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Monday, March 27, 2006

What Works and What Doesn't, v. 1:

It occurs to me, that there are times in comics where a particular character concept works for me in one case and utterly irritates me in another, and I've decided that I'm going to name a few and try to elaborate on why.

1. The Incompetent Female Portrayed as Less Capable than Other Colleagues (Male and Female): Stephanie Brown (Spoiler/Robin IV) vs Jennie-Lynn Hayden (Jade).

Now I'm sure anyone who knows me can guess which one is the character I prefer and which one is the character I dislike, but just in case it's not obvious, I vastly prefer Stephanie Brown as a character.

Admittedly, the weaker female is a cliche in general, but I'm not gonna get into that so much. There are stronger, better women that these two are compared unfavorably to as well, so I'm not sure I'm willing yet to make the jump to an assumption that the motivation is sexist.

Besides, I don't mind incompetent characters sometimes. It's interesting to see characters make mistakes, learn and grow. And Stephanie did that, up until her death. She was never very smart (I personally didn't find the events of War Games particularly surprising or out of character...sad that she paid with her life, and it was irritating that her torture was in *Robin* of all books, but it didn't surprise me), nor did she have as much training or experience as Tim, Dick or Cassandra Cain.

But she tried, a lot. We saw her train, a lot. She trained with Tim, with Cass, with Bruce. She never gave up even when rejected by Batman, kicked out of the Birds, or anything like that. And I can respect that.

Related to that, my biggest problem with Jade isn't her bitchiness or incompetence, it's how we constantly see her screw up or perform sub par to the other characters, but she never does anything to fix it. Kyle Rayner is constantly showing her up in battle, despite his lack of experience and preparation. It makes sense though because from day one, we saw Kyle train to improve. He trained with Guy, with Alan, with the League. He specifically went out on quests to learn from fellow heroes. Admittedly, it's his book, not hers, but we never even got to see her try to train *with* Kyle.

Even in Outsiders, she takes over from Dick who's mismanaging it (though the misfortune seemed more like chance to me, when you're *searching* for something, splitting up is usually the best option), but never really got shown doing any better than he did. Which just made it pointless to me.

Meh, they're both dead anyway, but I felt sadder for Steph.

2. Wonder Girls, sidekicks extraordinaire: Cassandra Sandsmark vs Donna Troy

I've never connected much to Donna, probably because she's just too angsty. Every thing bad happens to this woman. And her backstory is flipping impossible...clone/mirror self of Wonder Woman cursed to live many lives. Why?! Why couldn't they use time travel or something to explain how she predated Diana?

Writing needs to employ a philosophical Occams Razor when it comes to backstories and explanations. Simplest is best. That's it. A character's personality can be complex, but what brought them here shouldn't. Donna's convoluted backstory isn't what killed the character, but it doesn't help her.

She doesn't have a strong personality either. She's nice...and?! She's a bitch when she's a leader...and?! Cassie on the other hand is a brat and occasionally a twit, stubborn, but pragmatic. She's Helena Sandsmark's daughter who walked up to Zeus, got powers and turned out to be his daughter. Okay. That's simple. I can follow that. She's got a strong personality, whether you like her or hate her. Okay, cool. I can deal with that.

Donna's just a loose collection of traits and tragedy that calls itself a character. Newsflash angst =/= development. Thanks.

3. Angsty Angst-Mongers: Dick Grayson (Nightwing) and Todd Rice (Obsidian)

Three months ago I would have went with Dick in a heartbeat. But somehow or another, poor Todd ended up with therapy, a new lease on life, and a hot blond thing on his arm.

I love angst, don't get me wrong, but somewhere along the way I've lost my interest in seeing characters dwell on their angst, wallowing in it. It's tedious. It's one thing if you're stoically brooding, or repressing, I can respect that. Sucking it up and getting the job done is fine, but damn if the constant self-deprecation, angst and mopiness doesn't get on my last nerve.

Todd was a bit more irritating though, as I could respect villainy, but he just wouldn't *shut up* about it. I kept wanting to be a character in the comic just so I could scream, to either of them, "Okay, your life sucks, I'm sorry. Deal with it! If it's so bad you can't suck it up, *fix* it!"

