Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Super-Hero Soap Operas

Doug: So if you're like me, you've been reading comic books for around 40 years or so (egad...). Along the way, various creators have left their imprints on the titles and characters we love. For better or worse, "character development" takes place -- our protagonists are put into situations that should change them for the better. However, with decades of backstory, the inevitable retcons, deaths-and-resurrections, costume changes, and general adventures, suddenly there becomes a lot of baggage.

Doug: So in the world of comics readers and your friends who are not, you find yourself talking to a comics-Gentile -- one not among the chosen, an outsider to our four-color faith. And then the inevitable question comes: "Tell me why you like X so much. What's so cool about that character/book?" And you decide you're going to start at the beginning, because that's such a good place to begin anyway, and move forward in the narrative. And suddenly it occurs to you that you know too much. Your closet door has suddenly exploded open.

Doug: Which character or team has the most convoluted, even silly history? Think about all of the books you've read -- which one would you start talking about and feel like you were in the middle of a soap opera -- I might as well be talking about dating my mail carrier, having kids with the boss's step-daughter, being abducted by aliens, and hiding jewels on behalf of the Mafia.

Doug: Let's hear it!


Inkstained Wretch said...

My first thought was Hawkman. It was strange enough to explain that he was a policeman from an alien planet where the cops dressed up in bird-themed bondage gear.

Then DC made such a hash out of him through various retcons that they had to retire the character for years. That was post-Crisis though so maybe it doesn't count for this discussion.

My alternate suggestion would be Ms. Marvel. She went from being a supporting character in Captain Marvel stories, to a superheroine in her own right (if a derivative one), to leaving the Marvel universe to be with her son/lover Marcus (yuck), to returning when Chris Claremont pointed out just how appalling that previous story was, to losing her powers to Rogue and becoming a supporting character in the X-Men, to becoming a new cosmic heroine called Binary and then reverting to being Ms. Marvel.

A much-abused character to say the least.

Doug said...

Carol Danvers is an excellent example! Try explaining that to a layman...


William said...

If I had to pick the most confusing and convoluted comic character continuity to try to explain to someone, it would probably be Wolverine.

But, here is a paraphrased version of an actual conversation I recently had...

An old friend of mine who used to read comics with me when we were kids (he doesn't anymore, btw) asked me recently "So, what's been happening in comics since I stopped reading them?" (Which was like 20 years ago). His favorite character was always Captain America and mine was Spider-Man. So, since I know it best, I tried to explain the last 10 or so years of Spider-Man stories to him, and as I got into the JMS years with dreck like "Sins of the Father" and "The Other", he started giving me a very disapproving "what the hell?" kind of expression. Then when I got into "One More Day" and "Brand New Day", he was like "What have they done to comics??? They used to be so cool, but that is all the stupidest bunch of crap I've ever heard!" etc., etc. He basically came away with the opinion that he was glad he stopped reading them when he did, before they'd had a chance to ruin them. I didn't have the heart to try to explain things like "Civil War" and what they did to Captain America.

So, basically my conclusion is, there is not one long-running comic I can think of that I could easily explain to anyone. Even someone who used to be a big comics fan.

Karen said...

I've tried for years to get back into X-men but I still can't figure out who half the characters are or what's happened to the team over the years. The fact that the White Queen is an X-man -and Scott's lover -just sickens me.

Doug said...

I recall getting back into comics after five years or so away. That period of exclusion was circa 1980-85. As one of my college buddies was getting me caught up, it all seemed very organic, with lots of "Really? Cool!" and "Alright, I can see that..." from me. But William, today -- you are speaking the truth.

How about Batman's story in the past 15-20 years, going back to the "broken Bat" storyline? Yeah, that all makes sense.


J.A. Morris said...

