Time, Timeline, See What’s Become Of Me

First off, a big thanks to fellow AJSer Greg Hatcher for switching spots with me this week. It gave me the extra time I needed to finish my column. We’ll both be back on our regular days next week, me on Monday and Greg on Tuesday.

Watchmen doomsday clock

I’m going to make a confession this week. One that, even by geek standards, is pretty geeky.

For years now, I’ve been writing fictional timelines.

Hang on. Put that straitjacket away. Let me explain.

As I detailed in my first column here, I’ve been a comic book geek for most of my life. I got immersed into the DC and Marvel Universes at an early age. And, being a Bronze Age kid, I was trained to care about continuity from the get-go. Some of the earliest comics I ever read contained footnotes like, “For Batman’s first encounter with Throgg the Unmentionable, see The Brave & The Bold #143 – Ed.” In the days before reprints and trade collections were commonplace, these footnotes helped you put things into context. They also planted a couple of ideas firmly in my head: These characters have a history and That history matters. But it wasn’t an intimidating history, where you go, “Oh my God, I have to read 26 comics just to understand this one.” It was an inviting history, as in, “Oh, WOW, look at all the cool stuff I have to discover!”

I was 13 when Crisis on Infinite Earths hit, which was the perfect age. I was old enough to appreciate the history being changed, but still young enough to be excited by it starting over from scratch. And History of the DC Universe only added to my excitement. We got to see EVERY character that DC had, now all on ONE Earth, with ONE history! And here it was, all laid out for you in a single timeline! How cool was that?

historydcu
The timeline so nice I bought it twice.

But honestly, my love of timelines really started with William S. Baring-Gould.

Baring-Gould, for all of you non-Greg Hatchers in the audience, was one of the world’s preeminent Sherlockian scholars. He was the editor of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, a massive collection of all 60 Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The book arranged all of the stories into chronological order, based on the dates given by Watson.

I suppose I should explain to any non-Sherlock Holmes people that when it came to Holmes, Doyle was not concerned with details like dates. He regarded the Holmes stories as light entertainment he dashed off to finance his real work, his historical novels. And when you consider that Doyle wrote these stories over a period of 40 years, it’s kind of amazing that the chronology holds together as well as it does. Like most pulp authors, Doyle was looking to grab his readers above anything else. But fortunately and unfortunately for Doyle, everyone else in the world took Sherlock Holmes more seriously than he did. And so Holmes fans like William S. Baring-Gould have been working on the definitive chronology of the canon for over 100 years now.

annotatedsherlock

Now, Baring-Gould was somewhat… eccentric in his approach. He would check Victorian era train schedules and weather reports to make sure that they jibed with what Doyle had written. He theorized that Watson had a prior marriage because of an then-unpublished play Doyle wrote. To give you an example of what Baring-Gould’s chronology was like, in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Watson writes that the case started on March 20th, 1888. Pretty straightforward, right? By the time Baring-Gould got done, he declared that it began on May 20th, 1887. Most Holmes chronologies have that kind of creative interpretation going on. It’s inevitable.

I got a copy of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes in 1992, and while I enjoyed it, I couldn’t help but feel that Baring-Gould’s timeline missed the mark. In some cases, I bought his logic, but in other places, he was really reaching. He seemed all too eager to throw out Doyle’s dates in favor of his personal theories. And while it was an amazing effort, I wondered if it might be possible to assemble a Sherlock Holmes timeline that was more faithful to Doyle (or Watson — The two start to get a little muddled once you get into Sherlock Holmes scholarship).

So I started working on my own Holmes timeline. Just for fun.

24 years later, I’m still doing it.

