Pretty, Fizzy Paradise

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Friday, May 12, 2006

What Makes Replacement Characters Work...

So Newsarama's interview with Mike Carlin about the New Atom sounds pretty interesting. I loved Ray but I try not to dismiss replacement characters out of hand. After all, many of my favorite characters are not the originals.

And Ray's not actually dead, so he could be back to make things complicated for his successor too, and that's always cool.

My one potential problem is that aside from the Chinese aspect (I'm presuming Ryan is either from Hong Kong or "Ryan" isn't his actual given name, as American names aren't terribly common in mainland China, not that it really matters yet, I suppose), Ryan Choi doesn't seem terribly different from Ray Palmer.

And that could be very bad marketing.

Wherein I Exercise Some Amateur Market Analysis via Jason Todd
See, it occurs to me that the most successful replacement/successor characters are markedly different from their predecessors, allowing for much different stories. Tim Drake and Cassandra Cain could never be placed in exactly the same situations as Dick Grayson or Barbara Gordon. Wally West is nothing like Barry Allen or Jay Garrick. And heck, the Green Lanterns are all different enough that they can now be all members of the Corps together.

When they're exactly the same though, it tends not to work.

Let's look at Jason Todd. I think I know exactly why Jason Todd didn't really take off as a Robin. I mean, fans voted to kill him. That's pretty extreme, even for a disliked character. And of those that voted to keep him, most indicated it was more because "Robin shouldn't die" than love of the character. (Though Red Hood/evil-Jason now is admittedly fun).

But I actually think that Jason Todd was just a casualty of severe, *severe* mismanaging from his pre-Crisis conception that if done differently, would not have resulted as it did. This is, admittedly, just my theory.

Okay, so the year's 1983. Dick Grayson's officially Nightwing, but it's decided, for whatever reason, that Batman needs a Robin. Which I don't disagree with, I've always found the Robins more interesting than Batman himself, so I'm happy to see them...(it should be noted that this is a hypothetical, as I was busy being born in 1983, and being a squalling, red-faced colicky mess of a creature and not up for comic books).

So they make a Robin. Problem is, they've essentially got a place-holder Robin. Circus star, parents killed by criminal, same basic cheerful, happy, acrobatic personality as Dick Grayson. The character is not without charm, and the newbies' look into the Bat universe is reasonably fun to read even today. But the problem was that the similarities to Dick vastly outweighed the differences.

See, basically, with regards to any character, you've got three groups: 1. Fans that love the character. 2. Fans that hate the character. and 3. Fans that have never heard of the character/never formed an opinion about the character. Now Robin's such a household name by this point that we can assume no comic reader actually fits into group 3.

Pre-Crisis Jason Todd wasn't exactly the same character as Dick Grayson and was charming enough in personality to possibly have been used elsewhere in the DCU, but he was damn close. Strikingly similar backstory, similar enough personality...

Now here's where you have the problem. Whenever you have a replacement of a popular character, of any character really, the fans of the original are going to get upset. No one likes their character being replaced. Now we know that Dick Grayson's going to be reasonably successful as Nightwing, enough that he's still going strong 23 years later, but at the time, it must have seemed like a dreadfully risky move. If it didn't work, would they kill him/write him out completely?

So the fans of the character are not going to be happy about the replacement. Big deal, right? Look at Kyle Rayner. Many Hal fans *hated* the character, or at least took a very long time to warm to him, and he's still going strong. More than a decade later, the newbie's still having adventures, and even has his own series.

But the trick is that, where Kyle might have took a long time to reach Hal's actual fans, he was different enough to attract folks from groups two and three. Some of those who found Hal off-putting, or were generally uninterested in the comic concept found themselves intrigued by the different aspects of the new guy. He's uncertain where Hal was confident, he's green where Hal was experienced. He's sensitive and growing and constantly changing and adapting in a much more visible way than Hal, he makes amusing constructs instead of Hal's utilitarian style.

All of this adds up to a character with the potential to attract a brand new fanbase, even if the Hal fans all up and leave. Which pretty much happened.

But pre-Crisis Jason Todd...well, aside from newbie-dom, he didn't bring anything new to the table. Some Dick fans were willing to give him a shot, but a lot resented the replacement of the character they loved and reacted accordingly. And as he was so similar to Dick in many ways, there was nothing to attract the fans that disliked Dick/Robin. And again, given the mainstream-ness of the Robin name, there really wasn't anyone *in* group 3.

