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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Aren't ALL DC Heroes Derivative?

Valerie D'Orazio has an interesting post up here responding to David's post here all relating to the discussion of minority characters.

It's an interesting discussion, but she raises a point of argument that I don't think is particularly valid on examination when she says:

Seems to me, David, the real shame is that John Irons had to be originally cast in Superman's image, not his own.

That John Stewart had to be cast in Green Lantern/Hal Jordan's image, not his own.

That Jakeem Thunder had to be cast in Johnny Lightning's image, not his own.

That Shilo Norman had to be cast in Mister Miracle's image, not his own.

That Ryan Choi had to be cast in The Atom's image, not his own.

That Kathy Kane had to be cast in Batman's image, not her own.

Do you know why that happens, David, behind-the-scenes?

Because editors are afraid that a non-white non-male non-straight character cannot lead their own comic unless they are tied in to a preexisting character. Because there is the perception behind-the-scenes that "women books don't sell," that "Black books don't sell," "that books with gays don't sell," etc.

I don't think that's the reason at all.

John Stewart was created in Hal Jordan's image, yes. And Ryan Choi was created in Ray Palmer's. But that's rather ignoring the fact that both Hal and Ray were part of a movement that derived names from previous properties as well. John is derived from Hal. Hal is derived from Alan Scott. Ryan is derived from Ray. Ray is derived from Al Pratt.

Kathy Kane was created in Batman's image. But Kathy Kane was a straight female character. Kate Kane, the lesbian was created in Kathy Kane's image. Much like Jason Todd and Tim Drake are derived from Dick Grayson. Or Barbara Gordon is derived from Bruce Wayne.

Jakeem Thunder's not the first derivative of Johnny Thunder, he's just the only one that stuck. And while Scott Free is not a derivative character, Shilo Norman's hardly the only derivative of a 4th World character. Both of those characters, it must be noted originate in stories where EVERY character is either a Golden Age character re-envisioned or a derivative of a Golden Age hero. And John Henry was created in the same move that created Hank Henshaw and Conner Kent.

I'm not saying DC is perfect or that there aren't serious problems in their treatment of minority characters. But to compare DC's treatment of Marvel's with regards to minority characters in the terms of which one's characters are more derivative of existing white heroes is ridiculous.

Derivative characters are the staple of the DCU. It's how it introduces new characters of any type. I think if you look at DC's output, their frontrunners, you're going to see either 1) characters created in the Golden Age, 2) characters created in the Silver Age using the names of characters in the Golden Age, 3) characters introduced to fill out groups starring Silver Age or Golden Age characters (JSA, JLA, Teen Titans, All-Star Squadron), 4) derivatives of any characters that fit categories 1,2 or 3 such as kid sidekicks, girl versions, rivals, partner heroes, replacement/legacy characters or the like, or 5) miscellaneous other characters from any of the aforementioned heroes' personal books

Essentially, it's like a bullseye diagram. Golden age characters in the center, and then extending outward. I think you'd be hard pressed to find any character, be he straight white male or not, leading a book who doesn't fit into the bullseye somewhere. All new characters must connect somehow with what came before.

In contrast, Marvel is a lot less about derivative characters and more about group filling. We need a new batch of X-Men, okay, let's make one of them a black woman from Kenya with weather powers! Let's slot out a few Avengers, okay, let's bring in the ruler of a fictional African country! I think they're also more likely to introduce solo characters with no real tie to any existing group. (Young Avengers is the only book I can think of off the top of my head where most of the characters involved seem to have been created in the DC style: that is derived specifically from, or created to appear derived specifically from, pre-existing heroes.)

I'm not saying this is a bad thing. I think both methods have their uses and creates fantastic characters. I do think characters created by DC will end up a bit more obviously derivative. Characters created by Marvel will probably be a lot more individualized in terms of powers and name. I know personally part of the reason I tend to prefer DC over Marvel is that I like sidekicks and legacies and lineages and generations which DC's method provides and Marvel's doesn't. Everyone's tastes are different though.

But I don't think using John Henry's derivation from Superman to compare him negatively to Black Panther is fair, when really I think that's indicative more of the companies's policies in general than their policies toward race/sex/sexual orientation in particular. You're going to end up with a greater number of derivative minority characters if most of the characters you create are already derivative.

Now as to which company gives their minority characters more exposure/attention once created, that would probably be a much better area for comparison, but it's not one I feel personally equipped to tackle.


  • At February 17, 2008 3:00 AM, Blogger david brothers said…

    Actually, Scott Free is kind of a legacy character! He took his name from one of the first humans he met on Earth and followed in his footsteps as an escape artist. Mr Miracle was brand new for the '70s, though, rather than being a Golden Age character.

    Otherwise, you're spot on! Another angle on the difference between DC and Marvel is how their headlining heroes are treated by the police/people in authority.

    Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are all on speaking terms with their local PD or government. Spider-Man and the X-Men are outlaws. I think there's a lot to talk about in that angle, too.

  • At February 17, 2008 3:38 AM, Blogger HotAndCold said…

    I mostly agree, but feel the need to point out that Booster Gold doesn't seem to fit into your bull's-eye. But I've always kind of felt that he's more of the Marvel mold, anyway.

  • At February 17, 2008 3:41 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Hmm, well, there are always exceptions. :-) I do think the fact that he has a comic now is more because of his role in JLI than his individual comic. But that is probably something of a stretch.

    So yeah, I'll concede Booster. :-)

  • At February 17, 2008 5:51 AM, Blogger LurkerWithout said…

    I'd say that you're PARTIALLY right. The majority of DC heroes seem to be of the legacy mold. But they still get the odd-ball character who doesn't fit in that pattern. Booster Gold (though it could be argued he's a take on Rip Hunter), Cyborg, Raven, Blue Devil and a few others...

