Slip and Slide

A few weeks ago, I went to the New York City Comic Con for the first time in my life and suffice it to say, it was an incredible experience.  From meeting creators who were more than happy to chat away with fans to the chaos of the con floor to the awe-inspiring level of talent in Artist’s Alley, it was a truly unique environment that every fan of ANY fantasy medium should experience at some point in their life.

There were so many moments that will forever be etched into my memory like meeting Chris Claremont and having him sign my original copy of Uncanny X-Men #224 on the same day that my piece on that issue went live here at Sequart.  It was a joy to watch him flip through the issue and marvel at the artwork by Marc Silvestri and Dan Green (both of whom I also got to sign the book) as if he was looking at it for the first time.

It was a treat to sit in on the Lazarus panel with Greg Rucka and Michael Lark, to hear Mr. Rucka go off onto a tangent about the government shutdown and how the world of their book doesn’t seem too far off if the United States continues on its current path.  It was also pretty fun to sing happy birthday to Mr. Rucka’s wife to kick things off.

Coincidentally enough considering their history, the fans in attendance at the Sunday Conversation with Dan DiDio got to sing the song to the DC Comics Co-Publisher as well.  We were also treated to a slideshow of personal pictures and comic book images relating to his life and history with the company.  After all those shenanigans were out of the way and we got into the meat of the talk, DiDio discussed numerous topics ranging from Infinite Crisis to All-Star Superman to the New 52 relaunch.  There are plenty of reports around the internet if you’d like to peruse the specifics but this is not the piece for that.

The reason for this is due to a specific thing Mr. DiDio said that resonated with me when discussing the whys of the New 52.  He stated that one of the reasons the relaunch was a necessity was due to Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman.  He said that while everything else changes around them (characters grow older, get new identities, get replaced, etc), the Trinity is unchanging.  They do not age, their identities generally remain consistent (“Dick Grayson couldn’t be Batman forever”); essentially that life happens around them while they remain static.  To what level I actually agree or disagree with this is irrelevant because what it actually made me think about was Marvel Comics.

See although those three characters were created in the late 1930s/early 1940s, their actual origin stories are not fixed to a time.  There is nothing about the murder of The Waynes that predicates it happen in the ‘20s.  There is nothing about a spaceship crash landing or an Amazon coming to America that requires those events to happen in a specific time period.  They could have happened in the 2000’s just as well as they could have happened in the 1900’s.  Although I am by no means an expert on the origins of every character DC Comics has ever produced, I am hard pressed to think of any of the major figures whose origins are predicated on specific events.

Just look at the Green Lantern corner: Hal Jordan could have been a test pilot at any time, same goes for John Stewart’s stint as a Marine, Guy Gardner the New 52 cop, or Kyle Rayner’s artistic roots.  Hawkman could be an archeologist in any decade and Martian Manhunter could have arrived on Earth whenever.  Most DC characters are not fixed at one historical point but over in the world of Marvel Comics that is not necessarily the case…

There may be others but in the entire spectrum of Marvel Comics, I am hard-pressed to think of two major characters more tied to a very specific timeframe than Captain America and Magneto.  There are characters associated with both individuals, particularly Cap, who are also tied to the events of World War II but the foundations of each characters origin is so firmly entrenched in that period that they would be entirely different entities if that was ever changed.

For Steve Rogers the foundation of his character is that he is a time-lost super soldier who grew up during a more “innocent” time.  He was such a patriot and so intent on defending his country that he did whatever it took to become a member of the military so he could fight Adolf Hitler and the Nazis; even allowing himself to be the subject of the crazy experimentation that gave Steve his enhanced abilities.

For Magneto it is imperative that he is a survivor of the concentration camps during WWII.  It was that experience that created the mentality under which he has operated for the duration of his existence. It was the horrors he saw perpetrated by the Nazis on those that were “different” that planted the seeds for Erik Lehnsherr’s (I still have a hard time referring to him as Max Eisenhardt) fears that humankind would attempt to do the same to mutantkind.

Both men’s experiences in the world as it was in the 1940’s are essential to the characters that the fans have of come to love/loathe in the 2010’s.  It is just an accepted part of their origin stories and one that is impossible to alter…but what about the characters around them?

For me as a long-time X-Men fan, Magneto is the character I have the most extensive knowledge about thus it is easier to look at the individuals surrounding him.  Take Charles Xavier for example; aside from his interactions with a younger Lehnsherr shortly after his powers emerged (see Uncanny X-Men #161), it would be very easy to make Xavier’s background have taken place at any time in history. The war he fought in could be Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq and he could have met Moira MacTaggert or Amelia Voght at any time.  He could have been paralyzed (the first time) by Lucifer just as a young Ororo Munroe could have pick pocketed Charles at any point in history.

