From the Archives: Deck Log Entry # 52 Timely Questions---Part Two

Over at Marvel, editor Stan Lee was, apparently, able to resist the temptation to use time-travel plots for stories.  At least, on a regular basis.


Nearly all of DC’s title heroes had a regular method for travelling through time, as did many of its second-tier characters.  That meant, of course, that they were thrust into adventures in different eras with some frequency.  But Stan rarely had his writers take that route.  I expect largely it was because his fertile mind hadn’t yet been bled dry of ideas by twenty years of constant publication.  Lee also believed in presenting super-heroes at more human levels, both in terms of personality and in super-powers.  While DC had at least half a dozen super-heroes capable of travelling through time on his own nickel (Superman, Supergirl, the Flash, Kid Flash, the Green Lantern, Mon-El), only one Marvel hero was capable of piercing the time barrier in his own right.  That was the Mighty Thor, and that was only after daddy Odin gave his son’s hammer a magic boost in the tale “On the Trail of the Tomorrow Man”, from Journey into Mystery # 86 (Nov., 1962).


No, the time-travel experts in the Marvel universe were the villains.  The first Marvel bad guy to demonstrate the ability to traverse the ages was Doctor Doom.  With most comic-book villains, the ability to travel through time would be the show-stopper, the major trick out of his bag.  But with Dr. Doom, his invention of a time machine came across as a bit of a sideline, something he knocked off on his way to coming up with his master plan to rule the world.  He only used it once, in the first Marvel time-travel-based story of the Silver Age, “Prisoners of Doctor Doom”, from Fantastic Four # 5 (Jul., 1962).


By holding the Invisible Girl as a hostage, Doom forces Reed, Ben, and Johnny to undertake a mission.  By use of his time-platform, he sends them back to the early 18th century to recover the treasure of Blackbeard the pirate.  Once the three members of the Fantastic Four are at the appointed time and place, Lee’s script deftly sidesteps any issues of changing the past by making no reference to any documented events.  Not even the real Blackbeard makes an appearance.  Instead, the Thing, while wearing a full beard as part of his disguise, finds himself the leader of a pirate band and is given the name of “Blackbeard”.  The implication is that this was source of the legend of the Blackbeard the pirate, but it doesn’t contravene the factual existence of the real Blackbeard, Edward Teach.


Naturally, the Fantastic Four manage to thwart Dr. Doom, although the villain himself escapes custody.  The casual attitude toward the invention of a working time machine, treated about the same way one would the development of a new type of paper clip, probably kept the reader from thinking too hard about the obvious implication:  a man who can travel through time has an unlimited number of “do overs”.


It must have escaped Dr. Doom, as well, since never again in the Silver Age did he use time as a tool to conquer the world or to defeat the Fantastic Four.  Nevertheless, the time-platform he left behind would get plenty of use.


In “Prisoners of the Pharaoh”, from Fantastic Four # 19 (Oct., 1963), the FF use Doom’s time machine to head back to ancient Egypt after spotting a hieroglyph on a museum relic indicating that a cure for Alicia Masters’ blindness might exist there.  Instead, they run afoul of the cruel pharaoh, Rama Tut.  This introduces Marvel’s first actual tinkering with history.


Rama Tut is able to defeat the Fantastic Four with remarkable ease.  They learn that is because Tut is actually a man from an age well in the future of the FF’s own time.  Tut describes his own era as peaceful, without wars or crime.  Bored with such an uneventful existence, he builds a time machine and seek an era more to his own liking.  Having studied historical recordings of ancient eras, he decides ancient Egypt would be the most suitable for his talents and instals his time machine in a stone idol intended to awe the hell out of the locals.  The idol, it develops, became what is now known as the Great Sphinx of Giza, and as Lee would have it, this was the origin of that wonder of the ancient world.


Since the actual origin of the Sphinx remains unconfirmed to this day, Stan couldn’t be accused of actually changing history.  Thus, it made no statement as to whether or not history was immutable in the Marvel universe, as it was in the DC mythos.


After some unpleasant setbacks, the Fantastic Four bring about an end to the reign of Rama Tut, but the deposed pharaoh makes his escape through time.  Now, it had to be occurring to even casual readers that a time-traveller couldn’t be put down by a single defeat.  It occurred to Stan, too; he had plans for Rama Tut.




