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The Nature of Marvel Time

In the Marvel Universe, ever since Fantastic Four #1, the stories are almost always set in the present year that the comics are printed. For the first several years of publication, time passed in the Marvel Universe just as fast as in the real world: Peter Parker was a sophomore in high school when he gained his powers in 1962, and then graduated as a senior within three years in 1965.[1]

The problem with characters aging in real time is that superheroes would start becoming old, and some of Marvel's initial crop of heroes weren't exactly young to start with (Reed Richards is likely in his early 40s in FF#1). Starting in 1967 (and simultaneous with a change in ownership of Marvel), Marvel began to slow the rate at which time passed. Thus, relative to real life, the characters age very slowly. Using the above example, Peter Parker started as a freshman in college in Amazing Spider-Man #31, 1965, and his "four years" until graduation to grad school ran until Amazing Spider-Man #185, 1978. In order to keep current stories in the present day, Marvel Time instead makes it so older stories happen more recently than would be expected by publication date.

There are 3 key features to a compressed timeline:

  1. The time events are being compressed towards. Marvel time compresses towards the present. That the Marvel present is also the real present means this point is "sliding" in time, hence Marvel Time is both a sliding timescale and a compressed timescale.

The time before which events are not compressed. While there is no definitive statement on when exactly this is, we know everything starting from FF#1 is compressed, so the last fixed date is no later than 1961 (pre-FF#1). The rate of compression tells us how densely events are packed. Unfortunately, the rate is unknown, and from what we do know, almost certainly not linear. Marvel has made multiple statements about how much total time has passed over the years (Roy Thomas, real time 1970s, Marvel Time 10 years since FF#1; Unknown EiC, real time early 1990s, Marvel Time 11 years since FF#1; Comic references in 2010, Marvel Time 13 years since FF#1), which makes it clear that much more time passed in the early years of publication than passes today per unit of real time.

Towards a Marvel Timeline

Timelines can be built in one of two ways. On the one hand, you can take what a particular editor or comic has claimed, and force a timeline to fit that number of years. While perhaps the most canonical with Marvel's expressed continuity wishes, its also least true to the events in the comics.

On the other hand, you can work purely from textual sources to try to nail down how much time writers have caused to pass in the Marvel Universe (at least according to some corpus).

Example 1:
Author: Troy D. Smith
Corpus Used: Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man primarily

YEAR 1: 1961-1962 The FF appear; Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man.
YEAR 2: 1963-1964 Peter Parker’s Junior year of high school. Most major heroes appear.
YEAR 3: 1965-1966 FF wedding; Peter Parker graduates h.s., starts college
YEAR 4: 1967-1969 Franklin Richards born
YEAR 5: 1970-1972 The Defenders begin; Luke Cage appears.
YEAR 6: 1973-1975 Death of Gwen Stacy. First clone saga
YEAR 7: 1976-1978 Pete graduates college (late, due to no phy.ed credits- Oct. 78)
YEAR 8: 1979-1983 Peter Parker’s one year of grad school
YEAR 9: 1984-1987 Peter Parker/ Mary Jane Watson wedding
YEAR 10: 1988-1991 Parker’s life gets Venom-ous; Kraven’s Last Hunt.
YEAR 11: 1992-1996 Second clone saga. Onslaught.
YEAR 12: 1997-2001 Genosha destroyed.
YEAR 13: 2002-2006 Avengers Disassembled, House of M, Civil War.
YEAR 14: 2007- End of Civil War

Example 2
Author: Paul Bourcier
Version: Abbreviated version, full version maps each issue to month
Corpus Used: Avengers

Year 1: includes Avengers issue 1 in September of Marvel Year 1
Year 2: includes Avengers issue 26 in September of Marvel Year 2
Year 3: Avengers 58 in September
Year 4: Avengers 114 in September
Year 5: Avengers 119 in October: this year is actually SHORTER than a real year.
Year 6: Avengers 137 in March: a gap of half a Marvel year between books.
Year 7: Avengers 150 in November of Marvel Year 7.
Year 8: Avengers 181 in September
Year 9: Avengers 212 in November
Year 10: Avengers 228 in September.

