I have a confession. I don’t usually like time-travel comics. Or time-travel stories in any medium really.
You’d think I would. I love awesome things and what’s more awesome than going back to dinosaur times or trying to assassinate baby Hitler? But I tend not to like messy stories and time travel is so freaking messy.
Take the X-Men for instance. How many alternate futures do those guys have? Someone’s always coming back from the future to change something in our present. They say that they’re doing it to make the future a better place, but it never really works out that way, does it? In X-Men comics, when you change something in the past, it doesn’t do a damn thing to your version of the future. It just creates a divergent timeline so that, yes, a better future does exist somewhere, but it’s still possible to visit the nasty, Sentinel–filled future that you came from. The result is infinite possible futures with infinite possible versions of yourself and your friends. That makes for some okay Events for a while until there are so many futures to keep track of that it becomes more migrainoid than amusing. That’s what I mean by messy.
There’s another way of doing it though. Time-travel will always be complex. Should always be complex. That’s part of its fun. But it doesn’t have to barf a zillion different futures all over you in the process.
An atomic example, after the break.
I just finished Atomic Robo and the Shadow from Beyond Time. And while my point isn’t that Atomic Robo is fundamentally better than the X-Men (although, come on, it totally is), Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener do handle time-travel a lot more… well, I almost said “responsibly,” but that’s a strange word for a comic that features Nazi robots, diaper-wearing mummies, and giant ants. Then again, Atomic Robo (the series, not the character, though yeah, the character too) has a huge heart and yes, “responsibly” presents the robot’s WWII exploits in particular so that the real soldiers of that war are glorified and never undermined. For all its light-hearted joy, Atomic Robo is serious about its storytelling.
So, how does that apply to time-travel? I’m not trying to create any rules for Clevinger and Wegener. They haven’t stated that This Is the Way Time Travel Works in the Robo universe, so there’s lots of room for them to get all X-Meny in the future if they want to. I hope they don’t, but they’ve certainly left room for themselves to do whatever they want. In fact, you could even argue that The Shadow from Beyond Time isn’t truly a time-travel story at all. It’s about a Lovecraftian monster/god that exists outside of time, but intersects with our timeline in various places all at once so that he meets Atomic Robo in four different periods of his life: the ‘20s, the ‘50s, the ‘70s, and today.
But even though Robo’s not hopping between time periods, he does learn how to leave linear time and fight the creature in its own domain. And all four versions of himself team up to do it. Like I said: complicated. But you can get your mind around it and it stays internally consistent. Each time Robo meets himself, time doesn’t separate into two lines: one in which Robo met his future self and one in which he didn’t. I don’t want to say much more and give too much away, but Robo’s always met himself. He doesn’t alter time by moving around in it. Though the story structure is wickedly intricate – and so, fun – time itself isn’t. It’s constant and unchanging.
I like this better because I don’t feel cheated or played with. When I read an X-Men comic (or any comic that treats time that way), I always feel like I’ve been had a little. “Yes, our entire story has been about trying to prevent this horrible future. We sort of prevented it, but not really because we might like to come back and use it again someday.” In contrast, Atomic Robo presents a cohesive story with a definite conclusion that – when reached – you can see the creators working towards the entire time. It’s more difficult, more intricate storytelling, but that’s exactly what makes it more worthwhile reading.
On the other hand…
It is kind of fun isn’t to have all of these possible futures to play around in. As impossible as it is to keep them all straight, every X-Men fan has a favorite future timeline that we like to see revisited on occasion. Right?
So I put it to you: which type of time-travel story do you prefer? Tightly woven or willy-nilly? And though I’ve used two examples to illustrate both sides, there are of course thousands of other time travel stories in comics that we could talk about. Legion of Super Heroes is full of them, for instance. What are best time travel stories you’ve read and why did you like them?