Timelines.

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Back about a decade ago, I sold a serial to Greg Fishbone (these days of Last Week's News among other things -- and someone who just this weekend had a book accepted by a publisher, so good on him!) called Paragon's Last, Desperate Stand. It was a five part serial detailing the efforts of Paragon, Mightiest Man on Earth, Last Prince of a Dead World, the Diamond Hard Man, et al to fake his own death, because he was sick to God of being... well, Superman. To that end he recruited his arch nemesis's help. The first part detailed Paragon coming to that decision. Each of the following covered his attempts to do so following a different trope based on the Superman mythos that I was clearly satirizing. Part 2 was going to be their attempt to fake his death in the middle of the Crown City Chronicle's 75th Anniversary, only "Paragon's Girlfriend" (actually his ex-wife, at this point) managed to foil the evil Dr. Lucas's "plot." Frustrated, the pair would try again in Part 3, this time heading to his home town. Only once there, his childhood sweetheart and high school best friend manage to foil their efforts. And so on and so forth.

Well, we didn't get to the point of the series being published. Sadly, Mythic Heroes didn't last long enough. So it's been sitting on my hard drive as two completed parts and an outline since the mid-nineties, waiting for something.

That something cropped up about three weeks ago, when I started plugging away at a different short story (in a nutshell, it's a story about retired Batman villains going to a Supervillain-fan convention). And I needed a background for it that couldn't actually... you know, involve Batman. And I had a background sitting over there in the Paragon story, so I pulled it up and reread it. And discovered that man, I've learned a thing or two about writing in the past ten years.

But there was something that interested me in that old story. Namely... the fact that Paragon, his ex-wife, 'chum' and so forth... were all pushing fifty. In formulating my story, all that time ago, I clearly threw out the convention that said that super heroes never get any older.

And this got me to thinking. (And Common Grounds and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay had some influence on that thought.) I mean, besides the rather unfortunate take on real time superhero aging done by John Byrne in Generations, we haven't seen much done with real-time super heroes. And reading the 30th anniversary party of the Liberty Balance in Common Grounds kind of solidified it in my head, since the heroes of that party were from the seventies and early eighties, and hey -- I'm beginning to feel my own age.

And, as it turns out, I have a copy of Bee Docs' Timeline.

So I started to play with a superheroic history that needed to evoke elements of DC and Marvel, but not actually be DC and Marvel. And all with the idea that these people actually aged as time went on. I timed the start of the modern heroic era with my own Junior High years. And I worked on the high points. Figuring out where different characters I would need for my stories would be born. When they would premiere. When they would retire (important, for the supervillain convention story). My Justice League analogue got a renaming (it had been the Liberty Protectorate, but as there was a Liberty Balance in Common Grounds, I thought better of it).

It didn't hurt that working on a timeline is something you could do with three minutes to spare here, and three minutes to spare there. Given my work situation, this was the closest thing I could do to writing for most of August.

Timelines do interesting things. They form a sense of evolution. Particularly when you considered that these characters and events would only exist in backstory -- the stories (and it had grown into a collection of short stories, some satirical, some serious) would be starting in late 2005 and moving forward from there. So, this was becoming a continuity that only one person knows... an evolution that only exists in a virtual notebook.

It's fascinating. Because quickly enough it began to reflect the evolution of super heroes themselves.

Oh, the times don't match up. My Superman analogue first appears publicly as "Paragon" on January 3, 1982, and that doesn't sync with any major comic company's "eras." But it syncs up perfectly with mine -- especially when I throw in some behind the scene stuff in the seventies (and some WWII era mystery men stuff from way back when). But growing out from there lets me do the goofy Batman years, and then build in a reason why my Batman then becomes morbid and gritty in the nineties. I can build in events for a Wonder Woman analogue, and a Flash analogue, and a Green Lantern, and a Captain America. Their organization was founded in 1986, and could grow from there. And various detritus formed around each, as time went on. I could see a sense of continuity bogging down in the nineties -- even though everything was straightforward -- and found that I was culminating into an "event" over the course of 1994 through 1996, at the end of which things were streamlined and "modernized," and a series of hip new heroes had displaced some of the old ones (old being relative, of course.)

