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The Future of Comic Books — Part II: Postmodern

Updated on April 9, 2021


I am not a scholar of comic books. I am a fan of the material; I read a lot of Daredevil and Adam Warlock as a kid and well into my first foray into college. I loved the X-Men and several other titles. This is the second in a series of two articles.

  • Part I gives some history of the evolution of the modern comic industry.
  • Part II will discuss what I think should be the next stage of that evolution.

What follows is not an authoritative work. It is the result of a little research, a little experience with the media, and a lot of passion for the characters and stories of the various ages of comic book history.

Paradigm Shifts in Comic Books

In the first part of this discussion, I gave a brief history of the superhero comic book industry from its birth in the Golden Age through the Interregnum, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and the Modern Age. In this discussion, we dealt with a few traits:

  • Time-Static — this has been a point, not a pair or a continuum within comics. Characters do not truly age and time remains relatively static. Sometimes characters (and their element of the comics universe) will shift forward or backward without regard for the remaining elements of that same universe.
  • IsolatedIntegrated — comics started out as completely isolated (Superman did not live in the same world as Batman; Namor did not live in the same world as Captain America). Over time, the worlds of the comics became much more integrated.
  • Meta-EpisodicEpisodicSerial — comics started out as Meta-Episodic; so much so that the events of one comic would likely have little or no impact on the events of later comics in the same title. Over time, they have become Episodic, and eventually Serial (or at least semi-serial) in nature.
  • VacuumBreathing — comics started out with each title existing in a vacuum. Over time, they have shifted to being in a living, breathing universe with each title having potential impacts on each other title.

The first Post-Modern superhero story?
The first Post-Modern superhero story? | Source

Comic Book Evolution: The Postmodern Age

So what would a Postmodern Age look like? In terms of the four traits listed above, it would look something like this:

  • Time-Moving — time should relentlessly move forward and the characters should age.
  • Homogeneous — the world should be as interconnected as elements of a biome.
  • Serial — not just quasi/semi/pseudo-serial, fully and completely serial.
  • Living — move beyond a breathing world to one that truly feels alive and real.

The closest thing I can think of to this model is the Wild Cards novels edited by George R. R. Martin. So let us look at each of these traits — and a few implications of these traits — and see if we can envision this Postmodern Age.


A: Time-Moving

Problem the First

Batman was created in 1939. In his first adventures, let us be kind and say he was about 29 years old. This puts his birth at about 1910. Thus, Bruce Wayne was 100 years old in 2010 (if we were to assume that time moved in a 1:1 ratio with the real world).

Given that most comic titles release about a dozen issues each year, the idea of a 1:1 ratio of time is not tenable — or if you want to look at this in a different light: 1:1 time is not the way to do this if you want to have the time to fully develop a character.

Problem the Second

Spider-man was created in 1962. At that time, Peter Parker was 15 years old and in school. Thus, he was born around 1947. Throughout his story, he has been quickly aged and matured so that he can become a family man; then he was shifted back in time to become a teenager again.

Despite these shifts in his age, maturity, and supposed history, this has had no impact on the greater Marvel Universe (e.g., the fact that {character} has worked with Spider-man as a mature adult was not changed when Spider-man reverted to his teen years).

Problem the Third

Reboots of characters often result in the re-imagining or revamping of their power base. Spider-man, for example, has web-shooters that are gadget-based in one story line, and can spin his own webs in others; he has a near magical ability to wall-crawl in one version of his story, and has tiny spines that allow it in others (that somehow do not get caught on his gloves when they retract).

Compare these characters (often described as modern myth) with characters like Perseus. Sure, modern movies can seriously muck up these tales, but the story that has survived the ages remains relatively static. Perseus was not reinvented and made more modern with every generation.

X-Men Universe Relationship Map
X-Men Universe Relationship Map | Source

B: Homogeneous

Problem the Fourth

The relationships between characters can become complex. In fact, the complexity of the interrelationships between the various characters (and incarnations of characters) in the DC Universe is what lead to the Crisis on Infinite Earths story, and is quickly dragging the Marvel Comic Universe into a deep abyss. In a truly homogeneous comic book universe, it is possible that you can quickly make this problem worse.

Problem the Fifth

The required amount of proper planning, monitoring, and editing needed to maintain such a universe is immense. Databases on characters, when and where they were, who they were with, and what they learned or knew at the time could potentially be required for such a universe to operate smoothly.

