Given You A Number, by John Ostrander
It’s a good thing for this column that I listen to NPR. I don’t know if I’d have the number of column topics that I’ve had without it. This time I was listening to a debate between a former college/university president and the head of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The topic was whether the drinking age should be lowered to 18. I like to think I would have been more Pro on the topic back when I was 18 myself, but the fact was in those days I was so square I was cubed.
Both sides had pretty fair arguments, but the one that struck home most for me was this: a young man or woman can sign up for the Armed Forces, be taught to kill, be put in situations where they can be killed, and are expected to exercise quick and accurate decisions between friend and foe, even when the foe dresses like everyone else. Yet, those same young people cannot be expected to responsibly decide how much to drink. They can die for their country but they can’t have a beer because they’re too young.
Is it just me or does anyone else think this is pretty screwed up thinking?
Both eighteen and twenty-one are “magic numbers.” Are we really “adult” by either one of those birthdays? Some folks are, some aren’t. Some never are. If you’re one of those whose criterion for voting for a particular candidate is whether or not you would want to have a beer with them, then you’re not old enough to vote. I don’t care how many birthdays you’ve had; you’re not old enough.
My childhood was filled with those kind of arbitrary dates. I was raised Roman Catholic and by the age of seven you were deemed to have reached “the age of reason” and were old enough to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. In other words, the Age of Reason meant I was old enough to believe that a communion wafer was the body and blood of Jesus Christ. My reason asked me if that made me a cannibal. If I’d had more reason, I would have know better than to ask the nun that question and not gotten whacked on the head with a ruler.
At age thirteen, I received the sacrament of Confirmation that meant I was now an adult. Yes, we ripped off the Bar/Bat Mitzvah from the Jews and gave it another name. Since I was thirteen and I was now an adult in the eyes of the Church, I tried to explain that to my mother that I could stay up as late as I wanted. That also got me a sharp rap on the head. So maybe that magic number wasn’t all that magic, either.
Then again, do our parents ever really concede that we’ve grown up?
There are other and more insidious magic numbers. Ask a woman how the world perceives her after she turns thirty. It has nothing to do, of course, with how smart, attractive, and vital she actually is. The world decides that whatever she is, she is less so than the day before she turned thirty.
I hit the same wall as a writer in comics at age fifty. The assignments started drying up. I’m not the only one. Here’s what long time Iron Man and Spider-man writer David Michelinie said in a recent interview: “I’d like nothing better than to write a monthly series again. Unfortunately, Tony Stark isn’t the only one who’s encountered problems due to aging. Since I rounded the big five-oh (years, not police departments), I’ve rarely had a chance to write limited projects, let alone a regular series. I’m grateful for the work I do get, but would relish a chance to show that I can still do what I did for almost 100 issues of Amazing Spider-Man and over 80 issues of Iron Man.”
He’s not the only one. The only writer currently doing a quantity of work for the Big Two who is over the age of 50 is Peter David. Every one else is under that age although some are fast approaching it. It’s something I really don’t understand. Writing is one of those professions where, in theory, the longer you work, the better you get at it. Yet, that theory doesn’t seem to hold for comics.
I thought for a while that maybe it was the author’s page rate – the amount you get paid per page – that tends to be higher for older, more experienced writers. I know of those who have offered to cut their rates to get some steady work; it didn’t change anything.
Does it make a difference? I think so. Pair an experienced writer with a new artist and chances are the new artist will learn more about storytelling. The reader would get a good story well told.
For myself, I could understand if my abilities had faltered and shown signs of deterioration but I don’t think they have. My Suicide Squad mini is, I think, as good as any work I’ve ever done on that title. My work on GrimJack since he has returned is right up there with my best. We’ve has ninja mimes in one story and battle cherubs in the most recent. Battle cherubs! C’mon! And Star Wars Legacy? That’s not just good Star Wars, that’s not just good space opera, that’s good comics, period.
My point is that we assign meanings to certain numbers, certain dates, and treat them as milestones in our lives. They’re all chosen arbitrarily and, in fact, are usually lies. If you’re not old enough to pick up a gun for your country or come home in a coffin because of it, you should be old enough to have a beer. You’re not less of a person because you’ve turn thirty any more than you’ve reached the age of reason because you’ve turned seven.
Or forgotten how to write comics because you’ve turned fifty.
John Ostrander was reading comics when DC and Marvel each turned 50. They should return the compliment. – ye ed.