From the Archives: Deck Log Entry # 51 Timely Questions---Part One

Time-travel stories have always been a tempting device for comics writers.  They broaden the vistas and allow fresh backdrops for adventures.  The lure of putting the hero in a historical incident is intriguing and it provides the opportunities for the hero to meet famous figures of previous generations.  On a smaller scale, it lets the writers indulge in twisty little tales of the hero revisiting his origin or even meeting himself at an earlier or later time.

 

Superman has always been a natural for this.  Time-travel has been part of his bag of tricks since the Golden Age.  Originally, the Man of Steel was shown capable of piercing the time barrier by flying at super-speed and “following [the path of] a weird mathematical design” (Superman # 48 [Sep.-Oct., 1947]).  It wasn’t too much later, though, that they stopped being cute about it and just stated that Superman was capable of flying faster than the speed of light and that was how he could travel through time (Action Comics # 132 [May, 1949], et al.).

 

Not to be outdone, his good buddy, the Batman, also had his share of adventures in other times, thanks to Bruce Wayne’s friend, Professor Carter Nichols, and his peculiar discovery of “time hypnosis”.  This was a Golden-Age innovation for him too, beginning in Batman # 24 (Aug.-Sep., 1944), one that lasted through at least part of the Silver Age.

 

By the time the Silver Age was in full swing, most of its heroes were time-travelling regularly.  The Flash had his cosmic treadmill.  The Atom would dive into the Time  Pool.  The Green Lantern was periodically yanked into the 58th century to serve as the Solar Director of Star City.  “Rip Hunter . . . Time Master” centred on the era-jumping adventures of a scientist and his team.

 

Time jumping wasn’t just for the headliners, either.  Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane were going back and forth through time in every other issue of their titles.  In the DC universe, it seemed, taking a time trip was no more difficult than strolling down to the corner drug store for some tutti-frutti ice cream.

 

The grandmasters of time travel, though, had to be the Legion of Super-Heroes.  Not only did the Legionnaires live a thousand years in the future and know everything that was going to happen in the millennium between their time and ours, but they routinely zipped back and forth through the centuries.

 

Clearly, there was a market for time-travel tales.  They proved to be popular with the fans.  But there was a price to pay for the conceit.  Once it became established in the DC universe that time-travel was not a one-shot thing, but routinely possible, either by Legion time bubble, Green Lantern’s power ring, or Superman’s super-speed, readers began to pepper the editors with questions, mostly of the “why doesn’t?” sort.

 

“Why doesn’t Superman go back and prevent the Titanic from sinking?”

  

“Why doesn’t Batman go back and prevent his parents from being murdered?”

 

“Why doesn’t Jimmy Olsen use Professor Potter’s time machine to go back and prevent Krypton from exploding?” (Yeah, as if.)

 

Superman editor Mort Weisinger, who relied most heavily on time-travel-oriented stories, attempted to address these kind of questions by stipulating that certain physical laws applied to time travel.  The most important of these was that History Cannot Be Changed.  Ever.  This was established in a Superboy adventure, “The Impossible Mission”, from Superboy # 85 (Dec., 1960).  In this story, the Boy of Steel travels into the past to prevent the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (a frequent “why doesn’t?” question sent in by readers).  Superboy’s effort is thwarted when he inadvertently encounters an adult Lex Luthor, who immobilises Our Hero with a chunk of red kryptonite.

 

Here, Mort deftly welded this potential can of worms shut.  By insisting that history was immutable, he didn’t have to explain why Superman didn’t prevent every historical disaster or go back and undo any personal tragedies, like the deaths of Ma and Pa Kent.  As a bonus, he got a lot of mileage out of producing stories that showed his heroes trying to change history, anyway.  Naturally, they always ended in failure.

 

Another time-travel law of the DC universe was already in place, sort of, at the time Weisinger became editor of the Superman titles.  The Golden-Age tale “Superman Returns to Krypton”, from Superman # 61 (Nov.-Dec., 1949) is most noted for two things:  the comic-book introduction of kryptonite and the story in which the original Man of Steel (later considered the Earth-Two version) learned the secret of his origin while following the path of a kryptonite meteor back through space and time.

 

Landing on Krypton before it exploded, Superman discovers that it is the planet of his birth.  It is here that another long-lasting element is introduced when the Man of Steel discovers that he has turned invisible and intangible.  He attributes it to the fact that he already exists in this time as a baby.