There were plenty of other villains in the Silver Age of Marvel that relied more heavily on their mastery of time.  There was Zarrko, the Tomorrow Man, from the aforementioned Journey into Mystery # 86.  Like most of Marvel’s villains, Zarrko, too, wanted to rule the world.  Unfortunately for Zarrko, he lived three hundred years in the future, at a time when mankind had abolished war and its advanced society made the creation of any destructive weapons impossible.  Not a man to be held back by society, Zarrko invents a time machine and travels to the then-present year of 1962.  Now in a time when weapons of mass destruction are there for the taking, Zarrko steals a cobalt bomb and takes it back to his own era, using it to blackmail the world of A.D. 2262 to capitulation.  Thor follows the Tomorrow Man to the 23d century, stops the villain, and brings the c-bomb back to 1962, thus making our world safe for mutually assured destruction.


Zarrko would appear in the Silver Age one more time, in a two-parter from Journey into Mystery # 101-2 (Feb. and Mar., 1964), with the same basic plan:  to grab power from our era and use it to conquer his own future time (which always seemed a little backwards to me).  And just like before, the Thunder God travelled to the 23century and gave him a good thumping.


Thor’s dealings with the Tomorrow Man was just a warm-up for his next encounter with a man from the future---Kang the Conqueror.   Introduced in The Avengers # 8 (Sep., 1964), Kang sojourns to the then-present from his own time of the 40th century and announces that he intends to use the futuristic weapons of his era to (surprise) conquer the Earth.  For once, one of Marvel’s villains from the future has a scheme that makes sense.  But when the Avengers, despite Kang’s anti-gravity fields, paralysis beams, and anti-matter rays, hand Kang a good whuppin’, one has to wonder why he chose to take over the Earth of 1964.  All Kang had to do was zip back a few decades earlier and there wouldn’t have been any Avengers to defeat him.

Kang avoids capture in his time machine, as well.  And for me, this ending made obvious the one problem with having time-travelling villains from the future escape.  Since it hadn’t been established in the Marvel universe that history was immutable, what was to keep Kang from resting for six months in his own time, while he rebuilt his forces and picked up a few more future weapons, then returning to 1964 five minutes after the Avengers beat him?  They’re tired and off guard; he’s fresh and re-equipped and ready to go.  And if, somehow, the Avengers win again, he heads back for another six-month rest, and pops back up in 1964 five minutes after that loss, and so on, until he wins.


Or, as I mentioned, on his second try, Kang arrives in 1934, with no super-heroes around to stop him.  Now that’s a plan.


By dodging the issue of whether history could be changed or not, Stan opened the door for these kind of questions.  And Stan handled them in the same way Mort Weisinger handled the awkward-but-logical queries about his time-travelling Superman---he ignored them.  You can’t really blame him; there was no reasonable answer.  The only way to prevent Kang or Dr. Doom from returning time and again would be to capture them or kill them off, and as characters, they were too good to sideline permanently.


Stan Lee discovered, as Weisinger did over at DC, that when you start messing with time-travel plots, you paint yourself into a corner.

As if the unaddressed ramifications of what a time-travelling enemy might accomplish weren’t complicated enough, The Avengers # 8 gave things a hitch when it disclosed that Kang was really Rama Tut.  Tut, after escaping the Fantastic Four in FF # 19, landed in the 40th century to become the war-loving Kang.  This was piled onto a scene in “The Final Victory of Doctor Doom”, from Fantastic Four Annual # 2 (1964), which suggested that Rama Tut was also Victor von Doom.  This would not be the end of the various identities ascribed to Doom/Tut/Kang, but already it was enough to make a fan reach for the aspirin.


The Avengers faced another time-based menace in issue # 10 of their own magazine (Nov., 1964).  In “The Avengers Break Up”, the Earth’s mightiest heroes run up against Immortus, “Master of Time”.  An inhabitant of limbo, Immortus attempts to prove his superiority to Avengers arch-foes, the Masters of Evil, by defeating the heroes.  Despite possessing what one would think to be an insurmountable power, the control of time, Immortus generally makes a botch of it.  His master plan, such as it is, is to summon beings from out of time and legend to take on the individual Avengers.  You can guess how that turned out.