It’s a fun challenge. Since contradictions and omissions abound, you have to bring both logic and creativity to it. And once you assemble the cases into a chronological order, you start to see connections that you didn’t before. The last draft of my Holmes timeline inspired an essay I’m writing about Watson’s marriage to Mary Morstan and how it was affected by Watson’s friendship with Holmes.

startrekchronology

And soon, my sickness spread. In 1993, Michael and Denise Okuda wrote the Star Trek Chronology: The History of the Future, with an updated edition in 1996. Again, while I liked the timeline, I disagreed with some of the Okudas’ conclusions, particularly for the Original Series era. So I started working on my own TOS-era timeline, trying my hardest not to let TNG-era assumptions affect TOS (World War III and the Eugenics Wars were the same thing, dammit!). Philip José Farmer’s Tarzan Alive alerted me to the Great Korak-Time Discrepancy (I’ve come around to the 1872 school). I’ve read James Bond timelines (Did you know that The Spy Who Loved Me occurred during a gap in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?), Shadow and Doc Savage timelines, and the mother of them all, Wold Newton timelines.

timelines

I worked out a chronology of the DC Universe, mixing and matching my personal favorite bits of pre and post-Crisis continuity. I also wrote a Marvel Universe chronology, but frankly it wasn’t as much fun. Marvel didn’t have the company-wide reboots that DC did, so it wasn’t the challenge that DC’s was. And when I got insanely geeky, I decided to combine DC & Marvel continuity into one timeline, coming up with plausible connections wherever I could (My favorite was the Fantastic Four’s rocket getting thrown off course by Abin Sur’s crashing spaceship).

Like I said, it’s a sickness. But it’s a fun sickness.

Earlier this year, I discovered the website edu.HSTRY.co. It allows you to create your own, interactive timelines, and I started adapting some of my old timelines to this format. The site’s very easy to use (rewriting and rearranging elements is a snap), and I love adding visual elements to my timelines. Here’s my Sherlock Holmes timeline, my Star Trek timeline, my DC Universe timeline, and my timeline for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I don’t consider any of them to be “complete” yet, but I’m having fun working on them whenever I get the urge. Heck, this weekend, I even started working on a new Homicide: Life on the Street timeline.

So it’s safe to say that I enjoy timelines.

Which brings me to Rich Handley, and his new book Watching Time: The Unauthorized Watchmen Chronology.

watchingtime_frontback

You’d think that assembling a timeline out of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel Watchmen would be a pretty easy task. After all, the dates are right there in the book, right? What is there to do, outside of finding all the date references, and reverse-engineering them into chronological order?

But Handley has done much more than that. He’s assembled a Watchmen timeline out of EVERYTHING. The comic. The movie. The viral videos. The unfilmed screenplays. The tie-in books. The Before Watchmen prequel comics. The role playing modules. The Heroclix trading cards. Even a music video by My Chemical Romance.

And instead of all those disparate sources becoming a hopeless mish-mosh of data, Handley’s made it work. He notes discrepancies whenever they occur, offering up possible solutions. And the nice thing is that he’s kept it user-friendly. Every work cited has a four-character code representing it, so you’re free to follow whichever sources you’d like. Don’t like the Watchmen movie? Just ignore anything with the label FILM. Think that Before Watchmen was just fan fiction published by DC Comics? Just skip over anything whose code starts with BW. Not a role playing fan? Well, don’t pay attention to the RPG codes, then.

Oh, and did I mention that the timeline runs 293 pages? Like I said, EVERYTHING is in here. I can’t imagine anyone doing a more comprehensive job with a Watchmen chronology than Handley has done here. As a timeliner, I doff my hat to him. Watching Time is a thoroughly impressive piece of work. If you’re into Watchmen, fictional timelines, or just creative scholarship in general, I highly recommend it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some timelines to revise…

See you next Monday!

40 Comments

  1. Greg Burgas

    I’d link to them, but I don’t feel like finding them on the old blog, but I’ve done timelines of Bendis and Maleev’s Daredevil, Aaron and Guera’s Scalped, and Robinson’s Starman. I agree with you – it’s wildly fun to do these kinds of things, and I appreciate it when comics creators give enough dates to postulate the rest of it!

  2. Le Messor

    Are you going to be naming your articles after Simon and Garfunkel songs, the way certain others name theirs after Dylan songs?

    “For years now, I’ve been writing fictional timelines… Put that straightjacket away.”

    That’s not that insane by geeky standards. 🙂

    “Like I said, it’s a sickness. But it’s a fun sickness.”

