The late-90s miniseries The Kingdom, by writer Mark Waid and various artists, was absolutely slated by fans when it came out, and is not remembered fondly. This is mostly because the story was billed as a sequel to the graphic novel Kingdom Come, written by Waid and painted by Alex Ross, but shared none of that story’s ludicrously overblown nature (I’ve always thought there was a huge amount of unintentional bathos to be found in Ross’ work – he clearly wants to portray superheroes as gods, at whose feet we should tremble in awe at their sheer majesty, but what he actually produces are Norman Rockwell pastiches featuring paunchy middle-aged men sucking in their guts while dressed as Superman or Batman).
But the main reason for the hatred of the (admittedly-patchy) series was that its storyline (actually a good one, which we will come on to in a bit) existed to introduce into DC continuity a concept called Hypertime. The existence of hypertime was the big revelation at the end, and was an idea that Waid took from his friend and frequent collaborator Grant Morrison. Rather than use the explanation Waid gave in the comic, here’s Morrison’s original conception for Hypertime, as reported by Warren Ellis:
It’s one of those things that’s difficult to capture on paper if you’re not the originator, I suspect. Firstly, it wasn’t set up to explain continuity glitches. That’s not its point, as described to me. It’s…
It’s Grant trying to describe a new physics for fictional reality. And it’s time considered as a volume. a three-dimensional artifact.
My recall is flawed. We were drinking heavily. There could be crucial mistakes in the following:
Take a glass sphere studded all over with holes, and then drive a long stick right through the middle of it, passing exactly through the center of the volume. That’s the base DC timeline. Jab another stick through right next to it, but at a different angle, so that they’re touching at one point. That’s an Elseworlds story. Another stick, this one rippled, placed close in so that it touches the first stick at two or three points. That’s the base Marvel timeline. Perhaps others follow the line of the DC stick for a while before diverging, a slow diagonal collision along it before peeling off. This sphere contains the timeline of all comic-book realities, and they theoretically all have access to each other. In high time, at the top of the sphere, is OUR reality, and we can look down on the totality of Hypertime, the entire volume.
Hypertime is a tool for the consideration of fictional reality.
I think that’s what he said, anyway.
That quote courtesy of travel.to/hypertime, a site that may well be down by the time you read this, as it’s hosted on GeoCities (RIP).
Now, whether Morrison or Waid intended this to be an excuse for continuity errors (and both are talented enough writers that I think they would shudder at the thought), this was how it was taken by the ‘linear men’ among the fanbase of DC comics, who are far more concerned that the story they’re reading be what really happened than that it be any good. They decided it was just the writers looking for an excuse to be lazy.
In fact, it was the latest of a long line of attempts by Morrison to make something useful out of the aftermath of Crisis On Infinite Earths. This series (and if you haven’t read it, Matt Rossi provides probably the best summing up you could find on the subject), while a great read (as far as mid-80s superhero epics go) was probably the most thoroughly misbegotten idea in the whole of comics history. It was decided on the basis of a couple of whining Linear Men that stories about parallel universes, where two Supermen from alternate realities team up to battle a third, evil, Superman, were not great, like you thought – no, they were confusing. “We don’t know which one is which!” came the cry, “the only way to tell them apart is that one is Superman, one is old Superman with grey hair, and one is evil and tries to blow up the world! How can you possibly then know which is the real Superman?!”
Now, rather than explain to these strange people that in fact generations of eight-year-olds had grown up perfectly able to understand these stories, DC decided to kowtow to their demands and spend a year’s worth of stories destroying every parallel world in all their stories, restarting the one universe that was left from scratch, and making sure the new one was consistent (for five minutes til someone cocked up, anyway). They also got rid of Bat-Mite, Comet The Super-Horse, Wonder Woman’s Invisible Plane, Aqualad, The Bottle City Of Kandor and many other things, on the grounds that they were far too silly to continue appearing in their stories about superheroes.
Morrison, much like myself, seems to think this was vandalism of the highest order, and has repeatedly tried to ‘undo’ bits of the damage Crisis wrought. His Animal Man would have been impossible without Crisis, being at least in part a comment on it (and I may have to do a post on Animal Man as part of this series, thinking about it…), his JLA: Earth 2 brought back one of the parallel earths that the Crisis had destroyed, and in 52 he and Waid (and their co-writers Geoff Johns and Greg Rucka) finally brought back a whole multiverse much like the one that had been destroyed.
But Hypertime (which never really got adopted by DC writers other than Waid, apart from one not-much-good Superboy story) is much more than bringing back the multiverse in disguise, it’s a great big one-and-a-half fingers (in deference to its transatlantic origins I’ve split the difference) up at the very idea of continuity. It’s also, once in a single story in a DC comic, absolutely embedded in that continuity – no matter how many reboots and retcons you have to get rid of it, all you have to do is say “Well, that was a different hypertimeline” and voila! Hypertime is back. (It’s the continuity-nerd equivalent of the GPL, ‘infecting’ every story any character touches – Spider-Man once met Superman? Fine – Hypertime obviously applies to Marvel ‘continuity’ too).
It’s a huge, huge help for imaginative storytelling, because by utterly getting rid of the idea of a single ‘real’ universe – even from panel to panel – it removes every restriction for the storyteller. They no longer have to worry about contradicting past or future stories – they’re all true or false on a case-by-case basis. If you’re doing a Superman story, you can bring in elements from the films, the TV shows, the radio shows, the books, the anti-smoking ads where he fights Nick O’Teen, whatever, and they all have equal validity, but what you do doesn’t tie the hands of any future creator.
All stories are true, and all are equally valid. The idea of a true continuity and ‘Elseworlds’ or parallel universes is as gone from storytelling, once Hypertime is admitted, as the idea of a privileged frame of reference is from the physical universe.
Now some people, including Matt Rossi actually, have criticised Hypertime by saying it’s all very well as a theoretical device, but it’s no good from a storytelling perspective – it’s not a usable story engine. I normally agree with Matt on these things – he’s a far more imaginative storyteller than I could ever be, after all – but it’s simply not true. Even allowing that the two plot strands of The Kingdom (supervillain goes back in time a day at a time to kill Superman over and over, and superheroes try to stop the past being changed and wiping out their present) don’t require Hypertime, plenty of plot hooks *immediately* suggest themselves:
Protagonist wakes to find everything in their life is exactly as it was, except their spouse has never existed in this universe, and no-one but them has any recollection of them. (Or better, they don’t remember them themselves, just a nagging sense of *something wrong* that they need to fix…)
Supervillain commits crimes in one hypertimeline then uses a device to bend the timestream into a timeline where they never committed the crime but still have the proceeds. (Yes, they could just do that anyway without the crime bit, but this is a supervillain we’re talking about – they always go for the non-optimal solution).
An attempted suicide who, no matter how many times he kills himself, finds himself in a hypertimeline where the attempt went wrong (because he’s no longer aware in those timelines where it succeeded), and decides the only way to kill himself is to destroy the whole wang-dang-doo-multeyeverse.
A psychic who can see the future but only of neighbouring hypertimelines, seeing disasters in which millions die preventably and being driven mad by inability to warn them.
And so on. Those aren’t necessarily *good* plotlines, but they took five minutes to come up with, from someone who’s not great at fiction – Hypertime is clearly a decent plot engine.
But is it good science?
At least a couple of people think so. Tomorrow, a look at The End Of Time by physicist Julian Barbour (also with reference to David Deutsch’s The Fabric Of Reality).