Great heroes are timeless, but you have to wonder how many are best suited to their era. Continuing my talk of superheroes fighting contemporary villains, you do inevitably run into identity issues whenever a hero endures long after the environment he began in has changed. That’s part of what I relish about the LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN - - it smartly keeps all these superhero prototypes in their time, which their identities are pretty much inseperarable from. Allan Quatermain, for instance, is a legendary character, but I doubt a modern update of him would take. He'd be a colonialist in a post-colonial era, an explorer in a world with few unexplored corners. If Indiana Jones is a modern Quatermain, then it’s important to note how all his adventures are in the 40s and 50s - - the days before GPS and satellites.Bringing the discussion to the two big universes we're so familiar with... does Superman work best as a populist champion during the Great Depression? Does the Fantastic Four work best in the age of discovery that was the space race? Does Batman work best in the 40s' days of flamboyant gangsters ? Does Iron Man work best when he's smashing commies and building weapons to fight the Reds? Does Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., work best in the cold war? They've all certainly continued past those points, but I'm asking if they were most in touch with who they are, at the core, in those times. == TEASER ==
The most obvious example, of course, is Captain America. He's firmly rooted in his time and his narrative's always going to be founded on him getting frozen at the end of World War II and then revived in modern times. It's only the length of his dormancy that's ever going to change. Look at the Ultimate Universe. Every other character's origin was pushed up to the 2000s, but Cap? They didn't move his salad days to Korea, Vietnam or even the Gulf War. That's because Cap's persona is part-and-parcel with the rah-rah jingoism of the Big Red One. Take that away from him and you'll change him more radically than making him come from outer space.
So does Cap work best as a super-soldier when the whole world's at war? Possibly. I think he's an example of new settings still keeping a character true to his origin. The famous man out of time angle has redefined his identity without compromising his roots.
Byrne did an interesting Elseworlds mega-series a few years back called GENERATIONS. It explored what the DCU would be like if Supes and Bats debuted in chronological continuity at the same time they debuted in print and then aged accordingly over the decades. Following that, I wonder if certain characters are best kept to their original age. If you love DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and KINGDOM COME, would you still want to see years and years of storylines about middle-aged heroes? While you might like Dick Grayson more as an adult than as kid, how far do you want to follow Spider-Man post graduation?
Mention Spidey and you'll first think of Peter Parker juggling girls, getting bullied, spreading himself thin between work, classes and superheroing and then keeping his identity secret from his weak-hearted aunt.
Those are all essential parts of his character, and they’re all things whose presence becomes harder to justify when he’s out of school, or he's married, or he’s living on his own. That is, when he’s an adult. That’s a big part of why ONE MORE DAY had to go through such trouble to put some genies back in the bottle, why ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN is still striking a chord and why the movies are even bringing him back to high school. Spidey being a kid is as central to his identity as his wall-crawling.
Evolution can be more fitting, sometimes, though. As far as I’m aware, the Punisher is the only superhero (or anti-hero, or villain, whatever) in comics who’s been allowed to stay with his original debut. There might be a new separation between the Frank Castle in the 616 and the one in Max universe but, for many years at least, the stories just owned up to Big Frank being a Vietnam vet who was still meaner and deadlier in middle-age than most young men could ever hope to be. I really preferred how Ennis’ Max run just owned that, because it allowed the story to get past the simple, initial premise that many vigilantes can get frozen into and explore the longer (and much more interesting) consequences that such a sustained war on crime would have. The number of Castle's homicides over the decades was tallied (as I recall, it was around 2,000) and progress was actually made, since he was weeding out the capable gangsters and leaving the underworld with second-rate, half-hearted wise guys.Was that a case of a character drifting from his origin and his era? Yes and no. It should be noted that the Punisher’s debut in SPIDER-MAN occurred two years after the publishing of FIRST BLOOD, which is none-too-coincidental as Rambo and Castle are characters riffing on the same cultural themes. Just as Captain America reflects the gung-ho patriotic spirit of his time, the Punisher reflects the bitter, disenfranchised anger of his. Both Rambo and the Punisher are often described as being “Frankenstein monsters” created by Vietnam and it’s a theme that perhaps can’t be easily transplanted to later conflicts. However, while it’s been easy to accept that Castle’s a dangerous sexagenarian, if they stick with this, I don’t know if it’ll continue to be believable when he’s logically supposed to be in his 70s or 80s. That is, unless they start making Punisher stories “period pieces” set in the 80s, 90s and 00s. Not only is this a novel idea to wrap your head around, but also a fitting notion to brings this discussion full-circle.
That's a lot to chew on. I'm sure you maniacs have some opinions to share, so seize the day and let us all hear 'em! What heroes work best in their original time? Which ones are timeless?