Should comic book characters age?
And, perhaps more specifically– should Marvel and DC characters age?
There’s been a lot of talk about this over the years and the answer most fans come up with is: yes, they should age.
But that’s a pretty-self-centered argument and I’ll tell you why. Y’see, Superman was introduced in 1938 and Batman the following year with Captains Marvel and America following shortly thereafter. If Superman aged– and he started out at, say, 25 (giving him a few more years than his usual, perpetually, 29-years old age) he’d be at retirement age in 1978 and currently clocking in at 92 years old (provided that I did the math right). So readers really don’t want for characters to have already aged. What they really want is for them to start aging now so that the characters can grow old with them (the readers, that is) which is all fine and dandy, but it screws up the next generation of fans something fierce. They won’t get to read the adventures of a youthful Batman who’s on the top of his game–they get stuck with an older Batman and the generation after that gets saddled with Batman II!
Sucks to be them.
You can blame continuity for starting all this. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, character almost never referred to past events. If a new character was introduced they became part of the fold and they seldom talked about a week or month or year having passed. Everything took place in the now and the only events ever referred to which didn’t take place today were the characters’ origins. Where things went a little screwy were tying characters to specific events with real fixed dates like the New York World’s Fair or World War II or Korea, Viet Nam and all the rest. When real people showed up it threw things off. If Bob Hope and Bing Crosby are hanging out in the background, or if President Eisenhower was, that pretty much said that this event took place around this time, but Marvel Comics took it one step further.
Marvel introduced continuity in a big way. The thing is, Stan Lee must not have thought these characters would be around for untold decades when these books started because he not only tied characters into specific time periods (Nick Fury, Captain America, Reed and Ben of the FF into WWII, Iron Man into the Viet Nam war), but he had characters age and get older. Reed and Sue got married and had a kid, over the course of a few years, Spider-Man graduated from high school and went on to college. And characters remembered and talked about past adventures! It was only a matter of time before readers started counting the days until Peter Parker’s next birthday.
And then DC got into the swing of it– and Robin the boy wonder became Robin the teen wonder and later Nightwing and some other kid became the new Robin and then somebody else became a newer Robin.
But follow it to its logical conclusion and things spin out of control. 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. We’d be up to Robin VI at the very least by now and Batman? He’d be pushing around a walker, wearing Depends®, taking in and out his false teeth, choking down creamed vegetables and praying for a solid bowel movement!
Another problem is that second generation heroes, for the most part, suck. Superman was rocketed to Earth from the dying planet Krypton. Superman’s kid would just be born. That’s it. No cool origin story there, no weeping parents sticking their son into a rocket to save his life from a doomed planet. Batman’s parents were killed by a trigger-happy mugger before his eyes. If the next Batman’s parents weren’t killed by a trigger-happy mugger before his eyes, would he still have the drive he needs to get the job done? And if the next Batman’s parents were killed by a trigger-happy mugger before his eyes, would readers accept him as anything other than a derivative retread of the original?
DC tried that with Robin. The second Robin had, pretty much, the same origin as the first Robin and readers bellyached about it. DC caved in and gave the second Robin a new origin. Readers hated that and voted to have the Joker cave in his skull with a pipe.
|… Superman today.|
But, these characters are already aging, you say. They’re slowly getting Older. We’ve seen them age.
That all sounds fine, but they’re not really aging– not all of them at least. There IS no consistent speed at which these characters grow older. The Marvel Universe takes place over about seven to ten years and unless things change for some reason, it will always be about seven to ten years. Yeah, there has been progression, but that’s largely in the past. The majority of events that have transpired are, most often, ignored. How many times has the clone saga been brought up? How about Spider-Man’s Team-Up with the Not Ready For Prime Time Players? Or his other battles in the old Marvel Team-Up book? How much do you expect Howard Mackie’s stories to be referred to now that he’s no longer the head Spidey writer?
What happens is this– there are key events that are important, the death of Uncle Ben, death of Gwen and a few others and the rest gets forgotten in the context of the comics themselves pretty damned quick. The reason for that is that it’s simply too much information to keep track of and it’s largely irrelevant to any given story being told.
