Every Tuesday and Thursday, I post excerpts from my best-selling at not-selling super blog, Playing Favorites.
As a general rule, C-List comic book characters can do three things others can’t: Die and stay dead, have a fulfilling story arc of personal growth, and get both of those things erased on a whim when someone needs filler for an impressive splash page (see Crusher, Wesley). Peter Parker is stuck on a spider-treadmill that denies him the fully-fledged self-actualization of any intelligent, morally responsible radioactivity-infused man of sixty, but Cloud 9, in the space of about two years and half of the total run of ‘Avengers: The Initiative,’ grew from an awkward girl next door who just wanted to fly into a unflinching super soldier. Not in the classical Captain America sense, but in that she became the model (albeit an unrecognized model) of the success of The Initiative Program. Her metamorphosis is one from childish happiness to the subdued responsibilities of adulthood. It’s sad, yes, but Abby couldn’t have done everything to stem the tide of The Skrull Invasion that Cloud 9 did.
Now, a good story doesn’t make a character great. If it did, All-Star Superman would have been on here. I guess that –and the fact she doesn’t wear a mask or silly uniform (most of the time)—is probably why I’m going to replace Lois with All-Star Superman. Characters are great, but I’ve already established that characters have their most concrete definitions in stories written with a singular voice behind them. Which is to say that Superman from “Superman vs Aliens” isn’t the same character as Superman from “Superman: Emperor Joker.” Emperor Joker was a great story, but it doesn’t produce any great characters; Superman, Batman, Joker, and Mxyzptlk don’t receive any sort of character development or depth. Yes, they do impressive things and we could probably debate the depth that’s there (as I don’t believe there’s nearly as much as the book thinks), but it’s a good story and a good concept without much character work. A crowning moment of awesome (Lois) or two (Lois again) doesn’t necessarily make a compelling character.
On the other hand, development and palpable change in a character does. The type of story that’s great because of a character is a good story. This goes back to the second advantage C-list characters have. “Emperor Joker” is a good story because things happen logically and they involve characters that we’re familiar with. What happens when Joker attains god-like powers? Now we know, but who’s surprised? (If you read the individual issues of the graphic novel, which starts with Supes living life as a fugitive from justice in a world he hardly recognizes, not knowing that the villain is The Goddamn Joker until month after tantalizing month of exploration, this story would probably knock your socks off. Collected as it is, with the words “Emperor Joker” on the front and an informative blurb on the back, you lose a lot of the surprise this story had to offer.) The Joker fixates on Batman, there’s some exposition, some plans, and even a few cunning things happen. End of story? All parties involved go back to their lives just as they were before. It’s not that nothing significant happened—some pretty heavy shit went down—but it’s just that next month there’s going to be another story with Zod or some shit and no one is going to care.
That’s why All-Star Superman and Cloud 9 are up here. They are central characters in stories that focus on their lives undergoing changes and how they respond to them. This isn’t a ‘prayer for a resurrection’; the things that happen to them are significant and lasting. Damien gets similar credit; he’s a cocky little snot now, but his character will eventually develop restraint, maturity, and respect for others. Hell, it’s already happened; after treating Alfred like an NPC in the opening scene of his epic superhero roleplaying game, he takes the time at the climax of the story to make sure Batman’s going to look after their faithful butler before running off to kick supervillain ass. It’s a small moment, but it shows that incremental amount of character growth that he’s earned. Long term, it’s more questionable, but Robins do seem to be able to get some character growth between their own titles and running support for Bats (Tim’s chastity notwithstanding). Only time will tell.