Saturday, July 29, 2006

Ahead of Its Time

"What is this Hypertime that you speak of?"– Mark Waid at San Diego Comic-Con

Well, Mark, I'm glad you asked.

Hypertime was Mark Waid's [edit: Fine, FINE! and GOD OF ALL COMICS Grant Morrison's] attempt at replacing the parallel universe concept in the DC Comics universe.

Before 1986, most DC Comics were considered to take place in the same, "mainstream" universe and comics published by other comic book companies and even National comics published before the Silver Age were considered to take place in alternate dimensions, crossing over only through extraordinary measures. After 1986, that was changed so that ALL characters created for or acquired by DC Comics existed on the same Earth, which eased character interaction. (This, I consider, was a good thing, because crossovers are fun, create a richer history for the characters, and boost sales of the smaller titles through easier use of "guest stars.")

However, editorial mandate or not, DC Comics continued to publish books that did not take place officially in the DC Universe. Originally called "imaginary stories" and later branded as "Elseworlds," these stories took the familiar characters and either placed them in radically different settings or simply had events that would make an ongoing series difficult (such as, say, death). The most famous Elseworlds is Kingdom Come, by Mark Waid and Alex Ross, though The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen could be considered Elseworlds as well.

On top of that, there were film, television, print and radio versions of all these superheroes out there, with varying degrees of fidelity to the source material.

The "problem" was that these stories, despite being unofficial, had a habit tying into the main universe. Following the The Dark Knight Returns, the "main universe" Batman began acting more and more like the dystopian, aging, paranoid, sadistic version. Following Kingdom Come, Alex Ross's character re-designs started to appear in the main books, as well as hints that, in fact, Kingdom Come was the future of the DCU. And the Batman Animated Series introduced two important new characters to the Batman mythos (Renee Montoya and Harley Quinn), as well as changing (and improving) the design and origins for most of the characters (notably Mr. Freeze).

Hypertime was an attempt to address this reality. Mark Waid's [edit: and Bald and Beautiful Grant Morrison's] concept had two major differences from the previous theory of the Multiverse.

The first is that it included EVERYTHING. Every imaginary story, every Elseworlds, every movie, musical, every possible appearance by anyone anywhere. Presumably, this also included works that DIDN'T involve DC characters directly, like comics published by Marvel and Dark Horse. It certainly included comics published by Wildstorm, which DC Comics purchased the same year Hypertime was introduced. DC Editor Mike McAvennie once described it to me as "All stories are equally imaginary."

The second difference was that, rather than parallel Earths, the different worlds crisscrossed all the time, feeding into each other. So if, say, Smallville introduced a Lex Luthor who grew up in Smallville, yes, suddenly the DC Universe Lex Luthor had a childhood in Smallville as well. Under the old version, the Smallville Lex would have had to literally tear open a hole in the fabric of time and space and take the non-Smallville Luthor's place in order for that to occur. Under Hypertime, that changed history just sort of happens.

On the macroscale, it meant that any story, anywhere, COULD be an in continuity story for any one particular issue of, say, Impulse. Even if it's a fifty year old comic, or published by the Marvelous competition, or if it's a 19th century proto-horror novel. On the microscale, it means that every individual issue is a current within the main stream, which may or may not affect the other currents. After all, as Kurt Busiek once said, "they're all fairy tales we pretend take place in the same world because it's more fun that way."

BUT... as the quote above suggests, in the wake of Infinite Crisis, Hypertime is concepta-non-grata at DC Comics now. In fact, writer and editor alike act as if Hypertime has been, ha ha ha, erased from time. And the reason is... Hypertime never really worked. No one [edit: Not even 12th level intellects Mark Waid and Grant Morrison] ever did anything particularly interesting with Hypertime. Mostly, writers just treated it as another word for Multiverse, with the added bit that it might include some of our favorite Elseworlds characters (such as one AWESOME (and criminally uncollected) Superboy story).

Why was that? My theory is that Hypertime was too metaphysical a concept. Quite frankly, it was just a description of the way the creative process actually works. If he or she sees a good idea, consciously or unconsciously a writer will incorporate that idea into their work. Acknowledging, in story, that that happens may reduce fanboy whining about what is or is not in continuity (Yes, it's all in continuity), it doesn't actually help tell a better story. (At least not one that I can think of.) And so it's become passe.

Or has it? DC has, for now, stopped their Elseworlds line, though if New Frontier, JLA Classified, Bizarro Comics, Solo and the ALL-STAR line are any indication, they haven't stopped producing comics that are outside established DC continuity. They also still publish the Vertigo books, some of which still have an ill defined connection to the Justice League world, as well as Wildstorm's superhero and non-superhero books.

