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17 October 2007 @ 02:12 am
12 Tricks for Keeping Superheroes Young  
12 Tricks for Keeping Superheroes Young

In the Marvel and DC Universes, most superheroes age very slowly (if at all). And even when a hero has "visibly aged" over the years, he may later get "visibly de-aged" on one excuse or another!

In 1938 Superman jump-started the Golden Age of superheroes in "Action Comics #1." In those days, he was a young man, presumably twentysomething years old, just starting a journalistic career as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. Today, 69 years later, the latest issues of "Action Comics" still feature a Superman who has no gray hairs, no wrinkles, looks like he could still be in his twenties (if you assume Kryptonians age at the same rate as humans), and is supposedly somewhere in his thirties. If DC is still publishing new Superman comics in another 69 years, I don't expect any of those details will have changed in any significant and permanent fashion by 2076.

Much the same applies to Batman, who debuted in 1939. And his protege Dick Grayson, who debuted in 1940, with the "modern version" of Dick still being no more than "twentysomething" years old today. I will be frankly astounded if Dick Grayson, meaning the "mainstream continuity" version (not an Elseworlds or alternate future timeline's version or whatever) is ever clearly stated to turn "thirty" in any story set in "regular continuity." (And if it did happen, I would expect it to quickly be retconned as soon as the editor who approved the idea was replaced by another one.)

After all the trouble that DC (and other related companies, such as Warner Bros.) have taken to firmly implant in the general consciousness the idea that "Superman is the Last Son of Krypton, aka Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet, and his girlfriend (or wife) is Lois Lane, and so forth," and the idea that "Batman is Bruce Wayne, richest and most eligible bachelor in Gotham, who was scarred for life by witnessing the murders of his parents as a child," and so forth, the chances of their allowing either of those characters to ever get visibly middle-aged, maybe even retire and be replaced by a grown child or other successor as a permanent thing, are right up there with my chances of winning the election for President of the United States next year.

So Superman and Batman will never be more than "thirtysomething." And since they are supposed to live in one coherent universe which they share with their contemporary superheroes, many of whom are roughly the same ages as Supes and Bats, DC appears to feel that if Superman and Batman are going to be perpetually "thirtysomething," then most of their fellow members of the Silver Age and Bronze Age JLA should be locked into the same age range, give or take a few years. (Zatanna may still be in her late twenties for all I can tell; on the other hand, various stories have hinted if not stated that Hal Jordan and Ollie Queen may be past 40 by now -- but in all of those cases, the differences from the ages of Clark and Bruce are probably only a handful of years, rather than a decade or two.)

Marvel has not yet had to jump through as many hoops as DC in this regard, because most of their big-name superhero characters were only created in the 1960s or later -- with a bare handful of conspicuous exceptions, including Captain America, the original Human Torch, and the Sub-Mariner, and the Tricks that have been used on them will be mentioned below! It helps a lot that such characters as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and Daredevil do not have backstories that are strongly tied to specific historical events of the 1930s and 1940s (such as the Great Depression and the Second World War.) But Marvel follows DC's lead by not allowing their heroes to "age in realtime," either. Otherwise the characters who were Professor X's teenaged students in the mid-1960s would all be at least in their late fifties by now . . . unless, of course, some other Trick on my list had been applied to the problem somewhere along the line! (Which it probably would have been! )

Here's the list of approaches that I've seen Marvel and/or DC use on various characters in order to keep those corporate assets young and fit for as long as possible:

The 12 Tricks
01. The Ongoing Sliding Timescale Retcon
02. Different species
03. Nonorganic
04. Natural Side-Effect of the Powers
05. Fountain of Youth
06. Replaced Behind the Mask
07. Starting Age Gets Retconned
08. Suspended Animation
09. Time Travel
10. Changing Bodies
11. Rejuvenation/Resurrection
12. Reboot

01. The Ongoing Sliding Timescale Retcon

"We heroes just don't age as fast as you poor readers! That story you read 20 years ago happened maybe four or five years ago from my perspective!"

In the Marvel and DC Universes, this is the most common approach. So common that longtime fans have learned to just take it for granted without consciously worrying about it most of the time. The basic idea is that time (usually) passes much more slowly within the pages of a monthly superhero title than it does for the fans who are waiting a month at a time for the next installment.

