Sunday, August 27, 2006

Continuity and Why Heroes Need to Age

It is my contention that the biggest problem with DC and Marvel super hero comics is that no heroes ever age.

At one time the idea by DC was to keep ever super-hero at age 29. That was around the era when we heard don't trust anyone over 30 and Logan's Run was made into a movie. Also it was during an era when the average age of a comic reader was probably between the ages of 8-15 years old. It was assumed that an average reader would only read comics for a few years and move on to other endeavors. As the vast majority of the readership was male the new endeavor was usually girls.

Given that as a back ground never aging heroes and recycling old stories was not only okay it was easily done as a small switch and updating done here and there any story seems new again to a new audience.

Marvel came into the game in the Silver Age and eventually upped the ante. Spider-Man gets his powers at 17 years old and by issue #28 has graduated from high school and will be on his way to college. Reed Richards and Sue Storm get married and have children. Giant-Man retires from the super-hero business. All of sudden comic book characters have real continuity and things actually change. Marvel's growing sales forced DC to follow suit to some degree.

Once Marvel became number one, it has been stated that Stan Lee stated no more changes to the character just the illusion of change. No one thought that these characters would be already for forty plus years.

This means that a character like Cyclops has gone from being a lonely orphan to having two super powered brothers, a father who is an outer space pirate, has had two future children come back, has been married to Jean Grey, a clone of Jean Grey and was sleeping with the Phoenix force and is now hanging with the White Queen, has died and been resurrected and is portrayed as around 30. The weight of his continuity makes it harder and harder to find his character believable. Plus with Marvel's sliding scale of continuity (only 10 years of back history) we have no idea what is in his actual history and what is not in his history.

DC has the same problems and actually seemed at one point like they were wiling to move on, then Oliver Queen's soul was brought back from heaven and put into a ten year younger clone of his original body. Hal Jordan is brought back from the dead and we now have the same heroes as the main stars as opposed to the next generation. So when we do Ollie as a "man of the people" we are doing the same story with the same guy.

If you allow heroes to age you can get more interesting versions of the characters and have more of a blank slate to write their history.

Look at the JSA, the new Mr. Terrific is more interesting then still having Terry Sloane around.

This should be done with the Icon characters also. Look at Kingdom Come, Bruce is great as a master manipulator in the background. Dick could be Batman and married to Babs. The natural progression of these characters almost create stories that write themselves.

Once you go that route as a reader anything could happen and each issue is an exciting adventure that means something to the character.

Let Iron Man retire, he should be around 65 years old and should have protegeee or son that is taking over the armor, instead of moving his history forward.

When you want to keep a character around and let them age very slowly, give them a super soldier formula or have them bombarded with cosmic rays.

The time has come for this to happen because the fan base is staying with these characters forever and will slowly leave these books when they tire of the same story over and over. So many fans are jaded and are hanging on by love of the medium, but the time to let characters age (and it can be slower then real time) has come or the industry will slowly fade away with the fan base.


  1. Don't know if you can age everyone, but change isn't always a bad thing. The DCU really has no choice but to change now. Selina Kyle has a baby girl. We know when the child was born, so as it ages every other character will have to join in or it will feel odd. That's probably one of the reasons Greg Rucka joked, "Babies are evil!" So what do you do? Just age the child while everyone else stays the same? That's what they do on soap operas. Do you take the Simpsons route where Bart and Lisa and Maggie never age even though several shows have them hitting milestones like graduating from one grade to go onto the next? Simpsons has lasted some 16+ years without aging it's characters. Is this the model comics will follow?
    What I really feel we need is new characters. Where are the new heroes? The new villains? How about a new love interest once in awhile? Imagine how terrible life would be if you had to stay with the first person you ever went out with for the rest of your entire life like many heroes have to. Can't Black Canary do better than Green Arrow?
    Overall I agree that if you are not gonna bring in any new readers you better age your characters for the aging fanbase. Nice post!

