Today, Sunday, August 1, 2021, is my 49th birthday.
A big thing that strikes me about being that old is that, at 49, I’m now officially older than most of my childhood heroes. That can’t help but be a little depressing. But am I handling it any better than they are?
Take Sherlock Holmes. Although he’s portrayed as a middle-aged man in a lot of media adaptations, the Canonical Sherlock Holmes is actually fairly young in the original stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He’s all of 27 years old when he meets Dr. Watson in 1881, and he’s in his thirties when most of the classic cases take place. Holmes retires to the Sussex Downs at age 49, with only a couple of stories that take place afterwards. Conan Doyle never specified a birth year for Holmes, but he’s described as “a tall, gaunt man of sixty” in “His Last Bow,” a story that takes place in August of 1914. This gives us a birth year of 1854 for Holmes, and most commentators agree on January 6th for Holmes’ birthdate. Holmes’ retirement is first mentioned as a recent event in the 1904 story “The Second Stain.” “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” which takes place in September 1903, is referred to as “one of the very last cases handled by Holmes before his retirement from practice.” So Holmes was 49 years old when he retired towards the end of 1903. (I’m actually working on a story which explains why Holmes chose to retire at so young an age. Hopefully it’ll someday see the light of day.)
So by age 49, most of Holmes’ great adventures were behind him. The Speckled Band, the Red-Headed League, the Hound of the Baskervilles, Irene Adler, and Professor Moriarty… All of them were in his past. There have been a few pastiches speculating on Sherlock Holmes’ retirement years, among them Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution and Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, which was made into the movie Mr. Holmes with Ian McKellen a few years back. Nicholas Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes vs. The Phantom of the Opera novel The Canary Trainer also used a retired Holmes in 1912 as the framing device. There’s even a cottage in East Dean that’s declared itself to be “Sherlock Holmes’ retirement cottage,” based upon clues in the Canon.
Another one of my heroes that we got to see journey into middle age is Captain Kirk. According to writer/director Nicholas Meyer, James T. Kirk was turning 49 in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And much like Sherlock Holmes, Kirk is at a loss without an adventure to stimulate him. He’s also depressed about needing reading glasses, which I can relate to. I had to break down and get a pair myself a year or so back.
And apparently, William Shatner had just as many mixed emotions about his alter ego aging along with him. Nicholas Meyer had this to say on his commentary track for The Wrath of Khan:
“I think it fair to say that Bill grew up playing leading men and this was a crossover experience for him in which the subject of the movie—remember this was the topic: aging, mortality—was something that he felt, and I think we all do, very conflicted about. Tolstoy said that the biggest surprise in a man’s life is old age. And I think there was a process involved in getting Bill to see that he was playing a role and it wasn’t necessarily him. Once he did that, once he sort of got into it, that idea… He was still protective of himself. Originally, we had specified that Kirk was 49 and he said, ‘Let’s not have that. Let’s not specify his age. I’m aging, but don’t… we don’t have to get specific.’ Of course, I find that in specificity, you will find universality but in universality, you will only find cafeteria food. I think you have to be specific, but there were places where I had to yield.”
And just like Sherlock Holmes in “His Last Bow,” the Kirk of Wrath of Khan thinks that most of his great adventures are behind him. He thankfully learns by the end of the movie that he’s still got some life in him yet, going as far to say “I feel young” while watching the Genesis Planet be born on the viewscreen of the Enterprise.
By the time Kirk officially retires in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country nine years later, he seems much more content with himself. We don’t worry that he’s going to go to pieces without a starship of his own to command. It’s a good ending for Kirk, and much better than his disappointing death in Generations a few years later.
James Bond is another character who doesn’t take to aging well. If you think the 50-something Sean Connery and Roger Moore Bonds were rough to watch in the movies, the book Bond has it even worse. In the third novel, Moonraker, Bond, during one of his typical bouts of melancholy, takes stock of his life as an aging civil servant who gets two or three life-threatening assignments a year:
It was his ambition to have as little as possible in his banking account when he was killed, as, when he was depressed, he knew he would be, before the statutory age of forty-five.
Eight years to go before he was automatically taken off the 00 list and given a staff job at Headquarters. At least eight tough assignments. Probably sixteen. Perhaps twenty-four. Too many.
Bond is 37 at the time of Moonraker, but he can feel 45 bearing down on him like a freight train. Fleming shaved a few years off of Bond’s age by the time he wrote his next to last Bond novel, You Only Live Twice, as Bond’s birth year was shifted from 1917 to 1924. It would seem that Fleming was trying to keep his hero as young as possible for as long as possible. This became a bit of a moot point as Fleming passed away before the publication of what turned out to be his final Bond book, The Man with the Golden Gun.
