Ask Chris #234: A Brief History Of Hypertime
Q: What the hell was hypertime? — @T_Lawson
A: Oh man, Hypertime. That is something that I have not thought about in a while, although I suspect that with Multiversity going on and Convergence about to hit in a few months, it’s something that’s going to be getting a little more attention than it has in the past fifteen years or so. And given that at least half of these columns are about how much I love DC Comics from the ’90s, it probably won’t surprise you to find out that it’s a really interesting concept.
As for what the hell it is, well, it’s one of those weird cases where the simplest and most sarcastic answer is also kind of the most accurate: Hypertime is whatever you want it to be.
Okay, bear with me, because this is the part where I usually go through all the stuff about how the DC Universe was stitched together over the course of 50 years of retcons and reboots into a unified whole and how up until the mid ’80s, the entire line was still largely built around individual franchises rather than as a cohesive whole, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve already covered that in other columns. With that in mind, I’ll try to just keep it to this idea: When DC actually decided to go through with rebuilding their multiverse into a universe after Crisis On Infinite Earths, the solution that they settled on was actually one that was pretty elegant in how simple it was. All they did was just put it all together in one single timeline.
It makes sense that they’d do it that way because really, it wasn’t the infinite Earths that were ever really the problem. It was really just Earth-1 and Earth-2. All the other stuff, like Captain Marvel or the Charlton characters, was just stuff that they hadn’t figured out how to integrate into the universe yet, and if Crisis did nothing else, it gave the company a pretty easy opportunity to just drop it in alongside the rest of their properties and figure it out as they went along.
No, the real problem, at least where the multiverse was concerned, was that you had different versions of your flagship characters running around, and while that meant you could actually do stuff like having a story about Batman and Catwoman finally getting married and make it “count” as much as anything else, it also meant that when you talked about those stories, they all had to have a boatload of qualifiers.
Just dig through a back issue bin for an issue of Who’s Who from the pre-Crisis days and you’ll see what I’m talking about, with this definitive guide to the DCU and its characters having to list two separate first appearances and histories for two separate versions of Batman and Superman.
Whether or not this was actually as big a problem as they made it out to be (it wasn’t), it was still a weird quirk of storytelling. But since the difference was one of time, between the Batman (or Superman, or Green Lantern, or Flash) of the ’30s and the version that was refined later, then it just made sense to just lump them all into a single timeline, since there was no real overlap to speak of.
That way you had your original Justice Society type characters as the elder statesmen who fought Nazis as “mystery men” and your modern superheroes that were still vital and active, and you end up with a universe built on heroic tradition and legacy that can stretch back as far (or as recent) as you want it to. It’s not a perfect solution, of course. Characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, who had been consistently published, didn’t quite fit into that “legacy” idea as neatly as the ones who had been rebooted, like Flash, Green Lantern or the Atom, and there were a lot of storytelling gymnastics designed to fill in gaps and explain stuff like why those Golden Age characters aren’t all dead.
To be honest, there were pieces of it that were as complicated as anything that had happened in the Earth-1/Earth-2 days, to the point where we ended up with two Black Canaries and two Wonder Women, with Wonder Woman’s mom, Wonder Woman, filling in for Black Canary in the history of the Justice Society and Black Canary’s daughter, Black Canary, filling in for Wonder Woman in the history of the Justice League. And if that sounds complicated, try figuring out why all the other members of the JSA decided to wait ’til they were sixty to have kids. Spoiler warning, but the answer involves a big rock made of magic that was put together by little blue spacemen.
For the most part, though, it worked pretty well, and the patches meant to cover up the weird blips in the timeline were usually pretty interesting, and added a complexity the universe that made it feel like a single whole, rather than just individual characters and settings that would occasionally drop in on each other before going back to their distinct fiefdoms.
There’s just one big problem with that: All those stories they just swept off the table? They still exist.
That’s really the problem with retcons and reboots in general, isn’t it? It goes back to something that I wrote about a while back, the idea of having a “personal continuity” that’s as important to you as the official list of what counts and what doesn’t, a concept that really only exists when you’re talking about shared universes that are created by such a large number of people working over the better part of a century. I mean, you can tell me that a particular comic didn’t happen in the official continuity, but I’ve still read it. It’s as real to me as anything else. And if that’s true for me, then it’s true for everyone, including the people creating the continuity and deciding which pieces are the ones that matter.
