Old superheroes

In this issue: Should superheroes be allowed to age? There are pros and cons and reasons why it does and doesn’t work, as Matthew Rob, and Stephen try to break it down. And the trio talk up a publisher’s “house style”


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  1. Ha, I got this in in 2011!!!
    My only comment is that I sort of remember John Constantine being set in real time and aging in the Vertigo comic. Is that right?

  2. Re: Meeting previous Doctor Whos (Doctors Who?):

    Four actors would be needed to replaced if you include Peter Cushing.

    Don’t forget the several-minute sequence Tennant did where his Doctor meets Peter Davison’s Doctor #5. I thought Davison looked fine.

    I think as long as they could get the actor in the ballpark as far as looking/dressing/acting like that guy’s Doctor the fans would forgive the age.

    Except for Colin Baker’s Doctor #6. That one SUCKED! The character. I don’t know very much about the actor.

  3. Great podcast y’all, and indeed, the evolution of Iron Man’s origin is one of the best examples of the way superhero stories progress with the times.

    I don’t think superheroes should be allowed to age, at least not by more than 5-15 years (to keep them in their ‘prime’). The superhero genre combines both mythology and soap opera into a single narrative. Which means some events are set in stone (like in mythology) and others remain superfluous and open-ended (like soap opera’s). Both are needed because otherwise we would already know how the superhero’s life will end in the future, and thus the modern day stories would lose all narrative tension.

    Superheroes are mythological characters, I think, at least in their formative years: their origin/characterization remains mostly the same (minus some updates then and there) and so does their primary evolution and their most iconic stories (for example, we all know that at one point, Batman gets a Robin, Gwen Stacy dies, Reed and Sue will marry, and Captain America will join the Avengers). But, unlike mythological characters, superhero stories don’t have a traditional beginning, middle and end. They cannot be allowed to progress past the middle part of their life, prolonging their modern day soap opera’s for decades (of course, multiple future versions like in Batman Beyond, Dark Knight Returns or Kingdom Come can be explored, but never made true canon).

    I think the same is true for other comic characters like Archie, Garfield, or even cartoon/sitcom characters like The Simpsons and the gang in South Park. Like superheroes, they have the ability to react to events in their environments (or time periods) while essentially remaining the same. For characters in series like the Walking Dead or Y the Last Man, the situation is different of course, since those narratives have more in common with TV-drama’s (which do have a beginning, middle and end).

    Also, about technology changes, I don’t think that’s too much of a problem. This concerns mostly details that change with the times (like the Daily Planet having an online section since the last ten years, computers instead of typewriters and Hal Jordan in 2011 flying a much faster jet than he did in 1959). And after all, the technology most superheroes have access to (or invent) is years ahead of everything anyway. When (or if) humanity is able to build a true Watchtower on the moon, the JLA will just construct a bigger and better one in the comics. And don’t even get me started on Reed Richards’ inventions since the 1960’s :)

  4. The main problem with aging superheroes is directly related to to what I like to call the ‘ShUSH (SHared Universe Super Hero) Problem. The ShUSH problem is one of time, continuity, and storytelling based on the need for a ‘universal’ cohesion assembled and cobbled together by literally dozens of creators with different storytelling objectives, motivations and ideas for HUNDREDS of characters.

    As it pertains to aging it boils down the this:
    If Batman/Bruce Wayne ages and his life changes/progresses dramatically, then so must the Hal Jordans, Oliver Queens, etc because of the shared universe. With that comes the problem at what rate does this happen if it happens at all, and it creates continuity nightmares, and internal problems for the entire line of books. We now have the issue mentioned above where we have the New 52 Batman, with four former Robins, demanding a certain amount of backstory for that to be possible. He can now only be reset to a certain age 30-32? that still allows for all those Robins to credibly be a part of his history. As new characters are introduced in any Universe the problem gets exacerbated.

    With characters like the Justice Society, whose origins are tied to a very specific time that is further and further in the past, dealing with aging becomes a series of ever more ridiculous plot gymnastics, explanations, and time bubbles to keep them alive, much less active as Super Heroes. The nature of ShUSH fans, creators, and IP owners will demand those gymnastics rather than see any character be finally and ultimately aged to retirement, or killed off.

    Other comics, outside of ShUSH, don’t have this problem. Aging for Archie hasn’t really been a problem until recently, when more continuity has entered the books. The heart of Archie is that Archie is stories about teenagers. Age them beyond that and the heart is torn out of the concept and it becomes something else. The timelessness is actually part of the charm.

    The Palomar and Locas characters from Love and Rockets have aged and progressed naturally, through their fictional ‘lives’ without it being an issue at all. Cerebus was all about the singular focus on the lifespan of its protagonist. This is of course largely due to the singular vision of those creators. Same thing with Gasoline Alley. Time in those strips became a character all it’s own. The expectation was that real time would occur and that real change would be experienced. Babies born, children grow up, move out and have families all their own. The change and growth was expected and welcomed as the core of the strip.

    In the instance of Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes the strips were ABOUT children, and the LACK of passing time is at the core of those strips. Charlie Brown and company must always be children or the core of the strip is removed. The Peanuts characters often take an adult view of the world, but the impact of those observations is the result of the observation coming from the mouth of a child. Calvin and Hobbes is much the same. Newspaper strips, even serialized adventure strips can have that timelessness, largely because they are self contained and don’t ‘cross over’, Alley Oop, and Rex Morgan MD for example.

