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  1. #1
    Lorendiac is offline Member
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    Superhero Reproduction Part 1: "We can't follow the normal timetable!"

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    The traditional model for bearing and raising children goes like this: The future parents meet, fall in love, get married, start having babies. They stay married for the next several decades, living together in the same household, and raising the children in a reasonably "healthy" and "normal" fashion. Even many fictional marriages have seen it happen this way, but precious few of those fictional marriages featured high-profile comic book superhero characters who were integral parts of the “regular continuity” of a monthly title.

    Why is it so easy for many heroes of prose fiction to do it this way, and so hard for Spider-Man or Batman to do the same thing with their own sweethearts in the comics?

    “Continuity within a larger universe of superheroes” and the consistently slow passage of time are the main culprits here. Those are problems previous “action heroes” in other mediums didn’t have to cope with. As an example of how easily raising a child worked out for another Big Name in the action hero business, let us consider the example of one of the earliest and best of the classic "pulp heroes" of the early 20th Century - Tarzan of the Apes, created by Edgar Rice Burroughs. (ERB for short.)


    The first four Tarzan novels are:

    1. Tarzan of the Apes
    2. The Return of Tarzan
    3. The Beasts of Tarzan
    4. The Son of Tarzan


    In #1, Tarzan was born, grew up, met Jane and fell in love with her, and started to get more-or-less integrated into Western culture. (He learned to speak French and English, for starters.)

    In #2, Tarzan married Jane at the very end of the book.

    #3 started out about two years later, with Tarzan receiving word that their baby son Jack had just been kidnapped. This was mainly a plot device to give Tarzan and Jane ample excuse to run all over the place, seeking revenge on the master villain who had arranged the kidnapping. Eventually the kid turned up, safe and sound, of course, having basically spent the entire novel "offstage" where he wouldn't slow down the action of the plot by needing his diapers changed or a fresh bottle of milk heated for him every few hours.

    #4 started out by re-introducing a villain who had been the sidekick of the master villain in #'s 2 and 3, stating that the master villain had now been dead for "ten years" (ever since the final scenes of #3). Jack ended up being abducted and living in the jungle (following in his father’s footsteps, of course) for awhile as an incredibly strong and resourceful adolescent boy. After all, he was the title character this time!

    See how neatly it worked? All that messy stuff about nine months of pregnancy, followed by the actual delivery, followed by at least the first few months of Jack's life as an infant before his kidnapping, magically occurred when we weren't looking, somewhere in between the final chapter of #2 and the opening chapter of #3. But ERB simply skipped right over those “two years” because there was nothing breathtakingly exciting about them from his point of view. And after the loving parents got the baby back, the next decade or so of his life was skipped between #3 and #4! No details about dirty diapers, teaching him to talk, teaching him to read and write, etc., were ever provided. ERB wasn’t interested in telling us all that “mundane” stuff that we could just as easily see and hear and smell at home taking care of our own children or younger siblings, so he skipped ahead to when the Son of Tarzan was old enough to conceivably take care of himself during adventures of his own! (Meanwhile, of course, there was absolutely no sign that the passage of time was reducing Tarzan’s own strength and stamina in any noticeable way that would prevent him from starring in other adventure stories later.)

    ERB could do that simply by typing his manuscripts that way. Who was going to stop him? But as a general rule of thumb, the writers on the monthly titles about Superman and Batman and Spider-Man and the X-Men can't. Why not? Because of this thing called Continuity, and the associated concept of Very Slow Aging in order to keep characters from getting “too old” too fast.

    ERB didn’t mind a bit if Tarzan must logically have been aging from his late teens, to his twenties, to his thirties, to his forties, etc., as time went by. He could have Tarzan and his son both fight in World War I; he could have Tarzan (a grandfather by then) fighting again in World War II. ERB could get away with that because he created and owned his own characters, and nobody could second-guess him and “force” him to throw away a story idea because of “continuity problems” it would create regarding the passage of time "in continuity" for dozens of other writers working on a hundred other heroes who were supposedly all living in the “same universe” with Tarzan and all aging at the “same rate.”

