Robot 6

Gorillas Riding Dinosaurs | Atomic Robo vs. the X-Men in… “The Time Topic”

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I have a confession. I don’t usually like time-travel comics. Or time-travel stories in any medium really.

You’d think I would. I love awesome things and what’s more awesome than going back to dinosaur times or trying to assassinate baby Hitler? But I tend not to like messy stories and time travel is so freaking messy.

Take the X-Men for instance. How many alternate futures do those guys have? Someone’s always coming back from the future to change something in our present. They say that they’re doing it to make the future a better place, but it never really works out that way, does it? In X-Men comics, when you change something in the past, it doesn’t do a damn thing to your version of the future. It just creates a divergent timeline so that, yes, a better future does exist somewhere, but it’s still possible to visit the nasty, Sentinel–filled future that you came from. The result is infinite possible futures with infinite possible versions of yourself and your friends. That makes for some okay Events for a while until there are so many futures to keep track of that it becomes more migrainoid than amusing. That’s what I mean by messy.

There’s another way of doing it though. Time-travel will always be complex. Should always be complex. That’s part of its fun. But it doesn’t have to barf a zillion different futures all over you in the process.

An atomic example, after the break.

Atomic Robo and the Shadow from Beyond Time

Atomic Robo and the Shadow from Beyond Time

I just finished Atomic Robo and the Shadow from Beyond Time. And while my point isn’t that Atomic Robo is fundamentally better than the X-Men (although, come on, it totally is), Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener do handle time-travel a lot more… well, I almost said “responsibly,” but that’s a strange word for a comic that features Nazi robots, diaper-wearing mummies, and giant ants. Then again, Atomic Robo (the series, not the character, though yeah, the character too) has a huge heart and yes, “responsibly” presents the robot’s WWII exploits in particular so that the real soldiers of that war are glorified and never undermined. For all its light-hearted joy, Atomic Robo is serious about its storytelling.

So, how does that apply to time-travel? I’m not trying to create any rules for Clevinger and Wegener. They haven’t stated that This Is the Way Time Travel Works in the Robo universe, so there’s lots of room for them to get all X-Meny in the future if they want to. I hope they don’t, but they’ve certainly left room for themselves to do whatever they want. In fact, you could even argue that The Shadow from Beyond Time isn’t truly a time-travel story at all. It’s about a Lovecraftian monster/god that exists outside of time, but intersects with our timeline in various places all at once so that he meets Atomic Robo in four different periods of his life: the ‘20s, the ‘50s, the ‘70s, and today.

But even though Robo’s not hopping between time periods, he does learn how to leave linear time and fight the creature in its own domain. And all four versions of himself team up to do it. Like I said: complicated. But you can get your mind around it and it stays internally consistent. Each time Robo meets himself, time doesn’t separate into two lines: one in which Robo met his future self and one in which he didn’t. I don’t want to say much more and give too much away, but Robo’s always met himself. He doesn’t alter time by moving around in it. Though the story structure is wickedly intricate – and so, fun – time itself isn’t. It’s constant and unchanging.

The Legion of Super-Heroes

The Legion of Super-Heroes

I like this better because I don’t feel cheated or played with. When I read an X-Men comic (or any comic that treats time that way), I always feel like I’ve been had a little. “Yes, our entire story has been about trying to prevent this horrible future. We sort of prevented it, but not really because we might like to come back and use it again someday.” In contrast, Atomic Robo presents a cohesive story with a definite conclusion that – when reached – you can see the creators working towards the entire time. It’s more difficult, more intricate storytelling, but that’s exactly what makes it more worthwhile reading.

On the other hand…

It is kind of fun isn’t to have all of these possible futures to play around in. As impossible as it is to keep them all straight, every X-Men fan has a favorite future timeline that we like to see revisited on occasion. Right?

So I put it to you: which type of time-travel story do you prefer? Tightly woven or willy-nilly? And though I’ve used two examples to illustrate both sides, there are of course thousands of other time travel stories in comics that we could talk about. Legion of Super Heroes is full of them, for instance. What are best time travel stories you’ve read and why did you like them?

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Comments

25 Comments

The time-travel story that immediately leaps to the forefront of my mind when you ask for my favorite is Dean Koontz’s “Lightning”, mostly for its heart, but it does apply a strict internal physics of time travel as well.

I’ve always preferred the “one timeline” time travel story, sometimes called fatalistic time travel. The classic movie example is the original Terminator: Reese and the robot don’t change their past, they were always part of it. Robert Heinlein wrote some great short stories and at least one novel using those rules.
You hardly ever see that kind of time travel in comics or tv series precisely because they take careful planning and by their nature tend to be “closed”, with a beginning, middle and end.
I have to take this opportunity to give props to Roger Stern for the time he sent Dr. Strange back to ancient Egypt and interlaced his story seamlessly with an old Fantastic Four tale involving Rama Tut. Pure awesome.

Return of Bruce Wayne seems to have one time line (Bruce’s impact on time have supposedly always been there).
And yet, JMS’s new Wonder Woman time-altering story seems to have created a separate universe.