  5. The aging issue is one of the reasons Captain Marvel and Billy Batson have trouble sustaining a presence in the current style of DCU management. Current audiences demand a certain amount of character progression and realism which inevitably ages its characters- emotionally, if not chronologically- which undermines the essential icon and appeal of Captain Marvel… a boy juxtaposed against a superhero man. That gets diluted if the wide-eyed boy is just as cynical, snarky, jaded, or aged as any other teen or adult and then Captain Marvel becomes nothing more than just another Super-Sentai transformation.

    Overall, the characters should not age.

    They are IP. And for IP to have value you need to invest in it and create awareness, mind share, brand recognition, distinctiveness, etc. That doesn’t happen if you send your heroes off to pasture or age them out of relevance too rapidly or change them (age them) beyond those characteristics upon which the IP is built (if you consider the peak physical age necessary to be a superhero of the Batman sort… then Batman essentially has to retire his martial status and physical characteristics in less than a decade). No, you want Batman to be detective, ninja, and playboy billionaire for generations if possible (or, at least until the copyrights default to the public domain).

    To that end there is a certain tension between what the audience wants- stories that progress character (and thus age)- and what their pocket books want- stories that reflect the same character from when they started. To that end, publishers and writers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t but tend to write stories cyclically. Part of this is the rise of collectors, the information age, and the conversion of fans into creators… when comics were disposable, much of the content, continuity, and characterization was too… the heroes weren’t traumatized by their experiences, they literally do not remember or refer back to past harrowing escapes and the like. Likewise, when comics were the only insight into the story and there were no blogs, wikis, or exhaustive databases cataloging every plot twist, the stress on continuity consistency and progression was less. In fact, the bread and butter of both big publishers often was re-releasing past stories on a routine basis. Finally, irrespective of the memories of the characters, once fans started becoming creators and collectors, the memories of the fans grew longer. Whereas before, the medium and the fan was partly disposable, now the books were being held onto and the fans were clinging to the books well beyond their original intention. Instead of growing out of comics, audiences were growing WITH comics and expecting their comics to grow with them (and as the fans became creators, they did).

    So fans needed more novelty more radical plot twists more character development and change; whereas in the past you could literally reuse a plot but just execute it better and delight a new audience, now you were dealing with an audience with memories stretching five, ten, twenty, or more years… forcing you to tell stories consistent with decades of material, much of which- up front- was never intended to persist so long (did the writer really intend for Ant Man to be portrayed as a wife beater henceforth?). However, that strategy is cannibalistic. You have to do increasingly radical things to please a increasingly particular piece of the audience, often at the expense of your characters as an IP.

    Rather, from both a business standpoint, creative standpoint, and fan standpoint, I think it’s best to resist age. The IP is strengthened if it is allowed to exploit its unnaturally long lifespan, creatively it allows them to tell iconic stories which are IP consistent even if not continuity / reality consistent, and for fans… while it’s begrudging to not get to see your haracters progress over the long haul, just accept the windows of progression you get within runs or arcs, but be happy that the character will be there- more or less in similar form- for your children and your children’s children.

    As for that itch to see age, decay, and progression… that’s what elseworlds and ultimate lines are for. :P

  6. I’m not sure if folks on this site read Naruto, but I liked how they did the time jump in that series alot. I believe they similarly had generations of heroes in Dragon Ball Z. I greatly prefer this sort of story telling to the ageless heroes at the big publishers who never seem to move on, grow up or learn from their mistakes.

    I don’t mind if new comics retell the stories of Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker. Those equate to classics to me and deserve to be retold. Now, if you want to go in a new direction and tell a new story do it with Miles Morales or Terry McGinnis. Something could be said for telling a story with an aged hero like Dark Knight Begins, or since I’m strapped for comic examples Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

    Another problem I see with the ageless heroes is that the environment changes around them. Cars, cell phones, and technology in general changes on a two year basis these days. Mean while it takes two years to tell 3 stories in a comic book which might amount to three weeks comic time. With product placement intentional or unintentional I see this becoming an increasing oddity if the status quo continues.

  7. Very good subject for discussion. Matthew made a valid point about the early Marvel days, the Marvel Universe was created to contradict the DC Universe in being in real cities and real time. This contained even up to the Giant Size X-Men #1. Remember the original X-Men were all teen agers, just like Spider-man.

    This brought to mind how much Jim Shooter was trying to apply this formula to the early days of Valiant Comics. (On a personal note, it was these comics that brought me back to collecting after being away for over 15 years).

    To some extent the New DCU is a hybrid of silver age and modern age. For example, Action Comics is set in the early time period of Superman. DC is not restricted by real time in telling early year Superman stories set in modern time. George Perez is telling another story set in different time period. As a fan I can pick and choose which I prefer (I prefer both). The same formula is applied to Batman and they have been using with some success before the reboot, Legends of the Dark Knight, Elseworld etc.

    For those that prefer the old stories, they are still there to be read. I am sure Geoff Johns and others will be telling some ‘old stories’ either in the current books or limited series.

    On another note, I think the Super Hero movies would benefit from CGI opposed to live action. I think George Lucas ‘foresaw’ this in making the Clone Wars in animation. Easier to change a voice actor than face actor, especially when he no longer looks the part (Toby McGuire?). Look at the success of Kevin Conroy or Mark Hamil, they can age and still deliver, or the Simpsons/Family Guy, Muppets? We still get to see our characters as they were originally created.

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