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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 08/28/2008

The Riff: When Comics Literally Show Their Age...

By Michael Cavna

As a cartoonist, when you create a gag-a-day comic panel that has no continuing characters, you occasionally gaze at the strips that do have characters and think: How much easier would THAT be? Even when such a feature is not at its funniest, it's got those well-developed characters and storylines to lean on.

Character investment, in other words, keeps readers coming back like catnip. And having your well-developed characters actually age, then, is like cartoon crack. Readers are hooked, even when they know not why.

Relatively few creators in the century-plus history of American comics have tried this trick, letting readers follow characters' lives in "real time." Which makes the ending of Lynn Johnston's propulsive narrative all the more prominent. By returning to the starting line, "For Better or For Worse" discards one of its most addictive properties.

Fans might find the strip's "new-runs" equally alluring, but will it feed that deeper fix?

Time waits for no man, even if his name be Patterson. (UPS) Enlarge Comic

In terms of real-time aging, "FBoFW" has some notable ancestors, of course, and we're most drawn to two. Frank King's "Gasoline Alley" is often cited as the pioneer of letting time take its toll. And Garry Trudeau has aged his college-born characters -- even taking a sabbatical in the '80s so he could fully grow them up -- but the sands of "Doonesbury's" hourglass shift conveniently to fit the creator's needs. And while Zonker might be the man-child, it is Uncle Duke who most springs eternal; he even gets to thrive (despite a near-death experience) years after the man who inspired him, gonzo journo Hunter Thompson, has hit the ultimate Last Call.

Duke apparently can save time in a bottle, as long as it's bourbon. (UPS) Enlarge Comic

Somewhere out there is the next creator who will experiment with Actual Character Aging, perhaps even getting some serious mileage and sizzle from it. It will tempt readers, maybe even keep them entranced for years.

But that's the dicey thing with cartoon aging. Eventually, the cracks begin to appear.

By Michael Cavna  | August 28, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Riffs  
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I'm sorry, but that first paragraph made no sense as written. I know what you're _trying_ to say, but I don't think that's it.

Posted by: Ollabelle | August 28, 2008 11:14 AM | Report abuse

I think the first parg was fine. Having characters is like telling ethnic jokes. You don't need a setup; it's already common knowledge. (Not saying ethnic jokes are true; just saying if you pick and tell a joke, that's easier than saying "these two really dumb guys are walking down the street and...".)

Baby Blues also aged the characters, to enlarge the family and then it just... stops.

Peanuts entered some sort of weird time warp to change Sally and (the barely there) Rerun from new babies (six? seven? years behind the older sib) to useful characters (two? years behind).

And didn't the Blondie kids start out young, although the parents didn't seem to age much. Maybe my memory is skewed by the Blondie movies (anyone remember them?).

Posted by: f2 | August 28, 2008 11:28 AM | Report abuse

On another housekeeping note, a week or two ago the afternoon stopped having a "next" link to the next morning. Mornings always point to yesterday & the afternoon, but the afternoon only points backwards.

Hey, I like this blog. It's one of only two I read regularly. I want to know when the next entry is out.

Posted by: f2 | August 28, 2008 11:30 AM | Report abuse

Either it got edited, or my eyes are bad; it does make sense now.

Posted by: Ollabelle | August 28, 2008 12:02 PM | Report abuse

In "On the Fastrack" it seems as if the characters age - although very slowly. It certainly does help propel the narrative, although it can also undercut the comic. Imagine what would happen if Jeremy in Zits were to ever graduate.

Posted by: RD Padouk | August 28, 2008 12:07 PM | Report abuse

On the "Pearls Before Swine" 2008 desk calendar, they show a series of "Family Circus" cartoons in which the family had aged in real time.

The kids are in their 40's and 50's, still living at home and calling the mother "Mommy". One strip had Jeffy (with a tattoo, beard, cigarette) telling Dolly (limp pony-tail hair, glasses, wrinkles) "Don't tell Mommy I shot my parole officer!"

It was a riot!

Posted by: Dan | August 28, 2008 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Didn't Hillary Forth and her pal Faye seem to get **younger** a while back (maybe late last year)?

Prince Valiant's kids have grown up too, albeith slowly. And I'm not so sure about the aging of the Doonesbury characters - B.D. was a lieutenant in Vietnam, and he still was one in Iraq. Talk about a stalled career!

Posted by: Seismic-2 | August 28, 2008 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Funky Winkerbean's characters have also aged. There have been marriages, divorces and death as the characters moved from high school to post-college to middle age.

Posted by: David | August 28, 2008 2:51 PM | Report abuse

The Baby Blues kids have been growing as well

Posted by: Cheryl | September 1, 2008 9:42 PM | Report abuse

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