I have a recurrent theme, maybe obsession, with the fact that I want the super hero characters that I still love (fewer and fewer as the years go by) to grow older (a little bit) with me. I have been trying to find a handle on why and recently it came to me that what I had read a few years ago about relationships and life applies to comic book heroes as well. The idea is simple, that we love and cherish something more because it lacks permanence. In other words a real rose is more precious then a silk rose because it does not last forever. Parents, spouses, siblings, children, friends are all more important because we have a limited time to spend with them. Not so with Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and all the rest.
The old theory was back in the sixties that the readership turned over every four years anyway, so there is no reason to ever change the characters. Today there is a larger and larger portion of the dwindling fan base that stays with these books forever. I mean except for a few small breaks I have been reading about many of these characters for over 40 years. At first I was a huge Marvel fan and slowly I became a bigger DC fan, but that is giving way to Vertigo and Independent books. Part of the reason is that the characters lose their ability to entertain when they become a constant.
I have abandoned Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Superman, X-Men, Wonder Woman and other characters for at times a decade at a time, which create huge gaps in my knowledge of who is whom. Still when I come back it is still Peter Parker now unmarried and apparently a twenty-something, the FF is approximately the same ages, Cyclops is running the X-Men, Clark Kent is Superman working at the least print newspaper in America and Wonder Woman has a brand new continuity for the most part.
What is to love about these characters? Nothing has changed and nothing every will change. Many fans may love having things stay the same, but do we need those fans as the only fans. That becomes a zero sum game as we circle the drain. Gwen’s Green Lantern was Kyle, which was fine by me. Johns has done wonders with Hal, but I bet he could have done wonders with Kyle in the role also. Now Barry Allen is coming back, heck I was happy with Bart as the Flash. Spider-Man has hit a magical re-set button and Marvel and DC do that over and over again with their characters until all we are doing is telling the same stories we have ever told. Connor was more interesting then Ollie at this point, a protégé for Tony Stark would be better then constantly changing his origin. What happens if we don’t have a war for twenty years, how will they move forward Iron Man’s origin then.
If a writer brings a great project for the Bruce Wayne as Batman, publish it as a mini-series, same for any of the characters, but let the main continuity move on. We need new people to become fans or as with much of the print industry we are facing the further decline and erosion of the industry. The depression that is here (or coming to be optimistic) is going to hit this industry hard and has already had an impact. The marginal titles will be even more marginal as comic stories that only use Diamond will not even see many books anymore. Mad magazine has gone quarterly and abandoned other spin off books they were doing, we will see at least five or six small press publishers go under for good.
My thought is that we can generate enough new fans by making comics exciting again, but we have to embrace change (isn’t that the political mantra right now). Let Peter and Mary Jane have a kid, let Johnny Storm grow up, have Lois get older and Superman not age and deal with those issues and keeping a secret identity or a myriad of other stories. I know people can say the Simpsons or James Bond never age, but the Simpsons is under 20 years old and has grown stale and only 20 plus Bond movies have ever come out. Spider-Man, Superman and Batman have had thousands of stories of these characters and really there is nothing new to tell. So we get giddy about Barry Allen coming back, but that only works if it is a year or two year long story about how a silver age person views the world versus how Wally views the world.
Even if the hero is the same the stories can be more interesting with some one else under the mask. Jamie Reyes as Blue Beetle was great and much better then doing Ted Kord as the Blue Beetle. Marvel has in a way recognized the staleness and has tried to address it by changing the status quo of the world ever couple of years. This is the illusion of change as opposed to actual change. Bucky, if he stays as Cap, is the change. Changing the landscape with Civil War and Dark Reign still leaves us with Hank Pym, Tony Stark, Clint Barton and more as the 40 plus year old characters as the core of the story. We end up with such convoluted history that writers are forced to pick and choose continuity and as readers we are frustrated because they did not pick the continuity we loved. The actual characterization gets botched over the years also as the characters are forced into different roles.
In many ways we have to face the future. Diamond can not be a store’s only source; the print medium is a declining industry, maintaining the same customer base is a recipe for disaster. We have yet to tap the full potential of this art form and if we can, we can be in a growth mode in the face of declines in both the economy and the print medium. The way to do this is allow someone new to be the man or woman under the mask. These characters were great, but you kill them by just adding on to their past to the point it becomes absurd. Moving forward and leaving the past allows for some real creative freedom and is exciting. We can always do stories of the past or alternative universes, but let the core continuity move forward or watch your fan base die sooner then your characters. You could see some media coverage of these events and have new people be unafraid of sampling a comic since they don’t have to deal with 40 years of pick and choose history.
Take my hand if you want to live.