“What’s NOT Black and White and Gray All Over”

Welcome to What Th--? #44, the column that just won’t go away. It’s impossible that I’ve actually written 44 of these things, well, I will by the time I finish this column. I didn’t think I’d have enough to say after, “Hi, welcome to my new column…” This goes to prove the old adage, “When in doubt, spew!”  Of course, since you don’t pay for this (is that why I don’t get paid for writing it?) then maybe you’re getting what you paid for. Hmmm, maybe I should start charging for these words of dubious wisdom so then you’d think they were worth something. Of course, with my luck, everyone would just go off to some other free site, like Disney Ducks on Parade.com or something.

Before I go on to the topic at hand, I have to go through the standard stuff: Send more letters with questions and suggestions for future columns. Don’t forget to  go onto the message boards and post there. And finally, don’t forget to  come over to my website. I upgrade it regularly, add things to my Today’s Views column a couple times a week, and, starting this month, am actually selling some of my scripts for people who want those sorta things. Check it out at www.marvwolfman.com.

And now…

Millions of people have been asking me of late the age-old question, should characters in comics age. Well, maybe not millions, but one guy named Rupert. He asked, so, if I use him as a statistical number against all the possible people who could have asked me that question, I come with, well, still one person. But I’m a fiction writer so one person is equal to millions in my mind. As I said, I’m a writer, not some math guy.

Let’s explore the possibilities of characters aging.

I was a fan of the old Gasoline Alley comic strip – is that still coming out?- Marv asks – where the characters aged in real time, and a much larger fan of For Better Or For Worse, which might be the best comic strip regularly being done anywhere these days, where, again, characters age naturally. Characters truly change in these strips. Yet, is it a good idea to apply real aging to super-hero comic book characters?

After all, some characters you don’t want to age. Do you really want to see an 85 year old Wonder Woman fighting crime? Or a 57 year old Spider-Man trying to swing from building to building even as his arthritis is acting up? Come to think of  it, how would be activate his web-shooters if his fingers no longer have any strength? Frank Miller to the contrary, do you really want to see a 90 year old Batman punching out a 90 year old Joker and both of them wind up in traction? Not a pretty sight. More importantly, will Robin, at age 60, finally stop calling himself the boy wonder?

Seriously, do we want our heroes not to change much from the time they’re introduced? Watching Superman or Spider-Man age means the characters might have to change more than most readers would want. We like our heroes to have what is called the illusion of change, not actual change. Real change means real re-thinking of the base concepts we’re working with. A real person changes as they grow older. You learn what works and doesn’t work. You develop a moral sense, good or bad. You become the sum of your experiences.

For most of comics 60+ years, super-heroes have been adolescent fantasies. No matter what they go up against, the heroes retain their sense of wonder and go out and fight crime as if they will change the world. When characters act too realistically we need to have them ask realistic questions. At some point, even Superman - if he were to age naturally – which means retain the memory of everything he’s done to date and evaluate his life on something akin to a regular basis - would have to start wondering why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s never going to actually change anything. He’ll stop a crime here or plug up a volcano there, but will people ever change?  Will crime ever go away? Will people ever learn? Will governments ever stop wanting whatever governments ever want? In short, a realistic Superman would eventually have to ask himself if he is spitting in the wind.

If he doesn’t start asking these questions, then he’s not growing up, just older.  Growing up means reflection. Yes, we can ignore the truth of what is around us, but would we want our super-heroes to do that? They are supposed to be idealized versions of what we want to be, even if, like the Gods of myth, we give them flaws.  The flaws are truly minor ones, often cosmetic, because what is important to super-heroes is to have super morality. They know what is right and wrong, which is why fans everywhere rebelled against that idiotic idea a few years back that Superman had to kill in order to learn that killing is wrong. Heck, I didn’t have to wipe out a few Phantom Zone creeps in order to learn that. I also don’t have to touch wet paint to know not to touch wet paint. If a five year old knows killing is wrong, something tells me Superman would know that, too. We are the sum of our life experiences and I think Ma and Pa Kent were pretty good parents. So, we want our made up heroes to be better than us, which is why, if characters were to age, and therefore to learn, we would have to ask - could we believe that Superman, after fighting crime and greed for 20 years, still believe he’s making one damn difference in the world?

