WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME: BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS' "AGE OF ULTRON" VS. THE DC UNIVERSE
The scorched-earth, hyper-tech, post-apocalypse depicted in "Age of Ultron" #1 couldn't last, of course. But it was a thrilling start.
Here was a Marvel event series that began -- with nary a relevant prologue -- deep inside its second act, when all hope seemed lost. Captain America curled up in the corner of the superhero hideout and pondered. Or wept. We couldn't really see his eyes.
What Brian Michael Bendis and Bryan Hitch did in the first couple of issues of the series was to show an impossibly bleak present and dare the reader to believe it. "This is how bad it is!" they shouted -- symbolically -- on every page. New York in ruins. The remains of the fallen S.H.I.E.L.D helicarrier in Central Park. The Black Widow disfigured. Captain America's shield, shattered. All the Sentinel of Liberty had left was one jagged edge of what was once the most powerful defensive weapon in the Marvel Universe. If adamantium can't protect us, then surely everyone we know and love is doomed!
Cataclysmic stuff, and Bendis couldn't help but frame it all in his superhero-boardroom approach of debating the issues around a table. Only, all the tables had been destroyed by robots. So it's mostly heroes in tattered costumes standing around talking about what they should do.
Still, "Age of Ultron" started off as the kind of event series I like a lot. It just threw us into the middle of something absolutely devastating and played around in that nightmarish world. Characters couldn't fall back on traditions because survival was all that mattered. Survival, and a tiny glimmer of hope.
After all, Captain America's shield wasn't totally destroyed. And that had to mean something.
Inevitably -- because they couldn't allow the Marvel Universe to really be devastated by a super-robot takeover which killed Luke Cage's wife and child -- the story turned toward the expected: time travel. To stop the "Age of Ultron," a group of heroes would have to go back to the past, and stop the very idea of Ultron. They'd have to cancel his creation by canceling his creator.
Robot 6's Carla Hoffman recently dove into the morass of time travel and superhero morality, so I'll guide you over to her piece if you are interested in that side of things. But what I'm more interested in is the use of time travel itself as a storytelling tool and its larger implications within the idea of a shared universe.
I'm more interested in what it says about Marvel Comics right now, and what it says, by way of contrast, with DC's New 52 (if it's still called that).
In "Age of Ultron," and, also notably, in Bendis' "All-New X-Men," time travel is not only a pivotal plot element, it's the machine around which each story revolves. "Age of Ultron" couldn't exist without time travel, because, as I mentioned earlier, the Marvel Universe can't allow for such a massive, devastating shift in its shared setting. It's a story that lingers on the tease of an apocalyptic now, but that's really just a variation on the could-be-future of something like the Chris Claremont and John Byrne "Days of Future Past." The reality in which Ultron conquers the world is no more "real" than any other alternate timeline. Bendis and Hitch make it seem "realer" by opening the story in that timeline as if it's the one that counts, but travel to the past and a change to the narrative present must occur, in the larger scheme of things, by the story's end.
And in "All-New X-Men," the original, much younger, team of X-Men is brought back to the narrative present to ostensibly help fix what has gone wrong with the present day team. Really they are foils for their present selves and interesting variations in their own right, but the entire premise of the book, at least in the first six months of its existence, has been predicated on the time travel of the old team to meet up with the new mutant status quo.
Time travel, in both cases, is central. But it's a specific kind of time travel that engages with the fictional past of the Marvel Universe and therefore engages with its corporate history. In a way -- maybe a significantly important way -- these two comics by Brian Michael Bendis are the beacon that says, on behalf of Marvel Comics: "This is where we have come from, and we own what has come before" (both literally and metaphorically).
DC has taken the opposite approach. They have jettisoned their own past -- something they've done before, of course, after "Crisis on Infinite Earths," -- with the New 52 reboot, and as things stand now, they are incapable of reconciling their past with the present. Out of their entire lineup, the only two books that explicitly build upon the narrative and corporate past are the two books written by Grant Morrison. "Action Comics" weaves timelines together and presents a fragmented chronology that alludes to previous corporate decisions and "Batman Inc." continues the past-stories-as-true-chronicles approach Morrison began early in his Batman run when he decided that all the Batman comics actually happened to this same character that we see today, as crazy as that might be to believe. The other DC books -- with the possible exception of "Green Lantern," which doesn't explicitly allude to the intricacies of its past but builds upon it as if it did happen -- are unmoored in a narrative present that's ill-defined because the history of these characters has been removed.
You might have noticed that in the biographies printed in their comics and on their website (although those seem to have been replaced in recent months) DC officially proclaims that Superman's first appearance was in "Justice League" #1 from 2011. He's a brand new character, folks! He just happens to share everything with another character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938.
DC can't allow its creators to do a story like the one we see in "Age of Ultron" or in "All-New X-Men." Its narrative history has been wiped away. There's nothing to build on but impressions of earlier versions of things.
Does this mean that I'm proposing that Bendis is including time travel as a central element in both stories just to rub DC's nose in the fact that it has wiped away its own valuable past? Not really. But in telling stories that hinge on the corporate and narrative past of the Marvel Universe, Bendis is celebrating that these earlier stories matter, that what makes the characters -- and the shared universe -- worth reading about isn't that character A has power B mixed with power C and costume D but that the character is a collection of his or her actions. A part of a series of stories that have resonated enough to build a universe worth caring about.
DC has lost that. Severed those ties. And that makes their current stories more fragile and ephemeral than they might otherwise have been.
"Age of Ultron" may just be a time travel story that resets itself back to the usual status quo in the end (with probably minor lingering changes) but as each issue comes out, it presents a stark portrait of a fictional world devastated by bad decisions. Just like DC Comics.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.