"Marvel Time" is the
stretching and later sliding timescale that allows superheroes to
stay young. Stan Lee explained it in a 1996 Bullpen Bulletins
(right). Note that Stan still intended for time to move
forwards (albeit slowly).
This was compiled by Troy D. Smith, while working on his history Ph.D. It was originally posted at WizardUniverse.com; and is used by kind permission of the author. He notes:
"I believe that time "passed" much more quickly in the early years of Marvel, and as (real) time marches on, Marvel time gets slower and slower... one could explain this by noting that nothing much was happening the first few years (in comparison to now.) There were at most 20 superheroes and maybe a hundred super villains... it's quite likely that Spider-Man could've gone for weeks at a time in Year Two or so without running into noteworthy super villains, not that likely now when there are thousands of them, so at that time there was less to "report". Thus, comic time was closer to real time."
A reader noted the large number of Christmases in the comics. Troy replied:
"Yeah, it's impossible to get anything that works right, as they jumble stuff around to fit their editorial needs (though how they can claim Cap has only been thawed 5 years when Spidey met him in high school, and is now AT LEAST a couple years past grad school...) And Christmases would be the elephant in the room. I suppose these mental exercises are mostly for my own satisfaction; you can't suspend disbelief unless there are certain rules, even if they are fictionalized rules, that are somewhat consistent."
Troy had to cut a lot of corners to create a meaningful chronology. Christmases, for example. Paul Bourcier tried to make a Marvel Time chronology that was more complete, more accurate, even if it meant adding in a few more years. He began with the Avengers, and his chronology is very long and detailed, so here's just a flavor of the first few years. Bourcier has not placed real world dates by his time line, but you can look up when the comics were published if you wish.
And so on. Bourcierís painstaking approach requires more and more Marvel Years to be added since the 1980s. The latest version of his chronology can be seen at the Marvel Chronology Project, and if I interpret it correctly, it is currently at year 22!
Marvel's movies make far more money than the comics, and are more likely to introduce the public to Marvel brands. In addition, since the 1990s decompressed story telling has tried to mimic the pacing and look of movies. The influence of the movies is great: most notably where Nick Fury was changed from white to black to fit the movie portrayal (to be fair, the comics decided that white Nick had a black son with the same name and job, so it sort of makes sense). These dates are taken from Rich Drees' Marvel Cinematic Universe Timeline 2.0:
Note that the chronology gives actual months and days for key events: these are gleaned from the movies themselves. Movies understand that a clear link to real time makes a better story.
"Sometime in the 1970s or '80s, it kind of came to be understood that the Fantastic Four had only been around for ten years as they were on a different time-scale than the real world. And then sometime, I think, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, that got changed to that the FF have ALWAYS been around for about ten years and WILL CONTINUE to always have been around about ten years. More of a sliding time-scale." - Sean Kleefeld
it should be noted that time passes as normal for most people in the Marvel Universe. It only slows down for heroes. This was made explicit in the She-Hulk comic, where people like to eb around her in order to stay yopung. but it's seen in other comics too. Take Daredevil for example:
"I was rereading Daredevil and actually found some evidence for the Franklinverse theory. I have the dates actually written out if you are interested, but the gist of the storyline "The Golden Age" (issues 66-70) is that a gangster Daredevil put away when he first debuted in 1964 (and it clearly is 1964, though it isn't specifically stated; there are layered flashbacks to this period and to World War II that corroborate the approximate date) is released and seeks revenge. The kicker is that the gangster is now 93, despite clearly being in his early 50s when Daredevil apprehended him. In contrast, for Daredevil it has only been 12 years since he entered law school (stated earlier in issue 37). While the gangster has aged in real time (having been incarcerated before Franklin was born), Daredevil has been caught in Franklin's temporal web and has had his life vastly constricted." -Thomas Wardlow
A close examination shows that the comics existed in real time until around 1968, the
year of the Marvel Explosion. In 1968, fans started to
notice that the family no longer progressed as quickly as normal
people (though a few months later Franklin was born). This letter
is from FF70:
Then the birth was announced in FF annual 5, and the phrase
"Marvel Time" was first mentioned.
