On 8th November 2010 on his Formspring
account, Tom Brevoort stated unequivocally that Franklin is 8
years old and it is 13 years since Fantastic Four number 1. In
other words, 5 years passed between FF1 (published late 1961) and
Annual 6 (published early 1968), when in real time, 6 1/2 years
had passed.. However, the art and other evidence suggests that Franklin may be around 6,
indicating that 7 of the 13 Marvel years took place between 1961
and 1968. A couple of years later Brevoort approached the question in a different way, stating it even more clearly:
"In the earliest days, Stan didnít
have any use for anything beyond the broadest version of continuity. And
itís no wonderóhe didnít think these new characters would last for five
years when he started, let alone fifty. So he had the characters aging
more or less in real time, and it was only after seven or eight years
that he started to realize that he needed to slow things down in order
to allow for greater longevity" (source)
A close examination of the stories confirms that. Until 1968 at least, Marvel comics took place in real time. Here I'll use the Fantastic Four as a detailed example, but you could also chart Spider-Man's progress through High School and reach a similar conclusion. Are you ready? Let's fire up Dr Doom's Time Machine and go back to the very beginning, back to 1961.....
In 1971 (FF126) it was stated that the team's origin took place in 1961:
Issue 4 has the return of the Submariner, a 1940s hero. He had his own comic just ten years earlier (I haven't checked the exact date his comic was canceled), so the Fantastic Four had to explain what happened in the mean time. Back then, ten years was a long time! back then, things happened! Back then, nothing stayed still! Back then, comics were exciting! So they explained how the Submariner had lost his memory some time before the nuclear tests of the 1950s (more real time references). A similar thing happened in the Avengers when Captain America returned. This was less than twenty years after WWII, but the real time delay was enough for Stan Lee to invent a "frozen in ice" story to explain the long delay. A similar explanation was used for the return of the original Human Torch in FF annual 4. Back then it was unacceptable for a hero to remain unchanged for twenty years without a serious explanation! These days the heroes have remained unchanged for thirty years and nobody cares any more.
In issue 8 Johnny mentions it is 1962. In issue 9 of the FF starts with the FF becoming bankrupt. This was written in 1962, coinciding with a real-world stock market crisis. Then our heroes visit Hollywood, and on pages 6 and 7 they appear in the same frames as famous celebrities from 1962.
Johnny Storm probably has his 17th birthday in February 1963 (see below). We can see the passing of time in his own comic, Strange Tales. In 1963 Johnny has exams and says he resents still having to go to school. In Strange Tales 119, page 2, Reed refers to Johnny's next "summer vacation," indicating that Reed expects him to continue his schooling.
Soon after this we stop hearing of Johnny's school work. Instead he is seen lazing around the house, dating Dorrie Evans, racing cars, bowling or playing golf. Previously his exam pressures were building up, yet now he has plenty of time. The obvious conclusion is that Johnny graduated from high school but took some time off school. How much time? The comics' internal chronology (see references above to "last year" and "a few months ago") suggest that this was quite some time. Students cannot just take a few months off - it is a year or nothing. Besides, it is very common for a student to take a gap year. So we can conclude, based on the comics, that Johnny Storm took a whole year away from school in 1964, when he was 18 or 19.
This was not yet a big problem. The slippage was only small and could easily be made up in a later story. More importantly, the stories were incredibly good, so we can overlook the fact that they have fewer real-world connections. But the writing was on the wall, the realism was weakening.1968 was Marvel's great turning point. Click here for details
We also learn that Reed and Ben fought in World War II. And the comic is very specific: Ben was a marine fighter ace who fought over Okinawa and Guadalcanal, and appeared in the newspapers. Reed worked for the underground, for the O.S.S., and he dreamed of his childhood sweetheart, Susan Storm. These people were not timeless icons, they felt like real life people, living in the real world, and that is what made their adventures more exciting than other comics.
Issue 17 has a cameo from president John F. Kennedy, and page 12 has his counterparts in Russia. Then issue 19 refers to issue 5 as "more than a year ago" (exactly a year ago would have been issue 7).
This is confirmed by the text. In previous issues, the Wizard was twice sent to jail, and each time he "had plenty of time to plan" and was able to act like a model prisoner for "long enough" to lull the authorities into complacency. Then he escaped and planned his next campaign against the torch, all within the space of a few issues (102-105, 106-110 then 110-118). If this is not happening in real time there simply isn't enough time for the events to unfold.
Left: in FF 28 (July 1964), Strange Tales 120 (May 1964) was described as "a few months ago." In FF 31 (November 1964), FF 18 (the Super Skrull, September 1963) was described as "last year."
Note that the characters used to remember previous battles, and each battle was highly significant, because every year was different, everything was changing, most of the events were new. Today it's just "Ho hum, looks like it's time to fight the Hulk for the 267th time. Or maybe it's Dr Doom's turn again. Yawn."
