Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Split-level Continuity

I've always had a lot of respect for Erik Larsen. The only one of the Image Comics founders to continue producing comics, one issue after another, without farming the work out or disappearing up his own merchandised ass, Larsen has held the position of Publisher of Image since last year, and under his watch they published some really great stuff. His Savage Dragon is typically a solid read, and very occasionally approaches great fun.

Larsen's recent comments on his Comic Book Resources column about continuity, and the problem of the passage of time, have been making the rounds of the comics blogosphere the last few days, but I've only now taken the time to read through the full text. In amongst the standard discussion about the appropriate audience for superhero comics, and the practical concerns associating with aging fictional characters in "real time," there were a few really interesting comments. Perhaps most germane to serials in general, across genres and medium, was this:
"Another thought I had (and I'm sure most of you will pooh-pooh this immediately, but wait until you hear me out first) would be to give every character a definite timeline and have them all be set in certain time periods. Superman really worked best as a character set in the late '30s and early '40s. Spider-Man, the FF, Nick Fury work best in the swingin' '60s and the man called Nova as a product of the '70s. What if the FF was set in the '60s? Why not? Then you wouldn't worry about him aging-- it would all fit. And you could have an older Spider-Man encountering Nova in the '70s. A Superman in the '30s works so well. If he's from the '30s, he really is the forerunner of all superheroes whereas now, because of the JSA, he's a relatively recent character. Sure, there would end up being gaffs made, but it might be pretty cool. "
This approaches the de facto solution to continuity and "real time" with characters like Sherlock Holmes and Zorro. In the early decades of the twentieth century, when people other than Arthur Conan Doyle turned their hands to tell a Sherlock Holmes story (most notably in the movies), they made Holmes a contemporary character. When Basil Rathbone played the character in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Holmes pitted wits against the Nazis! It was only as time went on, and the period of Holmes's origin retreated further into the fog-wrapped past, that creators and pastichers came to realize that the character functioned best (and arguably, only) in Victorian England. Ever since, Holmes and his milieu have been inseparable.

The same is not true of James Bond. A product of the Cold War, the more distant the character gets from his origins, the more the strain begins to show. Without an Iron Curtain across which to glare at his implacable Soviet foes, Bond is too often left a hero without a villain (to say nothing of the anachronism of his attitudes towards women which, cheeky and roguish in the fifties and early sixties, come off as just creepy and predatory in more enlightened times).

Michael Chabon, in his mid-nineties pitch for a Fantastic Four movie, opined that the characters worked best in a sixties milieu (a solution later rediscovered by Brad Bird for The Incredibles.) Many have pointed out that Batman is a creature of the forties, and that Superman works best in the fifties (I think his world seems to begin sometime in the Eisenhower administration, and ends just before the assassination of JFK).

Darwyn Cooke understands this. His incredible New Frontier gets a lot of mileage out of setting these characters in their historical context. Kurt Busiek, too, in his Astro City, gets some creative juice out of setting certain types of characters against various historical backgrounds (like Larsen, he disagrees with the notion of characters like Superman and Spider-Man aging in real time, though both have created their own superheroic "universes" that progress in real time). Alan Moore, in constructing his ABC universe, added an additional wrinkle, having characters that, while they didn't seem to age at an appreciable rate, still experienced the passage of real time, even if their settings didn't (Tom Strong's Millennium City is a perpetual post-art deco forties, while in Greyshirt's Indigo City it always seems to be the fifties).

I can't see Marvel or DC, who get so much of their revenue from licensing and merchandising, ever adopting an approach such as Larsen suggests, since any marketing wonk worth their MBA would surely argue that a hero locked into the 1950s would be impossible to sell to today's kid audience. But it makes for an interesting thought experiment, and a possible model for future creators to keep in mind.

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