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End of Summer
 

Why Characterization Counts
by Charles Glasgow

Here's a simple question… why do you like your favorite character? What makes him your favorite? What keeps you buying the book, and hunting down his back issues, and buying other titles just because he's guest-starring there?

Is it the powers?

The cool costume?

The neato-keen stuff he has?

The sheer amount of butt he can kick?

(If you answered "Yes" to all of the above, and answer "No" to the following criterion, then go back to reading Rob Liefield comics. You'll be happier there.)

All sarcasm aside, while the above elements are usually part of why we love the characters we love, they're not the main part. The main part is…

*drum roll*

… we love the character because of who he (or she) is.

Kitty PrydeI mean, when you're reminiscing over your favorite character's best moments, do you really sit there going "Man, his gadgets are so cool!" or "That ring-thingy is just so neato!" or "Ninja butt-kickin' and gal-fu! Yee-ha!"?

Or are you going "I'll never forget "A Lonely Place Of Dying", when Tim Drake looked Batman straight in the eye and said with perfect sincerity 'No, I'd never do that. I want to help, not hold you back. But I'd like to come. And I'd like to learn from you.' " Or "When Hal Jordan wouldn't kill that Weaponer of Qward even though Guy Gardner was raging at him that it was the middle of a war and the enemy had to die, that's when I felt some real Green Lantern going on." Or "Kitty Pryde's best moment just had to be when she faced down Ogun like that in KITTY PRYDE & WOLVERINE #5, when she was beaten and bloody and totally outclassed and just Would. Not. Give. Up!!!"

I mean, why do you read comics?

Beats the heck out of me. What, do I look like a mind-reading Martian? *grin*

Hal refuses to killBut I know why I read comics. I read comics because (in addition to wanting to be entertained, thrilled, and getting my mind stretched), I am a total sucker for tales of the triumph of the spirit.

That is why I love the characters that I love. Because of who those people are.

As an example, one of my most favorite characters in all of comicdom today is a young lady who has no superpowers, martial arts skills that don't even rank in the top 50, and has absolutely no abilities, resources, gadgets, or skills that aren't totally duplicated, and exceeded, by her usual partner. Yet I can't get enough of her. Why? Because she is a person, and her own person, and a very unique and memorable and admirable person in her own way… and that's all I need.

Which brings me, in my roundabout way, to the topic of this article -- why consistent characterization is important.

Because if you love your favorite characters because they are the people that they are, what happens when they stop being the same people, stop acting like the people you knew?

It. Really. Fraggin'. BITES!!! That's what happens!

It's just that simple. If the whole point of admiring comics characters, of having favorite characters, is to thrill to who and what they are, then sudden and unexplained character changes -- that aren't improvements to the character, that don't make him or her better, more grown-up, more mature -- just plain suck.

Now, before somebody tries to send me a complimentary subscription to "W.E.T.R.A.T.S Monthly" or deride me for "Wanting Everything To Remain Always The Same", that's not what I'm saying here. I am not saying that all change is bad. If things never changed, the young lady I referred to above would have remained a likeable-but-not-entirely-admirable ditzy blonde her entire life, and she'd never have grown to the point where she recently displaced the Claremont/Byrne Kitty Pryde as my most favorite young lady in comics, ever.

Robin #58(Who is she, you ask? Stephanie Brown, aka the Spoiler. You might not like her, but I'm talking about my reasons for reading here. And I'd like to take this moment out to take my hat off to Chuck Dixon, for creating the most admirable and intriguing member of the ROBIN title's supporting cast that it's ever had.

But I digress…)

No, what I regard as my Numero Uno Pet Peeve in comics is when the team title takes the person who's also in a solo title… and totally dumps all over their characterization just so that the team title writer can make his plot-of-the-month work better. THAT, in Chuckg's not-so-humble-opinion, is the act of lazy and/or uncaring writers.

I accept that no two writers will ever write the same people exactly the same way. I mean, I've stopped reading DeZago's Impulse because I much preferred Waid's and Loeb's. But I'm not burning up the Net complaining about it, because DeZago was given the IMPULSE solo title, which means that he's the guy who gets to set where IMPULSE is going. That is what is known as the 'inevitable forces of change'. And sometimes, things change that are not for the best, and all you can do is accept it.

Unless, of course, you're talking about a "new vision" down on the level of Hal Jordan and "Emerald Twilight" or what Jurgens is currently doing to Thor or what happened to Shadowcat after Claremont left or (fill-in-your-most-painful-comics-fan-experience-here), in which case I can fully understand and sympathize with the devoted fan's being driven to gnaw his liver out in sheer frustration. After all, if we love our characters because of who they are, then when new authors change them around so utterly and so drastically for the worse, of course it's going to hurt. It's going to be downright agonizing. But -- *Chuckg sighs wearily* -- it's kind of hard to have a leg to stand on when writing your letters to the editor, because by the act of hiring a new writer for the solo title of the character, that's a sign from the Powers That Be saying they want this new stuff. I mean, despite everything the noble and dedicated folks over at H.E.A.T. could manage, we still have Kyle.

But I digress… again.

