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The Necessity of Aging in Comics
September 27, 2005 11:06 AM   Subscribe

"Should comic book characters age? A Boy Wonder doesn't stay a boy for long if a book is set in real time. That makes it so that any Robin can have an active career for, what, ten years? And that's if you buy that a fighting mad ten-year old can really kick anybody's ass." Some insightful comicbook commentary by Erik Larsen, creator of Savage Dragon.
posted by grabbingsand (35 comments total)

 
Keeping Batman forever in his 40s shouldn't be too hard. It's when a characters origins are tied to specific events that things get really hard: Would The Punisher be the same if he wasn't a crazed Vietnam vet? Would Magnetos anti-human crusade have the same weight if he hadn't been in a concentration camp?
posted by Artw at 11:17 AM on September 27, 2005


The problem with setting things in the past is that it's hard to relate to the past. And comics are _all_ about relating to the heroes -- secret identities, powers that may be more trouble than they're worth, guys who can never ultimately get the girl, etc.
posted by effugas at 11:23 AM on September 27, 2005


As long as Bucky stays dead, I'm happy.
posted by ToasT at 11:31 AM on September 27, 2005


To be honest, this is a non-problem problem. The rules are loose enough that when characters need to age, they do; but otherwise, they don't. That's a lot more sensible than working out some strict aging formula.

Like, the fact that Batman's in his 30s in regular continuity didn't stop Frank Miller from writing storious of various levels of quality about an aging Batman.
posted by COBRA! at 11:32 AM on September 27, 2005


Most comics don't actually cover that large of a time-span. A year's worth of issues could cover only a few days.
posted by melt away at 11:36 AM on September 27, 2005


Well heres the thing i notice (from cartoons anyway) is that while the character at a certain age there are stories that take place. Granted that the era that they take place is usually 'the modern era'. Mebbe annoying but forgivable. And as cobra said other stories can take place when the character is at a different age.

I would use Batman Beyond as an example, Bruce Wayne is now coffin fodder but the batman is still there and the stories are good.
posted by MrLint at 11:38 AM on September 27, 2005


I think it should be up to whoever came up with the character or (gag) whoever owns the rights to the character. If they want them to age then they can age. If not then they don't have to.

I do know the For Better or Worse comic strip is the only that comes to mind immediately that the characters grow, age and mature and change. Doesn't the strip funnier but it does make it fresher since I'm a little tired of the Family Circus kids never growing up, either that or they're a family of midgets or something.
posted by fenriq at 11:52 AM on September 27, 2005


And I second MrLint's example of Batman Beyond, which is excellent!
posted by fenriq at 11:52 AM on September 27, 2005


Not a superhero, but John Wagner is getting some interesting mileage out of Judge Dredd ageing in more or less real time.
posted by Artw at 11:55 AM on September 27, 2005


Not a comic book, per se, but Doonesbury, post-hiatus, features a cast aging in "real-time" and undergoing significant changes.
posted by Verdant at 11:59 AM on September 27, 2005


Doesn't the strip funnier but it does make it fresher since I'm a little tired of the Family Circus kids never growing up, either that or they're a family of midgets or something.

So you're the guy who's still reading that obscenity.
posted by ToasT at 12:04 PM on September 27, 2005


Ah, the ol' Gasoline Alley vs. Gil Thorp problem.
I'd like to see new characters constantly invented, if they were of high quality. But, on the other hand...
posted by klangklangston at 12:33 PM on September 27, 2005


As long as Bucky stays dead, I'm happy.

Um....I have some bad news for you....
posted by emptybowl at 12:36 PM on September 27, 2005


Aren't comic book heroes supposed to be the mythological icons of our time?! (I'm so tired of the literary pretension that comics have gained over the last 20 years, so I ask the question only partly tongue in cheek)

Anyhow, I figure that when the "iconic" thing is applied to the heroes and villains, then it really doesn't matter if they age. In fact, I don't think that any attempt at internal cosistency is even worth the effort when the histories of particularly long lived heroes are considered.

