12 October 2012

on zeroes & timelines

This will be the first of at least two posts inspired by the recent DC Zero issues.  I intend to discuss some of the individual issues later, but for this one I want to talk about the timeline business.

I've no interest in revisiting the whole "Are comics publishers stupid to try to fit everything into timelines?" or the "Are comics fans stupid to get upset when attempts to do so inevitably fail?" debates - I've hashed that one out here and elsewhere before, no real sense in repeating.

All the recent rigamaroll over the DC Zero issues has gotten me thinking, though, and at least trying to organize my own thoughts and make sense of my own approach to it.  It's an oversimplification to say I don't care about this stuff at all.  When I read a Tim Drake origin story (or more accurately, a snippet thereof - see Batman #0) where Tim uses what appears to be a Blackberry to send an email while having a conversation with the corrupt headmaster of his school - well, I'll confess that tosses me from the story momentarily.  Such a reference makes sense if Tim's origin occurred "5 years ago" - actually 2007 was when I first used a Blackberry, too.  But it throws me from the story because I remember that Tim debuted in 1989, and not only were there no such things as Blackberries then, but no one even had mobile phones.  Actually, Tim's original origin story ("A Lonely Place of Dying") doesn't hold together in a world where people have mobile phones.  The plot relies in several places on people not being able to get in touch with each other, and that's (mostly) a quaint anachronism in our modern world.

That's less a "timeline" issue than a personal one, though.  After all, there is NO DC timeline wherein Tim Drake debuted as Robin or Red Robin or Five Guys 23 years ago.  He'd be pushing 35-40 years old by now if that was the case.  I think even the most continuity-obsessed among us would acknowledge that, since DC and Marvel comics do not run in real time, their continuity has to be on some sort of sliding scale.  Even if Tim Drake is to be portrayed as a young adult, his debut as Robin can't have happened more than 5-7 years ago, which puts him post 9/11 and squarely in the mobile phone/ Blackberry era.

As stories age, they get pushed down that sliding scale through the years and eventually the decades, and at some point they get pushed into eras where they no longer make logical sense.  Bruce Banner's Gamma Bomb accident can't have occurred more than 12-15 years ago, yes?  So Rick Jones sneaked onto a bomb test site in a jalopy in, what, the year 2000?  And the ONLY way for Banner to deal with that, keeping in mind the technology that existed in 2000, was to run onto the blast site?  Of course not.  That's stupid.  It worked fine in 1962, but time pokes holes in the story.

Marvel mostly ignores that sort of thing, the "Season One" graphic novels aside.  DC is much more prone to re-tell origins and try to update them, with mixed results.  As a result, something like "A Lonely Place of Dying" gets papered over - and while I completely understand the rationale for doing so, the fact is that for 23 years, "A Lonely Place of Dying" was Tim Drake's origin story, and it's difficult for me to just let it go.  Heck, I still think of Jason Todd as the son of two circus performers who were murdered by Killer Croc - not because I think that version is *better* than the one(s) that replaced it, but because it came first and therefore became my default.

I believe that the interpretation of art is open.  While something is being created, it belongs to the creators.  But once it's published and I buy or consume it, it belongs to me, or at least my interpretation of it belongs to me.  This is especially true of comics, whose consumption is fundamentally a solitary experience.  If I pick up a comic and decide to read only every third word, or to imagine that the dialog is all being sung to the tune of "Tubthumping", I'm free to do so.

So I have this personal continuity in my head, and it doesn't often match up with the "official" version - particularly given how often the official version changes.  But that doesn't necessarily mean I don't *like* the version that's current.  MY Jason Todd is the son of acrobats, but the street kid version is, IMO, a better-conceived and more interesting take.  I'm fine with accepting changes but they don't, in my head, paper over the originals.  All versions are true, except the ones that suck, and none of them are true, even the ones that don't suck.

Further, to the extent I have fond memories of, or sentimental attachment to, old stories, I refuse to pull them out of their historical place.  "A Lonely Place of Dying" happened, in whatever ideaspace where fictional stories "happen", in 1989.  No one had Blackberries, and there's no need to explain why no one had Blackberries, because even though the story happened no more than 5-7 years ago, it happened in 1989.  And it "happened" even if DC now says it didn't and has a whole new origin story that has supplanted it in the official canon.  DC doesn't own my interpretation of their output, and I choose to give all of it equal weight - and that makes it all make sense to me.  In fact, it's the only interpretation that makes any sense to me.  It's also the interpretation that preserves my nostalgic connection to older stories by binding them to their historical context.  I skipped school one day near the end of 11th grade, went to the comic store, and bought Detective #632.  I read it in the parking lot of the store before grabbing lunch (at Burger King) and then going back to school.  (I may *sound* like a nerd, but I was cool, I promise.)  That story must therefore have "happened" in 1991, because that's where it sits in my memory.  Conceiving of that story as having occurred in 2008 removes it from that context and destroys most of my attachment to it - it becomes a *thing* rather than a memory.  So I choose not to do that.  I understand why DC chooses differently, but that's on them.  It's their thing, not mine.