And now, ten years after all that... you have heroes who've been doing this stuff for thirty years, and they're sick of it. Because you also end up factoring in real life events. I know when different heroes married their significant others. And I know when they divorced, too. (Lois Lane probably wouldn't be Superman's biggest fan at fifty. Nor Steve Trevor Wonder Woman's biggest fan at fifty. Ignoring for a minute the whole retconning of the Steve Trevor thing post-Crisis.)

It's also worth noting that when you actually lay out events and treat them as actual history... then they have impact. Impact which quite honestly the comic book companies these days fail to have with their major events. Think about it -- by far the most successful of the supercrossovers from a storyline standpoint was Crisis on Infinite Earths. Everything in Crisis was planned, it held together tremendously well, and at every moment there was a sense of finality.

And these days? Pretty much everything done in Crisis has been eliminated. I think the only death that happened in Crisis (of someone not so insignificant as to be irrelevant) that hasn't been reversed is Barry Allen, and frankly death is the best thing that ever happened to Barry Allen. No one gave a damn about him before he died. Now he's the patron saint of the DC Universe. (Not that they aren't trying their best to sully that, along with the rest of the Silver Age Justice League, but that's another rant.) Hell, Supergirl is back. Kara Zor-El, running around in a fashion nightmare. It bothered the Hell out of me when they made Superman's eulogy of Supergirl a lie (it ended with "I will remember you forever," and then John Byrne promptly made him forget her). But to simply put her back? Start over? I mean, yeesh, guys. Exactly how much emotional investment do you expect us to have in these characters?

(And the argument that this Supergirl is for a new generation doesn't wash, since... well, they're not marketing comics to this generation. They're marketing them to my generation. Hell, they're hoping a significant portion of the folks who read Crisis will come back for this upcoming megaevent. So they're effectively trying to have it both ways.)

In making up my timeline, I discovered time and again that an event that happened in 1988 informed a subsequent event in 1998. There was a real sense of weight to everything, because these things, even just as backstory, were cast as stone. When someone dies in my timeline... they die. And when the supervillains grow darker and more gritty... then the people who were around for the goofy, primary colored years feel a sense of disgust. And even though this is just a barebones sketch of major events, I can already sense that if this were a comic book series, it would take a hundred issues to tell. Maybe two hundred issues. Or twenty or thirty issues each of Paragon, Freya, The Nightwatch, The Justice Wing, and so on and so forth.

I wonder if it will ever happen that a comic book company will launch a line explicitly with the idea that events move forward in real time -- not the "world outside your window" thing that Marvel tried with the New Universe, but an actual four color superhero comic line where every twelve issues, another year would tick over on the calendars, our heroes would get another year older, their lives would continue to evolve, their deaths would not get revised or resurrected, a series 'reboot' would involve something more than just starting it over... and thirty years after it started, people would actually be thirty years older and the next generations of super heroes would actually be the next generations.

Probably not.

Though, maybe it's worth applying for an NEA grant and trying it. It seems to me there could be a real artistic -- a real aesthetic process here. Maybe the first one in super hero comics since the Marvel era.

And at least these comics would have an excuse for marketing to the same people who were reading at the start as at the finish.

In the meantime, I have a well laid out timeline. From here, I'm probably going to bounce back and work on my pulp story or my hard SF story for a bit, now that I'm getting writing time back. But this timeline and its events -- and those twelve stories -- are waiting for me whenever I get to them.

And I find myself wanting to keep going. Wanting to see where my heroes and their descendants go over the next twenty years. Or the next two hundred. But I don't try to find out. I need to write the actual stories before I can suggest what happens after them, and besides, worldbuilding is addictive. Sooner or later, you have to take it out and drive instead of just fiddling with the transmission.

23 Comments

Isn't this what Stephen Crowley is doing with Magellan, sort of, kind of?

I feel you should bump Paragon's appearance precisely one day earlier, because then he appears on the day I was born.

Universe creation is a funny thing. I recently went through and read some of my old plots and ideas and just laughed. They're so cliche and boring! And about half of them took the form of "mysterious guy shows up, mysterious guy becomes accepted in the community, mysterious guy fends off supernatural power with his previously-unknown super-abilities, mysterious guy is exiled for being different despite saving the community."

Sigh.

I bet there's half a dozen psychology majors reading this right now who can describe my life in detail.