Batman isn't about a 30-something billionaire playboy with a wont to wear a cape and tights and beat the bad guys. It's about the ideas of vengeance and fear and vigilantism (or whatever) and all sorts of base themes. Spiderman is about the quiet geek who actually has super powers; the comic geeks just live vicariously through Peter Parker and crew. Archie, Betty, and Veronica are about the idealized High School experience. It doesn't matter what era or that the characters age, just that they stay relevant to their readership and that their age is appropriate to the story being told using those characters.

Can comic characters age? Sure, if one of the themes that the comic deals with is mortality or some such, then it's probably entirely appropriate.

// phew... way too much thought put into this...
posted by C.Batt at 12:44 PM on September 27, 2005


Not a bad commentary, but comes across as a bit of navel-gazing by a guy trying to sell his own work. Personally I like my fantasy unadulterated by the mundane aspects of reality. The story is important, not necessarily chronology.
posted by elendil71 at 12:44 PM on September 27, 2005


Bucky's back. Maybe.
posted by grabbingsand at 12:49 PM on September 27, 2005


I think this whole problem is most obvious with Marvel given its reliance on younger characters and teen angst. I'm under 30 and in my own lifetime Spider-Man has been "reset" at least twice. I think I've read more origin stories of Wolverine than I have actual X-men comics about anything else. Especially in the "Ultimate" line, characters like the FF, Spider-Man, and the X-men are reliant on being teenagers.

From what someone told me, and I might be a little confused, DC "current time" is under what they call the "12-year rule:" that is, any story you're reading that takes place "now" relies on the concept that the principal characters (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc.) have been around for about 12 years. Especially with Batman I think they've done it really well: recent flashback stories show people in 70's garb while Bruce Wayne is a teenager, etc.

Constantly updating when the past was is pretty doable, and the best example is on The Simpsons: they have constant flashbacks to a few years ago, despite the characters never aging. The most recent flashback episode was to a year in which the Simpsons had been on the air for over three years.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 12:57 PM on September 27, 2005


I stopped reading comic books about two decades ago but resurfaced momentarily when Kingdom Come came out. I thought Alex Ross' take on an aged Superman was brilliant.
posted by disgruntled at 12:59 PM on September 27, 2005


Keeping Batman forever in his 40s shouldn't be too hard. It's when a characters origins are tied to specific events that things get really hard: Would The Punisher be the same if he wasn't a crazed Vietnam vet? Would Magnetos anti-human crusade have the same weight if he hadn't been in a concentration camp?

The ones that aren't easy can be "cheated". Batman and Superman are essentially infinite in origin time- there was no major event that coincided with their origins. Ditto Wonder Woman and most other JLA'ers. Characters like Green Lantern, Nick Fury, etc. who are tied to military events can be bumped up chronologically to the next major conflict. (Iron Man was originally captured by incredibly racist-stereotype Viet Cong; now he's a modern-day war machinist or something like that.)

Captain America, who really is tied to WWII, is in the "cheat" column: they just have him frozen. In future incarnations I'm sure some form of time-travel will be employed.

The only character I agree is really in trouble as the years go by is the Punisher. So much about him is Vietnam syndrome, but ideally they can figure out new things. The actual "snapping" moment in his origin isn't the war but the murder of his family, so in a worst-case scenario, they can make him a Gulf War vet.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 1:06 PM on September 27, 2005


If superheroes aged, we'd never have the perpetually messed-up continuity that requires the occasional reboot masked as epic crossover event.

Won't someone please think of the speculators?!?!?
posted by mkultra at 1:24 PM on September 27, 2005


Since the color green doesn't age and become a darker shade of green or a completely different color, I don't see how comic book characters should ever age.
posted by cleverusername at 1:25 PM on September 27, 2005


There are persistent rumours that DC is going to be switching to a "real-time" continuity starting next year.

The seven-issue miniseries "Infinite Crisis" begins next month. When it's over, all DC titles are going to be jumped ahead one year into the future; the first post-Infinite Crisis issues will all have "One Year Later..." on the cover.