But once again, it highlights the contrivances needed to fit a story which pits a time-traveller against a hero.  If the reader thinks too hard about it, the whole plot falls apart.  For example, if Immortus were really determined to destroy the Avengers, it would have been much easier for him to do something like this:


Immortus materialises on the grounds of a Long Island mansion sometime in the 1940’s, where he spots a little boy playing.


“Excuse me, sonny, are you Tony Stark?”


“Yes, sir, I am.”


Blam!  Blam!  Blam! 


And then on to the next Avenger.





Both the Avengers and Thor would have further run-ins with Kang in the Silver Age (The Avengers # 23-4, The Mighty Thor # 140) but none of them showed the Conqueror putting his time-travel ability to the most logical use.  At the same time, while DC’s heroes were popping into past eras with the regularity of college kids heading to Fort Lauderdale for spring break, Marvel’s heroes were staying squarely in their own time.  Even the Fantastic Four, who had Dr. Doom’s time-platform to play with, weren’t tempted to go back and save Abraham Lincoln or any of that kind of stuff.  Consequently, no “laws” of time-travel were codified for the Marvel universe, as they were over in the DC mythos.


At least, not until near the end of the Silver Age, and it was, not surprisingly, Roy Thomas who tackled it.


In “Death Be Not Proud”, from The Avengers # 56 (Sep., 1968), the then-current roster of Avengers---Hawkeye, the Black Panther, Goliath, and the Wasp---are summoned to Dr. Doom’s old castle by Captain America.  Of late, he explains, he has been having doubts as to whether his wartime partner, Bucky Barnes, survived the drone explosion which resulted in Cap being frozen in suspended animation for two decades.  He proposes to use Doom’s time-platform to travel back to that fatal day and see for himself just what happened.  The other Avengers, being heroes, volunteer to accompany him on the trip, because that’s what heroes do.  Leaving the Wasp behind to operate the device, Cap and the others are transported to the appropriate place and time. 


Upon arrival, the Avengers discover that have taken on phantom form.  As Cap explains, “Reed Richards was right!  He said we’d be intangible . . . invisible . . . to those of this era!  Otherwise, we’d invite disaster . . . by existing in two places at the same time!”  (At this point in Marvel’s “sliding time line”, Goliath and Hawkeye and the Panther would have been young children in 1945, while Captain America, of course, was an active hero.)


Clearly, Roy Thomas, a long-time DC fan, was applying DC’s second law of time-travel to his story.  I remember reading this tale when it came out and recall feeling very satisfied that such a “law” would apply, even across companies.  Yet, even though he was using a DC concept, he found a way to twist it and eventually establish how time worked uniquely to Marvel.


While the phantom Avengers watch the events of Captain America and Bucky’s last wartime mission unfold, back in the present, the Wasp is suddenly overcome with a wave of drowsiness and, unknowingly, she accidentally activates a switch on the time-machine controls.  This results in the Avengers in the past suddenly becoming corporeal.  But it’s a temporary effect.  Though the now-solid Avengers battle Baron Zemo and his Nazis, they are unable to prevent the launching of the drone plane to which the 1945 Cap and Bucky are tied before they revert to their phantom forms.  The most the 1968-Cap is able to accomplish is to sever the ropes binding his earlier self.


Thus, they can only watch helplessly as the incident plays out exactly the way they heard Cap describe it back in The Avengers # 4.  Only this time, the Star-Spangled Avenger sees for himself that his youthful partner was killed when the drone exploded.  The story ends with the time-platform bringing them back to the present.


Obviously, continuity-conscious Roy’s main point in this tale was to show the events that led to Cap’s suspended animation and Bucky’s death, as well as to wrap up a number of unexplained details that Stan Lee had left unanswered in the original telling four years earlier.  But it was also a prologue of sorts, setting up one of the most memorable Avengers’ adventures of all.  The ending of “Death Be Not Proud” seemed to indicate that history in the Marvel universe could not be changed, either.  But Roy had something different in mind.  And for that, one had to read The Avengers King-Size Special # 2 that also came out that same summer.


Appropriately titled “ . . . and Time, the Rushing River“,  the story takes up immediately following the Avengers’ adventure in the past.  Returning to Manhattan, the heroes are mystified at the reactions of the public to their presence, as if the man on the street had never seen them before.  Their puzzlement is intensified when they arrive at Avengers Mansion and are attacked by long-replaced defensive mechanisms.  Other things in the mansion are slightly off, as well.  Items out of place, furniture that shouldn’t be there.


