'Blog Post

From Quora.com 5/26/16

How much should the cultural circumstances in which a comic character was created determine how others write the character in the future?


From Quora.com 5/26/16
Thu May 26, 2016
How much should the cultural circumstances in which a comic character was created determine how others write the character in the future?
This is a terrific question and I don’t have any idea at this point how to answer it, but I feel it’s very important that I do. Give me a minute.

Okay …

A writer of stories that take place in a shared universe needs to be aware of what concerned and was probably lurking in the mind of a character’s original writer. Jerry Siegel, who co-created Superman, was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who lost his father in his early teens. When I started writing Superman I was not acquainted with essential pieces of Jerry’s history, but it was clear to me that certain elements of the character’s history were crucial to his integrity: He was a refugee from an alien place; he had extraordinary powers but spent most of his time disguised as an ordinary guy (or possibly a parody of ordinariness); he defined himself by a strict sense of morality including a code against killing, a sensibility whose source was the place and circumstances of his upbringing; he was orphaned twice, having been very close with his adoptive parents; that sort of thing. Both before and after I met Jerry and his artist collaborator Joe Shuster I tried to stay consistent with these perceptions. Sociologically, Superman considers himself a leveling factor in the human community and an opponent of any form of abuse of power. Each of his stories needs to be an extension of the question: What does a moral person do in a given situation if he has all the power in the world?

Jack Kirby - who often collaborated with writers like Stan Lee and Joe Simon - was another comic creator of Siegel’s generation who defined many of his characters according to his perceptions of the culture that formed him. With Simon he co-created Captain America, among a profusion of other recognizable characters. After he created this character and drew and co-plotted his first ten issues he eventually went off to Europe to fight in (and, consequentially, win) the Second World War. When he came home in 1945 it seemed every villain he had a hand in creating - whether for Captain America or some other series - was a Nazi analog. At Jack’s funeral his nephew started his eulogy by explaining, apologetically it seemed, that the thing you had to understand about him was “Uncle Jack hated Nazis, in any form.” The room full of comic artists and fans pretty much broke up laughing. It was not a crowd that had to be apologized to for Jack’s antipathy toward Nazis. He was a New Deal Democrat all his adult life and applied a vivid political sensibility overtly and joyfully to all his work. As I write this, Marvel has just released a re-boot of Captain America suggesting that the character was originally recruited by an international fascist organization that pre-dates German Nazism. I’m interested to see how Marvel navigates their way out of this mess while retaining the sensibilities of the character. Considering the reverence in which the kids at Marvel hold Jack and Joe, I’m confident they know the way.

When I was freelancing primarily with DC Comics I had lunch one day with a friend who was writing one of Marvel’s major comics series. We griped about our bosses, about our girlfriends, about the price of a burger, but I soon got bored and told my friend what I really wanted to know was what was going to happen to his superhero character. He said he was killing off the protagonist’s girlfriend because he thought her rival for the hero’s affections was hotter. I thought this was a pretty bad idea, but my friend insisted he had his publisher’s permission and a free hand. Briefly, I got jealous and considered killing off Lois Lane, but I dropped the idea without expressing it to anyone. So he killed off the girlfriend and for two or three years he couldn’t walk into a room at a comic book convention without getting roundly booed. He deserved better.

But writers of established characters often overstep, as my friend probably did, either out of enthusiasm or the personal urge to signify. It’s easy to recover from the former, but the latter is a tough one.

(So how am I doing?)

John Craddock
Thu May 26 2016
11:52 PM
As always, very interesting insights. I really agree with you that the original intentions of a character's creators should be paramount when writing them. Besides the dark and violent themes and scenes in stories, my other big dislike in modern superhero comics is how little regard there seems to be for the characters and their creators. I wonder if some of this is corporately mandated so as to make it clear that the characters are the properties of the publishers and not their creators. I don't know where it comes from or why it is done, but it is a disservice to the characters and the people who created them.

Elliot Maggin
Fri May 27 2016
12:16 PM
I think it’s fair to say that the disregard you’re talking about, John, is something the publishers signal but don’t necessarily mandate. During the past few years any reference to “canon” as a source of authority for a doctrinal notion in comic book continuity (an oxymoron if ever there was one) elicits laughs from me.

Properly – as it has always been with folklore – the governing authority with regard to the true nature of a character and his or her actions and underlying attitudes, is the reader. The viewer. The hearer.

Hence the profusion of wrongheaded retcons of late, and their often insipid and insistent re-retcons that generally highlight and deepen the original problem.

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