Monday 19 February 2024


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Okay, peeps, for a change of pace from my dreary, weary, woeful waffle, here's a thought-provoking guest post from Gene Phillips about the nature of time and memories - assuming I understood it, that is.  Hopefully, this will inspire you to think, and having 'thunk', express your thoughts in the comments section.  Read on, MacDuff!


"Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet."

"Why couldn't the past, present and future all be occurring at the same time -- but in different dimensions?"

The first quote comes from one of the most famous graphic novels of all time, the 1986-87 Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons WATCHMEN, and the sentiment expressed, about the relativity of time, is "intricately structured" as one of the narrative's main themes.

The second comes from a very obscure Stan Lee/Jack Kirby story in AMAZING ADVENTURES #3 (1961), "We Were Trapped In The Twilight World!"  It wasn't reprinted until the twenty-first century and I doubt that even its creators remembered it after they tossed it out within the pages of a title that was finished in three more issues, being renamed AMAZING ADULT FANTASY from #s 7-14.

Not only was "Twilight" probably tossed off to fill space, the idea of the simultaneity of past, present and future isn't even important to the story's plot.  Shortly after the handsome young theorist expresses his time-theory, he drives away with his girlfriend.  A mysterious, never-explained mist transports them both back into Earth's prehistoric past.  While the two of them flee various menaces, the scientist theorizes that entities from the past sometimes entered the mist and showed up in modern times, so that ape-like cavemen generated the story of the Abominable Snowmen.  Grand Comics Database believes that "Twilight" is one of many SF-stories plotted by Stan Lee but dialogued by his brother Larry Lieber, so, failing the discovery of original Kirby art, there's no ascertaining which of the three creators involved generated the line.

In both stories, the simultaneity of all times has one common function: to cast a light on the limits of human perception.  But is there any truth in it?

In the sense of the bodies we occupy, not really.  Our common experience as human beings is that our bodies are totally enslaved by the unstoppable progress of the future, remorselessly eating away the present the way age eats away at our bodily integrity.  And yet, one organ in the body defies future's tyranny and that's the brain.

Only in the brain are past, present and future truly unified -- though one may question if Moore's correct about how "intricate" the structure is, even assuming that the paradigm applies only to fully functioning human brains.  And time is only unified in terms of a given subject's own memories.  I don't necessarily dismiss such things as "memories of a past life" that are usually cited in support of reincarnation, but those type of memories are not universal enough to draw any conclusions.

My ability to "time-travel" in my memories is similarly limited.  I can summon a quasi-memory of being on a family vacation and finding MARVEL TALES #11 at an out-of-town pharmacy.  That comic book would have been on sale in 1967, probably a few months prior to its November cover-date.  I think this was probably the first SPIDER-MAN comic I bought, but my memories of reading the comic for the first time aren't that specific since I didn't get into buying superhero comics until the debut of the BATMAN tele-series in early 1966.  That show would have finished its second season in March 1967, at which time I might have felt venturesome enough to sample a superhero I'd never heard of.  Now, for me to be correct on that score, I would have to have bought MARVEL TALES before the 1967 SPIDER-MAN cartoon debuted that September, since it's also my memory that I watched that TV show when it first aired.  But can I be absolutely sure that I didn't see the cartoon before buying the comic book?  Not in the least.  I seem to remember that I'd bought enough back issues of SPIDER-MAN or MARVEL TALES that when the cartoon debuted, I recognized how some of the cartoon-stories had been adapted from the originals, but that memory is not reliable.

In the WATCHMEN chapter referenced, Doctor Manhattan can foresee future events as accurately as he can recall memories of the past -- or at least, whatever past experiences are important to Moore's narrative.  And in "Twilight," the protagonists live through the past so as to clarify events in their present, but total narrative clarity is denied real people.  However, what our functioning memories do preserve are not just every single experience we have, but the important experiences.

Humans can travel in time from Significant Thing #1 to Significant Thing #4566 via chains of mental association, though some of these associations might be subconscious.  I once noticed that Robert E. Howard's barbarian hero Kull first appeared in print in the August 1929 issue of WEIRD TALES, about three or four years before Siegel and Shuster collaborated on their landmark hero Superman.  We know that Siegel named Superman's dad after himself, making "Jor-L" out of the first syllable of the author's first name and the last syllable of his last name, but whence comes "Kal-L"?  Did it come from... "Kul-L"?  Even assuming that Siegel read the Kull story, there's no way of knowing if he consciously remembered reading it, but if he read it, maybe something about the hero's name appealed to Siegel and he simply recycled that appeal when it came time to name his own hero.

We do not know if anything survives the demise of our physical forms.  But while we are alive, it's entirely logical to build up our stores of significant memories, whether we can take them with us or not.  To borrow from the title of an old English poem, those memories provide us with our only "triumph over time".

One last Significant Thing: the last issue of Marvel magazine AMAZING ADVENTURES was cover-dated November 1961, the same date assigned to FANTASTIC FOUR #1. So that arbitrary date becomes something of a threshold between the Old Marvel Way of doing things, and the New Approach, which would, as I've argued elsewhere, have saved the medium of comic books from extinction.


Any thoughts, Crivvies?  Let GP (and the rest of us) read them now!


Andrew May said...

Thanks to Kid for posting this, and to Gene for writing such a thought-provoking piece about time and our perception of it - a topic that's surely of great interest to all readers of this blog, since it's essentially about nostalgia for things past! It would be great to think the human brain really can roam through past, present and future (which really do coexist simultaneously, according to some theories) and there's seemingly anecdotal evidence for that when people have memories of past lives or premonitions of future events. But speaking for myself, even my memories of real events in my own past can be pretty unreliable when put to the test. There are several occasions that I've have really clear memories of seeing or doing a particular thing in a particular place at a particular time, only to be subsequently confronted with indisputable evidence that it can't possibly have happened like that!