In TV shows, characters have to age and the reason they have to age is because the actors are going to age regardless of whether the producers want them to. In a cartoon, that’s not the case. The Simpsons can stay the same age forever and there’s nobody forcing them to do otherwise. But fans don’t like the idea of their favorite comic book characters being stuck in time. They want the characters to grow older when they grow older– they don’t like the idea that one day they will be older than Peter Parker and then Superman and then Aunt May. But we’re in the real world and they’re not. They aren’t forced to play by our rules.
And at this point I’ll plug my own “Savage Dragon,” a book which takes place in real time. Characters age, they progress, they get married, have kids and even die. But I’m one guy doing one book and most everybody else doing books at Image is not playing along with that so our “universe” is anything but consistent. Dragon’s stepdaughter Angel is about as old as Cyan over in the pages of “Spawn”– but Angel hadn’t even been born when “Savage Dragon” started and Cyan was pretty much the age she is now when Spawn started! It’s not easy making it all work and the limitations are obvious. 12 issues a year really aren’t enough to cover all of the important events in the life of the Dragon and his immense supporting cast and I’ve been averaging ten issues a year– even less this year when my Publisher duties have slowed down production of Dragon stories to a crawl. Some sort of “Marvel-Time” for Savage Dragon might spare me a few headaches in the storytelling department, but then the real-time continuity is one of the things that distinguish “Savage Dragon” from other books on the market.
Fans don’t like characters that don’t age. But most fictional characters don’t age. Bugs Bunny doesn’t age. Scooby Doo doesn’t age. James Bond doesn’t age. Zorro doesn’t age. Aging characters may make them seem more real, but it doesn’t make them more vital— it makes it so they grow old and die. Look at TV shows– the cast grows older and as they do the shows need to adjust and eventually they reach a point where things no longer work and the series gets progressively less popular– and then it dies. The show ends and it’s all over. Marvel and DC can’t afford to do this– it would be suicidal– they would be systematically putting themselves out of business.
And even an organized, steady progression wouldn’t work. It would be chaos– you’d still have the real world proceeding at a different pace than they do (“Funny how many administrations have come and gone over those last two years, ain’t it, Reed?”). And a timeline we can all follow would just emphasize how screwy the whole situation is. And really, if it’s not going to make things better, what’s the point? Is a 27-year old Peter Parker really all that different from a 24-year old Peter Parker? Why insist that that step be taken if there is no positive effect? Why mention characters’ ages at all?
What we’ve ended up with is a situation where isolated characters have aged. Robin has aged, Batman hasn’t. Various members of the New Warriors aged so that they could all be within a few years of each other when that team was formed, but other characters showed no sign of wear (or tear, for that matter). It seems messed up, but it makes more sense from a storytelling point of view than it would to force growth on characters that don’t need to grow.
An interesting bit of aging occurred in the comic strip “Blondie” and most readers weren’t aware of it because it took place over a number of years. When Blondie and Dagwood were married (and when the strip started they weren’t married. Blondie was a single girl– a flapper from the 1920s who married Dagwood Bumstead who came from a wealthy family. He was disinherited when he married Blondie, a floozy from the wrong side of the tracks) the couple moved into a little house. And from time to time Dagwood would be pestered by an annoying neighborhood kid named Elmo. As the years went on, Blondie and Dagwood had a son, followed by a daughter and Elmo would look in at the babies in their cribs. As the years went by, the kids got older and, eventually, their son was the same age as Elmo. The two children were school chums, in fact. And these days the Bumstead children are teenagers and Elmo? He’s the same age he was since day one! Now he’s a few years younger than the kids that hadn’t even been born when he was introduced!
Now that’s messed up.
But it makes sense for the strip. Elmo’s function in the strip is that of an annoying neighborhood kid. If he aged, he would no longer be able to play that part. Blondie and Dagwood’s children, on the other hand, had other roles to play and having them become teenagers was part of that. Now that they’re teens they’ve stopped aging altogether, but if the strip started to run dry I could see their oldest child move out of the house and go to college while the daughter stayed at home for her last couple decades in high school.