And at the same time, DC will be publishing a yearlong weekly series, tentatively titled "52", which will take place one year behind "real time", showing what happened in the gap between the end of Infinite Crisis and the "reboot".

The persistent rumour is that Once the "One Year Later" point occurs, DC continuity will be realtime. Batman will age and will eventually have to be replaced. Robin will grow up. Superman and Lois will have to decide whether they want to have kids. And so forth.

There are stories set in the future where Superman has aged, and also stories where he hasn't. Maybe they'll pick the latter. Wally West replaced Barry Allen as the modern-day Flash, and few but the most rabid Silver Age fans would dispute that Wally is a better character.

I hope that the rumours are true, and that DC/Warner has decided that Batman doesn't really need to be Bruce Wayne. Batman is the icon; Bruce Wayne, less so.

Besides, if the experiment fails, they can always reboot the continuity again.
posted by solid-one-love at 1:34 PM on September 27, 2005


Batman is the icon; Bruce Wayne, less so.

Oh, SO not true! Batman is driven, at his core, by revenge. And it's his family wealth that funds his endeavors. You can't just stick any rich guy into the suit.

Actually, they tried- Azarael. It sucked. Ditto Iron Man/War Machine.

Besides, if the experiment fails, they can always reboot the continuity again.

This outcome is all but assured.
posted by mkultra at 1:44 PM on September 27, 2005


Besides, if the experiment fails, they can always reboot the continuity again.

This outcome is all but assured.


And that's sort of beautiful. I think real-time continuity isn't really needed, but, even though I disagree with the decision, it's cool to see DC toying with the idea of taking a big chance. I'd rather see failed experiments than bland conservatism, and the reset button's always there when things go off the rails.
posted by COBRA! at 1:51 PM on September 27, 2005


You can stick any rich orphan who wants vengeance on the criminal element in the suit. And both Dick Grayson and Tim Drake fit the bill. Azrael wasn't rich or a seeker of vengeance; he was a brainwashed agent of an ancient conspiracy, and that's just not Batman. That's why, I think, the Azrael-as-Bats storyline sucked. He just wasn't compelling.

I quite liked the Jim Rhodes-as-Iron Man/War Machine issues. Iron Man isn't about "rich, genius industrialist with a heart condition requires technological assistance to live, so he masquerades as his own bodyguard in a high-tech suit of armour". It works even without any of those elements. IMHO.
posted by solid-one-love at 1:55 PM on September 27, 2005


I do know the For Better or Worse comic strip is the only that comes to mind immediately that the characters grow, age and mature and change. Doesn't the strip funnier but it does make it fresher...
posted by fenriq at 11:52 AM PST on September 27

Ditto. This is the only mainstream comic strip I can think of where the characters do actually age, though as you said, it isn't really a 'funny' strip. Then again, I'm not ure it's meant to be. Doonesbury is similar as well... I'm not sure if the characters age per se, but they have had moments tied to the real world (such as BJ losing his leg in Iraq) that have aged the characters somewhat.

Oh, SO not true! Batman is driven, at his core, by revenge. And it's his family wealth that funds his endeavors. You can't just stick any rich guy into the suit.
posted by mkultra at 1:44 PM PST on September 27 [!]

On preview: what solid-one-love said.
posted by Effigy2000 at 2:01 PM on September 27, 2005


Doonesbury's characters essentially didn't age for the first 12 years or so before his hiatus (well, J.J. grew up). But since then he advanced everyone's age to match what it had to be given when they first appeared and their ages then, and has kept them aging in real-time.

I'm frustrated by the eternal reboots. DC got some good stories out of older heroes mentoring younger ones in Starman and Flash.

But Superman and Batman'll never get older, thanks to toothpaste. (What mkultra said -- if DC starts aging in real-time, the outcome is assured.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 2:15 PM on September 27, 2005


As klangklangston pointed out, the characters in Gasoline Alley have pretty much aged in real time since the very beginning.
posted by interrobang at 2:24 PM on September 27, 2005


Putting someone else in the bat-suit doesn't alter the character's ability to sell toothpaste in the slightest. From a marketing standpoint, Batman's selling toothpaste, not Bruce Wayne. And, like I said, Superman doesn't have to age at all -- and it's irrelevant to marketing if Lois does while Supes doesn't.

