The 13 Most Interesting Time Travel Stories in Comics
In comics, time travel is as commonplace as the superhero team-up, but often just involves inconsequential time-hopping to have adventures with King Arthur or a far-future descendant. Time travel stories that take care to dance around concepts like causality and temporal paradoxes make most people’s head hurt, but these are the things that make for great stories. Here are 13 comics that did it right.
One of the most influential works of time travel fiction in any medium has to be Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story, A Sound of Thunder. It is the classic depiction of time as a fragile series of interdependent events and would inspire the phrase “The Butterfly Effect."
In the early 1950s, EC Comics took the liberty of adapting Bradbury’s story (initially, without permission or credit to Bradbury) into a seven-page comic illustrated by the great Al Williamson. It’s a gripping tale of a group of hunters who pay to go on the ultimate safari in prehistoric times to hunt a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The trip is perfectly orchestrated so as not to disrupt the ecology, even allowing hunters one shot at a predetermined dinosaur that would have been killed by a falling tree moments later anyway. When one of the hunters freaks out and tramples through the jungle—stepping on a butterfly in the process—they return to their own time to find their world has been drastically altered.
The most popular time travel story in comics, “Days of Future Past” from Uncanny X-Men #141-142 introduced us to a dystopian future in which mutants were being hunted by the U.S. government. In a desperate attempt to change their fate, the surviving X-Men telepathically send the mind of the adult Katherine (Kitty) Pryde 30 years back and into her own teenage body so that she can prevent the assassination of a U.S. Senator—the event that would set this unfortunate future into motion.
A future that must be avoided at all costs would become the driving force behind X-Men comics for decades to come. It was an idea writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne came up with three years before The Terminator would do the same in Hollywood. Day of Future Past would, of course, inspire a film adaptation of its own in 2014—one year after the dark future of the comic was supposed to have taken place. Around this same time, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Stuart Immonen turned the dark future trope on its head in All-New X-Men, by plucking the original Silver Age X-Men out of their past and into the present to warn them about all of the messed up events that had been happening to them recently. It was now clear that the grim turn that X-Men comics had taken in the past 30 years meant that the dark future was already here.
The “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics—a theory proposed in 1957 by physicist Hugh Everett—states that time travel could be possible if the traveler accesses one of many universes that exist parallel to ours, avoiding any temporal inconsistencies. Marvel Comics operates under this theory as well and have made it clear that “Days” actually takes place in the future of Earth-811.
Jason Shiga’s inventive 2010 choose-your-own-adventure graphic novel Meanwhile is a perfect marriage of subject and format. The reader gets to control the decisions made by a little boy who stumbles into a scientist's laboratory that contains, among other things, a time machine. The pages of the book are marked by tabs and certain panels have color-coded paths that connect to those tabs which may jump you 20 or 30 pages ahead, causing you to read the book in a very nonlinear fashion. Shiga has released Meanwhile in many formats, including interactive apps for iOS devices, including Apple TV.
A former major in the study of abstract math concepts known as "pure mathematics,” Shiga has created a story with a total of 3865 narrative possibilities, encouraging many, many re-reads and a lot of potential for triggering temporal paradoxes and alternate timelines. You may even end up having the boy run into another version of himself. The catch to the time travel in this book is that the machine can only send you as far back as seven minutes—unless you can find clues within the story that will give you the code to unlock its full capabilities.
The idea of going back in time to kill Adolf Hitler is pretty much its own subgenre of time travel fiction. It even inspired a question asked of Republican presidential candidates this election season. Killing Hitler before he can commit the atrocities of WWII is a popular embodiment of the “Grandfather Paradox,” a concept that comes from the idea that going back in time to kill your grandparents will prevent your own birth, provided the universe and the rules of time allow that to happen.
Norwegian cartoonist Jason is masterful at every genre he dabbles in, from crime to horror to science fiction. He does so with his trademark anthropomorphic characters and a storytelling approach that is full of literary and cinematic influences. His 2007 graphic novel I Killed Adolf Hitler is inspired by the French New Wave films of the 1960s and at its heart is not about Hitler at all, but the love story between a hitman and his often ignored girlfriend. When the hitman is hired to go back in time to WWII to assassinate Hitler, the hit goes bad and the dictator steals his time machine, leaving the hitman to have to naturally age his way back to the present in order to correct his mistakes (both personally and professionally).
The dangers inherent in trying to kill Hitler played out to terrifying results in a 1980 issue of DC Comics' Mystery in Space by Gerry Conway and Tom Yeates. In this short story, a time traveler is successful in his assassination mission but is then overcome by a crowd of Nazis who steal his laser rifle, reverse-engineer it, and use the technology to conquer the world.
But, hey, that’s an easy fix, right? All it takes is for a future time traveler to go back and kill the first time traveler before he makes the mistake of killing Hitler. But then a Nazi time traveler comes back and kills him. Then someone else comes back for him, and on and on forever, creating an endless loop of assassins rewriting history.
In the mid-1980s, physicist Igor Novikov proposed the “self-consistency principle” that ruled out any form of time travel that could result in a temporal paradox. The laws of physics, which already restrict us from doing things like walking through walls, would similarly prevent a time traveler from altering the past in any way that would create inconsistency.
Fred Van Lente and Clayton Henry perfectly illustrate this theory in their Valiant Comics series Ivar, Timewalker. Ivar Anni-Padda is an immortal who has spent centuries mapping “time arcs” that he uses to jump from one period of history to another. In his 2015 solo series, Ivar rescues a scientist named Neela Sethi, who is about to be murdered before she can invent a new form of time travel. Hopping from era to era, Ivar teaches Neela some of the most important tenets of time travel, particularly that the universe has a way of preventing you from tampering with it. Issue #2 demonstrates this by, you guessed it, showing how you can’t kill Hitler.
