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Modern Heroes From Past Eras

Do some heroes work best in certain times and at certain ages?

 These are all the superhumans and monsters of the Victorian era.

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 ==  
 
 Even super-cool Ultimate Cap is still a 40's man.
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. 
 
Is this as classic a Spidey image as him swinging between skyscrapers?    
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.
 Frank's more interesting as an older guy.     

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.  

 In my eyes, this is the definitive origin story for the Punisher.
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?

Tom Pinchuk’s the writer of  HYBRID BASTARDS!  &  UNIMAGINABLE . Order them on Amazon here  &   here .  Follow him on Twitter:  @tompinchuk

31 Comments
Posted by Eyz

Yeah, exactly!
 
If only comics would let heroes grow old (as in Generation).
Stories with them could be told taking place in the past!
Things would be so easier, instead of constant retcons...
 
Like when someone thinking and asking The Thing if he did the Vietnanm war (which he did) but thanks to the retcons he only answered "I was too young to have been in the war" kickin' off continuity several comics from the 80s...

Posted by Chaos Burn

I am really interested in the time growth in comics, what's going to happen when major origin events are over 50 years gone?

Posted by Sobe Cin

I like the timelessness of the characters in comics. But when you have a character like the punisher, whose origin comes from the Vietnam war, it's hard to see him. When I was a kid, it made since. But now, not so much.  
 
There are other characters as well. I am big x-men reader and I have a hard time figuring out certain ages for certain characters. I come across lines in comics, for instance, Colossus was asking Emma Frost for help, and said Miss Frost, it pretty much made him sound like he was eighteen years old, but he's been an established x-man for thirty years. Each new decade seems to make new mutants. But the New X-Men, Generation X and New Mutants, they all seem to be the same age. But their origins and stories are so vastly different. Cannonball was hick from the boonies, living in the eighties, Jubilee a 90's mall rat, and then you have the very independent and very modern characters like Anole and Prodigy. Who to be honest, would never have in the New Mutants or Generation X storylines. And if they did, they would be very different characters from who they are now.
Posted by Jake Fury

Just started reading Johns' JSA run and I love the fact that we still have the classic heroes like Alan Scott, Jay Garrick & Wildcat around. They even show signs of actually aging. *gasp*
Edited by comicbikerscott

It doesn't matter as long as they can still change the charter to make them revelant its ok
Posted by Theodore
@Jake Fury said:
"
Just started reading Johns' JSA run and I love the fact that we still have the classic heroes like Alan Scott, Jay Garrick & Wildcat around. They even show signs of actually aging. *gasp* "
his run is excellent.
Posted by dondasch

@Tom Pinchuk Tom I couldn't agree with you more regarding your views of The Punisher.  Ennis' take on him during the Born graphic novel and also his run during Max was the definitive view in my opinion.  I absolutely loved the way that Ennis had an off page "voice" talking with Frank and seeing what he was really willing to do in order to escape the carnage of the last few pages.  
 
Great job Tom

Posted by Baron_Emo

I have always been fascinated with the notion of these classic characters aging in real time. I think I'll give the Generations book a go. 

Posted by CaptObtuse

That was the genius, the sheer beauty and simplicity of DC's Multiverse.  Golden Age characters were allowed to exist in Earth-2 in a passage of time that lagged behind the Earth-1 of the Silver Age.  Had they not foolishly done away with it, the next generation of heroes: Kyle Rayner as Green Lantern, Connor Hawke as Green Arrow, Wally West as Flash and so on, could have been introduced on Earth-4 (or whatever - I know Earth-3 was the Crime Syndicate).  Then everyone would have fit in their era, stories could have been told of all those characters that made sense given their origins, yet there could have been crossovers between the earths, and everyone would have been happy.  It made so much sense.  It was incredibly short-sighted of DC to do away with this elegant concept.  Now they have some sort of multiverse, but it's not the same.  They aren't taking full advantage of the possibilities inherent in the structure.

Posted by Tommy_X

One good thing about the agelessness of characters is that more people can relate with them when their exact age isn't stated. And while I'm okay with characters aging in real time it becomes harder to write characters like magneto and punisher (for example) in current adventures when their chronological age is over 80.  
Punisher for example has never really had any superpowers but soon writers will have to come up with an explanation for his advanced age if they still want to keep him around or they will have to rely on retconning or replacing the character with a new younger one.    