 

Obviously, Weisinger liked this idea.  Otto Binder iterated it in “The Town That Hated Superman”, from Superman # 130 (Jul., 1959).  When the Action Ace transports Bruce Cyrus into the past, to the Smallville Orphanage at a time when they both lived there as toddlers, both men are turned to phantoms.  Superman explains that the phantom effect results because physical law prevents them from existing in two places at the same time.  Though not as frequently mentioned as the history-cannot-be-changed edict, it popped up enough times to become codified.

 

 

 

Before “The Impossible Mission”, DC had played fast and loose with the concept of altering history.  The stories didn’t tinker with major historical events, but it toyed with the notion that personal histories could be changed.  In “The Three Super-Sleepers”, from World’s Finest Comics # 91 (Dec., 1957), a gangster lures Superman and Batman and Robin into a trap which places them in suspended animation for a thousand years.  When they emerge from their sleep, they are forced to battle the space-criminal Rohtul to recover his plunder of scientific inventions, including a time-ray.  The triumphant heroes are returned to their own era by the ray one minute before they stumbled into the trap, thus changing the original events.

 

Another version of the grandfather paradox appeared in one of Weisinger’s own titles.  Adventure Comics # 253 (Oct., 1958) featured the story “Superboy Meets Robin, the Boy Wonder”, in which Superman is mortally injured by a kryptonite bomb hidden in one of the trophies he received as a boy.  Robin travels back to Superboy’s time in order to dispose of the booby-trapped award before it explodes in the present.

 

Having the two boy heroes meet made for a fun adventure, but there was an argument to be made that Robin had, indeed, thwarted established past events by preventing the kryptonite bomb from killing Superman.  One would have to split a hair or two to insist that wasn’t changing history.  Only two issues later, in the Smallville Mailsack of Adventure Comics # 255 (Dec., 1958), Mort would insist that history could not be altered.  That would be the official stance of the Superman mythos from then on, and “The Impossible Mission” set it in stone.

 

While the notion that history was immutable became accepted across the entire DC universe, the “phantom-effect” rule was never seen outside Mort’s titles.  Other editors’ writers felt free to have time-travelling characters meet themselves or at least maintain their solid forms.  Gardner Fox was probably the worst offender.  In “The Justice Leaguers’ Impossible Adventure”, from JLA # 59 (Dec., 1967), he sends Wonder Woman a few hours into the past in order to prevent an alien machine from robbing her super-powers.  The Amazing Amazon isn’t changing history, though.  Her future self was destined to do this all along---as slyly shown several pages earlier, when she’s exposed to the device.

 

In Wonder Woman’s case, time-travel put her physically in two places at the same time.  Fox went another route in “Time Signs a Death-Warrant for the Justice League”, from issue # 63 (Jun., 1968).  When former JLA foe the Key instils the super-heroes with the irresistible mental command to kill each other in one hour, Superman trips up the villain’s scheme by super-speeding three years into the past.  This time, Fox insists, such an action forces the Superman of 1965, who is not under the Key’s domination, to instantly shift to the present, changing places with his 1968 self.

 

 

  

Such things were probably part of the reason Weisinger resisted the idea of Superman appearing in another editor’s title.  (Time-travel wasn’t the only detail Gardner Fox got wrong about the Man of Steel.)  Within the Superman continuity, though, Mort had set down two rules of time-travel, and we, the youthful readers, accepted them.  It kept us from pondering time-travel paradoxes that made our heads hurt.

But young fans have fertile minds, and once several methods of time-travel were established across the DC universe, it presented the possibility for certain scenarios---situations not covered by Mort’s two rules---that would twist the heroes’ adventures into knots.

  

The Legion alone, with time-travel being such a readily used device in its stories, laid a minefield of plot-holes.

  

With the 1930’s Superboy participating in 30th-century adventures, the stage was set for all kinds of time paradoxes, especially after the 1960’s Supergirl also joined the super-hero club.  Weisinger cleverly handled the obvious question as to how Superman could be surprised by Supergirl’s arrival on Earth when, as a boy, they were in the Legion together.  Mort explained that Supergirl placed a post-hypnotic command in Superboy’s brain, one that caused him to forget her existence and any other knowledge of his future life that he learnt on Legion missions, whenever he returned to his own time.