    Unfortunately, much of what happens in superhero comic books these days has gotten bogged down in a couple of huge universes (Marvel and DC) stuffed full of familiar characters who age as slowly as possible. One of the side effects of this continuity problem is that it’s almost impossible to portray a man and a woman having and raising a child in the conventional fashion as part of the ongoing continuity of a monthly title. Many women have gotten pregnant in the regular monthly titles of each company; precious few of them are still engaged in the process of raising their offspring in a conventional fashion today. (For decades, Franklin Richards, child of Reed Richards and Susan Storm Richards, has been a very rare exception to the rule – and even he has gone through some really strange phases as regards his aging.)

    Let's pause to do a little arithmetic.

    During the 80s and 90s, I noticed various writers using or hinting at timespans "in continuity" that seemed to suggest that "realtime" for us fans passes about 4 or 5 times faster than "comic book time" for superheroes who are stuck in a universe of constant ongoing continuity. For example, when Kitty Pryde made her debut in the Uncanny X-Men title during the Dark Phoenix Saga, Chris Claremont had her think of herself as "thirteen and a half" years old. About ten years later, Claremont wrote a comic book which featured Kitty's 16th birthday party on the cover. So during a decade in which the fans aged 10 years (basically the 1980s), she aged about 2.5. Suggesting that Claremont favored a ratio of 4:1, approximately, during his long years on various Marvel titles in the late 70s and 80s.

    Meanwhile, on DC's side of things, in the early 1980s when Marv Wolfman and George Perez were revitalizing the "Teen Titans" concept with their collaboration on "The New Teen Titans" title, it appeared that Dick Grayson and most of his fellow Titans at the time were allegedly about 19 years old - still able to call themselves "Teen" Titans but just barely. I seem to recall a scene in that era when Cyborg had a surprise birthday party and one of his teammates said something like "So you're 19 today - join the crowd!" (Strongly implying that nearly all the other Titans at the party, with the exception of 16-year-old Garfield Logan, aka Changeling, aka Beast Boy, were already 19.) Today, a little over 20 years later, Dick comes across as being definitely over 21 - old enough to be a cop carrying a gun, for instance - but probably no more than 25 in my opinion. If we can estimate that he's about 23 or 24, that suggests that in a little over 20 years realtime, he's aged maybe 4 or 5. That gives a pretty good fit with the idea that his aging "in continuity" has been about ¼ or 1/5 of the amount that we the readers have aged during the same timespan.

    For the sake of argument, let's say that characters who are integral to the ongoing continuity of a big superhero universe generally age at least four times as slowly as their readers. Now let’s look at a time in the mid-90s when Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and his wife Mary Jane were expecting a baby girl, sometimes referred to as “Baby May”. Let's also assume that Spider-Man and his wife were both around 25 years old when Baby May was born. (Not that an extra year or two either way would make any real difference.)

    Question: So, if things had gone along the "normal" path, with Peter and MJ having a baby when they were both 25, and then carefully raising that child with tender loving care as she aged at a rate consistent with "normal comic book time" until she turned 18 and was ready to graduate high school and move out of her parents' home and into a college dorm, then just how long would it have taken Baby May to reach her 18th Birthday as judged by us outside observers who might be collecting each new issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in realtime?

    Answer: At a conservative ratio of 4:1, we find that 4 * 18 years = 72 years of realtime required to cover 18 years of childhood “comic book time.”

    In other words, after she was born, you would have to keep reading Spider-Man comic books every month for the next 72 years, realtime, before you saw Baby May celebrate her 18th birthday and become a legal adult. During that time, Spidey and MJ both would have aged to be about 43 years old, meaning Peter Parker might actually be showing gray hairs at the temples and that sort of thing. For one monthly title, 12 issues a year (although sometimes Marvel finds ways to squeeze in more) times 72 years would be 864 consecutive monthly issues of the Amazing Spider-Man in which you would get to see Baby May growing up very very very slowly. (If Spidey had an average of 3 monthly titles during that 72-year span, you’d get to see Baby May slowly growing up in a total of 2592 individual issues!)