Stretching time was not noticeable until 1973, and did not completely replace real time until after 1980 (the death of Jean Grey). Stretching finally broke and was replaced by a sliding timescale between 1988 and 1991. Sliding is a misnomer, as the need to compress an ever larger history into 10-13 years leads to an abandonment of continuity, e.g. history is largely ignored and characters sometimes grow younger. The in-comics explanation is probably Franklin Richards.
The whole reason for Marvel Time is to allow Marvel to publish stories about the same characters forever. In other words, Marvel Time exists in order to prevent change. Change is replaced by "the illusion of change." This way, the story goes, each generation can enjoy the characters as if they were new. Which sounds good.
Unfortunately, change is the basis of every good story: the hero gains experience and usually changes inside.. If you only have the illusion of change then you only have the illusion of a good story.
The harm caused by Marvel Time was not obvious in the early days, and by the time the effects became obvious it was too deeply entrenched.
Different Marvel editors have stated that everything in Marvel Time takes place in 7, 10, or 13 years. Paul Bourcier has shown that this is impossible. Once we admit that it takes 22 years, why not just accept 44 years and be done with it? Marvel Time only works if we don't pay attention. But if we don't pay attention then why bother?
Marvel Time bans real change, yet publishers often promise changes. The promises turn out to be false, and trust is reduced. Here are two recent examples of lost trust, courtesy of Newsarama.
"AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #545: ďONE MORE DAYĒ PART 4: after this, nothing will be the same for Peter Parker! The stakes have never been higher."
A fan comments:
"How many f***ing times have we heard "Brace yourself, Spidey fans, after this, nothing will be the same for Peter Parker", in the past 5 years?! Seriously!! Enough!!"
Another example, a quote from Joe Quesada, editor in chief:
NRAMA: Now letís get to probably the subject of the week - the FF. First of all, can you tell us about the just-solicited Death in the Family one-shot, promising the death of Sue Richards? It reads, and we quote, ďNot a dream, not a hoaxĒ...So this is truly ďin continuityĒ and she really buys it?
JQ - Karl Kesel has created one of the best told in one FF stories in a very long time, and yes, unfortunately, there will be a death in the FF family and it is all in continuity. But hereís some Joe Fridays breaking news that the solicits donít tell ya, and remember, you heard it here first: two of the FF die, not just one. Gone, goodbye, nevermore.
A comment on what actually happened:
"Sue Richards from our reality died, and then Johnny saved her, and it created a parallel universe. So, while they died, it didn't matter."
So Marvel said there would be change. Then there was no change. Result: we don't trust Marvel.
Plok, in his blog, points out how Marvel Time can destroy the essential core of the characters. Here are some examples.
Captain America is a hero of World War II, frozen in ice and thawed out recently. When he first appeared in 1962, World War II was recent a memory. His character was "great hero who lives!" But as time passes he becomes like Buck Rogers, frozen in one time and thawed out in a completely different time. His character becomes "historical figure comes to terms with the future." A completely different character.
Ben Grimm's core character was about being trapped in a body he hated. Over the years he has occasionally been transformed back into human form, but only very occasionally. However, Marvel Time compresses all these changes, so The Thing becomes human every few months. This changes his essential character - becoming human is normal and common for him.
Spider-man's core character is about having problems. His best known problem is when his girlfriend Gwen Stacy died. At the time he mourned for her for at least two years. But now those two years have been compressed into a few months. In Marvel Time, all of Spidey's major problems are solved or forgotten in a couple of months. So it becomes absurd to worry about problems: his whole character becomes a farce.
