Last week we discussed DC’s constantly rebooting universe and hopefully shined some light on some confusing changes
that have been made throughout the years. But however confusing you may think it is to keep these chapters in DC’s history straight, Marvel’s story doesn’t really have chapters. Whereas DC draws a line in the sand, Marvel’s continuity is kind of a sandstorm of plot and characters. Both companies have a multiverse and Earth designations that they use to sweep non-canonical stories into, but Marvel chooses to explain away their continuity errors with in-story solutions. This started with Stan Lee being a forgetful and incredibly busy person. He has stated that he is terrible with names, so he often used alliterative names like Peter Parker and Bruce Banner to help him remember what names he had given his dozens of heroes. This mostly worked, but every once in a while, he’d let a Bob Banner slip, and instead of correcting it, Bruce Banner became Robert Bruce Banner and had always been Robert Bruce Banner. Stan refers to Spider-Man as both Super-Man and Peter Palmer in early issues as well, which can be explained away by stating that he is a super-powered man who enjoys his alone time. From the beginning, Marvel has kept their heroes grounded in the real world. This creates problems when a character is tied to a specific, temporally stationary historical event. Captain America and Nick Fury fought Nazis, Magneto was interned in Auschwitz, and both Iron Man and Punisher’s origins lie in the Vietnam War. So why don’t we have a bunch of geriatric superheroes running around? The short answer is “creative license.” For the greater story, keep reading, True Believers!
Marvel deals with these issues as they crop up on an individual basis, because they do not, as they have accused DC, throw the baby out with the bathwater. However, when you check on your baby and the bathtub is full to the brim with clones, alternate reality versions, evil duplicates, gender bends, cyborg hybrids, shapeshifting imposters, and your baby is twelve years older than you, something must be done. Captain America was the first problem to crop up. Cap was created in 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for Timely Comics, which wouldn’t become Marvel Comics until 1961. Kirby worked for Marvel, so they wanted to use his character but didn’t want him to be in his mid-40’s or try to explain what he’d been doing for the last 20 years. The solution was to retroactively state that he’d fallen in battle at the end of WWII and been frozen in a glacier in suspended animation. Then Namor, the Submariner, had a temper tantrum and threw that chunk of glacier at the Avengers, and since they caught it, if I understand how adoption laws work, the Avengers had to keep him. Where’s Bucky? Stan Lee thought child sidekicks were creepy, so Bucky’s dead (until he’s not). This is a perfect example of a retcon, which is short for retroactive continuity. Stan Lee wrote a story in 1964 that changed Captain America’s history from 1945 onward. This is a common theme in comics and a tool that writers use to explain skewed timelines and continuity errors. Sometimes writers just retcon history because they don’t like certain aspects of it or because it’s easier than coming up with original stories, but that’s a different conversation.
Now, that explains why Steve Rogers didn’t age between 1945 and 1964, but how about the proceeding 50 years? This is where Marvel’s sliding timescale starts getting tricky. For a while, it was forbidden for Marvel writers to mention specific years in comics. Instead, it was encouraged to use “ten years ago,” or “prior to the events of…” to give readers an idea of the passage of time relative to the in-story canon. Unfortunately, this was neither an accurate fix nor was it strictly enforced by editorial. There have been attempts to show a history of the Marvel Universe as a compressed version of ours, placing only a few years between WWII, Vietnam, the Iraq War, and 9-11, with the rationalization that certain characters must be tied to certain events, but that those events don’t necessarily have to be tied to specific dates to be meaningful. Another solution presented in the 1980’s was that each issue of a comic represented a day of normal time, which is a temporary solution, in that it makes Marvel time pass twelve times more slowly than real time. This would place current comics four to five years into the heroes’ careers, which creates the same New 52 Batman conundrum of “How did they do all that in such a short time?”
Writers have also tried to triage a specific character’s history by explaining that Steve Rogers ages more slowly because of the Super Soldier serum, Nick Fury injects himself with the Infinity Formula, and, in the case of Wolverine, making his age an integral part of his canon due to his healing factor allowing him to be well over a hundred years old. More often, characters are killed and resurrected, artificially de-aged, or replaced by alternate versions of themselves. My personal
favorite is Magneto being turned into a baby by Alpha the Ultimate Mutant and then restored to half his original age by Erik the Red, which fixes Magneto’s age, but not Xavier’s, who had to change Magneto’s diapers—that’s true friendship. Obviously this is silly, but at least it’s more creative than the death-and-resurrection trope used on countless other characters to explain why they haven’t aged with the rest of the world. Other characters are given the 1984 treatment—We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia. Frank Castle fought in the Iraq War and was never in Vietnam. Tony Stark was kidnapped in Afghanistan and forced to build his armor. What is Vietnam? Stop talking about Vietnam, crazy person, they were never old enough to have been in Vietnam, if that’s even a real place.
Other issues arise from the aging of characters relative to those around them. Quicksilver’s daughter, Luna, has been a child for over 30 years. Reed and Sue Richards’ children, Franklin and Valeria, have been children for nearly 50 and 30 years, respectively. Of course, both of them have been aged and de-aged artificially at one point or another. Other characters like Kitty Pryde and Illyana Rasputin remain teenagers for 30 years, are written as adults for a particular run, then they’re portrayed as teenagers again by the next story arc, all without explanation and on the whim of the writer. Recently, Hank McCoy (Beast) has brought the original five X-Men from the past to join the present day team. This gives us a side-by-side comparison of how much the characters have aged, seeing the teenage X-Men standing beside their seasoned counterparts or, in the case of Jean Grey, trying to cope with the fact that she’s been dead for several years by this point. We even get to see the future X-Men come back to warn of an impending disaster, causing there to be three Icemans and three Beasts of varyious ages on-panel together. This storyline hasn’t been resolved yet, so who knows how this Pandora’s Box of continuity nightmares will play out.