It doesn't even matter if they age in the comics for the purposes of moviemaking. The forthcoming Superman movie depicts Superman and Lois Lane in their early 20s. The Smallville TV series depicts Clark and Lois having met in their teens. Neither of these plotlines have occurred in continuity in the comics (to any significant extent).

And Wonder Woman is almost always depicted as unaging.

They sold Flash underoos when I was a kid. The guy in the Flash suit is a different guy now. Does this change merchandising possib ilities for The Flash? No. The short-lived Flash TV show didn't even use the contemporary Flash, either.

But in the longview, we're talking about only a handful of characters who are significantly marketable: Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, the Joker, Lex Luthor...maybe Aquaman, which is why they keep taking kicks at the can so often with him even though his comics rarely sell. A couple of them don't age, it doesn't matter that much who's in the Batsuit or in the yellow cape. And so on.

If you couldn't tell, I'm a proponent of DC taking the big risk and moving towards real-time continuity. I think it would be anything but a failure; the greater the number of interpretations of the characters, the greater the opportunities for both artistic and financial success.
posted by solid-one-love at 2:38 PM on September 27, 2005


Funky Winkerbean is still going strong, and its characters age -- Les is now a teacher at Westview High School, and one of his former students just showed up as a student teacher. Two of his former students -- who now work at Montoni's pizza for manager Funky -- have gone to Afghanistan to clean up landmines, where they adopted a baby girl. I don't think it's precisely real time (maybe half that?), but he is representing gradual changes in his characters.
posted by dhartung at 3:05 PM on September 27, 2005


I'm sorry, everybody knows that Bruce Wayne = Batman = Bruce Wayne. That will never change. Rumors on teh Internets say that Bruce ends up in Arkham after IC and Dick Grayson takes his mantle, but I promise you by the time the sequel to Batman Begins comes out, all will be as it was.

On the other hand, I've been reading comics on and off for twenty years, and I couldn't tell you the real name of either Flash until this year. Hell, I didn't know there was more than one Flash until this year. And let's not even get started on Green Lanterns.

In conclusion, Make Mine Marvel!
posted by keswick at 3:31 PM on September 27, 2005


Azrael wasn't rich or a seeker of vengeance; he was a brainwashed agent of an ancient conspiracy, and that's just not Batman. That's why, I think, the Azrael-as-Bats storyline sucked. He just wasn't compelling.
posted by solid-one-love at 1:55 PM PST on September 27

Well, yeah. That was kinda the point. When the wheels were set in motion to do the AzBat story, the idea of the demented violent kill-people kind of anti-hero (Lobo, Wolverine, Punisher, and the first inklings of what would become the Liefeld shitstorm) was a big deal for the fan community. They were getting tons of letters demanding that Batman get even darker, more brutal and violent.

So, enter Azrael. He was exactly the kind of Batman that people had been asking for ... and he just wasn't Batman. People HATED seeing this guy parading around claiming to be Batman. And, as the story wound down, Batman comes back, beats the usurper down, and resumes being Batman, and the fans are thankful And then this whole explanation went in the letter column, and the fans were sheepish. I rather liked what they did with that story. There are lines Batman can't cross without ceasing to be Batman, and this proved it.
posted by kafziel at 7:01 PM on September 27, 2005


i don't really read comics.

um Azrael= new coke?

Seriously, too bad I dont' run a comic book company.

Just create a different color book:
Red, blue, green.
Each color represents a restarting/ of the story...letting people retell it...add nuance and difference..

makes as much sense as different universes.
posted by filmgeek at 9:55 PM on September 27, 2005


filmgeek - were you by any chance running a major comicbook company during the 1990s?
posted by Artw at 11:08 PM on September 27, 2005


And they wonder why people are buying manga.
posted by longdaysjourney at 5:07 AM on September 28, 2005


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