21 October 2009

When Characters Get Stuck in Time

Jerry Ordway is a longtime DC Comics artist who’s drawn many of the company’s iconic characters. He stepped in to complete the art for The Brave and the Bold: The Book of Destiny when George Pérez stepped away from the Mark Waid story, and the shift is pretty seamless.

At the time, Ordway gave an interview to Newsarama in which he made an interesting remark about the company’s most lucrative trademarks:

NRAMA: What about the characters themselves? Some comics characters change to reflect their times, but are most DC Comics characters so iconic that they withstand the effects of time?

JO: The characters evolve over time to reflect the era they are produced in, really. Superman today is not the same Superman that was published in the 1990s. Evolve or fade away is apt. Look at great fiction characters of the past, who didn’t have a continuous publication to bridge the gap—Doc Savage, the Shadow, Lone Ranger—all terrific concepts, but each stuck in an era they were last viably published in. So, while I don’t like the lack of pure selfless heroics in superhero comics today, I understand they reflect a different world than my own childhood.

Superman and Batman are pretty much timeless concepts, and icons that seem hard to ruin. For most of us, we love our favorites and remember them in the context of when we first discovered them. With [Mark] Waid’s love of the ’60s DC stuff, he has captured a really viable way of handling the Challengers of the Unknown, which is fun. That concept, like Blackhawks, and Metamorpho have a hard time sustaining sales in recent times because they belong to a different time.
If I understand Ordway, he suggests that Superman, Batman, Robin, and other characters who have maintained popularity for decades feel timeless precisely because they’ve changed with the times, while preserving core traits and imagery. Whereas other characters that stopped being published also got stuck in the last period to which they had evolved, and thus came to symbolize the past.

Of course, companies stop publishing stories about characters because their sales fade, meaning they’ve already stopped appealing to readers as much as they once did. Still, it’s a provocative way of thinking about “timeless” icons.

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