If you looking for a brain melting complex time travel story, try watch the Doctor Who finale, decent episodes with “one timeline”, but it makes zero sense as are as the time travel stuff is considered.

I don’t think you can beat Twelve Monkeys for its fatalist view of time travel, but in comics? I remember a pretty neat issue of Impulse involving the Legion and a time treadmill. Weird things start happening in the comic from the beginning, (like Impulse popping up with a crazy warning for the legion while they think he’s just off doing recon), and as the story moves along, it all becomes explained.

I think I had to read it twice for it to make sense, though, but that could just be me.

I agree that time travel stories never make complete sense.This is because the concept IS absurd to begin with- effectively a time traveler is able to exist where he never existed (or, in the case of traveling to his own personal past or future, existing in two places at once.)

That said, time travel CAN be lots of fun if written well, just like any other story element. There is a sense of satisfaction if you read a story where there seems to be random events happening but, after you have all the facts, can be pieced together to reveal a larger picture. But that takes some pretty good writing; not everyone can pull it off.

It doesn’t help things when some writers treat time travel as if it were space travel “Oh my God, we must return to the present right now!” Err, if you have a time machine why can’t you set it so that you return *exactly* at the moment you want? You literally have ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD!

Personally, I hate the “one unchanging timeline” approach because it effectively says that there is no free will- everything that will happen to us is already written and if you don’t like it, too bad. On the other hand the “if you changed the past, how did you get to change it in the first place?” question always bugs me too. Ultimately, a real-life approach (You can’t change the past, but you can change the future) might be best. Of course this requires the present to be a *specific* moment in time, slowly moving up the timestream and “sealing” it as it goes, meaning travelers from the future had better keep track of the present for their plans.

Personally, I hate the “one unchanging timeline” approach because it effectively says that there is no free will- everything that will happen to us is already written and if you don’t like it, too bad.

“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.” – Carl Sagan

Just tossin’ that out there!

Steven R. Stahl

July 15, 2010 at 9:34 am

Time travel can be handled logically, even though one has to make allowances for potential futures to exist in any physical sense, because the future hasn’t happened yet. Whenever someone time travels from the “future” to the present (now), the mechanics are the same as going from now into the past. The trip creates a new timeline, beginning at the moment he reenters the space-time continuum. Of course, that’s not the system that the X-titles use; the stories insist that there’s one “prime” timeline that all the time travelers from the future come to, but that system will cause problems regardless. If there are an infinite or just large number of potential futures and just one present, what happens when “n” time travelers from the future come back to the same point in time to influence events? The system falls apart. Time traveling from the future to now only works in a one-time, close-ended story.

Peter David is one writer who has posited that alternate futures can be eliminated by actions in the present (e.g., CAPTAIN MARVEL), but such stories are just variations on the grandfather paradox. If he never existed, how could he come back to now, etc.

SRS

revelshade: You read my mind with the original Terminator comparison. I used to think of closed-loop time-travel stories as “Terminator-style” (as opposed to the open-looped, alternate-timeline “Back to the Future-style”), but had to discard that as the Terminator series progressed.

I like both, but I prefer the tight-cohesive time travel over X-Men style. Though I do have an idea for that kinda starts out the previous and devolves into the latter and basically because purposely obtuse and ridiculous.

iamhewhoisiam

July 17, 2010 at 8:34 am

I’d like to see a timetravel story in which no matter what the character did in the past – even killing Hitler – it would have NO EFFECT ON THE ‘PRESENT’ WHATSOEVER. Someone else would just fill in, God/the universe/The Dude/Father Time (whoever that barman was supposed to be at the end of Quantum Leap)- WHATEVER you want, would just replace the missing person so that time and destiny and fate would happen as it was supposed to. The actual people are not important, just the events themselves.

I like the Basil Exposition way of dealing with time travel.

Or, for a good “let’s go back in time and kill Hitler” story, read ‘Midnighter: Killing Machine’, by Garth Ennis.

I don’t understand why you say it is too complex to keep track of all the future timelines.
Mostly because, why do you feel you MUST keep track of them all? That’s just silly, especially when reading these books for entertainment. Remember the ones you enjoy, and forget the ones you don’t. It really should be that simple.

Like the Hulk. I LOVED Future Imperfect, and how things were actually starting to move in that direction (or, at least, there was a conscious effort to prevent it). But during the Onslaught stupidness, something was going on with another Hulk coming back from a future to warn our present Hulk about something, I still don’t get what was going on. I just mentally disregarded it in the long run, it really doesn’t matter to the stories I’m reading now. There’s nothing for us to “keep track of”. There’s an infinite number of alternate timelines out there, we’re not meant to know every single one. That’s just like saying there are too many comicbooks published every month from every single company, how is one supposed to keep track of them all?

Well, you don’t. Simple as that.

