As much as we’d like to turn back time, aging is a part of the natural order. It’s inevitable—for those made of flesh and blood, that is.
Fictional characters have it much easier than us in this department—specifically in the mediums of cartoons and comic books, where some of the most beloved and iconic animated characters never turn a day over…well, whatever day they were when they were first created, no matter how many years they’ve been around.
Think about it: Bart, Maggie, and Lisa Simpson are all still the same age as they were when The Simpsons premiered back in 1989. The South Park kids have been in elementary school since 1997, and the Griffin family hasn’t aged a day since Family Guy started up in 1999.
It’s not just TV: Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are eternally in their mid-30s despite the fact they were all created before or during World War II. Mickey and Minnie Mouse are as spry as ever despite being introduced just before the Great Depression.
So, how do we make sense of the fact that our animated heroes never age a day while we’re resigned to the laws of time and biology? How do they get off so easy?
It’s a good question, and one that fans have playfully tried to figure out over the years. Longtime viewers of the The Simpsons have come up with a host of humorous and bizarre theories to explain their agelessness, which encompass everything from the whole series being a dream (experienced by Homer in a coma) to the notion that the characters only age while you see them on screen (22 minutes once a week, minus commercials—and reruns).
So let’s look into some reasons many of our favorite cartoon characters remain eternally young (while examining a few examples of animated characters who have been allowed to mature).
The Floating Timeline
Before we delve into why cartoon characters never age, we need to discuss the primary creative method that artists and writers use to keep these intellectual properties ageless, even while their environment evolves like our own.
It’s called the “floating timeline” (also know as a “sliding” or “fluid” timeline), and it’s a concept employed by both animated series and comic books. How does it work?
The Uncanny Book-Club explains the floating timeline by discussing the history of Batman. That legendary DC Comics character came onto the scene in 1939 at around 35 years old, which would make him around 114 years old today. But, with a few exceptions, he’s stayed eternally 35.
Yes, the world around him changes, reflecting what’s contemporary at the time, but thanks to the floating timeline, he stays essentially the same. This helps writers craft compelling, evolving stories without having to dwell on his age. It makes him eternally relevant, not saddled to one particular era.
This also applies to animated shows: During The Simpsons‘ decades-long run, even the year Homer and Marge were married has changed, and in South Park, the boys have only managed to move up one grade in 20-or-so years. All the while, the characters have tackled the topical issues of the day. The floating timeline makes them uniquely qualified to be both timeless and contemporary.
Fiction writer Rex Stout, creator of detective Nero Wolfe, told his biographer in 1977 that maintaining a floating timeline was essential for his character: “Those stories have ignored time for thirty-nine years. Any reader who can’t or won’t do the same should skip them. I didn’t age the characters because I didn’t want to. That would have made it cumbersome and would seem to have centered attention on the characters rather than the stories.”
Professor of Media Studies at DePauw University Kevin Howley says that the floating timeline helps viewers make better sense of societal changes: “They’ve become trusted figures to gauge what’s new in the world—like how does Dagwood respond to social media? Because we know his characteristics, we know who he is, his family life, his behaviors. So how does he make sense of the changing dynamic, so I think that’s part of the appeal as well.”
Because of this, Howley says, “These figures often become touchstones for people. They become a mechanism to make sense of what’s new.”
Easier to Draw
According to animator and cartoonist Thomas Bone, who has worked for the likes of Disney, Nickelodeon, Warner Bros., DreamWorks, and Cartoon Network, the primary reason characters don’t age is all about the bottom line.
Bone says that while animators work in teams, the goal is to make it seem like the character has been designed by one person. To help with this, animation teams are given a template for the character.
“I think as long as the characters don’t change,” he says, “it’ll become a benefit to the animators who are working on it.”
This is why you rarely see cartoon characters change outfits. It’s all about streamlining the process.