Example 3
Corpus Used: primarily X-Men
Note: FF#1 and ASM #1 may have happened pre-year 1, not determinable based solely on corpus used.

September, 1973: Xavier's School founded in September. (X-Men #1) Jean Grey is 17, Bobby Drake is 16, Scott Summers is 17.
1974: Jean Grey is 18, leaves X-Men to attend Metro College in fall. (X-Men #24).
1975-1977: Byrne's X-Men: Hidden Years series
1978: Krakatoa in summer? Start All-New All-Different, year ends with Sentinel Mk III attack.
1979: Phoenix emerges from Jamaica Bay on Jan 1st (X-Men #101), M'Kraan Crystal repaired in Spring, Battle vs. Magneto in Summer, X-Men believed dead and Xavier closes Institute. Jean goes on vacation. X-Men in Savage Land.
1980: X-Men arrive in Japan in Winter. vs Alpha Flight in Calgary in February. Proteus in Summer. Kitty Pryde age 13 introduced late summer. Dark Phoenix Saga. Kitty starts attending Xavier's in the Fall, fights N'garai demon alone on Christmas Eve.
September 1, 1980: "Jean Grey" dies on the moon aged 24 (X-Men #138)
October 31-November 1, 1980: Days of Future Past story (X-Men #141)
1981: Magneto (Uncanny X-Men 150) in Feb/Mar, Kitty turns 14 in Summer while in outer-space (Uncanny X-Men 165), Morlocks capture Angel in December (Uncanny X-Men 169)
1982: Mariko cancels wedding to Logan in January, Scott marries Madelyne Pryor in the Spring, Kitty abducted by Morlocks in early summer (not yet 15 - Uncanny X-Men 179), Secret Wars in July, Peter and Kitty break up in Summer, Kitty leaves for Japan in early August, Rachel rescued from Selene, Storm depowered ('weeks' after 182, so likely early September), Storm leaves for Africa (September) and Kitty returns from Japan (early October), Xavier teaches at Columbia starting with Fall term, gets attacked near Christmas time (Uncanny X-Men 192)
1983: Warhunt (Uncanny X-Men 193), Juggernaut, Nimrod, and Power Pack during Christmas Break, foil assassination attempt on Xavier by his Columbia students within weeks of Winter term starting (Uncanny X-Men 196), LifeDeath2 concludes by start of mid-spring, Trial of Magneto in June (Uncanny X-Men 200), Wolverine vs. Reavers in late November (Uncanny X-Men 205)
1984: vs. Freedom Force in San Francisco in Winter, Phoenix attacks Selene in spring (Uncanny X-Men 207), Mutant Massacre in late spring, X-Men vs. Marauders in San Francisco before mid summer, Fall of the Mutants in mid-summer (see Uncanny X-Men 226), vs. Brood in August, Inferno in the 'dog days of summer', vs. Master Mold in winter (Uncanny X-Men 246)
1985: Young Storm appears in spring (Uncanny X-Men 253), X-Tinction Agenda in Summer (Swimsuits in Uncanny X-Men 270), Muir Island Saga before summer ends.

Notable Exceptions to Marvel Time

  1. 1961-1967 were written in real time. Whether they are still considered real time or not depends on the chronology and (possibly) how you think Marvel Time operates.
  2. Chris Claremont's early years on the X-Men were written in real time or almost real time. In fact, it was editorial pressure to conform to Marvel Time (which was becoming more dogmatic in the mid 80s) is what would ultimately stop him from letting time progress naturally. (As late as 1983 Claremont makes references to the actual year. In 1984, Claremont has to sneak a reference to the year in by a comment referencing Orwell. After that, any sense of what the actual time is mostly disappears from the book).

