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:
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.