Challenges of Character

Not for the first time, I found myself looking at my stack of comics (admittedly smaller now that I’ve basically gone d/c for DC [get it?]) and thinking, “What do I read these for again?”

Note that I wasn’t asking why I read comics. I was wondering what it was about those comics that keep me coming back, and while there are several reasons that come to mind, the two elements that I feel particularly interested in discussing is the natural balance between character and story. Do I read comics because of the stories? Or am I a fan of the characters, and just eager to see how these characters handle the situations and dramas they are presented with.

Over the past few months, one of the most intriguing criticisms that seems to hover around the much criticized Fear Itself has been the uncharacteristic characterizations of Spider-Man and Captain America. It’s come up a few times now, and it got me thinking, again, just how good a job editors tend to be doing in keep the tones and behaviors of the characters consistent, from book to book, author to author, artist to artist (though, of the three, that’s where artistic license really comes to play–remember the horse-like Beast for that S.W.O.R.D. book?).

The integrity of the comic book character is a deep and varied thing. I like to imagine a store room of books that are basically just large character sheets (ala Dungeons and Dragons) for all of the comic book characters we’ve known over the years, outlining not just easy things like power listings and ratings, but likes and dislikes, attitudes towards different subjects and people, important relationships, etc, that new creators have go through before writing a comic featuring a specific character. I can only imagine how intimidating it must be for a writer to take on a well-known and beloved character, and much time it takes to really get an idea of what the inner workings of the character are all about – which makes it kind of amazing that we don’t see issues with odd characterization more often.

This consistency of character is incredibly important to keep readers coming back, but, oddly, may be one of the reasons that readers don’t find themselves exploring or getting into unfamiliar characters.  Or, perhaps, the characters that we are used to hanging out with are “enough,” in a way.  Like, when you have a solid core group of friends and find it hard to find time to spend with them, you are less interested in getting to know new ones and spend the required time to get same level of camaraderie, you know?  Here are some examples of characters that I’ve heard about, that other people like, that I just haven’t made the time to get to know:

Deadpool – I’ve written about him before; while I’ve enjoyed him in small doses–I quite like him in Uncanny X-Force, I just haven’t found the need to pick up any of his ongoing titles. I’m not a hater of Deadpool by any means…I’m happy just to see him once in awhile.

Grifter – You ever get to a party and everyone’s talking about this one guy or girl that every one else seems to have known forever and there are all these great stories about him or her and everyone just says you have to go and meet this person and that you’ll just get along so well that you find yourself maybe wanting to get a drink or maybe go to the bathroom first or just maybe not meet this person because it’s just feeling awkward, a bit? I kinda feel that way this Grifter. Everyone else seems to love him, but I know nothing about him other than the mask thing. And now with the new Grifter book, I am wondering if it even makes sense to pick that up because everyone’s talking about the old Grifter and this is a new Grifter, and maybe this one is actually just not that cool..and I should just sort of, you know, not deal with it.  That’s where I’m at with Grifter.

Man-Bat, Swamp Thing, Man-Thing – I know, it makes no real sense to include Man-Bat with the other Things, but they all kind of live in the same dark corner of my brain. Like, it’s kind of incredible how often I get confused (briefly, but still) between Swamp- and Man-Thing. It’s embarrassing. I am getting a little bit better now that Swamp Thing has its own title, but…I dunno. And Man-Bat. I mean, that’s just a character that pops up from time to time, so it makes sense that I know nothing about him–he kind of reminds me of a bat version of The Lizard (Man-Lizard?).  But with Man Thing and Swamp Thing, I just feel like I missed the boat with both of them.

Invincible – I have definitely written about this title before, but, again, I just feel like I may just wait until this entire title is done before I start. I just feel way behind. I know he’s beloved and everyone loves the characters in this book, but I just feel…I dunno. Maybe now that Peter Parker is dead in the Ultimate Universe and since I am already not reading Amazing Spider-Man for the time being, I have time for this character. Seems like it could scratch a similar itch.

Legion of Super Heroes – I know, this is more than one character, and maybe that’s the problem, but no matter how often I try, I just can’t seem to get these folks straight at all. The one character I like is Wildfire, though as I find out more about him, I really don’t understand why he just doesn’t live in some kind of M.O.D.O.K. like container – I mean, if he’s just trapped energy, how can he be so muscular?  Still, there are a lot of Legion fans out there who are just nuts about this book, and I did like their appearance in that Action run by Geoff Johns (not to mention their guest appearance in Smallville), but, again, I’ve just never been inspired enough to put the ring on and go for it.

There are other characters out there, to be sure, but you get the idea. It’s kind of cool; while I can point to a few characters and talk about why I just never got into them, at least I know the essence of who they are, enough to at least get an idea of their character, because they have been consistent through the years, and, sometimes, that consistency breaks through and forces me to jump onboard. This happened with Scalped and The Walking Dead, both titles which have characters that I just kept hearing about, with stories as compelling as their characters, to the point that I had to start reading (though I am sticking with trades for The Walking Dead, primarily because I feel that the stories just read better in 12 issue blocks).