    Baby May was actually born – or stillborn, or something – in 1996. If she had stuck around as part of the supporting cast of the Spider-Titles, then around the year 2068 her 18th Birthday would be celebrated. If you weren't still alive at that time, perhaps your kids and grandkids could buy copies of the relevant comic to add to the family collection, and they could say, "Gee, it's such a pity Grandpa (or Grandma) wasn't here to see this happy day!"

    Yes, I know that's a ridiculous picture I'm painting! Who thinks seventy-two years ahead when he's reading a new superhero comic book? Who says to himself, "Several decades from now, if I'm still alive by a miracle of modern medicine, I look forward to buying comics in which this baby will FINALLY be a teenager old enough to put on a superhero costume and continue the family tradition!"

    I sure don't. I strongly doubt you do either. (Let me know if I'm wrong!) The writers and editors who are producing the silly things probably feel very proud of themselves if they manage to devise and follow long-range plans stretching out a COUPLE of years ahead from the present day. But they generally have to figure that a decade from now, various other writers and/or editors will probably have come and gone, to be replaced by other people in due course, etc., all of these people having their own ideas of the way things really ought to be done, and there's no knowing and no telling what changes any of those future meddlers will want to make in the "continuity" of a hero and his supporting cast. (And then the same thing would happen all over again several times in the decade after that and the decade after that . . . you get the idea.

    The chances that everybody working on a Spider-title for the next 864 monthly issues would want to keep Baby May as part of the continuity are about the same as the chances that I will win the election for U.S. President this November. (And to help you gauge my chances, I should mention that according to the Constitution, I’m not even old enough to be legally eligible for that job, not even if a hundred million American voters all chose to write my name on the ballot as their preferred choice!)

    This may help us understand why Baby May, as a Baby, quickly disappeared from the “modern mainstream continuity” Spider-books, yet Tom DeFalco was still able to get permission to feature a possible future version of her as a teenage girl who had inherited Spidey’s superhuman metabolism and was ready to put on a costume and have adventures. DeFalco was doing the exact same thing ERB had done with the Tarzan family – skip many years ahead to get past all the boring parts! But that couldn’t be done as part of “regular continuity,” where time passes at a very slow-and-steady rate, so it had to be done in its own little niche title as part of a “possible alternate future timeline” or whatever they call it.

    My second post in this series will discuss in detail the various ways that writers have found to let female characters get pregnant – more or less, kind of, and so forth – without actually having the father and the mother settle down to raise the baby in the conventional fashion as part of the “ongoing continuity” of a superhero universe.

  2. #2
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    randomguy is offline Came, liked Ike, and left.
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    Very cool post Lorendiac, as always. I'm interested in part 2, because I can think of at least one comics storyline going on right now that ties into this isse (that being Jessica Jones' pregnancy over in The Pulse... and she is becoming an Avenger).
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  3. #3
    Lorendiac is offline Member
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    One point I make in my next installment (most of it is already written) is that things have reached the point over the last couple of decades that when I see a heroine (or a male hero's Significant Other) is pregnant, I flinch as I start wondering what sort of terrible, messy, emotionally traumatic experience she's going to have in order to AVOID actually raising the kid herself in the old-fashioned way at a "normal" time rate. I've learned there's always SOMETHING weird or nasty going to happen!

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    Knightmare is offline Senior Member
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    I really most say Lorendiac, that I have found all of your recent threads very insightful(sp) as someone that is working on becoming a writer I find them very informitive and helpful.
    Who knows what is really real..... that's the true question in life.

  5. #5
    Ed Liu's Avatar
    Ed Liu is offline Grumpy Gorilla
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    Howdy,

    Very cool series of posts. Looking forward to the next ones.

    For what it's worth, lots of other serial fiction stories face the same problem. I recall the story of Angel's son on Angel, who got a few episodes of goo goo ga ga before vanishing and then turning up full grown.

    -- Ed/Ace
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  6. #6
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    titanic_sux is offline Member
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    great article

    This series reminds me of the OLD OLD comics-related magazine...what was it called? Omniverse?

