An Impermanent Man in a Permanent World

Reflecting tonight on the impermanence of life I found myself thinking about comic books. Specifically, I found myself thinking about the stubbornly permanent nature of comic books’ most popular of characters.

Spending literally all of my waking day on and reading everything that is written and posted, reading every e-mail, and hearing every voicemail that comes in I sense a rising tide of discontent. There has been a lot more grumbling lately about the state of the Marvel and DC Universes and how the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is grumbling that I have certainly been party to, try as I might to stay zen-like about getting too bent out of shape over the fictional lives of characters that are bigger than I am.

I found myself wondering tonight why it is that people seem angrier now more than ever. Why the increasing grumbling about things never changing, stories never truly ending, fates left forever open-ended, characters never truly dying. We even got an e-mail in the other day from someone who was angry that superheroes never age. Nothing has changed in the comics themselves — this is the way it has always been — but people seem to be more annoyed about it lately.

As I write this we are in the middle of December, at the cusp of the beginning of winter. It’s the time of year traditionally full of celebration and joy and family. But I’ve always felt there was an underlying twinge of sadness to the holiday season. It’s not always prominent, or easily discernible, and when it is there it is usually lurking under the surface. I think that buried bit of sadness exists because the winter not only represents joyous celebration, but also the end of things. In cold climates this is when the foliage dies. When people talk about the winter of their lives, it’s not the beginning that they are referring to. It’s the end.

Perhaps, deep down inside, we are all envious of the characters in those comic books that we read every week. Not envious for their super powers and amazing abilities. Nor for their impossible physiques or their cover model faces. No, perhaps we envy their permanence. They live on forever. They endure every tragedy. They face every obstacle. And they not only overcome, but they are allowed to begin again anew. Meanwhile, our faces get older in the mirror, our problems usually mount, and there is no wacky cosmic button to be pressed at the winter of our lives to start us over again, returned to the young, vibrant and healthy state of some nebulous time in our 20s or 30s.

While we advance through our lives, leaving one stage and entering another, or favorite characters simply endure, generally unscathed. Does our frustration level build because we as human beings constantly crave answers and closure and yet deep down inside we know we’re never going to get them in comic books? We cannot ever get them. Bruce Wayne will never truly die because he has endured for 69 years and he must endure for 69 more. We will never know the end of his story.

Popular on-going fiction is a double-edged sword. The audience is drawn in because of the serial nature of the story telling. It creates a very personal bond between the material and the audience when you can literally live your life alongside Matt Murdock. That kind of familiarity breeds passion often bordering on psychosis.

But what happens when the audience finally realizes that they are going to be left behind by the source of their passion?

Perhaps that is why people tend to drop in and out of comics like no other type of media. It seems that the majority of people that I know who read comics, or who we hear from through iFanboy, have stopped reading them at one point or another. This is something that you just don’t come across with films or television or music; not in these kinds of numbers. You don’t often hear anyone say “You know, I’m just going to stop watching movies for a while; it’s all too much.” Television is the medium most like comic books in its unrelenting serialized nature. But television programs cannot last forever the way comic books can, even they are subject to the limitations of human frailty (and low ratings).

Could it be that after a long year of company wide crossovers and over-hyped stories characterized by a lot of aggressive marketing, people are so deeply craving the kind of change in their stories that they get in their lives and they have finally realized that that kind of change, that kind of growth, is never going to come?

We are an impermanent people emotionally invested in permanent characters.

Or maybe we’re just people who are sick of events.



  1. Great piece of writing, I really like this perspective. I had never really thought of dropping in and out of comics in these terms, but it makes some sense — leaving them behind because we’ve "grown up", then coming back for the familiarity but at the same time craving the growth. 


  2. Profoundly deep.  I don’t really know what the answer is, but I think that people are feeling down because of the economy and the time of the year it is.  It’s a stressful time filled with family and gift giving. 

    I think, too, that with people having to cut back, many readers just want something more from their comics because to spend a piece of that precious dollar on something that doesn’t move you, entertain you, or make you happy is a real disappointment.

  3. *tears up


    damn you sir, i shouldn’t be this emotional this early, it’s not even 9 a.m.

  4. Great piece, man.  Well done. 

  5. This is a great post–I’ll have to give it deeper thought before I can figure out if I agree with it as an explanation, but it’s an eloquent and persuasive theory.

  6. Boy this is going to make my piece tomorrow seem silly.  I guess I’ll rethink "The Top Ten Best Cleavages in the DCU".  Damn!

