Or – “Comic-Book Time: Explained.”
The Marvel Universe as we know it (barring a few retcons and absorptions of existing properties such as Captain America) can be seen to have begun with the first issue of the Fantastic Four. For the first few years, it seemed that the stories were happening in ‘real time,’ but slowly, time in the Marvel Universe began to change, to stretch and flow and even reverse itself a time or two. Many a comics fan has remarked at one time or another how difficult it is to resolve the sheer number of happenings with the in-universe explanations of how long the characters have been around.
Three things you probably DIDN’T know about Marvel Time:
The Marvel Universe DID begin in 1961.
Everything you know IS NOT wrong.
And it’s all the intentional and deliberate work of one single, terrifyingly powerful and dizzyingly twisted mind...
Time Is An Illusion
Before we get too far into our exercise, I want to lay out the ground rules under which I am working:
1. We accept that Fantastic Four #1 actually takes place when it was published, in 1961.
2. We accept that all ‘topical references’ (i.e. Captain America fighting Nixon, then working alongside Carter in ‘The Avengers’, then saving Reagan from the Serpent Society, et al) actually happened as shown, in their appropriate time-frames.
3. We accept that it is currently the year 2011 in Marvel Comics continuity.
Luckily for us, we have a handy touchstone of time’s passage throughout the early years of the Marvel Universe, one Peter Parker, bitten by a radioactive spider during his sophomore year of high school. That story saw print in August 1962, and Peter graduated high school in Amazing Spider-Man #28 in the fall of 1965. Thus, Peter’s last three years of high school take place over the space of three years for us as well. Reed Richards and Susan Storm get married in the summer of 1965, and two years later, in the fall of 1967, we discover that Sue is expecting. Since Amazing Spider-Man Annual #4 guest-stars the Human Torch, and since the Official Marvel Index of The Amazing Spider-Man puts that issue BEFORE Amazing Spider-Man #53 (which came out the same month as Fantastic Four Annual #5, where we find out about the pregnancy) we can see that time is passing at roughly the same rate for Spider-Man and for the FF. (Stay with me, I’m just showing my work, here.)
In the fall of 1968, Susan Richards goes into labor. (Our first hint of what’s to come is that fact that Sue’s pregnancy takes place over the course of nearly twelve months instead of the customary 37 to 42 weeks of gestation, the first time that the Fantastic Four’s stories don’t conform to ‘real time.’)
Most children are only a few minutes old when officially named. Reed and Sue’s baby, born in November 1968, is not named for nearly THIRTEEN MONTHS, our time, receiving the sobriquet “Franklin Benjamin Richards” in January 1970.
The Mind Games Start Early
Two things about this are significant to someone with a keen eye (and a mind for conspiracy theories): One, the thirteen months of stories we have been presented cannot actually cover thirteen months of time for the characters, as not even absent-minded professor Reed Richards would wait a year to pick a name for his firstborn. Two, the child is named for
his grandfather, later revealed to be a time-traveler who looks out for him, and (Sorry, I mixed up my grandpa stories!) his ‘Uncle Ben,’ the most physically imposing member of the Fantastic Four. In short, it’s almost as if his parents were influenced into naming him so that a powerful fellow would be particularly interested in his welfare.
Very early in his life, Franklin is shown to have unusual abilities (he is able to see his mother while invisible, and awakens The Thing at one point using latent psychic powers.) After interactions with Annihilus and later Ultron, Franklin’s powers became a running theme, scaling up and down as well as turning on and off with relative regularity. No less an authority than Professor X quantified him as one of the most powerful mutants alive. By the time of Fantastic Four #134 (May 1973) a five-year-old Franklin looks to be the size of a (rather creepy) three-year-old.
Okay, I may be underestimating the boy’s size. But by the time of Fantastic Four #170 (May 1976) Franklin looks like… a rather creepy (and strangely brunette) three-year-old.
And by the time of Fantastic Four #224 (November 1980), the now 12-year-old Franklin looks and acts approximately seven or so.
And is it just me, or does it look like he just made Mommy’s pants disappear? Now, at this point, much of my speculation is based on what you expect a child of a given age to look or act like, but how can we explain it when, nearly a year later, Franklin seems to be five again?
That particular interaction with Annihilus is interesting, as well, as it leads to Franklin once again manifesting his super-powers (openly.) The answer is as simple as it is frightening:
Franklin Richards is whatever age he wants to be.
And he not only makes himself that age, he makes it so that he’s ALWAYS been that age, and no one ever remembers anything different BECAUSE HE CHANGES THE FUNDAMENTAL NATURE OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE. In a very real way, Franklin Richards IS ‘Marvel Time.’ And the entirety of his universe ages more slowly because Franklin doesn’t want to grow up and he certainly doesn’t want things to change too much while he enjoys his extended childhood.
Where It Gets All Icky And Freudian
By the early 80’s Franklin is firmly established as being somewhere between 6 and 9 years old, when the first echoes of a change start to occur in his universe. Seeing as how he was born in 1968, Franklin is starting to reach what should be the age of puberty, where he should start liking girls and growing up. By no coincidence, the Marvel Universe of this era is witness to the events that the X-Men would come to know as ‘Days of Future Past.’
