In the 1950s and 1960s apparently the idea was to change nothing, so that a reader would always know what to expect. Lois Lane would always be trying to prove that Superman and Clark Kent were one and the same, for example.
If Lois proved this in a given story, something would always happen to explain it away, or alter her memory, or in some other way reset the status quo.
In more modern times comic book characters do change. Lois was allowed to mature and she and Clark eventually married. But these changes are often reversed by later writers. And as we’ve seen time and again, if individual writers don’t reverse these changes, it’s almost inevitable that at some point the comics companies as a whole will do so.
Alternate or parallel universes, timeline compression (an event that was decades ago will be editorially stated to be “10 years ago”) and retroactive changes in continuity (“retcons” ) have become increasingly common.
Another way of dealing with the problem of unchanging characters is to make the characters extremely long-lived as a result of their super-powers or their proximity to super-powered beings. The León Genetic Sequence article is an example of this. Roy Thomas also did this with the JSA, stating that a battle against Ian Karkull unnaturally prolonged their youth and vitality.
Some characters get artificially youthened from time to time. Sometimes as a result of a story, sometimes as a result of an editorial edict. We’re told, with the (at the time of this writing) upcoming relaunch of the DCU in September 2011, that the whole line is being made younger to “appeal to younger readers”.
Given all this, it’s no surprise that most comic readers have learned to take timelines and chronologies with a grain of salt. You should do so with this one, as well.
But it’s interesting to me that one of the most popular comic book runs of all time, Chris Claremont’s first stint as the writer of the X-Men, did not use any of these strategies. Instead, for more than a decade, Claremont consistently bucked the convention of non-changing and non-aging characters.
The All-New, All-Different X-Men
In these stories, seasons of the year or birthdays were not merely for flavor, a throwaway part of a throwaway story. They were a vital part of the setting. And time’s passage from one storyline to the next was internally consistent. Spring preceded summer, followed by autumn and then winter (usually with a mention of Christmas), followed by springtime again.
One of Claremont’s favorite references in the early years is to “Indian Summer” . This is typically a warm period in autumn, around late September or early October. “Indian Summer” always falls between stories said to be set in summer and later stories set in winter.
Just as the passage of seasons is internally consistent, the age of characters is internally consistent. A character who was one age in one Christmas issue was a year older by the time of the next Christmas issue.
Time goes on, on and on
For example, Kitty Pryde is 13 during her first Christmas issue, X-Men #143. She’s 14 in the next, X-Men #168. Colossus is 18 in X-Men 156, while Kitty is still 13. He is 19 in X-Men 180, after she has become 14 but before she becomes 15. Their age progression matches.
Characters didn’t age a year for every year they were published. But over the course of two or three years of publishing time, a year would pass for the characters. Within that year, changes of season and changes of age remained internally consistent.
From X-Men 143 to 168, two years of publishing time, there is only one spring, one summer, one winter. Within that year, there is a logical and consistent progression of seasons, birthdays, and holidays. The same is true throughout most of Claremont’s run.
It’s a date
Most striking of all, to me, is that some stories actually happened on a particular date — complete with month, day, even year. The death of Dark Phoenix, for example, occurred on September 1, 1980. This date is still being referenced in stories published in 1984, though in-story only a little more than a year has passed.
According to Jean Grey’s tombstone, she was born in a specific year (1956) and died on September 1, 1980. Jean Grey was thus, depending on her birthday, either 23 or 24 when she died in X-Men #137. In the months that followed, we continue to reference specific dates. X-Men 141-142 take place on October 31, 1980, for example.
Kitty Pryde was introduced as a 13 ½ year old girl just before Jean Grey died. (Her first meeting with the X-Men and clash with the Hellfire Club thus probably occurred in August, prior to Jean’s death on September 1.)
From there, her timeline flows in a consistent manner for almost a decade of publishing. X-Men #141-142 occurs on October 31, almost two months after Jean’s death. Kitty’s famous solo outing against a demon occurs nearly two months later, on Christmas Eve of that year, in X-Men #143.
