Friday, August 24, 2012

New vs. Old Gets Old

As visually appealing as a comic book cover is with heroes fighting prior or alternate versions of themselves, it's usually an exercise in futility--particularly when it takes place in the hero's own title. What--the challenger is going to come out on top and take over the book? Not likely.

Marvel probably has a little primer lying around somewhere that helps a writer who wants to have someone clash with their other self. If I were to take a guess, these might be the main points it would cover:

  • Have a good reason for these two getting together. Otherwise, it's just a "what if?" story.

  • More often than not, the more recent character is going to have the upper hand. Probably because in stories like these, the stakes are high, and the character can't afford to lose.

  • You'd better have something else up your sleeve than power vs. power. Otherwise, experience will win the day, and pulling that rabbit out of the hat gets old fast.

  • If possible, try to avoid time travel. You're a writer, for Pete's sake--can't you think of something that hasn't been done before?

As often as this sort of story has been done, there have been some match-ups that have employed nice twists to the concept. The original Frightful Four was a stroke of genius. Thor once did battle with someone who, at first glance, was the original Thor of mythology. (He turned out to be a mortal who was transformed with the aid of Loki.) The Fantastic Four battled android counterparts created by the Mad Thinker. Captain America battled his insane stand-in of the 1950s. Done cleverly, these battles can be pretty entertaining to watch--though the outcome is seldom in doubt, at least in the long run.

But with time travel stories, the reset button can be pushed too easily. In addition, you're always running into complications like this one, where the Thing returns to his present time to find that restoring his past self to his human form did nothing for him:

(You have artist/writer John Byrne to thank for that attempt to define a standard for "changing the past" stories. It didn't take, of course.)

And there are characters where this kind of battle wouldn't be feasible. It would be a no-brainer for Iron Man, for instance, to prevail over his past self who's wearing a far less advanced suit of armor. Daredevil or Spider-Man would presumably battle his past self to a draw. (Though it might be a much better fight as a result.) Still, I'd never put it past Marvel to give it a shot--particularly when they've all but drained the well dry with their other characters. Hopefully, though, that primer I mentioned above includes a section about this being a plot device that's best used sparingly.

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