Fire Up The Flux Capacitor: Fiction is seemingly obsessed with time travel. Is it because the plentiful opportunities for reality-busting canons that abound? Totally. And maybe it’s a great way to make protagonists meet themselves, and play with ideas of identity and causality? Sure sure. And who wouldn’t want a chance to re-write events and turn history into a great storytelling exercise? Most writers sure do.
But if there’s a single reason time travel is popular, it’s because it’s the sort of free-wheeling narrative structure that’s still the safest. You can turn Hitler into a giant robot lizard, and with just a few quick adjustments, get the timeline back into shape in a jiffy.
It’s that latter bit, especially, that informs the very early stages of The Man Who Effed Up Time, a brand-new wacky time travel series from AfterShock. For better or worse, it’s a story obsessed with time travel, and the resulting ramifications are huge. Like, Timecop huge.
Land Of Lincoln: TMWEUT is written by John Layman (Chew), and with art from relative newcomer Karl Mostert (plus, colors by Dee Cunniffe and lettering by John Layman). The story follows Sean Bennett, a lowly lab assistant who decides to use the prototype time machine developed by Professor Kendricks to go back and make some adjustments to his life. In doing so, Bennett enters into a brand-new timestream, one where Abe Lincoln’s ancestors may rule over a dictatorship and people wear stovepipe top hats every damn day. Bennett’s then given two days to fix his mess or suffer the time traveler’s worst fate. And, no, it’s not actually being dumped a few minutes before the asteroid kills off the dinosaurs, like I’d always assumed.
Cool Chrono-Leap, Bro: And that’s mostly it from a narrative perspective. It’s a fairly straightforward tale, one that’s every time travel story ever mixed with any random sitcom. There’s plenty of reasons to like Bennett: he’s a smart kid, and he’s trying to right some wrongs, especially around his personal life and any career/educational prospects. So the book at least tries to make you care, and offers a solid answer as to why he’d muck around with time itself.
The only issue is, this early on, it’s really not enough to forge a lasting connection. You understand why Bennett did what he did, but even than it’s hard to really relate. There’s no sense of suffering or inequality, and the book begins right away with the time travel chicanery. I’m hoping the subsequent series will offer more insight into Bennett, and give us greater reasons to actually care. Because even with any sense of “justice” on his side, he seems like another jerk mucking around where he shouldn’t. At least with other time travel series, you care about the hero. You want to see Marty McFly continue to exist, or H.G. Wells’ Time Traveler find that spark of humanity he sought. Without that, S.B.’s working outside any context we can relate to.
Fan Service: Regarding the issues of Bennett’s motivations, I think a lot of it boils down to the “obsession” the book has with time travel. From panel one, this book is deeply interested in perpetuating the idea of the Butterfly Effect in time travel, which says if you make one small change in the past, Jesse Ventura will have been elected president of an island of candy inhabited by talking chickens. Or the whole Lincoln-Verse, as this book presents.
The problem with that is, it’s just sort of one part of the time travel “mythos”; to paraphrase Donny Cates, it’s like every X-Men story involving Cerebro — that’s only ever one small part of a much wider and more interesting story. Focusing so much on this singular idea of the Butterfly Effect is something of a narrative dead-end, and feels like it’s working really hard to push the envelope and still retain some narrative certainty (aka, Time Travel Fiction’s Prime Defect). We need a story that has real stakes or odds for Bennett, and if it all works to eventually serve his needs, it’s a deeply disappointing narrative. I already get the sense that time travel is a hackneyed device and not a springboard for something greater.
Still, I’ll give the creative team ample credit: the Lincoln thing is funny enough. But could that be all there is? I’m less interested in discovering this world, and wish there’d been something fresh and novel done when messing with the literal fabric of time. Unless the story does a lot in giving us more depth and nuance with Bennett’s adventures, then all of this reality smashing will feel like one extended gimmick.
Make A Beautiful World: Whereas the story may still have sizable issues to overcome, the art is already killing it. Mostert’s work, especially, is really fun and vibrant, and there’s heaps of kinetic energy to his lines. He blends a lot of interesting influences and ideas to create something that feels cartoonish in its scope and size while still retaining a lot of that grit and organic quality that makes everything feel all too real. He’s aided in huge part by Cunniffe’s colors, which have a similar affect and are able to blur the lines between authoritarian vibes and whimsical fantasy permeating this alternate timeline. Even Layman’s lettering feels like it was ripped right from Bennett’s actual lab notes, which is a great little touch.
All of that together indicates that the art has this story figured out better than the actual narrative. The art doesn’t itself express anything “new,” but it does so in a way to make a slightly predictable storyline and narrative structure feel all the more energetic and exciting. It’s the art that grabs you by the lapels and makes you see the larger impacts of time travel on humanity and life itself. It’s the art that makes things feel weird but never lets us forget how close we are to vast change on a temporal and cosmic level. It’s the art that makes Bennett feel like both victim and co-conspirator in this grand adventure. So far, it’s the art that makes this trip a journey.
Final Thoughts: If you’re going to call a series The Man Who Effed Up Time, let’s really eff up time then. Push past the pop culture references and silly gags (visual or otherwise), and let’s get to a story where we can really sort through some nasty wreckage. I’ll hold out for issue #2, but let’s hope time hasn’t already run out for this series.