Friday, March 03, 2023

The Problem Of Susan

In 1963, the other kids at Midtown High took the mickey out of Peter Parker because he didn't know the difference between a fashionable cha-cha and an old-fashioned waltz.

In 1969, his friend, Flash Thompson was off fighting in Viet Nam.

In 2001, he sits with Captain America and looks at the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

Peter Parker can't have been younger than 16 in in 1963. He could have been as old as 22 in 1969 (he didn't graduate college until 1978) but he clearly wasn't 56 in 2001. And he definitely isn't 80 right now. He's usually represented as in his early 20s, which means he wasn't even born at the time of the September 11th attacks. Even if he was 15 in 2001 he'd now be well in sight of his 40th birthday.

Dragons last for ever, but not so little boys. In the 1970s, when Roy Thomas was Stan Lee's representative on earth, they used to talk about something called Marvel Time. Spider-Man was 20, and always had been. He had become a superhero when he was 15, and always had done. So the Origin of Spider-Man was always 5 years ago. The story about the spider, the burglar, and the uncle was first told in 1962: but in 1980, you had to imagine it having happened in 1975. "Wouldn't know a cha-cha from a waltz" gets overwritten as "Wouldn't a waltz". I suppose from the 2023 perspective they said "Doesn't know Kanya West from the cha-cha."

The stories in which Flash Thompson is drafted to Viet Nam still kind of happened, but he was actually fighting in Iran. Did I say Iran? I meant Afghanistan. In fact, I meant "an unspecified US war." (I don't know what they did with his very specifically and not at all stereotypically Vietnamese girlfriend.) Roy Thomas actually inserted new text into reprint editions warning us that when Mr Fantastic talks about helping the French resistance in World War II, he was actually talking about helping the French resistance in Korea.

This has the great advantage of broadly reflecting how everyone has always read stories, particularly comic strips. Charlie Brown is every kid's contemporary; but he was also their Dad's and very probably their Grandpa's contemporary. Lucy pulled the football away from him at the beginning of forty consecutive football seasons. Charlie may have aged slightly since 1948, but he sure wasn't 60 in 2001: but equally, the ball gag never happens for the first time. Batman has foiled the Joker before; Batman has foiled the Joker many times before, but Batman has not foiled the Joker on a thousand previous occasions.

William Brown (usually known as just William) pointedly remained eleven years old for half a century, doing his bit against Hitler in the 30s, playing at moon rockets in the 50s and trying to become a pop star in the 60s. His mother mutates from a 1920s village lady with a small staff to a 1960s house wife with a washing machine. This fits in with the ethos of the stories: when you are 11, summer holidays really do seem to last for half a century. That sense of time having stopped may have suggested the idea of William the Antichrist to Pratchett and Gaiman, although that idea became rather submerged in the over-egged Good Omens pudding. One of the reasons Bill Waterson terminated Calvin and Hobbes seems to have been that he found the idea of Calvin remaining permanently six years old and the idea of Calvin growing up equally unpalatable.

Jake Dudley's justly forgotten Daily Mirror comic strip The Larks did show characters aging more or less in real time during its thirty year run. 80s yuppie Alex is now late middle-aged with a grown up son.

The floating time line and the eternally extended adolescence works well for characters like Calvin and Orphan Annie: for a more realistic figure like Peter Parker it doesn't make sense. A kid who was born to Jewish immigrants in 1945, grew up in the fifties and hit college when the sixties were in full swing can't possibly be the same character who was born to an American couple in 2003 and grew up with the internet.

The best solution to the problem is to just ignore it. They are only comic book characters, after all. If you want to pretend that the Spider-Man who visited that cancer patient in 1984 is the same guy who is working for Norman Osborn in 2023 you are quite free to do so. If you come across an old comic book in which the Beatles are a bit new-fangled and Peter Sellers is still making movies, you are welcome to ignore it. The same applies to cars, hemlines, haircuts and, in particular, black people.

"They are only comic book characters, after all." It all comes down to whether you are a Doylist or a Watsonian. (*) Everything always comes down to whether you are a Doylist or a Watsonian. How many of the great questions in literary criticism, art theory, philosophy, Biblical scholarship and nuclear physics could be solved if everyone would just figure out what side of the line they stand on?

The question becomes more and more pressing as time passes. The popular culture of the past used to be inaccessible. Peanuts didn't exist beyond the back pages of the Daily Express. Once you'd read it, you put it in the dustbin, or on the end of a piece of string in the outside privy. Yes, there were paperback reprints with panels printed horizontally down the page, but they were this year's paperback reprints, unless you frequented second hand shops and jumble sales. Stan Lee used to pretend that everyone kept their Marvel Comics in a neat pile and could refer back to them; but very few of us had complete runs and there was no reliable source of back issues. Popular culture existed in the present; and in our collective memories.