So you have a considerable loss in the original fanbase and nothing to bring in new fans.

Now, to compound the issue, you have the post-Crisis revamp of Jason Todd into an angry, resentful, fight-happy street kid. The ironic thing about this is that if *this* version of Jason Todd had been introduced in 1983, he might have actually done well.

Sure he's not Dick, hell, he's *drastically* not Dick, so he'd probably lose even more of the original Dick fans. But he's different enough that he might have attracted many who hated the Dick Grayson version. For example, I've heard folks complain that Robin was too bright/silly to fit conceptually with Batman, (even apparently before DKR or the Burton movies turned Batman into the much darker figure), but perhaps the angrier/darker persona would appeal to them. There might have been other reasons to dislike the Dick/Robin character that wouldn't have applied to this version of Jason either. He might have actually built a brand new fanbase himself. Heck, lots of folks reading back issues now actually like him. He's fun! So he might of had a shot.

But we'll never know. Because the post-Crisis revamp was a fuck-up. Because now you had a Jason Todd who had his own (admittedly smaller group 1) and his group 2 (which encompasses both Dick fans who dislike Jason, and folks that dislike the Robin concept in general). Again, there really isn't a group 3).

Now by revamping Jason Todd, your group 1 becomes very upset. This Jason is not the Jason that they like. This isn't even a replacement, where the character they like is either still around or has the possibility of resurrection. The character they liked is *gone*. So new Jason Todd's group 1 shrunk *even more*.

But he's not Dick. So he's probably not going to attract back the Dick fans that didn't like pre-Crisis Jason. And his name is *still* Jason Todd, so the people who weren't interested in pre-Crisis Jason won't really be interested in giving him another shot now. They've *seen* Jason Todd before. They didn't like him. Why try now?

So yeah. You have a mess here and it's not because of any innate flaw in the character. It's just a huge marketing fuck-up of gigantic proportions.

Now with Tim Drake, the marketing machine figured out their mistakes. First, there was his origin story which got a nod from Dick to take over the Robin role. This went a long way to appease Dick fans, some of whom were upset that Dick's legacy had passed onto Jason without seemingly any input from him. And by now Nightwing's been active for 6 years, surviving the Crisis intact, so, well, the Dick fans are less defensive and more willing to give Tim a shot. And he's markedly different from Dick AND either Jason. He's cerebral, restrained, controlled instead of either cheerfully exuberant or angry and violent. He was created to be a different sort of partner to Batman.

So while he might not appeal to all of the old fans (some folks are never happy unless their favorites are back where they belong), he gets his own fanbase and is successful.

So what the hell does this have to do with Ryan Choi?

Well, like I said, I like replacement characters in general. I like new characters in general. I prefer not to lose my favorites, but I know they can come back either through resurrection or flashback or vision quest or whatever. (Wesley Dodds for example is a character I love but would very much prefer he remain resting in peace).

I personally tend to prefer characters with ties to the original. Direct legacy is good. But even just taking the job and having the predecessor as a looming spectre to live up to, like in the case of Green Lantern, Firestorm, or as it seems the Atom, tends to work to work for me

But I'm worried too. Because direct copy-characters don't do well. And if there's any hope of seeing the character *I* like again, it'd be in some special issue of the new series. And besides, I *like* new characters and want them to do well. They add more depth and dimension to the DCU.

I'm hoping Ryan will be markedly different from Ray in personality and outlook, because just being Chinese won't be enough of a difference. I've always enjoyed Ms. Simone's work and she's never struck me as a lazy enough writer to just rely on something like nationality as a sole difference.

But I'll be uneasy anyway, because I am a very geeky person who likes being worried about comics anyway.

7 Comments:

  • At May 12, 2006 10:17 AM, Anonymous Jer said…

    Kalinara, I respectively disagree with your reasoning on why people didn't like Jason Todd. Or at least, the part where you say that if he'd been like his post-Crisis version from the start, more people might have liked him. I think he died in the 1-800 campaign because he was an obnoxious jerk in his post-Crisis revision, and it was obvious that the writers didn't want him around and wrote him even more obnoxious to get folks to hate him. Plus, there was a big "movement" (for lack of a better word) at the time to make Batman a "loner" and to get rid of the "goofy sidekicks". I think the epitaph for Jason would have been written either way.

