Square Story, Round Character

May 4th, 2009 by | Tags: , , , , , ,

I know that I’m Mister Push Comics Forward Break Them Characters Give Us The New-new, but I do have one continuity-based pet peeve. I really dislike it when creators take established characters and regress them, or just change them entirely, in order to fit them into the story they want to tell.

There are plenty of examples out there. The most egregious are probably Bobby Drake, Iceman, and Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, with Sam Guthrie, Cannonball, bringing up the rear. Bobby and Johnny were the hot-headed youngsters of the X-Men and Fantastic Four, respectively, and Sam is pretty much the poster-child for the second generation of X-Men. All three have gone from immature, mistake-making, and newbie heroes into grown-up, mature, and seasoned adults.

Bobby is an Omega-level mutant with an insane amount of control over ice, and therefore water, and has come to terms with that. Johnny has wielded the Power Cosmic a couple of times, saved the world several dozen times, and seen planets, dimensions, and time periods other people don’t even dream about. Sam was trained by the son of the X-Men’s best strategist, who was himself a child of war. He also had the benefit of being trained by two generations of X-Men, and when he struck out on his own, he found success.

The problem is that when a writer has a story that needs an impetuous kind of fella, or a newbie to make a dumb decision, or someone to show just how mature or smart another character is… guess which dudes are the fall guys.

Reed Richards has gone through the “ignoring his family for the benefit of science by the way he is a jerk” cycle a fistful of times now, most recently in Mark Millar’s Civil War. You’d think that Cyclops’s turn as the depressed and distant loner would be over after New X-Men, a story designed to push him past that, would never happen again. Or that Beast Boy, who is like thirty years old and should get a new name, would be written as something other than a horny teenager. Nah.

This is something that’s been bugging me more than usual lately, since the three biggest guys in comics have all been doing it. Mark Millar, Brian Bendis, and Geoff Johns have all taken characters who had established personalities or gimmicks, tossed it out, and slotted something new in because they needed X so that they could write Y. Rather than creating X, they just took Z and turned it into X. And that’s lame.

I brought visual aids.

It wasn’t a big hit when it first came out, judging by the fact that it was out of print for a number of years, but Brian K Vaughan and Kyle Hotz’s The Hood was a fun little series. It was about a small-time crook (bad-)lucking his way into a magic cape, and the terrible events that followed. Parker Robins was not a good guy by any means, but he wasn’t exactly Snidely Whiplash, either. At least until New Avengers.

In New Avengers, The Hood has turned himself from a strictly small-time hoodlum into a new kingpin of crime, with a brand new ruthless outlook on life. Bendis revealed that the cloak was the property of, or connected to, Dormammu, and is influencing his actions, but compare these scenes. The first two pages are from the original miniseries, while the third is from Rick Remender and Jerome Opena’s Punisher.


Are these the same character?

Another example is over on the DC side of things. Judomaster was introduced in Gail Simone and Nicola Scott’s run on Birds of Prey. She was basically the Generic Ninja Girl With Stilted Speech. She was quippy in that very Gail Simone sort of way, until she appeared in Geoff Johns’s Justice Society of America. There, she could speak Japanese, though she didn’t, and did not speak any English at all. First page from Bop, next two from JSA.


This is one of the more baffling changes, because the only thing she did throughout JSA was look quizzical, dodge punches, and fall in love with Damage. I don’t know if Johns was going for some kind of Silent Beauty & Loud Beast thing, but even if he was, that’s dumb. Judomaster could’ve kept her English and still dated dude. I mean, really, it only comes up with that dumb “Everyone like ice cream” bit. Because, you see, she doesn’t speak the English very well.

This last one is the one that bugs me the most, because Noh-varr is the main character of one of my favorite Grant Morrison books. Marvel Boy is the story of an alien whose spacecraft is shot down by an obscure Iron Man villain. He survived the crash, his crew didn’t, and he was left stranded on Earth. Since he can’t leave, he decides to bring paradise to Earth, whether Earth wants it or not. His first act in that move is to scrawl an expletive across New York City in letters entire city blocks high. In Dark Avengers, though, he’s something else. First two from Marvel Boy, last one from DA.


