I’m here to talk to you about fictional universes that use a ‘sliding timescale’. For those of you who just pictured a clock being placed on a diagonal bathroom scale, how do I even begin to explain a concept as inherently convoluted as a sliding timescale in fiction?
Alright, take the Marvel universe: the comic universe, not the films. It’s been going on for over fifty years. Take Spider-Man: his run started in the sixties, where he was a teenager who got bit by that pesky radioactive spider. Well…obviously, his stories cannot take place in real-time if we want to preserve his entire canon, or else right about now he’d be in his sixties. He’d do a real good job sneaking into the Goblin’s hideout until his elbow creaked. And, you know, spandex just doesn’t look so great when the waistband starts to sag.
So what Marvel do with their universe is…let’s explain it this way: let’s say twenty years of Spidey comics take place over five years in Marvel-time. But the comics keep going, and so the timeline of events has to get compressed even further for Peter to still be young and action-ready to this day. As it stands now, Peter is somewhere in his early thirties, which is perfectly young and action-ready…but consider, now, that his stories still take place at a contemporary date. A story that takes place in 2015 will place Spidey’s origins as a web-slinger to around the turn of the millennium. And, thusly, that half-century of continuity will be squished and compressed into that decade and a half.
If I’ve explained this half-decently, you can see how using a sliding timescale presents a serious ongoing dilemma for Marvel and other companies who use this system. In ten years, or twenty years, or longer, the continuity is going to be even more squished. “Hey, remember the time when everyone on New York turned into spiders, and then Doc Ock tried to fry the world the very next week?” Those arcs – Spider-Island and Ends Of The Earth – took place half a year to a year apart, but eventually they’ll be squashed together like anything else. It destroys dynamic, it destroys the ability for an ongoing series to breathe, and most importantly, it turns the act of reading a ‘compressed continuity’ into one big game of cognitive dissonance, where the thing you are reading on the page has to bring us an alternate, compressed version of events whenever anything more distant than recent continuity is invoked.
Effect-traits and references are a good example of this: during Spidey’s Clone Saga, there are several different references to Barney the Dinosaur. Barney was such a cultural icon of the mid-90s, and no time else, that it immediately localizes these arcs as having been written in and for the 90s, even when as of the current continuity, they ostensibly take place in the new millennium. So the sliding timescale forces a weird duality upon us, where past arcs both are and are not as they appear. God, I didn’t mean to make this sound so metaphysical. So Dan Slott’s modern references to Twitter and Buzzfeed work now, but who knows for how long?
My personal favourite example of this came to me while reading a very good essay on the topic (the name of which escapes me at this juncture): it turns Spider-Man’s grieving period over Gwen Stacy from a reasonable stretch of time, to so short it’s borderline psychopathic. Or, thinking with the duality I outlined above, it’s both at the same time.
It should go without saying that this is insane, and it only gets worse the more you think about it. So it begs the question – why? Why do this? Why jump through these flaming hoops to crush the spine of your own story’s continuity?
We actually do have an answer.
Because, in terms of longevity, there are two kinds of stories: there are stories that are meant to have a decisive beginning, middle and end, and there are stories that are meant to be continuous. Harry Potter and Breaking Bad are examples of the former. Marvel Comics falls squarely in the latter category.
Now, the latter category isn’t such an issue when you have a series that just up and abandons all pretense of solid continuity, except in the rare exception of a character dying for good, such as The Simpsons. Thing is, Marvel’s universe does not do that.
There is one series in the ‘meant to be continuous’ column that totally and completely gets away with it, with flying colours: Doctor Who.
Doctor Who does it without using a sliding timescale – An Unearthly Child still takes place in the sixties, and the most recent arc The Zygon Invasion/Inversion still takes place in 2015 – and part of the reason they get away with it is because the supporting cast constantly rotates out, and if they do come back, they’ve aged appropriately (or not; time travel, and all…). And then you have the Doctor himself: in a quite brilliant trick that has kept the show vital all this time, the Doctor’s race has the ability to cheat death by regenerating, healing all fatal wounds but causing a complete cellular revamp, IE, a new body. It’s what’s let the show go on all this time with different actors in the lead role, but the same character all the while.
