The Big Question ♯8

For this week's big question, I want to discuss ageing in comics books. As we all know certain superheroes have been around in the same continuity since the 50's and 60's (Hal Jordan's Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man etc.) and some since the 30's and 40's (Captain America, The JSA), yet they don't seem to have aged more than 10 years. So, my question this week is: What is the best way to deal with character ageing in comics?

To start off with, lets look at how it is currently done by the big two. Over at Marvel, they seem to have a delayed progression approach (yup, technical term), which means time in their comics progresses slower than it does in the real world. Now, Spider-Man is the best person to look at to figure out their time scale, because he's the only one to have a definitive dated timeline. He got his powers aged 15 in 1962 (according to Spider-Man: Civil War) so that gives us a starting point. When The Amazing Spider-Man reached its 200th issue, it is mentioned that 5 years have passed since Peter got his powers. So that would make him 20, but the 200th issue was released in 1980, 18 years later. So going by that he should now be around about 30. But he's one of the younger heroes, Captain America was in his twenties in the 40's and even with the super-soldier serum, he'd still be in his late 60's and slowing down a bit by now.

Meanwhile, over at DC, things are a lot more complicated in terms of working out ages, because some characters seem to age (Members of the Teen Titans and other sidekicks) whilst some don't (all the main heroes and their supporting casts). Yet DC do have a more realistic approach to what would happen when a hero is too old to continue, even if they never use it for that reason. By having sidekicks age to adulthood, they can replace the hero with someone the reader already knows and likes (see Wally West and Dick Greyson).  But of course, as soon as you're settled in to the new order, DC's screwy continuity comes in and reboots the whole thing, leaving you with the guy they just got rid of, only younger.

It is a really hard one this, because on one hand, you don't want to screw around with a tried and tested formula and end up putting of the fans, but ageing and replacing characters would save having to reintroduce them to a new generation and in some ways would be more interesting, because the hero could grow with the reader. What do you guys think?

(I was originally going to include TV and movie series into this and talk about replacing actors in the Doctor Who way or the James Bond way, but I didn't want to over complicate things too much. If you want you can discuss that as well.)

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12 Responses to The Big Question ♯8

  1. Well, if you do the math… one issue a month, which means 12 issues a year. Usually, one issue covers about 1 week of “real time.” With 52 weeks in a year…. it takes a comic 5 years to cover anywhere from 12 minutes to 11 months.

    The TV show M*A*S*H lasted longer than the actual Korean War! The “time-fudge” doesn’t really bother me. Even in my own writing, I have favorite characters who I grant a degree of immortality. It’s a difficult balance, though. Especially with DC who, as you note, has some characters grow up and leaves others in a stasis bubble.

    As the tenth Doctor said: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause-and-effect. But actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.”

  2. William A. Peterson says:

    Well said, Doctor! 😉
    First, Kaldath, you’re a youngster, a veritable babe who probably doesn’t remember the issue (Okay, YES, I’m OLD, dagnab it!), but Cap not only has the Super Soldier serum floating around in his veins, but he spent from 19445 to about 1963 (or thereabouts) imprisoned in the World’s Largest Ice Cube! And, of course, that was BEFORE he was killed five times in a 10-year span, cloned, time-travelled, shifted into a reality run by Mutants, et cetera…
    Since the entire Organic population of Planet Earth was recently genocided by Ultron (but, don’t worry… They Got Better!), I’m not giving Marvel a pass on the continuity scramble thing, anymore!
    Yes, we thought it was kind of silly to see our Heroes trapped in Stasis, always at the prime of their lives, while the world changed around them… And we were right! But, that was STILL a lot better than the muddled mess we’ve got now!
    Speaking of Spidey, there’s one other character we’ve got a pretty good handle on… Batman!
    He was attending “The Mask of Zorro” when his parents were shot… That was roughly in 1938, and (IIRC) he was eight, at the time. SO, we know Bruce Wayne was born in, or near to, 1930, which would make him a VERY spry 81, by now! Not bad for an Octagenarian… 😉

  3. barbario says:

    You are slightly off in regards to Marvel. Marvel has a “sliding time-scale.” Meaning its always been about ten to fifteen years since the “Marvel Age” began. Beginning with the Fantastic Four going into space the first time/Avengers forming/Cap being thawed.

  4. Keric says:

    Superman & Batman: Generations is a story about ageing in comics books. But it is a story that I don’t think we will ever get again!
    Why? Because Writers want Bruce W to be Batman, and Clark K to be super, Fans, I don’t think they REALLY care, they just want a good story!

  5. JR19759 says:

    @ William A Peterson- First, JR not Kaldath. Second, yup, I did forget that Cap spent two decades as a Capsicle. I’m annoyed about that now.

    @ Barbiaro- I did mean to mention Marvels amazing sliding timescale, but (Once again), it slipped my mind when I got to actually writing it. It actually makes the issue more confusing that way.

  6. barbario says:

    i dunno. it works for me. and honestly id just explain it as a side effect of all the time traveling they do.

    some stuff works in real (ish) time. invincible and hellboy for example

  7. William A. Peterson says:

    Actually, I believe that DC had, at one time (I don’t know about since “The New 52”) a sliding time scale, as well… But, *theirs* was only five years, and applied mostly to Bruce and Clark!
    Oh, and my apologies to Kaldath for the mistake! 😉

  8. Katmir says:

    Heck, how long did it take Archie and his gang to graduate? Anyways, Marvel characters all seem to suffer from Jean Grey’s Syndrome so they all die and come back, making ‘time’ irrelevant in their universe. But over at the DCU..? Their immortal Superman & Wonder Woman perpetually flirt, and Grumpy Ol’ Batman is going on his umpteenth Robin whilst everything else gets a huge temporal reset button pushed with a “Crisis”. Time ain’t no thing there, either.

    Personally, I think any comics company should track the actual times, make the appropriate characters age and die as per the storyline, so that the current generation can identify with the whole package in the present.

    I think.

  9. William A. Peterson says:

    Katmir, that is NEVER going to happen! Those characters and their distinctive likenesses are VALUABLE Corporate Intellectual Property! {Yes, Even ‘Prez’ and ‘Brother Power the Geek’!} 😉 You can’t let them grow old and die… Then, you’d have to make them (gasp!) Public Domain, like that stupid Shakespear did… You don’t want THAT to happen, don’t you?

  10. Arioch says:

    Sadly, agree with William.

    I’d love to see a company where the world ages in real time (Which doesn’t mean things can’t slow down, so you can have 4 issues happening over a day, then “4 months pass”), but $$$ will always get in the way.

  11. EnderX says:


    I can’t vouch for it 100%, but from the graphic novel collections I’ve read, the Astro City series appears to be designed to work that way. Most of the storylines don’t cover a large portion of time, but those that do (usually via flashback) show radically altered lists of heroes, and commentary in one of the collections indicated that they’d explicitly done it because they were sick of the Marvel/DC approach. Additionally, at least one storyline explicitly focused on the aging of the main character, with flashbacks of him in his prime being contrasted against the relatively frail older man he’d become.

    Some characters do get a slight bit of special treatment, but most of those are the blatantly supernatural figures – outside of them, the only ‘long-running’ character I can recall is a briefly-introduced steampunk robot implied to have been active since the American Civil War.

  12. barbario says:

    their are plenty of real-time comics. savage dragon to name another.

    and honestly. bruce wayne is batman. pure and simple. i dont want to read about the grandson of batman. now batman beyond was great but they didnt cancel real batman comics so we could follow this other guy around.

    you dont have a problem with magic powers and aliens and mutants and stuff but them not aging realistically is lame?