| THIS ISSUE:
The Affliction of True Fanboys:
Continuity and Timelines
by Michael Hutchison
or "Time Is Not On Our Side"
Chris J. Miller recently notified me of the existence of his "Unauthorized Chronology of the DC Universe" web site. I checked it out and I have to say that it is an awesome undertaking, a stupendous work. He manages to take the complex DC Universe and make sense of it.
It still doesn't work, of course, but I have to admire his dedication.
This is not to slight his diligence in any way. In order to make the DC timeline work, his timeline takes eleven years from the first appearance of Superman to the Crisis on Infinite Earths...and another nine years since then. In other words, the timeline works so long as you're willing to allow 20 years to have elapsed since Superman and Batman's first year. But DC keeps insisting upon a 10-12 year timeline.
The timeline doesn't work. It'll never work. Far too many age-progressing events have taken place which just can't be squished down into 10 years. This is why I now basically reject timelines in terms of years (Year 2, Year 12, etc.).
Where a timeline does prove essential is in chronicling major life changes and where they are in relation to each other. Back when I first began working on Fanzing, I thought about beginning a massive timeline so that a writer can look up, for example, when Batman and Superman learned each other's identities, who was in the Justice League at that time and whether Batman had been given the Kryptonite by Superman. Were such a resource available, John Ostrander's story about the Green Bullet in the JLA 80-Page Giant #1 wouldn't have been such an impossible continuity mess.
As another example, Chuck Dixon tried to tie in the pre-Crisis Kryptonian origins for Nightwing's name by having Superman tell him about a Kryptonian folk hero; of course, that seems rather hard to believe given that Superman himself had no idea he was from Krypton at the time that Dick Grayson chose his new name...nor did Superman know Bruce Wayne's identity, in which case it would be clumsy of Dick to talk to Superman out of costume.
Ah...but then again, the Silver Age event backdated Superman's membership in the Justice League. Batman's, too. It's hard to believe that they'd go all those years working closely without any idea of the other's identity. Still, seems a shame to throw out the cute story where Batman figures it out from a scrapbook he'd been given by Superman.
This is all a lot to keep straight, isn't it? And if you haven't read these particular stories, it probably seems like incredible nitpicking. To a person like me whose formative teen years were spent reading some of these great stories, there is a tendency to cling to these as being far too important to contradict.
And...that's really the whole problem, isn't it? I'm almost 33 years old. What should it matter if, in telling a story for the benefit of all the new, young readers out there, you want to contradict a story about how Batman and Superman learned each other's IDs told in 1988? That was FIFTEEN years ago! In the old golden days of comic books, it wasn't uncommon for stories to contradict events of only a few years before. By the Silver Age, there were so many different stories of how Batman and Superman first met that they could be combined into a super-special!
However, back then the turnaround for readers was a matter of a couple of years. New kids grew to reading age and began reading comic books. Older kids either moved on to other things or they continued to read comics for enjoyment. Sadly, today the person reading comics is the same guy who read that Superman comic in 1988. Perhaps, if the comics companies had done more to keep comic books where kids could and would buy them, they would be aiming their product at new readers who didn't care about continuity instead of worrying about pleasing the dwindling remains of the same audience from the 1980s and '90s.
There shouldn't be such an overwhelming emphasis on creating a consistent universe that pleases the long-memoried reader, considering that a growth business should always have more new readers than old. Knowing that the product is aimed more at the new readers would also give some perspective to the longtime readers that remain.
What I mean by that is...who gives a rat's tushie if there's a new story about Batman and Superman's first adventure together and it's different from what they said before? There will always be a few people who obsess on it...but so what? Why can't we just take these stories as little colored adventures that don't affect the world at all?
It seems to be a problem particular to the worlds of the DC, Marvel and similar superhero universes, since there is a tendency to take the stories seriously. I mean, when Richie Rich finds a wing of his mansion that he hasn't explored, is some reader cataloguing all of these wings on his web site and composing a giant map of what the Rich Mansion looks like? Do people write in to Disney and ask, "Oh come on! How can you tell a flashback story of Uncle Scrooge and Flintheart Glomgold having a rivalry in college when in Glomgold's first appearance in 1956 he's a wealthy South African diamond mine owner that Scrooge has never heard of? You people suck!" Are there really readers like that?
Well...yes, I suppose there are. There probably are, somewhere, obsessed dweebs who do care about these things, but they are a small part of the audience. That's really all you can do: hope the obsessed dweebs aren't the core of your readership.
And, as much as I wish I wasn't an obsessed dweeb, I grabbed my Giant Gladstone Comic Album Special No. 4 "Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge vs. Flintheart Glomgold" off of the bookshelf behind me to verify Flintheart's first appearance, because God forbid I should get that wrong in a humorous example.