For Superman to grow up means he’d have to question his tactics.  A fool continues to make the same mistakes even after he realizes they’re mistakes. So now Superman, Spider-Man, The J.L.A., The Fantastic Four, etc., growing up and retaining more than superficial continuity memory, would have to either quit like Harvey Kurtzman’s wonderful S*PERM*N did in “Goodman Beaver meets S*uperm*n”– “Why didn’t you mind your own business, Goodman?” Kurtzman has S*upes ask. I told you people are no damgud!” At the end of the story S*upes says, “Everybody’s rotten. And you know why? You know why? Because to be 100%, you’ve got to be a S*uperm*n. And S*uperm*n is tired of being the only goody two-shoes.”

Spitting in the wind would have to get a real, grown up Superman down. Of course, he might continue. Mother Theresa continued even though she knew she could only help a handful of people at a time, but Superman is not about feeding starving people or healing the sick, where you can make a difference. He’s a fiction hero with fictional concerns. He’s about stopping evil. A larger concept than stopping a single crime. Because his abilities are so large he thinks large. To have Superman grow up would force him to question not only his motivations but everyone’s.

Would this be an interesting character to write and read about? You bet. If it weren’t already too late, I would sell a certain editor I once worked with to Satan to write a Superman novel where he faces the real world on real terms, changing as he learns, adapting to new needs. This Superman could actually appeal to adults when fighting Brainiac’s robot fleet ultimately will not. Why? Because the Superman outlined above would be fighting the one thing we all fight: our selves. Our needs. Our desires. Our  hopes and dreams. He would be an adult rather than a kid who thinks a closed fist is the answer to everything. And, if we don’t take the easy way out and return him to the status quo of the illusion of change, then this Superman could become more than a cartoon. This would be an incredible novel (graphic or prose) with a beginning, middle and end. Maybe I can sell someone else to Satan to get this job? But who? Of course! – we’d all like to see him go to hell.  Anyway, I digress.

But, is this Superman, one that is constantly evolving and changing, the kind of myth that most fans want to read about on a regular basis in 4-5 books a month as opposed to a single story? Do we want our super-heroes to be one of us, or, as proven throughout the history of fiction, do we want them to be better than us, to use them as some sort of moral guidepost to show us what we should be, not what we are? 

Steve Ditko once said that he thought Spidey should always remain 15-16 because those are the last years when you can constantly screw up without looking pathetic. If you screw up as a kid – and that was Spidey’s shtick – it’s forgivable. If you screw up in the same way at 27, you’re a capital-L loser and that’s no longer fun. Should super-hero stories be real or should they be fun? In truth, in this fantasy genre where people fly and have X-Ray Vision, it’s hard, though not impossible, to have both.

The question, ultimately, is – is the super-hero genre too adolescent a concept to allow such a ‘real’ character, or, do readers of super-hero stories, despite whatever they say, really want their characters to be icons? Icons stay the same age. Real people don’t.

Nothing is wrong with that, by the way. Throughout history, from the day we invented the early Gods, to the works of Homer and beyond, we created characters perfect in most every way, and given them just enough flaws to make their tales interesting. These characters take us away from our own lives and show us something different, often something better. They also show us that no matter how great we think someone else is they can have problems, too, but these heroes, these icons, persevere and ultimately succeed. That is a noble and satisfying lesson.


…take one of my favorite story poems, “Richard Corey” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. I used this in a Night Force story a number of years back to set the stage for what I wanted to do.

Richard Corey

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,

We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,

And he was always human when he talked;

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich--yes, richer than a king--

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.

See you in seven

-Marv Wolfman

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