It’s been said by many creators that the aging of teenage characters into adults is inevitable. Time only moves in one direction -- well, usually in comics -- and these kids are eventually going to grow up. Now, that is true. It’s hard to argue with that logic. But it’s not the whole truth of the matter. It ignores what is probably the most important detail. The creators control the rate at which it all happens. Inevitable and eventually don’t matter much when you have the power of postponing it all. All that really matters is whether aging is a good move for the character or not.
Mainstream comic universes operate on a sliding timescale. The entirety of the modern age history is condensed into a 10 to 15 year time period, or 5 year in the case of the post-New 52 DC Universe, that is in a constant state of shifting around to sort itself out in some reasonable manner. This isn’t something that holds up to any real scrutiny, but it’s a generally accepted anyway. It’s a necessary evil of the medium. I know there’s a minority out there who disagree, but come on, most of you don’t want their favorite heroes to grow old and retire. So what I’m getting at here is that writers essentially control time in these books. Yes, a character will eventually age and die, but if you control the rate at which they age, that’s never really going to happen.
With that in consideration, it’s not really true when writers say that young characters have to eventually grow up. Why do the Robins have to age when Batman arguably doesn’t? Why do any sidekicks age when their mentors don’t? I mean, there is a reason for it. But that reason isn’t that they have to. It’s that keeping the young where they are is more difficult. Adults are just... adults. Mid-twenties, around thirty, pushing forty. It’s all ambiguous. There’s rarely a need to give an exact age, especially not on a regular basis. That’s far from the case for teenagers. The exact age matters. The life of a 15 year old is not the same as a 17 year old. There are milestones and identifiers that make it all more difficult to navigate and hold back on. It’s difficult but not even remotely impossible.
When young characters age, it’s usually not because time caught up with them. It’s because writers let it happen or even pushed it to. There’s an understandable temptation to get characters to these milestones and tell those stories. The birthday stories. The driver’s license. Thinking about college. Graduation. So the 15 year old becomes 16, then 17 and finally takes their first steps into adulthood. This is something writers don’t seem to give enough consideration. They sacrifice the journey in favor of getting to the destination, which honestly misses the point of many young characters.
Yeah, I’m saying growing up young characters is a bad thing. That’s because it typically is. Be honest. What really became of the Teen Titans when DC took away the “teen” part or the New Warriors when they weren’t so new? What would become of the Young Avengers if they stopped being young? There’s just not room for many of these characters as adults. Realistically, you can only comfortably fit three generations into continuity. The young, the adults, the old. With some skill, four is possible by splitting the young into the high school kids and the college aged ones. But you can’t go farther than that without cluttering up the universe. That leaves most young characters with no place to go, because their older counterparts aren’t going anywhere.
Youth is just a defining characteristic of most young characters, though that’s not true for all. Spider-Man was able to grow up well enough, because being a teenager was never that important to his character. He’s defined by his struggle to maintain a grounded, normal life while seeing to his secret responsibilities as a superhero. That’s something that works through his high school, college and adult lives. Nova also aged well, because he had room to grow into Marvel’s top cosmic hero. But what the hell are you supposed to do with grown up versions of sidekicks or young legacy heroes? They obviously aren’t going to replace their mentors, so most inevitably become lite and redundant versions instead. They remain spinoff characters but become less unique without their youth helping to define them.
Before DC’s New 52 relaunch, this was becoming the fate of Tim Drake. I’m not saying his Red Robin series was bad. It wasn’t. But who was Red Robin exactly? Who was Tim when he was no longer Batman’s young sidekick? He was Batman-lite. Or he was Nightwing-lite, which is even worse because it makes him Batman-lite-lite. With two adult Robins already out there, Tim really has no role to grow into. Now, he’s still Red Robin and still faces problems in that role. But it’s no longer because he’s been unnecessarily grown up. It’s more because Damian Wayne has pushed him out of his role for the time being.
Not every young character’s story is a coming of age one. For many, their stories are simply about being young in a universe full of adult heroes and villains. Theirs are more about being in the adults’ shadows, living up to their mentors’ reputations or just trying to find their own way. These stories are the sort that end when you allow the characters to age. And then what?
An example from Marvel’s side of things is the case of Noh-Varr, formerly Marvel Boy and currently Protector. Brian Michael Bendis argument for this change was that it was time for the character to grow up. Was it? Marvel Boy, the young and angry alien trapped on Earth, starred in a limited series and then had a handful of other appearances. Was that really all the mileage his character had in that form? The character as he is now, the Protector, is an alien stuck on Earth. It’s the same concept excluding the arrogance of youth, making it basically a lesser version of the concept. We have gone from Marvel Boy the alien punk to Protector the alien, and we have done so under the pretense that he needed to grow up.
The current generation of teen characters is something both DC and Marvel need to take more seriously than they have with past generations. It’s probably the last one either can squeeze out of their respective universes. Even with DC’s relaunch, they failed to buy themselves much space due to their insistence to keep things like almost Batman’s entire history intact and the same generation of Teen Titans. It isn’t like DC pulled off a reboot to the extent and quality that the Young Justice cartoon did and left themselves with much room to grow. DC and Marvel need to make the most of the young characters they currently have, and that means writers need handle the characters responsibly.
Teen characters don’t need to become adults anytime soon. Writers don’t need to tell the stories that irreversibly age them. It’s really as simple as that. Readers at large will accept it. We already accept that Peter Parker isn’t nearing retirement age. We can accept that these kids are still in high school indefinitely.