Thursday, September 20, 2007

For Better or Worse -- the aging process

My post reacting to Lynn Johnston's announcement prompted some interesting discussion, both online and off. Most of the folks I talked with only read the humor strips, where the characters never age, and situations never change. Beetle Bailey has been a gold-bricking 20-something army private since 1950. Dilbert will always work in the same office for the same pointy-haired boss (whose hair will never gray). The kids in the Family Circus remain the ages they were when introduced in 1960. And so on.

One of the innovations of "For Better or Worse" is the aging of characters in real time. The last post I offered up some others that also aged their characters. Aging isn't unique, but real time aging is pretty rare.

"Funky Winkerbean" currently has characters aging at a normal rate, but it wasn't always so. The strip started out with the cast as perpetual high school students, a la "Archie." Tom Batiuk jump-started his strip by having the characters graduate from high school, then begin with a panel with the words "five years later." From then on, the now older characters grew and matured.

Many strips have some kind of aging going on, albeit at a very slow rate. When you consider that a daily strip has about two or three panels to move a story forward, the glacial passage of time within the comic can be forgiven.

"Judge Parker," started in 1952, has seen the title character move to the background while his law partner Sam Driver take over the lead. Driver eventually married, and young Randy Parker (the judge's son) has been the focus of some stories -- as have Neddy and Sophie. First introduced to the strip as young children in 1993, Neddy's now in college and Sophie's in high school.

"Rex Morgan, M.D" involved a long-running romance between Dr. Morgan and his nurse, June. In the 1990's this static relationship moved forward. They married, they had a daughter, and who's growing up at a normal rate.

The strip with the longest backstory has to be "The Phantom." Started in 1936, it tells the tale of the current incarnation of the Phantom, a direct descendant of the previous one in an unending line dating back over 400 years. His son Kit, born in the 1970's has grown up in the strip.

"Blondie" is currently ageless, but there have been changes. The 1933 strip started out with the courtship of young Dagwood Bumstead and Blondie. After a few years of married life, Baby Dumpling was born. Baby Dumpling remained frozen in time throughout the 1930's and 1940's and would sudden mature offstage to become the teenaged Alexander Bumstead.

"Dick Tracy" introduced a 10-year-old Junior in 1933. By 1949, he was a teenager and eventually married in his twenties to the Moon Maid in 1970's. Tracy joined the police force as a young man in 1931, and by the time of Chester Gould's retirement in 1977 had been considered as a candidate for chief, due to his seniority (he turned it down -- the position went to Pat Patton, his former partner).

"Gil Thorp" has made an interesting compromise with time. The high school athletic coach who came to Milford High in 1958 has married and raised children -- but 49 years after his arrival he's still on the job with not a gray hair in sight (nor even any male pattern baldness). Nevertheless, the kids that show up on his teams as freshmen only stay in the strip for four years, before they graduate as seniors. So the supporting cast ages normally, while the main characters grow in slo-mo.

Gil Thorp: from 1958 to 2006

There are many more examples, I'm sure. Use the comment field to remind me of some of the ones I've missed! Every sequential storyteller that addresses aging handles it a little differently. It's one of the things that keep me coming back to the comics pages every day.

- Ralph


  1. Gil Thorp is clearly one of the best strips of all time. When I worked at WVTF Public Radio, we spent hours deconstructing each panel. I wish Marty Moon was a real person, and that WDIG could somehow be in Charlottesville.

    One thing maybe to cover in a future strip is how comics no longer need to be in a newspaper. I read FBOFW every day thanks to Bloglines.

  2. That would be a good topic. Once the Washington Post dropped "Gasoline Alley," I started reading it onlin. Ditto "Brenda Starr" and "Gil Thorp."

    I wouldn't call "Gil Thorp" the best comic in the world, but it is one that's grown on me. I have to admit I've informally kept track of the games depicted, and can tell you how the Mudlarks did over the past two seasons!

  3. I'm out of the loop, but will likely spend an evening catching up on the last three years or so!

  4. I'm wondering if the FBOW characters *are* aging in real time. It seems to me that April went from toddler to high schooler in a lot less time than 16 years.

  5. I believe April has aged in real time. The strip started in 1979, and April was born in 1991, so she's been in the strip long enough.

    I think the tricky part about the aging process is that each daily strip only has about a minute or two of real time action. An episode that stretches over thirty or forty minutes might take several weeks of daily strips to chronicle.

    If everyone's technically aging on a one-to-one rate with the calendar, then a character who walked out the room at the beginning of a long episode may return several months older when the storyline skips ahead!

    There were some extended periods when April wasn't around, and so her growth rate may have appeared accelerated (sort of like those family members you only see on the holidays).

    - Ralph