Problems with Marvel Time

The Limits of Sliding, aka the Buck Rogers effect

Inspired and generally summarized from: http://circumstantial.blogspot.com/2006/02/incompressible-truth.html

Captain America's defining aspects are his status as a WW2 hero and his being a man out of time, having been frozen in ice and then waking up decades later. The problem is that at some point, later becomes unrecognizable as being related to the world he left. He becomes Buck Rogers. On the one hand, this really changes the nature of his man out of time aspect - the time difference becomes too great for the way his character has interacted with time, which forces fundamental changes in his characterization. (How does he continue to fight for the American Dream when he can't even recognize it anymore?) On the other hand, his status as a WW2 hero becomes increasingly meaningless as the war moves more toward memories of memories of memories instead of direct experience and second hand knowledge. Basically, there is a limit to how far forward one can move Captain America's recovery from the ice and keep his character the same. Marvel time eventually has the reverse effect it intends to - it makes keeping Captain America's character constant an impossibility. Basically, Captain America's defining aspects are really a sense of history, and the purpose of bringing him into Marvel continuity was so that history could be used. Although it may be far in the future, Marvel Time will eventually destroy Captain America conceptually.

The Limits of Compressibility: the Thing

Inspired and generally summarized from: http://circumstantial.blogspot.com/2006/02/incompressible-truth.html

One of the Thing's great defining characteristics has always been his struggle over his transformation. And a defining interaction with Reed has been Reed's guilt over Ben's transformation. Over the years, there have been numerous times when Reed has succeeded in making Ben human again before the inevitable occurs and Ben must don the mantle of the Thing once more.

The problem here is that in order for these stories to remain relevant, Ben must spend far more time as the Thing than as a human. If he's becoming Ben once per week, its not really that tragic when he's returned to the form of the Thing again. Worse, his own crisis about being a monster stops making sense if he's frequently returned to normal. Instead of a permanent change, it would become just another transitory stage of his existence.

The problem is Marvel Time. By compressing the time between pre-existing stories, all those stories in which Ben becomes human again start happening closer and closer together. There's certainly a physical limit to how much you can compress those changes, but more important is the limits of the readers willingness to believe in the tragedy of the Thing if he's human every other week or so.

The Limit of Suspension of Belief: Magneto and Xavier

Magneto is a man being torn apart at both ends by Marvel Time. His character is defined by two facets: On the one hand, his having been imprisoned in a concentration camp during WW2; on the other, his status as Xavier's colleague, friend, and rival.

Magneto's ties to WW2 are unbreakable. There hasn't been another tragedy of the same nature perpetuated on such a scale since (and hopefully never will be). Disconnecting Magneto from WW2 would take all the power of his personality from him. And WW2 is becoming more and more distant as Marvel Time slides forward. This isn't an age issue - he was reduced to infancy by Mutant Alpha at one point. Yet another life-extending story could be fit into the increasing time gap as necessary. The problem is that his connection to Charles Xavier is also slipping into the future, because Charles's background is sliding forward.

Originally, as a Soldier in the Korean War, Charles was not so different in age from Magneto. That they could be colleagues made a lot of sense, especially as Charles was involved with psychological treatment of survivors of the holocaust. (One wonders how modern treatments of Charles's past handle Gabrielle Haller - indeed, the lack of any modern treatment on that part of his history is probably because any such treatment is impossible). As Magneto becomes increasingly Charles's elder, a connection of friendship and a true sense of collegiality becomes impossible. They can still be rivals, but the deep connection they developed as young men together cannot happen when Magneto has moved well past young by the time Xavier is even born.

Xavier is generally portrayed as ~40 years of age. If he served in Vietnam (which seems to be the most recent version), he should be more like 60. Of course, Magneto is more like 90. And this discrepancy is only going to increase as time goes on. Its not that Magneto cannot continue to be alive until well after he's 200 if need be - some excuse can always be arranged - its that a 200 year old Magneto relating to a 40 year old Xavier as a friend and equal is an impossibility of character. Even if it would normally beggar belief, Magneto would never condescend to call someone so much younger and inexperienced than him a colleague. The original Xavier really could make a pretense of understanding Magneto's pain, he was close enough in age to understand the horrors of the holocaust firsthand (from working with survivors) and to be treated with respect by Magneto. A much younger Xavier could never hope for Magneto's respect.

