The layout of the comic book has evolved from a condensed page allowing a single issue to contain a wealth of story to the more spread apart layouts of today, something that has followed the changes within those pages, but a: the characters.
That’s not to say there has been no change; that there has been no character evolution – there has been, but it seems like there has been more character evolution in the past thirty years than in the first forty five years of the medium, in part due to the rise of the comic shop over the newsstand allowing publishers to release a story in multiple parts across multiple issues whilst simultaneously allowing fans to pick up an issue they may have missed from the month or two before.
The X-Men, for example, had the same roster for 74 issues before an international cast was assembled for Giant Size X-Men #1. These days the X-Men’s roster has undergone a significant revision from the original group, so much so that the X-Men of today would be largely unrecognizable to a fan from the early 70’s. With all the stories that have been told over the years, with all the changes comic book characters have endured during the past decades, one aspect of them has changed very little: their age.
Peter Parker first became Spider-Man when he was a teenager. In Marvel’s Civil War he revealed he had been Spider-Man for ten years. This is a fairly common time frame – Before the New 52 reboot, Batman had only been active for about ten years.
When it comes to the big publishers main draws, the bread and butter of the Superhero comics, change is far less frequent – and much less permanent – than the independent comics, or the smaller name publishers. Why? Comics such as The Walking Dead have a very dedicated audience that for the most part commit to reading the full series – if they didn’t pick up the comics from the beginning then there are numerous options available to prospective readers; trade paperback collections of around five issues, or the giant 20 issue collections.
With all the stories told with comic book characters, not a whole lot ever changes permanently.
Even death doesn’t mean much in comics. After a period of some years not reading X-Men comics, I came back to find that Professor Xavier wasn’t dead anymore (but that would change again soon). Wolverine is, as of this writing, still dead, but it isn’t a matter of if he will return, but when. Superhero comics are notorious for character deaths being synonymous with the dead character simply being away for anything from a few months to several years, which is also know as The Comic Book Death. Other changes can be more long lasting, the destruction of the X-Mansion (although Wolverine did rebuild iit eventually) was a contributing factor to the X-Men moving from New York to San Francisco. The first Robin, Dick Grayson out grew the role to become Nightwing. He has since been replaced by Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown and Damian Wayne for various reasons. Change happens, characters move on, but the status quo rarely remains altered.
Dick Grayson may have become Nightwing, Jason Todd died (and came back), but Batman will always have a Robin. The X-Men will eventually return to Westchester County, and Wolverine won’t be dead forever.
For many of us comics are familiar. We can stop reading X-Men for years and then pick it up while still retaining some familiarity with the merry mutants. This isn’t a bad thing; indeed when it come to the tent pole franchises it’s probably a (relatively small) key to their success; the ability to essentially say “oh, those hundred issues you missed? There was some cool stories, but not a lot changed.” I read comics because they’re fun – there are stories that can,and have, deeply moved me, even when I know that nothing may change at the end of the day, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of the message being delivered in stories where the status quo is shifted, albeit as temporary as that may be.
Most comics characters haven’t had much lasting change over the past forty years (I freely admit there has been some, but seldom is it drastic enough that the character is fundamentally changed), but that isn’t really such a bad thing. Is it?