Monday, July 24, 2006


The Annoyances of Internal Entropy In Ongoing Imaginary Universes


Here's the thing (actually, we call this a topic sentence in Expository Writing 101): Marvel time is a bad idea. By which I mean, this peculiar method that Marvel (and DC) have of keeping the current adventures of their heroes set in the current, real world time period, blows. As in, stinks. Which is to say, I hate it, it's wrong, and it should and must be abolished immediately in favor of some alternative system that is simpler, more intelligent, and most important of all, better suited to my emotional desires and delicate sensibilities.

As to which, I shall... elucidate.

I understand that Marvel has to keep moving up the present day date of the Marvel Universe to match the date of the 'real' world, or, anyway, they think they do, for two reasons: first, their perpetually recycling 13 year old male target audience would be confused and alienated if their favorite comic book heroes aged realistically, because who in the name of God wants to read the adventures of a 54 year old Spider-Man? Not any 13 year old you've ever met.

Hell, I'm not even sure I want to. To my mind, Peter Parker should always be right around 19 or 20 years old. That emotional belief puts me in a weird spot, placing me somewhere between the first generation of True Believers, to whom Peter Parker will always look as if drawn by Steve Ditko and should always remain in his senior year of high school, and the third generation Marvel Zombies, those irritating adolescents who were clogging up the comics shops when I was in my late teens and early 20s, buying up X-MEN and SECRET WARS and CRISIS and TEEN TITANS, to whom Peter Parker is in his late college career or early grad school, will never be married, and praise be to Jayzus, has not yet been shoved down a literary garbage disposal by the vastly clue-free Todd McFarlane.

The second reason Marvel keeps yanking their continuity constantly up the entropy ladder is predicated on the first one: the characters can't age realistically without alienating their target demographics, but the fictional universe they live in has to stay current.

Again, that target kid with the two bucks in his pocket won't shell out the shekels for a comic book that takes place in 1970. It's an alien world to him, and he's going to read two or three references to Nixon in the White House, realize none of his favorite heroes are talking about Pokemon or making cool in-references to BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, and he'll toss the mag back on the comics rack in disgust. The MU (and the DC U, for that matter) Must Remain Trendy.

The strange solution that both Marvel and DC have independently arrived at is to keep their characters more or less perpetually young, but to keep their 'current' adventures firmly in whatever year the Real World is actually experiencing. This has some odd effects, and I hate them all, but namely, what it means is that every single piece of history and continuity in the Marvel Universe gets constantly redated... no matter how ridiculous the new dating may be.

As things stand now, editorial policy at Marvel is that 'about six years' have passed since the beginning of the Modern Heroic Age, which they pretty much measure from that historic, abortive moon shot in which four star crossed adventurers gained superhuman powers from cosmic ray exposure and became the melodramatically entitled Fantastic Four. The respective irradiatings of Peter Parker and Bruce Banner, the near fatal entombment of Dr. Donald Blake, that fatal shrapnel wound to the chest of Tony Stark, and the Iron Curtain murder of Hank Pym's first wife, all followed these events closely, with the result that, for example, with this year being 2000, and given the assumption that this all happened 'about six years ago', we can assume that all the stuff I just mentioned happened right around 1994.

Here's the haps, chaps: Nobody's wife was murdered by East German secret police in 1994, and if Henry Pym has perfected size change technology, been through about sixteen different alter egos, gotten married again to his long time crimefighting partner and fellow charter Avenger, had forty nervous breakdowns, beaten his second wife into divorcing him, joined the Masters of Evil, gotten rehabilitated, nearly committed suicide, rejoined the Avengers, reconciled with his divorced second wife, and a bunch MORE stuff I don't even wanna try to list, in SIX YEARS, I don't blame him a bit for going nuts every once in a while. The man is ENTITLED.

And, let me point out that this is a guy who hasn't had his own book since the late 60s. All that stuff happened in various other comic books. Shall we add up everything that has supposedly happened to Peter Parker in those six years between the covers of about sixteen different monthly comics that he himself starred in as well as uncountable guest appearances?