Star Trek, admittedly, existed on an endless cycle of reruns. But most Doctor Who fans had never seen most of Doctor Who. Soon after I encountered the One With The Old Yellow Car and The One With The Long Scarf I became aware of the existence of the Crotchety Old One and the One Who Looked Like A Hobo. (I didn't know what a hobo was: we don't use that word in this country.) But I had never actually seen any of the characters. This was a big part of the mystique. Tomb of the Masterplan and the Daleks Toymaker weren't just stories you hadn't seen, they were stories you could never possibly see. When the BBC showed a very weak black and white Second Doctor story called the Krotons as part of a retrospective, an unimaginably old fan of twenty something said in a fanzine that it was strange to think that younger viewers were seeing, for the first time, Doctors and companions that they had only read about. It was stranger to me that there still existed in this present world people who had seen them; who preserved the memory of a time when Patrick Troughton was just someone wot came on the telly on a Saturday night.

But the wheels spun round and along came Betamax and VHS and DVD and Netfux and Britbox. Fans got older and didn't grow out of being fans. Branches of Forbidden Planet popped up in ordinary shopping malls and big huge books called The Complete Judge Dredd and the Complete Peanuts and The Complete Golden Age of Superman appeared on the shelves. In the 2016 Marvel movie Civil War, a 15 year old Peter Parker describes the Empire Strikes Back as "a really old movie". But that's not how it works. Errol Flynn's Robin Hood and Groucho Marx's Night at the Opera are very old movies. The Star Wars trilogy are just movies.

I wonder if this is why fandom became toxic? It lost its original purpose as the repository of a tradition, and become focussed on dissecting presently available texts. Its function was nostalgia, and nostalgia is, really and truly, not as good as it used to be.

That is part of the fear and the promise of CGI and deepfake. If we can summons a young Mark Hamill and a young Harrison Ford from Lucasfilms vaults, there is no reason not to carry on making New Star Wars films, with simulacra of the original cast, even though the original cast are old or dead or bored. Never mind guest appearances by Luke Skywalker in the Disney+ TV shows: the time is not remote when Young Luke, Young Han, and Still Alive Princess Leia might change out of their medal ceremony uniforms, hop into the Millennium Falcon and embark on magical adventures more wonderful than any George Lucas told us about. Which is not, truthfully, that much different from endless Star Wars comics and endless Star Wars cartoons filling the interstices between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Big Finish have been creating pastiche First Doctor stories with sound-a-like actors for decades: there is no reason why William Hartnell and Carol Anne Ford might not soon be starring in brand new 1960s black and white stories filmed in colour.

Old people have always thought that the popular culture of their youth will go on and on forever. Our generation is the generation for which that might turn out to be true. The summer of 1977 is a story which will go on and on forever, and every chapter will be exactly the same as the last.

As everyone knows, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Superman of the 1940s and 1950s was shunted off into an alternate reality called Earth-2, which was then abolished, reconstituted, merged with Earth-1, abolished again, reconstituted again, and finally rediscovered in the Lost Property office at Paddington Station. Marvel Comics asks us to believe that the gung-ho biff-the-bosh Captain America stories of the 1940s were in-universe propaganda strips, not accounts of what "really" happened to the "real" Capt & Bucky. (The gung smash the commies Captain America stories of the 1950s stories really happened, but not to the real Captain America. It's complicated.) 

Doctor Who fans have never played these metatextual games. You can't rewrite history: not one single line. What happened, happened.

We aren't bonkers. We don't think Doctor Who is true. A lot of us are very interested in the ins and outs of how it got made, which script editor rowed with which producer over which story and what Michael Grade said to Mary Whitehouse and precisely which brand of sticky-back plastic the Emperor Dalek was constructed from. But that's not how we watch it. Yes, we know that in 1965 William Hartnell was too poorly and too annoying to carry on starring in a TV show, and Sydney Newman and Kit Pedlar between them came up with a silly plot device that meant that -- instead of just recasting the actor -- the Doctor could turn into a completely different character, who was still exactly the same character, which made no sense, but was true, because they said so. But we also say that in 1965 it was revealed that the Doctor could change his physical form, and always had been able to. Once it was revealed; it became true retrospectively.

Things are always being Revealed in Doctor Who. The Doctor is REVEALED to be a Time Lord in a 1969 story; but the name of the Time Lord's planet is not REVEALED until 1973. The Daleks are introduced in the 1960s, but their true origin and the name of their creator is not REVEALED until 1974.

It's an interesting word. Christians and especially Muslims think of Scripture as not having been composed by human writers, but Revealed to prophets and holy men by God. The last book of the Christian Bible is called the Apocalypse, which literally means thing-which-has-been-revealed:  Revelation. The opposite of Apocalypse is "Aprocrypha" which means "thing which has been concealed." Over the years, "Apocryphal" has come to be synonymous with "non-canonical".


