Secret Avengers #20#20

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 (1895).

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) [1], whilst others point to Slam-Bang Comics #1 [2] (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.




"Damn you, Henry McCoy, for being so incredibly boring that I didn't listen to you talk about time travel." (Black Widow)

"Encircle", the third in a series of 20 pages one-and-done spy and superhero stories published in Secret Avengers under the umbrella heading "Run the mission! Don't get seen! Save the world!" before the title launched a new line-up of the team, was written by British author Warren Ellis and pencilled and inked by Bulgarian artist Alex Maleev, with colouring from Nick Filardi amd lettering from Dave Lanphear.

The story begins with what is de facto an ending - the last moments of a mission in Evje (Norway) which sees the black-ops Secret Avengers team (Steve Rogers, Black Widow, War Machine and Sharon Carter) felled by a barrage of attackers from the Shadow Council. With Rogers and Carter already dead, the dying War Machine hands the Black Widow an "escape hatch", which in effect is nothing less than a time jumping device, and although she does not know what she is now actually holding in her hands she promises to bring help and presses the red button as per War Machine's instructions - and then vanishes back into time.

Only three pages into the story, this is the crucial point where a good many time travel stories - both in comics and other media - take a wrong turning. What should Natasha Romanova a.k.a. the Black Widow do now? One possible answer could, of course, be: prevent things from happening the way they just did. She could maybe make sure that the attackers are taken care of at a previous point in time, or if the onslaught does take place she might change the playing field by coming back with some big guns to blow the Shadow Council henchmen to pieces before they can even take aim. And in the end and back in our own time, the Black Widow will have saved the day.

Sound familiar? Many time travel stories work on those or similar plots and premises, but unfortunately that formula is not going to produce a very coherent chain of events, and here's why.

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.

After activating the Escape Hatch device, the Black Widow finds herself transported five years back in time and to the stately Villa Vedova (which, in Italian, is "widow") near Trieste (Italy).

However, she also realizes that she knows little to nothing about time travel - not the least because she never listened to fellow Secret Avenger and bright scientist Henry McCoy (a.k.a. The Beast) talk about it.

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.
  By having the device programmed with a few instructional messages for the Black Widow, writer Warren Ellis also sets things straight for the reader in a nifty way - six pages into the story we are now all made aware of the fact that time travel is not easy and requires some advance thinking - because you must avoid creating a paradox in time.

This is why Natasha Romanova can't, as she herself suggests, simply resolve the situation five minutes before it happens - not the least because this would create the paradox of eliminating the reason why she travelled back in time in the first place.

In fact, the possibility of creating such paradoxes in time has led a number of physicists to conclude that time travel is not possible. Stephen Hawking, for example, stipulated the chronology protection conjecture which holds that the laws of physics are such that they not only disallow but actually prevent time travel on all but sub-microscopic scales (Hawking, 1992) - but he also put forward other arguments:

"So it might seem possible that, as we advance in science and technology, we might be able to (...) travel into our past. If this were the case, it would raise a whole host of questions and problems. One of these is, if sometime in the future we learn to travel in time, why hasn't someone come back from the future to tell us how to do it." (Hawking, A.N.)

The answer 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.

This is certainly no mean feat for a 20 pages story in a "done in one" comic book, and what could easily have become either a simplistic or overly complicated affair works flawlessly. The non-linear storytelling is paced just right and cleverly, but always easy to follow thanks to clear markers where and at what point in time an event actually takes place. The result is a superhero-scifi-spy tale which satisfies the intellect as much as the expectations for suspense and action.

To make things near perfect, the visuals of Secret Avengers #20 by Alex Maleev fit this extraordinary story like a glove as he provides an interesting mixture of realism and mysterious intrigue, creating an atmosphere which draws the reader right into the story. And there's even more - in a cameolike yet perfect setup Maleev also pays hommage to the archetypical comic strip spy, Modesty Blaise, and her creators, Peter O'Donnell and Jim Holdaway, as the style of his artwork changes to vintage newspaper strip format as the Black Widow travels back to approximately the time in which Modesty Blaise held sway.

This might be the one part of Secret Avengers #20 which could leave some readers slightly puzzled what this is all about, but the six "newspaper strip" format inserts will not come across as stumbling blocks for the rest of the story.

For those in the know, however, this is a nice touch of extra class and a tip from Maleev's hat in the direction of what must certainly have been one of the major influences in the creation of the Black Widow back in April 1964 for Tales of Suspense #52.

And there are even more references to comic book history as John Cassaday's cover for Secret Avengers #20 clearly pays hommage to Jim Steranko's ground-breaking cover for Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #4 (September 1968).


The Modesty Blaise newspaper strip by Peter O'Donnell (above) as paid hommage to by Alex Maleev (below) [click for larger images]

The only quibbles which some die-hard Marvelites might have is that time travel as depicted in Secret Avengers #20 is not truly in line with the canonical definition of time travel in the Marvel Universe - where travelling through time always involves dimensional travel and thus means travelling to an alternate reality or creating a new alternate reality.

This effectively does away with any time paradoxes by definition (as these are only possible in single timeline universes), and is actually very close to Quantum Theory, which stipulates that the universe doesn't have just one unique single history but instead has every single possible history, each with its own probability - and whilst this does make Marvel's approach to time travel appear to be pretty close to sound scientific concepts, it would not have worked with this story.

The fact that Warren Ellis - who is also known for his passionate arguments for space travel - got away with it would suggest that editorial at Marvel considers Secret Avengers to be something of a fringe title, meaning that what gets published there causes few if any repercussions for the Marvel Universe at large. In that respect, it's a case of history repeating itself rather than something to do with time travel:


Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD #4
(September 1968)


"It was very possible for us to do those things (...) because no one was paying attention. So Roy Thomas could do that on Conan, Steve [Englehart] could do that on Doc Strange and Master of Kung-Fu, [Steve] Gerber could do it on Man-Thing or Howard the Duck, and I [Marv Wolfman] could do it on Dracula - and those were the books that I think made the Seventies at Marvel something more than just more of the same (...) [The idea was] to try and push comics into other things, other areas, that they had not explored." (Marv Wolfman in Siuntres, 2006)

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 [3], 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.
The reviewer has no professional or personal connection to the publishing company
or any of the individuals involved in the publication process
and does not profit from this review in any direct or indirect way



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 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



The illustrations presented here are copyright material
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Text is (c) 2012-2014 Adrian Wymann

page originally published on the web 26 June 2012
revised, updated and moved to 8 March 2014