NO we shall not, because you are beginning to grasp just how ludicrous this concept of Marvel time is. It's been somewhat less than six years since Charles Xavier first gathered together his first team of X-Men. Yeah. Sure. WE believe you.

We need not detail how further ludicrous it is that Tony Stark got a chunk of shrapnel in his chest in Vietnam in 1994, or that the nascent FF made an attempt to beat the Russians to the moon in an experimental space ship in 1994, either. We understand that this is deeply and inarguably stupid, and it did not happen that way, regardless of what our treasured, polybagged orgin issues tell us.

Now the apologist in the second row gets up and snivels "But they've explained all this. The FF were no longer trying to beat the Russians to the moon, they were just testing an experimental new rocket fuel. Henry Pym's first wife was killed by diehard Communist terrorists, not government agents. Tony Stark was captured by hill country bandits, perhaps in Afghanistan, or some other place as time goes by. We HAVE to do this. There's no alternative."

Back in college, where I attended with a small clique of fellow comics fanatics, many of whom, like me, were determined to someday grow up and be comics writers and artists themselves, one of those guys shared with me my great and abiding hatred of Marvel's flexible entropic rate... but as he took me down the path carefully, explaining what I've just laid out above as to the reasons for why they do it, he concluded by asking me to come up with A Better Way. Did I want Peter Parker to be 34 years old, as he would have been at that time, in 1980? As 34 years old seemed to my punk, idiot self of that era to be grotesquely, dodderingly ancient, I gasped, horrified, "NO!" Then, said my mentor patiently... what?


Couldn't answer him back then. Hey, I was young and stupid and while I KNEW that Marvel time was deeply and utterly wrong, I... couldn't... come up with a Better Way.


Well, I'm here to tell you that there IS an alternative. It's one that should have been followed since 1961, and just because I couldn't think of it when I was 18 years old is no damn reason smarter, older guys like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby couldn't have thought of it at the start of the Silver Age. It's all very well and good for DC to declare that THEIR stupid characters will remain timeless and changeless unto all eternity because WHO CARES how old Green Arrow is, anyway? He's a wank! But Marvel's world was supposed to be realistic, and if Peter Parker got his super powers at the age of 16 in 1961, then yes, goddamit, he SHOULD be 34 in 1980. Um... which would have sucked for me back then, and certainly, a Spider-man in his mid 50s would suck for the teen age fans of today.

But... there is a solution, and the solution is as follows:

Abandon the second tenet of the Marvel Time justification. Accept that if we want it to be six years since the Marvel Universe began, well, then, in the Marvel Universe, it's 1967. And... deal with it.

Now, stop screaming, put down all those pitchforks and torches, and listen to me for a couple seconds. Am I seriously suggesting that all the mainstream Marvel Comics be published as if taking place in 1967? With race riots and civil rights and Johnson, for God's sake, still in office and people running around in fringed leather shirts and peace signs? With Laugh In on TV and Flip Wilson wearing dresses and Cassius Clay refusing to go to Vietnam and Bob Dylan growling all gravelly about Tambourine Mans on the radio? HAVE I LOST MY MIND?

Kinda. First... yes. We could have all those mainstream Marvel characters in their own comic book set in 1967, or whatever. We could. If we love the characters, and we want them to stay at a certain age, why not? Let them age gradually, at the natural entropic rate for the experiences we depict them having. Now, am I saying we can't have any modern day adventures in the Marvel Universe? Oh hell no. We can... just... with new characters.

Certainly, Peter Parker would have retired, or died, or something, between the 60s and the twilight of the second millenium A.D. But there'd be a new Spider-man running around, and if he had good writers and good artists, he'd be cool, too. Maybe he's Peter Parker's son, or maybe he's some totally unrelated guy who just had the mantle passed on to him by Parker during some origin sequence that took place in the late 70s. Given the amount of time that's gone by, we might be on our third Spider-man by now, and a new one might be warming up in the... heh... Bullpen.

The upshot here is that we'd have MORE cool characters, and if Marvel could find enough good writers and artists, they could publish them ALL. Some would live in the 60s, some the 70s, some the 80s, some the modern day. Keeping track of the timeline would get a little convoluted, but hell, it's not like that's something new to a comic book editor or fan, and at its worse it couldn't make less sense than the current X-MEN continuity.

