It's About Time
by Michael Hutchison
In ages past, time travel was the easiest thing to do. ANY superhero seemed to be able to travel in time through one method or another. Superman could leap through time by flying very fast (usually through a series of concentric circles with the years printed on them which would materialize in the sky.) Batman had a scientist friend who could send Batman and Robin into the past through hypnosis. Wonder Woman could travel through magical means. Green Lantern could ring-travel to any time. Flash, of course, had that amazing cosmic treadmill which adjusted his vibrations. In fact, it's rather amazing that the Lord of Time and Rip Hunter, Time Master could make names for themselves doing something that half the DCU was able to do!
When the Crisis On Infinite Earths rewrote the universe, DC's Powers That Be decided that this was the perfect opportunity to set down some rules limiting time travel. The rules were first introduced by Dan Jurgens in Booster Gold, although Dan made it clear that many of the minds at DC had been involved in the decision. This story arc also introduced the post-Crisis Rip Hunter as he completed work on his very first time sphere.
In it, Rip, Booster and company travel to the 25th century, whereupon the time sphere's motor burns out. After some consideration, Rip makes two announcements about time travel:
The first rule is a reasonable limitation, but that second rule has been a royal pain in the backside and probably for the creators as well as the readers. Even Dan Jurgens has tended to play loose with this second rule. Let's look at some of the cases where this rule has been both followed and ignored.
Well, first of all, we have the rather strange fact that some pre-Crisis time travel was allowed to remain canon, despite its obvious flouting of these laws. The stories of the people in the 58th Century who plucked Hal Jordan out of the past to play Green Lantern in their era have remained, as seen in GLCorps #213-215. That same story arc showed that the GL rings are more than capable of time travel and without any limitations or harmful effects. Flash's use of the cosmic treadmill has stayed in continuity (seen most recently in the Legionnaires Annual #3), again with no ill effects or damage to the device; that same story showed that speedsters can also travel through time without the treadmill's guidance. The past adventures of the villain Chronos are also canon; presently appearing in the ongoing Chronos series, we are seeing that his exploits have wrought havoc on his body but this isn't the same as "one trip and you're through!" We can also assume that the past stories of the Lord of Time are in-continuity.
Dan Jurgens' Time Masters maxi-series followed a strict allegiance to the new rules. Since Rip can't travel in time until he invents a third and fourth method of transit, he's stuck here hardly appropriate for a "time master." Thus, the series followed Rip's orchestration of a team of time travelers, all of whom get one chance to travel in a time sphere and one chance to return using a time backpack. This series made me think about the great hurdle of that "mode of transit" rule; this is like telling the gang at the Trinity project that they can detonate one nuclear bomb and then they have to come up with a completely different kind of nuclear bomb operating on a totally different principle!
Jurgens introduced a major addition to the DC Universe, the temporal cops known as Linear Men, in the Superman line's "Time and Time Again" arc. In this story, a cyborg known as a Linear Man arrives in the 20th Century to return Booster Gold to the 25th. The Linear Men (as we would see in future appearances) are all cyborgs because their time trips cause wear and tear on their bodies which is close to the rules, but with numerous exceptions. First, the Linear Men seem to use the same method of time travel on a constant basis, without burning out their equipment or dying from the trip. Secondly, despite the appearance of cyber-eyepieces and limbs, the Linear Men never appear ill or weak after their travels (with only one exception: the rogue Linear Man is shown melting at the end of "Time and Time Again").
In that same arc, Superman suffered from a chronal buildup in his body which would send him through time whenever he was caught in an explosion. The Linear Man mentions that, hey, he's Superman and can survive the damaging forces of the timestream so the fact that he uses the same method each time is acceptable. Superman comments that others have traveled in time without the reality-ripping explosions, but the Linear Man says that those travelers have not done that traveling repeatedly. So, at first we are led to believe that time travel is exceedingly difficult, even for the Linear Men. This is probably the last time that DC's rules of time travel were so stringently followed.
Ever since then, time travel has been a little easier, even for the Linear Men. At the end of Superman #73, the Linear Men send Superman back to his own time in a glitter of lights similar to a Star Trek transporter - no massive explosion appears to be necessary. And in that appearance, as well as numerous other Linear Men appearances, they have demonstrated the ability to travel with no ill effects.
And now, in Chronos, the rules seem to be even more relaxed. The Linear Men have grown from a group of five to an army and yes, all of them are cyborgs but they still don't seem too bothered by time travel. Meanwhile, Walker Gabriel, the time-travelling theatrical troupe and Konstantin Vyronis all appear to be hopping about pretty easily. The original Chronos, as I mentioned, is now out of phase with reality, but this isn't the same as the time-traveling disfigurement suffered by the early Linear Men.
Why do I say "early"? Because I see a way around these inconsistencies. The Linear Men, despite having a member plucked from the 35th century (this being the rogue Linear Man in "Time and Time Again"), is clearly an organization in its early days when Superman meets them in Superman #61 and Superman #73. As Matt Ryder reveals in his history, he and Rip Hunter are blown out of time in the early 21st century and founded the Linear Men shortly afterwards. Thus, the 35th century man is actually using early 21st century time travel technology.
Now let me ask you something isn't it entirely possible that Rip Hunter was wrong in his assessment of time travel in Booster Gold? One can hardly be expected to make ONE EXPERIMENT and suddenly become THE expert in a scientific field and he'd never even tried the same mode of transit twice before he ruled that it would be harmful. Really, he's only theorizing. Therefore, Rip's rules could be said to be erring on the side of caution. And his declaration that time travel will always burn out the device used could be arrogance on his part. If you've ever met an engineer, you'd know that the phrase, "I built the device perfectly; it must be something wrong with the electricity!" could adequately describe the engineering mentality. Since Rip couldn't possibly have designed a faulty time travel device on his first effort, it must be that the timestream is inordinately dangerous.
The Linear Men are doubtless working on better forms of travel all the time. It could even be that the Linear Man in "Time and Time Again" was an early recruit and all later appearances of the Linear Men have taken place long after they've perfected temporal transit although many still bear the reconstructive surgery of their earlier time trips. Perhaps time travel is still dangerous, but now they survive several dozen trips as opposed to a couple before they need replacement parts.
I hope so. While the higgledy-piggledy time trips of the Golden and Silver Ages should be reined in, the rules leveed by DC in the late 80s were too strict, and I'm glad to see some leniency which allows us such fun stories as those currently seen in Chronos.
Table of Contents
Thoughts at 3AM
Complete History of the JLA
Blue and Gold
JLA: Silver Age to Today
"JLA: Paradise Lost" reviewed
Six Origins of JLA Baddies
DCU 101 - Swords & Shrinkery
Retconvention - Time Changes?
Sector 2814 Art Gallery