Conspiracy Theories, Fan Explanations, and Miscellany

As very little is said officially to explain Marvel time, most of our understanding is necessarily derived from the thoughts of fans.

Clearly there is no official set of rules for Marvel Time. Its a bit like trying to show the globe, a 3D object, as a 2D map. It doesn't matter which way you go about it you will always have distortion and therefore controversy. (There is no correct way but the equal area method works best).

Likewise, here below is a method for Marvel Time which also works best, taking into account all of the problems mentioned above.

Its best to fix the sliding time scale millennium at the real millennium. This way events of the Marvel 20th century still happen in the 20th century and events in the Marvel 21st century still happen this century. So events compress forward before the millennium and compress backwards after it.

Historical events are largely the same up to about 1985.

Now different writers have used different time scale ratios for the 'modern era', i.e. Fantastic Four Vol 1 issue 1 onward. Over the years some writers have used 3:1 and 4:1. At first it was 1:1. On Amazing Spider-man Vol 3 1 its says "Thirteen years ago, a young 15-year-old named Peter Parker was on a school field trip to a science lab" and "Spider-Man is now 28 years old". This means the modern era happens over a period of 14 years. This works out at a ratio 4:1 i.e. print years:real year. A flat rate of 4:1 does not work well in practice. Some years work better at 3:1 especially regarding the large number of Spider-man issues.

This rough/compromise timeline is what is being used for the X-Men Reading Order and Marvel Universe Reading Order articles.

So here is a rough solution for the majority of the modern era:

Fantastic Four Vol 1 issue 1 takes place during mid 1990.

Real time 1990-99 is historically equivalent to Marvel time 1960-1999
Real time 2000-2003 is historically equivalent to Marvel time 2000-2015

See Marvel Universe Reading Order Part 15 for full details.

Note: beginnings and ends of years are approximate not absolute. This is open to improvement.

This rough/compromise timeline is what is being used for the X-Men Reading Order and Marvel Universe Reading Order articles.

Therefore the modern era, (1990-2003), is a pseudo mix of 1960s to 2010s events due to the sliding timescale. Some anachronisms have to be included. The cold war ends in 1996.

This solves the problem for characters like Professor X, Magneto, Mr. Fantastic, etc. Captain America was in suspended animation. Nick Fury takes the Infinity formula to stay young. Magneto has his children in the 60s and 70s. Later he is de-aged to a man in his 30s. Professor X fought in Korea in the 1950s.[2] This is later retconned anyway.[3] Mr Fantastic and the Thing were both in the military in WW2.[4] Their appearance in WW2 could be a mistake or due to time travel.

The Korean war took place in the 1950s and the 1970s. The Vietnam war took place in the 1960s and the 1980s/1990s. The X-Men, Fantastic Four, etc are formed in the early 1990s. The comics coming out now take place in the early 2000s. Its all relative.

You can't take what the writers say so seriously as they are sometimes contradicting each other (e.g. retconning). This includes official statements and references to people's ages, birthdays, etc. Christmas, Thanksgiving, New years happen more than once a year whenever a writer fells like it.

Sometimes 'Marvel Time' is not always used by writers so there are contradictions. Sometimes events are referred back to in real time. Sometimes events in the past have been retconned/overwritten. Sometimes characters refer to events as a month ago when they only happened a week ago, etc. Some times the same historical events happens twice because different writers use different timescales so one must be a repeat performance of sorts . Note: on character profiles some dates are in real time and some are in Marvel Time with no disambiguation.

So there is no official absolute correct solution to contradict.

--Ryangut 16:37, February 14, 2011 (UTC)

References

  1. Amazing Spider-Man #28
  2. X-Men #12
  3. Excalibur Vol 3 #13-14
  4. Fantastic Four #20