I’m going to geek out a bit and talk about comic books and families.
It’s no secret that I’ve been a reader of comic books for most of my life. The tastes have changed, as have the characters, topics, and nature of it all, but it dawned on me recently that one of the things that has been a constant staple of my affection and love of the genre is a connection to the idea that characters go through life, change and age, just like the rest of us.
Long before I became a parent, as far back as at the age of ten, I was intrigued by the idea of ‘legacies’ in comic books. By legacies, I mean the passing of the mantle, families, all of it. The mere fact that characters were allowed to grow and change.
These days, I admit that I don’t read too many modern-day comic books. Giant companies like Disney and Warner Brothers own Marvel Comics and DC Comics, respectively, and what they want these days are properties – characters and worlds that they can quickly spread into movies, toys, cartoons and a myriad of other cross-merchandising. For those companies, though, properties need to be timeless.
It used to be that heroes grew up, sidekicks grew up, took over, some died, some had families, and it made it all interesting. Today, executives and editors have chosen to hit a giant, cosmic ‘reset’ button. Now, the heroes of the 40s are gone. Batman, Superman, many of their brethren, instead of being in their 30s/40s with families, etc, are all in their early 20s. No one’s married anymore. It’s all just…uninteresting. And when you read news articles with quotes from these companies and editors, they claim it’s because the stuff before it (generations, families, spouses, etc) were what was boring.
For me it was just the opposite.
While it may sound like the raving of a comic fanboy or grown-up, old nerd, there’s more to it than ‘back in my day…’ I’m 33 years old. I’m a dad. I look in my son’s eyes and I see myself, my wife, our families before us, and all that lies ahead of him.
When I as a kid, comic books, especially DC Comics (of which I was a big reader) told great stories that intrigued me, because the characters had lived life, were changing, and in some cases, were growing old.
I’ll give you a few examples. When I was a kid, I was intrigued with the fact that long before my generation, there was a team of super-heroes known as The Justice Society, who were fighting crime during the 1940s. Even before my parents time, sure, but the thought that there were super heroes during that World War II era fascinated me, especially because these characters WERE STILL AROUND!
Not only that, they were around and older!
Picking up a comic book in the 80s and early 90s, I was finding that the Green Lantern of the 1940s, The Flash of the 1940s, characters like Dr. Mid-Nite, The Hourman were offering advice, guidance, and the occasional side by side fistfight with villains, alongside the heroes of the day. For a ten to twelve year old reader, this was a mind-blowing, yet wonderful concept. Imagine finding out your grandparents had been super heroes, and they and some of their friends were still occasionally hopping into the game, inspiring your parents and people your age to do good.
There was even a revived Justice Society comic book series in the 1990s that had the aging heroes dealing with their place in a modern world. Whether it was heart attacks, medication, what the public thought of them, whether younger generations of heroes were too violent, or whether they were still making a difference, it was an incredible perspective, and one that I was mesmerized by as a kid. The book sold well and had a great following. Unfortunately, the book’s writer has stated time and again that DC Comics editor of the time, Mike Carlin thought ‘no one wants to read about elderly super heroes’ and abruptly cancelled the series. It was sad.
Even as a pre-teen, I felt that these characters were getting a raw deal due to ageism.
Characters like The Flash (one of my favorites as a kid) was another great example of legacies. You had Jay Garrick, the super-speeding Flash of the 1940s who grew old, retired, occasionally making an appearance to help the younger generation. Then you had Barry Allen, who took up the mantle after Jay retired, was the Flash for a decade or two and then died while saving the world (the way a hero should go out). With that, the former kid sidekick Kid Flash, took up the mantle and became the third generation Flash, and there would eventually be even more speedsters. Once again, the kid in me thought this concept was incredible. It was like discovering your grandparent or elderly neighbor had been a super hero in the 40s, your parent or uncle, inspired to do the same, had done so after him, and then, you knew the time would come when it was your turn, and that, in time, you’d also pass the mantle on to someone else.
Even Batman had some legacy. Back in those days, the story in comics went that Batman had gotten trained by retired 1940s hero Wildcat, and found much inspiration to join the costumed variety of hero while watching the 1940s Green Lantern fight crime while he was a kid.
The fictional character of Batman at that time was in his 30s/40s. Dick Grayson was all grown up and maybe that’s why when Bruce Wayne got injured in a long storyline of the 90s, it just felt natural for me as a reader that Dick Grayson then take up the mantle to become Batman.
It was sadly, not meant to last, and after about a year or less, Bruce made a miraculous recovery and became Batman once again. They repeated the concept some ten years later or so, but again, it didn’t stick.
People grow, they have families, they teach younger generations, they age, and eventually, they pass on. To the young me, it made these characters more believable. Yes, you have to suspend belief when it comes to supermen who can fly, mystery men who move at super-speed and a grown man who dresses up as a flying rodent. When you saw them have emotions, connections, wives, husbands, children, heart attacks and health problems, though, it was tethers to the real world for me.
Then, years later, with years of history, families, characters built upon them in comic books, legacies were thrown out almost completely. The fictional reset button was set, character who had been married and older were now in their 20s, single and unattached. Children the characters had were gone. The generations, the inspirations, that feeling that these were traditions carried on and torches passed, were no more.
Perhaps these days, the people in charge, the executives making decisions and creating comics, movies, etc, think that children, teens and young adults don’t want to have that kind of connection with fictional characters.
For me, that was why I loved them as a kid. I felt like they could very well be real because of the generations and history that were built upon them.
When characters don’t change, when they have to be evergreen so ‘anyone can jump on board,’ they become boring. They weren’t evergreen when I was a kid and I had no problem keeping up. If anything, it made me want to read more.
Many interviews I’ve read for the decision-makers in the realm of comics saying they took away the age, the spouses, the children, because they felt it made the characters boring. For me, it was the growing old, the married lives, the children, that made it all so damn interesting.
It’s a huge part of what made reading comic books fun for me. Maybe that’s why I honestly don’t find them fun anymore.
I think growing older myself, becoming a father has only reinforced what was already there since I was ten years old. It’s why I don’t buy many modern-day comic books. It’s why I’ll dig through 50 cent bargain bins for an old back issue of something from those eras where it was okay to have a middle aged or senior hero.
This long-winded rant, though, is not supposed to be so much ‘what’s wrong with a literary medium of comics today’ as it is an appreciation for the idea that generations carry on. Families grow, they have problems, and sometimes they fall apart. It’s also about the idea that one generation can inspire the next.
We all take cues from those who have come before, whether they are good or bad. Our ancestors passed down traits and lessons to those who would become our great-grandparents, our grandparents, who would then influence (good or bad), our own parents, who would, in turn, make us the people we are. Now we, as parents, have to be the examples and inspirations for the next round.
As I look around at my son, full of hope, joy, intelligence and goodwill, as well as my longtime friends around me as they begin their own families, the comic book geek in me can’t help but look at us as one of those generations of heroes, now setting examples for and priming the next generation of little heroes.
And on that note, I’ll leave you with something slightly related, but just plain fun – an episode of “Batman: The Brave and The Bold” that’s all about legacies:
I was recently contacted by the folks with “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” who had stumbled across this blog and asked me if I would be a guest contributor/blogger for their companion website.
I had a great time and certainly hope it’s the first of many.
The result is this piece reflecting on all of the cartoons from my own youth that I can’t wait to watch with my son when he’s old enough:
I hope you get the chance to check it out.