Essay: Sliding Timescale

For ongoing storytelling without the need for live action performers, there is a great deal of freedom in depiction of the passage of time. Many of the fictional universes with this freedom make no attempt to justify the passage of time at all, and events seem to never progress, and the status quo is eternal. This is common in many American newspaper comic strips, like Calvin and Hobbes. Others, however, do have a progression of events, and can or even often refer back to the history established. For that sort of storytelling, it requires a sliding timescale.

Marvel Comics is the best example I can give for a sliding timescale. When a real sense of continuity began in the Silver Age of comics, it became necessary to justify a character having not aged the number of years that has passed since its debut. Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man, began as a high school student in 1962. Let's assume he was 15 at the time. By 1973, when he is in college and his girlfriend Gwen Stacy is murdered, he would be 26. Past your standard college age. In 1984, when he gets the Venom suit, he would be 37. In 1997, when the clone saga culminates with his wife Mary Jane Watson's supposedly stillborn baby, he would be 49. In 2008, when he makes a deal with the devil to save Aunt May, he would be 61, and Aunt May herself, assuming (generously) that she was only 60 when she debuted, would be 106!

Basically, when a fictional universe functions with a sliding timescale, it goes with the idea that when any non-flashback story is told, it takes place in the now, but it doesn't mean that the past nows are the same thens. That sentence makes no sense, but let me explain. When Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider in 1962, it was 1962. When Peter married Mary Jane Watson in 1987, it was 1987. But, from the perspective of Peter in 1987, he was not bitten by a radioactive spider in 1962, but much more recently. In 1962, from 1987 Peter's perspective, he would have been a toddler, a baby, or not yet even born (depending on your perception of Peter's age at the time). For Peter, he was bitten by that spider 5-10 years ago or so, though the stories themselves rarely make such specific year claims. Thus, the actual time of the earlier event, the "then", slides forward.

Given this timeline is not detailed enough to concern itself with most specific topical references, this does not present much of a problem for me. Though a flashback where Peter Parker mentions watching the Ed Sullivan Show live might seem strange for a 2016 story, this pales in comparison with the other problems it causes. For example, Franklin Richards was born in Fantastic Four Annual #6 in 1968. That is a very specific event, and it affects the depiction of Franklin throughout his story life. In order to keep the characters "young" (a heavy concern for comics for some reason), aging Franklin reflects the number of years that have passed since his birth, and to depict Franklin as anything other than a small child implies that other characters, like, say, Peter Parker, might no longer be in their 20s. Thus, Franklin is eternally depicted as about 5. Of course, the sheer number of events that have taken place within the Marvel Universe give lie to such a ridiculous time frame. An issue for the comics to ignore. I, however, have to make some choices.

Because this timeline is rooted to actual dates, I have to choose a place to affix a sliding timescale. I also have to choose the scale. I generally go with a 3-to-1 for such things. This means that the events of comics published over the course of three years take place, more-or-less, over the course of a year. What is this based on? Marvel again. When I started reading Marvel Comics, it was in 1993. The X-Men, the comics I read most, were experiencing their 30th anniversary. In a comic book published that year, I think Uncanny X-Men #298, Charles Xavier thinks that he has been doing his thing for ten years. So I decided that X-Men #1 was set ten years earlier, and thus 1963 events were 10 years before 1993 events, and 30 years (real time)/10 years (comics time) equals a 3-to-1 ratio. Of course, 25 more years have passed since then (as of this writing), but, for better or for worse, I am sticking to that.

So what year did I fix the timescale to for the Marvel Universe? Not 1993. I decided to start at the beginning with Fantastic Four #1, considered the dawn of the Marvel Universe (with most comics published by Marvel/Timely before that taking place at the time of publication within the Marvel Universe), published in 1961, as taking place in 1990. A nice, round number. So 1993 stuff takes place in 2000. And 2016 stuff takes place in 2008. It's not really as simple as that, of course. With some stories published over a long time taking place over a short time, and various time jumps, and the inconsistencies of a shared universe, it's really a fool's errand to treat it as cohesive, but then again, this whole thing is a fool's errand.

The 3-to-1 ratio is not universal. Check out the various universes' entries for explanations I eventually plan to add.

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