See, I freely admit to being part of the problem, not the solution! At least, in my youth I was. I remember reading an Archie digest and being upset that Betty had cooked a fine meal for her date with Archie when in another story, in another Archie digest I owned, it clearly stated that Betty was an absolutely horrible cook! We're talking black smoke belching forth from the kitchen, Archie gagging at the thought of how he had to eat Betty's cooking, Reggie and Jughead reeling from the smell. How could this be? How could I reconcile it? Oh sure, I let the issue drop. It wasn't that big a deal. But it annoyed me. I was a kid! I didn't know about the vast number of writers who wrote Archie over the various decades that the stories were gathered from for the digest. To me, it just seemed sloppy.
I'd like to say that I do remember an age where I didn't care about such nitpicky things as how much time had passed between this and that in the DC Universe. But back in the 1980s, in my mid-teens and onward, I remember being obsessed with how it was winter in one book and summer in another book when they're both published in the same month and the characters interacted soon afterward so you can't just pretend that their timing was different.
And then there are cases like in 1986 where Superman's hearing goes out of whack and Superman hears everyone in the world talking, including word balloons spoken from a variety of books published by DC that month. Now, that was a wonderful thing; it should have been a fanboy's delight, and I think some editor worked very hard to get quotes from all of DC's other books just to make that panel a lot of fun. Unfortunately, they included the quotes "Flagg is a part-time idiot" from Suicide Squad (where the team was on a mission in Russia) and "How are you planning to get there?" from Firestorm (where Firestorm encounters the Suicide Squad in the lead-in to his fifth Annual)...and those two events couldn't have both happened at the same time!
Gol dang, that was frustrating. I actually had to tell myself that "How are you planning to get there?" is a common enough thing to say that Superman is probably not hearing Captain Boomerang say it. I couldn't just tell myself, "Ah, honest mistake. No big deal!" I had to have some explanation for it. Isn't that ridiculous?
Think that's bad? I wrote those quotes verbatim from memory. Fifteen years later.
But I comfort myself with the thought that I can't be the only one. There's our own John "Mickishawm" Wells, who's turned nitpicky chronicling into an almost-job! And Chris J. Miller, whose timeline website uses obscure elements like the 1988 elections in Suicide Squad, the solstice in Eclipso and such as anchor points for the entire DCU. And I mention these two by name not to single them out for ridicule (absolutely not!) but because they both freely admit that this is all a bit impossible to reconcile and pointless... before going on to chronicle the irreconcilable and pointless in great detail.
There are many other people, online and off, who actually get angry about timelines and inaccuracies. Once, while reading the rec.arts.comics.dc.universe newsgroup, I saw a guy berating Christopher Priest to his face for writing a story about Batman and Green Arrow's early years in which it mentions David Letterman, but Batman and Green Arrow's early years happened long before David Letterman's TV show. Yes, that's right...the guy wanted any flashback to be set in the 1940s because that's when those early adventures were published. When told that the timeline had to slide because otherwise new readers would never understand how Batman's flashback to ten years ago happened in the 1940s, he said that it didn't matter whether DC had instituted a sliding timeline; that's not the way his timeline worked.
People, people, people...
After publishing this magazine for 5+ years, out-of-pocket and for no profit, writing dozens of nitpicky, sometimes even whiney articles about comic book superhero minutia, all at the expense of my own personal life, I may not be the best one to be saying this...but we need to get a little perspective here. It's not that big a deal.
My personal breaking point was "Suicide Squad," when John Ostrander just arbitrarily made an entire year go by between one issue and the next. I mean...really! He did this without any consideration for what it did to all the other comic books in the DCU! When was this year supposed to pass? Are all of the New Teen Titans an entire year older because a year passed in Suicide Squad?
And it hit me: What does it matter? Shouldn't John Ostrander be able to make a year pass in his own comic book if it suits the drama of his story? Other writers make a week or two go by without needing to call up the Wonder Woman editor and confirm that the DC timeline is now set to mid-August and is this okay because he'll be needing Wonder Woman to show up in his story and if Wonder Woman's in the middle of a big six-part story arc during that time on the chart it won't make sense.
As a true reader, reading comics without thinking about the editors, writers and artists and how much (or how little) contact they had between them...these things frustrated me. But as soon as I was able to think of it in terms of writers writing independently...perhaps without studying in detail what was going on in all other books published by DC just so that they didn't make mistakes...it made sense.
I decided to relax.
Gone was the fanboy who insisted that each Christmas Superman "Metropolis Mailroom" story had to define a year on the DC timeline. Gone was the fanboy who was going to figure out how old Ralph Dibny was at each of his birthday mysteries using his 30th birthday in "Secret Origins #30" as a baseline. Gone was the fanboy who wanted to track every nine-month pregnancy, birthday, anniversary, annual JSA teamup and every stinking reference a character makes to the months or years that have transpired between a past event and this one and assemble them into one cohesive, coherent universe.