In addition to more characters, we'd have a continuity and a history for our favorite fictional world that makes sense. The Fantastic Four did make their historic rocket trip in 1961, and everything else happened afterwards just as it did. We wouldn't be faced with the problem of characters who have had clearly delineated World War II adventures (such as Reed Richards and Ben Grimm once did) and yet who must remain pretty much the same age, as World War II itself steadily recedes into history.
Would it work today? Sure. In fact, Tom DeFalco seems to recently have tried to get something like this off the ground, with the hastily aborted M2 Universe. This depicted a modern day (apparently) Marvel Universe populated by the 'next generation' of Marvel heroes, who were all sons and daughters and various other descendents of the original titans from the Silver Age, carrying on those classic heroic or villainous traditions with their own youthfully exuberant twists.

The major problem with the M2 Universe was, well, it was creatively controlled by Tom DeFalco and thus, pretty much entirely blew. In fact, it made no real sense, because for all that Spider-Girl, daughter of Peter and Mary Jane Parker, was running around in the modern day in her own M2 title, Spider-Man, without a daughter in sight, was vaulting around Manhattan in three or four different other mainstream titles, also set in the modern day. Yeah, DeFalco tried to show that the M2 universe was somewhat 'futuristic', but his little touches were lame and stupid and barely pasted on to what was clearly meant to be simply a normal, everyday setting. Given how much our own reality has changed in the 20 years since 1980, I think I can reliably say that the world of 2020 will be recognizably different from this one, and the M2 Universe was not.

Nontheless, the attempt was made, which shows that at least someone in some sort of editorial post at Marvel is as annoyed by the whole Marvel time thing as I am.

What COULD we do to adopt this more sensible streamlining today? Well, we need to bring back something like the M2 Universe, but, you know, don't let Tom DeFalco handle it. Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern would probably do a pretty decent job of designing an entire 'next generation' Marvel Universe, complete with retroconned backstories galore. However, we can't go half assed at it. If we're going to have a 'modern day' Marvel Universe populated by a next generation of heroes and villains, then we have to shift the current line up into the past. That doesn't mean we have to stop publishing their adventures, but it does mean that someone, like Busiek and Stern, have to sit down and come up with an intervening timeline so we know who can still show up in the 'modern' universe and who can't, because they're dead.

Bear in mind, no one is going to be revealing all the backstory stuff at once. Don't look at it as a limitation on what stories can be done in the 'backdated' books. Both separate time periods would now form a creative synergy, as a reference to 'history' in the modern X-Men comic could suggest a storyline in the 'historical' title, and similarly, a storyline in the historical title could lead to a spin off twenty years in the future. With intelligent and creative editorial oversight, it could lead to a previously undreamed of level of story quality, adding a whole new dimension to characterization and the drama that is the unfolding Marvel Universe.


I wrote all the above so I can now write all the below: which is to say, my initial, disgusted, responses to the new Marvel mini series THE LOST GENERATION.

Normally I'm a big fan of anything Roger Stern writes. I was apparently one of seven people who bought every issue of the recent, quickly cancelled series, MARVEL UNIVERSE. I've more or less enjoyed the kinda lame and stupid AVENGERS TWO miniseries. AVENGERS FOREVER was reet and compleet, whatever THAT means, even if Busiek's 'solution' to the Vision/Human Torch dilemma is wrong, unacceptable, and dumb. However. This Lost Generation thingie... um... well... it kinda stinks.

The first reason it kind of stinks is the Marvel Time deal, detailed above. I'll get back to that. The second reason, though, is a thematic one. We have here a whole series populated with what I often think of as 'disposable' characters. Superhero comic book have always made use of such characters, but I believe it wasn't until Alan Moore went independent that we saw such a flood of them in comics, and that the concept of them because so trendy.

To put it bluntly, disposable characters are bad characters. Characters with stupid names and dumb powers and idiotic origin sequences, in any combination thereof, including all three. These characters frequently exhibit, somewhere in their complex make up, some glimmering shard of an interesting idea, but usually, that interesting idea has already been incorporated somewhere else in a better character.

