Comic Fodder

Superheroes Should Have Super Friends

I was reading yet another excellent post at Jason Craft's Earth X blog (if you don't follow it, you should), and was struck by a few lines within the post.

What doesn’t get portrayed as realistically is what this must mean to a fictional culture. What does it mean to be a human being in the DC Universe? Can you really take any solace from these creatures that are supposed to be your figures of transcendent order? Or by catastrophic trauma #5, have you concluded that this place is just a mess?

I had already had a germ of an idea for this week's column in the back of my head, and Jason's post didn't exactly dove tail, but it did resonate.

I've been thinking lately about how DC seems to go through phases where relationships between the lead characters are often implied, but rarely does the DCU, in general, take time to explore the rich relationships the characters would most certainly have between one another. And how those relationships, how characters relate to others, are often how we better define and understand characters in any medium.

Without those relationships, not just between the superheroes, but with a strong supporting cast such as the crew of the Daily Planet and the citizens of Smallville (as an example) how can we understand why these characters put on the masks to begin with and go out and take a bullet for John Q. Average? (The John Q. Average being the person who actually has to deal with all of this mess. See how I tied it back to Jason's post?)

What About the Humans?

I won't go into a chronological lecture here regarding how super heroes once existed in their discrete stories, until JSA presented the idea of a team, way, way back in the 1940's. Or how most superheroes had non-superheroes with whom they usually interacted (be it Lois Lane, Steve Trevor, etc...), and perhaps a wider cast of remarkable, but non-tights-wearing characters (The Daily Planet Staffers, the girls of Beeta Lambda Sorority).

But during my DC comic reading years (let's estimate and say since 1984), it seems as if the human relationships have been a casualty of the short-runs by writers, and supporting casts pushed to the furthest back burner they could find as DC has focused on little but plot.

Geoff Johns has had to all but re-introduce the supporting cast of Superman in Action Comics as the Daily Planet became almost a nuisance to previous writers who wanted to leap into the action and get Clark into the tights as quickly as possible (and keep him there until the final panel of the storyline). Bruce Wayne is surrounded almost entirely by proteges at this point (Lucius Fox receiving considerable more face time in the recent movies than in any comic since making a few panels of an appearance in Winick's run). And while the current run on Wonder Woman has attempted to introduce a supporting cast with talking apes and the DEO staff, none of the writers have slowed down long enough to give readers an inkling of what it is Diana DOES for the DEO, what the DEO does, or who any of these people are other than copyrighted DC characters the writers recalled from DC era's gone-by.

Of the series on the stands right now, Blue Beetle has, by far, the widest and most developed supporting cast of non-super beings. Each of these characters, from his parents to the goofy supporting tech-staff, play a crucial role in the title, showing us a lot about Jaime Reyes and why he feels responsible for going out and protecting the world. It's ongoing motivation for the character, as well as creating a world in which we see our protagonist as leader of his little BB squad, as son, as brother, as protege, as heir to a legacy. And that's not a bad thing.

Superman's relationships within the Planet aren't too dissimilar, from reporter to employee to romantic interest to father-figure/ pal to Jimmy Olsen. When used properly.

When a series runs for long enough it does seem supporting staff can take a back seat to seemingly more exciting parts of the story, such as a new villain, exotic locales, etc... but at some point, without anything to ground the characters, and the character repeatedly doing little but slugging it out, it makes pro-wrestling seem nuanced by comparison. In order to prevent the hero from becoming the cardboard cut out, we need their supporting team to give life to their motivations and remind us that these are people.

I may be a spotty Spider-Man reader, but isn't the wide web of family and friends of the Spider-Books part of the attraction? Isn't Peter Parker's devotion to his aunt a huge part of why people consider him to be "the common man of super-heroes"? Not to mention his needling relationship with Flash Thompson, his broken relations (back in the day) with Harry? His deeply complicated relationship with Mary Jane (which is now all the more complicated)?

For other heroes of a certain human identity to grasp that same level of reader identification, its important that DC work to re-build the worlds around the heroes.

Super Friends?

I have been deeply puzzled by the strong emotional reaction to Brad Meltzer's "Justice League of America". Of the books which emerged in the post Infinite Crisis/ One Year Later fanfare, Justice League had, perhaps, the biggest task ahead of itself of all the books, and that was reconnecting the heroes of the DCU after one of the main plot threads of Infinite Crisis was that the heroes of the DCU were no longer capable of working side-by-side. For anyone paying attention, that wasn't just a fiction created by Johns to come up with a plot point. It was an obvious observation based upon not just events occurring in various titles (Ex: DC's insistence that Batman behave as an anti-social know-it-all in every appearance), but that writers no longer seemed interested in portraying the heroes of the DCU as frequently at-odds, rather than as a fraternity of people putting aside differences and finding common ground as the JLA.

The argument seemed to be that readers didn't want to see pages of their favorite characters doing paperwork. I'd argue: if that's what you took away from the first issues of Justice League of America, readers should slow down and appreciate a novelistic approach to character that doesn't lean entirely on thought captions. The story may have had some issues, but it gave readers a chance to care, and for a series to be successful, perhaps launching into yet another round of slugfests in today's market isn't the way to go.

