Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Voice

Doug:  So it occurred to me last week when Karen led the Hulk discussion that some characters may be easier to write than others.  And I don't say that with the supposition that the "dumb Hulk" is a slam dunk by any means.  I'm sure writing in that immature 1st-person form (I guess one could argue it's third person), with a certain charm and silliness all wrapped into one, isn't always easy.  On the other hand, is a stuffy Reed Richards a simple character to write?  I think a character that has had many different voices is the Batman.  We've seen him run from the over-the-top camp of Adam West to the current incarnation of "the G-D Batman!"  Bro-therrrr.  The latter seriously aggravates me -- I think it has no place in a mass marketed comic book, first of all, and secondly (we've talked about this around here) it gives off the air that the Batman is more unbalanced and dangerous than the very criminals he's supposed to bring to justice.  And please pardon Mr. Wayne's French, so to speak, in the art exhibit below.

So what sayest thou?  Who do you think has to be handled with care to sound "right"?  Who are some writers who are really good at nailing it, and where have there been times when you were left scratching your head (how on earth did that guy get that assignment?)?  Thank you for your thoughts!


As many of you have heard by now, the Queen of Disco, Donna Summer, passed away today after a bout with cancer.  Here's a little tribute for fellow Bronze Agers who appreciated (even if you're in the closet) that era:


david_b said...

Doug: Great column to wax viewpoints on. Without delving too deep into checking writing tenures on certain books, from the Marvel perspective, I look at the likes of Conway, Gerber, Englehart and Thomas generating most of the spot on voices, at least authors you could 'trust' at that time. I typically look at easier characters to write for, like Hawkeye to lend himself to various writers well.

Yet it was those 'one-off' type stories that cultivate my interest, like CA&F 164 where Englehart wrote it, but Alan Weiss was brought in to draw, the voices were there, but 'how they spoke' seemed so different (facial expressions), which is just as important. When Kirby came back in, I still liked Cap's voice, but I felt like I had to ignore all of Englehart's molding/evolving of the Steve Rogers character and start fresh from the TOS series.

On the DC side, I always recall reading the difficulty in writing Hal Jordan. Typically a rather bland character, Bronze writers that have tried to inject too much character in him have made him come off as a jerk.

As mentioned above, I think of the late Silver Age as the definitive voices of most my favorite characters, like Fox or O'Neil for GL, Wolfman and Haney for the Silver Age Titans (I know, two distinct styles, but a fan of both for different reasons).

Typically not a big fan of animated series starting with 'Super Friends', I generally like how the voice of the Avengers is reflected in the EMH Animated Series. And as mentioned before, the Batman-TAS series nailed his voice and mystique perfectly.

humanbelly said...

Oh man, another terrific topic, Doug. You may end up getting clobbered with analysis on this one, especially since the wholesale loss of distinct character "voices" in these latter years has been a particular recurring complaint.

Your example of the childlike Hulk voice is a particularly apt one, 'cause it was slow to develop. Stan worked in that direction for a solid couple of years, finally dropping regular usage of "I", "Me", and "Mine" from the Hulk's vocab pretty much by issue #111. But his character Voice was always something far more distinctive than the "Me Hulk; You Jane" Tarzan-like idiom that the casual observer assumed. And I have to say that pretty much all of the writers during the many years of that persona picked up on the subtle depth that could be plumbed there, and "got" the character and why he spoke this way. Roy Thomas really outdid Stan, in fact. And writers such as Gerry Conway, Chris Claremont & Steve Englehart all scripted him quite well (particularly Englehart). Len Wein did a terrific job during his long tenure, as well. When you'd see him mis-handled would be in guest-appearances, or in one-shot "tryout" stories, where the writer(s) clearly just assumed he spoke in the barely intelligible broken English of a Native American in a cheesy old western. ("Hulk no like boom-sound"-- that sort of thing).