As one classic example of the constant use of the Ongoing Sliding Timescale Retcon, Peter Parker got bitten by that radioactive spider in "Amazing Fantasy #15," originally published in 1962. Today, in 2007, it's been 45 years since that story was published. But you'd better believe it hasn't been nearly that long from Peter's perspective! He doesn't walk around telling his friends and relatives that he got bitten in 1962; he just got bitten "several years ago." (Estimates by fans and writers seem to range from 10-15 years ago, near as I can tell.)
Note: Some people feel that even "10 or 15 years ago" is far too many years, with the result that -- according to rumors I've heard -- the "Ultimate Spider-Man" title is intended to perpetually feature a Peter Parker who, as far as Brian Bendis is concerned, should be and hopefully always will be in high school no matter how long that title endures. An extreme case of being bound and determined to keep a hero (one version of him, anyway) as young as possible forever and ever in order to avoid the problems that have inspired the various Tricks on this list!

On a similar note: Marvel and DC often find it useful to work hard to avoid telling us exactly how old a particular hero is at any given time, or how many years, months, and days it's been exactly since a particular old story, so that we fans can only make "estimates" as to just how much slower his aging occurs as a result of the implied Ongoing Sliding Timescale Retcon. For instance, I've never seen Alfred Pennyworth, Tim Drake, and Dick Grayson handing Bruce Wayne a birthday cake that says "Happy 35th" on it -- nor any other scene in "modern Batman continuity" that would constitute a simple and straightforward statement of his exact age!

Note: Honesty compels me to mention that while the Ongoing Sliding Timescale Recon is usually presumed to be happening by default in most Marvel and DC superhero titles, with time passing very very slowly for the featured characters, there certainly have been obvious exceptions to that rule in particular cases. For instance! Around 1999-2002, Batman and the supporting cast in his titles were allegedly meant to be aging "in realtime." Dialogue in some of the comics was written to support the idea that something that happened twelve issues earlier had happened "a year ago," or whatever. By the end of 2002, this entire concept appears to have been quietly swept under the rug and never mentioned again! Probably just as well, especially since the vast majority of Batman's contemporary heroes in the DCU (such as his JLA teammates) definitely were not presented as aging another year every time another 12 issues had gone past! I've never understood the logic behind that experiment . . .

02. Different species

"Yep, it's been a heck of a long time since I started the superhero schtick . . . from your point of view as a regular human. But from my point of view, what's a few decades one way or the other? I'm still in my prime!"

Some writers have played around with the idea that as long as Superman stays within range of a yellow sun most of the time, he will not age at all -- or will age much, much slower than any normal person -- over the centuries. After all, he's not even remotely human; so who knows what his Kryptonian metabolism might be capable of doing, under the right circumstances? However, such ideas are usually explored in Elseworlds projects and the like, because it is vitally important to DC to keep Superman's supporting cast from aging too much (Lois Lane must always be about the same age as Clark Kent, Jimmy Olsen must always be a brash young journalist, Perry White must never die or retire; etc.) the Superman stories in the "regular continuity" use other excuses for keeping Superman (one version or another) no more than "thirtysomething" years old at any given time, instead of just having "modern Superman" be the exact same guy who debuted in 1938.

On a similar note: Namor the Sub-Mariner was a young adult in the World War II era, and today he still appears to be in peak condition. No gray hairs, no wrinkles, no heart trouble, no stiffness of the joints. This is explained away by his being half-Atlantean on his mother's side. Atlanteans, we are told, live significantly longer than regular homo sapiens, and Namor definitely takes after that side of the family where his aging is concerned.

03. Nonorganic

"Getting older? Getting gray and wrinkled? That only happens to people with living, breathing, organic bodies!"
Some characters have a beautiful built-in excuse for not getting old and wrinkled no matter how many decades ago they debuted. The original Human Torch (Jim Hammond from the Golden Age) was an android, and the last time I saw him in a comic book, he still looked very fit. The Vision is in a similar situation; in fact, for many years he was believed to be Jim Hammond -- with amnesia, and some serious upgrades to alter his powers.)

A different approach to "not aging because I don't have an organic body" is that of Deadman (Boston Brand). In his case, he was born with a physical body once upon a time, but its death (when he was murdered by a sniper) was only the beginning of his origin story as a superpowered crimefighter! Various other characters have found that death is only a new beginning for them!.

04. Natural Side-Effect of the Powers

"Ho hum, the decades come, the decades go, but one of the advantages of my metabolism is extra protection against the ravages of old age!"

