by KC Carlson
So, the other day, I’m reading (and really enjoying — you should check it out! One of Marvel’s best so far this year!), Mark Waid, Jorge Molina, and Karl Kesel’s five-issue Captain America: Man Out of Time - and suddenly I’m hit in the face with a metaphorical Tex Avery-sized frying pan! BWOOOOING!
Ostensibly, the limited series is a retelling of how World War II-era Captain America ended up in the modern-day Marvel Universe via explosion, frozen in a block of ice, and being discovered by the Avengers shortly after their formation. It’s one of the pillars of early Marvel continuity, originally told in the pages of Avengers #4, cover-dated March 1964 and produced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It’s been reprinted (or excerpted) at least a dozen times and re-told – frequently with new details – at least as many more. As longtime Marvel readers know, the story is not just about moving Cap from Point A to Point B to re-introduce him into modern-day Marvel continuity. Until recently (relatively speaking), for over 40 years, it’s also been the tragic story of the death of Bucky Barnes.
Amazingly, the Bucky angle is not a part of Captain America: Man Out of Time, except as a background element. (There are also other elements common to most re-tellings, such as the involvement of Baron Heinrich Zemo — present in a flashback in Avengers #4, but not identified until later — or Namor the Sub-Mariner that are not important to the CA: MOoT series.) The main focus of the story is to emphasize Cap’s man-out-of-time status and his very moving reaction to all the changes in the world since WWII, something that was a minor element of Cap’s early stories during Silver Age Marvel, but mostly glossed over.
This is where the cartoon frying pan comes in. Cap is rescued from his suspended animation (in a remarkable two-page/panel transition that clearly indicates that – for Cap – absolutely no time has passed) by the same early (and inexperienced) Avengers – Iron Man, Thor, Giant-Man, and the Wasp – but Cap doesn’t get reinserted into time in the early 1960s of the original story. We quickly realize that Cap is wandering around NYC at some point shortly before Y2K, about 11 years ago here in the “real world” – a world full of smartphones, the internet, and gangbangers with handguns. That was quite a slap in the head for an old-time comics reader like me, who read the original Avengers #4 sometime relatively close to its actual publication date. In my mind, the events in the story were pretty much burned into my brain as always being set in the early 1960s, when phones still had cords, computers were mostly science-fiction to everyday people, and the most evil thing “juvenile delinquents” did was read comic books.
This realization is not so shocking for somebody who is well versed in fictional shared universes, sliding timelines, “topical references”, and the other ephemera of fictional world building, largely and loosely lumped under the category of continuity.
I live in both worlds. Or at least I did. More on that next week.
THE EVER-SHIFTING SANDS OF TIME…
What we see in Captain America: Man Out of Time is an aspect of continuity that is usually called a floating (or sliding) timeline. It’s a writing device used frequently in heroic fiction to explain why characters never seem to age, despite real-world markers (historical events, people, technology, etc.) used in the work, even when the lead character(s) have origins in the fantastic (aka: superheroes).
It’s a form of so-called retroactive continuity. The short-hand term “retcon” has become a somewhat bad buzzword in the comics community for suggesting an arbitrary change in the history of a character (or series). The sliding timeline actually does the opposite – to preserve the character’s (implied) constant age, the world history that happens around the character is changed instead, hopefully keeping events in the character’s history intact.
In Captain America’s case, his WWII career is still in place (although constantly embellished), and he exits that time period in the same way that he always has (plane explosion followed by suspended animation). The difference here is that he now comes out of suspended animation shortly before the year 2000, instead of the previous 1964. Although we don’t see it here (as it’s not a part of this particular story), we assume that all of the events of Cap’s documented history (1964 to today) in the modern age now take place between the Marvel Universe calendar years of 1999 and 2011. (I suspect they might have to re-jigger the background of the Secret Empire/Nomad storyline, originally tied to the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. Although if they do that, they also have to be careful not to mess up the subsequent Destiny War (aka Avengers Forever) storyline that counts on that original story actually happening.)
The way the Marvel Universe has always worked, if you make a major change somewhere, it will most likely set off a ripple effect of changes in other areas, because everything in the Marvel U. theoretically interlocks together. We’ve already seen an example of this. Several years ago, just before the movie, Iron Man’s origin, long attached to the War in Vietnam, was subtly changed to have taken place more recently in Afghanistan (after a previous revision which placed it in the first Gulf War). Long-time Marvel readers might recall Ben Grimm (The Thing) reminiscing about fighting in World War II. That got written out long ago. And don’t even get me started about actual WWII vet Nick Fury and his colleagues, whose history is constantly being rewritten as we speak. (In mostly good ways, I might add!). These and other tweaks are constantly being added to current stories to update “topical references” that are now long out-of-date due to shifting timelines.
When I first pitched the idea of this column to Editor Boy Roger Ash, I discovered that he was not only not familiar with the sliding timeline concept (which meant I had my work cut out for me trying to explain it), he also thought that the Cap book (which he had read) was a “What if?” story or a story about an alternate universe Cap (something that Marvel has been doing with increasing frequency in the last few years). After I explained that all of Cap’s experiences were now supposed to have happened in a time period of only 10 or 11 years, he said “This makes my head hurt to think about it too much. How could Cap experience the same things in 11 years that he’s experienced in 47 years?”