And despite the fact that Infinite Crisis ended three months ago, and DC has been publishing "New Earth" books for two months before that, we still don't know what the structure of the new DC universe is. We know that multiple Earths DID exist, it's been hinted that they still do, but it's also clear that Barry Allen, Jay Garrick, Billy Batson, Eel O'Brien, and Ted Kord were all born on the same earth, or at least everyone in the DCU remembers it that way. Similarly, the two page spread in Infinite Crisis #6 implied that EVERY comic DC ever produced, including the Zero Hour Legion and, ha ha ha, the Tangent Universe ARE also part of the New Earth, in some way. (My personal favorite part of Infinite Crisis #7 was the kids finding the Tangent Green Lantern on a beach).

So, was Hypertime really erased? Could it even be erased, considering it was just a description of the way comics were written anyway, an acknowledgment of the imaginary quality of the stories and the complexities of the world of ideas? Or have only our memories of Hypertime disappeared? For if GOOD ideas can cross from current to current, shouldn't BAD ideas be sluiced out, floating down the stream and getting lost in a sea of forgotten thoughts and half-formed dreams, never to be seen again?

Until, of course, one good writer has one good idea...


Anonymous said...

Hypertime wasn't just Waid's concept. It was a joint effort by both him and Grant Morrison.

Steven said...

Anonymous... you know, I don't like anonymous posting on my blog. But since I don't want to limit the comments to just people who use blogger, I guess I just have to put up with them.

But I won't call you anonymous. Since I've gotten a lot of my links through When Fangirls Attack, I'll just assume you are a woman and call you by a random girl's name

So, Susan, what do you mean, "joint effort"? I certainly see it as something Mark Waid and he talked about, but Waid was the one who introduced the idea, and it was Karl Kesel who really did the grunt work in writing a story that really used Hypertime, rather than just reveal it. Did Grant Morrison ever write a Hypertime story?

And Jenn, I don't know if it was unimaginative writers that killed Hypertime. I can only think of three stories that used Hypertime since its introduction, and the writers, Kesel, Peter David, and Mark Waid himself, are all really good (as are the stories they wrote).

I think Hypertime, as a storytelling device, is flawed, because if Hypertime works the way it's supposed to, massive changes would happen all the time (and they do) and no one would notice.

What is it like if you start looking and acting younger because a new actor has been hired to play you in a different reality? What is it like to suddenly have a 6 year old son, because Bryan Singer thought that would really add to the Superman mythos? Would you start having feelings for a man you never met, because an alternate you died to save his life?

The closest I can think of is an Astro City story where a man dream every night of a woman he's never met, because that woman was his wife before she was erased from history. And it's disappointing to think that DC won't tell those kinds of stories anymore.

But... then I see the Tangent Green Lantern wash up on the shore in IC #7, or this hysterical bit of bad advice on the 52 website, and I think Hypertime isn't gone. We've just forgotten its name.

Anonymous said...

So no, officially, Morrison never wrote any stories concerning Hypertime. Does that mean that any credit to him is undeserved? I certainly would hope not.

Waid and Morrison both contributed and, when it was originally announced, both were quick to point out that it was a joint effort.

That's all I was trying to point out.

Brian Cronin said...

Yeah, Morrison and Waid definitely came up with it together.

Waid's said as much.

And yes, Hypertime was awesome.

And yes, the biggest problem was that people didn't "get it."

Steven said...

Fine. FINE! You win. I've made the corrections.

Unknown said...

I have a theory of the new structure of the DCU, based on the "History of the DC Universe" backup in 52 and the structure of Justice League of America #0. It may sound crazy and if I'm right I hope they bring back Hypertime (which I think was perfect).

I think the Post-Infinite Crisis DCU is set in a sort of "metacontinuity" where everything has happened. Pre-Crisis, Post-Crisis, Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis, it's all in continuity. It all happened. Somehow.

In the "History of the DCU" story, Donna Troy is shown what has literally happened in her universe, and what she sees is not so much a history of her world but rather a history of DC Comics as a publisher. So what we, as readers, have read is what has happened, not what the characters may remember.

In JLofA #0, we see many different versions of the characters of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, with each scene labeled with a "yesterday" or "tomorrow." These are not presented as alternate futures or pasts but as legitimate events. Many of them directly contradict each other, refer to things long wipped from continuity and even Elseworlds stories. I think by labeling these multiple, contradictory events on a common timeline, we come to something very close to Hypertime. But instead of the concept being rooted in the DCU's metaphysics, it's rooted in our own relationship to the stories we have read.

It's all so very meta.

Really, it just stinks of Hypertime, but since DC seems to be rejecting the concept, they may just be adopting a lazy, undefined policy towards continuity. It's as if they are saying "these are just comic books, who cares if they don't all sync up?"

I hope DC proves me wrong.