The real debut of such throwaway heroes and villains came, I believe, in Alan Moore's celebrated graphic novel WATCHMEN. We all know the history of that particular publication, I think: DC had just acquired a handful of cult favorite Charlton superheroes and wasn't sure just what to do with them . Their editors solicited proposals from the creative talent then working in comics, and Alan Moore came forward with an idea in which most of those heroes turned out to be kind of nasty, some of them died, one or two went nuts, and the rest Would Never Be The Same. The problem is, editors don't like it when their characters Will Never Be The Same; they like to find something the fans will buy and stick with it forever (another underlying reason for the stupidity that is Marvel time). But, you know, this was an Alan Moore suggestion, and it goes without saying that it was just bloody brilliant, even if the plot was stolen in its entirety from an obscure science fiction thriller named PROJECT WILD CARD. So DC tried to think of a way to do the story, without giving up their new Charlton characters as a sacrifice to it, and what they came up with was: disposable characters.

In other words, Moore changed the characters just enough to make them into other characters. However, since those characters never had to be used again outside the parameters of a single limited story, he didn't have to bother coming up with GOOD changes in the characters. Really, all he was doing anyway was changing their names, and it didn't matter if he came up with GOOD names. And as twenty years of subsequent publication has shown us, Moore doesn't come up with very good names or original characters anyway. So he took Charlton characters named Blue Beetle, Peacemaker, the Question, Captain Atom, Nightshade, and Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, and changed their alter egos to Nite-Owl, the Comedian, Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre, and Ozymandias. And in doing so, he established what was to become a tradition in comic book publication, eagerly embraced by everyone from Jim Shooter to Fabian Nicieza: one use characters. Heroes and villains, usually that dwell in alternate dimensions, who will be introduced and used up in one particular story, and never seen again.

This tradition later mutated slightly into another one, also embraced by many comics creators ranging from Rob Liefeld to Kurt Busiek, namely, filing the serial numbers off someone else's characters, giving them a new, usually bad, name, and doing your own stories with them. As a matter of irony, those other creators who do it most often tend to swipe a lot of their ideas from Moore, but then, since Moore swipes nearly all his ideas from someone else, it's all a big circle anyway.

However, we were talking about THE LOST GENERATION. And half of the reasons why it sucks, namely, that it concerns itself entirely with disposable characters. We've got a a BUNCH of 'em... Nightingale, who heals people with a touch, but apparently, hurts and eventually kills herself doing it, Mr. Justice, heroic heir to some even earlier unknown hero known as the Yankee Clipper, and who inexplicably is wearing what can best be described as a more boring version of the Vindicator costume, Yeti, who looks a lot like a slightly more bestial Sasquatch, Effigy, a Skrull raised to be a good American, the Black Fox, a pretty obvious Batman swipe, Oxbow and Pixie, who are nearly weird enough to be memorable, but not quite, Mako, a female Atlantaean Wolverine type, and Walkabout, a robot with a human brain (and we've never seen THAT concept before, oh no).

To an extent, the whole series reminds me of the superhero roleplaying campaign I once shared with some gifted, creative, comics fans. All of us were wannabe pros. We alternated our own scenarios and playing in the scenarios created by the other guys. Populated with a weird mixture of established characters from Marvel and DC and even Archie's superhero line, mixed generously with our own original characters, our shared campaign was a mad patchwork of weird, fannish wishful thinking continuity and strangely melded references to the life events of published characters. That's how LOST GENERATION feels to me. Most of these characters are mediocre at best, a few of them aspire to maybe being almost good enough to be of professional quality, and ALL of them seem more suited to a manila folder full of Champions character sheets than a Marvel mini series.

And the worst part is, this is the basic concept of the series. By its intrinsic nature, LOST GENERATION concerns itself with a truckload of characters utterly forgotten to the modern Marvel Universe... and one issue is enough for us to understand why. These guys suck. Yes, they all blow up at the end of the first issue, and it's really hard not to just murmur a satisfied 'good riddance' and toss the comic back on the pile.

However, if 'disposable characters' is half the reason why this mini series sucks, the other half is.. .yes... Marvel time.