And then Todd did. When he lost his powers, got hospitalized, he actually seemed, in the brief glimpses we got in JSA, to be trying to fix it. And now in Manhunter, he has! I'd bet he still has angst, everyone does, and he certainly has reason to, but he seems to have largely put it behind him and moved on. AND he gets a hot blond out of the deal. (As well as what looks like a working partnership/friendship with the Manhunter).

Where Dick Grayson seems to be starting OYL rootless, shiftless, and banging hot redheads named Cheyenne, claiming to have disowned himself...

Well, other tastes vary, but I know personally which character I'm following with a new rapt devotion and fascination, just to see what's gonna happen with him next. And he's not even the main character of his book!


  • At March 27, 2006 2:43 PM, Blogger padgett said…

    Well, I'm pretty behind on everything (Jade's dead? I guess I should read Outsiders?), but I can at least follow the argument.

    I think the "angst as character development" is still a holdover from the early 80's importing/imitating Marvel writers. I tried re-reading some of the Wolfman Teen Titans a while back, and they were really much worse than I remembered - most of what seemed like deep characterization is really just the same series of responses to the same set of adverse life conditions (e.g., Raven's father, Cyborg's disfigurement). Donna's big characterization is largely "having a boyfriend/husband," which doesn't really go very far.

    And Todd's in Manhunter, eh? I think that's next on the stack...

  • At March 27, 2006 3:50 PM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    I think with all three cases, the main concern is whether or not there's any good character development. Does the character in question overcome their issues - or at least try to? Do they display a strong personality, likeable or otherwise? Do they learn anything, or do they stay the same? Overcoming angst or incompetence makes for good character growth; wallowing in either does not.

    With the "incompetent female," what also matters IMHO is: is she portrayed as incompetent because she's a woman; or is she simply someone incompetent who also happens to be a woman? The former's obviously a sexist cliche, the latter ain't. Not that gender issues don't make for good story material; it's just what you said before about the difference between token female characters vs. characters who are women.

    "Meh, they're both dead anyway, but I felt sadder for Steph."

    Yeah, but you know they'll be back someday. :-)

  • At March 27, 2006 7:07 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    dr: Ack, sorry to spoil you. (It's in Rann-Thanagar War, if you want to read it)

    I personally don't think that angst is a bad thing. I like angst sometimes. But it can't replace character development. And if it's unceasing, it gets wearing.

    Yep! And I'd definately recommend it. Mr. Andreyko's a very good writer in terms of pacing and solid characterization. Kate's cool, her son's cute, Damon's adorable, and of course there's Todd, who since Manhunter 18 has been very prominent. There are lots of ties to Golden Age stuff too. Lots of fun!

    Ferrous: I'd agree. Flaws are fine, but trying to overcome one's flaws (especially if it's something like sucking in battle when you're a superhero) tends to be more endearing.

    And the change is a big thing. Dick seemed to be actually figuring a few things out just before OYL, but it seems like someone's afraid to push him past his status quo.

    I do think Jade isn't intended to be a sexist cliche, but it's really irritating that she never seeks to move past her problems. Well, sought I guess. Heh.

    Yeah, but you know they'll be back someday. :-)

    Heh, true.

  • At March 27, 2006 9:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I totally agree with you on all accounts. I know you went on about it before, but I think it was fitting for Stephanie to die in the title she originated. Sure, it was super gruesome, but, sadly, I don't think Robin's ever really been kids-only (the same character also had a teenage pregnancy) and I kinda liked the loyalty of killing her off in the book she originated from.

    Aaaand, annoying tick number two: Have you read the most excellent Young Justice? Cassie is displayed as a very strong, yet flawed, character who definitely has some growth. Not a brat at all, just a really assertive young woman. Too bad she was retconned into some blonde ditz and the daughter of a god.

    I have some conspiracy of some editorial mandate that Dick MUST be the emotional one of the Batclan no matter what.

    Oh, and Flem, Manhunter is most excellent.

