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Floating timelines in comics

Updated on March 10, 2022

There’s various ways of handling comic characters’ lack of aging. One of comics’ most popular choices is the “floating timeline” (or “sliding timeline”). Under a floating timeline, all characters in the setting stay frozen at the same age. However, the characters’ past events (births, weddings, origin stories, graduations, etc.) are defined as taking place “x years ago.” The world “x years ago” will have the trappings of that time (pop culture, the President of the United States, etc.). As the present moves forward year-by-year, said past events will also move up (or “float” forward) year-by-year (since it’s always “x years ago”) to keep pace.

Pros and cons of floating timelines

Superman (vol. 1) #381
“Superman” (vol. 1) #381 (March 1983). Art by Gil Kane. (DC Comics)

The floating timeline has several advantages. For starters, it acknowledges the characters are, well, fictional cartoon characters that don’t age. It also allows one to broadly gloss over or ignore dated topical references easily. Examples include a character meeting a specific President or what current movie they went to see.

Floating timelines also let the characters’ own pasts stay relevant to the reader’s present, versus looking long in the tooth or dated.

Finally, the characters stay marketable, from a business perspective. This allows future generations to also enjoy the characters’ adventures, and the characters’ owners to keep raking in profits.

There’s also disadvantages of floating timelines. Some newer readers may be confused by this tactic. Continuity problems can also creep up if a previous story relied on a particular now-dated topical reference or event. Similarly, problems can arise from squeezing in an increasing number of stories (plus holidays, elections, etc.) into a narrow timeframe as the (real-world) years roll on.

Below is a look at some floating timelines in comics. While DC and Marvel are the main users of floating timelines, said concept also appears in some other comics.

DC Comics: Superman (and Superboy)

DC Comics has used floating timelines for years, mainly centered around the career of their flagship character, Superman.

The Silver and Bronze Age

Superboy (vol. 2) #27
“Superboy” (vol. 2) #27 (March 1982). Art by Kurt Schaffenberger. (DC Comics)

Until the early 70s, DC treated previous comics as either set in the years they were published or set a vague amount of time ago. The introduction of DC’s multiverse in the early 60s (with “The Flash of Two Worlds”) meant they could ignore most 1940s and early 50s stories, as they were set on Earth-2.

Still, DC had Superboy (i.e., Superman as a boy) as a factor. Superboy was initially set either a “vague amount of time ago” or even (oddly) in the then-present, from his introduction in 1945’s “More Fun Comics” #101. Starting in the late 50s (and probably spurred by letter columns, which debuted around this time), Superboy’s era was declared to be set in the 1930s. (Since Superman first appeared in 1938, after all.) This worked fine until the late 60s, when this started to make Super*man* (and by extension his cast) look too old, with Clark’s teen years being in the Depression. Thus, DC decided to switch things up.

Starting with a backup story in “Superboy” #170 (December 1970), and expanded upon full-fledged in “Superboy” #171 (January 1971), DC introduced a floating timeline to Superman, and by extension, all of Earth-1. (Earth-2 stayed more or less in real time.) Superboy’s era was officially moved to the mid-1950s, with a promise to keep Superboy’s setting floating 13-15 years behind the present-day, 29-year-old Superman as the years rolled on. (Another change: DC declaring Superman as 29 years old.)

With the debut of a new solo Superboy comic in 1980, Superboy’s era was officially (and belatedly) moved up to the mid-to-late 60s. By the time the series ended its run in 1984, it looked like Smallville had finally entered the 1970s: Lana asked Clark to go with her to see a Carpenters concert in “Superboy” #53 (May 1984).

With 1985-86’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” and the subsequent Superman origin revamp by John Byrne, Clark’s Superboy career was dropped from continuity. Some stories since the 2000s have brought Clark’s Superboy career back; however, he’s shown mostly operating in the Legion of Super-Heroes’ future setting.

Zero Hour, the New 52, and Rebirth

From "Zero Hour" #0 (September 1994). Art by Dan Jurgens.
From “Zero Hour” #0 (September 1994). Art by Dan Jurgens. (DC Comics)

Despite the above changes, DC Comics still used a floating timeline. 1994’s “Zero Hour” is a prominent example. “Zero Hour” stated the modern age of superheroes started with Superman debuting “10 years ago,” and that Superman in the present was 35 years old. Dick Grayson and his Titans teammates were a decade or so younger, somewhere in their early to mid-20s.

Other than extending the length of Superman’s career to 12-13 years instead of 10, further stories held to this timeline (and Superman as 35) until the 2011 New 52 reboot. The New 52 de-aged Supes to 27, and claimed he and all superheroes were only around for five years. (Which caused massive problems I won’t go into.)

The Rebirth revamp in 2016 mostly reset things back to their post-Zero Hour status quo. However, Superman’s age and how long he’s been around haven’t been defined. (Superman’s son, Jon Kent, raises his own questions, which I also won’t go into here.)

Superman and Batman are Millennials?

As of 2022, assuming Superman’s at least 35 years old, he would’ve been: born in 1987; turned 8 years old in 1995; been a teenager in high school between 2001 and 2005; and finished college/started out at the “Daily Planet” at age 22 in 2009.

At this point, Clark’s a Millennial, along with Batman, Aquaman, and most of his other JLA cohorts. A teenage Clark would’ve grown up listening to Destiny’s Child, OutKast, and the Black Eyed Peas. Similarly, a college age Clark would have listened to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” on his iPod. (I suspect DC would probably pick some bland aughts-era rock bands instead. However, my choices are more fun!)