Now having unacceptable conflicts between a solo title and a team title, that's something else again. There, you've actually got a little room to maneuver. Having the "primary" writer of your favorite character eventually pass his torch on to someone with a different vision is not the same thing as team title writers who suddenly and inexplicably change things around just because they can't be bothered to make the extra effort to take the characters they're given and tell stories that fit them the way they are. Team title writers are not supposed to re-write the universe to fit them, they are supposed to write their stories (and make them good stories, mind you!) to fit the universe they've agreed to work within.

If they change characters to the point that they're not the same characters we know from their own titles, then what's the point? Why not just create your own original characters from scratch and make them your team? If the characters in question don't have concurrently running solo titles, then yes, those characters are free for use. But otherwise, they need to stay at least roughly in sync with the home office. Otherwise, they're not the same people that we have as our favorites… and since they're our favorites because of the people that they are, then that means that they're not our favorites anymore.

Now, it has been alleged by some people I've met that the ability to take someone else's character and use them to tell interesting stories while still keeping them someone else's character is a specialized subskill of writing that isn't possessed by all writers. It's also been alleged that if a team title writer lacks this particular subskill, then we should forgive the team title for its severe departures so long as he's still trying to tell good stories. After all, you can still be a good writer even if your talents lie in other areas, right?

To this, I have only one answer.

"Horsefeathers".

(Editor's Note -- Actually, Chuckg had several answers, but "Horsefeathers" was the only one we could allow to see print.)

Whether or not the team title author can do this or whether or not it's "fair" that he should have to "constrain his vision" is irrelevant. He took the job knowing that this is what a team title writer is supposed to do, ergo he deserves all the scorn you can heap on his head if he doesn't do it. A writer is supposed to be a professional. And a professional executes his professional assignment the way it's supposed to be done. He doesn't sit there and blithely disregard everything except his own personal desires and then excuse it with "Well, that's the only thing I know how to do or want to do."

In other words -- if a writer knows that he lacks the "specialized skill" of taking other people's characters and using them right, then he should act responsibly and not take writing assignments where having that particular skill is a professional requirement. Instead, he should stick to assignments where it doesn't matter if he lacks that skill, such as solo titles with characters that the Powers That Be want to be given new directions.

A professional does not hire himself out for jobs that he knows he lacks the required skills for.

If a professional pilot accepted a job to fly a type of aircraft he wasn't qualified to fly (like a 747 pilot trying to fly a helicopter, for example), then that pilot has committed a gross breach of professional standards. If an M.D. general practitioner hires himself out to do open-heart surgery when he's not been board-certified as a heart surgeon, then he has been extremely foolish. If a lawyer who's spent his whole career practicing criminal law in a small town suddenly goes and hires out to single-handedly draw up the legal papers for a complicated international finance deal and tax shelter, then he's got nobody to blame but himself when he fails.

And if a writer who knows that he doesn't have the ability -- or does possess the ability but simply lacks the desire -- to write using characters that currently "belong" to other writers without having to warp the characters around to fit his own vision, then that writer should at least have the self-awareness and maturity to stick to hiring himself out for assignments where that ability isn't needed.

Not all pilots can fly all types of aircraft. Not all doctors can practice in all specialties. And not all writers can write team titles without shredding continuity and/or consistency of characterization (and the two are not always identical) to pieces. And if they can't do it, then they should stick to the solos, the guest-shots, the limited series, etc. There is no great shame in sticking to what you do best. There is no shame in not being able to play well with others… so long as you stick to doing things where that is not a vital requirement. But there is great shame in accepting contracts, in taking money to do projects where that is a requirement… and then arrogantly refusing to do so.

So the next time you're reading your favorite character in his team title, and the team title writer is going off like he hasn't even read your character's own title, or spoken to the other writer more than once an eon, or even looks mildly interested in keeping the two different version on the same planet as far as characterization goes, or is lobotomizing your favorite because his plot-of-the-month won't work if your favorite is as competent/brave/noble/etc as he usually is…

… DO NOT just sit there and take it without complaint.

… DO NOT throw up your hands and say "Well, the editor must have agreed with it, so it's got to be that way."

… DO NOT go "Well, continuity is so screwed up anyway, so I don't really care."

… DO NOT be fooled when the author begs you for "latitude", or criticizes you for being "narrow-minded" or "refusing to accept change". (Note -- changes that comes accompanied by explanations for the change, explanations that are actually part of the story and make sense… and especially changes that makes the character more interesting, more memorable or admirable… that is good change. Heck, that's what makes the world go round. But Jekyll-and-Hyde style changes for no apparent reason, those are just plain sloppy.)

… and DO immediately sit down, fire up the old e-mail, and send the editor of said team title a letter explaining exactly why you'd appreciate it if the writer of the team title would try to act like he actually understood who the character of your favorite solo title was, and/or cared about understanding.

And if enough people did that, then the comics would be a better place.

Some people like continuity. Others consider it the greatest straightjacket to "creative vision" ever known. But that's continuity of events. And continuity of events is NOT the same as continuity of people, as continuity of spirit.

And it's the spirit that matters most of all. And when a team title loses the spirit of any or all of its members and just doesn't seem to care, then that is simply not right. And should not be borne.

-- Charles Glasgow
(aka "Chuckg" on Alvaro's and CBUB, and "cglasgow" on Dixonverse)

All characters are ™ DC Comics
EXCEPT Kitty Pryde, who is © Marvel Comics
This column is © 2000 by Charles Glasgow
 
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