  7. Bravo.  one of your best.  pass the effing tissue plz.

  8. Fantastic article, very thought provoking 🙂

  9. Nice piece. I think the magic of all story telling is the journey we get to take to reach the end. Delaying the end of the story gives us more but ultimately without the end we are never going to be satisfied. Maybe things like Kingdom Come and Dark Knight Returns are so enjoyable because they give us a look at what that long out off resolution will be.

  10. profound sir.  well done! 

    And how come you are the only one that has to read every post, email, etc.?  Get Ron and Josh to help a brutha out!

  11. My favorite article I have ever read on this website. And that’s saying quite a lot!

  12. "I’ll give you a winter prediction: It’s going to be cold. It’s going to be gray, and it’s going to last you for the rest of your life."  -Phil Conners, Groundhog Day

  13. The Christmas season has a higher suicide rate than any other time of the year. Sad times, indeed.

  14. Wow. Just a beautifully written piece. Bravo, CK. 🙂

  15. Existentialism on iFanboy? Who’s been reading Dante’s Inferno?

  16. So True great article.  The only thing I can think of that has charactors die & come back so often is Days of Our Lives.. How many times has Stephano Died?  Not that i watch it.. I’m totally manly *Grabs a beer and chugs it*

  17. "Or maybe we’re just people who are sick of events."


  18. This was a great article.  i thought I was the only one getting cranky, I guess I’m not alone.

  19. @Conor,

    This may be the best thing I have seen you write. It’s brilliant.

    I wonder if the James Bond film series (and to a lesser extent, Sherlock Holmes and other serialized detectives) is even more like comics than TV, as the character remains relatively constant as his environment (and even actor – analagous to an art team) changes to meet the times. And I agree that we are drawn to these things for the combination of familiarity and excitement at change.

  20. A great piece indeed, Conor. I not event-sick yet (just Bendis-sick), but I’m sure the day will come.


    Those of use who are angry are not due to the fact that they stay and we move on. But the fact that they can’t move on with us and we begin to pitty them for it. As you say conor we as readers have an investment in these "heroes" over time. With all things time moves us on and we find ourselves supassing our once great "heroes" and find that they are not great anymore to us….that is where the angry comes from i know i was the guy who sent the email the other day about being angry at the heroes never getting old. 

  22. Wonderful article conor, possibly the best I’ve seen on this site. (Out of the way Jimski!)

    I’m usually fine with characters staying at the same place, or same age. I mean how great would it be if comics were more realistic? Comics are becoming a bit more realistic to a certain extent, but still have this ‘cartoony’ quality to them that makes them timeless. If Batman actually aged in normal time, he would’ve been dead by the 1940’s. Morrison had the right idea by basically saying ‘The 70+ years of Batman is actually 15 years, so all the stuff we’ve seen is so condensed no wonder Bruce is going crazy’.

    It might be many years that Spider-Man or Superman has been around….But in general, I think in comics, only 20 years have passed….Which still makes an age discreptancy but it still works.

  23. Very well done, sir.

    I was thinking something along these very same lines the other day – how many comic creations have outlived their creators? How many of these characters are going to outlive us all? The permanence of these characters can be almost completely tied to the serial nature of their stories.

  24. Yes I am tired of events. I am also tired of the predictability of the stories as well. I know Steve Rogers will be back one day. I felt no loss at his assassination. I know Bruce Wayne will be back as well. RIP was interesting, but at the end of the day, we all know it counts for almost nothing. This is why no one wants to see Jean Grey come back. One other thing that is a bit disheartening is that instead of coming up with new ideas, creators are busy putting new twists on old ideas. Why change Loki’s sex or bother with Lady Bullseye? Reboots and retcons are cop outs. Sure I’ve read my share and there are some I like better than others, but I would much prefer new heroes, villains, supporting characters, strange new worlds. Give me the unfamiliar or comics could become as mundane as real life. When that happens what’s the point of reading them in the first place?

     I love comics and generally prefer to stay positive. Secret Invasion may have sapped my patience though. I wonder what comics would be like if the creators and publishers put as much heart and hard work into their regular ongoing series as they do these company wide events? Would we even need these big events then? House of M, Civil War, Secret Invasion could have all taken place within regular monthly titles and it would have been awesome.

    The last time I felt this way I drifted into the indie comic scene. It was like a tornado shelter in the nineties. 