In that story, Kitty is still referred to as being 13 ½. (From this we can deduce that her birthday is in the springtime. This means that in stories set in August she is short of 13 years and 6 months, but close enough to be called “13 ½”. Likewise, in stories set in December she is beyond the 13 years 6 months point, but still close enough to it to be referred to as “13 ½”.)
From X-Men 161-167, the X-Men are lost in space battling the Brood. Sometime during that storyline, which for the characters lasted “months”, Kitty’s birthday passes. The X-Men begin referring to Kitty as a 14 year old instead of 13 ½ by at least UXM #165.
New Mutants #3 also notes that Kitty’s birthday occurred while she was lost in space. Thus, a surprise birthday party is thrown for her after their return to make up for the one she missed.
In UXM #168, it’s winter time and Christmas is being observed — the first Christmas since Kitty’s demon. That Christmas she was 13 (and change), this Christmas she is 14 (and change).
But as already referenced, it’s not only Jean Grey and Kitty Pryde who have specific ages at specific times. Nightcrawler, Colossus, and others also age in Claremont’s stories, at internally consistent rates, matching each other and matching the seasons of the year.
Time slows down
Over time, this slows and gradually stops, as Claremont is dealing not only with Kitty but also with the New Mutants.
With a plethora of teenage characters, for whom *being* teenage is part of their character concept, Claremont begins to phase out references to the seasons. There are fewer specific places where we can say “this is summer time” or “now it’s autumn”. The references to age gradually phase out and then disappear entirely.
The All-New, All-Different X-Men have their first Christmas together in UXM #98. Their second is in 119, the third in 143, the fourth in 168, the fifth in 192-193. The sixth and final of these consistent Christmases is in UXM #230, published in 1988.
During that time, from X-Men 98 to X-Men 230, published between 1975 and 1988, there have been six Christmases, so six years have passed. Kitty is 13 “and a half” in 143, 14 in 168, 15 in 192-193. By X-Men 230, when she should be 16 “and a half” she’s moved over to Excalibur, and things have changed.
Time stops working
Kitty Pryde suddenly stops aging in a fashion that is logical and consistent with the other characters. At some point she even seems to age backwards. They’re very reluctant to state that she is now 16. Time is not passing in a consistent manner anymore.
It was perhaps inevitable that this consistent passage of time would be phased out in favor of the “eternal now” and “not very long ago” that is used in most comic books and indeed most serial fiction. But I wonder if there’s any relationship between the phase-out of time’s passage with the (in my opinion) loss of passion and immediacy in Claremont’s stories.
It may be simple burnout, of course, and others won’t agree with me in any case that the quality declined. But for my money, Claremont’s last few years on the X-Men lacked the power to compel attention that his first decade had.
His first decade of stories were complete with characters dying (and staying dead), having birthdays, celebrating milestones and holidays, and mourning tragedies. This gave the reader an invitation to become immersed in this fully realized and internally consistent world.
Indeed, for a long time Claremont’s X-Men work is as much an epic fantasy series with pictures as it is an example of serialized fiction. As in an epic fantasy, there is a sense of continuation, of one story being told with a beginning and middle (though not, in the case of the X-Men, with an end). What happens in the early episodes always impacts what happens later in the series.
At any rate, the more I look into it, the more I enjoy and appreciate Claremont’s masterful but subtle march of time during that first decade and more in the X-Universe. It’s created the pattern for what I try to emulate in my own campaign universes — where time passes and characters do age and move on and even retire and get replaced.
All those things happen very slowly. But they do happen, and in a manner which is logical and internally consistent, just like in those Claremont stories.
Ages of the X-Men
By compiling the specific dates, times, and ages that are included in Claremont’s X-Men stories, we can make logical deductions of the ages of a number of X-Men. That data is summed up in the following table.
The table lists “year one” through “year six”, as determined by Christmases. Ages in parentheses are deduced; ages not in parentheses are stated outright in-story, with an issue reference in parentheses.
Occasionally, as with Jean Grey, you’ll see an age range that is not in parentheses — this is because her birth year and death year are stated outright in the stories, but her birthday is not. Thus her age is definite within a narrow range.
You’ll also see ages that begin in parentheses and eventually lose the parentheses. This is the result of back-dating. The first non-parenthetical entry indicates where the character’s age was made explicit in-story. I’ve then backdated their ages appropriately to earlier years.