Thor: You know who really had a pretty darned good handle on how to properly write Elizabethan English? Stan! For all the flowery fol-de-rol, he was quite adept at it. You know who was the worst? HEROES REBORN: AVENGERS writer-- was that Liefeld? Mind you, PLENTY of writers have mutilated that form over the years-- but that usage was a jaw-dropping abomination. An embarrassment.

Bad: ALL of the X-MEN in the latter third of Claremont's tenure. They all sounded the same. They all used the same idiotic faux-philosphical, "poetic" simile definitions ("My determination is as unending as it is unyielding, yadda-yadda-yadda"). Everyone used that overly-smug, meaningless little oratorical nugget-- even Wolverine--!

Bad: Bendis and others in our new, modern era writing Cap as someone who swears--- when he NEVER did before. Or very, very rarely, and with good reason. The guy was not cusser-- more power to 'im, say I. Most of us swear-- heck, I sure do. Cap choosing NOT to is one of those things that sets him apart and above, even w/out being a superhero.

oooh, I'm going long again, aren't I? I'll sign off & see if many of the others that come to mind are picked up. . .


david_b said...

HB, great point on profanity.. Obviously it was cleaned up hundreds of times in the past, or Stan (or whoever the scripter happened to be..) would simply tongue-in-cheek 'excuse us from the scene and move us across town' or something, some Excelsior-shtick like that which made things fun.

Personally, I detest profanity usage, in nearly every scope imaginable. I hate hearing it, I hate it even more the few times it comes out of my mouth, when I bang my hand or something. It's more commonplace usage in media today makes me weep for the future. Not a good trend, especially for comics.

Doug said...

David, that's interesting that you specifically bring up HB's comment about profanity. I finally got 'round to watching Iron Man 2 last night with the college-son (shoot, three more months and they'll both be such!). I was amazed at how edgy the dialogue was as compared to the other Marvel films. It really seemed like they were stretching to the bounds of the PG-13 rating rather than making an all-ages film. Disappointing.


Lemnoc said...

Hate to box him in, 'cause I love the character and his concept, but I imagine Cap is one of the more consistently easy characters to write.

His very genesis, his predate of the modern era, makes it difficult to imagine him wigging out, going off the deep end, losing his sh%#, seeking vengeance for vengeance sake, etc.—and all the other things that have spoiled characters over the years.

Including Superman, an analogous character you'd also would imagine immune for pettiness (but a terribly difficult character to write).

Even when he laid aside the costume, the man remained. And in some of his arc's most shining writing. They had to shoot the guy and replace him to inject something a bit dangerous or unstable about CA. Otherwise, it wouldn't work.

Plus Cap is a mortal in an immortal realm, which must imbue him with some modesty and self-restraint. That probably checks a lot of writers' more stupid tinkering impulses.

Imagine someone doing the right thing for noble reasons, loving his country and comrades despite all obstacles, trying to find the best in people and bad situations, explaining it all in earnest and ringing language and being a bit of a stiff throwback dweeb while doing it, and you've pretty much got Captain America.

Lemnoc said...

On the subject of difficult characters, I’d probably rank Superman right up there. Practically a lesson in painting one’s self into a corner with power creep, it’s hard to throw something against Superman and create drama. And he really doesn’t work in the kinds of variety of settings you might employ to mix things up (horror, suspense, etc.).

Then there’s the stilted, righteous voice... and the difficulty in changing that up. Those moments when Supes actually threatens the mokes he totally, cosmically outclasses and outguns are just cringeworthy.

“That tears it, I’m not taking it anymore!” That anger only works against someone in Darkseid’s class, of which there are few of those.

His only weakness is his self-imposed identity, and you can never quite understand why the uninteresting schmucks he associates with are worth the bother. A guy that can visit Jupiter enjoys hanging with Jimmy Olsen?

Add to that the paperthin support cast of Jimmy, Lois, Perry—plus all the iconic support baggage that really prevents writers from tossing in fresh ideas and changing things up—and you’ve got big problems. It’s analogous to writing Mickey Mouse cartoons, using your wholesome corporate front-man for cartoon hijinx.

Lemnoc said...

On the subject of Captain America, what would a good retcon look like?