Other attempts at breathing new life into Marvel’s properties without a reboot have been attempted to varying degrees of success over the years. In the ’90’s, Xavier absorbed Magneto’s consciousness, turned into Onslaught, and nuked the Avengers and Fantastic Four, who were presumed dead for one year of real time. During that period, Marvel bankrupted themselves hiring Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld to revamp four titles. Avengers, Fantastic Four, Captain America, and Iron Man were relaunched with new #1 issues, starting with new stories that were untethered to Marvel continuity, and gave Captain America an epic bosom. This non-reboot lasted thirteen issues, until everyone realized that the ball Franklin Richards had been playing with in the regular Marvel continuity was actually a pocket universe he had created to save the heroes from Onslaught’s wrath at the last second, and all of the past year’s adventures had taken place inside of it. The heroes were returned to the main universe and all was well. More on Franklin Richards in a bit. The most successful attempt at a reset button came with the Ultimate line of comics, which was the brainchild of the former president of Marvel, Bill Jemas. He posited that high issue numbers intimidated new readers with 50 years of back story and baggage, making comics too insidery and exclusionary. So Marvel launched Ultimate Spider–Man and Ultimate X-Men to great success, and eventually a whole line of Ultimate titles followed. They restarted the stories from scratch, telling updated versions those characters’ histories, but deviating in certain places. Soon, they had an entire Ultimate Universe with dozens of titles and a rich pantheon of characters, with some series reaching over a hundred issues, and… awww, crap! We did it again. Ok, sales are down, time to wipe that slate clean with Ultimatum, in which most of the Ultimate characters are unceremoniously slaughtered—kill ’em all and let God Emperor Doom sort it out. What’s left of the Ultimate Universe (Earth-1610) is then discovered to be colliding with the main Marvel Universe (Earth-616) in a kind of “Crisis on Ultimate Earths” type of scenario. If not prevented, this will result in the destruction of both worlds.
This leads to the most recent Secret Wars event, involving Dr. Doom gaining omnipotence by murdering an entire race of cosmic, all-powerful immortals called the Beyonders and stealing their power. He uses this power to become the aforementioned “God Emperor Doom” and save all of reality by creating a planet amalgamated from dozens of pieces of different Marvel worlds. This single planet, called Battleworld, mashes up the Age of Apocalypse, Days of Future Past, Age of Ultron, Marvel Zombies, Old Man Logan, and even includes the ’90’s X-Men Animated Series, among many others. This is an extremely complicated, and dare I say convoluted, story to follow even for comic veterans, but suffice it to say that Doom is overthrown and the world is put back almost the way it was before with a few key differences. Sound familiar? The main universe is no longer referred to as the 616, the Ultimate (1610) universe no longer exists and several of those characters have been brought into the main continuity, such as Miles Morales, who became the Ultimate Spider-Man after Ultimate Peter Parker’s death, and now works alongside the original Peter Parker. Marvel’s new “Prime Earth” kicked off at the end of 2015 and has been largely successful, with over 60 series, all starting with #1 issues. Again. And that brings us up-to-date on Marvel. Are you any more or less confused by Marvel’s floating continuity than with DC’s periodic reboots? Feel free to use the comments section.
There are several fan theories explaining the sliding timescale and consequent continuity errors. The most prevalent is that Marvel’s key reality altering characters are (consciously or not) constantly changing things they don’t like, keeping other things the same, or are simply forgetting details here and there that result in the world responding to their whim. There are many objects in the Marvel Universe that can warp reality like the Infinity Gauntlet, Cosmic Cube, M’Kraan Crystal, and the Phoenix Force. We have mentioned the Beyonders, who have not only reality altering powers, but a stalkery interest in Earth’s heroes. Other characters that have been known to warp reality to their fancy include Scarlet Witch, Sentry, Matthew Maloy, David Haller (Legion), Molecule Man, Proteus, Kobik, Jamie Braddock, and Jim Jaspers to name a few. This isn’t counting the dozen or so cosmic entities that can shape time/space/reality. But the most important of these reality warpers is Franklin Richards. The theory that Franklin has been keeping things the way he likes them, or at least the way they entertain him, is based on the fact that he first appeared in 1968, before there were any major issues with the age of the world or its inhabitants. We have seen him fecklessly toy with reality on many occasions and he has a long history of being manipulated into doing so by others. This is just a fan theory and has never been endorsed by Marvel, but it is an interesting way to Deus Ex Machina Marvel’s plot holes, and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time Franklin Richards was placed in the role of the Deus.
My final thought is that, while these histories can be confusing and might seem like they’re not worth your time, this article has been a very macro look at 50-75 years of continuity. At the micro level, there are countless stories that are self-contained and can firmly hold their own when held up to many literary classics. Comic books are all second-act stories—there’s an origin, sure, and there have been attempts to write finales for certain characters, but the middle is the focal point. Telling new stories every month for decades is no easy task, and is a fairly new concept. So, instead of rolling your eyes or throwing up your hands when faced with the ever-changing landscape of comic book lore, find a good jumping on point and dive in headfirst. You might find some stories you don’t care for, but more than likely, you’ll find some character or plot that really grabs ahold of you and pulls you into an incredible world of make-believe and heroism. And once you’re comfortable in the rabbit hole, you might choose to delve deeper into this unique wonderland of stories. If not, there are plenty of one-and-done comic tales out there from other companies and even within DC and Marvel. Regardless of your path, I hope you find something that enhances your life and makes it better, and hopefully that path leads you to read more comics. I know I will!