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The Future of Comic Books — Part II: Postmodern


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?

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

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

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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

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?


K David Ladage (author) from Cedar Rapids, IA on April 12, 2019:

rjbatty -- you wrote (about three years ago): "Even before that happens, there will be a steady decline in comic book-based movies. We will probably see that happen in the next five years."

And I see no such decline. I await the final Avengers film with such anticipation, it hurts.

rjbatty from Irvine on December 06, 2015:

Continuity vs. the perpetual is an individual perspective. For decades DC managed to deliver comics that had a kind of perpetuality, and this was satisfactory to many kids over a long period.

The perpetuatity factor didn't bother me as a kid because the heroes seemed to come from some infinite zone of being nothing but who they were as represented to me in my own time. I never expected any of them to change in any drastic way. I didn't want them to change. You got some variations in costume design and other minor changes over the years, but the characters didn't evolve to any real extent, and this was how I liked it.

For what you may discredit as a kind of dull perpetuity, I took as consistency -- from artist to artist -- from writer to writer. And it wasn't dull. It just required writers/artists to be more imaginative within given boundaries.

I've written elsewhere that any new Star Trek series -- to be successful -- should be a kind of anthology series -- somewhat like the X-Files, where you could have many standalone shows, mixed with some long-reaching storylines (i.e., the whole UFO mythology).

Shows like "The Twilight Zone" were classic because they didn't rely upon a continuing storyline, a continuing cast. Why not do the same with Star Trek? Star Trek hedged quite a bit. Even though the original series and The Next Generation featured a constant cast of characters, it didn't stop writers from taking great leaps about the makeup of these continuing characters. Consistency was sacrificed for the story that any individual writer wanted to convey.

So why make any pretense toward consistency if it's really tantamount to a big joke? Why not make each episode completely unexpected? Why limit the scripts to some poor souls aboard the USS Enterprise when you can explore stories based on totally alien beings and their odd encounters in space travel?

You could still control/manage the consistency expectation by a good editorial staff. The stories might be bracketed within certain years, within certain sectors of the universe. Such a design wouldn't preclude writers from using some characters in a repeat fashion. It just wouldn't limit them to ten or so beings confined to a Federation star ship.

My recommendation is to go for broke. The preexisting Star Trek shows were both good and bad, but I expect that a newer audience is looking for something other than an ongoing soap opera.

"The Twilight Zone" did well because it was an anthology. From one week to the next, you'd never know what to expect. I think a network could do the same with Star Trek -- within established limits. Forget the formula of having a continuous cast. Have them appear or not as the individual story might demand. And all of this is about the art of storytelling.

My suggestion for a new series is to open up the horizons and just let good storytellers do their stuff. They wouldn't have to be precluded from using established characters, but by the same token, they shouldn't be hog-tied by creating tales based entirely upon the same set of individuals. Imagine a tale told from an entirely Klingon or Romulan perspective or a race of beings totally new to the entire realm.

If the next TV Star Trek doesn't go the anthology path, it will be doomed to failure because we're all sick to death of following some Federation crew on its various missions. We've already seen this scenario played out to death.

In this sense I agree with you about perpetuaty vs. continuity. In some things we expect a kind of perpetuaty -- at least for some unknown given period of time, and then it becomes mundane. Star Trek has the opportunity to bridge the gap between the two. It can present a prepetual universe but spice things up with an unknown continuity.

In comic book land I still see some characters as iconoclastic, untouchable, e.g., Superman, Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, maybe even Thor and the Hulk. The characters (over time) become icons, and it just seems insulting to change Thor and Wolverine into women (just for the sake of political correctness). Bruce Banner has always been the Hulk, but let's just shove him into the shit-pile because we want to make things different and hopefully more interesting. This is a kind of pop-culture sacrilidge.

It's all geared toward the hope of increasing sales. For me this is just sad because it presents a horrifying conflict between loyalist readership and capitalism. You don't like the idea of Superman dying? Too bad. We have books to sell and you can either hop on the new train wagon or go suck yourself. It's not a gracious way of dealing with a fan base that may have been faithful for decades.

So from my perspective, nothing is sancrosanct in the comic book world. The publishers will prostitute any of their characters if they think that it will increase sales. Increase their powers/decrease their powers/change them into women/eliminate them entirely -- whatever it takes to cause some sorry ass to buy one of their books.

And you'll notice that both DC/Marvel are not afraid to change their entire lineup every six months or certainly within a year to engage new readers. With that kind of turnover, what can we really say about continuity? Some would argue, well, if you can follow the thread of a character through all his/her permutations, then you've got something that constitutes continuity. You may end up with a dozen different Green Lanterns, maybe half a dozen kinds of Thors.

Kids are not buying into this market, and I don't blame them. They'd rather play games on their computer. It's far less confusing plus it's interactive.