Meltzer's JLA, from issue 0, made it a priority to demonstrate that the JLA isn't just a team of people forced to work together, but a somewhat dysfunctional family that has grown organically with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman at its core for a reason (beyond licensing issues). While some readers may have balked at Meltzer's use of the 8x10 glossies of heroes up for selection, its tough to argue that any other writer has done more to try to use story to heal the rifts exposed in Infinite Crisis and demonstrate the dynamics of the JLA.

Kurt Busiek's "Trinity" is doing more to tie the three together, while drawing in the greater DCU, and perhaps that's the optimal use for either a JLA or weekly title. Whether "Trinity" is as organic (the story brings the relationships into a fairly concrete light) or not, it IS defining how these three play of one another, and how they are important to one another in aspects that go beyond an elite fighting squad.

One doesn't have to look too far back to find examples of team books that humanized the characters in their down-time discussions and interaction. Wolfman's "Teen Titans" isn't highly regarded today simply because it introduced Deathstroke and Trigon. Instead, it was what was referred to as the "soap opera" aspect of the team, including romantic entanglements, dealing with personal issues (Garfield and Vic), and even marriages (Donna and Terry, which I still find creepy). So when one of the characters, who the team has brought into their family turns out to be a traitor (spoiler alert: Terra), it's a family that's been betrayed, and not just one of the cogs of a fighting squad.

Other examples include: 80's era Legion and Uncanny X-Men. And, in some ways, most other books where they chose to slow down enough to get a feel for who the characters were, from Outsiders to Suicide Squad.

Meltzer's "Identity Crisis" went a long way toward showing how well superheroics and personal relationships can work in a modern era, and DC came up with something of a surprise hit on their hands as readers became enveloped in the drama. And, in many ways, readers are still more invested in the character beats of Identity Crisis than even the outcomes of Infinite Crisis.

Single issues can go a long way to getting readers re-invested. X-Men play baseball. Teen Titans can get married. The JLA can take a while to pick members from a pile of photos.

DC can learn from past success. And while individual titles may be doing well as defining relationships within the books, its vital that they spend energy reminding readers WHY its fun to be in a shared universe, rather than taking the relationships for granted. Update the Atom/ Hawkman relationship, for example. Brave and the Bold gives readers a chance to see players together for a single issue, but is so plot driven, it too seldom has the energy to really explore the nuance.

How do Green Lantern and Superman really relate?
What happened to the supposition that Wonder Woman and Superman were terrific platonic friends? (That, folks, was part of the tragedy of the Infinite Crisis tie-in "Sacrifice").
Do the JLA and JSA ever get together for Thanksgiving without a cosmic brawl?

Watching Watchmen

I've been wondering how Warner Bros. is planning to bring Watchmen to the screen for a while. Yes, there is action in Watchmen, but the many subplots hinge far more on the history of the characters, who they are, and how they relate to one another (and have, for years).

Viewers expecting another Dark Knight might be surprised to learn that the best-regarded superheroic work of all time doesn't get its praise from glitzy fight sequences, but from the mesmerizing characters and their march toward the last click of the doomsday clock.

While clearly Watchmen isn't about a team of super buddies, writers can learn from the dynamics of the central characters, and how the weary cliches of team books can be checked at the door in telling your story.

Art by Alex Ross

I don't think its a coincidence that both Marvels and Kingdom Come featured the realistic stylings of Alex Ross. Each story was told from a distinctly human standpoint, relevant to the particular universe. Where Marvels featured a veteran photographer capturing the madness of Marvels New York City, and a man's sense of bewilderment in such a place, Kingdom Come asked a man to minister to Superman in his hour of need when the fury of both gods and men had torn the world asunder.

Rendered in the modern superheroic vein, the stories would have lacked the punch of reader's view as a person, and how this might really appear to you or me, and how either of us might react in such a place. Its fortunate that Ross's realistic renderings raised the story to a new level, but what's important here is that there IS a sense of a world of calamity. How can the supporting characters exist in a way in which they remind the heroes of the value of their work?

Returning to Jason Craft's comments... Without the sense of a personal view of the conflicts and conflagrations of both the Marvel Universe and DC Universe, both universes stand the chance of becoming the endless, pointless warzone of Book 1 of Kingdom Come. Who are the heroes fighting for? And how do they temper one another, relate to one another's efforts?

What does that look like, and though they fight for the common good, isn't it better to remove the abstraction and put a face to it?

In Conclusion

Even plot driven shows such as X-Files are at their best when we see insight into the characters and how they tick. How is their apartment set up? What sets them off? Shows like "Lost", which have massive, over arching plots, have made extraordinary use of the backgrounds and origins of the characters. But we also get character moments on the Island that go beyond solving the overarching crisis at hand.

DC editorial should encourage their writers to consider working, perhaps, a bit more organically toward developing their characters, and less about how a story will fit into a six-issue collection. Plot and action are inherent and will work themselves out, but the real memorable moments are those where characters get a chance to show who they are, beyond the prerequisite slugfest.

Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.


Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at