Problem the Sixth

Cooperation within the author pool, and a strict controlling influence of a head writer or editor would be paramount. The stories cannot have someone in multiple places at once. This means that the timing of events in each part of the universe, where those events could potentially impact other areas, would need to be coordinated carefully.

Fortunately, with time moving forward (and modern storytelling techniques, such that not all tales need to be told in chronological order) much of the long term impacts of the above issues would be mitigated as characters age and retire from a life of vigilantism. As they are replaced with new, fresh characters that are products of the world the retired heroe leaves behind, the tangle ceases to be.

The Dream of Serial Fiction
The Dream of Serial Fiction | Source

C: Serial

Problem the Seventh

The comic books will not have the luxury of undoing months, years, or decades of backstory with a single issue that decides that {character} needs to be reintroduced in a new way. In this way, the characters in this sort of comic book world become ones that are born, live, and die. they can be reborn the same way the heroes of the real world are: with fresh faces.

Problem the Eighth

There exists a time when Spider-man was so popular, he had three titles that were all being released simultaneously twice per month (Spider-man, Amazing Spider-man, Spectacular Spider-man). This would not be as possible, or probable, as it was then.

Spider-man would be at a specific place at a specific time. So unless such titles were describing different time-frames, different dimensions, or something similar, {character} can only truly be in one place at a time (barring some odd powers).

Problem the Ninth

For a serial story to work, the world around these characters needs to evolve as well. Normal people will grow, too. Since time is moving and the main character is aging, so are the normal characters that surround these individuals.

The idea of a normal human being locked in a state of perpetual teen-years serving as a cub reporter for 70 years would have to be reevaluated.

As with the fourth through the sixth problems, the fact that time moves forward actually makes these issues easy to handle with little overhead. The biggest issue that all nine of these issues bring to the table is that it requires the writers be willing to write the end of a character' story.

Gaia: The Living World
Gaia: The Living World | Source

D: Living

Problem the Tenth

And we reach the final challenge. With a world that lives and breathes, grows and evolves, has interconnections that remind us that the events of a story unfolding in the UK can have an impact on the people and events taking place in the United States... can a truly living world be depicted within the confines of a comic book?

Can the comic book world evolve not only with, but in different directions than, the real world?

Can the comic book world be shown to be a logical and internally consistent thing?

The answer to each of these questions is, obviously, yes it can.

A Postmodern Age of Comic Books Wishlist

OK... we have at least 10 challenges that, if handled correctly, will (in my opinion) create internally the solution to each challenge (e.g., serial stories and the growing web-work of interconnections can be solved with the proper passage of time; a growing and evolving world can be created that does not become overbearing through the strength of pre-planning and the dedication to not re-writing history — no rebooting).

So what do I want to accomplish by creating such a world? Here is my wishlist:

  1. I want to see comic create worlds that feels real and can thus create a sense of real gains and true losses as it moves through each story. Comic book worlds feel fake, which makes the stakes the characters are putting at risk seem less than important. Create a world where death is real (and permanent) and the risks a character takes on can create real stress.
  2. I want to see writers and artists forced to move out of their comfort zones take away their ability to cheat. Charles Schultz once said that the fact that he had to work within the confines of the small boxes of a comic strip made him a better artist and writer. I think that the same can be said of the writers and artists of comic books: in a Postmodern Comic Book, the restrictions placed upon them would cause them all to become better than they are.
  3. I want to see time moving forward and never reset. I want to know when, in the life of the character, event A took place; I want to know how the character's life changed when they stopped being a high-school student and went to college; or when they left college and home and had to figure out the future. Once the choices are made, I want to see them stick and not be something that is re-written, retconned, and/or rebooted out of existence. As stated, time should not move forward at a 1:1 rate, but periodically a series of event-based comics can move time forward a bit more to catch up to the real world.
  4. I want to see new characters and I want them to be given a chance to shine. A great and wise man (Mark Rosewater) once spoke of the greatness of an idea (e.g., individual, object) as being dependent upon the context within which that idea is presented. You cannot create new characters and have them shine — have them seen as truly great — in a world where the ideas of the previous generation never give way to the next. Give me the end of Superman's story, Captain America's story, Batman's story, Namor's story... show me how their age gave way to the next.

Oh sure, I could go on here. But I think that these two articles explain it well enough. I think it is clear what I am seeking here. But here's the rub: throughout my live I have known that what I want out of just about everything is not what most other people want from those same things.

What do you think the next age of comic books should look like?

Am I Right?

Do you agree that this is the right way to view the comic book industry?

See results

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