raises questions about what we want from comics.

I don't really have a dog in the fight over whether Marvel did the right thing in retconning away Spider-Man's marriage. I'm going to say some more about it in my next post - in a couple of days - but more importantly for me the argument raises interesting issues about popular culture and our changing society. Most of what I've said above is just to provide the background to that discussion. See you later in the week, and I'll see if I can make all the above detail pay off in an interesting way!


Max More said...

I'm much more of an expert on Marvel continuity than DC, but I believe DC handles the passage of time to some extent by rebooting their universe. I think the last massive reboot was in the mid-1980s (Crisis on Infinite Worlds, I think). All stories before that were considered non-canon. Presumably they happened in a different universe.

John Byrne wrote all-new origin stories for Superman immediately after that reboot. Superboy had never existed in Smallville, for instance. He never had those adventures with the Legion of Super Heroes. (Not sure how those seemed to have restarted recently.)

Max More said...

Also, Russell, in case you haven't seen this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sliding_timescale

Blake Stacey said...

Interesting stuff! I grew up on SF paperbacks instead of comic books, so this kind of continuity is largely alien territory to me. (My friend Randall and I did have fun explaining the temporal anomaly which allows Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes to have Christmas every year but never his seventh birthday.) Star Trek continuity is a different animal from the Marvel or DC kind: most of it takes place decades or centuries into the future. (Thanks to the Eugenics Wars and a few other odd bits, a true stickler would say that the Trek timeline, or family of related alternate timelines, diverged from ours in the mid-twentieth century or thereabouts. Either Mr. Spock's history database is really bad, or their 1990s were not our 1990s.) The challenge with that kind of continuity is to assemble all the hints — "The Earth-Romulus war happened a century ago" — into as coherent an overall chronology as possible.

"Batman has been protecting Gotham City for about a decade. Batman has always been protecting Gotham City for about a decade."

Colin Gavaghan said...

Interesting post, Russell. I was wondering something similar in relation to those characters with explicitly Cold War backgrounds. Richard Morgan's run on Black Widow, which started in 2006, had Natasha Romanova aged 'nearly 40', which is just about as young as she could be and still have been a spy for the USSR. But that version of the character didn't last long, largely because - excellent though it was, IMO - it didn't play with the 'core demographic'.

Since it would, I think, be hard to substitute that era with any analogous but more recent period, that bodes ill for characters like NR, especially given the non-superpowered nature of the comic doesn't allow much scope for immortality.

(Of course, she could also be recast as an agent of Putin-era Russia, but this would seem to remove much of the comic's core moral-political conflict.)

Russell Blackford said...

I think the Black Widow has actually had some kind of age retardation thing done to her, like Nick Fury, but yes a lot of that old Cold War continuity will have to be ignored as time moves on.

Max, yes I think I must have read that Wikipedia article at some stage. I think my explanation of the floating timeline for Marvel is better than Wikipedia's, lol, but all that info about other continuities is useful for anyone (like me) who is interested in how this works. Thanks.

Russell Blackford said...

Some slight edits made to reflect the fact that the 12-13 year gap seems to have hardened lately into "about 13 years".

Kirth Gersen said...

Interesting topic and commentary. I read a lot of detective novels (and not really any comics other than Calvin & Hobbes, with its static time), and this effect largely depends on the author. Robert Parker's Spenser, for example, ages a bit, but more slowly than in "real time." On the flip side, part of the great joy of reading Dashiell Hammett is the feeling of actually seeing San Francisco in the 1920s.

Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe stories would have been radically out of place anywhere or when other than postwar LA -- especially after Bogart appeared in "The Big Sleep" -- until the 1973 film version "The Long Goodbye" proved that Marlowe worked equally well (if not better) in the flower-power era.