  

Nevertheless, while in the 30th century, the Boy of Steel was aware that he would grow to adulthood and have a career as Superman, including a knowledge of such details as his friendship with the Batman.  He learnt this in Adventure Comics # 341 (Feb., 1966).  He also knew, after “The Impossible Mission”, that history could not be changed.  Therefore, it had to have occurred to him that he could not be killed on any Legion mission (otherwise, he would not grow up to be Superman, which would change history, which could not happen).  Yet, there were times when he felt his life was as much in the balance as his fellow Legionnaires. 

  

This curious blindness also affected the other members of the Legion.  To their perspective, Superman’s life and career was history.  Yet, in Adventure Comics # 353 (Feb., 1967), as Superboy prepares to fly the absorbatron bomb into the heart of the Sun-Eater, Ferro Lad slugs him and does the job himself.  From their words and actions, both Superboy and Ferro Lad believed that the Boy of Steel would perish in the attempt.  But Superboy couldn’t have been killed, and if he had done the job, both he and Ferro Lad would have survived.

 

Now, someone might say, “That’s all well and good, commander---sure, Superboy would have lived, but weakened by red-sun energy like he was, the Sun-Eater would have been able to keep him from delivering the bomb to the monster’s core, and the Sun-Eater would have gone on to destroy our sun and our solar system.  That’s why Ferro Lad felt he had to do the job.”

  

Except that the Boy of Steel was already well aware that Earth, our sun, and the other planets would live well on for at least two more millennia.  In an earlier story, from Adventure Comics # 279 (Dec., 1960), Superboy visits 50th-century Earth, where life continues to flourish, as does our sun.  Follow me here:  (1) the Boy of Steel knows that he will grow up to be Superman; (2) he knows that the Earth will thrive at least into the 50th century; and (3) he knows history cannot be changed.  So the threat of the Sun-Eater wasn’t nearly as extreme as that famous two-parter presented it.  Certainly, the Sun-Eater had to be stopped, in order to save other worlds.  But neither Superboy, nor our solar system, was in any danger.

 

For that matter, the outcome of any Legion mission should never be in doubt.  Superboy, Mon-El, or Supergirl, under their own powers, or another Legionnaire in a time bubble, could just zip ahead in time a couple of hours or days and see how it turns out.

 

The death of Ferro Lad raises another issue for the time-travel capable Legion.  Ferro Lad is dead.  Boo hoo.  Granted, there’s no way to prevent that.  But Ferro Lad isn’t gone for good.  Let’s say Ferro Lad died on a Tuesday.  On Wednesday, some Legionnaires jump into a time bubble, take it back to Monday, snatch up Ferro Lad, and bring him back to Wednesday.  Yes, from Wednesday’s perspective, history says Ferro Lad died the day before.  And sooner or later, Ferro Lad will have to go back to Monday, since history can’t be changed.  But until something makes that happen, Ferro Lad can go on missions and pal around with his Legion buddies.  Actually, he’s better off, since he cannot be killed by anything except as history dictates---on that Tuesday.

 

See how complicated things get when time-travel is possible?  It’s difficult to merely describe a potential scenario in twenty-five words or less.  And in fact, Mort’s insistence that history cannot be changed created more problems than it fixed.  If history could be changed, than nothing could be taken for granted:  Superboy growing up to be Superman, that the Earth would survive until the 50th century, none of it.  Without Mort’s rule, history wouldn’t guarantee an outcome.  Mort’s rule ensured an outcome, but also provided a half-dozen ways for a time-traveller to cheat it.

 

One of the things which really used to puzzle my juvenile brain was when I read a Legion story in which Superboy or Supergirl mentioned to their fellow Legionnaires that they had to return to the 20th century in “two days” (or whatever) to meet some obligation.in their own era.  Even then, that had me scratching my head.  They travel through time, remember?  They could stay and help out the Legion as long as they liked, then fly back through the time-barrier, arriving in plenty of time to meet that “two day” deadline.

 

It’s not only those thousand-year time-trips that raise tangled questions.  When you think about it, there shouldn’t be an unsolved murder in Metropolis.  In each case, all Superman would have to do is zip back in time just far enough to be able to observe who did the victim in---he’d be a phantom and couldn’t do anything to stop it---and then return to the present and inform the authorities of what he had learnt.  It would still be up to the police to collect evidence against the killer, but they would know that they had the right guy.

 

The same thing for missing persons.  Now, in the vast majority of missing-persons cases, the “victim” is acting on his own accord, so Superman probably wouldn’t bother with those.  But what about the notable cases? The disappearances of Judge Crater and Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa, or rather, their Earth-One versions, should not be mysteries in the DC universe.

