HOW TO SUCCEED AT TIME TRAVEL
A REVIEW OF
|Travelling through time is
a fascinating idea and a great storytelling concept and
plot device. Although predominantly associated with
science fiction it has in fact found its way into all
kinds of genres, and many literary examples are well
known such as Mark Twain's A Yankee in King Arthur's
Court (1889) or H.G. Wells's The Time Machine
The first appearance of time travelling depicted in a comic book seems as yet to require confirmation. Some attribute this to Jumbo Comics #1 (September 1938) , whilst others point to Slam-Bang Comics #1  (published by Fawcett in March 1940) which featured a character named Diamond Jack, who in reality was Jack Lansing. Having received a gold ring with a black diamond of power from an old Asian mystic he was able to form anything he could imagine by force of will, shoot bolts of lightning, fly - and travel through time (if this sounds like a Green Lantern copycat to you - actually, Diamond Jack was first). Since then, time travels have become increasingly popular plot devices for comic book authors, either in search of a spectacularly interesting storyline concept or just a simplistic deus ex machina for a narrative.
Possibly the best (and to a certain degree infamously so) known period of comic book time travelling were the 1950s and early 1960s, when DC alone sent its heroes off in all kinds of temporal directions, with Cleopatra visiting Smallville (Adventure Comics #183, December 1952), Superboy having a chat with film directors from the 30th century (Superboy #27, August 1953), Superman getting married in the 12th century (Superman #92, September 1954), Batman visiting cavemen (Batman #93, August 1955) or Jimmy Olsen travelling to Krypton prior to its destruction (Jimmy Olsen #36, April 1959). Marvel gradually acquired a (limited) taste for time travelling too, with Doctor Strange and Dr Doom appearing to master the technique rather successfully, but by sheer quantity alone DC must rank as the unchallenged number one time travel comic publisher. This is further underscored by the importance which time travel continues to have as a plot device in the DC Universe - witness the death of Bruce Wayne explained as "disappearance into the past" in 2010/11 as well as the Flashpoint event from 2011 sending the Flash back in time before leading into the "New 52" relaunch.
The snag here is that - as fascinating and thrilling as the concept and possibilities may be - it will only truly work if a writer knows and applies the rules governing time travel (if it were at all possible) to his plot and storyline. Otherwise - and there is a plethora of comic books old and new to illustrate this - the whole thing becomes little more than a simplistic and two-dimensional ersatz magic wand which, as we all know, not only just about explains everything and anything, but most certainly produces lame, anaemic and boring stories.
Why some - if not most - time travel comic books fail to produce a coherent and entertaining storyline can perhaps best be illustrated and explained by looking at a really good time travel comic book - such as Secret Avengers #20, which was released by Marvel on 28 December 2011 with a cover date of February 2012.
|In the real
world, time travel is no problem to speak of - as long as
you're headed into the future, that is. On a theoretical
level, the concept is a fundamental aspect of Einstein's
theory of relativity, and on a practical level we all
know that time does not stand still and we will therefore
find ourselves in the future (for example tomorrow).
Essentially, it's just the speed of our trip to the
future which raises questions. Someone travelling aboard
a space rocket at near light speed, for example, would
find that one year's travel onboard equals 223 years for
folks back at the launchsite on Earth (Davies, 2003).
That's not part of our real world experience only because
we have neither the technology nor the energy at our
disposal to travel at near speed of light.
No, the really tricky aspect of time travelling only kicks in when you're thinking of going back in time. Now there's nothing in Einstein's theory that precludes this per se, but a huge stumbling block lies with the fact that even just going back to yesterday violates the law of causality, i.e. the balance of cause and effect, which runs through the entire universe - whenever something happens, this leads to something else, and so on and so on. It is an endless and - most importantly - one-way string of events as the cause always occurs before the effect. This defines our reality, and although other realities are in theory conceivable (e.g. where the thunder precedes the lightning), the basic laws of physics in such a reality would utterly violate reality as we know it. This is the prime reason why many scientists quite simply dismiss time travel into the past as an impossibility (Davies, 2003), whilst others feel it could only happen within certain strict limitations (Sanders, 2010).
