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OPINIONS 101: Why Don't Heroes Age?

January 8, 2003

The January 2003 issue of the online fanzine SEQUENTIAL TART features a lengthy interview with me that was conducted by ST’s Lee Atchison. The piece is largely promotional vehicle that will, hopefully, introduce some new readers to Altercations and other SGC products.

One of the subjects that I addressed in the interview was the apparent agelessness of super-hero icons. By ageless, I am referring to the fact that comic book heroes, villains, and supporting cast members seldom age, or, if they do, they age contrary to “real” time. For example, Batman was introduced to the comics-reading public in 1939. Were he to have aged “normally,” assuming he was 20 years of age when he first donned the black and gray batsuit, he’d be a youthful 84 years old today. Another example is, of course, Spider-Man. When the series debuted in 1962, Peter Parker was a timid high school student. Today he would be approximately 55 to 57 years of age, as would Flash, Mary Jane, and his other chums. One final example is the Fantastic Four. Lee and Kirby established that two members of the famed quartet (Reed Richards and Ben Grimm) had served in the armed forces during World War II. Assuming both were 18 years old and enlisted in 1942, they would each be nearly 80 years old.

However, as comic book readers know, “comic book time” differs vastly from “real” time. Since the early 1960s Marvel’s books have been replete with moment-in-time references, that is, a reference to an event or person that clearly places ownership to a specific time in history. The Fantastic Four race to the moon to beat the “red menace” and help America to win the space race; years(?) later, they ensure the safety of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969; the Beatles appear in Strange Tales with the Thing and the Human Torch; the Fantastic Four usher in the new year (1973); Spider-Man meets the 1970s SNL “not-ready-for-prime-time players” including the late John Belushi. These are but five of dozens of examples that spring to mind. More recent examples would be Mark Millar’s numerous references to Freddie Prinze, Jr., in Ultimates, and of course, the heroes of the Marvel universe who pause to help in the rescue efforts following the WTC attacks of September 11, 2001. These references to real-time occurrences and individuals are not placed within the pages of funny books to “trick” the reader, but to provide a sort of backdrop of information to which the reader can relate. I don’t have a problem with this method of writing (though I do believe it was a mistake to reference the September 11 attacks in the pages of super-hero comics in which the aspirations of many adversaries is conquest, domination, and destruction—though I address this topic in the ST interview so will not belabor the point here. Where I do have a problem is when Peter Parker can take a date to see Help! in the ‘60s, Annie Hall in the ‘70s, Platoon in the ‘80s, and There’s Something About Mary in the ‘90s, while remaining his youthful self through each passing decade. It is the paradox of doing serial fiction and there is little that can be done to remedy or counteract the situation. Certainly it’s been tried. The writers and editors at DC comics have done various retrofittings of their universe; I believe this first occurred in the Crisis on Infinite Earths maxi-series and was followed years later by the Zero Hour mini-series. More recently DC has introduced “hyper time,” a concept that apparently explains the aging paradoxes, though I will not profess to know enough of the concept to explain it logically. On a somewhat smaller scale (though perhaps of greater significance) retrofitting occurred in the landmark Batman: Year One mini-series. Likewise, Marvel’s Ultimate line began anew the adventures of everyone’s favorite wall crawler following John Byrne’s much lambasted Spider-Man: Chapter 1. Retrofitting a character’s past, rewriting that which has already been written, seems to be a necessary evil.

But is it really?

The answer is both yes and no, and I will try to explain why. When you or I think about Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, the Hulk, or Captain America, we probably think that these are fictional comic-book characters. We are wrong. Spider-Man, Batman, et al. are not characters, per se; they are properties. In that regard there’s much to be said about what can and cannot be done in the sandbox in which these characters play. Thus, central protagonists relatively undergo few “real” changes. Having stated that broad generalization, I certainly will admit that there are exceptions to the rule. Characters are sometimes killed off (once in a great, great while they even stay dead, though don’t hold your breath). Sometimes the mantle (ie, costume) is passed along to another—such as in the case of Batman’s side-kick, Robin. But these examples represent the deviation rather than the norm. As properties of substantial financial value, it’s in the best interest of the corporations and stockholders that own the properties to see that they are utilized for a maximum profits—ie, licensing. I doubt seriously a toy manufacturer would elect to produce a Captain America action figure based on a comic book starring an 80+ year-old Cap. It would be a niche market to be sure.

In super-hero comics, the epic battle often reigns supreme. Sadly, such stories have generally been produced in such a fashion (again, geared toward maximizing profits) that readers must purchase many individual issues they might otherwise not collect. When done well, epic battles represent the best of the super-hero genre. My own personal favorites include the Kree/Skrull War in Avengers, the Avengers/Defenders war, Jim Starlin’s groundbreaking run on the Captain Marvel series, and Jim Shooter’s “Enemy” story arc (also serialized in Avengers). Grand tales of this nature may take upward of a year’s worth of issues on any given title of a series, but the events contained within the story may occur in as little as a week or month of “real” time. It is in this way that many editors throughout the decades have explained away “comic book time.” Yet the problem remains—for example, if the Avengers undertake a major battle that spans six monthly issues but encapsulates a mere hour in “real” time—what has happened to the other 5 months, 29 days, and 23 hours of their lives?

Perhaps ‘tis best not to dwell on matters of such insignificance. But because such lingering thoughts occasionally keep me awake at night, I have drafted a few possible solutions with regard to time and age.