The biggest surprise comes when they enter their meeting room and are confronted by the five original Avengers---Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Giant-Man, and the Wasp!  Shock piles upon shock.  Neither Thor, nor Iron Man recognise the returning Avengers, though they well should.  And Goliath discovers that the face beneath the mask of Giant-Man is his own:  Henry Pym.


Fighting off an attack by the original Avengers, the 1968 version of the team escapes.  Through various means, they put together what has occurred.   Simply, when the time-travelling Avengers materialised in solid form in 1945, it changed certain minor details of history.  Though the changed details were, of themselves, inconsequential, it caused a domino-effect of changes that effectively served to alter certain events of history.


Most important, the history of the Avengers was changed.  At the end of the team’s second adventure, in the original history, the Hulk quit the team and turned hostile.  In the revised history, this had been prevented by the intercession of an extra-dimensional being calling himself the Scarlet Centurion.


Under guidance from the Scarlet Centurion, the activities of the Avengers took a far different path than what had taken place in the history that Cap and the others remembered.


It won’t come as any surprise to those of you who haven’t read this epic that the displaced Avengers determine to “put right that which went wrong”, and this, of course, puts them up against the original Avengers.  More than one fan has pointed out to me how this story has strong echoes of DC’s “Crisis on Earth-One/Two”, which delivered the landmark meeting of the Justice League and the Justice Society.

It also won’t be spoiling it for savvy comics-fans to disclose that it was the Scarlet Centurion who caused history to be changed.  Existing outside of the physical dimension, the Centurion could not affect events directly; he could only manipulate through mental command.  It was he who placed the doubts as to Bucky’s death in Captain America’s mind, and he who instilled the sudden sleepiness in the Wasp.


One last bit tossed in by Roy Thomas provided the motivations for the Scarlet Centurion’s actions and also put another twist in the Dr. Doom/Rama Tut/Kang knot.


Roy’s lasting contribution with “ . . . and Time, the Rushing River” was to establish that, in the Marvel mythos, history was not immutable.  The past could be changed; however, in doing so, an alternate history, deviating from the point when the change occurred, was created. 


This would allow for some creative time-travel stories to come out of Marvel during the Bronze Age of comics.  In a curious serendipity, though, it also opened the door for Marvel to indulge in two concepts that, hitherto, had been strictly DC’s province.  First, as demonstrated by its What If? title, Marvel was able to present Imaginary Stories, using the artifice that they were tales told by the Watcher of events that occurred in one of the alternate histories created when something went differently in the original history.  And, since in effect, these alternate histories were “real”, they also served as parallel Earths, serving as springboards for inter-Earth adventures similar to DC’s JLA/JSA cross-overs.


While DC insisted that history was a rigid straight line, Marvel’s take on it meant that history in its universe resembled an overturned plate of spaghetti, and, boy, am I glad most of the time-travel stories based on that came after the Silver Age.  I’m out of aspirin.


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"Obviously, continuity-conscious Roy’s main point in this tale was to show the events that led to Cap’s suspended animation and Bucky’s death." Given that they were (or so a Bronze Age letter column once said) getting regular "When will Bucky show up alive?" letters, I imagine it was partly to establish no, he's dead (ROFL now, of course). Watching Cap reliving those moments still packs a punch.

Steve Englehart and Mark Gruenwald did a lot to make Kang and Immortus more comprehensible. But Gruenwald's suggestion Kang's "maybe I'm you" was just to distract Doom while studying his armor still didn't make any sense (Doom must be aware he isn't Kang).

Of course Gruenwald also adopted the rule that every single event creates a What If where it turned out differently. I always found that a bad idea: if every possibility plays out (as Larry Niven pointed out in one short story) then victory and defeat are both meaningless. The FF or the Avengers never win, they win and they lose every fight, we just follow one of the outcomes. Heck, if the Shi'ar Imperial Guard engage in a battle, Earth gets divided into two timelines without even doing anything.

I do think the Avengers Annual does a great job conveying how nightmarish the Avengers find the alt.timeline. Later on, of course, everyone gets blase about such things.

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