The self-consistency principle is demonstrated at its best in issue #4, in which Neela goes off on her own to prevent her father’s death. Over and over, Neela revisits this day from her youth, trying to reroute the course of her own personal history, only to have the universe persistently get in her way. Her constant failures play out in a way that is both comic and tragic.
Three years before they would create 1986’s Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were honing their comic-creating skills by producing short stories for 2000 A.D. magazine. In one of the magazine's recurring features called Time Twisters, they published a five-page story called Chronocops! that is considered one of Moore’s best early works, and one that would hint at the complex narrative skills he would demonstrate later in his career.
Part satire of the television show Dragnet, part romp through all the classic tropes of time travel fiction, Chronocops! opens with our heroes, Joe Saturday and Ed Thursday, foiling a teen punk's attempt to create the typical grandfather paradox by murdering his great-grandfather. In just a few pages, Moore and Gibbons manage to pack in a dense array of sight gags, Easter eggs, and clever wordplay in a plot that unfolds forwards and backwards in time. Poor Ed gets clocked in the eye for an offense he hasn’t even committed yet and by the end he has to be stopped from marrying his grandmother and becoming his own grandfather.
One of comics’ classic temporal paradoxes occurred in 1958’s Adventure Comics #247, when Superboy received a visit from three teens who took him aboard their time sphere and brought him to the 30th century where they inducted him into their club, The Legion of Super-Heroes. Unlike most futures we see in comics, the Legion’s is a utopia that impresses Superboy so much he can’t wait to come back. It also impressed readers; while this issue was intended as a one-off, the Legion would continue to come back again and again, eventually getting their own long-running series.
The Legion was inspired to become superheroes by studying the 20th-century legends of Superman. However, when they go back to the time when Clark Kent is still a teenager, the adventures they have together would inspire Clark to grow into the hero they learned about in their history books. This type of paradox is referred to as a "causal loop," when a future event is the cause of a past event, which in turn is the cause of the future event.
Does reliving memories count as time travel? Alex Robinson’s 2008 graphic novel, Too Cool To Be Forgotten, makes a good case for it while also expertly navigating many of the tricky principles of time travel. Forty-something Andy Wicks is put under hypnosis to cure his smoking addiction and finds his consciousness transported (Kitty Pryde-style) back to 1985 and into his teenage body. He quickly realizes that he is there to stop himself from smoking his first cigarette but the question is, what else could be changed by forcing his teenage self to remake decisions he already once made.
As a Star Trek nerd, Andy is well-versed in the potential mechanics of time travel, which informs how he decides to act in these situations, since it is unclear to him (and the reader) whether this is an hallucination or something more. Robinson presents the concept of reliving high school as both a wonderfully nostalgic opportunity and also the worst nightmare imaginable.
There is a great plot twist in this issue that hinges on the fact that this story itself takes place in the past, relative to the rest of the All-Star Superman series. It is a story in which time travel is used not to alter the past, but to revisit it and loved ones who have been lost over the years.
The newest book on this list is Daniel Clowes’ Patience, a graphic novel released in March about a young man named Jack whose world is turned upside when his young wife and mother of his unborn child, Patience, is mysteriously murdered. Jack spends the next near-two decades pondering why this has happened until he meets a man who invented a method of time travel (a vaguely explained process involving the injection of some sort of liquid) that gives him a chance to undo the event that ruined his life. Not knowing who the murderer is, Jack’s first step is to go back far enough into Patience’s past to solve the mystery.
Clowes’ take on time travel is inspired by a love of EC Comics and 1950s science fiction, but he uses it as a device to explore themes of nostalgia, regret, and the desire to control fate. Jack is indeed able to affect change in Patience’s past, but is his own tampering going to be the cause of her death anyway?
12. We Can Fix It
Jess Fink’s We Can Fix It is probably the only time travel memoir. Like Alex Robinson’s Too Cool to Be Forgotten, it uses time travel as a way to try and fix the kind of small-scale mistakes most people have made in their lives, but Fink uses her own life and her own mistakes as fodder here. Wearing a futuristic bodysuit and operating a giant walk-in time machine, she visits herself at various ages, initially focused on voyeuristically reliving her early sexual encounters and preventing the more embarrassing ones. She also commits the ultimate act of self-love by making out with her younger self.
The rules of time travel are not exactly in play in this comic, but it’s a lot of fun and eventually hits on some emotional moments as Jess digs deeper into her own past and asks the question: If you could go back in time, what in your life would you fix?
“The Man Who Was Killed in Time!” was a story by Al Feldstein and Jack Kamen (two of the greats who were producing sci-fi gems for EC Comics back in the early days of comics) that appeared in 1951’s Weird Science #5. This seven-page tale begins with a man running over his own doppelgänger on the road, then running off. He stumbles upon a rocketship that turns out to be a time machine and accidentally transports himself back 14 hours in time, where he proceeds to run into the road and get run over by his own car.
This goofy little story is quaint compared to the other tales on this list, but it is a fun little artifact in that it feels the need to explain itself with a wonderful little illustration at the end. So much of what we take for granted in time travel stories were first done by the people at EC Comics and this little comic is a reminder that it was all new for readers back then.
This story was included in the first volume of the collected Weird Science, but you can also read it in its entirety here.