Clearly, the consistent characterization of comic book characters are just getting more and more important as the characters start being seen in different formats. Indeed, the Marvel iPad app featured a copyright that read “© 2012 Marvel Characters” until just recently.  It is one of the most appealing aspects of being into comics, really–that consistently helps create relationships for the readers, reliable relationships that readers can take comfort in, week after week.  It will be very interesting to see how the relaunch of DC’s characters impacts the relationships that have been maintained over the years, and I am sure something we’ll be talking about quite a few times in the months and years to come.

So, how about you? When have you seen characterization get a bit off? Which characters do you hear all about but never seem to find the time or need to check out? Are there are any new DC books that you are starting precisely because this is the ultimate jumping on point for a character you’ve heard about?

 


Mike Romo is a character. Follow him on Twitter.

Comments

  1. nice, great post

  2. Nice article MIke.

    Personally, I feel like the perceived mischaracterizations of Cap and Spidey in Fear Itself will ultimately be attributed to the influence of the super powerful Norse God of Fear that they are fighting.

    It appears that very thing is happening to the entire population of Earth. So when I read Fear Itself thats how I reconcile Cap using a gun or Spidey leaving the battle. They are afraid. And not just an ordinary level of fear, but one that make you behave irrationally.

    • They’ll never give me a good excuse for Spidey leaving like he did. That was just awful. And Cap doesn’t need an excuse he’s a soldier, he should have a gun. Do you ever read the old Kirby Cap stuff? He had a gun in every freaking issue, blasting away at Hydra or Neo Nazis. Awesome.

    • Yes, I’ve seen Cap use a gun in several stories. Didn’t say I had a problem with it, just that it is one thing I hear people complaining about.

  3. I don’t understand the Cap thing…why would a solider not be ok with a gun?

  4. I would like to talk about the elephant in the room. What the heck happened to Peter Parker?!? Post-OMD/BND Peter is a different guy from the one I knew growing up. This new guy is a man-whore, he fakes pictures with Photoshop, and he really doesn’t take an interest in anyone’s life but his own. Peter used to be the gold-standard in terms of morals. He held himself to a higher standard because he knew that “with great power comes great responsibility.” This new guy is a self-centered douche.

    For what it is worth, the only characterization that I have enjoyed of Peter recently was “Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine” by Jason Aaron. That was top-notch.

    • I would disagree. The Peter Parker post-BND was the Peter Parker I grew up with in the 80s. It’s part of the reason why I loved post-BND, pre-Big Time so much.

    • Completely agree with Conor on this. I burned though everything from BND on and loved it all, that was the Peter/Spider-Man I grew up with and loved. I’m still a bit behind and haven’t made it to Big Time yet so can’t comment on that. But BND was terrific.
      And Peter’s always been a man-whore, even as a kid I could recognize that. Go Pete!!!!

    • Brand New Day is the best thing that happened to Spider-Man in literally twenty years. I recently went back through the issues from the eighties, and as an adult it’s even more glaring how much the marriage was clumsily dropped into the book by editorial and how frantically they tried to find excuses to separate MJ from the book. The entire Clone Saga began as an attempt to get married Peter Parker to disappear.

      I thought the Photoshop thing was, as a character moment, a well-intentioned screwup. We all have ’em.

      This “my heroes would never leave the battlefield to be with their families” hogwash is just people waving their pitchforks and torches at Fear Itself yet again. Peter smacked his pregnant wife in the face during the Clone Saga. He made a deal with the devil. Actual people are wildly inconsistent. Let’s take it easy on the fictional ones.

  5. The photoshop thing I agree with you on. Peter wasn’t lying, he knew what really happened and was just trying to make the picture match the reality. He didn’t try to change it into something that didn’t happen. He had noble intentions at least.

    I don’t know those examples you stated as I never read those stories. But I still absolutely hated his characterization in that issue of Fear Itself. And I say that sans pitchfork or torch.

  6. That’s some real food for thought, Mike. When it comes to characterizations I like and dislike, I keep thinking of Reed Richards. I love John Byrne’s treatment of Reed, but I don’t recognize the amoral, Negative-Zone-prison-building dick he became in Civil War. I don’t know what my opinion of Reed would be if I had read Civil War before the Byrne run, and that’s the dilemma you get with comics: Every issue is someone’s first introduction to the character, but characters change over time. Who’s to say Byrne’s Reed is the “right” Reed, and Civil War Reid is the wrong one?

    I sometimes wonder if we’re better off with the manga model, where character arcs get definite beginnings and endings. There’s no room for writers to mess with other people’s characters (or their settings, for that matter) if they keep having to create new ones. But then you don’t get the folklore aspect of superhero comics, which is something worth having.

    • Reed is a super interesting example. His character definitely made a sweeping change in Civil War (but then, whose didn’t?), but to me it always seemed in line with that mad scientist deep inside Reed that he suppresses to be a functional human being. Reed’s always been a creature of logic, and Tony’s plans for the future of the super hero culture gave him an excuse to just run with that side of his persona, even at the expense of his morals.