1. Story writers could strive to keep their tales “timeless” by avoiding references to contemporary celebrities, current films, popular music, current events, and political climates. This option is far from foolproof. For example, a scene in Amazing Spider-Man might feature Peter Parker using a hand-held cellular phone. This is fine for you and me, but in 10 years time the cell phone may be replaced by a newer, more compact device. Readers sorting through back issue bins may be taken aback at the “primitive” device used by Parker. Another example: A script may call for a character to be depicted behind the wheel of a new automobile. Assuming the artist is competent (ie, not of Liefeldian acumen), the vehicle’s make and model may be quite recognizable. Yet, years from now readers may no doubt ponder the artist’s use of this “antiquated” vehicle.

2. Stories can be set to occur in a fixed era—such as the 1930s era Sandman Mystery Theatre series published by Vertigo. As a broader example, the powers-that-currently-be at Marvel could decide that in Marvel time it is forever 2003. Thus, every story being published and every story to be published (with the exception of the aforementioned “period” pieces that occur in the past or (as in the case of the dreadful “2099” universe) the future, would occur in 2003. This theory, however, seems shortsighted given that readers in 2006 might be uninterested in the events going on in Spider-Man’s life in January 2003 (since to them it will be considered old news). It also limits the writer with regard to future technologies that he or she would be unable to incorporate into scripts.

3. A short-term fix could remedy the situation while at the same time introduce a new set of problems to our favorite costumed heroes and villains. The catalyst of the event—be it, for example, science, black magic, alien interference—is unimportant, provided the end result is that, like the tragic child in Harlan Ellison’s haunting “Jeffty is Five,” our heroes no longer age. Psychologically this could prove challenging for even those of the most resilient of mind. It is akin to a What if? scenario. Imagine if Aunt May really did kick it, or if Mary Jane grew old and withered while Peter Parker remained his youthful perky self. This could provide authors a new avenue for exploring the “Why, I have these awesome powers!”/”Why was I cursed with these powers?” introspection crises prevalent in many Silver-age tales, though it might certainly alienate readers who would, understandably, feel detached from these ageless individuals.

4. This final solution is my personal favorite and the one to which I try to adhere when writing super-hero fiction: Keep stories in real-time, but accept the fact that characters must age in real time as well. The fountain of youth can only be drunk from so many times before its waters run dry. One of the many interesting elements of Matt Wagner’s original Grendel series was that the Grendel persona was not limited to Hunter Rose; rather, it was adopted by others. This resulted in a series of well-crafted, interesting tales occurring at various points in time with varying cast members. Which is, I suppose, why I so disliked the Marvel 2099 universe. I would be much happier reading the Marvel 2003 universe in 2003, and the 2004 universe in 2004, etc. Let them age. Create believable scenarios and allow the mantle to be passed on others. Is it the individual behind the mask whose mettle defines his/her alter-ego or vice versa? Don’t provide poorly-crafted retrofitted tales, changing insufficient details such as a character’s hair color, utility belt, or position at the Daily Bugle. If the “icons” of the 20th (and now 21st) century super-hero genre are, indeed, the stuff of legends, they will be remembered as such. At this point in their careers, the Batman and Joker should be fighting over catheter bags in the Gotham Memorial Nursing Home, not above the streets of Gotham City. The new millennium ought to usher in new ideas, new characters, and a sense of realism with regard to time and age.

It is, perhaps, because I am aging, and because I have now been a fan and collector of comics for nearly two-thirds of my life (and a comics creator for nearly ten years), that my thoughts have been so consumed by this topic. Perhaps. Largely, it is because I am most impassioned about the comic stories published during the Silver and Bronze age. As each year passes, I find myself less and less interested in the new material being released in the super-hero genre and more consumed by comics of yesteryear. These four-color tales of wonder were chock full with surprises, action, and adventure. Rather than relying on shock tactics, “adult” language, and “mature” themes, they were largely filled with optimism and innocence. Perhaps naively so. But it worked and often worked well. The tragic death of Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man 120 and the subsequent suicide of Jean Gray in X-Men 137 and murder of Elektra in Daredevil 181 changed everything. Though only a bit. Jean returned. So did Gwen’s clone. Elektra’s back and she even has her own series and is, not surprisingly, featured in the upcoming Daredevil movie (just as Jean appears in the X-Men and the forthcoming sequel). And so we are reminded again that it’s all just “funny books;” that these are, in fact, mere properties to be utilized for the maximum corporate profit.

I’ll end with these thoughts: I guess I never recovered from the bleakness of Frank Miller’s 1980s Dark Knight and Alan Moore’s Watchmen series. I don’t think Marvel’s done anything quite as substantial with regard to putting a buzz-kill on the fun at the cost of bringing the genre into adulthood. The closest I’ve seen of late has been Ultimates, which is basically an ongoing What if? series that I dismiss from regular Marvel continuity; its mean-spiritedness seems to epitomize today’s comics icons—they are fallen icons whose marble shoulders have been slowly chipped away in a world of angst, indifference, and sarcasm. In that regard, the days of innocence and fun in the super-hero genre are largely over. I think that my beliefs in this regard are more or less exemplified in volumes 1 and 2 of Altercations. The tales therein occur in the past, but strike of the darkness that has become inherent in the mainstream today. This was possibly done subconsciously, though consciously I know I’m attempting to tell stories that are larger than life without resorting to cheap stunts, graphic sexual situations, and offensive language. Those are my goals as a creator and publisher. As a fan, I do remain optimistic with regard to the genre, even if the optimism is only to be found in stories from the past.

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