Which brings us, at long last, back to Hypertime.
The short version, as I understand it, is that everything happened. All those stories exist, because all those comics exist — they were published with a DC logo on the cover, so they’re as real as anything else. You have the central core of what’s “true” about a character, the ideas that have remained consistent over the years, but everything else is fluid, and what’s more, every take on those ideas is equally valid. For example, Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Adam West’s Batman are just as “real” as the versions showing up in the comics, who are in turn just as real as all the other versions showing up in the comics. There’s no one true version of a character, and if that causes a conflict in the continuity of the story, then it’s no big deal, because as I’m so fond of saying, it ain’t a documentary. It’s a story.
When you get right down to it, this essentially just creates a multiverse of alternate timelines — which again goes back to the theme of time as the dividing factor, rather than physical dimensions or vibrational frequencies — which is how it was used in the pages of Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn and Paul Pelletier‘s Flash.
Hypertime was more the focus in The Kingdom, but The Flash was where I first encountered the concept, and where it made the most sense to me. Of course, it’s also worth noting that I was 17 and completely hooked on this story that involved a new, darker Flash — literally a dude in a darker costume who everyone was calling The Dark Flash — showing up to replace Wally West. In fact, I’m pretty sure that this story was the reason for my first-ever venture into the Comics Internet, going onto the DC Comics message boards to see if anyone had clues as to who this guy could be. Was it Barry Allen? A grown-up Impulse? John Fox returning from the 853rd Century?!
Nope. It was Wally West. Just not our Wally West. See, the Dark Flash was Walter West, not Wallace, from a timeline where he failed to save Linda Park from being killed by supervillains in “Terminal Velocity,” and when he showed up, it was the natural consequence of Hypertime. There were other timelines around, with characters who could potentially travel into the main timeline. And of course the Flash was the first one to really make a go of it, since the Flashes had been the characters that bridged all the other universes since 1954. It’s kind of their entire deal.
For practical purposes, this basically brought back the DC Multiverse, but in a form that felt more like Marvel’s multiverse, in that it could potentially contain whatever you wanted from whatever story you wanted, but that people only really refer to as a “multiverse” when they need to, because it’s way easier to say “Days of Future Past” than “Earth-811,” because nobody knows what that is. It opens the door and lets the people in charge of the books determine what matters at each moment, bringing everything back onto the table in a way that doesn’t really negate the foundation of the DC Universe that they’d worked so hard to build. You get to have Golden Age Superman and your universe built on legacy and heroic tradition at the same time, you just have to decide what you want to do.
And really, I think that’s why it never took off.
The biggest problem with Hypertime is also its biggest selling point: It’s a structure for a fictional universe where the most important thing, the premise that it admits right from the start, is that it’s fictional. None of it’s actually real, which means that it’s all completely fluid. But while that’s fine for some readers and creators, particularly those whose names rhyme with Fant Forrison, it also pulls back the curtain in a way that makes it a little harder to suspend your disbelief.
I mean, we all know that comics are fiction, but when you explicitly make acknowledging that the first step in reading a story, you are putting up a barrier. I think that’s why so many readers have such a hard time with… Forrison. It’s not that his work is particularly complex, it’s that he requires you to accept that it’s all fake right up front, and when you’re dealing with an audience that traditionally has an obsession with codifying the rules of a universe and demands a logical consistency and continuity that makes accepting all these flying people and psychic gorillas a little easier — which is something I’m usually right there with ’em on myself — then it results in a conflict. If everything happened, then arranging it all in a way that makes sense isn’t just difficult, it’s pointless, and since continuity is, like it or not, the driving force of a shared universe, it can make the whole enterprise seem like a lost cause — if you look at it a certain way.
In a way, the mindset that wants those rules and structures is a lot more suited to Multiversity‘s complicated, meticulously arranged mutliverse, where this story happened on this Earth, which is arranged on the map opposite this Earth because of these reasons, than the simple approach of just saying “it all happened,” even if the latter is much more reflective of how those stories are actually put together by the people making them.
Also, “Hypertime” sounds like a calculator watch that changes color due to body heat. That probably didn’t help matters either.