(*) The original Sherlock Holmes stories are presented as memoirs of Holmes' boyfriend Dr Watson. Some Sherlock Holmes fans play a game of pretending that the stories really are Watson's accounts of the adventures of a person he knew. As long as you are playing the game, inconsistencies can be explained as errors or misrepresentations by Watson -- who is conveniently, not very bright -- but not as plot devices or errors on the part of a writer of fiction. When Tolkien made it a plot-point that Bilbo had lied about his encounter with Gollum or when serious scholars invent previous husbands or miscarriages for Lady Macbeth, they are more-or-less playing a Watsonian game. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Achille Talon said...

Doctor Who fans have never played these metatextual games. You can't rewrite history: not one single line.

…Say what now? The idea that the Doctor's timeline is watsonianly in flux was played with frequently in the 90s books — the wonderfully-titled Unnatural History is about little else. Indeed the Eighth Doctor spent most of his era getting rewritten by everyone from Faction Paradox to Rassilon himself. He was definitely half-human for a night in 1996, and always had been, but McCoy was full Time Lord and always had been, unless he was really the Other, unless he really wasn't.

Not televised, you say? Well look, I'll start by going to bat for the fact that as of the 1990s, the books were the genuine article. Whether they lost the mandate later is another matter, but until 2003 or so, Doctor Who considered as a living media project was an ongoing series which had, a decade earlier, happened to jump medium from TV to books (or rather, had refocused itself solely on books after having spent thirty years being both at the same time; Targets and all that).

I quite understand that you weren't in those segments of fandom, and that's fair enough, and I don't mean to delegitimise the experience of those for whom "the EU" remained a quaint and remote curiosity even in those TV-less years. My point is simply that what the Eighth Doctor books do with the continuity of the 60s TV show is as good a comparison for what 90s Marvel Comics do with the continuity of the 60s comics as anything. So I find it very telling they were in fact also playing in that territory — and pulling it off, I might add, with a lot more style.

But secondarily, the Revived Series has largely followed in this approach (see Moffat's notorious quote about "it's impossible for a show about a dimension-hopping time-traveller to have a 'canon'"). Many of RTD's greatest-hits explicitly spent the Matt Smith era in a Schr√∂dingerian state, erased from history by Cracks in Time but remembered by a select few. History does *in fact* get rewritten very frequently, all the way to “Day of the Doctor” (no, it's not an "it was always like this" loop).

Nobody yet knows how the upcoming era will deal with the way Chibnall left the universe — by which I mean the Timeless Child, of course, but also half the Solar System having been destroyed by the Flux. But fully embracing a casual "history is fluid, sometimes it just changes for no particular reason" position is certainly a very plausible course for Davies to take if he wants a reasonably clean slate (i.e. not a world where everyone watched dog-aliens create a shield around the Earth last year), and yet doesn't want to acknowledge the Chibnall era long enough to rewrite it on-screen, lest new viewers be turned away by the perceived need for "homework" when all they want is to jump in with the new David Tennant specials.

Scurra said...

I just had an exchange with someone on a completely different forum in which I noted that one reason The Simpsons has survived (more-or-less) is that the writers understood (and understand) that there is no such thing as 'canon' - that every episode of The Simpsons (OK, with one or two specific exceptions) is entirely independent of every other episode because having a 'canon' would have interfered with the jokes.

Classic Who and original Star Trek clearly work on that basis (that 'canon' is not really a thing.) Modern Who and more recent Trek mostly do not, possibly to their detriment (cough, yes, a lot of DS9 is a single story.) Fandom became a significant thing largely between those two eras.

Gavin Burrows said...

“I wonder if this is why fandom became toxic? It lost its original purpose as the repository of a tradition, and become focussed on dissecting presently available texts.”

This is one of those classically Rilstonian comments which seems simultaneously revelatory and obvious, and leave me characteristically envious that I didn’t get to say it.

One of my criticisms of fandom back in the day was how uncritical it all was, at times seeming to regard criticism as some existential threat. I suppose acting as a recording device and acting as a critic are in some ways at odds, but that wasn’t how I saw it then. Was today’s toxicity an inadvertent consequence of my lot’s actions? Perhaps in part it was.
Though, I recently started searching yonder net in search of more good writing about ‘Who’. I was surprised to see how many blogs were essentially plot summaries (“and then they defeat the Cybermen using nail varnish”, “and then they defeat the Zarbi by shouting ‘Zarbiiiii’ at them” etc), sometimes followed by a single line thumbs-up commentary. And while people are entirely entitled to do what they want, this seemed passing strange. They’re posting this on the net, so they’re presumably aware that info already exists there, in a thousand other places. But I suppose it’s one of those stuck habit things, the way my Dad would ceremonially unplug his Skybox every evening before bedtime.

Richard Worth said...

Jon 19-25 For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another;