Still . . . every once in a while there's something neat that I'd forgotten about. Some idea. Maybe I'll be able to finish some of these stories eventually.

oooooh. Timeline software? I didn't know there *was* such a thing.

Fortuitous!

Hm. That sounds like it could be a pretty good story, Eric.

Zorba: I think everybody has a few universes in their head. I have one rather nice (if I do say so myself) fantasy universe that really needs a good story--not to mention a better writer--and I've been tempted more than once to create the Heroes' Support League...

I've done this as well.

It's kind of funny. Heck, if anyone here remembers GMAST-L@UTCVM.EDU... I was part of the "superhero fics" that happened back over ten years ago, with Wolf Pack (which has since been renamed Wolf PACT, due to my learning Marvel had *done* a Wolf Pack comic, about a gang of kids, in the 70s I believe). And of course as it was set in the Marvel Universe, it had our favorite Mary-Sue, Shadowcat, being with the author-insertion character *rolls eyes at self* (what can I say, I was a fanboy back then *snorts*), and was a rather interesting story called "The Hunt" in which (before DC did it with Batman), the Predator came to Earth to hunt. Primarily street gang punks... but it would also end up going after my group of low-powered heroes in time.

A friend of mine changed that. Wolf Pack started out as my own creation that I wanted to sell to Marvel... and he pointed out that I would lose creative control of my characters. The very cast that I wanted... thought of as a low-powered group of heroes, instead of superheroes, would end up facing Doctor Doom and Apocalypse and whatever other lame supervillain they wanted to pump up numbers. Instead, Bill said this: "Rob, you've an incredible imagination; why don't you create your own world?"

So I did. And back in 1996, I had WWIII happen, with a biological device used on the U.S. water supplies... and the cure actually manifesting people's psychic abilities (one out of every 100,000 people would manifest). And then I created a world with mecha (using the idea of polymer fibers that could "flex" like muscle tissue, and thus allow the creation of "Loaders" that would in turn become armored. And the Genesis Teams would be created by the United Nations (and then promptly banned from operating in Japan and China).

And I'd also not bother with /supervillains/. Instead, most of the psychics would be given government jobs, be trained by the government, and so forth. The few rogues out there either joined up with street gangs (which, with the availability of black-market mechs and high tech weapondry) were becoming a bigger and bigger threat (though they mostly fought each other) or went solo... and then finally, in 2030, 34 years after it all began, vigilantes started to arise. And Wolf PACT was one such group.

My idea was of smaller heroes. They weren't that powerful. The technology was more powerful. In fact, they utilized technology to get around quickly, as heroes didn't go around "flying" (with one or two exceptions). The most powerful of Wolf PACT was a woman in her late 30s who was a potent telepath, minor telekinetic, and could heal. (Unfortunately, she couldn't turn off her telepathy, which was why she started the vigilante work; she hated feeling people going off of a high, so started going after drug dealers to try and stop drug sales. Yes, really heroic, targetting crime so it doesn't make her feel sick. *chuckle*)

About the only real problem is that my friend also wanted to "play" in this universe... and his hero ended up being a Superman. As in the 1960s version, eventually. (I also was escalating with my telepath until I realized what I was doing, and then I promptly nerfed her abilities. She just knows how to maximize her limited ability.)

You know... I had plans for 25 novellas from that universe. And that wasn't including the "Deus Ex Machina" storyline. *chuckle* And they were going to grow older; the 25 stories were going to be over 5 years; these young teens were going to become adults, and go through some rough times. Some would forcibly retire in fact.

Good luck with your stories, Eric. They sound intriguing, and I look forward to hearing more about them. :)

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Webcomic Reviews
http://www.tangents.us

worldbuilding is addictive. Sooner or later, you have to take it out and drive instead of just fiddling with the transmission.

You know, I feel guilty sometimes that I seem (if to no one but me) to have turned my back on fanfiction to do Arthur, King of Time and Space. I had an active website with a decent following. I drew a cartoon every day set in a crossover multiverse of years', even decades' construction - and/or in a King Arthur-in-space multiverse that was a mirror reflection of the fanfiction universe. I believed in fanfiction as a cultural institution, and still do.

This observation of yours may be the best explanation there is for myself for why I was compelled to leave that website behind (actually I still update there several times a week), and to leave whatever security staying would have afforded, and to bring the groundwork laid by the Arthurian version of that mutliverse and to foist on myself this twenty-five year commitment.

