Why Don't Comic Book Characters Age in Real Time

Why Don't Comic Book Characters Age in Real Time

Hello Geeks!

So I was in my shop a while back talking to my peeps (nerds) and trying to help them dial down geek rage (as you do) over something DC Comics or Marvel Comics did in the past few months...or Ben Affleck having a job.  Someone asked me, why does Batman still look 30 years old?  They wanted to know, in a nutshell, "Why don't comic book characters age in real time"?

America, I speak Nerd, fluently.  I even speak pseudo nerd, which relates to dudes in decent shape with decent jobs and nice looking girlfriends like most nerds but who think they are now nerdy because they watch Game of Thrones (for the bangin') or Mad Men (for the period piece misogyny) or The Wire (for the street cred, yo).

The thing that is hard for me to explain on a deep level is the apparent aging of superheros. Here's what I have to say America:

WE

REALLY

BLEW

IT

Allow me to explain.

Comic book properties don't really work like many other consumer media. In music, people are always looking for something new.  In television people are always open to a new show especially since most of the time our favorite shows are cancelled after a few seasons.  We have been trained to accept change grudgingly.  In comics we've been trained that change is IMPOSSIBLE.

I think comics takes its cues more from something like the "James Bond" movies than from something like "Everything Else".  When a James Bond Movie is made, the setting and actors and cars are all updated so that modern audiences feel like "this old character" is really "our cool character".

We can have 150 years of James Bond where 007 is super damn double plus cool no matter what situation he's put in. He will always be the archetype for bitchin' secret agent man even though when his first movie was made, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee and Jim Morrison were all still alive.

This is just like Batman, Spider-Man, Superman and the Fantastic Four.  They were created decades ago and every 10 years someone comes along to give them a tweak.  All the tweak does is make something designed for the generation before us, feel like it could be for us.  Tony Stark didn't become Iron Man during the Korean War, now it's Vietnam, then eventually Afghanistan.  Tony Stark still looks roughly the same though.

We know he was created in 1964.  Why do we need Tony Stark?  Why hasn't he made himself some little "Stark-lets" and shuffled off to retire in Venice or someplace else?  He hasn't done these things because basically Marvel Comics thinks they have a singular commodity in the character of Iron Man and we care about that commodity.  Because we care about Iron Man, he can't be pushed aside to celebrate his heroic legacy.

DC Comics is really only historically slightly better at this.  Comics fans eat up this concept that sidekicks become former sidekicks and then eventually replace their heroic mentors but by and large the main hero almost always looks in his prime.

Batman has trained at least 4 people and called them Robin over the years but right now, 2 of those Robins (Dick Grayson and Jason Todd) are clearly grown and another (Tim Drake) appears to be maybe 18 years old.  Why not have Batman appear to at least be 40 years old?  He's a super hero.  It's not like we need to SEE him suffering the effects of lower testosterone or anything.

There have been times when characters like Bruce Wayne as Batman and Barry Allen as the Flash have stepped aside (due to injury or death) and allowed younger replacements (Dick Grayson as Batman and Wally West as the Flash) but this isn't the same Wayne and Allen aging with us.

I think this is a concept that could be embraced by publishers.  I just have no belief that DC or Marvel Comics would be interested. I can separate the value of characters in comics vs. movies/games/toys/kids underwear/ice cream bars.  I'm not sure Warner Brothers or Disney is ready to do that.

When these character's images are sold for these purposes it's generally the "iconic" version of the character you're seeing.  Most people can identify major characters like Iron Man, Batman, Captain America, The Flash or Green Lantern but would have no idea that in comics, those characters may be appearing with different people under their masks.  The licenses for these characters are the most important thing for these companies.  They can keep putting Batman on coffee mugs forever but he doesn't really need to look 25 in comics forever.

I would contend that now is the time to invest HEAVILY in a younger generation of characters and  have everyone age in real time.  Publishers  know that the majority of readers now are over 40 so this might be a time to push younger characters that will appeal to younger readers who will someday grow older WITH these characters.  I say that knowing that the deck is already stacked against the youth movement.