Mr Fantastic was defined as an introvert scientist who is also a heroic leader of men. Surely that is a contradiction - an introvert extrovert? How did it happen? The early stories explained: it was because of the draft. Introvert Reed Richards was forced into the army, and that's where he became a hero. That's why he was then able to lead the Fantastic Four. In America, the draft means either WWII or Vietnam at the latest, which fixes the possible dates at which Mr Fantastic's career could begin. But the new Reed Richards was never drafted. New writers realize that an introvert scientist would not be a heroic and inspirational leader, he would not be a rounded human being. In stories like the Illuminati he was presented as a jerk: one prominent writer called him "an asshole". The original Mr Fantastic has been destroyed by Marvel Time.
Magneto is another example - his origin is irrevocably tied to the Second World War. Originally his character was to be a kind of evil parallel to Professor X, but now he's old enough to be Xavier's grandfather and all connection is lost.
The Black Widow and Colossus are other examples - their origins are tied to the Soviet Union. Or The Punisher, who's origin is inextricably tied to Vietnam. The list could go on and on.
How many times has the Marvel Universe been invaded by aliens? Marvel Time compresses time so an alien invasion happens every couple of months. No big deal. The average person in the street would pay no attention. It ceases to be of any interest. How many times has a major character died then later come back to life? Marvel Time compresses time so major deaths happen every few months, and are reversed a few months later. Great crises, deaths, all the major plot devices mean nothing with Marvel Time. They become just tedious business as usual with no real effect on anybody.
But in the real world, continuity is not a problem. Events move quickly so each decade looks different from the last. And there are clear dates, and events has rational consequences so they naturally form memorable patterns. No nobody gets World War I confused with World War II, nobody gets World War II confused with the Gulf War.
With real time comics, nobody gets unmarried Sue Storm confused with married Sue Richards: they look and act differently, and the wedding is a landmark. Nobody worries about remembering the earlier adventures of Franklin Storm, the Hate Monger or the guy who impersonated the Thing: they died and stayed dead. While Marvel Time creates continuity confusion, Real Time solves the problem.
The Marvel Universe was Marvel's unique selling point: others could copy its realism, but nobody could copy the scale and richness of its world. Fans get excited thinking about this huge world to explore, and all the back issues to enjoy. But Marvel Time makes it so complicated (see above) that the editors hate it. This sliding time scale soon becomes a dragging timescale, as witnessed by these quotes from Tom Brevoort.
"The Marvel Knights brand has been a place where creators can go to tell an iconic tale of our characters without having to be hamstrung by continuity."
"Many readers are equally confused by the different lines with their different continuities, and by the fact that some projects donít quite fit into any of them. But thatís part of the price of dragging 45 years of history behind you."
"When you're dragging 70 years of publishing history around behind you, continuity or the slavish devotion to continuity can be a straitjacket."
In contrast, Real time comics find that history is an asset, not a liability. Note that early Marvel did not drag its history. There was no sliding or dragging of timescales. Events were fixed, tied to real world events, like Reed Richards fighting in World War II. Events from more than ten years ago naturally corrected themselves: Bucky was dead. The original Human Torch died. Colonel Fury had a completely different job. The comics moved on. Those were fast moving, exciting times and their history made them feel real!
The whole point of a story is "what happens next?" The whole point of a great novel is that the hero changes through the course of the book. Marvel Time destroys that possibility.
Marvel Time keeps heroes alive forever, so the hero population goes up and up. Remember the early days when Ben Grimm had to battle because nobody else could? That is no longer true. There's always someone else, so why bother? And the longer they're around the more that power inflation takes hold, sop not only are there plenty of heroes, but most of them can lift a hundred tons so they don't need to break a sweat. Yawn.
Marvel Time is confusing, so in an effort to make things simple, Marvel periodically reboots titles. But this just makes things even more complicated. Plus it dilutes the brand.
I took a break from comics between 1986 and 2004. When I came back I wanted to read the Fantastic Four and find out what I'd missed. But I discovered there were multiple versions of the FF, each contradicting the other: Ultimate FF, Heroes Reborn FF, FF 2099, Marvel Adventures FF, Marvel Knights FF, etc., etc. I was too stubborn to give up, and I slowly pieced together the mess, but if I was a new reader I would have walked away in confusion. Marvel Time destroys sales
Tom Brevoort makes an interesting point about why people buy comics.