I have to mention one big difference between soaps & comics:
Rapidly-aged characters. If Franklin Richards was a soap character, he'd be in his 60s by now.
The X-men are by far the most melodramatic "soap-operatic" team/book/characters I can think of. It was hard enough for me when I started reading the X-men comics in 1979.
Some examples:
"Jean is now Phoenix"
"Jean's dead!"
"No she's not!"
"Jean was never really Phoenix"
"Jean is (for real) dead!"
"Mystique is Nightcrawler's mother."
(yes, the last two "time travelers" came after the Bronze Age, but the fact that the team had multiple characters who are from "the future" isn't a good thing).
"White Queen is an evil telepath!"
"White Queen is a member of the X-men and is in a relationship with Cyclops".
"Colossus is dead!"
"Colossus isn't dead!"
"Psylocke is a blind British teenaged precog/telepath who can see through cybernetic eyes."
"Psylocke is a 20-something Asian ninja a$$-kicking hottie precog/telepath."

Cyclops has a dad who was presumed dead, but was actually captured by aliens, enslaved, escaped to become a space pirate.
Cyclops announcing to everyone that (after 53 issues) he has a brother and he's graduating from college.

Wolverine's ridiculous back story(covered here the other day).

Days Of Future Past, all by itself has helped make the X-men's history a big ol' convoluted mess. I'm still not sure how Rachel Phoenix exists with the DOFP future being cancelled out by Kitty, but I don't really care either(I still love the original 2-part story though).

I'm sure I'm leaving out something, but I'll leave it at that for now.

Rip Jagger said...

Legion of Superheroes!

I wouldn't even attempt to begin to read that book again. There have been so many reboots that I've actually lost count. The convolutions and interactions among the players must be for only the most dedicated.

The book was always complicated, but it's over the top these days.

I cannot even begin to name them all anymore.

Rip Off

dbutler16 said...

I tried getting back into comics in 2008. I totally stayed away from the X-Men, though, even thought it used to be my favorite comics. As far as convoluted and soap opera, nothing can top the X-Men! I also can't stand the way ever X-Men villain winds up joining the team (Rogue, Magneto, Juggernaut, Emma Frost)! Argh!

As far as convoluted, though, the Legion of Super-Heroes is impossible to explain to anyone, and, though I'm not a fan, I understand that Hawkman and Donna Troy have pretty confusing histories.

As far as pure soap opera, though, Spidey must be near the top.

dbutler16 said...

J.A. Morris said of the X-Men "but the fact that the team had multiple characters who are from "the future" isn't a good thing". He is 100% right, and that is in fact when I started to lose interest in the X-Men, and one of the reasons I didn't bother to pick up and X-Men when I started collecting again a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

OK, first, I’m not even going to bother mentioning Hank here, because it will only upset Doug, but....nuff said.

It’s not exactly a convoluted back story within the character arc itself, but I always thought Dazzler was a crazy idea. I believe she was a record-company tie in – they were going to launch a new singer who had her own line of comics, so the whole back-story was utter bollocks from the get-go. Her powers were turning sound into light, which sounds quite mighty but would actually be a lot more powerful the other way round. She was pretty crap in a fight. Then just to add to that, they made her a genius-level lawyer who had forsaken her law practice to be a disco diva (right at the moment disco died). And a part time super hero. On roller skates.

Am I right in saying that they ret-conned the Rawhide Kid to be a gay cowboy? Now that must have been a spiritual journey for him.

Whilst I tend to think that the only good retcon is the one that doesn’t happen, I’d make a strong exception for the Wanda / Pietro origin story that Gruenwald cobble together. It was clever and tied up what appeared to be three contradictory origins.

Right, my contender for Doug’s prize is Cap. I’ll give it a go:

The skinny kid who COULD BE YOU is suped-up to fight the Nazis.

He is given a super-alloy indestructible shield by FDR, who mysteriously doesn’t seem to think that making tanks out of the same stuff might be a good idea.

His love interest is Peggy Carter, an American fighting in the French resistance. Convincingly. He is seemingly killed at the end of war, so imposters continue his myth.

Cap has a dodgy-commie-smashing period in the 50’s, comes back in the Silver Age (is revealed to be an imposter) and then comes back again, when it is revealed that his 1950’s appearances were in fact, not one but two imposters.

He is discovered by the Avengers after he is thrown into the arctic waters by the Sub Mariner. Despite the fact that they were war-time buddies, they never mention this incident to each other for 25 years. Largely because they weren’t war-time buddies yet because Roy hadn’t invented the Invaders yet.

