Heroes: We’ve Maxed Out
That heading says it all.
We’ve hit a saturation point in comics. Superman has been around for 80 years next year. Eighty. years. So coming to this point was inevitable. Heroes, heroes everywhere. BUT. There is an inherent problem in the superhero worlds built into comic books:
How do we deal with characters that don’t age, age slowly, can’t die, or can’t be replaced?
Diana of Themyscira does not age. She was granted eternal youth and beauty by virtue of her amazon heritage. We can buy that, because it’s somewhat diety based.
What about other characters? I’ve always wondered, does the Silver Surfer age? Once Galactus encased him in his silver skin, did that stop his cells from breaking down altogether? Is Norrin Radd eternal? Whatever the deal is with non-aging characters, that means that there is no point in a comic story that they don’t exist. Unless they are also BOTH immortal and invulnerable. Not aging doesn’t mean they can’t die or be hurt. What about the Watchers? Are they always around?
You can only keep characters from aging for so long. If Dick Grayson grows up, how old does that make Bruce? With Batman in particular, there have been so many sidekicks, spinoffs, imitations and ancillary characters until it’s not really Batman any more. It’s more like Bat Army. That’s why they can set a show in Batman’s world (Gotham) and he doesn’t have to be there. Heroes and vigilantes seem to grow like weeds in Gotham City. Over the years, they have used many techniques with Batman in particular:
- First solution: Earth 2.
- Second solution: Just ignore it.
- Third solution: Time displacement.
- Fourth solution: Lazarus Pit.
With Spider-Man they famously just reset him. Took Peter Parker forty years to stop being a teenager. Okay then. And when he became an adult with a steady job and a family, somebody deemed that “too boring” and “not right for Spider-Man” and created the universally reviled One More Day leading to Brand New Day. Ugh. I puke every time I type that. Peter has so many clones and duplicates until I can’t even. He’s even got a female clone of himself. I can’t imagine anything more creepy. The Ultimates line worked for a while, to give a new generation a taste of a modernized teenage Spider-Man. But as with so many “dark” comic imprints, it spun out into being disgusting for its own sake(remember Blob eating Wasp?)
What about Flashes? There are so many Flashes, and most people that love speedsters love them all. Speedsters, speedsters everywhere. Each one of the Flashes in particular has so carved out a space in their world until they have their own individual fan bases. Jay Garrick. Barry Allen. Wally West(the original one). Bart Allen. Max Mercury. Johnny Quick. Jesse Quick. XS. The Tornado Twins. And the list goes on. But do they age? Jay Garrick would suggest that they do. They should actually age faster than regular people given their powers, but comic book science y’know. Arthur Curry, the Aquaman, seems to age about half as fast as land dwellers. And I have no idea how fast J’onn or any Martians age.
I know they just killed Logan. We all know that’s not going to last. Before they killed him however, they established that he could regenerate from even the tiniest single cell. Right. What about Hawkman? It doesn’t matter how many times they call Carter/Katar/Prince Khufu he always comes back. Some kind of way.
Sabretooth, Deadpool…these guys are seemingly unable to take a permanent dirt nap as well. Mystique seems to not be able to croak. And what about Laura, X-23, Girl Wolverine? Is she unkillable?
Can’t Be Replaced
Argue with me all you want to. Some flagship characters can be replaced. Some can’t. The results always vary. Very few people want to see anyone other than Kal-El of Krypton in the main Superman role. Batman has been replaced, more than once, with varied results. Didn’t care too much for Azrael Batman. He was more like, if Batman became the Punisher. Really liked Grayson’s turn as Batman with Damian as Robin. Thought that was an instant classic. But no matter how many times they do it, it always feels like we’re just waiting until Bruce comes back. They even had Old Bruce clearly passing the baton to Terry McGinnis in Batman Beyond, but that still didn’t stick like they thought it would. They’ve replaced Wonder Woman more than once, often with her mother. But Diana seems to keep coming back to being front and center.
The biggest and most obvious ones that have worked? Generally when you have an army of options. The Flash being the best example. There’s a Flash for every generation now, and most people love original Wally West. He surpassed his predecessor in every conceivable way. Green Lanterns were always conceived as a part of a Corps. Lots of people think of Kyle Rayner as the one true Green Lantern of Earth now, not so much Hal. Richard Rider finally came back to being Nova, but his replacements have been doing fine. Thor has been replaced by Beta Ray Bill and now Jane Foster. The Mar-Vells are a part of a military operation, so there can be more of them. The Shazam! family? They tried to replace Billy with Freddie. They made Billy the new Wizard and Freddie the new Captain Marvel. Yeah didn’t stick. Know why? Because Captain Marvel is about Billy, not the Captain. Seems like fewer and fewer people understand that.
So my point in all of this is simple: after all the alternate earths, Elseworlds Tales, What Ifs? spinoffs, clones, auxiliary characters, female versions, ethnic diversity replacements, sidekicks, mashups, past, future and multiple powered versions of these characters….what do we do next?
Again, we are at a saturation point. The SJW crowd seems to think that race and gender bending is the appropriate solution. See my article about Race and Gender bending in Comics. See this article to see what Marvel’s been discovering about their diversity efforts.
Remember in the 90s, when hip hop was blowing up as an acceptable genre in the mainstream, and we had all these rappers with “Ice” in their names, or “Lil'” somebody or other? Now there’s a new rapper every week. Do people still care about artists individually, do they like the sound? Hip hop is everywhere, but we’re overflowing with it. The same is true for comic book properties and superheroes.
Mainstream media is just now catching up with what Geek Nation has known for decades: there is great mass appeal with these characters. We have more comic properties in multiple media forms now than in comic history. Unfortunately because it’s coming so late in the game, we have almost no chance of seeing Silver Age or Bronze Age versions of these characters. We entered the Dark Age of Comics in the 90s and have never come out. So what you see on the screen most often is nowhere near who they’ve been on the page.
You may or may not ever see the version of the character you love on the big or small screens. Be that as it may, we have to figure out a way forward.
How do we deal with eternal characters, slowly aging characters, non-replaceable characters?
The real next major shift in comic media is going to belong to the company or person that figures out the answer to that question. How do you reinvigorate original characters, or make new ones interesting? Because so many things have already been done. Evil twins and clones have been cliche for quite some time now.
Are Batman and Superman going to be eternally thirty-one years old, as Diana is? Is Billy Batson ever going to grow up? I know we’ve had future based stories that answer all of these questions, but do we really think they’ll ever permanently get rid of Clark Kent? Bruce Wayne? Peter Parker? After Robert Downey Jr’s excellent turn as Iron Man, I don’t really want to see anyone else play the character. Same with Chris Evans as Cap.
As the next generation begins to die out, will their heroes go with them? For people that are ten years old right now, will Miles Morales forever be their Spider-Man? Will they know Peter? Will they care?
Comic Book Worlds are now full of almost every conceivable version of these characters. Heroes, heroes everywhere. Or at least meta/enhanced humans. We’ve changed our definition of “hero” but that’ll be the focus of a different article. One thing we can agree upon however: we can’t continue on in this way. Something major has to be done. Will it take nerve? Innovation? A combination of both?
Only time will tell. Your grandchildren may or may not know who Clark Kent is. He may one day be deemed too outdated to be rebooted any more.