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Characters vs. Concepts

August 15, 2011

Over time, I, like many other fans, have become more and more cynical about comic books as familiar tropes are reused over and over, and companies pull ridiculous editorial mandate stunts in attempts to boost sales. For example, the knowledge that Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, may very well be returning to life in less than six months simply confirms most people’s suspicions that the Future Foundation concept wouldn’t last forever. It’s just much sooner than we expected. And at the very least, the Future Foundation will continue on in its own book, though bereft of its main cast as the team returns to the Fantastic Four. Likewise, the Fantastic Four will be bereft of a huge chunk of its supporting cast, who will be starring in FF. An odd choice, to be sure. But I digress. My point is that cynicism has permeated into the popular consciousness so much that even non-comic book fans know about how often superheroes die and come back, and many similar tropes are discussed by the characters themselves in some sort of metatextual commentary.

Well, just recently, I finally put my finger on the problem. There’s a very simply way of defining most of the problems with comic book writing today, though I would be lying if I said there’s an easy way to fix those problems. They all boil down to this: writers are writing for concepts rather than for the characters. That’s what the whole status quo thing is. Marvel and DC each come up with some crazy idea and twist all their characters to fit that idea for a year or so before moving onto the next big thing. And the DCnU? It’s just one massive change to force the characters to fit “modern” and “hip” ideas. The changes aren’t deriving from the characters themselves. And that’s what leaves so many comic book fans annoyed when they read a lot of these books. The most satisfying stories are character-driven ones because of how naturally the events develop from the characters’ personalities and how they deal with the world. Take a look at Civil War, for example. It was an exciting concept, to be sure, but fans cried foul because Iron Man was suddenly a total dick willing to put all his friends in chains, and Captain America was suddenly completely irrational in his anti-registration crusade. Their reactions weren’t natural for their personalities, and that left a bad taste in people’s mouths.

And Mark Millar’s just one example of a concept-driven writer. Geoff Johns is horribly guilty of writing for the concepts. Sure, he managed to nail down Hal Jordan’s personality perfectly, but Brightest Day was just one giant mess of character tweaking via retcons because Johns wanted the characters to be how he saw them rather than how they were. His “concepts” of the Brightest Day and each of their backstory changes overrode the characters themselves. The difference is that I just happen to like his concepts better, but he’s just as guilty. So are many other writers, including Brian Michael Bendis (Scarlet Witch is crazy and Wolverine and Spider-Man as Avengers, to start), Matt Fraction (Hammerz for everyone!), J. Michael Straczynski (Superman refusing to fly, the “new” Wonder Woman, Thor in Broxton, and partially One More Day), and even Grant Morrison (incorporating all those old, ridiculous Batman stories into modern continuity even though they no longer make sense, if they ever did in the first place), to varying degrees. Of course, some were successful because they happened to work with the characters, like Thor and virtually everything Morrison does with Batman. But in both those cases, Straczynski and Morrison took stock of the characters they were writing. You can’t write without concepts, or else it’s just characters doing nothing, but they used their concepts to develop the characters, rather than used the characters to develop the concepts, as so many writers do.

But in mainstream comics, the writer I’d have to say is the best with character-based writing is Gail Simone. Why do Secret Six and Birds of Prey just feel so good and so right? Because Simone is writing for the characters. She even did that with Wonder Woman; her weird concepts, like Genocide and Wonder Woman’s trip to another world, helped flesh out Wonder Woman as a character. The choices weren’t just random because Simone thought it would be cool for Diana to face an evil, crazy future version of herself; it provided her with a personal foil and allowed Simone to show Diana’s compassion and other positive traits shining through even in adversity. It wasn’t just her saying, “Diana needs to be like this because that would be so much cooler.” As I believe I’ve seen many people say, comics need less fanboys who want to force their interpretations on the characters and more writers.

Now of course with Secret Six, many of those characters are Simone’s own creations. Really, it was only Deadshot that she didn’t either create or redefine. That’s the biggest benefit of creator-owned books, a point I must concede to Robert Kirkman. If you create your own characters, then you define their personalities, making “out of character” moments less frequent. I do also believe that writers can make their own characters act out of character if they’re really not “listening to their characters’ voices,” as it where, but it’s much harder. To me, Grant Morrison is the perfect balance of concept and character. You do need a setting and a plot around which to develop the characters, and Morrison navigates that gray area with his Batman work particularly well. I’ll have to read some of his other stuff to see if that’s something he’s consistently good at, but I figure he’s not one of the most popular writers in comic book history for nothing. He does trip up occasionally, but who doesn’t?

But someday, I just hope that writers can get over their childhood fantasies about whichever superhero doing this awesome but random thing and can just… tell a story. A real story in which characters have consistent personalities *cough*Bendis*cough* and act believably both in reference to how real people might act and to themselves. You know, so we don’t read two different runs on the same series with the same characters and wonder why the same person seems to be inexplicably so radically different because writer 2 thought writer 1 didn’t get that person quite the way he did, even though writer 1 was basing his interpretation far more on past stories than fanboyism. Just saying.

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