    Then get up, come on, get down with the sickness. Madness is the gift.

    I worked on (with an entire forum’s worth of people) an Alpha Flight chronology once. In fact, I was looking at it right before I read this article.
    Not a full-on timeline, just trying to put their appearances in chronological order. It’s very difficult, contradictory, and doesn’t even account for what the X-Men are doing in their own series.

    1. John Trumbull

      I worked on (with an entire forum’s worth of people) an Alpha Flight chronology once. In fact, I was looking at it right before I read this article.

      Oh, Alpha Flight was a fun series to analyze and make a timeline out of! I’ve only read the Byrne run (so issues 1-28), but you could tell that he’d put a lot of thought into their origins.

      1. Le Messor

        “I’ve only read the Byrne run (so issues 1-28)”
        Good instinct. You should probably stick with it. :/

        “he’d put a lot of thought into their origins.”
        Yeah, he had a lot of detail in both the art and writing on that series.

  3. M.S. Wilson

    I’m with you on the timeline love. I used to enjoy going through Tolkien’s appendices and seeing how everything played out. I tried to make my own timeline for the Narnia Chronicles, but there’s a lot of empty years in there 🙂

    Your DCU timeline looks interesting (though I’ve only skimmed it so far); have you seen this DCU timeline? http://dcu.smartmemes.com/

    It’s VERY comprehensive, though a half-decade or so out of date.

    1. John Trumbull

      Your DCU timeline looks interesting (though I’ve only skimmed it so far); have you seen this DCU timeline? http://dcu.smartmemes.com/

      It’s VERY comprehensive, though a half-decade or so out of date.

      Oh yeah, that’s a GREAT one! Big inspiration to me. Chris Miller & I took different approaches, though — he was trying to make absolutely EVERYTHING fit, while I just give priority to my favorite stuff & don’t worry about the rest. It’s what I call the salad bar approach to continuity. 🙂

      Miller also did a GREAT Sherlock Holmes timeline that was a big influence on my Holmes timeline. Here’s the link:

      http://blog.smartmemes.com/2010/03/sherlock-holmes-a-complete-chronology/#more-1990

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    Never got caught up in timelines or continuity. As long as it didn’t mess up a perfectly good story, I gave it a pass. I’ve glanced through a few of these things and some are quite fun, others not so much. Glad to hear you enjoy the process, though. For me, an experiment like that is more in experiencing the material, rather than the mechanics; and, I suspect that is at the heart of most of these endeavors.

    What I am waiting for is someone to do the definitive timeline of Richie Rich. Try making a cohesive timeline out of that!

    1. John Trumbull

      I try not to get too caught up in continuity, myself. I think where a lot of fans or self-appointed continuity experts fall down is when they start to think that their personal headcanon should be binding on the actual stories. That’s a line I try very hard not to cross.

      What I am waiting for is someone to do the definitive timeline of Richie Rich. Try making a cohesive timeline out of that!

      WOOF. That sounds intimidating. I have a feeling that RR stories don’t have too much to go on in terms of concrete time references. I understand that Don Rosa was able to weave all of Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge stories into a comprehensive biography of Uncle Scrooge, though, so who knows?

  5. Edo Bosnar

    I never felt the need to work on my own timelines, but I like seeing the work others put into it (and far from seeing it as a form of madness, I kind of admire the time and effort they put into it).

    However, what resonated with me more than anything was when you said this:

    …it wasn’t an intimidating history, where you go, “Oh my God, I have to read 26 comics just to understand this one.” It was an inviting history, as in, “Oh, WOW, look at all the cool stuff I have to discover!”

    Exactly. So, so true – it’s what I always loved about comics back in the day, and I was never bothered by those little “as seen in ish#” editor’s notes.

