Master Of The Obvious: Issue #67

Wed, November 8th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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There's a rumor going around that there are no bad characters, just bad talent. John Byrne keeps getting quoted as saying it, though I don't know if he ever really said it; a lot of these "quotations" are our little version of urban legends. Fans seem to love to chant it these days, particularly if they're fans of, say, Darkhawk or some other superhero who'd become oh so magnificent a concept if only the right person would come along and brainstorm a way to make it work. And there's no character so awful someone doesn't think it's the greatest character ever. Hence the "no bad characters" theory.

[Brother Power the Geek]Four words: Brother Power The Geek.

Brother Power was one of DC's vain attempts of the late 60s to prove how hip the company was, a lifesized ragdoll animated by lightning (if I'm not misremembering) to become… a hippie. Cool, right? Brother - as in "peace, brother!" - Power - as in "all power to the people" (very political) - The Geek - as in a carnival act that stews in its own filth and bites the heads off live chickens. Exactly what the youth culture would identify with. Brother Power floundered around for an issue or two before vanishing into well-deserved limbo. Bad character?

Not so bad Neil Gaiman didn't revive the character in a one-shot a couple decades later. Neil is considered by quite a few to be one of the greatest writers in comics history. His great innovation? Brother Power was revealed to be a "doll elemental," loosely patterned after the Moore concept of Swamp Thing as an earth elemental. You may remember the five elements of ancient Western science: earth, water, fire, air and doll. It didn't revive the character so much as demonstrate there was nothing there to revive. As a one-shot, it was a fairly entertaining story. And made it very clear Brother Power had no future as a series character.

Not, I suspect, that anyone expected otherwise.

Is there any character so horrible it couldn't be the focus of one good story? Depends on what's meant by good. There are concepts once considered "good" that are now considered repugnant. Tony Isabella often cites The Black Bomber, another "relevant" DC hero created to be their answer to Luke Cage before someone woke up and made sure it was never published. Apparently it was intended to target Caucasian and African-American readers alike, as the titular hero was an Archie Bunker-style white supremicist who contrarily spent his nights in blackface masquerading as a black revolutionary. Good character? Not a snowball's chance in hell. Could Grant Morrison, for example, get one great story out of him? I wouldn't doubt it. That's not all that difficult; it's no mystery why many of the successful Vertigo revivals have been closed-ended stories. A good story doesn't necessarily equal a good character.

"A good story doesn't necessarily equal a good character."

But usually when I hear someone say "there are no bad characters," they're not talking about one-shot or self-contained mini-series. Despite all the changes in the business over the last decade, the "mainstream" of comics (if we can call an increasingly self-marginalized sector of the industry a "mainstream) still has a series mentality. So "there are no bad characters, only bad talent" translates to "any character can anchor a series if the right person handles it."

Which is rubbish.

Most characters aren't strong enough to sustain series. I know it's hard for the fans of particular characters to accept that. And examples make things murkier: for every postulate there's an example that seems to make nonsense of it. The X-Men failed miserably in their first run, never gaining much readership and eventually fading away after various stumbling "reconceptions" (they got new costumes, split up, went plainclothes, etc.), yet returned from limbo to become comics' dominant comic. Prior to the PUNISHER LIMITED SERIES, the Punisher was thought to be best suited to occasional guest-star status, unable to field an audience. Two years later he was anchoring three series and a host of specials.

The problem with exceptions is they don't prove anything. (I'll skip the derivation of the expression "the exception that proves the rule" except to say it doesn't mean what most people think it means.) Sure, the X-Men made a comeback - after Len Wein and Dave Cockrum turned them into the Legion Of Super-Heroes. (The Legion has desperately been playing catch-up ever since, mostly by trying to turn themselves into the X-Men.) The Punisher, revived now by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, would seem to support the notion that any character can be "saved" with the right talent attached, but the Punisher was a fairly strong and simple concept to start with and the character is far less important to the current incarnation than Ennis' Grand Guignol sensibilities. Subtract that and you have basically nothing. Ennis has carved out his own niche, not blazed a trail for others to follow. Nor is trailblazing his responsibility. Ennis' ability to make characters such as John Constantine and The Punisher his own is rooted in a scorched earth attitude that pays not even lip service to what might happen to those characters when he's gone.

As with most discussions of this nature, we're stuck with fuzzy linguistics. We use the same words to mean different things. By "make it work," fans usually mean "make a character I like profitable." This is a problem of marketing, not art. They think they're saying "make a character I like good" (sometimes "good again") but they don't want to say that because it means what they like is currently bad. "Good" and "bad" are virtually meaningless in marketing terms anyway. MIGHTY MORPHIN' POWER RANGERS is a bad idea. It was never anything but a bad idea. The stories were bad, the acting bad, the action ludicrous, the heroes and villains just plain bewildering: a black hole of artistic considerations. Yet it was fabulously successful, for a time, and even now hangs in there, in an incarnation distant from the original but still just as bad. Which means someone out there's willing to pay money for it. When something that bad can turn a buck, it's hard to serious interject the notion of quality into a discussion.