Because you know what? The people writing the damn things certainly don't. Nor should they. And after encountering enough online fanboys screaming about how editors should be required to read everything published by DC in order to never allow an error (apparently unaware that editors do other things like coordinating several books a month, proofing scripts and artwork for accuracy, giving interviews, etc. etc. etc.), I have to say that I'd rather that the comic book creators were entirely focused on telling good stories and avoided only the grossest continuity errors.
When did comic book nitpicking en masse truly start? This is hardly authoritative, but for my money I'd have to say it was "Justice League of America #144". Oh, fans had been carping and picking for ages, but this strikes me as the first time a nitpick was elevated to a full-blown complaint that needed its own story to answer it.
The premise? That the given date for the first adventure of the JLA (the Appellaxian invasion) pre-dates the first appearance of Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, so how could it possibly be true?
I find it hard to believe that anyone was that picky. Did writer Steve Englehart root out this bit of trivia on his own, or was there seriously mail coming in to the Justice League offices demanding an answer to this burning question? For, instead of telling the readers a flippant remark about how the JLA's calendar was off, Steve answers this outrageous insult to the readers' sensibilities with a complicated "true origin" involving test pilot Hal Jordan and every other DC character he could get his hands on.
Now, the question really is...why didn't Steve simply say, "It's a comic book. It doesn't matter"? Well, perhaps because it's fun to take comics seriously, provided it is done in good humor and without losing touch with reality.
And I can respect that. Far too many of today's so-called pros seem to loathe the industry they've chosen to work in, with a hatred for any fan deemed "too geeky." They envision themselves as the Hunter S. Thompson of the sequential art world, ushering in a new era when comic books will transcend the grubby paws of kids and sit on the shelf between "Moll Flanders" and "Atlas Shrugged", discussed in hushed tones over scones and frappucino at the Barnes and Noble, and how dare you, a fat guy in a t-shirt, ask questions about "How can Robin first appear in Year 3 if the Silver Age mini shows the Teen Titans and Batgirl in Year 2?" Why don't you get a life, you prepubescent idolator of gay nazi statuary?!
You have to wonder...are there any other businesses that ridicule their most devoted customers? If you dash into Pizza Hut and enthuse about how you've been salivating all week at the thought of the new Stuffed Crust, does the kid behind the counter sneer, "God, it's just cheese, veggies and tomatoes on bread! Why don't you go out and discover the many other edibles that there are to savor? Or better yet, skip supper and go work out!"
I'm going to take a risk here and go against the river of comic fans who want pages of "The Dark Knight Returns" to hang framed in an art museum. I know, as a comic lover I'm supposed to be staunchly defending the prestige of comics as high art, and this is not going to please those fans of the Will Eisner/Scott McCloud stripe who would like to change all of the terminology to make it seem as though comic books are as legit as paintings on the Sistine Chapel.
What might benefit the industry is if both the fans and certain pros took comic books a bit less seriously. They are entertainment. They do not change the world. No, not even the Very Special Issues about gun control, land mines or gay-bashing.
A Modest Proposal
This is my last "If I Ran DC" and so I'm going to pull out all the stops and tell you all what I'd do. I'm not going to worry that everyone out there will agree that this would be a great idea, because I know that won't be the case. But what do I care? It's the last issue and we won't have any more letters pages!
Before I tell you my proposal, here are the issues I'm addressing:
I'm sure many of you can see where I am going here.
Yes, I'd reboot the DCU. There'd need to be some better name for it, but reboot is the term I'd use.
I know this is appealing because the only Marvel books I've bought in the last few years were "Ultimate Spider-Man" 1-4 and the new "Captain America" #1.
After reading Ultimate SM I went over to the Dixonverse board, where all the Marvel fans were bashing it, and said that I found it enjoyable and accessible. Spidey fans who remembered Spider-Man stories from the early 1970s kept insisting that there's nothing all that complicated about Spider-Man's history and there's no need to reboot it. A few of them tried to summarize Spider-Man's uncomplicated history and I found my head spinning.
When Captain America came out, I bought it just for the tie-in to 9-11 (and because it had a great cover). However, I found it lacking in exposition and inaccessible to the novice reader. Who IS Captain America? (I know about the supersoldier thing and the frozen-in-ice part, but that's about it.) Who is the guy with the eyepatch who's talking to him, and is he Cap's boss or something? In general it was a good book with fantastic art, but for a new #1 issue of a series, I found it quite unwelcoming to new readers. When I went over to the D-verse board to ask my Marvel friends for more info, they explained (with much implied eye-rolling) that the guy in the eyepatch was obviously Sgt. Fury. This was even more confusing, since I thought he was a World War II character. This led to a very long history of Sgt. Fury, along with some accusations that it was wrong for me to expect Marvel to make characters in a new book accessible to new readers. All in all, it was a very eye-opening experience...for I realized how I must sometimes appear to non-DC people.