      But then, maybe I’ve thought about this too much…

  7. Invincible > Ultimate Spiderman. Grifter is a fun character. A true anti-hero. If that isn’t your thing… well, beware.

  8. If i thought the world was about to end and the woman who raised me might be in trouble, i’m pretty sure i would do whatever i could to be with here when the whole thing went up. I had no problem with Spidey leaving because he did it to try and protect his family. He feels responsible for Aunt May, and if I know my Spider-Man, responsibility is kind of a big deal with him. I’ve been reading Amazing Spider-Man since 1989 and I saw nothing wrong with the way Fraction handled him in Fear Itself.

  9. I am usually fine with different takes on a character. Changing circumstances can make people react differently no matter how many times they have had to deal with a particular problem. That being said I had a big problem with the most recent Fear Itself. I wasn’t angry that Spider-Man was concerned for May but I was furious that he needed her peptalk to keep fighting. It neuters my favorite character and makes him less heroic.

  10. A couple of the characters I’ve always felt get jerked around from a ‘Character’ kind of way would be Emma Frost and Storm and then to a lesser extent Cyclops (cuz he’s almost always brooding but sometimes he’s super strong super hero boy and other times he’s sulks around in a teen-angst, low self image slump). No one can get Emma quite right and Storm used to be this great strong character. She rocked the mohawk and was super strong and now no one really seems to get it right with her. Some will say that this is the ‘evolution of the character’ but I disagree, I see it as missing the mark a bit from author to author. Still, an author does get a certain poetic license so maybe we just need to relax and roll with it. 😉

  11. The new catwoman was a characterization I didn’t love. I don’t care about the sexy-time… I actually enjoy it most times, I just prefer her a more cool and calculated sexy then so wild.

  12. I’ve used the DC reboot to try more female solo lead characters. Batgirl, Batwoman, Catwoman, Supergirl, Wonder Woman and Voodoo. Those are the only six books I’ll be buying. The only DC women I could ever say I “followed” in the past was Wonder Woman, and way back in the day, Lois Lane.

    Captain America was always a favorite character of mine, just because he was a good guy, trying to do the right thing.

    As far as having a familiar gang of friends, my deepest sense of that comes from following the NYC Marvel characters: the Avengers, FF, Spidey, DD, SHIELD, Black Widow, etc.

    Since 1972, I could always check in on these folks, see how the old neighborhood was, ask if so-and-so was still around, and whatever happened to that one crazy guy who everybody hated?

    That particular group of people, mostly Avengers and ex-SHIELD agents, became like people I once went to school with or worked with.

    Even now, some of those deep old references will really take me way the hell back to the spinner rack.

    Sometimes AIM or Hydra stories, Ant-Man stories or obscure villain stories will just totally give me a sense of total immersion, like when I first discovered Marvel’s Greatest Comics, Tales to Astonish, Strange Tales and Tales of Suspense.

    I guess that’s one of the reasons I dig Thunderbolts.

  13. I hate not recognizing the last forty+ years of Spider-Man stories? I understand that his marriage to Mary Jane wasn’t the best Spider-Man moment, but they could have gotten a divorce. It would have been easier than swallowing Mephisto having THAT much power, and not using it for..I don’t know…world domination.
    Captain American of the sixties and seventies with Stan Lee, Jim Sternako, and Gene Colan was NOT afraid of a gun, or of killing a hydra agent or two. The Cap of 2011 is weak.
    And I haven’t seen a good Emma storyline since Joss Whedon!

  14. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but could our problems with characterization stem (at least in part) from a sense of disillusionment in our heroes?

    You’ll note that most complaints about characterization in super hero comics are some variation of “He/She’s not acting heroically enough.” Could it be that, as we’ve grown up, slowly realizing that every idolized figure in our lives (parents, teachers, politicians) is human and flawed, these larger than life examples of justice and virtue have become all the more important to us?

    The fact is that, for many people (myself included), one of the reasons that we read super hero comics is because we look up to these (fictional) people. I know that, for myself, characters like Spider-Man and Captain America helped to shape my own personal concepts of morality and responsibility, inspiring me to strive to be a better person. Now, as adults, these are the only pure heroes that we have left, and when they’re written in a way that is not consistent with our own lofty expectations of them, it chips away at that comfort of having someone on whom we can always count to do the right thing, no matter the cost.

    It’s that moment when you find out that you dad is human, after thinking him some kind of super hero for the first 10 years of your life. But is that all bad? Learning that people are flawed, that people make mistakes, can bring us to a closer understanding of them, in reality as well as fiction. These guys don’t have to always have to be perfect to be the heroes we need, just like in real life. Variations in character interpretations may be jarring sometimes, but they can also lead to new character development and an evolution of character. And isn’t that what we’re reading for in the first place?

  15. Wildfire is awesome. I’ve always loved him, even when he wears dumb looking suits.

  16. Fun piece. I’ve never so much as tried a Deadpool book, I think I’m just against him because he came out in the days when comics were full of Deathclaws, Bloodstrikes and Peemigraines.

    As regards the Legion, Mike, have you tried the Great Darkness Saga? It’s the team at its best.