  • At March 27, 2006 9:27 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Gus: Thing is she *didn't* die in Robin. She was tortured in Robin, but died in one of the Batman titles. That's what frustrates me. She *should* have died in her original title, and the graphic torture should have been in one of the more adult titles, IMO. :-) But I tirade on this a lot.

    Yeah, I didn't mind the daughter of the god thing, but it *is* a shame no one's bothering to write her like she was in Young Justice. There was a lot of growth there that's since been largely ignored, which is a shame.

    Yeah, but there's a difference between being the emotional one and whatever the hell they've done with Dick. Like the Green Lanterns, Kyle's obviously the young, vulnerable, emotional one. But he's rarely portrayed as that mopey or angst ridden, IMO. On the other hand, every woman he's dated has died at some point. :-P I guess it's a tradeoff. :-)

  • At March 27, 2006 9:32 PM, Blogger padgett said…

    ah, glad to hear some positive recommendations - actually looking forward to manhunter a fair bit now. and don't worry about spoiling things (that's what i get for reading everything out of sequence - and i did try rann-thanagar war, but found it completely unreadable)

  • At March 27, 2006 9:37 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    RTW IS unreadable. It's a shame because Gibbons is great on Green Lantern Recharge...I think it's just way too much crap had to happen in way too few issues to be very workable. That's what happens with massive crossover events I suppose.

  • At March 28, 2006 9:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The thing w/ Dick is the writers just keep putting him through hell without even an ish of pure hero time! Come on, this is Batman's son for God's sake!! Worse they totally ignore/destroy his last great moment before OYL!!! Absolute @#$% idiots!!!!

    But I digress;-P

  • At March 28, 2006 10:08 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Heh, I still think Babs deserved better anyway. :-P

    Dick seems like he'd be too stifling/clingy, which would gradually drive the poor woman up a wall. And he doesn't seem, as he's currently characterized, to be the sort of guy who'd realize that wanting some space =/= I don't like you. And then he'd mope.

    Now Ted Kord, IMO, would have been perfect because when he would start being invasive/clingy, she could just send him to build something robotic and implausible...or go play with Booster Gold for a while. Problem solved. :-P

  • At March 28, 2006 1:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ha ha. But that just proves it about the writers:-)

  • At March 30, 2006 4:40 PM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    So here's a writing challenge: take a character you dislike, such as Jade, and figure what needs to be done to make her more interesting to you, without simply tossing out all that's come before and starting over. I.e., figure out how to make her evolve naturally into someone you like (or at least respect), rather than simply redoing her.

    I mean, y'know, if she wasn't dead already. You and I both know that's just an inconvenience for superheroes and supervillains alike - one in need of a good writer to fix. ;-)

  • At March 30, 2006 6:10 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Ferrous: Well, honestly, Jade would be easy. I really do like the notion behind her concept: Alan Scott's daughter with a villain with Green Powers.

    What I'd need to happen is for her to whether upon returning from the dead, or from some other shock, forced to review who she was and what she's become. Maybe just going through a box of old pictures, thinking about the little girl she'd been and the woman she became.

    I'd want her then to start thinking about her own actions, the awful way she's treated certain people as well as her incompetence in battle. Then she would actively make a difference in trying to change.

    We would see her train, with Alan, with Kyle maybe, with the Outsiders or just on her own. We'd see her apologize to certain people who deserved it. As she goes around in whatever actual hero plot's going on at the time, we might see her inner monologues interacting with people and see her actively trying to restrain her own temper or make peace with others...

    Really, I can forgive a lot of things from characters if I think they're *trying*. And seeing her come to terms with the fact that her life is (probably) not what she'd originally wanted...which happens to everyone...and making active steps to become the person she would want to be...that'd really do a lot right there.

    That'd probably be enough to get her off of my very small active dislike list. Then depending on what else she does, she has the potential of rising really far.

    I mean for a while, I disliked Obsidian nearly as much, and with a bit of therapy, he's now rapidly rising up my list, and keeps getting higher the more I see him.

    Jade's incompetent but not unintelligent. She's a self-absorbed spoiled princess character, but that's not necessarily a bad thing if there's some self-acknowledgement in there. She's got a lot of ties to other heroes... She could be very high on my list when all of this hypothetical stuff had been said and done.


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