Time on my hands

Posted: 19 August 2014 in comics, fiction
Tags: ,

Let’s talk about Time Travel. And comic books.

Time travel stories in monthly comic books featuring continuing characters always suffer from, and always will suffer from, a huge limitation, when compared to opposed to any other form of fiction. That limiting parameter, which is of course, the necessity for characters to survive, is precisely what led to What If…? and Elseworlds tales being so popular. Because what is a What if…? other than the consequences of a time traveller going to the past and changing a crucial event?

So I’m a sucker for time travel stories; always have been. Doesn’t matter whether it’s novels like There Will Be Time or The Time Patrol tales, both by Poul Anderson, movies like The Philadelphia Experiment or the numerous comics books stories over the years, I get sucked in; and of course, my guilty not-so-secret is that despite the script always having at least one character warning the others against changing anything in the past “in case it changes the future”, that’s why I read the damn thing: to see what the consequences are of such meddling.

With rare exceptions though, time travel stories set in the past tend to concentrate on “a character learning something”, one of the classic “there are only five/six/seven* [*delete as appropriate] stories”. Whether it’s a character learning something about his origin, or solving a long forgotten but unsolved crime, the temptation to ‘mix in’ is strong for characters, sometimes too strong. Could any of us blame Bruce Wayne, given the opportunity to travel back in time and save his parents, if he did so? Or Peter Parker saving Uncle Ben?

However, while the past is already written and a change in the timeline requires an overt act of commission or omission, the future is an open book, blank pages ready to be written on. I guess it’s a pity then that so many of these stories are dystopic in nature. (c.f. Marvel’s Age of Ultron most recently, and Age of Apocalypse a wee back further in subjective] time and DC’s Armageddon 2001, even further back.)

I infer from this, unfortunately, that most super-hero writers don’t think that super-heroes will eventually make a difference. Or at least one to the benefit of humanity.

The first comic book time travel story I actually recall reading was from a British reprint of Fantastic Four #19, wherein the team go back in time and encounter Rama Tut. This turned out to be quite a popular time to visit, since the story has been reproduced from other characters’ points of view, including Doctor Strange and the West Coast Avengers, each of them in their own books visiting this critical (!) time. In the latter, the writer obviously decided to have a bit of fun with the whole ‘chicken and egg’ scenario, since he had Moon Knight create the very weapons that, a couple of thousand years later the character would discover and use as a super-hero.

However, the multiple visitors thing do remind me of the classic science fiction story Let’s Go To Golgotha by Gary Kilworth. In this startlingly original story, a group of time travelling tourists visit the village of Golgotha only to discover that all of the massive crowds witnessing the crucifixion are time travellers… the natives are sitting at home instead, not caring about yet another state execution of yet another criminal.

Time travelling has been a staple of super-hero storytelling since at least the 1950s, with Batman regularly using “hypnosis” (and sometimes a “time ray”) to travel back in time, via the offices of a Professor Nichols. For some reason, despite the hypnosis, Nichols quite happily sent back Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson… and then on other occasions Batman and Robin… and didn’t learn of their identities. Lord, people kept themselves to themselves back then.

During one of these stories, Batman travelled back to the Old West and managed to inspire a Batman in the 1800s. In fact, given the number of other Batmen he discovered over the years, it’s quite astonishing that Bruce Wayne’s eventual appearance in the cape and cowl was anything other than inevitable.

Batman was, of course, far from the only character to indulge in time travel. Superman, and especially Superboy had a number of time travelling adventures, and even Jimmy Olsen was transported back in time and space, in one story, ending up on Krypton before the explosion. And neither was this limited to the “goofy” tales of the 1950s. In the not too distant past ok, twenty-odd years ago, a storyline entitled Time and Time Again had Superman bouncing around the time stream, suffering from amnesia (a common story device for time travellers) and a darkened costume (a less common story device, I’ll admit).

Even leaving aside John Byrne’s version of OMAC, (OK, well, I liked it) it seems at times as if almost every major character has indulged in time travel at one time or another: Superman, Batman, The Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Avengers, The X-Men… hell, even Green Arrow got in on the act; in a 1946 story, Date With Diana, both he and Speedy end up in the ancient past, where they meet Diana, the legendary goddess of the hunt.

All of these stories are of course, in complete contradiction of Hawking’s Rule: If time travelling was possible, time travellers from the future would already be here.

And we know they’re not here… Unless, of course, that’s just what they want us to think. No matter: some of these stories worked superbly, some weren’t too bad at all… and then there were the others.