He is haunted by the death of Bucky and vows never to have another partner and then partners with Rick Jones. And then enjoys one of the longest partnerships ever, with the Falcon. And captains the Avengers many times.

He falls in love with a mysterious SHIELD agent who, surprisingly, turns out to be the younger sister of Peggy Carter, who seems to have gone into the family business of espionage. She gets killed.

He cracks the Watergate scandal, has what can only be called a National-Identity crisis and becomes the Nomad. Other people become Captain America. Cap goes back to being Cap, then changes to the Super Patriot, then to the Captain. John Walker becomes Captain America and then USAgent. Cap (Rogers) has the super serum removed from his body, but later needs a transfusion from the Red Skull who has a cloned version of Cap’s body. Most people probably do by now.

After 9/11 he reveals his identity (amazed he could remember it himself, btw), the Avengers are disbanded, he joins SHIELD, finds Bucky alive, and starts seeing Sharon Carter. Also now alive.

During Civil war, he poses as a mall guard called Brett. Of course. He is killed after the Civil war and replaced by Bucky, one of the only 2 characters who could never be brought back to life. Who has been brought back to life. Then Cap is brought back to life. Or through time. Or something.

It’s later revealed that he was shot by Sharon Carter in a plot by the Red Skull & Dr Faustus posing as a SHIELD agent who hypnotised Sharon to shoot him, but it turns it out that the gun was actually a time machine, which.....oh my God. Seriously?

Quick test: how many people have been Captain America and how many other identities has he had? No idea? Me neither.


Doug said...

Richard, that was awesome! Thanks for taking the time to pen (type) that! And to everyone else who's tossed a great deal of thought and history into their comments today -- thanks very much!

While we all know we are part-time inhabitants of these various fantasy worlds, it is really quite ridiculous to see it all in one place. But it's still fun!


david_b said...

Doug, Karen, et all:

Yep, I really can't top this, but echo the sentiment..

Doug, my absense from comics was more '78 to '85, but I totally agree as to how different the universe was, lamenting as to where the artists (and storylines..) I was familiar with had gone.

I wouldn't even DARE to explain X-Men after say 1980 to anyone.

Carol Danvers is interesting to note, now that I'm reading the old Mar-Vell Silver Age stories; during the Bronze, the only story I read with her was her role during the 'Secret Empire' storyline.

Another one who comes close is none-other-than Simon Williams..

Zapped with rays, died, raised by the 'undead', joined the Avengers, forced to undergo often-ludicrous multiple costume changes, chummed up with a large blue furry monster-genius, hollywood called (he answered..), changed into pure ionic energy, then I lost track.., well, interest, actually.

No wonder he had suffered lapses of confidence (pun intended..).

Karen said...

In thinking about this -and there's been a lot of great posts today - it seems to me there are a few distinctions to make. There's the natural accumulation of baggage that occurs when a character/team has been around 20+ years. Then there's the needless changes that are often contradictory to established characterization or history.

The latter is what is really bothersome. If a character just has been around forever but everything makes sense (relatively speaking), then that's OK with me. However, that's pretty rare. There are "oops" periods for every character I would think. It's just when things get built upon one bad idea after another that it all starts to drive me away -ala X-Men.

In the case of some characters, like Ms. Marvel or Hawkman, I have to wonder if it isn't just a case of writers not knowing what to do with those heroes to make them interesting. So they basically throw everything on the wall and see what sticks -and sometimes nothing does.

I'm having a hard time thinking of ANY character who's been around 20 years or so who hasn't been screwed up in one way or another. Spidey, Superman, Cap, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, the Legion, the X-Men -all there. I would add the FF now too. With 52, I'd say Teen Titans and JSA are in the 'impenetrable' group, although maybe all of DC is. I don't know, I'm not reading DC any more.


J.A. Morris said...

I like Danvers too, but how did she go from being head of security at an Air Force base to being a journalist working for Jameson's 'Woman' magazine? I've never been able to figure out that one.

Anonymous said...

My pleasure, Doug. Sort of. As soon as I posted, I realised I forgot about that whole ‘search for Steve Rogers’ plotline, where he realised that even HE didn’t know who he was. I know how he feels.