I think my favorite time travel story was the episode of Gargoyles, Future Tense. It had some of the standard things you would expect in a comic/cartoon future: darkness, overrun by evil, etc. But one of the things that made this future so interesting is that the good guys were bitter, messed up, or dead. The reason why? Goliath left them. So the future made you ask more questions about the past (Will Goliath ever get back to present day New York? Or is this horrible future an indication that he will never return? Is he somehow responsible for all this evil in the future?).

And the twist at the end of the episode was nothing short of brilliant. While the episode made you think it was flirting with some of the willy nilly possible future story techniques described above, the final result was a very tightly woven story. And the final question asked in the story left enough mystery to make the episode significant to the larger narrative of the show.

This is what I think of when I think good time travel stories. When I think of messy time travel stories I think of the Terminator franchise (I love it, but it’s ridiculously messy and nonsensical).

For me the best story from time travel is Back to the futur. Because we have 2 time lines; One it’s the time of the worlds and the other one is the time of the characters traveling in time. For me it’s the best explanation for paradox. You exist one time period you existed.

After, I like the theory of the movie time machine 2000, or you can’t change the past but only the futur because he still working.

And from the comics, the best story, with little time problem, is H.E.R.O. and the story arc of teen titans and their futur-self. Who was very good.

I think my favorite time travel story was the episode of Gargoyles, Future Tense. It had some of the standard things you would expect in a comic/cartoon future: darkness, overrun by evil, etc. But one of the things that made this future so interesting is that the good guys were bitter, messed up, or dead. The reason why? Goliath left them. So the future made you ask more questions about the past (Will Goliath ever get back to present day New York? Or is this horrible future an indication that he will never return? Is he somehow responsible for all this evil in the future?).

That episode was really good, there’s also an episode where Goliath goes back in time and no matter what he does he just can’t bring back a British Gargoyle to that point in time, so he takes him to his future.
Also the Timewalker series from Valiant was also really good, in the first issue Ivar meets a Roman soldier who met him in the past, but Ivar don’t remember him because it happened in his future.

@ Derek
You remember the origin of the Archmage, now that was some crazy time-traveling shit!

@rasx
YES! Simply amazing. Greg Weisman is a great storyteller.

One of my favorites is the staircase in Alan Moore’s Supreme, where he looks up to see an older version of himself waving, then later in the series he is the older one waving to his past self.

clevenger makes one of the greatest points about time travel in the 2009 atomic robo FCBD book, that i’m amazed i’ve never seen mentioned before and certainly never occurred to me.

many time travel stories make a point to acknowledge that the person is traveling through time and NOT space. a great example of this is back to the future. marty leaves from clock tower in 1955 and arrives at the clock tower in 1985. time, not space.

but what this idea forgets (or more accurately ignores) is that the earth itself is moving all the time. it both rotates and revolves around the sun. so if you truely traveled ONLY through time, leaving from one point in the universe and arrive in that exact same point in the universe, you end up floating is space most likely.

it’s such an obvious point that has as far as i know been completely overlooked before. and i think you can’t have any article about atomic robo’s take on time travel without bringing this up.

@ rasx & Derek,

Guys you are right, Future Tense, is GREAT.

Gargoyles is a wonderful concept.

I really don’t why Disney don’t make a live action movie with this fantastic characters.

One of my all-time favorite time travel tales is the Ray Bradbury short story “A Sound of Thunder.” It totally blew my mind the first time I read it.

I’m a longtime fan of Doctor Who. Usually the show deals with time travel very casually. It’s a simple plot device to get the TARDIS to land in some time period or another so the Doctor and his companions can arrive and have a new adventure. But once in a while the series has done a story that examines that time travel can be a very complicated, dangerous affair. “The Space Museum,” “Day of the Daleks,” “Pyramids of Mars,” “Mawdryn Undead” and “Father’s Day” all have that aspect to them. “Day of the Daleks” especially had the same sort of jaw-dropping impact on me as “A Sound of Thunder.”

I think that in real life, time travel is probably an impossibility. So, as a fictional concept, it’s up to the individual author to decide how to approach the concept, just as long as they do so in some sort of consistent manner.

i think my fav time travel tales… well, there’s a lot, but my FAV favs would have to be Bishop’s stuff from the X-Men (the original Bishop stuff, that is) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, which is not as obvious as the first B&T movie but a time travel tale nonetheless (and does some pretty awesome things with it). BTW, the Bill & Ted comics are great too.

The tightly-written ones can be pretty fun, which is of the reasons I liked “Futurama: Bender’s Big Score” so much. Although one of the things that made “Days of Future Past” so memorable was when it revealed that Kat Pryde’s mission to the past essentially failed. I know John Byrne wanted a “clean win” for the X-Men, but that twist from CHris Claremont was a great punch to the gut that made the future X-Men’s fates that much more poignant.

I liked a lot of the stories you guys mentioned. Another fun one is a John Byrne FF story where the Thing goes back in time and meets his past self, hoping to use an antidote Reed created that could turn past Ben (but not present Ben) back to normal.

the complexities of time travel and the annomalies which it may create is one of the truly entertaining aspect of the time traveling genre.

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