All Things Must Pass:

How Comic Books Can Never Grow Up

You and me, we are getting old.

I know.

It does suck.

No, it doesn’t matter If you are 12, 22, or 55. You are aging as you read this. There is no pill, drug, or tincture that will reverse it. Beyond super abilities and such, this is one of the largest gaps between the reader and the characters on the page. Comic book characters are not subject to aging in the way we are.

The big name ones all seem to stay approximately the same age. If they truly did age at the same time as publication, Bruce Wayne wouldn’t get around without the aid of a walker because his two new aluminum hips restrict him. Tony Stark doesn’t have jowls despite what should be an 80-year-old man. Is there something about the aging process that comic-book characters don’t just resist, but outright defy?

This defiance could simply be the result of lazy writing. After all, comic books, to some, are just an esoteric medium and this would be evidence of that. After all, the Shadow never aged. Doc Savage didn’t fight for his Medicare.

Young? Tony Stark

Instead, aging in modern mainstream comics is done by metaphor, but never in reality.  For instance, Peter Parker went from college grad / photographer to high school teacher.  Or when characters have children.  These are the changes the readers themselves will go through in their lives.  But, this is only metaphorical because these characters are not dealing with the mortality of aging.  They are wearing it like a fashion.

Modern Tony Stark

While there are places in Marvel and DC books where characters complain of getting old, the actual effects of aging simply isn’t there.  The factors and conditions of their lives are always in turmoil though, but Peter Parker looks 20-something as he did for the last 30 years. Perhaps this anti-aging of characters is simply part of the DNA of comic books.  Always there since its origin.

Culturally, comic books are viewed as a young person’s artifact.  These are not things that the Wall Street businessman reads with his brandy snifter at the club.  These are the items you see on the floors of a teenager’s bedroom or the sterile tomb of the obsessional collector.

This youthfulness instilled in comic books has been both boon and curse.  In their inception there was no understanding or forethought that their audience would age.  Perhaps short-sighted, but if those original creators had considered the aging of its audience, it could have ham-stringed the entire process.  There was a certain reckless abandon that went into these “childish” creations.  Potentially, we could have gotten something better than Superman, but chances are we also could have gotten a lot worse.

Instead, we ended up with this amazing hybrid of literature and pictures.  One that readers can interface with, not just an intellectual level, but an emotional one as well.  Which can lead to some resentment as these beloved characters pass from generation to generation.

As these characters are reborn into the next generation, so to will their circumstances change.  Just as in life, these circumstances will be a direct effect on who and what that character now is.

But at their bedrock, we still know each character is a product, or a property owned by a company.  And a product that doesn’t age.

By definition, the mainstream comic cannot age.  If it did, it would no longer be extra-generational and would become generation specific.  This would mean the demise of the artifact because of its hybrid nature.

Hybrids are interesting creations.  The fusion of two or more disparate items creating something unique and new.  The existence of hybrids is always startling new. This thing, whatever it is, did not previously exist this way. Their very being is new. This is exactly what a comic book is. But being new means that we do not fully understand the implications of the comic book.  If we did, there would no longer be a need for books or articles like the one you read now.

Comic books will never age.  They just won’t age because to do so would defy its nature.  The way a seed can become a tree, comic books can only stay young.  It is an intrinsic part of its facticity, which is a fancy way of saying the facts and conditions that make up who we are. This does not mean the art form is limited.  Instead comic books are like a machine that feeds off new ideas. But once those new ideas stop rolling into it, the machine starts to break down.

By and large, nostalgia is the most heinous of culprits for gumming up the machine. If the machine is being re-feed the same ideas and plot lines it has known all along, it will start to spit out homogeneous stories.  These stories then become cliche by the third generation they are passed on to.  This is the break down of the comic book.

Young Peter Parker

Comic books are a bit like a bratty teenager infatuated with the new, the fresh, and the odd. Comic books do not need normal ideas, but shocking ones like men that can fly, regenerate, or fire beams from their eyes.  Worlds wrapped in other worlds spinning in a complex web of every dimension. These are huge ideas that can create a feeling of destabilization in the reader.

While we are young, the effect of reading comic books can be exciting to the point of obsession.  This can be in part because as teenagers the world is still fresh with new ideas.  Everything, including our own bodies, are changing.  We are painfully aware that we are changing with every second.  We have not become inured to those consequences of growth. Instead of searching for stability, American teenagers feel some emotional tug towards art that mimics this instability and growth.

Modern Peter Parker

Modern Peter Parker

As anything grows, it must surpass its previous state in some fashion. The next stage of growth is always a new stage. This new stage is considered to be a young stage since there is no previous history of it.

As anyone can see, there is a deep, effecting relationship between youthfulness and comic books.  But this love affair can quickly turn sour.

While comic books are not as frowned upon for adults to read, there is still a slight to large stigma attached.  People look askance as my wife lays by the pool reading Doom Patrol.  A large misrepresentation of comic fans is that we should all just grow out of it.  That we are all somehow deluded adult / children that refuse to join the real world.

While this can be true for some and untrue for the rest, the temper tantrums that are thrown over retcons and changes does not diffuse this image. Some even despise the changes to the point of never returning to titles and characters they may have loved all their life.

A younger Cyclops

A young Cyclops

The characters we all grow up on and love dearly are not ours.  They are like friends on loan.  While we grow older, they cannot.  Instead, they must evolve or die to become fresher, more modern versions of themselves.  They must continue to grow, but this growth allows them to stay ageless.

As comic books are modernized with each generation, there can be a feeling of abandonment and loss.  The same mixture of feelings one would feel at the loss of a friend.  And don’t lie.  That is the type of relationship we have with our favorite characters and books.

Modern Cyclops

When we were scared, bored, or unnerved by our youth, comic books served like comfort food for ex-pats in a strange land.  Then somewhere in our 20’s perhaps a tragedy strikes.  Our favorite character is being rebooted.  Everything we remember will be washed away now.

Chances are though this will be but a fragment in a potentially long history for that character. Even if the reboot goes into a realm we feel is artistically disingenuous or stupid, there is no need for alarm.  Like George Harrison sang, “all things must pass.”

As we grow up, there is nothing wrong with loving the reboot.  The modernization of comic book characters and universes is a part of the fabric of comic books.  To remove that immorality would be like robbing a human being of a thread of their DNA.

Instead, let’s open the field up for any innovation that creators want to try.  There will be mistakes.  There will be poor choices.  There will also be a youth and vitality that is intrinsic to comic books.  This is one of the vital points that makes a hybrid medium like comic books so unique.  Let’s not rob that.  Let’s explore that.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kevin Thurman is a writer based in Chicago. He blogs about comics, life, and music at errantghost.tumblr.com.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Kevin Thurman:

Warren Ellis: The Captured Ghosts Interviews

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Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization

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Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan

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The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil

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a feature-length documentary film on celebrated comics writer Warren Ellis

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Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide

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1 Comment

  1. Thank goodness for Love & Rockets then, eh?

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