I imagine Steve Rogers would be married; and to a level-headed, wholesome girl. His personal life would be a source of strength for him to draw upon, not a source of drama or tension. His wife might take the place of a sidekick in terms of exposition, lightening the load, encouraging him to rightness.

His swingin’ bachelor life always struck me as a bit empty—lonely for a particularly lonely man—and a bit out of overall character: Cap doesn’t fornicate, or treat women lightly or cavalierly! Even if he wasn’t awake through all those decades, those decades are marked upon him, and young women would seem to him very, well, young. Having fought and suffered in the worst of WWII, it would be hard to share a steak with a date chattering about how awful things are these days (although that might be comical to depict).

A classic Bronze Age issue, where Cap gets up the gumption to ask Agent X to marry him strikes me as right for the character. But I don’t see him wanting to bring espionage home with him. The job’s hard enough as it is.

I can see Cap actually having a kid, and occasionally slipping and calling him Bucky. Or maybe just nicknaming the kid Bucko or Buckaroo. He’s one of the few comics characters who would seem right wanting to mentor a child.

With or without the kid, he’d definitely be a Scoutmaster. And totally sincere and given to the assignment. It would not be a “cover;” he’d do it because it aligns with his values. Plus I can see him just getting an absolute kick out a campout.

I never bought most of Steve’s day jobs. They always seemed ginned up. Me, I’d make him a consultant helping post-combat veterans in a variety of creative ways. If anyone has sympathy for PTSD and adjusting to life out of the service, it’s Captain America. And I wouldn’t make it a preachy thing to lecture readers, but just something he does—and does well—because he cares about servicemen and -women and their issues. He’d see them in the hospital. He’d visit them in the field. Toss a football with them at base camp. I can see him visiting veterans in jail, who ended up there because they couldn’t adjust, and Steve having sympathy for them and recognizing that these men aren’t the sick bad guys he fights in costumes, but the product of a lot of those sick bad guys. Out of jail, he’d sponsor some of these guys. Again, not for Green Arrow kinds of stormy, didactic “Down With the Man!” “Buck up, son!” nonsense, but a natural extension of his long familiarity and camaraderie with barracks life. Could be a wellspring for a whole range of stories.

...Best thing they ever did for Supergirl, who also never had much of a personality, was make her a guidance counselor...

It would be cool to develop Steve as a loving, deeply caring kind of guy. It would seem silly and anachronistic, yes, but also right. Some allies would sneer, but grudgingly admit the guy’s got it good.

If all this sounds like it makes Steve/Cap a little stodgy... well, he’s always been a bit stodgy! Rogers has never had much of a personality or personal life, really. You can see the poor fit even in the recent Avengers movie. But here he’d actually be doing something in line with his character—a living symbol of the good, wholesome life.

david_b said...

Lemnoc, great points on Steve Rogers.. Actually, I heard the opposite in regards to writing Captain America, with what most folks would consider a two-dimensional character.

Don't quote me, but I recall Steve Englehart had difficulty at first because, like Superman, Cap was basically 'morals and standards', but didn't have much in terms of depth as a character, thus proving very daunting to actually make him live and breath, not to mention a nearly-invisible cast of characters until Englehart started embellishing Sharon and Sam Wilson, and adding depth to Steve's relationships.

I liked how Evans played him in both his CA flick and in the Avengers. Straight-laced, yet still a sense of surging energy underneath, especially when sparring with Downey. It can work wonderful, you just have to channel it correctly.

Doug, yes, not a fan of the what kids call 'f-bombs' and other street courseness that substitutes for cinema dialog these days. NOTHING sucks the life out of otherwise good movie than that.

I have a good friend that once said, "I don't want to 'seem intolerant', I AM intolerant."

Fits me to a tee. Give me an Adam West ANY day.

Lemnoc said...

One treatment the film did really well (among many) was when Cap attempted to marshal the cops to action and they gave him lip. Then he just SHOWED them he was in charge. And that was that. They fell in line.

Cap doesn't ask for loyalty or sacrifice. His sheer presence simply demands it. Pitch perfect.