But, yeah, Doctor Who is pretty much the only show that can do that. Because each regeneration of the Doctor brings a new flavour to the show, it can go on for decades more and still not get old.
And then you have stories that could go either way; we just don’t know yet. For example, we don’t know if TV’s Supernatural is meant to be continuous, or if the Winchester brothers are spiraling towards some ultimate conclusion. (Though I think that if it was going to end conclusively, it would have done so after season 5, which wrapped up creator Eric Kripke’s original planned arc for the show, but hey – you never know) But the show does its thing without resorting to a sliding timescale, as the characters age in real time, having gone from twentysomethings to thirtysomethings over the couse of the show’s now-11 seasons.
So at the end of the day, a sliding timescale is essentially a way for long-running stories to cheat the clock, because they fear that time will force them to drift away from the baseline that they know works. Because of Peter Parker’s status as the “young hero”, Marvel are terrified of the concept of Peter aging. Rather than have the Fantastic Four age, they just kept updating their origins, and the reasons for their fateful expedition. Iron Man had his origin updated from Vietnam to the Gulf War to the War on Terror.
Interestingly enough, Captain America is the one hero who mostly gets off scot-free with the sliding timescale, because his origins are inexorably tied down with World War II, and a key part of his origin involves being frozen in ice and preserved for years. So, in effect, Captain America’s origins age like good wine: his ‘man out of time’ status (a story trope that I’m always down for) only increases the longer this insane sliding timescale goes on.
You’ll notice there’s a stark divide here between the narratives I’m praising as having good planning, whether or not they are meant to be “closed” or “continuous”, and narratives that are in trouble: even if a story is meant to be continuous, if it does not use a sliding timescale, then time is allowed to be a real factor in the characters’ lives, rather than something that is impossible to become invested in without some serious, willing cognitive dissonance on the reader’s part. Stories that use a sliding timescale are fundamentally unable to reconcile what a powerful, essential factor that the passing of time is in stories.
And I don’t mean to be condescending when I say that Marvel and its ilk are afraid of letting stories develop around the essential passage of time; they are, absolutely, but I don’t mean to be condescending, not exactly. If they didn’t jump through these flaming hoops (to bring us back to the above question), then there would be no excuses for why the Marvel cast aren’t collecting pensions right around now, or handed off their mantles to younger characters.
That said, it’s this same attitude – that the baseline is the baseline, that status quo must reign, because deviating from the quo is unknown and scary – that stifles stories, and keeps them from really branching out and challenging themselves and their characters to grow and adapt. To use a really obvious example, you already know that, on a given episode of Gilligan’s Island, they’re not getting off the island, because the show’s baseline is that they gotta stay stranded on the island. You know that Inspector Gadget isn’t going to catch Dr. Claw, because then Dr. Claw wouldn’t be the antagonist.
It’s this kind of attitude, when applied to fare deeper than kids’ shows and old-school sitcoms, that suffocates narratives from growing organically.
So the question is this: in something like the Marvel continuity, is a sliding timescale a necessary evil if one wants a long-running series without having to either sacrifice youth or the original characters people have grown attached to?
In a vacuum, it seems like the answer just might be Yes. Not all of us can be Time Lords.
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe grows and develops, I think we might see an interesting answer to the question. What happens when Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, et cetera stop playing their characters? It’s not so easy when you’re dealing with live actors in multimillion dollar pictures. Tom Holland brings Spider-Man into the MCU as of this coming May’s Captain America: Civil War, which is a good choice on Marvel’s part: Holland looks young enough that he can age with the part, but in a couple decades, they might find themselves facing another hard choice: change out the actor and hope nobody finds the transition too weird (I can’t be the only one who thinks Mark Ruffalo looks all kinds of nothing like Ed Norton, but at least the changeup happened very early on), accept a thirty- or forty-year-old Spidey, or have him hand over the mantle?
I think that’s interesting with the MCU: by dent of its epic-cycle nature, everything is bound by continuity, and thanks to being live-action, it’s going to have to confront the fundamental passage of time in a way that comics have been able to dodge and weave away from for the past half-century.
Your move, Marvel.