  2. Thanks Jeff. I also feel that by aging some characters and having things actually change you can bring back the element of surprise to a book. If you understand that Batman is the franchise and not Bruce Wayne you can make stuff unpredictable and still do classic Batman stories - ala Batman and The Mad Monk. BUt how cool would it be to pick up and book and when the heroes life is on the line be worried that he may not make it.

  3. Humans, being mortal, change. But I have noticed that for a ever-changing species we seem to despise the idea of change. We cling to the old and the familiar and have a hard time breaking out of comfotable routine. I think this is at the heart of the refusal to change Batman and Superman and other iconic figures - because they are established, they are known, and they are comfortable. That and the fact that with change there is a "greater" chance for failure. I believe Neil Gaimen spoke to these fears when he wrote Sandman, a story that ended in the death of an immortal. The end point being (well one of them) that Morpheus HAD to change or die. And one can only change so much.

    Change is inevitable in real life and many times our fiction stuggles against that inevitablility. It is a part of human nature that is difficult to over come - especially when publishers and editors see it as a possible death sentence.

    Still I do agree, it would make for better stories.

  4. Jim, absolutely agree. With so many reboots of characters to fall in line with modern day events many origin stories are obsolete. I never understood the thinking about not having characters age. I think the comic industry sells their readers short in this. If they want to point to having to bring back Hal Jordan, Ollie Queen, etc as examples of how readers like the status quo; my reply is that better stories would have helped those transitions. My backlash on Kyle Rayner wasn't based on his character, it was how Hal Jordan was disposed of. Bottom line, don't trash old, established characters on their way out the door, and put strong creative teams on the new characters. Good stories always work.

  5. Why not take it a step further? Why maintain a monthly that never ends in the first place? What other entertainment medium never ends? Movies last 1-3 hours. Even sequals only go so far. Books last a few hundred pages, and when there are sequals, tend to age the characters. The Japanese comics market is predominantly, if not entirely, books that have a set beginning, middle and end. This doesn't mean you couldn't have several books with Batman. In fact, by having separate story runs, the issue of continuity could be dropped altogether, allowing each writer to interpret the character at will. Sort of like one shot alternate stories and the like but as the predominant way of telling the story.

    This would also allow the creation of new characters more freely. Without the weight of fitting those characters into a continuity stream, writers and artists would have considerably more freedom to create what works for their story and not be weighted down with the need to shoehorn the story into an existing continuity.

    There's no lack of creative writers out there. There is a lack of creative publishing in bringing those stories to market.

  6. Thomm - great point. American comics aren't selling as well and fortune favors the bold. Change or die has never been truer for comics.

  7. What other entertainment medium never ends?

    The closest comparison is probably the mystery novel.

    Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason, Leslie Charteris's Saint, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct, Robert B. Parker's Spenser... all of these were published over forty, fifty-year time spans without the characters aging significantly. Not always in exactly the same way; Spenser, Poirot and Marple aged a little. Wolfe stayed the same age while the world was allowed to continue to move through time. Mason stayed the same age, but you couldn't tell if the world was changing or not.

    More recently, Sue Grafton has solved the problem for herself by allowing her detective Kinsey Millhone to age normally...but she keeps the time element nailed down by having one book follow directly after another, so that her series is still set in the 1980s, just like when she started writing it.

    So is it therefore okay for comic books to do this? Not necessarily. From a literary-purist point of view I'd like to see a realistic approach to time and aging... but if DC did that they would have stopped publishing Batman comics in, what, the '60s? And Batman's a great character. Why stop writing about him?

    Plus it's all very well for us to say that they can just create new characters, but who was the last new character to become really popular? It's not as easy as it sounds.

    I think the best approach to dealing with time and aging in ongoing mainstream superhero comics is just not to think about it too much.

  8. Hmmm...

    You know, Dick as Batman, married to Babs (who should definitely still fight alongside him) sounds like a great idea to me. That's a story I'd like to see happen. Plus, it would open up the floor for new apprentices and what-not.

    Now if only you were in charge of DC. =D

  9. Airelle - Me in charge of DC - that would be my dream job.