Here, the person's "long life" is not a natural result of being a member of a certain species, but instead is closely tied to the metabolic peculiarities of his specific superpowers. For instance: Given enough time, Wolverine's "healing factor" allows his body to regenerate from just about any injury that doesn't kill him on the spot. (And I think it's actually recovered from "death" once or twice as well, if we define "death" as "the body is still basically in one piece, but at this exact moment the heart isn't beating.") It has been suggested that this may mean Wolverine has been around for a long, long time -- perhaps a century or more -- and that after his body became "fully mature" it basically quit aging, because his healing factor would automatically correct any tendency toward wrinkles, arthritis, hardening of the arteries, etc. I don't think anyone had this rationale in mind in Wolverine's early appearances back in the 70s and early 80s -- for instance, the "alternate future timeline" Wolverine shown in "Days of Future Past" looked a lot older than the "contemporary" Wolverine of 1980, as if he would actually age three decades (or close to it) in the next three decades? -- but eventually someone must have realized that Logan's healing factor might be capable of holding old age at bay for a long, long time!

This Trick also applies to various vampiric characters, good or bad, who (usually) don't age much beyond whatever physical age they had at the time their bodies were converted from "living" to "undead." The unchanging physical appearance is a fringe benefit of the supernatural package deal of strengths and weaknesses they acquired when they became vampires.

05. Fountain of Youth

"Yes, it's been decades since I started my heroic career . . . but luckily I found a way to cheat! I just don't get old the way normal folks do!"

Here, I assume that staying so fit, decade after decade, is not a "natural" by-product of anything happening in the hero's metabolism, but rather the result of some "artificial aid" that rewrote the rulebook where his physical aging is concerned.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) was one of the first writers of "action hero" material to feel the need to retcon something like this into his leading man's life. Tarzan fought German soldiers in East Africa in World War I; and it was also established that his son Korak the Killer was old enough to wear a military uniform during that war (airman in the RAF, I believe). A few decades later, ERB had Tarzan wearing a colonel's uniform in Southeast Asia during World War II. With various of his stories being closely tied to actual historical events, he should have been getting pretty long in the tooth by the 1940s, and even his son Korak should have been pushing fifty or more . . .

But Tarzan, as described in the novel, did not have gray hair and wrinkles, nor had he lost any of his incredible strength and stamina over the years. Toward the end of this novel -- Tarzan and the Foreign Legion -- Tarzan told some new friends a story about his saving the life of a witch doctor way back when, with the result that the witch doctor had gratefully dosed him with a secret potion that allegedly made the patient "immortal" -- in the sense of "ageless -- although not "unkillable."

Since then, various comic book heroes have been exposed to similar things (chemicals, radiation, magic, whatever) that supposedly stop them from aging or else slow the aging process down to a considerable degree.

06. Replaced Behind the Mask

"Hey! In case you were wondering how I still look so young, it turns out that I was replaced by my own child (or other successor) when nobody was looking!"

This is sometimes retconned in as an afterthought; other times, readers are told plainly from the start that the "new guy" may be wearing the same costume and using the same alias, but he isn't really the "old guy" who first created a particular role. Even though he looks exactly the same on the cover, from a casual observer's point of view!

I've read that way back in the 1960s, after DC had already revived the "Plastic Man" character (part of a stable they'd acquired from Quality), someone wrote a script that established that the Silver Age Plastic Man was actually the full-grown, identically powered son of the Golden Age Plastic Man. This idea must have been discarded later on -- but I don't know exactly when. I do know, however, that DC's Plastic Man in "modern continuity" is supposed to be former hoodlum Eel O'Brian, and not the son of that former hoodlum.

07. Starting Age Gets Retconned

"Did I once say I started fighting crime at the age of 25? I fibbed . . . I was actually several years younger at the time!"

In "Batman: Year One," Frank Miller claimed that the Post-Crisis Bruce Wayne was 25 years old when he decided he had trained as well as he could and it was time to return home to Gotham City and start some serious crimefighting.

However: Given how such proteges as Dick Grayson and Tim Drake have apparently aged over the years, this would have to mean that "by now" Bruce Wayne must be in his late thirties; perhaps perilously close to the terrifying age of 40. Accordingly, about a year ago Grant Morrison said, in an interview on Newsarama:

The very rough timeline I have in my head runs as follows - 19 year old Bruce Wayne returns from his journey around the world and becomes the (1930s style) Dark Avenger Gothic Vigilante Batman for his first year of adventures. Then, aged 20, he meets Robin and his whole outlook changes - now he has responsibilities, he becomes less reckless, now he has a partner, he lightens up and learns to have fun again for the first time since his parents died. The police stop chasing him, the Joker stops killing and becomes a playful crime clown, and Gotham is bright and crazy like Vegas. Batman's having the time of his life in his early 20's, fighting colorful villains and monsters with his irrepressible young pal.

