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Reversing Marvel's Sliding Timescale

Judging from my RSS feed, most blogs are in end of the year shutdown mode, and i'm about to join them. But i've got something i've been hanging on to, and now's a good time.

This was a post i submitted to Nathan Adler's How Would You Fix...? site around the same time he published my fix for Mr. Fantastic's intelligence. This one didn't really fit the theme of the site (or maybe Nathan just thought it sucked) so it didn't get posted, but hey, i get to decide what gets posted here, so here it is.

(By the way, this idea of mine doesn't affect my Marvel Timeline project in any way. I don't operate under the theory that this fix is in affect, and generally speaking i don't really let real world events affect my placement in any way. It's more about relative ordering of events over there and i don't worry about the sliding timescale.)

So here we go:

Let's start with a review of the problem. Peter Parker was in high school in Amazing Fantasy #15, which came out in 1962. That would make him around 65 years old today, if he aged in real time. And unlike, say, Charlie Brown, Marvel characters do participate in a universe that isn't stuck in time. Characters do grow, evolve, and age (sometimes!).

But while Marvel characters may age, they're not aging at the same rate as their readers are. The typical comic doesn't depict a long period of time. Sometimes a comic takes place over a span of hours. Sometimes a few days. On rare occasions longer. Hell, a year's worth of Bendis comics might take place over a period of 15 minutes. But we could very conservatively estimate that the average comic depicts a week of activity. So with 12 issues a year, for the past 60 years, you're looking at about 720 weeks, or ~14 years of activity. If Peter was 15 in 1962, he's 29 now. And you can play with those numbers a bit if you think that's too old.

So that by itself isn't a problem. Marvel addresses it by using what they call a sliding timescale. Fantastic Four #1 always takes place a set number of years ago. The number has changed a few times. I think they were using 6 years back in the year 2000. I think now it's 13 years. The exact number doesn't matter. I'll assume going forward that Marvel is saying that the year 2000 is when the FF went up in their rocket (2013-13 = 2000). So everything from FF #1 to today takes place in the period from 2000 - 2013. That's a lot of stuff, but as I note above, it's not quite as bad as it seems. A year's worth of comics depicts 12 weeks worth of activity, leaving plenty of time for rest and their civilian life and stopping mundane crimes and charity events and whatever else they do that isn't worth seeing in the comics.

So, that basically works, unless you actually go back and read the old comics. Then you discover what we chronologists (that's a fancy word for "comic book nerds") call "temporal references". The Thing and the Human Torch met the Beatles in Strange Tales #130. Henry Kissinger signed a non-aggression pact with Dr. Doom in Super-Villain Team-Up #6. Obviously, if the Fantastic Four didn't launch their rocket until 2000, those events couldn't have happened. So we're supposed to gloss over things like that or replace them with more modern references. It was really the Strokes, not the Beatles. Condoleezza Rice, not Kissinger. Obviously those scenes lose a lot of their impact - the Beatles were HUGE in 1965; there is no band in 2000 that can match the wow factor of the Beatles appearing in a comic. But it's... feasible, I guess.

Much more difficult is when a "temporal" event is integral to a character's development or origin. What's so special about the Fantastic Four launching a rocket into space in 2000? In the early 60s, the United States was locked into a space race with the Soviet Union, so it made sense (sort of) for Reed Richards to rush a group of non-scientists into an experimental rocket. In order to make the launch in 2000 seem important, the origin story has been revised and revised to the point where I'm not even sure of the wheres and whys of it any more.

Similarly, many characters' origins are tied to real world events. The Black Widow was a Soviet spy. Magneto is a Holocaust survivor, an integral part of his (revised) characterization. The Punisher was psychologically scarred in Vietnam. Solutions have been offered for these problems (Black Widow? Biologically enhanced. Magneto? De-aged by a hyper-evolved mutant and the re-aged to his prime by a space alien. Punisher? It wasn't Vietnam, just an unnamed military action in Southeast Asia. Professor X? Cloned body. Nick Fury? Infinity Formula. Sharon Carter? Oh, she's Peggy Carter's niece, not her sister. Etc, etc.), but keeping track of why each of these characters is as young as they are strains credulity. We don't want to use up all of our suspension of disbelief on stuff like this; we've got radioactive spiders and gamma-irradiated monsters to believe in.

I'm not ready to get to my solution yet, though. First I want to talk about a different problem.