If Clark still had a pre-Crisis-style Superboy career, he’d have debuted in 1995, during the Clinton administration. A Superboy that first appeared during the early internet age and the existence of CNN (instead of the 50s or 60s) would be interesting.

Marvel Comics: “Marvel Time” and the Siancong War

The Siancong War, from History of the Marvel Universe #2
The Siancong War. From “History of the Marvel Universe” #2 (August 2019). Art by Javier Rodriguez. (Marvel)

Marvel’s stories operate under “Marvel Time,” or the idea that the entire Marvel Universe is based on when the Fantastic Four’s origin-causing flight (in 1961’s “Fantastic Four” #1) took place. Broadly, about four years of real world time equals one year of in-universe time, which at this point works out to about 15 years since that fateful flight.

Stories seem to bear this out reasonably well. Peter Parker became Spider-Man in high school, and is now usually shown as in his late 20s. Doreen Green debuted as Squirrel Girl as a 14-year-old in 1991; current stories show Doreen as a second-year college student. Miles Morales (Spider-Man) and Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) debuted in 2011 and 2013 respectively in real life; in-universe, they’ve been around for several years tops.

Captain America’s time frozen in ice also takes advantage of Marvel’s floating timeline, by simply extending the time between World War II and when he was unfrozen. Originally, he had just been frozen for 20 years, as shown in his unthawing in 1964’s “Avengers” #4. A 2011 miniseries, “Captain America: Man Out of Time,” updates “Avengers” #4; it shows Cap adjusting to thawing out in a turn of the millennium world. The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies similarly show Steve thawing out in the 21st century.

In 2019, Marvel introduced the “Siancong War,” a war in a Vietnam-like Asian country (that first appeared in a 60s “Avengers” story). Unlike the Vietnam War (which still happened in-universe), the Siancong War is set on Marvel’s floating timeline, and thus is “always set” as starting about 15-20 years ago. Characters whose origins were tied to Vietnam (the Punisher, Iron Man, Spider-Man’s Flash Thompson, etc.) are now considered to be Siancong War vets.

As I wrote in a previous post, there’s been criticism by some of Marvel creating this fake war, from storytelling concerns (the Punisher has until now been heavily tied to Vietnam), to continuity concerns. There’s also a few problematic elements raised; the Siancong War setting makes use of some of Marvel’s “yellow peril” villains.

As of 2022, the Fantastic Four’s initial flight (and thus the start of the modern Marvel Universe) would’ve taken place around 2007, or late in the Bush Jr. presidency.

Bill Amend’s “FoxTrot”: The Fox family’s changing Apple (or “iFruit”) tech

FoxTrot
“FoxTrot: Think iFruity.” Art by Bill Amend.

Bill Amend’s long-running newspaper comic strip “FoxTrot” debuted in 1988. While a lot’s changed, one thing hasn’t: the character’s ages. Roger is 45; Andy is 42; Peter is 16; Paige is 14; and Jason is 10. Which makes Roger and Andy younger Gen Xers or older Millennials at this point, and the kids Gen Zers. A far cry from the strip’s launch, when Roger and Andy were Baby Boomers, and the kids were Gen Xers!

The Fox family’s pasts have been shown floating forward over time. A few examples:

  • A strip from the first year or so has Andy want to use an old photo of herself for her newspaper column’s photo. The joke is the photo’s from Andy’s childhood, as Roger comments she’s wearing a poodle skirt.
  • A 1990s-era strip has Andy look over her old record collection, including 60s/70s acts such as the Beatles and Elton John. Jason asks “what are records?” (These days, vinyl’s come back in vogue, so Jason’s response also looks dated.)
  • A 2005 strip has Roger mention seeing “The Empire Strikes Back” when it came out in 1980.
  • Poking fun at all this is a 25th anniversary strip from 2013. Peter and Jason find a box of old “photos” (actual panels from the strip’s first year), and ponder how weird/off-model everyone looks. Peter then notes the box is “somehow” from 25 years ago, yet he’s only 16.

The most prominent example in the strip, however, is the Fox family’s changing tech over the years. They’re shown as always owning Apple’s computers, or the in-universe equivalent, the “iFruit” line. To date, the models show include:

  • An Apple II series computer, in the earliest strips.
  • A Mac SE or Plus, in the early 90s.
  • A two-piece Mac (probably an LC or Performa), in the mid-to-late 90s.
  • An original-model CRT “iFruit” (a parody of the multicolored early iMacs), bought in a 1999 storyline.
  • A white LCD iFruit; first appeared in 2007.
  • An aluminum LCD iFruit; introduced in 2011.
  • These days, the Fox family has a slimmer-model iFruit, presumably based on the final Intel iMac models, as seen in a 2019 strip. Assuming they haven’t quietly shifted over to one of the Apple Silicon-based iMacs (introduced in 2021), of course.

The Fox family these days also all have smartphones, as well as an iPad and a second laptop. All reflecting that most families don’t have just one computer these days.

In a nice nod to all of this, plus Steve Jobs’ death, is a 2011 strip where Jason plugs in the old CRT iFruit one more time. By this point, it’s stored away in a box in the Fox family’s basement.

Image by tigerlily713 from Pixabay

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