This conveniently lops six years off Batman's "starting age," meaning that if we take this at face value, and if we also work on the theory that he must have been wearing the suit for at least 13 or 14 years by now (from his point of view), then he's not 38 or 39 today, but only 32 or 33 at most.

08. Suspended Animation

"Sure, I was born a heck of a long time ago, but I managed to skip ahead a few decades while everybody else was getting older! That's their tough luck!"

In the 1960s, Stan Lee wanted to use the Captain America who had fought bravely throughout World War II, but evidently didn't want him to have gray hair at the temples as Reed Richards (originally stated to be another WWII veteran) had, two decades after the war. Accordingly the original Cap was found frozen inside a block of ice, where he'd been since 1945 according to a spur-of-the-moment retcon, and then he was defrosted to awaken, good as new, in a "strange new world." Ever since then, the Ongoing Sliding Timescale Retcon has been applied to regularly modify the details of just how many years Cap spent in Suspended Animation before reviving. Around 20? 30? 40? 50? Whatever it takes to explain why he is still no more than "thirtysomething years old" today!

09. Time Travel

"I wasn't around to get any older during those decades! I just skipped right over them! Did I miss anything important?"

"Suspended animation" assumes that the hero's physical body still existed, somewhere in the world, during all the "missing years" when nobody saw or heard from him -- but in a condition such that it was not aging at all. "Time Travel" assumes he actually "skipped" a bunch of years, so that his body was nowhere around during that time, not even frozen solid . . . so that he is the youthful age that he seems to be, instead of the more advanced age you would expect if you just looked at the date on his birth certificate.

In "Justice League of America #'s 100-102," a JLA/JSA crossover back in 1972, writer Len Wein dusted off an old collection of heroes called the Seven Soldiers of Victory and dragged them, kicking and screaming and still pretty darn young, into what was then the "modern continuity" of the DCU. The general idea was that the Seven had been heroes in the 1940s and then, around 1948, got scattered throughout time by their enemies until the combined forces of the JLA and JSA were able to track them down and rescue them. For instance, I believe Sylvester Pemberton, the Star-Spangled Kid (later "Skyman") was still in his twenties at the time he founded "Infinity Inc." in the 1980s, thanks to his having basically skipped past most of the years since 1948. That gave writer Roy Thomas a convenient way to have at least one real Golden Age hero be part of Infinity Inc., serving alongside a whole slew of children and proteges and so forth of other Golden Age heroes, all of whom seemed to be in their late teens and twenties.

(Note: I only know a little bit about Grant Morrison's recent work on his own version of the Seven Soldiers of Victory. I don't know if some or all of the old continuity about the Golden Age group of the same name has now been heavily retconned or entirely erased, or maybe is still around in pretty good shape?)

10. Changing Bodies

"Sure, my old body was getting along in years . . . but why should that stop me? I just switched over to a new model!"

This happened to Charles Xavier in the early 1980s. His original body had been implanted with a Brood egg which took it over. The body was eventually destroyed. However, the miracles of Shi'ar science were sufficient to transfer Xavier's memories over into a physically mature clone-body that was in perfect health, and then he could carry on, same as ever! (Actually even better than X-Men fans had ever seen him before, since the clone body had never suffered crippling injuries and so the Professor no longer needed a wheelchair! About a decade later Marvel decided it was time to "reverse-change" that, as I call it, by forcing him back into the wheelchair all over again, but that is a different story.)

Although I am not sure if this point was mentioned at the time of the transfer to a clone-body, there's no clear reason why a freshly created clone would necessarily be suffering from all the other wear and tear of several decades of aging the way Xavier's original body must have been at that point in his career. In addition to getting his legs back, I would not be surprised if he got at least a decade or two conveniently shaved off of his previous "biological age" in the process.

