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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!