When it comes to Bond’s age, the approach of subsequent Bond authors has varied. John Gardner played Bond as about 50 in his Bond novels of the ’80s and ’90s, while Raymond Benson de-aged him a bit when he took over the series in the late ’90s. Some authors have chosen to continue the 1950s/1960s timeline of the original Fleming novels, while others have followed the lead of the movies and kept Bond in the present day. Sebastian Faulks’ 2008 novel Devil May Care takes place after Fleming’s timeline, in 1967, and opens with a 40ish Bond looking at himself and being disappointed with what he sees:
In his hotel room he took a vigorous shower, first as hot as he could bear it, then freezing cold, letting the icy needles pierce his shoulders. He stood naked in front of the mirror and looked into his face, with a distaste he made no attempt to soften.
“You’re tired,” he said out loud. “You’re played out. Finished.”
His torso and arms bore a network of scars, small and large, that traced a history of a violent life. There was the slight displacement of his spine to the left where he had fallen from a train in Hungary, the skin graft on his left hand. Every square inch of trunk and limb seemed to contribute to the story. But he knew that it was what was in his head that counted.
At 53, Daniel Craig will be hanging up his Walther PPK when the oft-delayed Bond film No Time To Die is finally released this fall, although he was 51 at the time of filming. Having had the part since 2006, he’ll be the longest-serving James Bond by the time he finishes. Craig still isn’t the oldest James Bond, though: Sean Connery was 52 when he shot the off-brand Never Say Never Again and Roger Moore was 57 when he shot A View to a Kill.
Moore said that part of what convinced him to retire as Bond was realizing that he wasn’t just older than his leading lady Tanya Roberts, he was also older than her mother. That’ll certainly give you pause. To his credit, Moore himself said years later that he was “only about four hundred years too old for the part” by the time of his last go-round as Bond. Reportedly when AVTAK was released, Sean Connery said, “Bond should be played by an actor 35, 33 years old. I’m too old. Roger’s too old, too!”
(This, by the way, is why I’m convinced that the next Bond will NOT be Idris Elba. With Daniel Craig retiring from the role at 53, I really can’t see the Bond producers turning around and casting a 48-year-old as his replacement. They’re much more likely to go with someone still in his thirties or early forties, so they can get a full decade of movies out of him. Plus, I don’t think that Elba particularly needs James Bond at this point.)
But at this point, it’s a pretty safe bet that, whoever they cast as the next Bond, it’ll be someone younger than me. That’s a strange feeling. James Bond is one of those characters you’re supposed to fantasize about becoming someday. If I’m 49 and Bond is still 37… Well, that ship has officially sailed. The thought of me having more life experience than James Bond, a character created 19 years before I was even born, just doesn’t compute somehow. I still remember watching an episode of the CW’s Flash TV series a few years ago where Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen referred to himself as a millennial and I suddenly felt ancient. How could Barry Allen be younger than me? He was created in 1956, dammit!
Oddly enough, this same feeling was what inspired Frank Miller to create The Dark Knight Returns. He was turning 30 in 1987 and he couldn’t stand the idea of being older than Batman. As Miller told The Washington Post’s David Betancourt in 2016, “To me, [turning 30] was becoming an ancient. Batman had to absolutely be older than I was. Now, we all know Batman is eternally 29 [in the comics]. So I had to do something about it.”
“I made him as old as I could conceivably imagine a man could be. And by doing that, I made him older than me. I made him a lot crankier, and was able to move him through time into a world that much more resembled the world that I lived in, in 1986 in New York City. I was updating the character and aging him at the same time. And I thought I was making him old and cranky. But I didn’t learn what old and cranky was until I hit 50.”
Bruce Wayne is depressed and self-destructive as The Dark Knight Returns begins. Much like Holmes, Kirk, and Bond, he’s looking for a purpose and wanting to have one last grand adventure. And until he comes roaring back as Batman, you’re afraid he might just drink himself to death. Throughout the four issues of the series, whenever he’s caught in a life-threatening situation, Bruce is mentally rating it by how great a death it would be. But ultimately the book is life-affirming. TDKR starts with Bruce Wayne looking for a way to die and ends with Batman finding a new purpose in life. Again, a nice ending for the character. And again, like Captain Kirk, I wish they had just left it there.
So is it all downhill from here for me? Are my greatest adventures a thing of the past? I hope that’s not true, but in my darker moments, I’m afraid it might be. Despite having accomplished some things in my life, I still don’t feel like I’ve left my mark quite yet. It’d be nice to think there still some triumphs ahead of me. But heck… Jack Kirby didn’t hit his creative peak until his forties. So maybe there’s still hope for me yet.
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