In Dark Avengers, he might as well be an entirely different character.

Really, that’s my problem with all of these changes. There’s no reason to use the characters that already exist. If you want a silent kung-fu chick to fall in love with your ugly explosive hero, hey, create Silencia, the Woman Who Cannot Be Heard Nor Touched. If you need a cackling villain with a magic cape, create Snidley Whiplashicus, a man who subsists entirely on the pain of others and likes to tie young girls to railroad tracks and beat up Canadians. Maybe he has a dog who laughs sometimes.

If you need an unsure alien to be the newbie on the team, don’t pick the guy who spent every single issue of his book being amazing at everything and throwing up his middle finger at anyone who tried to stop him while simultaneously shooting them with lasers.

The characters should come before the story. If you’re pounding a round character into a square story, people are gonna look at your story and roll their eyes. Why use a character if he isn’t going to resemble who he was before? I can understand character growth and so on, but character growth isn’t going from good guy to murderer, or insanely advanced tactician to newbie dork, instantaneously. This is just cheap.

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17 comments to “Square Story, Round Character”

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more, especially about Noh-var. I loved Morrison’s Marvel Boy and still feel it’s rather important, at least its statement/intention. I was quite worried to see what Bendis et al would do with such a distinct, angry character once they got their hands on him and my worst fears were realized. Just like with the Hood and just as you state, regardless of what the character may have last been, some writers find it easier to mold the character to fit their story rather than the other way around.

    Another example of Bendis fucking up a good thing would be Dr. Strange. After coming off a fun, interesting mini series from BKV that established an interesting new wrinkle to Doc’s status quo, as well as leaving two supporting characters with lots of potential, Bendis decides to just wipe all of that out. So he can do … what, exactly, with the Sorcerer Supreme? Act like a bitch and fail at everything he tries? Nice. In this case, it’s probably not much more than wanting to shoehorn in Brother Voodoo …

  2. I don’t think Marvel Boy really belongs with either Judomaster or Human Torch. I agree the character is not similar to the one in the Morrison run. He’s been altered, but it’s not because Bendis decided to force him to fill a specific role, but because the character has had some progression from the end of the Morrison’s Mini.

    In Zeb Wells’s short story from the Who Do You Trust oneshot, he is pretty much the way he is at the end of Morrison’s mini. It’s not until he runs into Captain Marvel, that he changes. Imagine David, if Malcolm X came from the heavens, and told you that you don’t really have it all figured out the way you think you do.

    Since then he’s been really off. His skills are still all there, as shown in the fight scene. He’s just has Marvel’s voice in the back of his head telling him that he still needs to get his weight up.

  3. Yeah, Pedro said what I was going to say about Marvel Boy. I won’t pretend to have read all his issues, but he was shown to have mellowed out in recent years. I feel like he hasn’t gotten enough screen time in general for me to form an opinion on him in Dark Avengers anyway.

    But yeah, I think character regression is much worse than any type of killing or resurrection. Death’s pretty fluid, but if a major writer decides to take a character back to his/her 1970s template, then that could stick around for a long time. The one that got me real bad was Loeb’s current run on Hulk. Planet Hulk changed my entire opinion on Hulk as a character, and he was finally put in a place that he belonged, had a strong cast, married to a wife that could keep up with him, and be a leader of a planet, something no Marvel comic had going at the time. We were finally getting something more than Banner on the run or HULK SMASH, and they reset it with World War Hulk and Leob’s old mystery-arc-with-guest-stars-galore routine. Hulk’s not dead, but everything connected to Planet Hulk has been left to languish.

    Also, Monica Rambeau. It’s really schizophrenic how the Nextwave team gets treated. Machine Man keeps his personality and kills a thousand zombies, but Monica gets to be Black Panther’s rookie and be in shoehorned in with characters she barely has anything to do with in Marvel Divas. It ain’t right. She used to lead the Avengers, you know.

  4. I just thought Judo Master was a different person, under that mask, than the person I’d seen in Outsiders or BoP or anywhere else. I figured I missed some big changes. I’m surprised to “hear” you say that it’s been the same woman all along.