Yet pulling on the threads of the character, things began to unravel a bit as his relationship with Magneto makes it difficult for those things to have happened at a nondescript time. It is a direct result of World War II that Xavier enters the world of Magneto (and that of Gabrielle Haller) in the aforementioned UXM #161. Just like Magneto, Gabrielle is another victim of the horrors of concentration camps of WWII and it is Chuck’s work with her that ultimately leads to the birth of one David “Legion” Haller.

Yet the vast majority of Charles’ history pre-X-Men can really fit anywhere in time as it is not predicated on specific historical events.  The same can be said for Magneto as well as outside of the foundations of the character being firmly entrenched in WWII, his experiences could have taken place at any point.

So how do the creative talents in the Marvel U handle this?  Whether intentional or not, Chris Claremont actually built-in devices to explain away how two men whose experiences mandate they exist in the 1940’s still are functional 70+ years later.

In the case of Magneto he was de-aged by Mutant Alpha (see Defenders Vol. 1 #16) then restored to his physical prime (see Uncanny X-Men #104) by Erik The Red.  Although he has undergone various arcs where he was dying due genetic manipulations (X-Men Vol. 2 #1-3), restored to full vigor by Astra and cloned, in short fashion crippled, paralyzed, and “killed” (Eve of Destruction and New X-Men), restored, a victim of “No More Mutants” (House of M), repowered by High Evolutionary (UXM #507), and eventually a Phoenix host (AvX), he has essentially been working from that “reborn in his prime” base ever since.

As for Xavier, well he has been running around in a younger clone body since he was implanted with a Brood egg (see Uncanny X-Men #167) and despite the plethora of events that have happened to him (beaten near death back in UXM #200, living in Shi’ar space, Onslaught and his subsequent government imprisonment, and near death again in Messiah Complex just to name a few), prior to his death in AvX, he was still operating out of that clone body.

In the case of Captain America, it really does not matter WHEN he was pulled from the ice and, with the core of the character’s story being that he is a man out of time, it actually works better the longer he was out of the picture.  I cannot speak from experience since I was not remotely alive but I imagine the differences in the world from 1945 (when he & Bucky hit the water) to 1963 (when the Avengers pulled him out of the water originally) are miniscule when compared to the gap between 1945 and the story in Mark Waid’s Man Out Of Time that brought Steve Rogers back to life in this century.

Marvel accomplishes this feat, as they do with things like the Fantastic Four and Iron Man’s origins, by operating on a sliding time scale for their characters.  It is also that device that I believe allows Marvel to continue operating with one continuous timeline as opposed to DC’s series of reboots that began with Crisis on Infinite Earths.  It means that modern Tony Stark took the shrapnel in his heart in Afghanistan while Ben Grimm was still in the military just not as a WWII pilot.

This strategy of Marvel’s, while allowing for EVERY story to still have taken place, does hyper-condense their history into something akin to a ten to fifteen year time-frame.  One take on this that I read on Bleeding Cool uses Franklin Richards as the touchstone for how long the Marvel-616 has been in existence.  This notion is essentially based on the fact that Franklin was allowed to age up to a certain point and then just stopped.  It is also something we have seen with other Marvel characters like Kitty Pryde, Rachel Grey-Summers, and the original New Mutants who have all seemingly reached the culmination of their aging process.  I would even make an argument that in the case of some characters, like Sunspot & Cannonball’s current depiction in the Avengers books, that some even seem to regress from their peaks.

This “age problem” is unique to comic books I think because in almost no other visual medium is it possible to freeze someone in time.  A movie is essentially a one-off experience but even sequels can be filmed close enough for aging to not be a factor or the creators can use make-up and/or a time jump to compensate.  Eventually though there will be a point where actors just cannot portray their character anymore, something we will witness sooner rather than later with the Marvel Studios movies.

An ongoing live-action TV series is forced to acknowledge aging as long as it continues to use the same actors, especially in the case of child-actors.  Sometimes the aging can even be drastic which, if you’re a fan of soap operas, you have probably witnessed, from time to time, a child actor disappear for a few weeks and then return inexplicably ten years older!

An animated series is the only other media I can think of in which creators can lock their characters into a general age bracket.  Take The Simpsons as an example; those characters have all been around the same general age for their entire existence and the same can be said for The Family Guy as well.