Kid said...

There are several occasions when I've remembered some events a certain way, AM, then found that the 'facts' don't bear out my recollections. I think that's because we sometimes inadvertently mix two similar-but-separate memories together (as well as for other reasons), or because we haven't exercised certain memories enough to reinforce them, but generally I'd say that my memory is pretty good. At least it used to be - it seems to be atrophying in regard to some things these days.

Gene Phillips said...

Kid, you rightfully edited in something my memory had let fall between the cracks: that AMAZING ADVENTURES wasn't just dropped, but that it was converted into Stan Lee's experimental all-Ditko book AMAZING ADULT FANTASY, which in its final-issue form (with the "adult" ironically knocked from the title) had at least as much consequence for Marvel as FANTASTIC FOUR #1. I'm sure I read of the title changeover many times but it just got filed in the "not significant" pile of memory engrams.

The switch from AA to AAF is also more significant than I'd thought, now that I've read all the AA issues online. Though there's some Ditko mixed in to AA, the six issues are heavily Kirby-dominated. Kirby's SF/monster books had evidently been selling OK for Atlas/Marvel even during DC's big superhero push around 1958. But AA must not have sold well, possibly indicating a sea-change in reader preferences. (It would take a little longer for all of DC's SF-anthology titles to become saturated with continuing-character features.) So the transition to AAF shows Stan Lee trying to aim a little higher than the usual Atlas/Marvel fare, building up Steve Ditko's aesthetic. I've never seen any commentary on AAF by either Lee or Ditko, so I have to accept the reigning fan-theory, that Lee hoped to emulate the model of TV's successful TWILIGHT ZONE anthology. I doubt he was counting on that as a long-term strategy for success, given the fate of EC Comics about six years previous; he probably just hoped for decent sales while enjoying seeing his stories brought to life by Ditko's burgeoning talent.

Most of the Kirby stuff in AA is pretty ordinary fare, by the way. I need to do a writeup of the "Doctor Droom" stories some time, because they definitely don't feel like "New Marvel."

Kid said...

It's interesting to note that the Amazing Adult Fantasy masthead is essentially the same as The Twilight Zone one, so I wonder if that was deliberate, GP. Not only that, The Fantastic Four masthead is in the same style as AAF, which tends to show a lack of imagination in that department. And Doctor Droom's origin is extremely similar to that of Doctor Strange, so Ditko, who inked the first Doctor Droom story, may have been subconsciously influenced by it to create a similar character somewhere along the line. (It was Stan, though, who was responsible for re-using the origin in Strange's case.

Colin Jones said...

There's a theory that time doesn't exist at all and is merely an illusion. There are also theories that reality and even consciousness are also illusions. I've come to the conclusion that a human being trying to understand the true nature of the universe is like a jellyfish trying to understand Einstein's theory of relativity.

Kid said...

Well, I can't speak for other jellyfish, CJ, but my pet one (called Cuthbert) understands Einstein's theory of relativity perfectly. But how do we know your comment isn't an illusion?

McSCOTTY said...

Very true Colin, in that time doesn't exist out there as a t"tcking clock", it needs "observation" for it to mean anything ( in this case memory). There is a theory that everything that ever was and ever will be, has already happened and this is just a recording of those events - Scientists like to confuse us. Regardless, I like to time travel as GP notes in his excellent article

Kid said...

I believe I theorized that Time may be one big 'now' a while back, McS, which is a notion that others subscribe to. If, as you suggest, past, present, and future are just 'playbacks', whose 'players' are we all watching them on?

McSCOTTY said...

Well that theory ( scientists not mine) would suggest the events already took place in a physical sense at some stage if this is just a recording . It's all to complicated for the likes of me, but I do think life, time etc are much more than we may think they are , maybe anything and nothing is possible ooohhhh .

Kid said...

It's all probably one big 'now' that, because of the artificial measurement of what we call 'time', we divide into 'past -present-future, McS. But, yeah - it's likely all too (write 100 times - 'too, not to') complicated (or even too simple) for the likes of us (or maybe anyone) to understand it.

Gene Phillips said...

I definitely agree that whatever time is, it does not exist as a series of numerical demarcation, like McScotty said. Obviously our bodies do age, so they're responding to time-passage in the form of "wear and tear," which also applies to anything else physical. But the nature of the wear-and-tear process may not be something one can quantify. Some individuals' brains wear out as a result of time-passage, which IMO is as good a reason for dementia as any official medical analysis. Yet before she passed my 92-year-old mom had all of her faculties. Why didn't time have the same effect on her brain as on those of others? Is there some arcane chemical element involved in the brains that do deteriorate? That would be the normal explanation, but I'm not sure it's correct. Is it possible that the tyranny of time can be offset in some ways by mental attitude, which in turn preserves functions that might otherwise deteriorate?

Kudos to Kid for catching the resemblance between the TZ logo and that of AAF. I never catch design elements like that.

Kid said...

Thanks for your interesting comment, GP, always welcome. On the blog somewhere, I name the Marvel person who 'designed' the AAF masthead, but for the life of me, I can't at this moment recall precisely who it was. Sol Brodsky's name suggests itself to my mind, but if anybody knows for sure, feel free to let me know. It's memory lapses like this (and I'm suffering from them on a regular basis these days), which makes me fear that I may be developing dementia. I sure hope not.

Kid said...

Read my comment above, GP. It's obvious that I'd forgotten it was YOU who had written this very post. That's the kind of memory lapse I'm talking about. Anyone else out there experiencing something similar as they get older?

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