Spurred by a recent blog post on Westfield Comics Blog about sliding-scale comic timelines, I thought this might merit my own blog post—the major ways in which comics and animation handle characters’ aging, or (being fictional characters) lack thereof.
The major ways I’ve seen seem to boil down to:
- Real time
- In-story explanations
- The sliding-scale timeline
- Editorial fiat
- No explanation
To analyze each reason…
What might seem the most obvious answer is to simply age the characters in real time. Not only is this the most realistic approach, but it also seems easy for other reasons. We age in real life, so why can’t our favorite characters age along with us?
“Gasoline Alley” and “For Better or For Worse” are two comic strips that’ve made use of this. In the latter, the strip went from Elly and her grade-school aged offspring to Elly becoming a grandmother. “Dykes to Watch Out For” also seems to have aged its characters in real time during its run (Raffi went from infancy to being a teenager).
The downside of this tactic: if you view the characters as a money-making franchise (say, if the characters are superheroes), seeing them age into middle-age (or their twilight years) might not make them as lucrative in terms of marketing. It also means eventually killing your characters if the strip should run long enough; I remember some fans of Farley in FBoFW were dismayed to see him die (albeit as a hero).
In this case, reasons are given for the characters’ lack of aging on an in-story basis. Here, the characters are aware of their lack of aging (without purposely breaking the fourth wall, a la Bugs Bunny), and know why that’s the case. Reasons often given include:
- Suspended animation (Captain America)
- Being an alien (some “imaginary stories” positing Superman being very long-lived)
- A youth serum or “fountain of youth” formula
- Time travel
… and so forth. This blog post sums up the full list of in-story reasons pretty thoroughly.
The disadvantage of this approach is that there might not be an adequate or plausible in-story reason to explain a lack of aging, depending on the comic/cartoon. “FoxTrot”, for instance, can’t lay claim to any of these reasons given its somewhat realistic setting. Even in a more fantastical setting, it might run into problems. While Superman being a slow-aging alien might seem fine, that doesn’t do his Earthling pals Jimmy Olsen or Batman any good.
The sliding-scale timeline
This one is the main one used in most superhero comics, as well as the occasional comic strip (and extremely rarely in animation). As I’ve summed up before, all events and characters in the setting stay non-aging, but simply have their pasts (births, weddings, graduations, start of their careers, etc.) move up with them year-by-year. Thus, in 2011 stories, if Superman debuted as Superboy “20 years ago,” the flashback year will be 1991 (with references to the original Gulf War, etc.), while in 2012, Superboy’s debut would be in 1992. Thus, when I was a kid in the 80s, since Superman was the same age as my parents, Superboy’s time-era was, like theirs, in the 60s/early 70s. In contrast, nowadays, Clark Kent was a teenager in the 90s, just like I was 20 years ago. (Yes, I know, Superboy’s only sort-of-restored to Clark’s past in DC’s current continuity, but good enough for this example…)
I elaborated more on this in the blog posts below:
The advantages of this method are several. It acknowledges the characters are, well, fictional cartoon characters. It also allows one to broadly gloss over topical references easily, such as a character meeting the President or being a fan of a particular rock group. Sliding timelines also let the characters stay relevant to the reader’s present, versus becoming long obsolete or looking unbelievable even for a cartoon (say, if Superman’s childhood took place before 1938, the year he first appeared). Finally, the characters stay marketable and, well, alive, allowing for future generations to also enjoy their adventures (and future execs to reap profits).
There’s also disadvantages, of course. Some newer readers are sometimes confused by this tactic. Some continuity problems can also creep up if a previous story relied on a particular now-dated topical reference or event (such as the Justice Society heroes being tied to World War II, or the Teen Titan foe the Mad Mod’s whole shtick). There’s also the characters celebrating multiple holidays, birthdays, etc. within such a narrow timeframe (such as Superman having been an adult hero for only about 10 years, but having experienced way too many Christmases/elections). Related to this is also seeing an increasing number of stories to squeeze into the character’s life/history as the years roll on. Finally, a few fans may either want to see the characters age and change over time, or be particularly attached to a particular time-era for the character’s past.
Unlike the above, this one is usually through an explicit declaration of the writer or editor, and may even be said as such in the comic itself. A particular example of this is the “time skip,” or skipping the entire story’s setting ahead in time by x number of years. “Funky Winkerbean” has made use of this particular example *twice*, with the once-teenaged characters now middle-aged with teenagers of their own.
This example gives the editors and writers plenty of freedom, and can often break the fourth wall easily to explain what they’re doing. On the down side, it might make some fans annoyed if they feel things can change on a writer or editor’s whim, per the modern penchant for retcons.
This one is probably one of the most common explanations: “who cares? It’s just a cartoon!” The character’s past or age will be of little to no importance to the story, while flashbacks to the characters’ past will be minimal or nonexistent (or with little regard to continuity). This is the default assumption for most humorous cartoons and comics, i.e. “Garfield,” “Peanuts,” “Looney Tunes,” “Family Guy,” etc.
Advantages of this one include not having to worry about annoying things like consistency, continuity, etc. (“just as long as it’s a funny gag is all that matters, right? I mean, it’s just a cartoon!”) The downside of this approach is if one ever wants to tell a more serious-toned story or setting, or if the writer decides one day that your readers *do* have an actual attention span and decides to write accordingly. “Doonesbury” went through this—in the original 70s and early 80s run, the characters didn’t age, with no reason given. After Garry Trudeau came back from a sabbatical in the 80s, he decided to shift to the “real time” approach above, and started to age the characters mostly in real time (though BD and Boopsie’s daughter Sam seems subject to the “editorial fiat” reason above—she’s still a pre-teen or early teenager, despite being born 20 years ago in real time…).
That about sums everything up. I’ll write more about this in the future, if needed!