The Marvel Universe has always been successful for being a "world outside your window". Even with all the crazy people flying around with super-powers, New York City is still New York City and regular people act like regular people. Which is very cool. But after reading comics for a while, you start asking, "How come Reed Richards doesn't release some of this incredible technology he's created to the public?" "In a world where Tony Stark can create solar powered battle armor, why do regular people still have to worry about oil prices?" Marvel, understandably, doesn't want to go there because pretty soon they're going to be putting out straight-up science fiction and the "world outside your window" is gone for good. But maintaining the status quo just makes all of Marvel's super-scientists look like jerks.

So what's the solution? Put it together with the other problem and you find an answer.

It is now 1975 in the Marvel Universe.

That's right; we're sticking with the idea that it's only been 13 years since Fantastic Four #1 in the comics. But instead of having a sliding timescale starting from today and going backwards, we'll start at the beginning (1962, or actually late 1961) and go forward. It's only been 13 years. But the proliferation of super-science technology makes their world in 1975 as advanced as ours is in 2013. The internet! Super-computer cell phones! Hybrid cars! Satellite-controlled drone planes. All available decades earlier thanks to the efforts of Marvel's super-scientists.

Not only that, but advances in technology and communication have accelerated real world events, too. It was possible to put out the first Star Wars movie decades earlier. That caused the cultural shift in blockbuster movie making that much earlier. Advances in communication accelerate trends. Protestors organizing on the internet and/or the availability of advanced weaponry ended the Vietnam War sooner, accelerated the start and end of the first Gulf War, etc., etc. Maybe presidential term limits were decreased thanks to the democratization of the internet and other reforms. Everything that happened in real life still happened, but it happened sooner.

(The only thing I can't solve is the fact that the denizens of the Marvel Universe seem to celebrate Christmas every 12 weeks.)

Crazy? Ridiculous? Of course. But it's crazy in a way that preserves the origins and early stories of all the Marvel characters. And it has absolutely zero impact on the casual reader, who can still pick up any book and enjoy the "world outside your window", not realizing they're looking into the past. And when they finally start asking how come Dum Dum Dugan is still around, we don't have to go reaching for the Infinity Formula again.

By fnord12 | December 19, 2012, 11:16 AM | Comics


That would create other problems. For example, Night Thrasher's origin hinges on Tai meeting Chord during the Vietnam War before he was born. Unless you want to retcon Dwayne into being 10, making it 1975 has problems. To use another example, what about Storm- if she was 6 at the time of the 1956 Suez War, she'd be 25 in 1975- just a couple of years older than Kitty.
Or what about Wanda and Pietro? If they were the children of Holocaust survivors, who previously had a daughter that died at age 3, they'd have to be 15 years old when they first met the X-Men.
(The weird thing about Hank McCoy by the way, which you'll find out when you profile his complete origin, is that his origin makes no sense in the original timeline but does make sense in the sliding timeline. His origin involves his father being exposed to radiation from a nuclear power plant before he was born. That's impossible if Uncanny 1 takes place in 1963- there were no nuclear power plants in 1946 and 1947.)

Thank you for engaging with my madness!

Fifteen years old doesn't seem too bad for Wanda and Pietro... i always assumed they were around the same age as the X-Men. Is that not true? And this way they are naturally closer to their original ages than if they are somehow children of Holocaust survivors first appearing in the year 2000.

Do we have a definite age for Kitty Pryde? If she was 13 in her first appearance, i'd put her at 20 or so now. Those five years might have made a big difference when Kitty was 13 and Storm was (a mature for her age) 18. And again, this theory allows Storm to be an age more appropriate for having been 6 during the Suez Crisis than the current Timescale.

And i refuse to allow this theory to be defeated by Night Thrasher! But i'm not above throwing in the occasional "unnamed military action in Southeast Asia" when absolutely necessary. I think with this idea we'd have less of them than the laundry list of excuses for characters in the current Timescale.

I like this much better than Marvel's sliding timescale, though I think my preference would be to forget all references to real-world years, but not real-world events, and telescope the events together. If we do need defined dates, though, 1975 today works better than 2000 for FF 1. Given the overwhelming nostalgism of the comics reader, it's appropriate on a meta level as well -- although maybe 1985 would work better in that regard.

Where the problem may be intractable is where time has clearly passed within a series, but all the retcons and dropped continuity every title has experienced in recent years may take progress and development out of the picture anyway. Blame it in Mephisto.