Q. "Don't you think the time is right to give Marvel Team Up and/or Two in One another shot? If not why not?"
A. "I don't think so, and here's why. Back in the 70s, when those books had their greatest period of success, everything about the way that comics were stocked and sold was different from the way it's done now. These days, with fans whose primary concern is whether a given story "matters" and retailers who don't tend to put a lot of stock in the rotating team-up concept, it's something of a non-starter. This is quite different from the days when you'd just send an issue to the stands, and if it looked good or had an interesting guest star in it, people would buy it."
People buy comics because the story matters. Marvel Time destroys this because all stories will be retconned sooner or later.
Marvel sells reprints of back issues. However, Marvel Time undermines and devalues the best stories. As Jerome Thomas wrote, ""I wonder how 'One More Day' impacted the sales of the many popular married Spider-Man stories that are still available in reprint? Stories like 'Kraven's Last Hunt' are now 'wrong.' ... One of the most touching issues of Amazing Spider-Man ever written was the Death of Aunt May issue. Marvel proceeded to crap all over that story by revealing that it was a really a genetically modified actress hired by the green goblin to blablabla and the real Aunt May was alive and well. Had Marvel not chickened out and kept Aunt May dead like they should have done, I think that a Death of Aunt May trade paperback could have been a nice little seller for decades to come."
Marvel will of course reply that old comics don't sell so well.. except for the 1960s stuff. And why does that sell? Because of a feedback loop. Readers constantly hear about those stories, so they have to buy them. Imagine if every great story was canon, and remained so. Everything would be connected. (And because death would be permanent, the back story would never become too complicated.) Over the years a reader would become aware of more and more connections between new and old stories, until every major story became a "must have" just like the 1960s stuff.
Connections between comics form a positive feedback loop for sales. Marvel Time destroys those connections.
Historically, the core Marvel brands were created in Real Time comics, in the 1960s, or during the X-Men's real time period. When Marvel Time steps in the creativity stops and the brands begin the decades-long process of dying.
Marvel is not the only continuing universe: TV soap operas are the same. The big difference is that TV soap appears have to deal with characters who age and die. This forces creativity. Soap writers would love to keep their best stars alive forever, but as Marvel and DC have shown, that destroys any hope of meaningful events.
Marvel Time equals stagnation. It bans change and avoids risk. But only risk and change can create exciting new ideas. This is from "An Introduction to Manga" (with emphasis added)
"Manga stay fresh and vibrant because they have to keep on finding new authors and winning over readers. Unlike in America, where Spider-Man or Superman are still wearing their underpants outside their trousers after forty, or sixty, years, in Japan not every successful series has to last forever. Manga engage you because they chart the lives and growth of characters and do actually come to a conclusion. It may take thousands of pages, but you can see genuine change going on, not just the 'illusion of change' found in most superhero soap operas, where even death is temporary in order to protect and preserve valuable properties. Manga stories can really end, because that way new stories can begin."
Marvel was Real Time in its boom period, the 1960s. The long term decline in sales began in 1968, when the first hints of Marvel Time became apparent - that is, when fans started to complain about stretched out stories. The Claremont/Byrne X-Men and other hot comics are effectively Real Time. Look at the stories that attract the most people: the movies, the cartoons, the Essentials collections, and the Ultimates series. What do they have in common? They are from the sixties or recent retellings, so they ignore Marvel Time. (As the Ultimates settle down into their own routine they gain their own version of Marvel Time, and sales decline.)
It is a simple matter to have one comic run in real time, aware of the real world, while interacting with comics that exist in Marvel Time. She-Hulk and Deadpool both break the fourth wall from time to time, and the world does not end: other characters just think they are odd. See the home page for details. The Fantastic Four could run in real time, using occasional de0aging stories like FF214 if readers want them to still look young. Other objections are discussed here.
The only change required is for the team to react to actual dates
and the passage of time, just as we do in real life. This anchors
stories in the real world. It forces events to have consequences.
All I ask is for one comic where events matter. Is that too much