As I see it, the Bronze Age of comics put a tombstone on the entire industry... at least the mainstream industry of DC/Marvel. Both publishers pulled out all the stops and tried everything they could imagine to top one another. The characters were prostituted. Continuity became a second-hand concern. Money was paramount (as it is today) and butchering decades of faithful readership was fair game because everything was sliding backward.

The publishers are still trying to swim in an open and increasingly vacant ocean. Youngsters shun their product, and they have to cater to guys who are 40 or over. They'd like to pull in a female audience, but I don't think its ever going to happen -- even if you put a female face on Wolverine or Thor. This has been and will remain a male-dominated consumership. Young women have other tastes, other interests. Catering to them just risks losing your most devoted male followers.

Comic books had their glory days but I fear they are nearing an end. If comics are written for the 40 or over crowd then the publishers will see an ever-increasing decline in month-to-month sales. Who are most interested in the DC/Marvel movies? Baby Boomers -- old guys like myself who once felt a sense of comfort by reading comics. In another ten years, most of us will be dead. Even before that happens, there will be a steady decline in comic book-based movies. We will probably see that happen in the next five years.

Is the industry salvagable? I'm not optomistic. When comics reached $2.99 an issue, it was becoming untenible. You couldn't flood the market (as in the Bronze era). You can't put out five or more X-Men titles, Superman/Batman books. The stuff just became too expensive for kids and was only affordable to the over-40 crowd -- and even we had to be selective.

In the mid-90s I became disgusted with what DC/Marvel were producing and bought almost exclusively independent publishers who were showing a lot more artistry and originality. DC/Marvel saw the drift and tried to incorporate this originality into their stale products. They didn't succeed. So, they chose to prostitute their own lineup of characters. Did you buy the comic where Peter Parker marries Mary Jane? I didn't. It was flaunted as a big deal -- on the same level as Superman dies. It was pure commercialism at its worst.

K David Ladage (author) from Cedar Rapids, IA on December 05, 2015:


It is how I love Star Trek (episodic television) but I find Babylon 5 (serialized television) to be far more satisfying -- each story means something. Each story is not something to be ignored by the next writer.

K David Ladage (author) from Cedar Rapids, IA on December 05, 2015:

You claim that the character has a "long standing continuity". I am stating that a character that does not grow, age, and eventually retire has no "continuity" -- they are perpetual.

I am stating that I find stories that end to be far more satisfying than stories that just return to the origin, reinvent themselves, and go for round 278. It is like how I hate that we have a third version of Spider-man coming up in the movies. It is like how I hate that Hollywood is mostly stuck on making reboots rather than trying to make something new and fresh.

Superman/Clark Kent is some century old at this point. It is time for him to move on. It is not change for the sake of change -- it is change for the sake of allowing new ideas to take root.

All of this is my opinion. Nothing more. You disagree. And that is fine. No harm no foul.

rjbatty from Irvine on December 05, 2015:


Whatever for? Change just for the sake of change isn't a justification in my book. You tend to look upon (and accept) that change is a necessary requirement. Explain why. Comic book characters exisisted for decades without much change. Nowadays, a character can be re-invented every six months. Is it necessary? I don't think so. I just see all of this change as a marketing gimmick that diminishes the character and his/her long-standing continuity.

K David Ladage (author) from Cedar Rapids, IA on December 05, 2015:

Not die off and get re-invented... die off, have their story *end* and have new characters take over. Spider-man was a teenager in the mid 1960s... have him reach the end of his career and die or retire or what-have-you... but have a new generation of characters take his place (and the place of the villains that he fought).

rjbatty from Irvine on December 05, 2015:

I disagree with you about wishing to see characters evolve, die off and then be reinvented. For me this just demonstrates a paucity in the writing capabilities of guys/gals who get to reinvent a character every six months. Every writer seems to think that he/she has a better take on a character. Well, let them write a "What If" story and let it go at that. My preference is to see consistency and continuity. If a writer cannot find the imagination to insert his/her vision into a continuing storyline, they just don't have the stuff required to be inserted into a mainline title. If you skip a couple of years in your comic book reading, you will be utterly lost. You either go back to read how things changed so dramatically or you just get turned off.

K David Ladage (author) from Cedar Rapids, IA on June 16, 2015:

Thank you.

Perhaps 'realism' is not the right word. I think what I want is something more akin to the living, dynamic, and evolving world I describe. But you are right to say that 'realism' is not right here.

Jayfort on June 15, 2015:

Very good Hub and second part to your topic.

I read comic books from 1965 until September 2011 when DC Comics basically told old comic book fans such as myself to get lost. Comic books are a medium ideally used to bring escapist fantasy. Sadly, as comics, comic book characters, and their environs have become more "realistic" they have lost readership, not gained. Why? The best I can tell is...if I want realism, I can turn on the news, open a newspaper, or step outside my front door. I can get my fill of realism without spending a cent on comic books.

I'd rather have bold, characters in the mold of the heroic ideal who can, at least temporarily, help me block out reality.

Keep up the interesting and well written Hubbing!

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