    That said, I think there's some merit to the idea that new characters have to be NEW in order to stick around. However, they can't drift too far from the concept either. I'm not willing to say that Ryan Choi and Ray Palmer aren't that different yet - I want to see how Gail writes Ryan. Because Ryan is a noob and Ray was an experienced older guy. Sure they're both college professors/scientists - but that's something that is actually integral to the whole Atom concept - get rid of the scientist part of the Atom and you have a guy who shrinks - not interesting (or at least not interesting enough for a solo title).

    But here you have this guy Ryan Choi trying to fill in the shoes of an older respected scientist and professor - nevermind the superhero part, Choi has managed to get himself in as a replacement for one of the premiere scientists in the DCU. And he's going to have the adventuring bag going on as well. Plus, he's going to have the "out-of-towner" vibe going on as a recent immigrant. There's plenty of space for differences between him and Ray Palmer, and since Simone is a good writer, I fully expect her to be able to do this.

    (And I still insist that Hal's fans would have been at least okay with Kyle taking on the mantle if Hal and the GLC had been allowed a hero's death saving the universe instead of Hal killing off the Corps and the Guardians. It was the mishandling of the transition that lead to the rancor of the pro-Hal fans, not anything about Kyle. Any new character would have gotten the same reaction after the "Hal goes crazy and kills the Corps" storyline.)

     
  • At May 12, 2006 11:20 AM, Blogger Diamondrock said…

    I'm all over this. My name is Ryan. There aren't any other characters with that name. I love you Gail!

     
  • At May 12, 2006 11:51 AM, Blogger The Fortress Keeper said…

    Who knows how it would have worked out if Jason had the "street-wise" persona from the start. I still think it was a better origin than the Killer Croc scenario.

    I think he was killed off because a lot of readers at the time hated the idea of Robin in general and got their kicks by "offing" him.

    Plus, writers at the time didn't do much more with Jason than make him the "anti-Dick Grayson." Better character development could have played up the differences with Bruce more significantly.

    Agree with jer regarding Hal Jordan. Although Rebirth took the Parallax concept and used it to both reinvigorate Sinestro and add an interesting component to Hal's character.

    As far as the new Atom goes, looking forward to the book and hope Gail Simone plays the concept up to its full potential.

     
  • At May 12, 2006 12:23 PM, Blogger Anthony Palmer said…

    I agree with your thoughts about making replacement characters different enough from their predecessor, and I think that in the case of The Atom it's both the only way to go and yet is doomed to failure.

    This new guy sounds like a younger, chinese version of Ray Palmer. If he's so similar, then why bother? Well, frankly, I see one of the motivations being that of expanding the racial diversity of DC's heroes, which I approve of. The other primary motivation of this swap I can discern is that they're hoping the New Character Smell will attract readers.

    The problem is that the New Guy Learns To Use Super Power thing will not stay interesting forever. It requires character growth and an interesting core concept to keep going. Kyle Rayner and Wally West both eventually evolved from just being the New Guy, but they had solid and proven concepts to work with. There's a reason there's been so many Green Lantern and Flashes - The concept just works. It's not a case of trying to jam a square peg into a circular hole - nearly any character can fit.

    The problem with the Atom is that, well, the concept just isn't that great. It's never sustained a title for very long before, and I see no reason for it to do so now, especially with a character who isn't all that different from the previous. I love the Atom as a supporting character and as a Justice League Member, but even if this series were starring Ray Palmer, I probably wouldn't buy it. But then I'm pretty poor!

    You can't really fit a character into the Atom suit who isn't a scientist, either. It's kind of essential to the concept. If the new guy was some fratboy it would just be a squandering of the science/exploration aspect. Even worse is that, apparantly, Ray Palmer is going to be AWOL and won't be able to function as a mentor figure. Though it would be pretty cool if the new guy hears a voice in his head that guides him with sage advice and it turns out to be shrunken Ray, living in his ear.

     
  • At May 12, 2006 2:08 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    jer: I do see what you're saying, I'm not sure though that Jason would have been doomed. His post-crisis incarnation was, undoubtedly, an obnoxious jerk but it was a personality that actually suited Batman's loner theme in a certain sense. (There was no reason that, if successful, Jason couldn't have gone the way of Tim Drake, leaving Batman largely alone)

    Mostly the reason I say this though is because a lot of folks (myself included) look back and actually seem to enjoy the Post-Crisis Jason stories. Could be that he wouldn't have been successful anyway, but he really didn't get a fair shake.

