By Chris Buchner
With the slew of trade paperbacks being released reprinting books as far back as the Golden Age, one might notice that those early stories are clearly dated in their references and appearances. Yet, if you pick up a current issue of one of those particular characters, you’ll find that things look remarkably…modern. And yet the characters, they remain unchanged. This is because of a nifty little editorial trick to keep characters around forever known as the floating timeline.
The floating timeline is a type of retcon, or retroactive continuity. It’s a method by which time moves normally for characters, but the events and scenery follow us, the reader, through the natural course of time without any effect on the stories or characters, or even acknowledged within the context of the stories. Writers, as progressive and futuristic as they try to be, are slaves to their own times. They only know what goes on in their world, and that’s what they write about. The floating timeline allows these characters to maintain their age while continuing to exist in the present.
There are many ways to make use of the floating timeline within the context of the stories. For instance, say you have an ordinary character created in the 1960s whose bio includes serving during WWII. 40 years later, this character has barely aged which makes that fact impossible. So, the war will be vaguely referenced to allow the reader to fill in their own blank on what war it could have been, or the war will be updated by the writer to the next one up, say the Gulf War, each time it’s mentioned as years go by. Things like contemporary references to pop culture or politics, or ways of speaking, are subtly updated with the times, or updated and changed when classic scenes are revisited in future installments, like a flashback, or given modern retellings. For instance, when 88MPH Studios re-launched the Ghostbusters franchise, they set the events of the comic 6 months after the first movie. While the movie was set clearly in the 1980s, they chose to bring the movie’s date up to late 2003, having the events of the story in early 2004.
Whenever a headstone is shown on panel, for the most part, only the names and inscriptions are clearly visible. The dates are either obscured by some object or only vaguely drawn in to where it looks like a date, yet it doesn’t. Or maybe it’s just plain left off entirely. Sometimes, though, one of the dates is shown and there are the rare cases when both are clearly present, but either never referenced specifically or seen again and rather spoken vaguely in terms of time that has passed within the comic.
DC has taken a more creative route. While the comics still use a floating timeline, the stuff out of the Golden Age was acknowledged as having happened AS IS, but was said to have been not the main DC Universe but an alternate reality with alternate versions of the heroes, the Golden Age versions. Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman all fought in World War II and so forth, and as a result all appearances by these classic heroes in modern DC books depict them as being appropriately aged.
A floating timeline is a way to keep characters eternally young so publishers can do infinite amounts of stories with them. While not exclusive to comics (James Bond, anyone?), it is used the most there as backgrounds and references are constantly shifting to remain contemporary while the characters remain the same. Although characters do eventually age, the slow rate at which they do means that our favorite characters will be around well into our twilight years and beyond, continuing to exist in a world that could possibly be ours.