Open to Interpretation

Recently, both here and on the forums there has been a lot of talk about the nature of characters and what defines them.

For my money, one of the best things about comic books is that you get to experience lots of different versions of the same character seen through the eyes of various artists.  I especially love Elseworlds books and alternate universe tales and books like What If…? (the old ones, anyway) where the departures are much greater than just what you find with a knew creative team.  I like to see artists leaving their own imprint on a character.

When Frank Miller was announced as the writer for All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder I’m sure many people assumed as I did -– that we’d be getting more Batman stories in the vein of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, when in fact the stories were much closer to Sin City. It was jarring at first, but once I wrapped my head around this new, alternate interpretation of Batman I had a ton of fun with it (until the shipping delays killed any and all enthusiasm I had for the book). Lots of people didn’t like it, though. They cried and screamed about this not being Batman! This was not how Batman acted! This was clearly not the true Batman.

Here’s the thing.

There is no one true version of any corporately owned character that has existed for decades. There is no one true Batman, there is no one true Spider-Man, and there is definitely no one true Superman. There are only interpretations of those characters. You might like certain interpretations more. You might find certain interpretations resonate with you more than others. You might find that certain interpretations rub you the wrong why and cause you to hate them. Much like I think continuity must be unique to each of us, so must these characters.

Who is Batman, exactly? Does he carry a gun and shoot criminals? Does he spend all of his time in the Justice League embassy playing straight man to Blue Beetle and Booster Gold? Is he a one man, unforgiving psychopathic war on crime? The answer is: he is all of these things, and he is also more. Every interpretation of Batman is valid, in that every interpretation is Batman. And this is true because every interpretation is sanctioned by his owners.

I am as big of a fan of Darwyn Cooke’s The Spirit as anyone I know. If they announced it as the next Absolute Edition I’d preorder it right now. But I’m also really looking forward to Frank Miller’s The Spirit which appears to be 180 degrees different from Cooke’s. I think it will be fun to see a completely different take on Denny Colt. It might be bad. I might see it and decide I like Cooke’s version better. I might see it and decide I like Miller’s take better. Or I might decide that there is room in my cold, dead heart for both of them. There are so many possibilities. That’s the beauty and the wonder of art.

Now here’s where it gets sticky and I double back on myself.

I’ve been on record as being very much pro the Spider-Man reboot because I did not like the place that Marvel had taken Peter Parker. Here was a character that was very prominent in my childhood that no longer resonated with me. While that Peter Parker was certainly valid in the sense that he was Marvel’s version of the character, it wasn’t an interpretation that I liked and to me it was untrue to how I saw the character, and thus also invalid. I had my own version of Peter Parker, one that was true for me and for me alone. I have one of those in my head for just about every major corporate character.

In these matters, there is no universal truth, there is only individual truth.

My individual truth is going to be different from your individual truth, mostly because how we relate to things is influenced by innumerable factors. But I think that there is one major factor in regards to how we see our favorite DC and Marvel superheroes, at least from my experience, and that is all about how we were originally introduced to the character and fell in love with them. The Spider-Man that I respond to the most is the one from my youth: the young single guy caught between Mary Jane and Black Cat and struggling to get by on a freelance photographer’s salary. That’s the one I respond to the most because that’s the one I first encountered, the one that first spoke to me.

Batman is unique in that there were so many different versions of him when I was a kid that there isn’t one singular version that I can point to as the Batman of my youth. The Batman in the comic books that I read as a kid was completely different than the one I saw on TV every afternoon (so masterfully played by Adam West) and both of those were different from the ones I’d find in the back issue bin or in cartoons. In many ways Batman prepared me and my brain to take in and love different versions of the same character, all at the same time. I could get just as much joy out of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Batman as I did Dick Sprang’s Batman and Adam West’s Batman. They were all fun and they were all Batman.

None of this means I don’t have fun arguing over whether people are acting out of character or whether or not I like the direction that certain characters are being taken. Just because I recognize the validity of different interpretations, it doesn’t mean that I think that all interpretations are valid. It’s a fine, but very important, distinction.

But that’s how I roll.

Comments

  1. Touche sir, touche.

  2. Nice article.  I too love the Elseworlds books.  There dare I say, Fun?  An as we were reminded earlier that’s what our hobby is about.

  3. I have to say that I agree with most of that.

    Personally, I have no real problem with people delivering different interpretations of characters, providing it’s not something glaringly contradictory in terms of mainstream continuity. The beauty of Elseworlds tales or Marvel’s Ultimate line is that we can have alternative takes on characters in a more extreme way for longer periods of time than say a single What if…? story.