And what else happened in 1964? Oh yes. The Torch and The Thing met The Beatles.
In FF54 Johnny states that it's 1966.
In issue 59 (dated March 1967, on sale late 1966) we are specifically told that Wyatt drove a Ferrari Dino V-6 Berlinetta and that it is very expensive.
According to the Ferrari web site, this was one of the most influential models ever, and was unveiled at the 1965 Paris motor show. The Paris show takes place every two years, in September. and it takes a little while for orders to be delivered, so it would have started to appear in America in 1966. Indeed, everything points to this being the defining car of 1966 and no other year, firmly fixing this story to the real world.
It's not only Johnny who grows and changes. Reed changed just as much. Four years earlier he was a pipe-smoking respectable tweed-suited university figure. Then, four years later, he's a man of action! (If it looks like he's got younger, that's because stretchy skin doesn't wrinkle!) Ben's personality and appearance have changed dramatically, just compare the careless violence of the first few issues with the teddy bear he became. Sue has developed from air-headed socialite to mother figure. Even the Baxter Building has changed, from an ordinary office block to almost a robot in its own right.
1966 was dominated by Galactus. The Galactus saga has often been imitated and retold, but all the retellings have been forgettable. Perhaps this is because the saga is so clearly rooted in the mid 1960s. Just look at the climax to the Galactus trilogy, in issue 50. The cover makes space for the fact that Johnny Storm begins college. Clearly the passage of time is rather important!
The art screams mid 1960s:
The cover to issue 48 and numerous backgrounds show the classic early 1960s new York skyline. Most pages show classic 1960s hairstyles. Most pages show classic 1960s fashions - the women have push-up bras and the men (bystanders) wear hats. Several panels show 1960s technology, with giant TV cameras, 1960s jet planes, 1960s cars giant two-way radios, and so on. I don't have the expertise to identify specific fashions from specific years, but I bet that a fashion expert could identify the details.
The attitudes are 1960s:
Issue 48, page 14 shows classic gender roles, with Sue worrying about her duty to make dinner for Reed, and Johnny comments on the battle of the sexes. And a silver muscle-bound spaceman riding a surfboard - need I say more? But soon after we see the Black Panther, the first ever (?) black superhero, pre-dating the political group of the same name. This reflected the high profile race issues of the mid 1960s, and would be up to the minute in 1966.
Pop culture of the mid 1966:
All the major elements of the story make most sense in the 1960s. The interest in godlike men and nobility, and clear influence from movies like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Day the Earth Caught Fire" and issue 48 page 13 directly references a 1960s film maker.
Other 1960s references:
At the ends of issue 50 we learn that Wyatt Wingfoot was brought up in a mission school. Issue 48 includes a photo montage that looks very dated in today's computer age. And so on and so on. This story, like all the others, is saturated in contemporary culture and references. If we ignore the 1960s links then we must ignore the art, the dialog, the premise... nothing is left! If the Galactus story and the other stories have any merit, then some of it must be down to real-time real world links.
It is worth noting that Marvel did not just reflect 1960s culture, it contributed to it! That is what happens when you embrace the times you live in and try to live in the real world. In contrast, modern Marvel stories take place in an imaginary limbo and declining sales reflect their lack of relevance.
A close reading shows that all the issues up until the 70s (when Sue is pregnant) take place with very few gaps in between. We cannot then have a long "catch up with real time" gap because Sue is then pregnant, and we cannot have a pregnancy lasting two years! So real time becomes hard to believe after the 50s (that is, after 1966). However, the gap between Marvel Time and Real Time is still very small, and the events of these issues take place with such energy that most readers probably did not notice. The last major real time event in the 1960s was in 1969, where the Fantastic Four help Neal Armstrong get safely to the moon. (Issue 98 was dated 1970, but was probably on sale in late 1969). If we do not pay close attention we could still believe that events maybe happened in real time until that point, but after that the problems just mount up. There are occasional Real Time references for the next ten years, but these are outnumbered by the obvious anachronisms.
Another example is this footnote in HULK #135 (January 1971) by scripter Roy Thomas:
"Roy's Theory of Relativity: Ever since that infamous day in AVENGERS #9 (1964) when Kang first invaded our century, his rate of time-flow has gone forward at the same speed as ours -- so that, just as seven years have passed for Kang since then, it is now seven years later for us, as well! See you in the letters-pages! -- Rascally"
As Tony of The Wastebasket points out,
"The story specifically notes 1964 as the year the Avengers were formed and the 'present' as being 1971. So it seems that Roy Thomas was operating under the assumption that the Marvel Universe was moving forward in real-time."
