If you read our last column you probably noticed that Dick Grayson started out as Robin in 1940, around the age of 8 and continued in the role ‘til 1984. Yet when he became Nightwing he was only in his late teens and is still now only in his mid-twenties (roughly). So why isn’t Dick Grayson an 80-year old vigilante, beating up thugs with a zimmerframe?
The reason is that it wouldn’t be particularly satisfying to read about an aged, arthritic super-hero. Well, one maybe, but not all of them. Our favourite super-heroes work best when they’re timeless, constantly available to new generations to experience as they were originally envisioned. However, being static would be just as bad as aging in real time. You at least want something to happen to them and create lasting changes. You need continuity, just not 70 years of it.
The solution is the sliding time-scale, which is elegant in its simplicity. Every issue of mainstream comics, a few exceptions aside, always happen now, regardless of when the series or even that particular story arc started. The sliding timeline acts like the elastic in the underwear of someone receiving a wedgie, pulling history along after the present.
Marvel has rather sturdy elastic and the rule of thumb with their modern super-hero universe (from the advent of the Fantastic Four onwards) is that it’s been around for about a decade. Rather than the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man getting their powers in the early 60s, when they were printed, they got them, as of writing, about 2003. This keeps Spider-Man and his amazing friends relatively stable in age, but allows things to happen to them.
DC used to have the same kind of system going, albeit highly mangled through dozens of history altering (or “retconning” – retroactive continuity) events, until their big New 52 event in late 2011, when the elastic in our increasingly tired, weird metaphor, after numerous stapling and hot-gluing, finally snapped and had to be sewn back together. This junked most of their history, taking almost all of their characters back to if not square one then square one plus a five years.
Five years may sound like a long time, but when you consider the career of characters like Batman and Superman, it’s really not. In some cases this has been smoothed over, steamroller style, by just saying that most of it hasn’t happened anyway. Simple. But for DC’s biggest selling characters at the time, Batman and Green Lantern, DC insisted that their backstory would remain unchanged and things would carry on as normal. That is until loyal readers pointed out that it was impossible to fit in all of Batman’s sidekicks in five years. Dick was Robin from pre-teen to late teens, then Jason for a while, Tim for a good few years and now Damian, who presents his own continuity problems by being the ten year old son of Batman and Talia Al Ghul. That’s to say nothing of the time Batman spent working alone (a year or more, if you go by Batman: Year One). DC’s solution to this problem? Deny everything, give patronising answers when questioned and make up solutions on the fly, most of which don’t gel with each other. Oh and wholesale erasing of characters that get in the way, like Robin #4 Stephanie Brown, Batgirl #3 Cassandra Cain and Tim’s entire career as Robin.
This isn’t to say that Marvel doesn’t have some of the same problems. The Marvel Universe is no stranger to retcons, many of which have created mind-numbing paradoxes; for instance trying to work out whether Captain America’s identity was public knowledge through WW2 and his early career in the face of recent retcons that make almost all of Marvel’s (or rather their predecessor Timely’s) comics from the ‘40s in-universe propaganda rather than ‘real’ events. Marvel’s approach is much more organic though; ignore it unless it becomes a real problem or you need it. Old stories that don’t fit the current story or theme are quietly ignored and left to drop off the narrative tree. (Mostly. Some writers like to go out of their way to tidy/dig up things like that, with mixed results. On the one hand there’s the fantastic Avengers Forever and on the other there’s pretty much every series about Wolverine’s history written after the mid-80s).
The sliding time-scale is a useful but imperfect device, which can sometimes create odd legacies. Take for instance Captain America. His origin is rooted in World War 2 and the fight against Nazism. When he was revived from publishing limbo/the Arctic ice to join the Avengers in 1964, this wasn’t so much of a problem. His original activities were still in living memory, but the gap was long enough to feel significant. But as the time-scale has slid on, the date of Captain America’s revival has slipped further into the 20th century and now the 21st century. Captain America has now spent about 60 years in the ice. He’s moved from being a character in living memory to a long-dead legend. While this makes his revival no less remarkable, it does rather raise the question of how well he can adapt and be relevant to the modern age when he’s missed out on 60 years of culture and technology.
Other characters suffer similar problems. The Fantastic Four originally got their powers while trying to beat the Soviets into space. Booster Gold debuted in the 1980s and was positioned as the ultimate example of a super-hero adhering to the ‘greed is good’ mantra of the decade, by self-merchandising and sponsorship. The New Warriors were “heroes for the 90s”.
What best sums up the problems of a sliding time-scale is shown in a instalment of David Willis’ excellent web comic Shortpacked!, published in 2007.
And we’re not far off that now.