Karen – you’re dead right about inevitable accumulation vs wild narrative brainfarting. I think this is also caused when a beloved character created by one writer is butchered for a convenient storyline by those who come later. Taxi for Mr.Deathlok!

JA – I think you hit the nail on the head with DOFP. You could tell even reading that for the first time that they were either going to sweep it under the rug as an ‘alternate’ future or things were going to get horribly messy and difficult.


Doug said...

The Dark Knight Returns was DC's Days of Future Past.


Karen said...

Oh heck yeah Doug!

J.A. Morris said...

Doug's last comment wins the internet!

Lazarus Lupin said...

Interesting question and I had to think quite abit about the answer. That it would be somewhere in the "X" verse was fairly certain. Though I admit I did cast a thought to the Defenders. Not that they did much in the way of soap opera, but the weird alliance of characters that should be no where near one and other is its own form of convolution.

In the end, I had to go with the New Mutants. First off they were all teens so they had all that teenage angst on top of mutant angst. Secondly, they were the official offshoot X team (that I can remember) so they had the whole X history to try to live up or down to. But really it is three characters that really ramped the weirdness meter.

First there is Magick. A favorite of mine to be sure but really try explaining that she's a mutant who was captured by a demon and raised for years in a hyper accelerated alternate time line where she killed or watching getting killed many of her brother's friends. Then explain that her powers are 1) teleportation through space and time, 2) Magic, and 3) kick ass magic sword. She has been killed, she has been resurrected. Really it is a mess.

The second runner up is Doug/Lock. Here we have a mix up between the mutant least likely to survive and an alien who could eat the planet if he was in a bad mood.

Finally I believe it was in the New Mutants that we first got our taste of Cable. True we didn't know the incredibly screwed up alternated timelines and such that was to be Cable, but I think the introduction is enough to secure the soap opera of the millenium award.

Anyhoo that's how I'd vote. Thanks for listening. Keep on trucking.

Lazarus Lupin


B Smith said...

"I'm having a hard time thinking of ANY character who's been around 20 years or so who hasn't been screwed up in one way or another."

Judge Dredd?

david_b said...

B Smith has a point..

How about the Phantom..?

Fred W. Hill said...

Seems to me that it was in the mid to late '80s that they really started screwing around with numerous characters in ways that didn't make a whole lot of sense, especially as they were churning out more & more comics, using their big name characters in multiple mags every month. I mostly quit collecting before things got really twisted, mostly reading about it on various websites years later. I was still going into comics shops into the
'90s to get the few mags I still collected and noticed Cable showing up on multiple covers but had no idea who he was or what his backstory was until relatively recently. Meanwhile, what they've done to poor Peter Parker over the last 20 years or so is revolting. I could do without the alien suit, as well as Venom & Carnage, and Osborne coming back to life and the revelation that Gwen willingly made out with him and had twins by him before she he killed her, the whole extended clone saga and that deal with the devil that made him single again. Sheesh!
Sometimes it seems best just to find a stopping point with your favorite characters and say, this much I'll go along with and everything after happened in a different reality. So we can pretend Peter & MJ are still happily married (or, if you want to go back further, that Gwen never died, or made out with stormin' Norman!, and she got over her distrust of Spider-Man and they both went on to respected careers as scientists and Pete continued aging in real time and is now a retired superhero in his 60s).

Anonymous said...

As a Legion fan from the Bronze Age I feel your pain. The LSH was always a dense text book, but it was a fun challenge my kid brain loved. It was the second superhero group ever created, so there was a lot of history. However, the LSH really got screwed over by John Byrne's Superman reboot. No (Clark Kent) Superboy? What could possibly go wrong? How about completely destroying the LSH entire continuity. Their first appearance was inducting Superboy into their group and from there he was a regular member. Removing him from their continuity and it all fell apart. From that point on it was a patchwork quilt of fixes and reboots. Even a longtime fan can only take so much. I gave it up.

But the worst mess was Mon-el aka (later rebooted to Valor, Lar Gand and M'Onel.) He first appeared in a Silver Age Superboy and later was a regular in the LSH. The Superman reboot made that character unusable.

End of rabid LSH rant.

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