How cartoons handle characters’ aging

Inspired by an article on the Westfield Comics Blog about sliding comic timelines, I thought I’d write my own blog post on a similar subject. Specifically, I’ll look at the major ways in which comics and animation handle their fictional cartoon characters aging, or lack thereof.

The major ways I’ve seen aging handled include:

  1. Real time
  2. In-story explanations
  3. The sliding-scale timeline
  4. Editorial fiat
  5. No explanation

I’ll analyze each method below.

Real time

Part of the cast of "Dykes to Watch Out For"
Part of the cast of DTWOF. Art by Alison Bechdel.

What might seem the most obvious answer is to simply age the characters in real time. Not only is this the most realistic approach, but it also seems easy for other reasons. We age in real life, so why can’t our favorite characters age along with us?

“Gasoline Alley” and “For Better or For Worse” are two comic strips that’ve made use of this. In the latter, the strip went from Elly and her grade-school aged offspring to Elly becoming a grandmother. “Dykes to Watch Out For” also seems to have aged its characters in real time during its run; Raffi, a son of two of the characters, went from infancy to adolescence.

The downside of this tactic: if you view the characters as a money-making franchise (say, if the characters are superheroes), seeing them age into middle-age (or their twilight years) might not make them as lucrative in terms of marketing.

It also means eventually killing your characters if the strip should run long enough. I remember some fans of Farley in “For Better or For Worse” were dismayed to see him die, albeit as a hero.

In-story explanations

Captain America: The Winter SoldierIn this case, reasons are given for the characters’ lack of aging on an in-story basis. Here, the characters are aware of their lack of aging in-universe, and know why that’s the case. Reasons often given include:

  • Suspended animation (Captain America)
  • Being an alien (some “imaginary stories” positing Superman being very long-lived)
  • A youth serum or “fountain of youth” formula
  • Magic
  • Cloning
  • Technology
  • Time travel

And so forth.

The disadvantage of this approach is that there might not be an adequate or plausible in-story reason to explain a lack of aging, depending on the comic/cartoon. “FoxTrot”, for instance, can’t lay claim to any of these reasons given its somewhat realistic setting.

Even in a more fantastical setting, it might run into problems. While Superman being a slow-aging alien might sound fine, that doesn’t do his Earthling pals Jimmy Olsen or Batman any good.

The sliding-scale timeline

Superboy meets Bonnie and Clyde
“Superboy” #149 (July 1968). Art by Neal Adams.

This one is the main one used in most superhero comics, as well as the occasional comic strip. However, animation rarely seems to use this method.

All events and characters in the setting stay non-aging (or extremely slowly aging). However, the characters’ past events (births, weddings, career starts, etc.) are defined as taking place “x years ago.” As such, they’re simply moved up year-by-year.

One classic example of this was DC Comics’ Silver and Bronze Age Superboy stories, where the adventures of Superman’s teenage self were set perpetually 13-15 years in the past. For example, if it’s 2011 and Superman debuted as Superboy “21 years ago” at age 8, the flashback year would be shown as being in 1990 (with references to the original Gulf War, etc.). In 2012, Superboy’s debut would be in 1991, and so on. If Superboy was still in continuity, as of 2016 he’d have debuted around 1995, with the Boy of Steel’s high school years set between 2001 and 2005 (ages 14-18).

I elaborated more on this in the blog posts below:

The advantages of this method are several. It acknowledges the characters are, well, fictional cartoon characters. It also allows one to broadly gloss over topical references easily. Examples include a character meeting the President or being a fan of a particular rock group.

Sliding timelines also let the characters stay relevant to the reader’s present, versus becoming long obsolete or looking unbelievable even for a cartoon. (Say, if Superman’s childhood took place before 1938, the year he first appeared.)

Finally, the characters stay marketable and, well, alive. This allows future generations to also enjoy their adventures (and future execs to reap profits).

There’s also disadvantages, of course. Some newer readers are sometimes confused by this tactic. Some continuity problems can also creep up if a previous story relied on a particular now-dated topical reference or event. Examples include the Justice Society heroes tied to World War II, or the Teen Titan foe the Mad Mod‘s whole shtick.

There’s also the characters celebrating multiple holidays, birthdays, etc. within such a narrow timeframe. One example is Superman having been an adult hero for only about 10 years, but experiencing a lot of Christmases/elections. Related to this is the increasing number of stories to squeeze into the character’s life/history as the years roll on.

Finally, a few fans either want to see the characters age and change over time. They also might find it jarring to see elements of characters’ pasts changed retroactively.

Editorial fiat

Unlike the above, this one is usually through an explicit declaration of the writer or editor. It may even be said as such in the comic itself. A particular example of this is the “time skip,” or skipping the entire story’s setting ahead in time by x number of years.

“Funky Winkerbean” has made use of this particular example twice. The once-teenaged characters are now middle-aged, with teenagers of their own.

This example gives the editors and writers plenty of freedom. They can often break the fourth wall easily to explain what they’re doing. On the down side, it might make some fans annoyed if things can change on a writer or editor’s whim.

No explanation

Bugs and Daffy from "Rabbit Fire"This one is probably one of the most common explanations: “who cares? It’s just a cartoon!” The character’s past or age will be of little to no importance to the story. Flashbacks to the characters’ past will be minimal or nonexistent (or with little regard to continuity).

This is the default assumption for most humorous cartoons and comics, i.e. “Garfield,” “Peanuts,” “Looney Tunes,” “Family Guy,” etc.

Advantages of this method include not having to worry about annoying things like consistency, continuity, etc.

The downside of this approach is it might not fit if one ever wants to tell a more dramatic story. There’s also that in some instances, stating “it’s just a cartoon” might come across as lazy or patronizing, or assume the readers don’t have an attention span.

“Doonesbury” at one time used this method. In the original 70s and early 80s run, the characters didn’t age, with no reason given. After Garry Trudeau came back from a sabbatical in the 80s, he decided to shift to the “real time” approach above. Thus, the characters started to age mostly in real time. However, BD and Boopsie’s daughter Sam seems subject to the “editorial fiat” reason above. She’s still a pre-teen or early teenager, despite being born 20 years ago in real time.

That about sums everything up. I’ll write more about this in the future, as needed.

(Updated 12/14/16)

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