Like I said before, if aging characters had always been the policy, none of the books from Marvel or DC could be the same as they are now. They’d be like “Kingdom Come” or “Spider-Girl” all the time— only those derivative, second generation characters would be getting replaced by the next generation of derivative, third generation characters– or worse- fourth or fifth generation characters. And the reason they’d be derivative is twofold: First, the first generation heroes are time-tested and iconic, with a loyal, built in audience and second, creators aren’t likely to go to DC and Marvel and give them their next cool characters– the next Batman or Superman or Green Lantern. Why would they? They’ve seen creators of old get the shaft and end up with nothing— so why do that? They’ll hang on to those characters so that they can reap the reward of their creations at Image or some other company where they can keep their rights and making a killing with a movie, TV show, Slurpie Cups, Underoos and a delicious Happy Meal. If I came up with a Batman, I’D want to own it– not have DC or Marvel own it. I’ve created characters at Marvel and DC and it’s no damned fun having somebody else own your characters and ignore them or mess them up or kill them off. So, if few people are creating new cool characters, who’s going to replace Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain American when they, inevitably, get up in years?
And they will get up in years. If they’d been getting older since day one, everybody at Marvel would be more than 40 years older than they were when they were introduced– at DC they’d be at least 60 years older– that would put Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman over 90 and most Marvel characters well into their 60s. Pretty cool, eh? That means we’d have to have an entirely new crop of characters inhabiting the comics since, in all likelihood, the characters would have been added at approximately the same rate that they have been, you’d have a lot of second generation look-alikes and little else. What icons have been added in the last ten years at Marvel and DC? How about in the last 20? If you just want the characters to start aging now for you— don’t you think that you’re being just a little selfish? You’re denying the next generation of readers what you have– young, vital, iconic superheroes. Why would you do that to your son or daughter or grandkids? Do you want them reading crappy comics? There is something nice about keeping iconic characters as icons. Peter Parker as a young man with problems is the icon-not Peter Parker the troubled grandfather of sixteen.
|The Robin seen here on the cover to “Batman” #3…|
And yes there has been progression. Gwen’s death was a milestone, but not all events are dwelled on or referred to the way that one is. So why go out of your way to destroy your franchise if you don’t have to? Why make it necessary to revamp the books?
“Savage Dragon” was set up as a book set in real time– it’s been that way from the start, but he was an adult from the beginning and bald to begin with so ten, twenty or thirty years is not going to visually alter his appearance that much. But that doesn’t make things any less problematic. I have to occasionally play catch up and cover many months in a single issue to get caught up to the present day. Subplots, for example, can be a bear since an issue needs to cover a month. Having a villain set plans in motion can end up being literally months of planning in their world and when you sit down to read a run, school years go by in a handful of issues and there are holidays one after another. I’ve ended up skipping Christmas on more than one occasion just because it would be too hectic to include it.
Writers kill off characters at Marvel and DC from time to time in order to make those universes seem more vital but they can’t really kill off Superman or Spider-Man without killing the goose that laid the golden egg. These guys are their bread and butter. And killing off supporting characters is a bitch, too, because you can’t expect that readers are going to feel the same way about the next character as they did the previous one. Gwen Stacy was Peter Parker’s real first love– her death left a hole in his life. The death of MJ would do what? Nothing! Add a bigger hole? Hardly. It would be redundant and it wouldn’t resonate the way Gwen’s death did. Over in “Daredevil,” Karen Page was killed off, but after former flames Elektra and Heather Glen, dying what did the book really get out of that? Precious little, I think.
As much as some writer might want to go back and retroactively squeeze in yet another girlfriend that preceded Karen, that character can never really have the emotional tie that Karen did. Karen was Daredevil’s real first love– and now she’s gone. I’m of the opinion that no character needs to be “put out of their misery.” All a writer needs to do is make their life happy again and the misery is over. Killing is easy– too easy.