    But I'd say your general concept is MOSTLY sound. DC = Legacy (with exceptions) and Marvel = Fill out new roster (with exceptions (ie Young Avengers))...

  • At February 17, 2008 5:55 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I'd include Cyborg and Raven in category 3. As in they're designed, at least as far as I know, to fill out a roster of a team that was formed around derivative heroes (Robin et al).

    But yeah, there are some exceptions. :-)

  • At February 17, 2008 11:06 AM, Blogger SallyP said…

    I like your idea of a bullseye and legacy characters. DC certainly does have the habit of creating legacy characters. However, I might also postulate that however derivative these characters may be in the beginning, they do have the lovely ability to evolve into far more interesting and well-rounded characters.

    Guy Gardner and John Stewart were both something of Hal clones, but they certainly changed into their own unique personalities. Dick Grayson, Jason Todd and Tim Drake may have all been Robins, but they are certainly very different characters. Barry is differnt from Jay, who is different from Wally, who was different from Bart.

    And so on and so forth.

  • At February 17, 2008 8:01 PM, Blogger Evan Waters said…

    Another factor is that most of these minority characters are coming into being after the Big Two last really put an effort into introducing completely new superhero identities, as opposed to legacies (I think the nineties was the last real push for this, and almost none of those characters stuck around.) And the reasons behind that are complex and myriad as well.

  • At February 17, 2008 8:44 PM, Blogger IslandLiberal said…

    Marvel tends to have character type they uses, but these are meta roles, not something worked into the book itself.

    So, for example, on every X-Men team and X-related team, if Wolverine isn't there, there's a 'feral' who does the sort of job he does. However, whereas DC would tie this type of character into Wolverine's backstory by making him a son/sidekick/inspired-by, Marvel generally doesn't (X-23 being the exception).

  • At February 17, 2008 11:01 PM, Blogger Avalon's Willow said…

    I'm with LurkerWithout.

    There is a point and you have found it. DC does things one way and Marvel another - for the most part.

    The blogger at 4th Letter also had/has a serious point. Because judging by OSH/Val's theory, Wonder Woman is an original female token deriving from Superman's Outsider storyline and Batman's determined warrior with a cause, with a bit of 'Women Like Peace' thrown in.

    I can appreciate that she's pushing for a change in how characters are thought of from the very start.

    But the truth is, not making a character white, is actually going to be how things are started for a while now. And after that point, how you flesh things out, are how you make the character matter - but 4th Letter said all that, so I won't repeat.

    As to what she said to Pedro - granted his first comment to her was filled with snark. Snooty snark. Elitist comic book fan snooty snark.

    But he's a comic book fan. Sometimes that's par for the course.

    She responded just as snootily back.

    Then he makes some valid points and she gets on his case about his TONE.

    I have no idea if he's black, white or green. But calls on TONE definitely say something about the person listening - ie how much they aren't.

  • At February 17, 2008 11:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Even within the "Golden Age" center of the bullseye, I would suggest there's yet another center from which even the Golden Age characers derive from. Even the first superhero, Superman, derived from a variety of sources and influences such as Wylie's Gladiator sci-fi novel or pulp heroes like Doc Savage. Same with Batman. Same with Flash, etc, etc.

    So none of this stuff is particularly new or original...and I'm glad you called Valerie on the assumption that all derivation comes from a close minded, racist place. The reality of any situation is always much more complex than the standard narrative allows.

  • At February 18, 2008 12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I'm still wondering why Rene Montoya had to become the next Question.

    She was cool in her right...if she had to go the superhero route (which I don't believe was even necessary, because AGAIN, she was cool as she was...), why not let her be her own superhero? A hispanic lesbian superhero. Now she's just The Question's successor. Coming from a Rene fan first who discovered Vic Sage much just seems like a waste of two characters to me.

  • At February 18, 2008 11:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Casting Rene as the Question legacy character instead of her own "superhero" (I have trouble looking at the Question as standard superhero) is hedging your bets at DC. It goes for more target buyers, and gets more sales.

    Cast away all the romanticism of legacy characters (which I like, don't get me wrong), and we see that name recognition is a powerful thing.

  • At February 19, 2008 12:39 AM, Blogger The Fortress Keeper said…

    Although you're right in terms of how DC recycles and recasts just about every name in its history, at least in the Silver Age an effort was made to distinguish say, Hal Jordan, from Alan Scott by giving him an entirely different origin, background (i.e. sci-fi green lantern corps instead of aladdin's lamp) and Ray Palmer from Al Pratt, who couldn't shrink and was for the most part a small guy who could punch people.

    Nowadays, though, Dc just takes a new character and throws him or her into the exact same role the previous one filled. It'd be like Hal Jordan finding a magic lamp after a train wreck or Barry Allen wearing a metallic Mercury hat after gaining his powers from the fumes of heavy water.

    I, however, think that's less a factor of racism than the fact that "branding" and establishing franchises for marketing purposes takes precedence over truly reinventing concepts for new generations of readers.

    And, just to quibble with your point about Black Panther, he was created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee as a character in Fantastic Four. The purpose wasn't to create a new Avenger, but to simply expand (and diversify) the Marvel world and by introducing a powerful new character.

    In other worlds, just like the Inhumans and the Silver Surfer he was created because Stan & Jack were creative.

    The whole fill the roster of a super-team stuff came from Roy Thomas, who basically connected and consolidated the universe created by Stan, Jack, Steve, Don Heck, et. al.

    Interesting conversation.


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