Edited by brc2000

I don't really mind. If in a few years Frank's origin story is retconned so that it takes place in the Iraq War, it won't matter to me. Though if they do try to explain his age, they could always use the excuse of the whole Franken-Castle/bloodstone arc. Having Punisher in the mainstream books won't affect his origins or character in the Max books or other out of continuity stories, so nobody's really getting hurt here.

Posted by GraveSp

John Constantine ages in real time.  

Posted by Doctor!!!!!

Everyone always keeps seems to be timeless. 

Posted by cbishop

Really nice read, Tom.  I think Captain America suffers from this problem the most.  The further we get from WWII, the more of a man out of time he becomes.  If there's no war on, it seems to be hard for creators to write Cap without miring him down in American politics.  Without an enemy, he definitely loses focus as a symbol of inspiration.

Posted by Bruce Vain

I always loved the difference between Captain America and Punisher . Yes they were both soldiers and fought for their country, but both fought a different war for their era. Which Frank clearly made before putting a bullet in Cap's head in - What If Punisher Killed The Marvel Universe by Ennis.
Posted by RedDrake

interesting

Posted by crusader8463

 Punisher will always be relevant, because there will always be some fools that need killing that none of the other heroes will be willing to put down. Also, he is in many ways a very relateable character. Everyone has at least had the thought once of how much better the world would be if you just wiped out crime instead of putting it in prison for a few years just so it can be let out and return to it's old form. The punisher is simply that thought made incarnate with a dash of revenge story thrown in as motivation to get the ball rolling.

Posted by NightFang

Interesting.

Posted by Golden Cod
@cbishop said:
"The further we get from WWII, the more of a man out of time he becomes.  If there's no war on, it seems to be hard for creators to write Cap without miring him down in American politics.  Without an enemy, he definitely loses focus as a symbol of inspiration. "

Cap is definitely more of a political hero now but is that a bad thing?   I enjoy the fact that his fight against fascism extends beyond costumed villains.   One of my favorite antagonists of Cap is Henry Peter Gyrich.   Gyrich is an American but his love for America brings him into conflict with Cap because he values security over freedom.   Gyrich and Cap sometimes work in concert but they are also just as often at odds.   
 
Cap started out as a period character but he's an eternal character in that he's a means to ask if America still lives by the ideals it was founded on.

Posted by goldenkey
@cbishop: That's why I loved what Mark Millar did the Avengers when he wrote The Ultimates.  He modernized them for our age.   I never was to interested in the Avengers or hero's the Avengers books till I read the re-vamped version of them.  Now I'm stuck the 616 versions, mainly because Loeb went and took what a good, working, new recipe for legends.  It didn't step on them, it updated them.  Avengers 2.0..  At the end of his run, what looked like the Ultimate version the Red Skull being an Arab super soldier would be easier for new readers to relate to then some Nazi.  Magneto used as more of a terrorist, sending Bin Laden like videos and blowing government buildings.  To bad no else who wrote the Ultimate line books got this.  It was working so well with the X-men and Ultimates. 
Edited by cattlebattle

Magneto is prime example of this 
 
his whole point of being evil is basically what the Nazis did to him, so now he would be what? 80? 
 
lucky he keeps getting "de aged" 
 
but as far as the rest of the X-Men, they could fit in any decade. They are the next step in evolution after all
Posted by Kid_Zombie

I would like to see them age. you can always have spider-girl take over when peter is to old type thing. but X-men is where this bugs me the most. Scott started on the x-men when he was 14, now lets say he's 30. So the original x-men aged, but dont anymore.
New mutants, were older mid twenties to late twenties when cannonball was in Mike carys x-men run, with a beard forming and everything, then they decided to bring New mutants back now they are back to being 21 which is lame. As for the new x-men, they started when they were 16ish, some still seem this age but most seem like they are 19 20 ish. This really bugs me. I think x-men is a comic that can really work if they aged in real time. i think they are the only ones who can pull it off nicely.