That's how I end up not worrying or caring when DC (or Marvel - but usually it's DC) starts going all timeline-y and coming up with a bunch of stuff that doesn't make any sense.   If the current canon is that Tim Drake's superhero name was American Roadhouse and he partnered with Batman for 3 hours - and if that makes for an interesting story - I don't have a problem accepting it - but neither does it replace the decades of stories that say something different.  I kind of crack up at the seriousness with which all this stuff is taken by the publishers.  "We've had further meetings and have now decided that Wonder Woman #100 never happened."  What must that meeting have been like?  Were there spirited "did too, did not" debates?  Was there one guy in the room who kept looking confused and eventually asked "Guys, aren't we talking about a fictional story?", only to be told he "just doesn't get it"?

I wouldn't suggest outright to anyone that my way of thinking about all this is superior to any other way, because like I said, I believe in an individual freedom of interpretation.  All I'm saying is: this works for me.  I find it a useful way to reconcile that which is otherwise irreconcilable.  I believe that this approach gives me the proper amount of control over my reading experience, and allows me to experience the material in a way that brings me maximum satisfaction.  Is it completely logical?  No - but I see no reason that interpretation of art has to be logical.  

I had a helluva lot of fun the day I bought Detective #633.  It was a Friday afternoon during the Summer of 1991, and I spent the afternoon with my girlfriend at the time before hitting the comic store on the way home.  I told you I was cool.  Detective #633 is inextricably linked to that day in my head, so don't try to tell me THAT one happened in 2008, or my wife (who I married in 2002, and who I had not met in 1991) is going to be REALLY pissed.


superfriend said...

as far as a timeline, i've got no use for it...as a fan...in life. my memory doesn't recount things in precise timeline hierarchy, putting a time and date to memories. my mind remembers the stories of life. and a certain continuity in which they fit. and that's getting murkier as time marches.

i think because of the evolution of the medium of comics, and the specific sub-genre superhero comics, it has become necessary to occasionally update characters (sometimes having never gone out of print for decades!). because of that print nature, these stories are not relegated to oral tradition in order to organically refresh. each of these stories are freighted through the ages via living proof, captured verifiably for all to witness. so to another of your points, i recognize the tension between a personal account and the prevailing account. the moment someone puts pen to paper in order to contemporize a story already told, choices will be made: the producer, in what material to alter and what will remain; the public, on whether or not they prefer one story to the other.

but, i believe these refreshes can be well-managed and interesting endeavors. multiple versions of the same myth express different aspects of the same phenomenon. the constellation Orion has more than one origin in myth but there are iconic elements to each accounting that bear out the important and some would argue, necessary components that describe the Orion constellation. were those iconic elements removed, or confused, much of the meaning used to impart the mental image (replete with story) of a grouping of stars would be lost. so different tellings of the same story can prove useful and insightful, but there is normally a compass in the form of a core of a story/character.

therefore, American Roadhouse aka Tim Drake, who teamed with Batman for 3 hours could contain the necessary story beats and character core that convey who and what Tim Drake is and his relationship to Batman. it makes it a bit've an uphill climb to get to who Tim Drake is i think (i might've started with him being Robin), but some people relish a challenge i suppose.

collectededitions said...

Right-o. I'm fairly continuity-obsessed, no surprise, but my concerns are in reading orders -- when (to pick a poor, off-the-top-of-my-head example) was the last time Green Arrow appeared in his own title prior to appearing in Blackest Night, or (better example) what's the latest New Titans trade I can buy before the Titans appear in Lonely Place of Dying.

I have never had a use, however, for the "we've seen Christmas six times in Superman, so six years must have passed" kind of cataloging (but to each their own), that then tries to rationalize the characters' ages. That's a losing battle, because it's never going to add up precisely because of the sliding scale you're talking about. I can't feel much for the current debate over "how can Damian Wayne be X old if Bruce has only been Batman for X years," etc. One does, at some point, have to acknowledge "it's comics" and move on.

Marc said...

Agreed, Matches and CE. There's a fine line between coming up with a reading order that renders a comic book universe coherent, and simply nitpicking/over-analyzing.

A shared universe is a collective effort and, as such, encompasses the intentions of hundreds of different writers and artists. And yet, there are people who seemingly devote countless hours just to pointing out the discrepancies -- as if that's at all insightful. What is it that's turned so many comic book readers into cynics who trash the medium they supposedly "love"? (Or have things always been this way, and I just never noticed?)