The same thing was said about the Punisher at some point– “put him out of his misery”– and he was put out of his misery. The guy had three ongoing series at one point, but that dried up after it had been milked to death and the character was killed off. Thing is, there was nothing wrong or bad or broken with the Punisher– he was just overexposed. All he needed was a cooling off period, a fresh coat of paint and a creator who had an inkling of what to do with him and he would have been as vital as ever without having to go through a dying and being resurrected period. But he was killed and revived– and he’s still out there going strong ever since. I’m sure there are readers who feel that any number of characters need to be put out of their misery– hell, I get mail requesting me to bump off characters that certain readers find annoying on a regular basis (mostly Marvel characters, oddly enough. I just don’t get these people).
Death is something that really needs to be thought through well before it’s done. There can be voids left that can’t be easily filled after you bump off characters. It’s far better to write characters out of a series rather than kill them off. In “Thor,” for example, Jane Foster had run her course during Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s tenure, but rather than off the character, Stan and Jack wisely chose to shuffle her off to someplace else. Had they not done that, Jane Foster wouldn’t have been around for Thor’s successive creative teams to utilize.
The same thing had happened with Karen Page in “Daredevil” and any number of characters in “Spider-Man.” There’s no need to kill off these characters– don’t like Quilt-master? Don’t use him! But don’t add yet another appearance of a character you don’t like and then kill them so that the next creator in line who always loved that character has to figure out a way to undo your story to revive them. You’re not required to use characters you don’t like.
|…is a completely different Robin compared to the one seen here on “Robin” #140.|
Frank Miller brought back Karen Page from obscurity in his classic “Born Again” story and it was touching and entertaining and everything it ought to be (he also saddled the next creative team with Matt Murdock: fry cook at large– talk about a tough act to follow). Karen was later shuffled out of the book again and that should have been enough. Daredevil had a number of girlfriends die in the past, after all, Elektra among them, killing Karen Page off was unnecessary and redundant.
But I get where you’re coming from. You read a Batman story– the Joker broke out from Arkham Asylum, he killed some people and then Batman showed up, caught him and locked him up again, end of story. You’re growing tired of the routine. But that doesn’t mean the Joker must die. It doesn’t mean things have to change. That Batman needs to get older. It just may mean that you need to move onto reading some other book. This is more of a problem with you than with Batman. Batman shouldn’t need to change because you’re getting older.
Then there’s this option: Have all the characters get older. Have them all change and all progress and have the Ultimate line and the All-Star line become the young, vital versions of these characters. But you’ll be running into the same problems in the future unless you’re able to let go and allow the Ultimate and All-Star versions stay stuck in time. If you’re going to insist that all versions age and Marvel wants to have a Spider-Man book set in high school, you’ll need a new version every few years and you’ll have Spider-Men stacking up like cordwood.
Another thought I had (and I’m sure most of you will pooh-pooh this immediately, but wait until you hear me out first) would be to give every character a definite timeline and have them all be set in certain time periods. Superman really worked best as a character set in the late ’30s and early ’40s. Spider-Man, the FF, Nick Fury work best in the swingin’ ’60s and the man called Nova as a product of the ’70s. What if the FF was set in the ’60s? Why not? Then you wouldn’t worry about him aging– it would all fit. And you could have an older Spider-Man encountering Nova in the ’70s. A Superman in the ’30s works so well. If he’s from the ’30s, he really is the forerunner of all superheroes whereas now, because of the JSA, he’s a relatively recent character. Sure, there would end up being gaffs made, but it might be pretty cool.
But really, I don’t expect anything so dramatic to transpire. I think we’re going to see more of the same. At the end of the day, the important thing is really not “does this 40 year run of a book really all make sense when taken in at one time,” but rather “Was this individual issue or year’s worth of issues a satisfying read?” When you start noticing the seams, maybe it’s time to move on to something else. Or, perhaps, you can learn to accept the reality that these books aren’t reality, get over it, and enjoy the books for what they are.
But that’s just my opinion. I’m willing to concede that I could be wrong.