  7. #7
    Westlander is offline Member
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    About Baby May: she has her own comic, "Spider-Girl" - it's set in 2020 or something around that.

    Anyway, it's interesting how times change, but the characters don't. What I mean is looking at ie. Cyclops in the 60's and the 90's. He always has "contemporary" clothes (from sweater and bow-tie in 1960s to jeans and t-shirt in 1990s), but it's still the same thirtyish Cyclops we know.
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  8. #8
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    Interesting post....

    Of course in DC's case, Dick and the Titans' aging is part of one of the other three conditions (and possible source of problems) of their universe's timeline----the other two being: the ages of Superman and Batman (who, of course, have to be kept relatively young, thus preventing the Titans from getting *too* old), and Superman being the first superhero (whether pre-Crisis, where he's the first hero on Earth, or post-Crisis, the "first hero of a new age" bit) with a debut date that wasn't too long ago, forcing every modern event to be compressed into a narrow timespan (post-Crisis, 12 years according to the last timeline I saw; pre-Crisis, while he debuted ~20 years ago as Superboy, he only became Superman about 8-10 years before the then-present...not much different...). While pre-Crisis, DC had Earth-Two with a timeline that passed in real-time (i.e. the Huntress was *always* born in the late 50's, and thus grew up/aged in real time), that's probably not too relevant/helpful here re: the Titans...

    As for why such treatment of comic book childbirths, guess the companies don't think their youthful/adolescent audience are interested in seeing the heroes raising their own kids, vs. Yet Another Alien Invasion/fighting the superpowered thug of the week/whatever. Just like how TV shows (as cited above by Ace) age kids from infancy to being much older, so the kids can do something besides sit around gurgling... :-)

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    Lorendiac is offline Member
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ace the Bathound
    Howdy,

    Very cool series of posts. Looking forward to the next ones.

    For what it's worth, lots of other serial fiction stories face the same problem. I recall the story of Angel's son on Angel, who got a few episodes of goo goo ga ga before vanishing and then turning up full grown.

    -- Ed/Ace
    I didn't even know Angel had a son, because I've never watched his show. (I have watched a collection of the key episodes of the doomed Buffy/Angel relationship from the early seasons of her show, however, so at least I have a general idea of who Angel is supposed to be.)

    Meanwhile, I seem to have mislaid the floppy disk that had my working drafts of Parts 2 and 3 in this series. It's almost certainly sitting on a table or shelf in an apartment about 13 miles away from where I'm sitting as I type this, which wouldn't be a problem if I currently had a working automobile of my own (or if my mother weren't out of town for the next several days). I really don't want to retype them from memory, so what's probably going to happen is that instead of posting one this week (I wanted to make it a weekly series) I'll probably try to make up for it by posting two next week - say, one on Monday and one on Friday? My current outline has this series going to at least 9 or 10 installments total, quite possibly more. (Part 2 will be on pregnancies and the problems that arise to prevent them from changing the status quo for the parents; Part 3 will discuss what I call the "Obscurity Waiver" - if the parents are unimportant enough, they're allowed to have a kid and then vanish into Comic Book Limbo for the next few years, and Part 4 will deal with the prevalence of "Long-Lost Children" who only make their first appearance onstage when they're already old enough to wear costumes and go have wild adventures of their own. You get the idea.)

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    Lorendiac is offline Member
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    Quote Originally Posted by titanic_sux
    This series reminds me of the OLD OLD comics-related magazine...what was it called? Omniverse?
    I'd never even heard of it, not that I recalled. I did a quick Google search last night and found it had only lasted a couple of issues, back in the 1970s, as a fanzine by Mark Gruenwald before he became a professional writer/editor at Marvel. I take the comparison as a compliment then, because I've read several columns by Gruenwald in a publication called "Marvel Age" and he struck me as a very sensible person in his analyses of one thing or another relating to the creation of superhero comic book stories. (I'd need to check, but I think I have either a complete run of his many years on Captain America, or I might still be missing about two or three issues near the beginning in the mid-80s. One or the other.)

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