[Captain Marvel]There's also some question of what constitutes a "good" character. Many comics characters are flat out silly, but many find that silliness very appealing. (Many don't.) Silliness was arguably the key to the success of Captain Marvel (Shazam version, not Kree) in the 40s, but those were simpler times, and while it's true a silly Captain Marvel would likely have little appeal to a modern audience, stripping that out has beaten every interesting element out of the character. Every "adjustment" to the character just makes him less and less appealing.

There's also the matter of context: what seems like a good idea in one context may not be such a good idea when the context changes. Much as we like to think we're a world unto ourselves (arguably one of the reasons that world keeps getting smaller and smaller) all work is done against the broader social backdrop. I've cited Fu Manchu before; a totally acceptable concept in the 20s and 30s when Yellow Peril was a staple of pulp novels and Hearst headlines, its blatant racism is now appalling. A couple years back I was approached to "revamp" Fu Manchu, but he's such a repellent character (along with comics stand-ins like The Mandarin or The Yellow Claw) even if every last racist element were retooled out of him, any subsequent vindication of the character would also vindicate the original racism underlying the concept. A character's (or series') popularity can be a function merely of time and context. Ever go back and listen to music you loved ten years ago? Ever cringe doing it? I used to watch ST. ELSEWHERE regularly, and remember liking it. It's now playing in rerun on the TV LAND cable network, and I not only can't figure out why I ever liked any of those characters, I'm baffled as to why I thought the show was interesting enough to look forward to. It's awful. Appreciation of pop culture is often just a function of context: don't stand still when it's time to move on.

The fact is that many characters have too much underlying baggage to be interesting for long - the longest-lived series are usually those with the scantest concepts. Superman has lasted a long time on the simplest of concepts (and the muscle of insatiable marketing machines). The problem is that all concepts contain the seeds of their eventual or immediate failure. Superman has dodged the bullet by successive revamps, but none of them vamped out enough of the underlying concept to destroy its underlying weaknesses, making future revamps inevitable as they slap more coats of paint on the Model T to keep the audience from noticing the rust.

"The fact is that many characters have too much underlying baggage to be interesting for long - the longest-lived series are usually those with the scantest concepts."

At best, "rescuing" characters is a dodgy concept. Brian Azzarello just started pushing his take on El Diablo, a DC western character that was a strained cross of Zorro and THE EXORCIST. (They could probably sell it as a movie on that pitch, by the way, if they take out "strained.") Brian's a good enough writer that the revamp will likely be entertaining, but he has already made it clear the emphasis is on a new, second character. As was the case with the earlier revamp of another silly character, CONGORILLA.

"Making characters work" is a booby trap. If a "rescued" character barely resembles its original form, the fans who demanded the "rescuing" feel betrayed, but if the "rescue" sticks close to the original version, it usually duplicates the reason the character failed in the first place. It's hard to remember now, but back when the "all-new" X-Men debuted in GIANT-SIZED X-MEN #1, there were tons of letters from original X-Men fans who wanted the team back and were furious it wasn't comprised of the original six members. Had they come back with the team of Cyclops, Marvel Girl, The Beast, Iceman, The Angel and Professor X, would anyone be talking about the book today? That group had their chance; when it was time to move on, Marvel did the right thing and moved on. (Until X-FACTOR, anyway, but that's something else again.)

If comics companies and comics fans insist on "making characters work" instead of letting the past go, they should follow the Vertigo model: get in and get out. Pound one great story out of a character and let it go. Are there bad characters? Sure. Anyone remember Scooter? A Beatle suit and Davy Jones haircut, riding into town on a motor scooter (hence the name) with a guitar strapped across his back. Another DC attempt to be hip: Archie Comics meets The Monkees. Lame jokes, forgettable support cast, terrible character. Could one good story be gotten out of him? Sure. I'd love to do one SCOOTER story: a rocker in his fifties desperately trying to be a teenager again and relive his glory days with one failed revival after another while the world outside has passed him by. Could you get a series out of that concept? Not a chance. Could you get a series out of the original concept? No chance of that either. I've got nothing against bleeding the past, but bleed it and flush it. Don't try to keep the corpse dancing around indefinitely; it's just grotesque.

Very short on time, so no announcements this week. By next week, I'll finally be settled in my new digs, with plenty of catching up to do. Be there.

Question Of The Week: To celebrate Marvel's forthcoming probable cancellation of various X-related titles (including, probably, X-MAN... sob...), pick five SUCCESSFUL comics that you'd cancel given the opportunity, and tell us why. Not liking it isn't enough: tell us the COMMERCIAL reasons the book deserves cancellation, not aesthetic reasons.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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