    And I agree with you about Hal, that a good portion was *how* it was done. However, my point stands that it's a demonstration of Kyle's own different appeal that he could remain as a character for all that animosity.

    diamondrock: There is that. :-)

    keeper: You're right of course, we don't know how it'd work out. But the character *was* screwed from the start. At least with the "streetwise" persona at start, he might have had a more fair shake.

    And to be fair, the difference between killing him and saving him was percentage-wise a *very* small number. For almost every reader that wanted to get their kicks killing him, there was another who didn't want to kill a Robin.

    And I still agree with Parallax being the cause of a lot of the animosity. Thing is, you still have some folks who *still* hate Kyle Rayner with tremendous passion even though Hal's back. It's quite bizarre. (He's an awfully inoffensive character type in my opinion, so I admit I don't get it.)

    anthony: Well, this sort of thing does take time. There are many ways "professor" and "adventurer" and "shrinking guy" can go differently than Ray Palmer.

    But yeah, it is a bit of an odd choice. At least the Blue Beetle's riding on Ted's notorious death.

    Ray in his ear would be *awesome* though. :-)

     
  • At May 12, 2006 9:35 PM, Anonymous J. Kevin Carrier said…

    "But pre-Crisis Jason Todd...well, aside from newbie-dom, he didn't bring anything new to the table. Some Dick fans were willing to give him a shot, but a lot resented the replacement of the character they loved and reacted accordingly."

    I was an avid BATMAN reader at the time, and I honestly don't remember hearing any such complaints. For the most part, people seemed to take to Jason just fine, and it wasn't until the post-Crisis reboot that he became widely disliked.

    For one thing, Jason wasn't really a "replacement" for Dick. Dick had been off on his own for over a decade, and Jason's arrival didn't change his status at all. Dick continued to do exactly what he'd been doing -- leading the Teen Titans, only now he had a costume that was slightly more appropriate for a grown man. ;-) Batman didn't trade one sidekick for another, he went from having no sidekick to getting a new one.

    Also, Jason wasn't just thrust upon the audience out of nowhere. He spent many months trying to convince Batman to *let* him become his sidekick, and then several more fighting by his side in a non-Robin costume. There's a very funny scene in one issue where Jason and Bruce try in vain to come up with a good codename for Jason ("Bluejay? Cardinal? Batboy?"), until Dick finally shows up and says, "This is silly. You should just be Robin." and hands the costume over to him. It's a great "passing of the torch" moment.

    If there were people who didn't like Jason from the start, I suspect it was those who wanted Batman to remain a loner, rather than people who wanted Dick Grayson back in the sidekick slot.

     
  • At May 12, 2006 10:50 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    If there were people who didn't like Jason from the start, I suspect it was those who wanted Batman to remain a loner, rather than people who wanted Dick Grayson back in the sidekick slot.

    That's basically what I mean though. Even though I'm saying it badly. Those that didn't like Jason, were people who didn't like Robin. Wanted Batman to be a loner. Jason having a different personality might have actually won some of these people over. Like Tim Drake had. I actually think the post-Crisis persona might have as well. (He *was* an obnoxious brat...but you're also talking to a Guy Gardner fangirl here, to keep things in perspective. :-P)

    I wouldn't be surprised if long term Batman fans took to him just fine, that's not really the problem. The problem is, I think, that he didn't bring any *new* fans which is what a replacement character really needs to do. If only to make up for the fact that he's going to lose a few, rabid character fans. (People get weird about their favorites sometimes, so there's always going to be a few. And even if it's only a very tiny amount, that's still a sales loss to make up). I've actually met a few people *now* who insist that Dick Grayson should be the only Robin. It's quite bizarre, IMO.

    (I use replacement not because of Dick's status so much, but because of the costume change. As cute as the name-picking scene sounds, I very much doubt that Jason was ever intended to be anything but the new Robin, with Dick's costume and all. So I'd still define him as one. YMMV of course).

    All this though is definitely just conjecture though and mostly derived from other peoples' recollections and some commentary in a few TPBs, so I wouldn't be surprised if in the end, it really is just full of crap. :-)

     

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