  6. Hal

    Don’t worry, Mr Trumbull, I won’t put you in a straightjacket but I do have a *straitjacket* here for you! Bwahahaha! *winks*

    For an insanely detailed chronology people might like to check out Lance Parkin’s Ahistory which is his attempt to corral Doctor Who into a cohesive millenia-spanning timeline. However, the greatest modern chronology feat is SuperMegaMonkey’s (what language is that name from?!) Chronocomic, his mammoth continuing adventure in whipping the Marvel Universe into chronal consistency. A task almost guaranteed to cause one’s sanity to… *SNAP!*. Unlike such things as Philip José Farmer’s seminal Tarzan Alive! and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life which can be pretty unfun for the way they to make things more “realistic” and fit them into *this* world (eliminating the wilder, weirder things though still retaining things that are unlikely or nutty whilst shoehorning in darker elements, an influence on some of Alan Moore’s work obviously, that isn’t a knock, I like a lot of Farmer’s – Riverworld, Lord Tyger! – and Moore’s writing but it can be problematic when certain writers feel it is the only way to go), SMM takes it all as happening but tries to get into a coherent flow but BETTER he reviews every story and is occasionally very funny. Over the past week, the Chronocomic has been a palliative in the past week, a chink of light in depressive dark. (Um, freako! Sorry.)
    I prefer to think of many Holmes and Doctor Who stories as occurring in different “universes” as it is more exciting, the flaws and discrepancies in even Conan Doyle’s accounts of Sherlock Holmes characterization become fascinating when one sees them as describing extremely similar but different Holmeses in parallel universes, it makes him (and The Doctor) seem BIGGER rather than reducing them and pinning them like butterflies under glass. However, other characters are really fun to consider as part of a single timeline. Goofy fun!

    1. John Trumbull

      Don’t worry, Mr Trumbull, I won’t put you in a straightjacket but I do have a *straitjacket* here for you! Bwahahaha! *winks*

      GAK! That’s what I get for revising after midnight. Thanks for pointing out the typo. Corrected! 🙂

      1. Hal

        Sorry to be a Pedantic Pete! I think “straightjacket” is considered acceptable now but it brings me out in hives/sets my spider-sense tingling (“strait” as in “straiten” makes far more sense and is elegant anyway). I think these things matter…!
        .

    2. John Trumbull

      Unlike such things as Philip José Farmer’s seminal Tarzan Alive! and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life which can be pretty unfun for the way they to make things more “realistic” and fit them into *this* world

      Yeah, that’s one of my problems with Wold Newton stuff in general (and the Christopher Nolan Batman films, come to think of it) — They can try so damn hard to make the stuff more credible that they can sap the fun out of it.

      I’m also not nuts about the general contrivance of making all those characters related to each other by blood, either. There’s probably a column to be written in my mixed feelings on Wold Newton stuff (as well as an amusing story of my run-in with a particularly fanatical WN fan… THAT was someone who got too caught up in his own opinions).

  7. Hal

    Oh, sorry for another post but reading about Alpha Flight above makes me wonder about which series in people’s minds diverge into a “garbage timeline” at a certain point i.e. A series has been good despite duff periods but the reaches a point when one considers everything that happens afterward to occur in a kind of Crapverse in which characterizations are violated and awful(ly stupid) events take place? For me the post-Byrne Alpha Flight and post-Stern Avengers qualify, ach and much DC/Marvel past a certain point… Heh.

    1. John Trumbull

      I really don’t have anything against the post-Byrne Alpha Flight, as I’ve barely even seen it. But AF strikes me as one of those books where shaking up the status quo doesn’t have much impact because the book’s never HAD a status quo.

      This was true even when Byrne was on the book. As Byrne’s said himself, AF never felt like a “real” comic to him because it wasn’t created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. So I think that Byrne didn’t have as much reverence for the characters as he might have otherwise. That’s why he did things like killing off Guardian, transforming Aurora, and having that big revelation about Sasquatch. We were still getting to know these characters during the first year or two, so changing them around didn’t have as much impact as it would have with more firmly-established characters. Just my two cents. 🙂