This hit me hardest when I picked up the second issue of the series. The first issue, taking place as it does entirely in space, as the few surviving members of the Lost Generation struggle to turn back a full blown Skrull invasion that we are told took place years before the Fantastic Four was formed, has no topical references to give it a specific date. To me, what this meant was that it took place as some point in the mid to late 50s, and the whole tone of the issue, from a dying Effigy proclaiming that all he had ever wanted to be was a good American, through the 'living robot' Walkabout, to the threat of the alien invasion itself, all reeked of a typical Atomic Age 'better dead than Red' mingling of cynical paranoia and nostalgic innocence. No one ever told me the story was set in the 50s, but no one had to, either; it just seemed like it had to be. (In thinking about it now, it also occurs to me that the very costumes worn by the characters were redolent of the 50s, with all the capes and head covering mask-hoods and such, and there was a distinct lack of racial minorities among the characters present, too.)

It makes perfect sense, in fact, that a "Lost Generation", if one HAS to exist, would have lived in the 50s, too. For one thing, the literary reference the title is taken from is of that time period. For another, both the Marvel and DC comic book histories show a distinctive lack of superhero activity in the 50s, a strange lull between the literal armies of superbeings that overran both super-Earths in the WW II era, and the reburgeoning of the costumed crusaders that was to come in the early 60s. The real world explanations for this strange historical subsidence in superhero activity are depressing, unpleasant, and not a little seamy, and can best be summarized by simply mentioning several topical phrases like HUAC, the Seduction of the Innocent, juvenile delinquency, and Cold War paranoia. Suffice to say that the overwhelming boom of comic books of all genres that came out of World War II choked off and very nearly died by the mid 50s, and as the presence of garishly colored pulp pages on real world newsstands dwindled and vanished, so too did the presence of brightly bedecked heroes and villains on the Marvel and DC Earth.

In DC continuity, this ten year long hiatus in superhero activity has long been explained away (initially by Roy Thomas, I believe) as having to do with Joe McCarthy demanding that America's superheroes reveal their secret identities to Congress, to prove none of them were Communists. Instead, they all chose to retire. However, the Marvel Universe has never really offered an explanation for where all its wartime weirdos went. A few have been dealt with individually (Captain America was frozen in ice, the Human Torch was buried in a desert, the Sub Mariner simply ages more slowly than a normal person) but the vast legions of Timely and other super-lunatics apparently simply faded away. And apparently, it was this ten year hiatus that first sparked this concept of telling the story of a "Lost Generation" of heroes between WWII and the dawning of the Silver Age.

Given that there is, if not a need to explain this away, then, at least, a potential story to be told, I can't really object to the fundamental concept of doing it. The purist in me would prefer to see at least the inclusion of some established characters from that time period, but the writer/editor in me must reluctantly admit that all those characters were created in a simpler age, for a less sophisticated audience, and perhaps there wouldn't be a lot of sales figures in doing a whole series about the 50s exploits of the Blazing Skull, the Golden Age Vision, the Patriot, and Miss America. So, okay, we're going to do a story about this 'missing' time period, and we're going to make up a bunch of new, never before referred to characters for the series, too, characters created by modern day writers and more suited to modern day sensibilities. Fine. Well... not fine... but... there's some interesting potential there, too.

This, I should say, is pretty much where I was at the end of the first issue of LOST GENERATION (cutesily numbered #12, as the series proceeds backward through time, but we'll leave that as neither here nor there, although it annoys me). Okay, they're a bunch of disposable characters, and they all blew up real good, and maybe this will be interesting. But... as I say... I just implicitly assumed that this was all taking place in the 50s, because, well, it has to. The Marvel Universe has had PLENTY of superheroes since the 60s, right?

Ah. You're starting to get a glimmer of the thematic brick wall I ran head first into in the second issue.

You see, when we mix in that wretched, miserable concept known as Marvel time, we get... um... well... horrible things.

