Exploring the Boundaries of the OMU

It was in 1991 that the editors at Marvel Comics decided that the characters had evolved too far from their beginnings and that not only was there to be no more character development, but much of the previous character development was to be undone. Therefore, Wolverine, for example, who had just spent 15 years overcoming his savage animal instincts to become a man with a deep sense of honor, was summarily returned to square one—even being put back in his original yellow and blue costume (which he’d abandoned in 1980)—to  symbolize the undoing of all character development! Now that’s just cheeky. Spider-Man’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson was busted up, because kids apparently couldn’t relate to a Spidey who had a wife and was a grown-up. Eventually they even made him 16 years old again. Torturous storylines were introduced to explain away inconvenient events, such as one in The Fantastic Four where Alicia Masters Storm—the  Thing’s former girlfriend, now wife of the Human Torch—was revealed to be a shape-changing alien. The real Alicia knew nothing of this marriage, and hey, presto!—she and the Thing could continue the same tragic love affair that had long ago exhausted its story potential.

All this was a real slap in the face to the long-time readers. That’s when I stopped buying new monthly comics, and realized that Marvel continuity was in a tailspin. For every bit of character development that was undone, bizarre new storylines were introduced, taking beloved characters off on disturbing tangents. Soon, the various titles began being grouped into “families,” which highlighted connections to the two or three top-selling titles. If a comic wasn’t related to the X-Men or Spider-Man, it seemed doomed to cancellation. As the 1990s progressed, Marvel continuity began to fracture. Eventually, I decided to figure out when, exactly, the Original Marvel Universe had disappeared.

Clearly, 1991 was the starting point, when things really started going wrong. I began to sort out which I considered to be canonical and what were non-canonical stories, based more on the internal chronologies rather than arbitrary publishing dates. Most of the last canonical issues nevertheless came out in 1991, with a few storylines playing out into 1992. The last story set in the Original Marvel Universe is Excalibur #67 (July 1993), published more than a year after all the others had “ended,” and that’s because the writer/artist, Alan Davis, was a rather backward-looking fellow by temperament, and his last storyline wrapped up some dangling threads from the X-Men books. Plus his drawings were just beautiful, so I gave him a special dispensation.

So now that I had a finite number of canonical Marvel comic books, I began to look at this body of work in a different way. I realized that the Original Marvel Universe had stopped evolving, and so it could finally be analyzed with a fair amount of accuracy. I didn’t have to worry about any new revisions, retcons, revelations, or flashbacks changing what had already been established. With the help of various chronology-related websites, as well as the revolutionary concept of the Mile High Comics Internet Store, I began filling in gaps in my collection, buying Marvel’s line of “Essential” reprints, and piecing together the detailed backstories of my favorite characters.

Thankfully, much of the groundwork had been done for me. The pioneer in this field is George Olshevsky, who put together a number of “indexes” published by Marvel in the 1980s in which he tracked the early Marvel Universe’s internal chronology by using Spider-Man’s academic career as a guide. Around the same time, Peter Sanderson laid out the basic sequence of events in The Marvel Saga, a retrospective series published to celebrate the Marvel Universe’s 25th anniversary. Using the work of these scholars of Marvel continuity, it is possible to build a timeline and to keep track of the passage of time during and between the stories. Chronology buff Paul Bourcier later expanded on Olshevsky’s initial timeline, extending it to cover ten years in the lives of the Avengers. However, the nuts-and-bolts aspect of the timeline interested me less than what was revealed when it was analyzed. Untold stories began to emerge, fascinating plots that were never used, because nobody realized that they must have happened. Behind-the-scenes events that were overlooked because all the pieces weren’t there until much later, and nobody has bothered to put it all together.

First, however, I need to clarify the biggest issue in any such chronological analysis of the Original Marvel Universe: when you start the clock. Time passes at different rates for the characters and the reader. Twelve monthly issues may cover only a few days or weeks in the lives of the characters depicted therein. And so, the thirty-odd years of published stories I’m looking at contain only about half as much time in the lives of the characters. This has been dubbed the Marvel “sliding time scale,” meaning that, as time passes in the real world, the early stories become detached from their historical context and are dragged forward in time. This is because the comics publishers, and most fans, start the clock in the present day and work backwards. (The Fantastic Four formed 12 years ago, they’d say, and would then change the details in the original story to update it to the proper era.) I, on the other hand, would rather anchor the stories at the other end—in 1961—and let it run at its own pace and see what happens when fictional continuity and historical fact collide. So instead we change the details of the later stories to set them in an earlier time. My approach to this was inspired by the cliché of people who were around in November 1963 remembering exactly what they were doing when President Kennedy was shot. I asked myself, how would the various Marvel super-heroes answer that question?

I realized that it was not enough to look at the November 1963 issues of various comics, because of the nature of the internal chronology. Stories that would fall into the November 1963 slot on my timeline were in fact published years later, some several months apart. The anchor point of my version of the timeline is November 1961—the cover date of the first issue of Fantastic Four—which serves as the date of the team’s first adventure. Their origin is told in an extended flashback, which I set in August 1961—the date the first issue actually hit the newsstands. Thus, proceeding from this point, stories published in 1963—the introduction of the Avengers and the X-Men, for example—are pulled back into a 1962 setting. As a result of compressing the sliding time scale, stories published in the early 1970s fall into my timeline in the mid-sixties, and stories published in the mid 1980s end up being set in the mid 1970s. The last canonical stories from 1990-1992 are set around 1975-1976. So it seems that the Original Marvel Universe spans a fictional time period of less than twenty years.

The implications of this are important, however. Spider-Man was established as being a junior in high school when he was bitten by the radioactive spider. If he was sixteen years old at that time, then at the other end of the timeline, he’d be around 30 years old. Other characters would be approaching senior citizen status. Obviously, these are tales Marvel would rather not tell. They have a vested interest in keeping the stories going indefinitely, and so there comes a point where the continuity has to break down. The end of the Original Marvel Universe was, it turns out, inevitable. And in fact, it happened at pretty much the right time.

So, setting the early Marvel stories in the first half of the 1960s, I began to see some weird convergences. A story in which the X-Men fight an epic battle in Washington D.C. just happened to fall on the timeline in August 1963—when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Perhaps, after their battle, the X-Men attended this famous rally. Why not? In Fantastic Four #9, the team goes into bankruptcy when a sharp dip in the stock market wipes out their finances. This story fell on the timeline in May/June 1962—coinciding with a real-world stock market crisis. Several election-themed stories worked their way into November 1964, which presented numerous intriguing revelations. There was enough such serendipity to keep my interest up. Plugging established Marvel continuity into a real-world historical context proved to be a fascinating exercise, one that added a completely new dimension to the history of the Marvel Universe—particularly at points of significant divergence. I’ll detail some of my findings in subsequent postings.

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