  25. There are a couple of exceptions, like Barry Allen or Mar-vell. They were dead a good long time.

    I really don’t think comics will still be around in 200 years. Will there really still be a 30 year old Superman, Batman and Spider-Man in 200 years? How will they explain that away?

  26. you really have addressed a lot of my thoughts about comics lately. or collecting them anyway. so true, there is an aspect of comic collecting that is about never letting go. literally and figuratively.

    aftera an long drawn out subplot, this secret invasion storyline finally gets it chance to shine and it’s all just a prologue to the next event they’re supposedly really excited about? really bummed me out.


    final crisis might finish well. and apparently frank quitely is joining morrison on batman, so RIP may not be a total rip. i’m buying the RIP hardcover grudgingly because i’m hoping it’ll be a story i’ll come back to, despite my apathy towards tony daniel’s batman. 


    and i’ll buy the dark reign avengers titles monthly. because i want to see what will happen. but i feel jaded and burned. if i had any issues financially, i’d cut down big time. 


    anyway, great article. makes me think. 

  27. Yup, Batman was around before I was born and hell still be here after I am dead with worms climbing around my skull.  Who cares? Maybe by the time I am reincarnated and old enough to read again, they’ll be back to writing good stories about him again?!  That almost seems worth dying for.

  28. Wonderful piece, Conor. I’ll admit I never quite looked at it that way. 

    For me, I never understood why people whine about how comics never change.  This is the way the medium works and you just have to go along with it.  Why is it we can suspend our disbelief about men flying through the air but we get annoyed because characters don’t age at a realistic rate?  I, for one, am glad to know that Captain America will be back one day and I’m interested in finding out how and when that will happen.  Characters SHOULD go on living forever – I think its great that generations of people can share their love of these characters.

    Now event burnout, thats a different story…

  29. i’ll tell you going to do my head in…

     when i eventually get older than the characters i have been reading since childhood. I’m 26, spider-man’s, like, 27? Bruce wayne and Superman are about 30. the clock’s ticking


  30. Conor, one of you best pieces of writing yet.  Absolutely beautiful prose.

    My discontent is limited to DC’s Final Crisis.  It’s just a be mess.  On the other hand, I quite enjoyed Secret Invasion and am looking forward to its aftermath.

  31. Best piece i’ve read in a long time.profound with out being over the top.

    Ideas and archetypes can never die. just like bruce wayne said in batman begins.

    Sick of events unless written by geoff johns

  32. Wow Conor. I haven’t been reading a lot of articles about comics, so I don’t have a lot of reference, but this article is one of the most intelligent on the state of comics I’ve ever read. I personally have lamented the increasing criticism lobbed at comics and their creators over the last few years by comic fans. It always felt to me as if people just needed something to lash out at and comics seemed to be the safest thing. But, the idea that we can’t stand our own impermanence and secretly envy these characters because of theirs is a direction I’ve never even thought of before. It makes sense in, not just this season, but in this time of "permanent" war, when everyone, young and old, is thinking of the ramifications of death and how precious life can really be. We, as comic fans have a unique outlet for our thoughts and reactions to the things around us. Sometimes that outlet can turn a mirror to our own lives that we might not be ready for. Maybe, unconsciously, that’s what a lot of the critics are reacting to.

    I am reminded of the episode of The Office when Toby, the HR rep, counsels the workers and lets them vent before going back to work. I think all of this is just bluster. People just manifesting their frustration over little things because that’s easier than dealing with bigger issues. Unfortunately, this stuff has to be aired out in public forums like here on this site, but, eventually all of that will subside. At least I hope so. I hope that people can eventually just enjoy the comics for what they are: serial fiction meant, first and foremost, to entertain. Just like your loved ones, enjoy what you have while you have it. You never know what might happen.

  33. It’s definitely true that, at this time of year people are more edgy, and this economic climate is ratcheting that up 10x.  I think we’re partly expecting more from these comics now than we ever have, since they’re costing more than ever.  I know this is the case with me.

    One of the best  things for this condition, for me, is to read something new that really touches you.  Of course, that can be hard to find.  In that case, if you feel like you’ve been feeling down on comics lately (as we all do from time to time), find something that you really loved the last time you read it, and read it again. It works like magic.

    Either way, well played Kilpatrick.  The kid has a way with the written word doesn’t he?

  34. Awesome article, Conor! 

    I have to wonder if this growing frustration is why superhero comics aren’t growing, yet the Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Dark Knights of the cinema world keep breaking each other’s box office records. The film incarnations of these characters age and grow. And when a film franchise gets rebooted, ala Batman Begins, it won’t be retconned away a year later.