  5. @Pedro Tejeda: The Zeb Wells story came after Brian Bendis did a story, maybe two, and Marvel published a miniseries featuring the new and sullen Marvel Boy. The mellowing out happened off-panel, and then we got a tiny bit of background info on how it happened, which basically boiled down to “It happened and he was wrong whoops.”

    @West: I can’t see DC introducing two different female Japanese Judomasters within like 18 months of each other. At least, I hope not.

    @Josh: I’d be okay with Bendis’s Doc Strange if he just went back to rhyming his spells. The fake Lord of the Rings magic stuff has never worked for me.

  6. @David Brothers

    If you mean mini, do you mean YA/Runaways Secret Invasion? He was pretty angry in Bendis’s Illimunati issue also. He’s only been mellow since… He ran into Captain Marvel.

  7. Sam and Bobby I think bother me the most. Mostly because I absolutely loved them during Mike Carey’s run on X-men, where they kicked all kinds of ass. And as much as I like Fraction, having them go so far back on what they had been becoming is depressing as hell. The change in art teams certainly didn’t help. I don’t like Land to begin with (as some of you may already know…) but to see Sam look like he’s fresh out of high school instead of a thoroughly experienced fighter was totally depressing.

    I think Tabby got it roughest out of the Nextwave characters if what happened in X-force actually sticks. I hope it doesn’t.

    It would have been awesome if they kept Noh-Varr as arrogant and totally holier than thou just to see him deal with Norman. I mean that would be the most egocentric team ever (Marvel Divas would have NOTHING on the Dark Avengers), but it’d be hilarious.

  8. Is that the same Marvel Boy from Agents of Atlas too?

  9. Nah, that’s a different Marvel Boy. The one in Agents of Atlas is the original one from way back when.

  10. Spare a thought for the fans of C-list nobody characters that end up starring in sloppily-written miniseries by editors or friends-of-the-editors/EiC. I’m sure you can think of more than a few off the top of your head…

    It’s an interesting problem that oddly seems more prevalent as comics become more similar to visual media, as television shows and movies have people specifically employed to oversee continuity between scenes and to make sure characters stay on-model. Writers who couldn’t write a show’s characters usually get fired, so I suppose they just ended up looking for work in funnybooks – it would explain a few things, wouldn’t it?

  11. The classic example of this is Sandman, the Spider-Man villain. He had sort of reformed and hung out with the Thing, etc, and then John Byrne decides that no he has to be a villain because Thus Spake Byrne, I guess.

  12. Byrne’s terrible about that. Remember Doom Patrol?

  13. It might just be me, but does anyone see any racism/cultural+trope stereotyping in the Judomaster case?

    I mean, it’s like they decided to hit up every single criteria for your stereotypical Asian character in Western fictional mediums. You have an Asian (A) woman, who is (B) great at martial arts, who (C) falls in love with a white man, and (D) can’t speak English very well. Oh, don’t forget (E) token ethnic character in a predominantly white grouping. A token ethnic character in a predominantly white grouping with culturally conservative values WITHOUT A VOICE.

    I take it back. It *IS* racist.

  14. @Lawrence Wang: Yeah, I’d had some thoughts in that direction, too, but JSA is such a book about old white dudes that I didn’t even think it was worth going into. I don’t know that it’s got culturally conservative values, though.

    I mean, okay, Johns & Co. introduced Jakeem and Black Lightning’s (other?!) daughter into the mix, but that was for what, so Black Lightning could make a “Hands off my daughter, youngblood” crack at Jakeem when he introduced him to his daughter? The characters didn’t do much else of worth, save for maybe punching Gog in the foot when everyone else had a go late in the run.

  15. […] brief explanation: Brother Voodoo was needed to fill a role. As part of filling that role, he’s got to talk with a comic book Carribbean accent, I guess. […]

  16. Marvel boy seemed like natural progression to me, arrogant-doubting-mellow.

    Strange’s depowerment was mandated by Quesada and Brevoort. Im sick of Bendis hate when its baseless.

    The Hood is easily explainable by being POSSESED by DORMAMMU.

    But I completly agree about Iceman and Cannonballs.

  17. […] book also convinced me that, like Noh-varr, Bendis has no qualms about taking older, previously-established characters and sanding them down […]