Comics Ate My Brain

March 22, 2006

Building Character

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tom Bondurant @ 1:58 am
In these days of revamps, relaunches, adaptations, and deconstruction, there’s a lot of talk about what constitutes the “essence” of a character. The problem is, multiple interpretations of a character can create questions about how faithful a given interpretation is.

To be clear, I�m not talking about a Supreme-style menagerie of variations, or a DC One Million-esque series of family trees. Instead, I�m interested in the evolution of a character (or “entity,” if we’re considering groups) from its original concept to what may be nothing more than a list of characteristics and defining events.

To me there are two main factors at work. The first is continuity, with which we are all intimately familiar. The second is what I would call “fidelity,” and it’s harder to pin down. Many times, the accretion of continuity helps to define fidelity, as with the gradual expansion of Superman’s powers over his first few decades. However, fidelity can also be a check on continuity, by pushing aside established events because they were “out of character” or could otherwise be dismissed. Here the Spider-Clone Saga and the “Teen Tony” Iron Man come to mind.

Of course, sudden broad strokes of continuity can greatly affect public perception of a character. Death is especially powerful in this regard. For over twenty years, every new story featuring Barry Allen as the Flash has carried with it, consciously or not, the emotional impact of his death. This is still true to a slightly lesser degree for Hal Jordan, Jason Todd, and Bucky Barnes, despite their recent revivals.

Other major changes can have similar, if not greater, effects. Dick Grayson’s development into Nightwing was seen or otherwise alluded to in “Batman: The Animated Series,” the “Teen Titans” cartoon, the Joel Schumacher Batman movies, and (arguably) even his mention in the “Birds of Prey” TV show. Dick becoming Nightwing has eclipsed Dick’s career as Robin, despite the former career being only half as long as the latter. Therefore, it seems that fidelity to Dick’s character must include his becoming Nightwing at some point.

Sometimes those big events have direct effects on other characters. Wally West�s path from sidekick to headliner began with Barry�s disappearance in Crisis on Infinite Earths, and much of Wally�s early Flash career was spent trying to live up to Barry�s legacy. Because Wally would be a different character if Barry were still alive, Barry�s death takes on an air of inevitability.

This is not to say that such changes are inherently capricious or meaningless. Barry�s death certainly gives his story a meaningful ending � one last run to save the world, and in the process inspire his proteg� to succeed him � but that doesn�t stop us readers from asking if that is the only ending possible.

Along the same lines, we are also free to question the degree to which other events are critical to a given character�s development. In other words, if Character A is defined by a certain series of events, does it matter if those events were never part of the character’s original premise? Is the original just a step along the way to an ur-character, or baseline, against which all the variations may be measured? In some cases, this is certainly true.

Take Wonder Woman, for instance. Her earliest adventures featured positive messages of compassion, tolerance, and understanding, right alongside a lot of strange sexual imagery. Today, the message of peace remains, but the subtext has been scrubbed significantly. In refocusing the character on her mythological roots and her diplomatic mission, the character�s post-Crisis caretakers did go back to the beginning, but they didn�t feel the need to use everything from the William Moulton Marston/H.G. Peter days. In fact, the current comics version of the character has become so successful that I would argue it is the baseline.

(Not having read much of the recent John Byrne Doom Patrol, I am loath to argue that its retro-continuity-rollback sensibilities are somehow less representative of the team than the Grant Morrison version, but from what others have said that may well be the case. Has the Morrison DP become the new standard, even compared with Byrne’s recreation of the original?)

A superhero�s baseline interpretation might not even come from the comics at all. The Superman of the �70s and �80s movies, played by Christopher Reeve, is perhaps the biggest influence on the character in the past thirty years. At the time, though, it was a clear variation from the Earth-1 iteration then featured in the comics. Still, many of its aspects made their way into the 1986 comics revamp. From there it�s debatable whether “Lois & Clark,” the animated series, and “Smallville” looked more to the movies or the comics. Regardless, the new Superman Returns apparently takes its cue pretty directly from the first two Reeve movies.

I realize here that I�m getting back into the “multiple distinct variations” paradigm, so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that those movies � specifically the first one�s origin sequences � made it more acceptable for the �86 revamp to discard a lot of the Silver Age trappings. In other words, continuity was sacrificed for the sake of fidelity.

Honoring both continuity and fidelity, the two Spider-Man movies drew great inspiration from the Lee/Ditko/Romita Sr. stories of the �60s. When the movies altered sequences, as with the “death of Gwen Stacy” scenes in the first movie, the changes served larger plot concerns. Gwen�s death was a pivotal moment in the comics, but in hindsight it allowed Peter and Mary Jane to solidify their relationship. While no one would argue that Gwen�s death should be forgotten, in the first movie she would have been superfluous. (She�ll be in Spider-Man 3, so go figure.) Again, fidelity to the character of Spider-Man now includes his successful romance with Mary Jane, not necessarily his continuing angst over Gwen�s death.

Similarly, the various Batman animated series skipped Jason Todd entirely, giving Tim Drake a version of Jason�s origin. When Green Lantern was introduced on the “Superman” animated series, he had Kyle Rayner�s name but Hal Jordan�s origin. The recent Flash-centered episode of “Justice League Unlimited” gave Wally West Barry Allen�s police-scientist job. Again, these changed elements must be judged, positively or negatively, in light of fidelity to the underlying character. While they lack the tragedies from which their print counterparts were born, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Fidelity includes tragedy and change, but clearly it doesn’t have to stop there. It just has to make sense in the context established thus far, and ideally it will expand the character’s horizons. Not a bad set of goals, even for the soulless world of corporate superhero comics.

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