At the risk of breaking some fragile fanboy hearts, I’ll lift the curtain a bit here on this subject.
Making iconic comic book characters more “realistic” or “grimmer” or “grittier” is most often the product of a bankrupt imagination rather than the opposite. These icons exist within a framework and have flaws built into their make-up given to them by their original creators.
They have supporting casts with established relationships and locations, situations and attitudes durable enough to allow them to last decades. These frameworks are sturdy, tested and malleable. Batman, over his lifetime, has been a grim avenger, dogged detective, silly, even sillier, a detective once again and a grim avenger to come full circle over 70+ years and always remained the Batman that the larger pop culture consumer can recognize. Hundreds of comic creators have worked on him and labored within that framework to work wonders yet left him as they found him for future creators to work on and future audiences to enjoy.
In recent years, the imagination-challenged have looked to what’s wrong with the characters rather than what’s right. Driven to delight an aging core fanbase with stories that are more “mature” and shocking, these flaws have been exploited to turn what were once heroes into murderous thugs, morally- conflicted dawdlers or serial abusers; the flaws that once made them more believable as characters have been turned into personal failings. We all have flaws built into us. That’s why we respond to characters facing challenges from the same flaws we see (or don’t see) in ourselves. But faults are something you’re supposed to do something about. Heroes do something about their faults so they don’t become permanent personality traits. We look up to them because they have the strength of character to do what we often cannot. They are meant to inspire us and show us our better angels.
This framework is too constricting for creators who look to improve their own standing over that of the characters they’re writing; the editor who wants to do a victory lap around the weekly editorial meeting; the writer who craves the attention of Wizard or some fan-driven website. They want credit for what they think of as breaking formula when all they’re doing is showing their failure to grasp the core appeal of the characters they’re working with. There’s a cynical disregard for what makes these icons work but it only serves to mask their own inabilities to create within guidelines and restrictions.
When your favorite, beloved character is revealed to be a deviant basketcase or found dead in an alley after being sexually violated it’s more a case of unbridled hubris rather than unbridled imagination. They’ve thrown out the rulebook, the characterization and decades of continuity and shrug when people object. It’s “what the audience demands.” That’s true if your audience is a steadily-shrinking one populated by increasingly cynical fans who fancy themselves as critics. Lately editors, publishers and/or creators have simply thrown in the creative towel with the lame “it’s all been done before.” Really? And why is this a problem now when it wasn’t over the prior fifty years?
Largely, the creators have eschewed plot for characterization. They want to explore what makes the character work and have that be what drives the stories. Try that with your iPhone and call me on a landline later to tell me how it all worked out.
In genre fiction, plot separates the men from the boys. Come up with an interesting, engaging story with rising action built into it and then set your character in motion within that plot. Only a dullard repeatedly extrapolates on a character’s personality and calls it a story. Only a dullard would enjoy that. Sure, you can get away with it once in a while and it’s cool to reward readers with some new revelation or reaction based on the antagonist’s core beliefs or conflicts. Those are moments that thrill longtime fans and add depth to the character’s world for casual readers. But these Tennessee Williams plays that go on for years and reach no cathartic resolution are tiresome; especially when presented in a medium and genre where we want to see the hero and his cast doing something.
Then there’s getting the character outright, pure-D wrong. This warping and wafting of long established heroes so that they can play a certain role in a story that can only work if you violate that character’s whole reason for being, as well as his coolness factor, are the mark of an ungifted mind.
Like the hero who throws aside all of his moral convictions to make a choice convenient for himself. The hero who gives in because his writer can’t think of a way out for him is common as well. Or, my personal bugaboo, the hero known for his steel trap mind suddenly displaying the intellectual capabilities of a teenager visiting Crystal Lake for the first time.
So many of these talents believe that by breaking the established and familiar framework of the protagonist they’re working on they’ve written the ultimate story of that character. What they may or may not fail to understand is that “ultimate” means “final”. Perhaps they think it means “most awesome”. I think many of them believe that their daunting imaginations have come up with the Last Word on the character.
Don Daley, my old editor on the Punisher back in the DeFalco days at Marvel, had a drawer full of scripts labeled “The Ultimate Punisher Story.” He let me read a few of them one time. There were scripts by wannabe and amateurs and a surprising number of top talents. They were of varying degrees of competence and professionalism. The one thing they had in common was that they were all the same story. In each story the Punisher accidentally kills an innocent. A child. A nun. A cop. Frank Castle then quits being the Punisher and becomes a priest. In every story. Every damned one. In some he quits being the Punisher forever and in others he’s dragged back into the vigilante game for some compelling reason. The other element that these scripts shared other than inciting incident, plot and resolution was that they got the core character of Frank Castle so entirely wrong that it was breath-taking. Unable to come up with a story for the Punisher, they decided to break the franchise and glue it back together in a new form they could understand.
Now, rather than ending up in a drawer of discards, this kind of scorched earth approach is at the center of multi-year event comics.
Ambiguity is the new hip in comics.