New X-Men (beginning with Giant-size X-Men #1 and Uncanny X-Men #94)
Year 1 (Xmas #98)
Jean/Phoenix (21/22), Kurt/Nightcrawler (19), Peter/Colossus (16),
Year 2 (Xmas #119)
Jean/Phoenix (22/23), Kurt/Nightcrawler (20), Peter/Colossus (17)
Year 3 (“1980”, Xmas #143)
Jean/Phoenix 23/24 (138), Nightcrawler 21 (Ann 4), Colossus 18 (156), Kitty Pryde 13.5 (129, 138, 143), Illyana Rasputin aka Magik (post-Belasco) 13 (160)
Year 4 (Xmas #168)
Jean/Phoenix RIP (would be 24/25), Nightcrawler 22, Colossus 19 (“nearly 20, #183), Karma 19 (NM 2), Cannonball 16 (NM 2), Moonstar (16 or so?), Magma (15 or so?) Kitty Pryde 14½(14 by #165 and NM #3), Doug Ramsey (14 or so?), Sunspot 14 (NM 2 misprints age as 13; letters pages confirm this as an error, as his age and Wolfsbane’s were flip-flopped), Magik 14 (NM #14), Wolfsbane 13 (NM 2 mistprints her age as 14; letters pages confirm this as an error, as her age and Sunspot’s were flip-flopped. “Youngest of the New Mutants” is a frequent description of Wolfsbane.)
Year 5 (Xmas #192-193)
Jean/Phoenix RIP? (would be 25-26), Nightcrawler 23, Colossus 20, Karma 20, Cannonball 17, Moonstar (17 or so?), Magma (16 or so?), Kitty Pryde 15.5 (15 by #192 and the Kitty Pryde & Wolverine LS), Sunspot 15, Magik 15, Doug (15 or so?), Wolfsbane 14
(Year 6) (Xmas #230)
Jean/Phoenix ???, Nightcrawler 24, Colossus 21, Karma 21, Cannonball 18, Moonstar (18 or so?), Magma (17 or so?), Kitty Pryde (16.5), Bobby/Sunspot 16, Doug (16 or so?), Magik 16, Wolfsbane 15
The X-Men prior to Claremont don’t have the same logically internal progression of time that he brought to the title, but there are still some specific events and ages that we can deduce.
- Per X-Men #1, Bobby Drake/Iceman is 16 and the youngest X-Man, though apparently not by much. By X-Men #7, the team has been together for a year. It’s possible that some of this year is being measured prior to issue number 1, as some X-Men had been together and training prior to that first issue. Graduation (from high school, for all of them including Iceman) is in XM #7, and Cyclops is named deputy leader.
- Jean becomes an undergrad at Metro University issue #s in the 20s; she is probably 18 years old. She’s likely around 17 in XM 1, and if she turns 22 by the time of XM 98-100, then the original X-Men’s career lasts 4-5 years.
- Bobby Drake turns 18 and has a party just prior to Prof X being kidnapped by Factor Three (issues set in the 30s). This is around the beginning of year 3 for the Original X-Men.
- The X-Men stop new stories and begin reprinting in the 60s. The new X-Men begin in X-Men 94 (following the Giant-Size X-Men #1).
- Back to the Claremont period: Bobby Drake is a college sophomore in UXM #145-147. This storyline is set early during year 4 of the All-New, All-Different X-Men, during the winter. Most likely Drake started sophomore year in the fall of year 3, and freshman year in the fall of year 2 — meaning he took a year off between leaving the X-Men in year 1 and starting college.
The discrepancy is likely due to his stint with the Champions. He and Warren Worthington go out west to look at schools, but end up founding the short-lived Champions team.
After the Champions broke up, Bobby started school. Claremont seems to have decided that this hiatus with the Champions lasted about a year (though the comic was 17 issues long, running from October 1975 to January 1978).
- Bobby was likely 17 (possibly still just 16) when he “graduated” with the X-Men from high school in UXM #7. He was 20 or probably 21 when he left the team along with the other original X-Men. His freshman year started when he was 21 or probably 22. He’s thus 22-23 as a sophomore.
Source of Character: Marvel Universe.