The Ultimate books, Byrne's Superman reboot, Perez's Wonder Woman reboot...all of them have been chances to take a character with a long, winding, overly complex history and pare it down to the basic premise. However, nobody's had the guts to do it to the full universe of characters. The Ultimate books are non-canon except in their own little universe. Superman's reboot...and particularly Perez's introduction of Wonder Woman into the DCU as it existed in 1986...necessitated much rewriting of history. In essence, the attempts to clear up the history of the individual characters was something of a failure because it began an entire cottage industry of backstory rewrites. It also ruined Wonder Girl.
Instead, reboot everything. Take Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and all DC characters back to square one and relaunch them. Reinvent them. Do what Byrne did with "The Man of Steel," but do it to the entire line.
Again, I must say: Don't panic! Take comfort from the basic premise of Hypertime: all the stories you like still exist somewhere, and you can go back and enjoy them even if they aren't officially recognized as canon. That is already the case; you can enjoy Alan Moore's "For The Man Who Has Everything" from Superman Annual #11 even though it isn't canonical post-Byrne.
A relaunch for DC's titles would generate much public interest and provide the best jumping-on point ever. DC has tried to provide "good starting point" events where they catch up the new readers on a book, such as the Zero issues and the face month; this would be even bigger, because all books would be blank slates. I would restart the numbering on all books except for Action and Detective.
Oh, but I should mention: the Bat offices won't want to reboot. After all, unlike the rest of the DCU, they have successfully separated their characters from the larger continuity, albeit unofficially. The rest of the DCU has a 10-year timeline, a complex continuity and Batman is a prominent member of the JLA; but within Gotham, there is a 15+-year timeline where Dick Grayson joined in Batman's third year and has aged thirteen years, the characters' histories get revised every few years and Batman is an urban legend. And I applaud this, because it embraces the character-centric shunning of continuity that I'd love to see in all the DCU. I don't really want to see Batman restarted with Dick Grayson as Robin, no Nightwing, no Oracle, no Tim Drake...but perhaps even the Bat-offices could see this as an opportunity. Retell Batman's history and eventually get things back to the present state of affairs.
That's what everyone would have to do: see the great opportunity in this. The chance to retell, in your own way, the first encounter with The Joker. The possibility for using Harvey Dent as a supporting character for a year or two before he becomes Two-Face. Showing the deaths of the Graysons as if it were a modern story happening today instead of always being a flashback to an earlier time. Establishing Bruce Wayne's character from day one, and giving new origins and looks to Batman's villains. (This is all, more or less, what was done in the animated series.)
Imagine a Green Arrow who was just starting out today instead of being mired in nostalgia. Imagine a Hawkman without a complicated history. Imagine seeing all of your favorite superheroes being built from the ground up, without any predestined future.
Imagine reintroducing villains who have become tired jokes and has-beens, background filler for supervillain mob scenes, and making them compelling adversaries.
Imagine the Metal Men, Black Lightning, the Teen Titans, Mr. Miracle and Green Lantern having their first adventures today, written for modern sensibilities. (I love the Metal Men, and yet I find their old adventures almost impossible to enjoy, what with the '60s jargon, stereotyping, heavy-handed writing and all that. Similarly, Black Lightning needs a non-70s origin and costume.)
Imagine all those "adventure" characters whose adventures don't seem as daring in a world of superheroes. If Cave Carson unearths a lava monster and it rampages through N.Y.C., the reader's reaction should be "What will Cave do to solve this?", not "Where's Superman?" Similarly, where's the fun in the Sea Devils discovering Atlantis if Aquaman lives there? What if, instead, a bathyscaphe trapped on the bottom of the ocean has only one hope, and it's the Sea Devils, because no superheroes exist in the world of their adventures? What if Adam Strange's Zeta Beam was truly the only option for getting home to Alanna because there were no other possible ways to travel across four light years? DC's western, war, sci-fi and humor characters could exist in their own realities without complaint.
Imagine reinventing a way for the Justice Society to have finished their 1940s adventures and then reappear in the modern era only as 40 and 50-year-olds with teenage children.
Please Don't Kill Me
This is all a very modest proposal. I'm not sure it's anything I'd want to implement right away...but if the comics market keeps dwindling, this would certainly be a way to get everyone's attention. And by that point, the hardcore readership will only be a few thousand people, only some of whom will truly object to this...so what do you have to lose?
I know that every single one of us would whine about our favorite stories being "invalidated" (as invalidated as any story can be when we have the original issue to pull out and reread for fun no matter what any continuity cop says). But I think the possibilities outweigh the risk.
is Editor-In-Chief of Fanzing.com. He is the world's biggest Elongated Man fan
and runs the only EM fan site.
He lives in Rochester, MN.
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