More evidence for 1973
According to the 1998 Fantastic Four annual, Marvel Time diverged from Real Time in 1973. You can check this on Wikipedia (or at least you could in 2010): just look up "Earth 98." The key event was the death of Gwen Stacey.
It appears that Stan Lee subconsciously thinks of the Fantastic Four as ending circa 1973, around the time that he left direct control of the comics. Read his "Last Fantastic Four Story." It cannot be set in the present, as the characters are wrong. But it cannot be set in the future either: the team (and the Silver Surfer) seem inexperienced, they are short of money, and no recent characters are present. Meanwhile, characters Like Thor, Captain America and Nick Fury are not their current versions. Crucially, Franklin looks younger. A discussion on the comicboards Fantastic Four message board concluded that the story only made sense if set in the early 1970s.
Philosophically, the concept of a "last Fantastic Four" story implies a continuity that moves forward and is never retconned. This was only true in the early days. So it cannot refer to the modern comic called "Fantastic Four" where nothing ever changes.
Economically, the concept of "last Fantastic Four story" only makes sense in the early 1970s. Today it is unthinkable that Marvel would ever cease publication, as long as a handful of copies can be sold. But in the early 1970s Marvel seriously considered that superhero comics would end.
"Comics had always been a cyclical business, and almost everybody in 1971 thought that super heroes must inevitably be on their way out again. That's why there was such a gold rush on to find the next big genre--sword-and-sorcery looked like it might be a contender, and there were a lot of new mystery (watered-down horror comics without much horror), war and western comics being churned out in this period. But the classic Marvel, Stan's Marvel, was still seen as something of a fad (even by Stan himself), and the common wisdom was that everybody was going to be doing something else very soon (possibly in another field entirely.)" -Tom Brevoort
The effects of Marvel Time were gradual. Some books still referred to
real dates (both in the past ad present) until the 1970s. This is from
Marvel Two In One (the Thing's own book) in 1977, referring to the death
of Adam Warlock (see FF 67 for his origin as "Him" and FF 274 for his
it may be symbolic that real time appeared mainly on grave stones. Real time was dying.
The Fantastic Four age by 13 years, but their stories take place on real, fixed dates over their 27 calendar years, and earlier. In 1976 they referred to 1961, and in 1980 they knew it was 1980:
Dates were fixed as late at Act 5, in FF309 for example. In 1987 the space shuttles are grounded as a result of the Challenger disaster of 1986. This is reflected in the story, and in that same issue Ben refers to fighting in "the big one", WWII, a fact established back in issue 11. But after 1991 there is a different Ben who does not have that experience.
Why does Ben does notice that he is aging more slowly than the people around him? Blame Franklin.
Note that this is not just some slip by Englehart: Byrne's last story is about Marvel Time, and in his second to last story he anchors Nick Fury's teenage years to 1936. Byrne has Sue state that she was not born in 1936, but she also says she was only 12 years old when Reed was in college. This allows for Reed being active in WWII (see FF11), without confusing new readers. Regardless of what Byrne may have intended, those are the facts as presented in his comic.
Time started breaking in 1989. By 1991 time was in chaos and the the coherent Marvel Universe was dead. In the 1998 FF annual for example, The Thing can visit the real time Fantastic Four and see that they are different people.
This illustrates the difference between a stretching timescale and a sliding timescale. Stretching time means the characters themselves age slowly but do not notice: they are still anchored in the real world. Sliding time means that dates for events constantly change: all anchors to the real world are broken except the present day, and without a history the present is meaningless. In the sliding timescale (the Franklinverse) dates are usually not mentioned at all, characters often grow younger, and continuity is treated as a problem and best ignored.
That is how Marvel Universe continuity began, and how it no longer exists. For how it ended, click here.
Maybe one day the Fantastic Four will return to the real world.
Maybe one day we will again have characters that develop, stories
that are relevant to the present day, and events that have real
significance. But until that day we always have the reprints.
This might be a good time to look at the team's ages. The key
text is the letters page in FF11:
The "just seventeen" statement comes from the letters page to FF 11. We may be able to pinpoint this to the exact month. This is why.
Objection: in FF 329, clone Johnny relives FF1 and says he's only sixteen (when according to the above calculation he should be 15). Response:
FF 329 takes place in a dream-like state where early and late stories
mix. For example, they are not sure whether or not Reed and Sue are
married. So this age refers to several years merged into one.The whole
point is that clone Johnny does not age.
So the most likely ages are:
Time progressed normally until Franklin's birth in mid-1968 (as
this page will show). At that point their ageing slowed
considerably, probably only adding 6 years (possibly 7) before the
Franklinverse took over and all connection with real time was
Quick summary: 1961-1968 is in real time. 1969-1889 covers only four comic years.
How dates are calculated:
The story was published over 28 years, but only takes around half that time. There are four ways to approach the problem: