Real Talk About Real Time
I like continuity.
No, scratch that: I love continuity. I realize that’s unfashionable to say these days, when the artist is king (unless it means giving them control of their own work) and there’s a reboot of the entire Marvel or DC meta-history every other month; but continuity is what keeps a lot of people involved in a shared fictional universe, and world-building — consistent, well-crafted world-building — is a quality that can involve you in a dramatic work even when the storytelling itself is a bit lacking. Which, if we are being even remotely honest, superhero comics are, far more often than not.
But I’m not here to sell the idea of a return to sensible continuity, or my own preferred version of it, the Campaign for Real Time in Comics, or CRITIC (the extra ‘I’ is for for ‘I thought this up and nobody cares about it but me). Chris Miller, who I’ve referred to endless times, did the best job of explaining it all here, until even he got tired of the chop suey DC has been making of their historicity and quit doing it six years ago. What I wanted to do was lay out the case that stronger continuity and real-time storytelling would be an enormously useful tool for something that’s become a critical hot-button in the comics business in recent years: the diversification of both stories and their creators.
I don’t want to be seen as supporting the whiny sense of betrayal you hear from a lot of (mostly white, mostly straight, mostly male) comics fans when a prominent character is rebooted or reimagined as nonwhite, queer, or female. This reaction is almost always tainted in some way, with legitimate bigotry or with pointless resentment or even with misguided nostalgia, and it shouldn’t be encouraged. But at a certain level, it is at least understandable. These are, after all, fully formed characters who, in many cases, the reader has followed, engaged with, even lived with for years and even decades. They have personalities and behaviors that are formed from an accretion of experiences, and those experiences inform the way they are written in no less meaningful a way than our own lived environments shape us. Just as it is a common mistake for these fans to mistake attempts to modernize and diversify the comics landscape for assaults on their identity, it is a common mistake for otherwise well-meaning creators to believe that gender and racial swaps can be accomplished by simple substitution, with no essential change to the character.
This is not to say that a gender- or race-swapped character suffers for the change; it does not lessen them. But it is a fool who says it does not change them. Indeed, it is insulting to assume otherwise. Surely it does women no service to believe that if it had been a young, nerdy girl who had been bitten by that radioactive spider, she would have grown up with exactly the same personality and qualities as Peter Parker; and a black Captain America would surely have had an entirely different experience of life — and, almost as certainly, a different perspective on what it means to be an American — than did Steve Rogers. It also does a disservice to history, and to the injustices that history has visited on minorities, to act as if their lives would have been identical to those of white people who lived at the same time. The crime is not in making Nick Fury an African-American; the crime is in writing an African-American Nick Fury in a more or less identical way to the way a white Nick Fury would be written.
It is here that a firmer hand at the editorial wheel, enforcing a flexible but consistent continuity — combined with a judicious use of real time, not as a straitjacket but as a tool — would be so useful in putting these stories to work in service of diversity. Chris Miller, as well as many others, has discussed how the use of ‘legacy’ characters is a logical way for the comics giants to preserve some semblance of their marketing-driven lust for property preservation while still allowing for the possibility of growth, change, and character development; I would add that it is also a natural and reasonable way to introduce long-missing elements of racial, sexual, and gender diversity to these stories. Setting superhero fiction in some semblance of real time allows the fictional universes to recognize that times truly are changing, and that women, minorities, queers, and people of color are a bigger part of both our society and a bigger part of the audience for those stories, without betraying both the real and fictional history in which the stories are set.
There would, in this way, be no betrayal of ‘realism’ — not of the kind that can be shrugged aside with the objection that these are, after all, fantasy stories, but of the kind that do a genuine service to diversity and historicity by recognizing rather than eliding the fact that white, straight, male voices dominated the medium and its creators for decades — but rather an affirmation of it. It would be a chance to show how diversity didn’t just happen overnight, but was the result of a deliberate and visible struggle by minority creators to introduce minority characters. It would even allow for the mining of the fictional past, displaying on the page real evidence the way women’s and black peoples’ stories were ignored, suppressed, and minimized through the invention of ‘new’ characters to populate that past, rather than the weak pretense that history was always a welcome place for everyone and we just forgot to mention it until now.
As well as benefiting the characters and story, it would provide a much more natural entrée for diverse writers. White, straight, and male creators would not have to do the thorny work of attempting to insert their voices into a lived experience they cannot hope to speak to, and women, queer, and creators of color would not simply be handed white characters to adapt to their own uses, or be asked to make a thoughtlessly retconned character seem like something other than a token. Real time will probably always be a quixotic goal for those few of us who care enough to know about it, and that’s too bad, because I think it’s not only a more elegant storytelling tool, but one that could bring real change in areas of comics that need it the most.