A recent column by John Whitacre discusses the problem of aging as it relates to comic-strip characters, focusing on Tom Batiuk’s decision to advance the characters in “Funky Winkerbean” ten years following a recent storyline where Lisa Moore, a main character, died of breast cancer.
Review reporter Steve Wiandt wrote a wonderful reflection on “Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe” that you can read by clicking here. The sequence is undoubtedly one of the most poignant in the history of newspaper comic strips, and Batiuk should be considered for every major award offered this year to cartoonists.
Having said that, I must also say that the “Ten Years Later” storyline has been a major letdown in every way possible, as bad as “Lisa’s Story” was good. I have no emotional investment in the new characters, who are drawn so differently each day that I can’t tell who they are. The situations they find themselves in aren’t funny or moving or much of anything. So far, it’s a big dud.
I remain a “Funky Winkerbean” reader, and I still hope to be won over by the sudden changes that Batiuk has foisted upon his fans. Maybe the characters will grow on me, though I’m doubtful.
Change in serial fiction — comic books, soap operas, situation comedies and comic strips — is always challenging, as a creator seeks to try new things and keep the creation fresh in his own mind, while not modifying things so much that he loses what made the work “click” with fans in the first place.
For comic strip and comic book characters, aging is especially problematic. They don’t have to age, after all, and can remain eternally youthful (think Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie) generation after generation. With more cartoonish characters — like Garfield or the Peanuts gang — nobody cares if they remain forever young. As a matter of fact, their iconic, unchanging status is part of the appeal.
With more “realistic” cartoon characters — super heroes like Batman and Spider-Man, comic strip characters like Funky Winkerbean and associates, and the “For Better or Worse” crowd – readers more frequently question the passage of time. If Spider-Man was in high school when Nixon was in office, how can he still be in his early 20s today, for example?
Some creators argue that aging characters slowly over time (one year in “story” time for every seven years that pass in “real” time, perhaps) hurts nobody and adds a touch of realism. But if a creation lasts long enough — 30 or 40 years, let’s say — creators reach a point even with slow time where the character has aged enough that the change alters the original concept.
Spider-Man is one such character. When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created him in the 1960s, Spidey was a teenager in high school. Indeed, that was a big part of his charm: other super heroes, like Batman and Captain America, were older, with teen sidekicks to appeal to younger readers, but Spidey was a main hero was just a kid. Talk about wish fulfillment!
Over the years, Spider-Man and his alter-ego, Peter Parker, slowly aged. He graduated high school in the 1970s and started college. A few years ago, he started teaching high school. What kid wants to read fantasy adventures starring a character who could be his science teacher, for heaven’s sake? By aging Spider-Man, the writers and artists who create his adventures have changed one of the things that made the character unique in the first place.
Now, Marvel publishes stories about several different Spider-Men in an attempt, I guess, to give all readers a character with whom they feel comfortable. There is the Ultimate Spider-Man, who is still a high school science nerd. There is a Spider-Man who is married to a fashion model. There is a Spider-Man who is modeled closely after the animated cartoon series. And there are always reprints of the original stories by Lee and Ditko (my favorites, by the way).
Unless a creator sets out to age characters in “real time” (as Lynn Johnston decided early on in “For Better or For Worse”), I agree with keeping the status quo and allowing the characters to age gracefully by not aging at all.