War of Kings is a blog dedicated to my favourite comic books, books, games and movies.

Friday, August 22, 2008

War Correspondence - Keeping Up With the Timeline

'…in an action story more than any other kind, the more up to date the setting, the more impossible it becomes to avoid being dated after a certain number of years. … Even if one could eschew every topical allusion...one would still be betrayed by what seemed at the time to be the simple basic assumptions of timelessness.'
- Leslie Charteris, Introduction to Saints Alive, 1973

Leslie Charteris' first Saint story was published in 1928. As you can see, almost 50 years later, he was still going strong. And by 1973, Charteris had inadvertently created a bit of a paradox, in that in every story took place at the time in which he was writing it - and though the years took their toll on him, the Saint never seemed to ever get any older. At the time of writing this introduction, Charteris says that he knows of no other fictional character to whom this has happened. And I haven't been able to prove him wrong. Nowadays it is a different story - just read early issues of Fantastic Four or the X-Men, or watch all the Bond movies and you'll see the same thing.

The reason that this was such a problem for the Saint was that most of his books were collections of short stories rather than full-length novels, and (especially in the later years when they made collections of the best stories) you had the Saint struggling to get messages to people on time due to the delays in the telegraph system, and picking up a radiophone in his car in the same book. As Charteris says, you can't get around this - eventually your action hero is going to want to use the fastest way to travel or communicate - and then you're stuck. Charteris looks back on the increases in car and plane speed, asking 'How fast is fast?' That depends on what the year is. There's inflation. The tip which renders someone speechless today will be scoffed at tomorrow. There's ethics. In the time of Sherlock Holmes, 'no pure girl would visit a bachelor's pad after tea, but a shot of cocaine was merely a quaint eccentricity.'

'The Saint,' says Charteris, '...is in the awkward position of trying to straddle the gap between being a period piece and a trend for tomorrow. As any such gymnastic, he must be in danger of splitting his pants.' He considers modernising the older stories, but decides that such a job would never be finished, having to be redone every few years just to keep up, and finally concludes that perhaps any future stories would have to fill in gaps between other stories rather than taking place in the present, where the saint's 'unquenchable vitality would become increasingly implausible and eventually ludicrous.'

Can you straddle the gap without splitting your pants? I gather that this was what the original Crisis attempted to do. Keep the characters young, but put them in the present so they're contemporary and relevant. The Ultimate Universe was more successful at it - except that leave long enough and it too is will suffer from the same time malady as everything else. And, ah, Spider-Man. I won't even try to talk about him.

So what's the solution? There are many, none of them entirely satisfactory. Probably the best was freezing Captain America in ice, and bringing him out again to join the Avengers. But you can't do that again. Nick Fury and Wolverine have slow aging - one due to science, and one to genes. Give every single superhero slowed aging? It would work, but how do you go about doing that? Have a new hero take over the old hero's mantle, the old hero dying or retiring. Works fine except for fan outcry or until someone comes up with the bright idea of bringing back the old hero, and you result in the mess DC had (has?) with their legacy heroes. A modified version of this could work on the X-Men, and has to a degree, have the old heroes eventually retire and a new generation (including their children) come to the fore to replace them. (It’s hypocritical of me to suggest this when I'm not buying Genext or Spider-Girl.) And the last solution I can think of is to set all the comic books in a specific time, instead of in the perpetual present. But I don't think anyone wants that.

So, all that is left is for me to follow Charteris' advice and remember how much time these sagas cover, make allowances for the changing backgrounds, and enjoy the fun just as it is.

All quotes from Saints Alive by Leslie Charteris, published in 1974 by Hodder and Stoughton Limited, London.

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