    I think that there are certain changes in character which are probably harder to accept than others, of course. A totally non-foreshadowed change in a character’s sexuality, or transforming a character off-panel into some kind of ravaged substance addict it’s very hard to buy into. But then that comes down more to being a fault of the writer. It’s up to them to make it believable.

  4. This aspect of comics is one of the factors that drew me in as a fan.  Going to the comic shop and deciding to pick up those trades of the different Elseworlds Batman helped me to understand exactly what Conor was referring to.  There are some key things that have to be there for it to be Batman, but seeing different writers’ interpretation of the character is fun.  Weekly books do have this ingrained in them, for the most part.  Different writers come on and they have their own version of how the character would respond to certain situations, but it’s more subtle than the drastic takes like Elseworlds.  Again, that’s what makes Elseworlds so great!!

  5. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Ha, I remember being like….he should write an article about this.  

     It’s interesting that the range of varying interpretations is greater over at DC.  Marvel does the What If thing, but it’s very conditional.  It’s a twist on the tried and true stories. Call it editorial control, call it anal retentiveness.  But I think DC, by and large, gets to have a little more fun with their characters.  Or maybe that’s just because the Elseworlds books are a little more successful and prominent in the public memory? 

  6. perfectly said.  u have such an eloquence in expressing the maturing sophistication of comics readers, and i suppose readers in general.  so often u pluck things out of our brains and show them to us.  ur commentary on "this thing of ours" is such a pleasure to listen to.  i hope u r working on a book.

     

     

  7. Well said Conor, I agree completely. I think that many of these characters have taken on archtypal qualities over the decades and it’s those qualities that we tend to base our judgements of how ‘accurate’ the portrayal of the character is. We can all agree that a Batman who kills every villain is NOT Batman. One of the great things about these characters is that they ARE flexible and open to interpretation so that they can be made constantly relevant as times change. Can you imagine if Fantastic Four never changed…"Sue, you stand over there and turn invisibile…we’ll handle this!"

     

  8. Great article! I think if every character was written the same way all the time, they’d never have survived this long. As long as they’re respectful to the spirit of the character, then it’s exciting to see a new take on your favourite character.

    Obviously, there’s exceptions where sometimes it’s just bad, but more often than not it gets people excited about a character again, or even a character they’ve never read before. I never thought Nightwing would be the book I most look forward to each month, but here I am and that it be! 

  9. Just wanted to say that this was very well written, and I agree on all points.  It’s this distinction that’s lead me to the conclusion of dropping Morrison’s Batman.  While I love the character, it wasn’t how I wanted to read the character.  I don’t think it’s wrong though, and I know there are those out there who love what he’s doing. 

    Different strokes for different folks.

  10. Well said!   

    I think a few things are useful to keep in perspective in evaluating different portrayals of a character:

    1) Creators may not be as familiar with the character’s history as the most hardcore fans (hard to blame them; if someone had to read the whole back catalog of every C-list character before writing a team book, for instance, the books would never come out and the writer would never make any money).  So maybe there’s something a fan thinks is essential to a character’s portrayal, but it’s just not in the frame of reference for a particular writer.

    2)  Creators are likely to be more familiar with a character’s history than the average fan, or familiar with a less-known part of that history that they want to highlight (like Brubaker’s point that WW2 era Captain America DID carry a gun).

    3) A creator may be quite familiar with how a character has been portrayed and deliberately intend to show a different take on him or her.   I think of this like covering a song — maybe you want to hear what a slow song sounds like when you speed it up, or a fast song when you slow it down.   It’s not that the artist doesn’t know how the song is ‘supposed’ to go; it’s a deliberate experiment, and the only question is whether the song sounds good.  (I know people who don’t like covers of any kind, too, and I usually assume these people don’t know much about music).

    4)  A creator might just not be very good at writing a certain character.  Or at all.  They may be trying to write ‘in character’ and not pulling it off.

    I think that, when confronted with an odd-seeming characterization, it’s worth trying to figure out which, if any, of these things applies.    (Written as I’m STILL trying to figure out which one applies to the latest issue of ‘Logan.’)

  11. fair enough conor, but now i don’t want to hear you ever complain on the show that a writer’s take is completely out of character 😉    (i have heard this before on the show, perhaps in reference to The All-New Atom? might have been josh that said it though)

  12. " Every interpretation of Batman is valid, in that every interpretation is Batman.  And this is true because every interpretation is sanctioned by his owners." fair enough conor, but what about the creator? Bob Kane’s vision is what should be seen as the definitive Batman, doesn’t that count for anything?