A comic book company already has launched a superhero line with events that happen in real time... Marvel did just that back in the early '60s. (At least the early issues of Spider-man had him aging in real time. I'm just assuming the same held true for the other early Marvel titles.) They changed their mind fairly soon, though.

Am I the only one who wants to see this as a webcomic?

Hrm.

Well, I could see if the NEA can be talked into paying enough of a grant so I could, you know, pay an artist...

It seems unlikely, but I am a Liberal.

It's a hell of a great idea, Eric. Would love to see the results if you ever get to really run with it. :)

Through a perverse chain of thought, I get from NEA grant to the Simpsons cafeteria lady saying "more testicles means more urine."

Also: Dude? Prose. Keep it prosaic. Prosish. Made of prose. Not everything has to be a webcomic, and, also, dude, prose. And too many superheroes. Also, prose.

This is the gret nitpick of my comics fixation: no matter how many times Scott Summers leads the team, takes bull from Wolverine, romances Marvel Girl, and generally suffers the slings and arrows of being the lesser leader under professor X, we know he is going to do the exact same thing next issue. Every time Jean grey comes back to life, becomes the pheonix, and gets destroyed to save the universe, we know it will be re-used within 15 months. Even with the recent changes: Jean is dead most of the time instead of alive most of the time, enter Emma Frost (i.e. Jean Grey clone with "undefined evil tendencies"), Professor X and Magneto take backstage to Sha'ar and others, the same plot threads keep getting recycled in the latest "see how it all ends" edition.

X-Men have the added problem of having multiple series simultaneously chronicalling the same basic group at the same time, but all comics have the general problem. Aging fans want their favorite motifs and character developements to be reinforce, not changed or added to. Each issue has to have Cyclops be the ineffectual leader and put-upon lover, the built-to-be-cool character (usually Wolverine, but occasionally Gambit, Cable, or powered up Rogue) "bucks the system" with benificial results, Nightcrawler, Beast, or Kitty Pride say something insightful, and actually interesting characters like Banshee, Colossus, Angel or even Rachel Summers gets ignored completely except for their use in the combat scene.

I would love it if Cyclops was 57 and actually had some team respect, Jean Grey had to be either powerful and derad or weak and alive, Wolverine could only be on one of the Xmen teams, Professor X and MAgneto had died of old age, and they couldn't keep having Iceman, Shadowcat and Rogue be the "young 'ens" when we've been reading about them for 25 years (40 for Bobby).

Astro City, though not a continuing "aging" comic, is set in a world where time passes, people age, heroes retire, and new ones take their place. It makes for better stories and a more interesting setting than regular comics. People have a background, and there are retired heroes and villains that advise the up and coming youngsters.



Re: Worldbuilding. Ditto. I am doing something like this for an RPG of mine- a superhero timeline where time passes, people age, and the old generation retires.



As for Marvel and DC, great characters are forever. It's hard enough to create a truly great character, having to "retire" them every 20 years or so would be difficult for the audience to stomach.

A real-time comic-book has one obvious flaw - one thin issue per a month's events. All multi-issue arcs have to cover events spanning months, not hours or days. You can't decide to skip ahead to next year or some such. It would have to be very strictly episodic.

Not that this hasn't been done in a loose sense - there was a DC miniseries called Legion Lost that covered a year's worth of events in twelve issues, though the issues weren't exactly one-per-month.

Eric: "A real-time comic-book has one obvious flaw - one thin issue per a month's events. All multi-issue arcs have to cover events spanning months, not hours or days."

Not necessarily. Look at Sluggy Freelance. Each year that passes is a year in real time, yet not every daily strip is one day. There is a lot of down time, where time is lapsed to get back on track with the timeline.

Thus, a story that lasts one week "in strip" time, but takes 2 months of strips to tell, means that nothing of interest happens for 1 month and 3 weeks. The comic could work like this.

I may be worng but that might be what Eric the half a bee might mean by episodic. Some of the big arc stories could easily take ten to fifteen issues to cover less than a week of timeline, hell, look at 24, the best part of six months to do one day!

Powers takes a stab at it as does Watchmen.

spelling and proofing! You wouldn't think I did it professionally for five years!