For those of you that don’t know, ‘DoFP’ is an alternate reality where all the mutants are nearly wiped out, and Franklin is the most powerful creature left in the world, and he has a girlfriend and you can’t call her and check it or nothin’, because she’s from the future. In short, it’s the quintessential adolescent power fantasy of heroism and sexual potency. During this same timeframe, Susan Richards becomes pregnant again, and Reed is forced to try and save his child from cosmically irratiated body chemistry. This time it fails and the Richards’ second child is believed to have died. (We later learn that “Future Franklin” arrived and mystically moved his sister’s spirit somewhere else. Write that down. It’s important later…) Altering his age yet again, Franklin becomes an official superhero for the first time as Tattletale, auxiliary member of Power Pack.
Franklin’s age from this point on (1987, the year of his what should be his 19th birthday) seems a bit older, hovering in the 8 to 11 year-old range, and his first foray into superherodom seems to convince him that this vague pre-pubescent realm is a good thing. Franklin also allows the Marvel Universe to grow up a bit, transitioning into the dark and gritty 90’s era. But, of course, his idea of “grown up” is all about beard stubble and phallic weapons and leather jackets and adolescent angst. Now, remember that bit where Franklin came back in time to save his sister’s mind? Why would that be significant?
Because, if we accept our hypothesis that the Marvel Universe is under his control, that means we have to accept the unpleasant fact that Franklin caused his baby sister’s seeming demise. His motive: Not wanting to share Mommy’s attention with ANYONE. To add an exclamation point to these emotional issues, Franklin’s time-travelling grampa arrives and ages him in a dimension outside of time or something (ironically, he ends up close to his actual age of 25 or so) allowing Frank to become the superhero
Notice the Invisible Woman’s costume here, or more to the point, the relative lack thereof… An associate of mine once remarked that Susan Richards is the mother figure of the Marvel Universe, and the problem with this peek-a-boo stripperific suit is simple: “Who wants to see the mother of the Marvel Universe half-naked?” Answer: A kid with some serious maternal bonding issues after years of nannies and butlers and witch-caretakers, that’s whom. To add to the whole (you should excuse the expression) complex, Reed Richards is lost, presumed dead at this point, leaving Mommy single and coincidentally dressed like a whore from Krypton. “Who said anything about talking,” indeed.
Franklin remains a grown-up superhero for a few years, eventually missing his dad enough to resurrect him. When he tires of the responsibilities of adulthood, Franklin lets things go back to normal, de-aging himself again. In the late 90’s, in a fit of pique, he wishes his family and all their friends
to the cornfield dead, but still manages to protect them by creating an alternate world where they’re safe and sound (albeit poorly drawn.) Around the time of what should be his 30th birthday, he realizes that he was unfair to his lost sister, and brings little Valeria back, finally ready to share his parents’ love and attention. Franklin never quite completely overcomes his Quentin Tarentino-esque love of the terse, stubbly tough guy but at the same time rediscovers his childhood love of the brightly-clad superheroes like Spider-Man.
Eternal Sunshine In A Perfect Museum Of Colorful Toys
At present, Franklin Richards is chronologically 43 years old, and may not even himself fully realize that he is controlling the entire universe. He has finally learned to socialize, taking a place in the Future Foundation, recognized as one of the greatest potential minds of the future, and surrounding himself with peers who are likewise prodigious, including his sister Valeria. He has periodically re-injected himself as center of attention, as seen recently when Galactus himself arrived to assess Franklin as a threat. He has given up many of the childish pursuits of his youth, and has accepted that things don’t always have to have happy endings. He has realized that he likes Spider-Man young and single, that he likes the Avengers nearly as much as the Fantastic Four, but that Daddy is (and will always be) the smartest man in the world, and Mommy the strongest woman. Uncle Ben is his special favorite (see Fear Itself #5 if you don’t believe me) while he holds a quiet resentment of popular Uncle Johnny. (Sometimes he even wishes Uncle Johnny were dead, but he knows he won’t stay mad forever.) Like many kids, he likes the idea of having more than one of the same toy in different colors, and wonders how the Hulk would look in red, or how Wolverine would look as a girl. His adult mind likes to ponder huge world-shattering stakes, but his child mind doesn’t really like to (and, indeed, isn’t equipped to) think about long-term consequences. And, of course, Franklin likes being 12 and half years old more than anything.
Time is never going back to normal, if he has his way, and none of the denizens of the Marvel Universe, not even super-smart Daddy, will never know any different. Like little Anthony Fremont, he quietly enjoys that everyone in the world is just a puppet dancing on his stage, and he’ll cut their strings, change their clothes and repaint them however he sees fit, whenever the mood strikes. And that’s a good thing, Franklin. A real… real good thing…
(Of course, there’s a completely DIFFERENT subtle and disturbing reason why no one in the DC Universe ever ages, but that, as they say, is another ((Classified)) story.)