  13. Great, great article, Sir! You really captured it and I have to say, you are the only true interpretation of a Conor. Never mind that "son of two vampires" thing that other guy got going… 😉

    Seriously though: I have to agree. To me, Batman will always be a real dark character, that’s how I got exposed to him. But one of my favorite takes on him is the Animated one and he’s not that dark. I always tell folks just to relax when it comes to those kind of things. It’s weird to me that some people believe that a character can’t change, even though he’s been around for 40,50 or 60 years! It would just get boring, that’s what would happen!

     @ohcaroline Great companion-piece you wrote there. It really added another layer to Conor’s initial post, at least in my opinion.

  14. i totally get what your saying. i love batman in all his different incarnations, my favorite was the neal adams stuff. but morrison has a handle on him, i feel. it’s just like superman being different, to me he’s a tragic character but to others he’s a boy scout.

  15. I agree with everything you said here. Too many people have this very rigid view of how a character should act at all times. But here’s the thing, people don’t always act exactly the same in every situation in real life, why should they in comics? You don’t act the same hanging out with your friends as you do with your grandparents. So why would Batman be expected to act the same if he’s with Alfred in the Batcave as he would if he was in the JLA Satellite? As long as the interpretations are true to the core of the character, I have no problem with different variations and interpretations.

  16. Batman. It’s like holding a big-ass diamond that you can’t break. You can throw it against the ceiling, against the floor, the wall, and you just can’t break Batman. There are ten ways to do him and they all work. I’ve done about five. – Miller

     

  17. @mikegraham6:

    There’s a difference between a new interpretation of a character and someone being written out of character.  It’s all about the context of the character and the story.  The Batman in ALL STAR BATMAN is not the Batman in Giffen’s JUSTICE LEAGUE and is not the Batman in DETECTIVE COMICS.  They all acted completely different but appropriate for their context.  If they started writing the Batman in the current DETECTIVE like the one from JUSTICE LEAGUE then I would say he’s acting out of character, yes.

    That wasn’t me talking about ALL-NEW ATOM I had never read the book before Remender came on.  I think that was Tom Katers.

    Bob Kane created Batman (with a lot of help from Bill Finger and others) but he didn’t own him.  You might think his version is your definitive Batman but for other people it’s going to be Miller’s version.  Or Morrison’s version.  Or whichever version they love the most. 

  18. Well, I will both agree and disagree with Conor.

     There is no one concept, setting or theme that can trap a truly great character. All good characters can be funny, sad, human, beyond belief and so on. It is certainly true that there are only a handful of archetypes to choose from in stories before you muddle the waters too much to create identifiable themes.

     That said, you need to keep core, identifiable concepts in a character. Otherwise you are reading a different character. Batman in the traditional DC is a hard, guileful man filled with a drive that is unknowable to most of us. If you create a Batman who is angry, savage and unthinking brute of a Batman… is he still Batman? Only in titular naming. There are hundreds of Conors in the world, but the one we listen to and observe every week is defineably CONOR to us.

  19. Nice article. I think the variations a corporate owned character will take over the course of the years and the rotation of creators is something that fans need to be prepared to enjoy/endure/tolerate/etc.  It’s just a fact of the industry. 

    One of my favorite comic failures is Skull the Slayer.  It lasted 8 issues (and its final story, like several others, was wrapped up in Marvel-Two-In-One).  Within that short run, there was a new writer (and a completely new direction) every other issue.  I think by issue 7 they actually tried to bring the comic back to its original concept! A truly entertaining train-wreck.

    Conversely, Bill Mantlo’s runs on both Rom and Micronauts are great examples of corporate owned characters (moreso than others in fact because they were licensed properties) that had one continuous artistist vision throughout their runs.  Something you usually only see in creator owned properties.

  20. @ zombox:

    I total with you on how there needs to be a core to each character. For example, Spider-man will always live his life by the saying "With great power comes great reasonability." No matter what writer who writes Spidey does to him, he will always have a great sense of reasonability. That is what made him a super hero in the first place. If they take that away then, they take away what makes him different then the rest. On the other hand, if you take away the core of a character is he/she still the same person? Are they some one new? For it is our core believes that makes us who we are. Anyone can put on a Spidey suit and say they are Spider-Man, but are they really? It’s all in the point of view.

  21. it’s a great attitude to have about these old characters. continuity is fun and all, but the love the all star and marvel knights books for just really good stories. 

    it’s funny how the general public doesn’t care so so much about continuity. for instance look at the james bond series and how many times it’s been rebooted. the franchise changes with the zeitgeist to sell to the appropriate audience. i think the latest bond could be the best! well, or at least as good as the young sean connery.