There have been other characters, at Marvel or DC, who have definitely taken advantage of this approach. The Ultra-Humanite has had his brain transplanted from one body to another on numerous occasions. Back in the 1980s the Red Skull had his mind transferred from his elderly original body to a clone of Captain America's own body, complete with Super-Soldier Serum running through the veins. And some characters basically exist as "artificial intelligences" who can download copies of their personality software to expendable artificial bodies whenever they feel like it. If one body gets "killed," big deal! A master copy of the personality is still safe and sound, thousands of miles away! Just download another copy to another body and carry on, same as before! At any given time, the character's "current face" will look exactly as old as he wants it to look and not a day older!

(Toward the end of the original WildC.A.T.S. miniseries in the early 90s, new recruit Voodoo was very upset at how lightly everyone else was brushing off the recent "death" of their teammate Spartan . . . until she learned that he fell into this category. Lose a body here, lose a body there, what difference did it really make? He had plenty more!)

11. Rejuvenation/Resurrection

"Whoa! I'm still living in my original body -- but after the weird stuff that just happened, I feel twenty years younger! And that's not just a figure of speech -- my mirror agrees with me!!"

"Resurrection" means the character was really dead, but has somehow been brought back to the land of the living. "Rejuvenation" in this context means the body wasn't actually dead, but it's been heavily overhauled somehow to make it younger than it was a month ago.

In the 1970s, a character called "Spitfire" was created and retconned into Marvel's "Golden Age" continuity as a member of the Invaders in the WWII era. Her powers resulted from an emergency blood transfusion which she received from the original Human Torch. By the the 1990s, she was an elderly woman, having apparently aged normally over the last 50 years . . . until John Byrne, in his run on a "Namor the Sub-Mariner" title, had her get another blood transfusion from the Human Torch . . . and all of a sudden she was a gorgeous young blond again, prancing around in miniskirts and so forth. Other heroes have had similar miraculous rejuvenations befall them when it suited a writer's purpose!

And some characters have somehow returned from the dead as no older than they were when their bodies previously died; maybe even younger. I forget the details of how Raven of the Titans ended up inside a teenage body, but it served as a convenient way to "de-age" her at the same time she was being dragged back into the spotlight after having previously "died" at least once or twice in Titans continuity, I believe.

12. Reboot

"All that old stuff never happened to me! I'm starting over fresh!"

This was done with Superman and Wonder Woman in the late 80s, following "Crisis on Infinite Earths." Although the situation was complicated by a few things, including:

1. Superman's continuity was being reset, but in such a way that in the Post-Crisis DCU he had still already been a Big Name on the superhero scene for some years as the Post-Crisis runs written by John Byrne and Marv Wolfman got up and running.

2. Wonder Woman, however, was "only now" making her debut as a superhero, long after such groups as the Justice League and the Teen Titans had been fighting the good fight for years and years already.

3. Most of the regular heroes of the DCU didn't get rebooted at all.

This resulted in odd situations, such as the exciting (and extremely confusing) idea that Donna Troy, the first Wonder Girl, had now apparently been a costumed superhero for several years before anyone in the Post-Crisis DCU had ever seen or heard of any "Wonder Woman." Logically, this meant Donna was now the Seasoned Veteran and Diana was now the Inexperienced Rookie. This made about as much sense as it would to say that Bruce Wayne became Batman because he wanted to imitate the Greatest Hero of Gotham, Dick Grayson, the first Robin! (Instead of the other way around.) There's such a thing as trying way too hard to make a superhero look younger all of a sudden, you know what I mean?

Mercifully, much of that has recently been retconned away by "Infinite Crisis" so that Diana actually debuted as a hero around the same time as Superman and Batman, and helped them found the original Justice League way back in the day.

A few decades earlier, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman had arguably been implicitly "rebooted" as DC started its Silver Age and separated Earth-1 from Earth-2. But while some heroic concepts (Green Lantern, the Flash, etc.) got "rebooted" with new names, faces, origin stories, costumes, etc., there were no visible changes to Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman right away, nor were many of their previous stories explicitly stated to have been wiped away. Many of the Golden Age stories, in fact, appeared to have "still happened" to the Earth-1 versions of the S/B/WW trinity as well as to their Earth-2 "predecessors." The things that happened to Superman and Wonder Woman in the late 80s were much more clearly presented as sweeping Reboots.

As always: When I type something this ambitious, I take it for granted it isn't perfect. If you see any obvious flaws in what I typed, and/or if you can think of other Tricks for Keeping a Superhero Young that I completely failed to mention, please say so! (And it will help if you provide a specific example of how a certain Trick has been used in the past!)