Posted by cbishop
@Golden Cod said:
"Cap is definitely more of a political hero now but is that a bad thing?   I enjoy the fact that his fight against fascism extends beyond costumed villains.   One of my favorite antagonists of Cap is Henry Peter Gyrich.   Gyrich is an American but his love for America brings him into conflict with Cap because he values security over freedom.   Gyrich and Cap sometimes work in concert but they are also just as often at odds.     Cap started out as a period character but he's an eternal character in that he's a means to ask if America still lives by the ideals it was founded on. "

I don't mind measuring current ideals against Cap's, but I hate when it gets mired down in the politics.  Very rarely is a political story done well.  More often than not, it just hamstrings the character into doing nothing, and I don't read superhero vigilantes to see them do nothing.  If the writer can make great drama out of it, that's different, but I haven't seen that from Captain America.
Posted by cbishop
@goldenkey said:
" @cbishop: That's why I loved what Mark Millar did the Avengers when he wrote The Ultimates.  He modernized them for our age.   I never was to interested in the Avengers or hero's the Avengers books till I read the re-vamped version of them.  Now I'm stuck the 616 versions, mainly because Loeb went and took what a good, working, new recipe for legends.  It didn't step on them, it updated them.  Avengers 2.0..  At the end of his run, what looked like the Ultimate version the Red Skull being an Arab super soldier would be easier for new readers to relate to then some Nazi.  Magneto used as more of a terrorist, sending Bin Laden like videos and blowing government buildings.  To bad no else who wrote the Ultimate line books got this.  It was working so well with the X-men and Ultimates.  "

My only real knowledge of the Ultimates is the two animated movies.  Those were great, but overall, I prefer the 616 Marvel U.
Posted by Emperor Gonzo Noir

It depends

Posted by superzero93

If you make characters like Cap and the punisher more contemporary you could end up drastically changing who they are as people. Take Cap he fights for truth justice and the American way because he is from the time when every American believed in those words, if you change his origin and make him a super solider for the Vietnam or Iraq war you would think why is her fighting for   truth justice and the american way when the country he is fighting for doesn't even believe in in that statement.  
That's my opinion any way hope it makes sense.

Posted by mickoreo_LZ

I love the idea of taking characters and actually aging them and having them fight crime in a different era. Part of the challenge would be to adjust to a world that isn't the same as it was when they first started crime fighting and I think there could be some interesting stories there to explore

Posted by Adam Michaels

For me, if I see a story arc that spans 6 issues on a monthly series, that is six months in my real world, but the storyline in the book spans only days. So it helps make it more believable in my mind that these superheroes have been around for decades, but haven't aged all that much in the comic books. 
 
Granted, when they mention real world events like the Vietnam War, the Cold War, 9/11, and other real world events, then logic needs to take over and have these characters age just like any of us have aged between all of these moments in time. 
 
It's always in the back of my mind, but when I get a hold of the book, I truly suspend my disbelief and run with it.
Posted by Danial79

I've come to like comic characters being ageless... it seems to add to the fantasy aspect of it.

Posted by JonesDeini
@mickoreo_LZ: 
I like that The Punisher ages, but yeah. When he get's too old that's not gonna work. That's when it's time for period tales. That's why having heroes so closely tied to real world events is a double edged sword. I tend to highly enjoy things like Kingdom Come and The Watchmen because they deal with how things change from one decade to the next. I think overall though, it depends on the character. Some people can't work apart from their traditional origins, Cap is a good example of that. But as was said in the article, the man from a different time angle always works with him. I for one would love to read a character from inception of their hero career to the end of it and maybe a Dark Knight Returns styled back on the scene theory.  I would actually like to see Peter Parker GROW UP!!! That was happening for a while, and I wish it had kept on going. Maybe I'm a bit weird but when I think of Peter Parker I always think mid to late college aged/early adulthood. 
Posted by TheMess1428

I honestly don't like Spider-Man as a teenager. I like how thats where he started but I like him much more as an adult. Because then he can be taken seriously as a hero and be a member of the Avengers. If he's a teen, it makes me think of the Young Avengers or Teen Titans or anything similar. And that just seems weird.