In comics this narrative has played out before.  If an established character is replaced, his replacement can't be permanent and pretty much can't wait to fall back when the main hero returns.
If the world is left to the youth then you can pretty much bet they run wild like Lord of the Flies but with super powers.

We blew it. We could have supported every awesomely sweet new super spy/black ops dude to come down the pipe to the point where we were dying to see Jack Bauer on the silver screen but nope, we need Bond.  We could have supported every new star ship crew blasting off into space to boldly something something but nope, we supported instead, new actors using the names of traditional Star Trek characters.  Why should comic book characters invest in a potential future when we, the buying public, only really respond to the old and familiar?

Comic book characters aren't aging in real time because the public responds negatively to change.  I know fans of comics aren't going to stop buying them because some editor somewhere really decides to consider a new story telling model but there is often backlash when things look differently tomorrow than they did yesterday. I'm sort of holding out hope that someday, someone looks at things created by Lee, Kirby, Kane, Siegel, Shuster, Heck, Fox, Moulton and Haney as things that can be put away and maybe things created by today's most creative writers and artists can be the comics we follow in the future.

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    Time in the Marvel Universe actually does flow, it is just ridiculously slow. The prevailing theory is that Franklin Richards, son of Reed and Sue Richards, modified time around 1970 or so so that it flows in an odd way. things change, but people don't recognize time. Up until that time everyone aged at the normal speed; hence why Franklin is about 9 when he was born in the mid-sixties. He got to a certain point, made that decision and bamm, everything went odd.

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    Also, in the DC universe, they have rebooted several times. but there is a non-canon story with Batman and Superman where time did flow.

  • In reply to Matthew Martz:

    Yeah see the issue there is that most modern comics fans have never, until recently read any Franklin stories of consequence. Given that the Marvel and DC universes BOTH sort of evolve as sales needs arise, neither are going to draw your attention too much to a story that happened in the early 1970's.

    In the early Marvel days people probably recognized time because the company was still young. Like by the time Gwen Stacy died, Marvel was really maybe 10 years old, tops.

    Peter Parker can start out a geeky kid in high school and end up in college during that time but if they keep that up, they'll be retiring Spider-Man in no time.

    DC once did an OOC story called the Saga of the Super Sons which was all about the progeny of Supes and Bats but they haven't ran anything that follows natural aging over time. Just some futurist stories. Same with Marvel really.

  • A little late to this post, but the idea of non-aging characters isn't just comics & movies. Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin didn't age over a 39-year period, although their environment was always contemporary with the time the story or book was written.

    "Those stories have ignored time for thirty-nine years," Stout told his authorized biographer John McAleer. "Any reader who can't or won't do the same should skip them. I didn't age the characters because I didn't want to. That would have made it cumbersome and would seem to have centered attention on the characters rather than the stories."[3]:49 (from Wikipedia entry on "Nero Wolfe" 12/12/2013)

    Which seems a good explanation for why an author might choose for characters not to age.

  • In reply to LisaAlissa:

    I could see that from an author's perspective. Comics, I would think, are a bit different. No single author controls a character a period longer than his agreed upon contract with the company.

    Stan Lee may have been the 1st writer for the Fantastic Four, X-Men and the Avengers but he wasn't the only one. Those characters belong to the company itself and Marvel COULD decide to keep it's stories moving forward in real time. They just haven't, which may contribute to this sort of stunted growth, socially, that many comics fans feel.

  • I know this is late, too. Hope you see this! You make really good points. I agree about the Star Trek reboot--kind of pointless, except for the special effects--whee. The original cast did age in their films; Star Trek was very much character driven, tho. (Didn't Alex Ross do a series with older Superman and Batman, was that an alternative press thing?)

    Now, you have me wondering if nostalgia isn't longing for what's comfortable and familiar but for those things when they were NEW.
    Sometimes, something new and different becomes a surprise success, and then everyone wants to copy it.

    Would people accept something radically new? I guess alot of artists of all kinds ask that question...

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post--and an excellent blog!

  • congratulations guys, quality information you have given!!! Marvel Comics

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