Anonymous said...

Certain characters are very hard to get right. "Morals and standards" heroes (Superman, Captain America, the Lone Ranger, Mickey Mouse) can easily come across as bland and stodgy. But the idealism is so intrinsic to those characters, you can't make them gritty without ruining them ("Curse of Shazam"-ugh). Some characters are well suited to grimdark, but even then, there are limits. Batman's toughness is a big part of his appeal, and I would not want him to become Alan Alda in a cape, but "the G-D-Batman" goes too far. He comes across as a worse menace to society than the Joker and Two-Face combined. I think they struck the right balance with Batman (most of the time, anyway) in the 1970's and early 1980's. He was tough and grim, but not legally insane.

david_b said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
david_b said...

Ah, darn my ineptitude, meant to write 'coarseness' not 'courseness'. ARRG.

Lemnoc, uber-great point on Cap's presence, couldn't have said it any better.

Anonymous, well said on Bats.. Never considered myself a big fan of him in the Bronze Age, but you nailed it in terms of when his character really shined for most fans.

Lemnoc said...

What’s generally missing from the Batman persona is the latter part of the equation, “Criminals are bad ... because society and people are good and worth saving.”’

We get a lot about Batman avenging himself for the death of his parents, and that leads to a picture of Bruce as a demented, stunted sort of narcissistic sociopath for whom violence is its own end. Little better than the Punisher. What’s mostly missing from his genesis is that his parents were kind, they were generous and thoughtful, they represented the good and noble in people. Without their influence, and that of others around them, Gotham went to hell in a handbasket.

it’s not enough that Batman should clean up filth. It’s that under that filth he understands there is something that can shine.

A lot of good work was laid around the character in the ’70s, with the rise of the Wayne Foundation. It sort of resonated the old Doc Savage line, that the work in his spare time was much more satisfying and fulfilling and ultimately lasting than turning someone’s mouth into a bloody ruin of broken teeth.

What would be refreshing is for Batman to explain that the reason he always returns Joker to rehabilitation is he believes, in fact, Joker can be rehabilitated, he believes in the redemption of justice. It would be great to build a story around that, to permanently retire one of his rogue’s gallery (Mr. Freeze would be a good candidate) just to make that point. I tell you, that would just blow readers’ minds!

Anonymous said...

One complication with long-running characters is that they may be written by different writers, some of whom may be less meticulous than others, leading to inconsistencies. That problem is compounded when a character appears in different titles with different writers and sometimes different editors. A character may be OK in his solo strip, and come across badly when guest starring in a team-up. Then the changing times influence long-running strips. Batman was a grim vigilante in 1939 (probably influenced by pulp magazines and horror movies). The 1966 TV show reflected the fad for camp comedy (as did a lot of action-adventure TV shows and movies at that time). Then he went back to the grim vigilante image. Each version was a product of its time. Then you have characters who have been adapted to different media, with changes. If you liked the Dark Knight, you might not like Adam West's portrayal. If you liked Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm novels, you might hate the Dean Martin movies. If you liked Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels (and/or the Ron Ely TV show), you won't necessarily like the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies. And vice versa.

Anonymous said...

Movies are probably "stretching to the bounds of the PG-13 rating" to appeal to adolescents, who seem to be the main audience nowadays. (That may be especially true for action movies in general and super-hero movies in particular, since those are basically adolescent male power fantasies.) When you are a teenager, decadence (casual sex, drugs, profanity), seems cool and sophisticated. And, at that age, appearing to be cool and sophisticated is the #1 priority.

Lemnoc said...

RE : Englehart on CA and Superman: The two are in totally different classes of writing exposition. The one is a god. The other can be slain with a jackknife. Levels of rage from Cap are totally inappropriate grafted on to Supes, whose annoyance could devastate a planet.

Cap is arguably more in the league of DD and Spidey.

A clever writer could keep a character like CA going for years with ripped from the headlines kinds of stories. Cap is ultimately Everyman as Superhero, gifted yes but vulnerable.