If the Silver Age didn't begin until 1994... and superheroes, by and large, started to vanish shortly after WW II... well, then, we don't just have a Lost Generation. We have, by God, an entire Lost Dynasty. We've got 45 years, pretty much, without heroes in the Marvel Universe. And what we've also got, to my intense irritation, is a second issue of a mini series that I was (and still am) emotionally certain had to be set in the 1950s... full of exasperating topical references to Star Wars, and Sony Watchman TVs, and disco, and I don't know WHAT all. To really put it right in your face, we have a series that we are constantly reminded takes place 'years' before the debut of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man... which is set in, like, 1980.

If you're in your early 20s, this probably doesn't bother you. If you're a teen age X-Men fan, you actually are probably somewhat uneasy at the thought of the Fantastic Four actually being that OLD, but then, when you watch THAT 70s SHOW, if you do, it strikes you as being much the same sort of nostalgia trip as HAPPY DAYS was for me and my generational peers, and frankly, I don't want to hear it. However, if you're within a few years on either side of my age, I don't have to tell you just what a grotesque miscarriage of poetic license this is.

Of course, Roger Stern and John Byrne, the co plotters of this series, are actually a bit OLDER than I am, so I have to assume that they are gritting their teeth every time they script in a late 70s/early 80s topical reference, too. Perhaps it was originally their intention to never refer to a specific date at all, and even to visually establish a 50s atmosphere through background detail and fashion, as Alex Ross did for the 40s and 60s, respectively, in the first two issues of MARVELS. If so, no doubt they were editorially overruled. And perhaps they hate it as much as I do.

Because I do hate it. I really do. Above and beyond the sheer stupidity of the concept of a plethora of previously established heroes that no one has ever heard of, this 'let's just rub salt in the wounds of our few older readers' approach truly annoys me.

I'll point out here that this is one of the things that makes the current run of AVENGERS maybe the only Marvel title I can read. I hadn't realized it until just now, but in fact, Kurt Busiek seems to make a very canny policy of never putting a topical reference into his work there. Not once, to my memory, has any of those characters made a reference to a WB teen show, a Pokemon card, a post 1980 Ridley Scott film, or a hip hop artist. I suspect I'm just forgetting some reference somewhere, though, since it seems wildly unlikely that in 29 issues of solidly realistic and three dimensional dialogue he hasn't had to slide in some sort of modern day slang, but on the other hand, if he had, I'd think it would be burned into my cerebral cortex, and I honestly can't remember it. And while this isn't as good as an actual sensible editorial policy towards the passage of entropy within a fictional sub-quanta, it's certainly a great deal better than opening any issue of SPIDERMAN and seeing some big eyed manga-derived Peter Parker who looks 13 years old jumping over a jive talking crack dealer while making a wisecrack about ROSWELL. The day some 20-something Image disciple takes over writing AVENGERS will be the day I finally slam the door I'm still holding open a crack on Marvel Comics, and turn with a resigned sigh to Alan Moore's America's Best Comics for ALL my comics reading pleasure.

John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL, would like to note for the record that now that a 20-something Image disciple (or the next worst thing) has indeed taken over writing AVENGERS, he has indeed pretty much slammed the door on the Marvel Universe entirely, although Moore's ABC line is also pretty much defunct, which is dreadful and appalling. He wishes he weren't quite so good at predicting the future when he writes, or if he has to be, then he wishes he would write more articles about winning Lotto numbers.


Anonymous Beyonder said...

PROJECT WILD CARD is so obscure is doesn't come up in Google or Wikipedia searches..


10:12 AM  
Blogger Doc Nebula said...

I've got a copy of the book at home but I can never remember the authors... there are two of them. I'll try to remember to dig it out when I get home.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Doc Nebula said...

Got it:

just called WILD CARD, apparently, by Raymond Hawkey and Roger Bingham. Get a copy and read it; the similarities to WATCHMEN are irrefutable.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Darci said...

Well, this is fascinating. I'd never heard of this book from 1975. What I did realize, though, was Ozymandias's plot was borrowed from the 1963 "Architects of Fear" episode of the Outer Limits. Now, looking at wikipedia, I see the plot originated with good old Theodore Sturgeon ("Unite and Conquer" in Astounding Science Fiction (Oct 1948)).

9:35 PM  
Blogger Doc Nebula said...

6:12 AM  

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