Bingo! This is the heart of the problem. Marvel’s got some work to do to get everybody on board, because Roger is not a stupid person. This is confusing stuff.
THE REASON WHY
So why do publishers jump through hoops like this? Easy – do the math. In our old Marvel U., Captain America is a young soldier fighting in WWII. Let’s say he was 20 years old when he slipped into suspended animation in 1944. He was originally “iceberged” for 20 years, emerging in the Marvel Universe in 1964 – still 20 years old. Assuming there was no sliding timeline or any sort of time compression, 1964 to today (2011) is 47 years, which makes Captain America a 67-year-old man. Peter Parker, who was in high school in 1964 (let’s call him 16 years old), will celebrate his 63rd birthday this year. WWII vets Namor and Nick Fury – both in their late 80s. (Yeah, yeah, I know all about being a mutant or drinking the Infinity Formula… but still!) Even a relative youngster like Richard Rider (Nova): a teenager in 1976 would be in his early 50s today. Not exactly the typical age of heroic fiction characters.
That’s why there’s a sliding timeline. Fans, publishers, and even creators (although some might relish the challenge) want their heroes to be young, powerful, and virile. ‘Nuff said.
REAL WORLD CONCERNS
As time marches on, the situation gets worse (and even more ludicrous). Both Marvel and DC are in the same boat, as they both keep adding years and years’ worth of stories about their characters to limited timelines. They want to shorten the “official” length of their specific timelines in an effort to keep their main characters young and believable. Both companies occasionally toy with putting a different, younger character in certain super-suits, but usually this is a story-driven idea rather than a permanent change. DC in particular seems to go back and forth with their occasional “generational” idea of putting the now adult original Teen Titans characters into the roles of their mentors, but other than Dick Grayson, this hasn’t really happened. And now they’re starting to kill and maim Titans (Aqualad, Speedy) instead. Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, and Diana Prince obviously aren’t going away anytime soon.
The next few years might be interesting to watch as real-world challenges are catching up to some of the oldest (and most classic) characters. A few years ago, Warner and Disney, among others, pushed through a copyright extension bill that prevented the rights to 1930s-created characters such as Superman and Mickey Mouse from expiring, which would have put them into the public domain. Now, both DC and Marvel are fighting to keep their core characters from being legally reclaimed by their original creators (or their heirs). Given the success seen so far by the Siegel family, some very big characters are facing some interesting situations.
RE-JIGGERING THE TIMELINES
Getting back to comic books themselves, the Big Two have various other problems in dealing with the timelines of their fictional universes – not the least of which is the fact that their earliest characters were “born” just prior to or during World War II and are concretely linked to that era. For both Marvel and DC, a large chunk of their early fictional timeline is anchored firmly to that period (commonly called the Golden Age of Comics). Superheroes largely declined after the War (both in real life and for timeline purposes). In real word terms, the large-scale revival of superheroic fiction happened at two different periods (although both fall within what is commonly known as the Silver Age). DC’s superhero revival began in the mid-50’s with the creation of the new Barry Allen Flash character and the slow (but steady) development of other heroes. Many new versions of Golden Age characters like Green Lantern, The Atom, and Hawkman appeared, which led to the team book that they all (eventually) starred in – Justice League of America in 1960.
The success of the JLA book made Marvel take notice, and editor/writer Stan Lee was instructed to develop a superhero team exactly like it. Fortunately for everybody, Stan didn’t follow orders. He and Jack Kirby instead came up with the Fantastic Four in 1961, and the Marvel Universe was born. Over the next few years, Stan and his artists (mostly Kirby and Steve Ditko), came up with the most incredible array of heroic characters (Spider-Man, The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the Avengers, the X-Men, Dr. Strange, etc.) ever created in so short a time. Virtually all of them eventually became hugely popular – with most still being regularly published today!
For the many fans who were there, the “entry” of these heroes into the world was forever fixed as being in the 1960s (or late 1950s). Now, you can say that these characters were first published in 1956 or 1961 or 1964 or whenever. But for almost all of these classic characters, when you want to talk about when they first appeared within their fictional Universes, you can no longer authoritatively attach that to a specific date – nor have you been able to do that for a very long time, whether you knew it or not. You have to say something like “The Fantastic Four were first launched into space 10 years ago.” or “Batman first appeared in Gotham City about 11 years ago.” It’s all become relative to today.
Yeah, I don’t like it much either. And here’s the thing… If you want somebody to blame for it – I’m probably your guy.
NEXT WEEK: Find out why. Hint: it involves time travel.
KC CARLSON SEZ: If you’re still a little unclear about the whole sliding timeline thing, I can think of no better example than Archie Comics. This cast of teenagers have never graduated from high school in 60 years. They still have exactly the same teachers, parents, soda jerk — almost nothing about their lives has changed in six decades. However, they have experienced every single teenage trend, fad, or hobby and gone through dozens of genres of music, teen idols, and movie stars. Dozens of eras of style and fashion. Parodied countless different movies and TV shows. And survived superheroes, horror, science fiction, crime, war, western, romance, funny animals, alternative, manga/anime, and pretty much every comic genre that’s come and gone or stuck around. They are medical oddities – the oldest teenagers in the world! And 40 years from now – they’ll still be in high school!
Classic comic covers from the Grand Comics Database.