    Unless you’re the Punisher. 

    And maybe Superman. 


  35. @Josh – Spooky words, sir! This evening, whilst plagued by flu, I re-read Sinestro Corps War and Suburban Glamour. Not only did it cheer me up, I actually found myself as engrossed and thrilled as the first time. I was gonna post words eerily similar to yours, but you beat me to the punch. (by the way I’m not saying those specific books will do the trick for everyone, just for me) 🙂

  36. Wow. Very good with the words Mr. Conor. You just made me realize that there will come a day when I will be reading my comic books and seeing characters who are much younger than me. Wow.

  37. For someone who reads every post at IFanboy you handle it pretty well, conor. 

  38. Nice article. It reminds me of something I heard Grant Morrison say in an interview a year or so ago, something along the lines of "Superman and Batman were here before we were born and they’ll be here after we die, so in a since they’re REALER than we are, or they hold more reality than we do."

    Am I jealous of these fictional characters for their immortality, though? Nah. Just think of how much pain people like Wolverine and Daredevil have gone through. And think about how much damn WORK superheroes have to do. 

    The comparison you made about comics vs. other media is also interesting, and I think it’s true that people don’t consciously "take a break" from music or movies the same way they do comics. But we also need to remember that the playing field isn’t even: you can "take a break" from comics without seeing advertisements about them afterwards, but that isn’t the case with music, movies or even books. You turn on the radio–looking for news, not music–and you’re still going to hear some music. The talkshow host is going to come back from break playing 15 seconds of the latest hit song that you didn’t (want to) know about. You can’t watch ANY tv or read ANY newspaper without seeing advertisements for movies and tv dramas/comedies, or reviews of them. And most of us generally have friend-groups that consist for the most part of non-comic-readers. So take a break from comics and you’ll feel almost zero pressure to return. But try taking a break from the more popular entertainment venue…you won’t be able to get away from them.

  39. Good article, keep up the good work.

  40. I don’t have a theme tune and Superman has…

  41. You can’t go home again.

  42. Well said.  I think that envy is part of the equation, but so, too, is ageism.  Older people are marginalized in our society, hidden from view because they remind the rest of us that we, too, will grow old and get wrinkles and pass our sexual peak and die.  The last thing we need is our escapist entertainment serving the same purpose as the grandparent we stuck in a nursing home and forgot about.  Not counting "The Golden Girls," how many women over the age of 55 are on TV?  How many female super-heroes have aged even the way that Jay Garrick and Alan Scott have?  (Phantom Lady, who spent a dozen panels in a grandmother role in Manhunter.  Any others?) 

    Beyond a knee-jerk reaction to ageism, my problem is that keeping protagonists a certain age in serial fiction reduces the degree to which they can grow as characters, and limits the number of stories that can be told.  As a culture, some of our most interesting stories dealing with growing older in some way. (Beowulf, for example, only gets really interesting when he is an old man, fighting the dragons of his mortality.  In that moment, the poem goes from ancient super-hero story to epic literature.  Ditto for Odysseus, Don Quixote and Murphy Brown.)  

    The fact that super-hero books’ primary markets consist of teenaged boys or older man trying to recapture the feeling of being a teenaged boy means that aging characters would not serve their purpose: celebrating or recreating late adolescence.  This is why Spider-Man and Marry Jane couldn’t last, and is the root of the complaints about Superman and Lois Lane: those are adult problems.  The problems of being married and building a life are not as attractive to the comic book audience as the problem of bad people who need to be hit very hard.  

    Is an eighty-year-old Batman who has failed to form positive attachments, abandoned by his protiges and suiting up because he can’t face the world otherwise, interesting?  Absolutely.  "The Dark Knight" was awesome.  People might think that they want to see characters age and mature, but do we really want to see that on a regular basis?  Hell, no.  Give us a young Bruce Wayne, one who can kick ass, take names and schtupp Catwoman for us.  That’s entertainment.

  43. So you’re saying Aunt May wasn’t getting any for the past 40 years?

  44. Honestly I think people get more frustrated with the lack of change when the major companies over promise and over sell change. How many times have they said that "nothing will ever be the same again" when anyone who has read comics very long knows that they most definitely WILL be the same again. This just invalidates the drama of the change and makes readers cynical.

    I would be happier if things NEVER changed, I was NEVER promised change and writers simply concentrated on telling good stories without worrying about whether they promised change to the status quo.