This is ultimately just another representation of how unique a medium comic books truly are in the art world. They are serialized like TV shows and like the best, ideally demonstrate some sort of overall character arc.  Yet in some ways they remind me of a sit-com in how many of the primary aspects “must” remain locked in place or risk losing the core audience.  In addition, these are mass media properties so as DiDio said: Bruce is Batman, Clark is Superman, Diana is Wonder Woman.  Those are the identities behind the mask of each character.  In TV or film, you can put different actors and actresses behind the mask but it is still expected that it will be a Bruce Wayne Batman, that it will still be a Steve Rogers Captain America.  While Bucky and Dick Grayson can take on those roles for periods of time, due to their “larger than comics” existence, ultimately the most commonly-known entity will end up back behind the mask.

All these factors demand that the growth of the characters we love only go so far.  It demands that the experiences of each of them is locked into a certain time frame and we as fans either accept the fact that the whole of Batman’s 70+ year publishing history has taken place in the New 52 five (or six) year timeframe or we give up reading.  We accept that the accident that lead to Tony Stark becoming Iron Man now happened in this century rather than during the 1960’s.  We accept that characters whose origins are so inextricably tied to the events of World War II could still be living in the 21st century.

Whether it be the sliding time scale of Marvel Comics or the rebooted worlds of the DCU, neither way is right and neither way is wrong.  What they are is story-telling devices that we as readers must either accept or end up perpetually frustrated with this thing that we claim to love.

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Christopher Maurer is a graduate of Michigan State University w/ a BA in English who then proceeded to get wrapped up in the world of videography for local news & sports, including the 2003 March Madness tournament, before migrating to Philadelphia in late-2003 where he then jumped into the crazy-ridiculous world of professional wrestling under the moniker Shane Hagadorn. It is a world in which he, his wife, and cats have since resided for the last 10 years. Chris, an avid fan of comics for 25 years & counting, has been writing his own personal blog since late-2010 at 20 Plus Years of 32 Pages and recently had his first published work in the September 2013 issue of Philly Beer Scene Magazine. His loves include Batman, mutants, Grant Morrison, craft beer, and not taking it all too seriously...

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  1. Continuity, a shared universe and many different creators, that’s what makes the mainstream superheroes truly unique. In animation or books you can freeze a character in time, but there is no (or just the tiniest) sense of continuity. It doesn’t matter if you missed something, the story you are reading (or watching) is completely new. Not so when there is a strong sense of continuity. And, in a shared universe, whatever happened over there end up affecting here. No other medium has these problems. And that’s why it’s often a problem to use the regular tools to analyze these works.

    However, like you’ve said in a previous article, this is mostly a problem for long-time readers, for the adults. The more continuity you read, the more you try to squeeze in an artificial time frame. Why? You end up with the Fantastic Four fighting Doom 40 times in ten years. Of course it’s silly. We should try to resist it. It used to be manageable, it’s not anymore. And it will become worse. Fine. Let’s forget about it. Mainstream superheroes could age, of course, but I’m not sure if it’s a good idea. New readers want them in their prime. The companies want them in their prime. And make no mistake, creators want them in their prime. They want to play with the real Batman, the real Captain America and the real Spider-Man.

    Can’t we accept these stories, these characters for what they really are, instead of trying to make them fit in a box that’s not for them? Why should we pretend that Mary Jane never used slang from the sixties? Even aesthetically, even in terms of structure, the stories from the sixties are so different from how they are now. And it makes more sense, it is more rewarding to take them as taking place 50 years ago. And yes, Peter Parker didn’t age 50 years, or even 25. So what? We already accept that he has a spider sense! More than embracing the silly changes that the comic companies throw at us so that their characters can remain forever young, we should accept that this medium is different from anything else and be fine with it.

    • I completely agree with your last sentence in particular. Comics are so entirely different than anything else and it makes reviewing them, researching them, loving them, an entirely different experience than movies or novels.
      Time changes the characters, a great example for me lately has been the 70′s Batman stories I have been reading in which the relationship between Batman and the GCPD is entirely different than any I have ever experienced since I started reading Batman during Knightfall. It’s totally alien to me and does not remotely fit into the box I know BUT I suppose it was what worked at the time the issues were published.
      I am sure that the kids, assuming there are any, who began reading now would feel the same way about the books that I started reading in the 80′s.

      The writing styles are different, the art styles are different, and the characters may not be ones the recognize…especially DCU characters…but they are all part of the rich history that has enabled them to stay in circulation for longer than my lifetime and likely long after I am gone.

      • Yes, but again, it’s always important to remember the difference between the medium (comics), the genre (superheroes) and the genre as produced as part of a shared universe by the big two. We all end up mixing them (I did it in that last sentence).

        And the tricky aspect is that comics, in general, can be appreciated and analyzed like novels or films. Watchmen, Sandman, Fun Home, The Nao of Brown… They resist a normal analysis. Batman and Thor don’t.

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