Actually, writing Cap into Avengers as a vital asset seems, to me anyway, more a challenge than keeping him fresh in his own book. But perhaps I am ignorant of or unaware of the pressures the larger MU demands of its properties.

Lemnoc said...

At the risk of hijacking this thread, I think we're at the threshold of understanding the malaise of the superhero genre, which is the heroes very seldom get to enjoy the fruits of what they're suffering for.

WHY is Prof X, for example, without a wife? 'Cause the guy is a sex symbol? We could probably name 20 heroes who are severed from loving relationships for no discernible reason WHATSOEVER.

Batman we can kinda understand. He's in that Jim Kirk "I Need My Pain" realm. Hawkeye? Hell, why?

DC 'verse, the issue is more or less ignored. Marvel-verse, the private lives of heroes are trawled for story hooks, always uneasy, ever miserable.

In both, the bad guys never learn, always keep coming.

Seldom in either is this notion that, every now and then, the hero's fists pays dividends and the bad guy reconsiders his future. Seldom is the "Code Against Killing" broadened from a character's personal against-all-evidence narcissism to "there's a reason for it" coda that produces deliverables?

"I know for a fact, people can be rehabilitated. And my life is evidence there is good in this world."

In Miller's B:DKR, Bruce writes in his journal about a deadly explosion, "Leaving the world no poorer, two men die."

I admit, I've always liked the rough sentiment expressed there, it stuck with me through the years. Liked it. But for a guy like Batman, maybe he SHOULD give a rip that two men die before being brought to justice. That is WHY he is better than me.

I guess what I'm getting at is between the DC realm, where all alter-egos are rather indistinguishable and interchangable—Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, Bruce Wayne, who gives a rip?—and Marvel, where everyone's life is a soap opera, there must be a realm where the hero takes off his sweaty costume, looks at his kids, and thinks "I done good today."

My CAPTCHA for this post was "cplicit ograplay." In a weird way, that seems to capture what I was trying to get at here.

Lemnoc said...

Sheesh, meant to include this in the last post:

In the Elliot S! Maggin 'verse, Lex Luthor is a fairly sweet guy when Superman is not around, ready and happy to save the world. He is worth Supes not taking him out, and Supes more or less understands this and forebears.

It is a very cool idea.

William said...

Batman and Spider-Man are a couple of characters that I think need to be handled just right in order to be successful. If you make Batman too light and campy, it just doesn't work. The same if you make Spider-Man too dark and moody. Both characters have been written with varying degrees of success over the years. Here are some of my thoughts on each:

BATMAN: I always wondered why people thought that Frank Miller was such a great Batman writer. He never wrote one Batman story that I really enjoyed all that much. His best efforts were the original Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One. Those were both well received by others, but I never much cared for either one myself. I found them both to be too dark and dreary (even for Batman). And Miller's "All-Star Batman and Robin" is nothing short of a travesty as far as I'm concerned.

The perfect Batman "voice" in both manner and tone is definitely the one from "Batman The Animated Series". I was never a really huge Batman fan until this show came out. From the very first episode I was hooked. I was like "Aha! Now that's Batman done right!" In fact whenever I read Batman in a comic, I always imagine him speaking with Kevin Conroy's voice.

SPIDER-MAN: For me Roger Stern wrote the perfect Spider-Man personality. There have been others who have done Spidey justice, but I hold Stern up as the gold standard against who all others are judged. He captured the perfect balance of humor and heroic responsibility in Spider-man's character. Unfortunately his run on "Amazing" was a bit too brief. (He only did about 30 or so issues). I wish he'd stayed on the book a couple of more years at least. However, I also liked Tom Defalco's take on the web-slinger's voice as well. (Just not quite as much as Stern). Stan Lee also, of course, did an excellent job putting words in Spidey's mouth. After all he was the one who created Peter Parker's personality in the first place. However, Stan sometimes went a little too far with the self-defeating angst for my taste, and Pete came off a little Charlie Brown like on occasion. You know, the guy who could never be allowed to win, ever. That got a little old for me after a while.

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