 

 

If any fan had ever written to DC raising these points, it’s a sure bet that they were ignored.  If the time-travel capabilities of DC’s heroes had been used to their full potential, it would have created a tangle of timelines, impossible for anyone to keep straight.  That would have been the true answer to these “why doesn’t . . . ?” questions, but Weisinger or Schwartz or Schiff couldn’t very well tell their young fans that.

 

Over at Marvel Comics, editor Stan Lee didn’t go to the time-travel well nearly as often as his DC counterparts did.  Thus, the handling of potential time paradoxes was looser.  But that didn’t keep Marvel from generating its share of pesky time-travel-related quandaries, as I will talk about next time.

 

 

 

 

 

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" They could stay and help out the Legion as long as they liked, then fly back through the time-barrier, arriving in plenty of time to meet that “two day” deadline."

I put that one down to psychology. If Superboy spent six months in the future, then came back to Smallville and it had just been two days ... probably simpler mentally to stick to a one-to-one ratio as much as possible.

The paradox that most frustrated me was from JLA 31, Riddle of the Runaway Room. When Hawkman causes the bad guys car to crash by what he does to it ten minutes in the future ... at six years old, I couldn't figure out how that worked.

Time travel stories are guaranteed to make your head hurt if you think about them too much. Best just to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Fraser Sherman said:

" The paradox that most frustrated me was from JLA 31, Riddle of the Runaway Room. When Hawkman causes the bad guys car to crash by what he does to it ten minutes in the future ... at six years old, I couldn't figure out how that worked.

Me, neither.  (Chuckle!)

There was a period during his JLA writing---1963-4, or so---when some of Gardner Fox's plotting sequences got so convoluted that he tripped over himself trying to explicate them in the script.  Another instance occurred in his description of how Batman defeated Owlman in the final chapter of the 1964 JLA/JSA team-up.  It's described in the Gotham Gangbuster's thoughts after he turns his back on Owlman:

The left side of my brain at which [Owlman] was beaming his thought controls---governs my right-side movements!  But by turning my back on him, I'll receive his orders with the right side of my brain, which controls my left side! 

O.K., Batman is referring to the contra-lateral function of the human brain.  That part I get.  But the next panel shows him whirling around and belting Owlman with his left fist, while thinking:

By commanding me to turn around, it leaves my left hand free to catch him off guard!

But I thought the reason that Batman turned around was to receive Owlman's mind-control commands in the right side of his brain, which controls his left side, so how could his left hand be free?

I've read those thought bubbles a dozen times over the last fifty-five years and I still can't make sense of it, and I've had the same problem with Hawkman's explanation of how he caused the crooks' car to crash.

I don't see them as the same. Owlman/Batman sounds like Fox got confused and misspoke, or Sekowsky drew the wrong fist. Hawkman was ... complicated, at least to a six year old. Even now that I understand it, it's sufficiently weird to make my mind boggle.

Commander Benson said:

Fraser Sherman said:

" The paradox that most frustrated me was from JLA 31, Riddle of the Runaway Room. When Hawkman causes the bad guys car to crash by what he does to it ten minutes in the future ... at six years old, I couldn't figure out how that worked.

Me, neither.  (Chuckle!)

There was a period during his JLA writing---1963-4, or so---when some of Gardner Fox's plotting sequences got so convoluted that he tripped over himself trying to explicate them in the script.  Another instance occurred in his description of how Batman defeated Owlman in the final chapter of the 1964 JLA/JSA team-up.  It's described in the Gotham Gangbuster's thoughts after he turns his back on Owlman:

The left side of my brain at which [Owlman] was beaming his thought controls---governs my right-side movements!  But by turning my back on him, I'll receive his orders with the right side of my brain, which controls my left side! 

O.K., Batman is referring to the contra-lateral function of the human brain.  That part I get.  But the next panel shows him whirling around and belting Owlman with his left fist, while thinking:

By commanding me to turn around, it leaves my left hand free to catch him off guard!

But I thought the reason that Batman turned around was to receive Owlman's mind-control commands in the right side of his brain, which controls his left side, so how could his left hand be free?

I've read those thought bubbles a dozen times over the last fifty-five years and I still can't make sense of it, and I've had the same problem with Hawkman's explanation of how he caused the crooks' car to crash.

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