Without making a long list of which stories ‘worked; and which didn’t, and despite my love for the very concept, I do wonder whether on occasion, they’re a crutch for the writer upon which to rest. Going forward in time is easy. Readers love speculative fiction in comics and as upmteen (a technical writing term, you understand) story arcs prove, you can do pretty much whatever you like to the future version of characters… precisely because the characters will never be allowed to get that old. Being fair, it’s not exactly an original concept: teenage heroes in particular see a dystopic future and don’t like what they see.

The first team time travel story that addressed the ‘darker versions of themselves’ issue involved, I think, The New Mutants; in issues #48 to #50 of their book, published in 1987, the team was split in two and scattered forward in time, both sets of characters ending up some thirty years in the future. One set of kids ended up in a post-Days of Future Past New York, where they discovered mature versions of those that hadn’t made the trip with them, battle-hardened, battle-weary soldiers. Simultaneously (if you’ll forgive the use of the word) the younger versions of these characters had travelled to an alternate future, one which seemed a paradise to them, having come from a world that at best tolerated mutants; here, the mutants ran things and the humans were oppressed. Of
course, it was the grown up versions of those that had not travelled with them that ran that so-called ideal society.

When the children were reunited, the awkwardness each set of kids felt around the other was palpable. Well, how at ease would you be with a friend, if you’d seen an adult version of that friend as a cruel veteran of a decade long war? Or as the fascistic leader of a totalitarian society?

Going into the past is trickier, but other than giving the writer a chance to get some retroactive continuity into canon for his own pet theory or story, there are almost none I can recall that genuinely accomplished something that couldn’t have been shown another way.

I say “almost”, because there are three “visiting the past” storylines that I still remember very fondly, and that did accomplish something unique in each case.

The first occurred during Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man. After his family has been killed – don’t worry, they come back later – Buddy Baker is distraught and borrows a time travel unit from Rip Hunter to visit the past. Although he knows that he mustn’t interfere, the sight of Baker, hidden, watching his daughter play while a tear runs down his cheek is still, years later, very moving. Morrison doesn’t rest there, though – he ensures that Animal Man encounters immortals during the trip. Of course, this being a Morrison book, the have coffee while discussing the nature of time. An intelligent, moving tale. And perfect art by Tom Grummett, as opposed to the earlier issues’ Chas Truog. (I’m sure some enjoyed Truog’s work but it had the awful effect for me of always being aware of the art… in a bad way; it always made me think ‘urgh, maybe it’ll get better next page. It never did.)

Rip Hunter pops up again in Time Masters, a wonderful eight issue mini-series that deals with a group of characters’ attempts to stop a multi-thousand year old conspiracy. The very scope of the story could not have been achieved without time travel and it’s a damn pity that Bob Wayne didn’t write much else, concentrating instead on his Marketing and PR career for DC. There’s just nothing wrong with either the story, the art, the emotional beats hit during the series. Just nothing at all.


The other story is the entire run of one of my favourite comic books DC ever published: Chronos. Addressing multiple paradoxes about time travel (including what happens if due to your meddling, you don’t exist?) the book had one of the best concepts and best endings ever. Instead of a time traveller ensuring that he didn’t interfere with time, Gabriel Walker would interfere… because, according to the one major conceit of the book, he was always supposed to. So for example, he introduces Thomas Wayne to a young socialite named Martha in the Silver Age of DC Comics; he also works on the Kent Farm in the 1880s.

Talking of the Kents, and the ending I referred to a moment ago… on the final pages of the final issue, Gabriel Walker turns up in Kansas and begs a ride from a childless couple driving past. He directs them to a field not far from Smallville and then, thanking them for the ride, he leaves them… He’s planned it so that as they drive home, they’ll pass near Kal-El’s rocket ship as it plummets to Earth. As he says at the end of the book, he has ‘a front row on history’.

Given the quality of those and other stories, I guess that what gives me a headache about time travel stories isn’t that they’re done at all, but that they’re done well so infrequently. Often, the plot can’t survive the weight put upon it by logical inconsistencies… that are there just to make the story “work” as in the convoluted – to put it mildly – history of Kang. On other occasions, the characters act… well, out of character. That could be explained by the different social mores and culture of the time period, but it never is.

And yet time travel stories still retain that certain something that gets readers interested. I suspect part of the reason is that time travel stories in which the established past does change have what you might call “inherent suspense”. No one reading a story in which, say, Peter Parker went back to ‘save’ Uncle Ben would believe for a moment that by the end of the story, Ben would be anything but dead. The interest is seeing how.

I’ll end with my favourite quote about time travel, from the most well-travelled of time travellers, Doctor Who: “That takes me back… or is it forward? That’s the trouble with time travel, you never can tell.”

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