Says Eric the .5b:

"A real-time comic-book has one obvious flaw - one thin issue per a month's events. All multi-issue arcs have to cover events spanning months, not hours or days. You can't decide to skip ahead to next year or some such. It would have to be very strictly episodic.

Not that this hasn't been done in a loose sense - there was a DC miniseries called Legion Lost that covered a year's worth of events in twelve issues, though the issues weren't exactly one-per-month."


Another continuity model to look at would be DC's ALL-STAR SQADRON, Roy Thomas' last best shot at doing the Golden Age. In that series, a year's worth of issues covered one month in World War II, so that after Pearl Harbor in Issue #1, come issue #13 they were getting to January 1942. Admittedly, things plodded along at points, but in terms of a working model that might be something to keep in mind.

Because I've known Wednesday's version for twenty minutes now, and it's already done bad things to my brain... according to snpp.com's transcript of "Sweet Seymour Skinner's Badasss Song", the cafeteria lady says "more testicles means more iron". It's... slightly less scarring.

I can't think of any comic off the top of my head that's managed to age and evolve its characters effectively while being passed from writer to writer. Sure, a Kurt Busiek or Pete Abrams or Lynn Johnston can shape their universe as they want; but it seems like every new hire at a mainstream title has a mandate to wipe out the previous guy's continuity changes as quickly and ham-handedly as possible.

'Prof. Xavier stretched his legs, revelling once again in the simple joy of walking unsupported. Then they were tragically crushed by a falling girder.'

'Selina Kyle had never suspected how fulfilling it would be to fight crime alongside Batman. Then a head injury from a falling girder tragically turned her back into a villain.'

'Wally West gazed into the eyes of his new fiancee. Idly, he wondered what that whistling noise was.'

Funny, I spent a good chunk of this weekend reading Jamie Hernandez's Locas (a collection from Fantagraphics of Jamie's entire Hopey and Maggie story in Love and Rockets) and was contemplating how the story evolves over time, and the clues that Jamie uses to reference those time changes with out overtly telling you that time has passed (i.e. Maggie growing her hair out over the course of several issues)

The fun in this comes later in the story, where Jamie slips back and forth between "now" and a flashback sequence that fleshs out some past references. Since the 'look' of the people has been established, there is no need to overtly reference which is which, the visual clues are more then enough for the casual reader to figure out what is going on, but the fact that those visual clues directly reference the charecters' previous looks, more dedicated readers have a much greater sense of time and how the flashback relates to the over all story as a whole.

Bo asked if this was what I was kind of, sort of doing with Magellan... why yes, yes it is! Magellan's got characters spanning 16-90+ years old - training, active, retired, dead, missing, revered, reviled, etc. My reasons for doing so were pretty much the same as everything already mentioned above - but basically I wanted a sense of legacy which, as noted, is missing from most mainstream comics. If only they stayed dead when they died it wouldn't be such a problem!

As I am relatively new to the world of superheroes, I find it strange that most series don't follow some kind of consistent timeline. It seems vastly more interesting to me to have an entire world to explore, rather than some hazy Twilight Zone where there are no rules, only plot devices. From what I understand of the history of superhero comics, it's grown out of the way DC and Marvel have approached their business model, but why aren't there more chronologically-repecting Indie titles?

Even just reading a small run of the Uncanny X-Men from the 2002 era (25 issues worth or so) I found the lack of real character development to be somewhat irritating. These aren't really people, they've moved into the realm of abstract symbols. Cyclops is an angsty leader who isn't respected - he can never change. Et cetera, ad nauseum.

I found Astro City fantastic in every way, though. Need to see if I can pick up more of that stuff.

Eric, given the quality I've seen on this site in the past (is it almost a year now? damn) I would be very interested in your take on superheroes.

Eric: I think the Bug-Eyed Bandit may still be dead. Not sure about that.

When I was a kid, I came up with my own superhero universe (actually, over the years I've come up with several comic universes). It's kind of embarassing to look back, though. I mean, the main hero's name was Nuclear Ninja. He was sort of Batman-ish. Only a ninja. Who could fly by spinning his katanas over his head like helicopter blades. Yeah. The only character I still like from that whole thing (which I oh-so-pretentiously called the "Neoverse") was actually a comedic character named Cuspador, who had phlegm powers. I'd still like to do something with Cuspador.

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