Even on a purely theoretical level, time travel is a tricky subject, but with Secret Avengers #20 readers quickly realize that Warren Ellis has done all of his homework in all of the relevant fields.
|Deciding to proceed with caution, she takes time to fully familiarize herself with the device, and it is here that Natasha Romanova (who has her own personal experience with time as she was born in 1928 but ages slowly due to having been treated with secret Soviet medical technology) learns the most important rule of time travel - the timeflow must be preserved.|
to that somewhat tongue in cheek question might be:
because time travellers not only avoid creating paradoxes
- they are unable to. This, in essence, is the conclusion
of the Novikov self-consistency principle
developed by Russian physicist Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov
in the mid-1980s to solve the problem of paradoxes
arising out of time travel (Friedman et al., 1990). The
Novikov Principle does not allow a time traveller to
fundamentally change the past in any way (and thus
create a paradox), but it does allow the time traveller
to affect past events in ways that produce no
inconsistencies - meaning that an event affected by a
time traveller will always and throughout history be an
event affected by a time traveller, so that there will be
no alternate "before and after" version to an
"original history". Or, as Sanders (2010)
phrased it in the title of an article she wrote for Science
News: "Physicists tame time travel by
forbidding you to kill your grandfather".
Quite obviously you can follow the story of Secret Avengers #20 without needing to know any of this, as Warren Ellis mounts the suspense and intrigue of his plot by sending the Black Widow on a mission through time with the premise "you can't change what happened - but can you affect and tweak it in a way which will prevent the Secret Avengers from dying in that attack in Norway?" She may not know it, but as of now Natasha Romanova's moves are guided and defined by the Novikov self-consistency principle.
And so the Black Widow embarks on a criss-cross journey through time and around the world in order to gain required information and affect events in such a way that they allow her to get ever closer to the purpose of all these efforts - save her fellow Secret Avengers from dying in battle against the Shadow Council in Norway. Naturally - as we would all expect from a comic book - the heroes ultimately do survive, but the way Warren Ellis pulls this off is both entertaining and fascinating, just as his overall storytelling remains consistent and coherent.
And yes, throughout the Black Widow's quest the Novikov self-consistency principle is observed at all times as Warren Ellis fuses an all-out spy story with serious physics in an impeccable and elegant way as the reader notices that certain events in the past - which thus happened before the fatal Norway incident anyway - are actually tied to the Black Widow's time travels. Ellis is completely spot on as he weaves his compelling story without creating a single unresolved time paradox.
|Comic book history of
course tells us that whilst editorial at Marvel wasn't
paying attention, readers were, and all the books
mentioned by Wolfman did reasonably well for a while and
also received critical acclaim. Secret Avengers
#20 took 47th place on Diamond's Top 300 comic
book sales chart with 38,200 copies for North America in
December 2011 , which placed it well in the shadow
of that month's top-selling Justice League #4
with 142,200 sold copies but also enabled it to, as
Wolfman had put it, "push comics into other
things, other areas, that they had not explored."
Now of course time travel has been explored extensively in comics, but very few have gotten it right the way Warren Ellis has for Secret Avengers #20 - which is also, to a certain extent, ironic because just as impressively as Ellis has succeeded at giving readers a really good time travel comic book, his fellow British writer colleague Grant Morrison had failed not only completely but actually quite miserably on the same topic in 2011 with his five issue drag The Return of Bruce Wayne.
Secret Avengers #20 is, above all, a nifty little done-in-one comic book. If you are looking for a really good comic to give to someone who has no idea of the medium as it works today - Secret Avengers #20 would be an excellent choice. For those already into comics, it is quite simply highly recommended.
This is a bona fide
review of a publication from Marvel Comics.
DAVIES Paul (2003) How to Build a Time Machine, Penguin
FRIEDMAN John, Michael MORRIS, Igor NOVIKOV, Fernando ECHEVERRIA, Gunnar KLINKHAMMER, Kip THORNE & Ulvi YURTSEVER (1990) "Cauchy problem in spacetimes with closed timelike curves", in Physical Review D 42
HAWKING Stephen W. (1992) "The chronology protection conjecture", in Physical Review D46
HAWKING Stephen W. (A.N.) Space and Time Warps, available at www.hawking.org.uk/space-and-time-warps.html and accessed 20 June 2012
SANDERS Laura (2010) "Physicists tame time travel by forbidding you to kill your grandfather", in Science News (July 2010)
SIUNTRES John (2006) Marv Wolfman by Night, transcribed from the podcast Word Balloon: The Comic Creator's Interview Show , available online at wordballoon.libsyn.com
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page originally published on the
web 26 June 2012