Howley adds that a consistent character design became helpful when cartoons first moved from newspaper illustrations to film: “There was a lot of labor going into that, so from a creative side, it makes sense that you want to construct a character that’s memorable and likable—so you really want to give them a particular look that’s going to stay consistent. …You want to have readily identifiable and easily replicable characters that have resonance across generations. From a marketing perspective and [with a] move towards franchises, it makes even more sense.”
Why mess up a winning formula?
Fewer things draw more pop culture controversy than seeing beloved characters go through big changes. As a general rule, people are averse to change, and that plays into how we like our cartoon characters to look, as well.
There’s something reassuring in having our favorite animated character stay the same, even as our own lives change dramatically. And characters that remain youthful are alluring to young viewers as well, helping to build the next generation of fans.
Bone says once a studio finds a winning formula, there’s little incentive to change it: “One of the principles of animation is the appeal of characters. And it goes through a big approval process before it’s actually launched to the public. Take Mickey Mouse for instance—he came on the scene way back with Steamboat Willie [in 1928. And he has been modified throughout the years, but he’s pretty much stayed the same.”
Bone says Disney’s business strategy is surprisingly simple: “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. If everybody has grown accustomed to the way these characters look, and if it’s generating a certain amount of money, they’re not gonna mess with it. You’re taking a big risk if you’re moving the character along in years, because if you don’t have a story that centers around the demographic that you’re looking for, that might not sit too well with the audience that you’re trying to go with.”
Animated Exceptions to the Rule
We’ve discussed why so many cartoon characters have discovered the fountain of youth. But, you may be asking, aren’t there any examples of animated characters who’ve grown up along with their audiences? While it’s a rare occurrence, there are a few notable examples, particularly in the realm of anime (or anime influenced series).
Dragon Ball Z, Young Justice, and Avatar: The Last Airbender all feature characters who mature from young children into teenagers (and even into adults), although these changes technically happen over multiple series in the show’s universe.
That’s not to say that no traditional animated series has showcased aging animated characters, however: The Flintstones saw babies Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm grow into young adults (who even got their own spinoff show), while Adult Swim’s popular series The Venture Brothers showed the title characters navigate awkwardly from adolescence into young adulthood (literally—after crashing a pair of hover-bikes, they get cloned and aged rapidly to their appropriate ages).
And one modern (and mature-themed) cartoon, BoJack Horseman, actually uses aging as part of its premise, showcasing a has-been celebrity who was once a ’90s superstar trying to get his career back on track.
And it’s also worth noting that while The Simpsons remain in arrested development, there have been the occasional episode showing an older Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. Episodes like “Days of Future Future,” “Future-Drama,” and “Holidays of Future Passed” show them all grown up but still deeply dysfunctional.
These are the exceptions to the rule—alternate reality episodes that show us what might happen when they grow up. Beyond that, they’ll be in Springfield Elementary for eternity.
In comics, aging is more selective. While we’ve already discussed why Batman never seems to age, he’s trained several sidekicks to take up the mantle of Robin, some of which have grown to adulthood.
The aging sidekick is a trope for the medium. They’re allowed to mature and often take up the mantle of their mentor for periods of time, only to have the original icon return to claim their spot. This has led to criticisms that comic book creators let their heroes become stagnant. Regardless, don’t expect Batman to hang up his cowl anytime in the near future.
The Animated Fountain of Youth
While the idea of watching your favorite cartoon character mature along with you might be a fascinating concept in theory, perhaps it’s best that they’re spared the ravishes of age. Especially if you have a job in the animation industry.
To help illustrate this (pun intended), Bone gives a jarring example of the implications of seeing popular cartoon characters age over time: “If the character looks older, it might look a little strange—for example imagine a young child trying to follow SpongeBob SquarePants when he’s 90 years old—it’s not relatable at that point.”
In other words, maybe we need our animated heroes to stay young so that they keep us young at heart, as well, while enchanting a new generation along the way.
Change can be scary, stressful, and overwhelming. We have enough of that in real life. But if we switch on our favorite cartoon or flip through our favorite comic, we can always reconnect with the kid inside us all, recharging our batteries for the next major life transition headed our way.