      1. Hal

        True. I *do* think that Byrne was wrong about Alpha Flight tho’, he didn’t appreciate his creations enough; he seemed disgruntled about at having to write about them (boy, John B disgruntled about something? Hard to believe, I know… *coughs* *looks askance*) and pretty disparaging about them. He wrote about them being “shallow” characters/concepts but even if that were true – which for the most part it wasn’t by the end if his run, *he* created them! It is slightly peculiar to me that he seemed more enamoured of working with other people’s creations over his own – to the point of feeling some ownership of them, if one takes into account his comments about the “correct” way to write certain characters. The status quo-less aspect if AF was interesting to me, they were a real non-team in some respects even more than the Defenders, altho’ by the end if the Byrne run it was getting a bit problematic, I guess that was a mark of his disengagement, a pity that he was so disinvested as he couldn’t appreciate the intriguing elements of his own work. Apropos of nothing, it is fascinating to me how many of the characters in Byrne’s Alpha Flight are portrayed as cold or arrogant or weirdoes or incredibly selfish or some combination of the above! I think Puck and Heather escaped that most thankfully, as did Roger Bochs. (Poor Aurora tho’… Yikes! That concept was…dubious…)
        Oh, John, you had a lucky escape not encountering much post-Byrne AF. No one knew what to do with it and, boy howdy, Bill Mantlo’s (poor Bill, I don’t like to say this given his tragic fate) run was atrociously misconceived, let us just acknowledge that having our likeable character who suffers from dwarfism turn out to be a very tall man who was shrunken when possessed by a demon (Oh God!) and Bochs, a man.without legs but with a nice personality become obsessed with Heather Hudson, receive limbs made from corpses (Oh Goooooodddd!), goes insane (Oh for the love of Godddd!), and is finally absorbed into a psych-villain – who is *also* mentally ill – and *lobotomized (OH G- You get the idea!) is not suggestive of a good run… And it didn’t get better after Mr Mantlo! What a thing to do to one if the few non-US superteams… O Canada!

          1. Hal

            And the name of the scary fellow in Pucko’s head? Razor or Razer or Black Raazer, they couldn’t even seem to keep its name straight. Poor Puck, poor any one who read that terrible tale or even *about* it!
            Now about the revelation that Northstar was an elf (a replacement for a story in which he developed AIDS so… A lucky escape…) from the same period…

          2. John Trumbull

            The Northstar Elf revelation was because his mysterious illness was originally supposed to be AIDS, but then Marvel backed away from revealing the character to be gay (This was some time before Northstar came out in the comics).

            Peter David had a great line about it, “Oh, so he wasn’t gay, he was just a fairy.”

    2. Le Messor

      I think New Warriors jumped the shark post-Nicieza, but not to the same extreme as some of those others.

      It’s subjective, but for me, Uncanny X-Men around 200.

      Teen Titans after Troi’s wedding, #100. (That’s the 80s-90s transition… I’m not going to try to say which volume it was or the proper title.)

      1. Hal

        Interesting, Le Messor. Uncanny X-Men around the period when Psylocke became an Asian ninja in a swimsuit for me. Eurgh. Amazing Spider-Man around te Michelinie run tho’ elsewhere and after there was nice stuff. Certainly the Nineties had a LOT of Spider-dross. When I discovered they had resurrected Norman Osborn when I returned to comic books in 2006 I was aghast. Godawful. Oh, the Humanity!

  8. frasersherman

    Mike’s DC Universe website does a lot of chronologies for the various DC characters.
    I did a Hellboy chronology on my site, just so that I could look up which adventure comes after which for my own benefit. Turned out to be very popular. My LXG one will go live later this morning. Neither of those involve the kind of deduction Baring-Gould applied, though.
    Don Rosa does indeed do a marvelous job combining many of Uncle Scrooge’s adventures into a timeline that’s fun to read in itself (and I’m not particularly a fan of that mythos). That includes explaining why the curmudgeonly but adventurous Scrooge started as a much more Dickensian, bitter recluse.
    I remember I wrote an article for one of the first Wold Newton fanzines. Back when fanzines were hard copy with staples.

          1. It ‘s based on the idea that Elsa and Anna’s parents were lost at sea, and Tarzan’s parents were washed ashore after a shipwreck, and there has only ever been one shipwreck in all of history. Their sunken ship is also the one that Ariel explores at the beginning of the Little Mermaid. Also, they were shipwrecked on their way to Rapunzel’s wedding because reasons.

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