Monday, October 27, 2003

Looking To The Stars: Of Cons And Continuity

Recently, Judd Winick came under fire by many critics (including yours truly) for his portrayal of certain characters during his tenure on Green Arrow. This criticism became an item of news this past week when Tony Isabella, the creator of Black Lightning, took a vocal place among those same critics.

For those of you who haven’t read the offending issues, Winick’s “Straight Shooter” mini-series introduced us to Jefferson Pierce’s niece, Joanna. Joanna was a lawyer investigating the crimes of a large multi-national corporation who was killed in Green Arrow #30 by an assassin working for that same corporation. The CEO of said corporation, untouchable by any direct proof, was later killed by a bolt of lightning. And while nothing was confirmed directly, the words at the end of Green Arrow #31 as Oliver Queen and Jefferson Pierce talked confirmed that Black Lightning was responsible for the man’s death.

Winick’s run on the book, particularly the last issue has inspired much wailing and gnashing of teeth among fans, critics and comic historians alike.

  • Oliver Queen fans were ill-pleased to see the flirtatious, but never a cheat Oliver Queen (who was ready to propose to Dinah Lance not a few issues earlier!) having a one night stand with the niece of a close friend. Indeed, some wonder how Pierce and Queen became such close friends since their one recorded meeting resulted in the former yelling at the later for nominating him for JLA membership only because of his race.
  • Connor Hawke fans were upset to see the calm, rational and for the most part, pacifist ex-monk using lethal force (in so far as blowing up your own home is lethal force) against a metahuman opponent whose only demonstrated ability was super reflexes.
  • Jefferson Pierce has always been portrayed as a man of unbendable ethics and strong moral values. Indeed, his first solo comic book series ended as Black Lightning retired himself after his powers accidentally caused the death of an innocent bystander. It would be several years before he would return to action at the side of an equally ethical hero with strong qualms about killing; Batman.

Black Lightning has been another sticking point for fans in another Winick book; Outsiders. In that book, one of the new team members is Jefferson Pierce’s daughter, “Thunder”. The problem is that Jefferson Pierce has always been shown as a bachelor and considering what we know of his daughter’s age, she would have been in her early teens, at least, when her father first put on his costume and became Black Lightning – something the ever-responsible Jefferson Pierce as written by Isabella. This begging the question of where did Thunder come from, who was her mom and why did the ever moral Black Lightning find himself as a single father?

Of course this is far from the only argument regarding character portrayal taking place this week. The X-Men fan community, who were already up in arms over just about everything Chuck Austen has done on Uncanny X-Men, REALLY began to wax wroth over the most recent issue, which revealed that…

  • Angel really is an angel.
  • Nightcrawler is really a demon, not a mutant.
  • Nightcrawler’s pappy is none other than Satan himself.

I have little time, space or inclination to quote every single “why this is so wrong” story I have heard about this past issue. Doubtlessly you could search the many X-Men discussion forms on the Internet and find countless complaints with full annotations that could pick apart the entirety of the Austen Uncanny run, if you are so inclined. I will however make mention of two points; one general and one very specific.

  • I am far from an X-Men fan, but I remember stories where Nightcrawler was going bar hopping with the other X-Men. If he was born 20 years ago, as Austen’s first issue of “The Draco” would have us believe, then either there’s been some time warping or someone screwed up what is, a fairly easily researched point.
  • My friend Tanner, who is perhaps the greatest living resource on Nightcrawler lore in this reality, told me about an issue of Excalibur where the team was fighting vampires alongside Dr. Strange. After accidentally being locked up by another vampire hunter (He has fangs!), Dr. Strange used his magic and determined “there is nothing supernatural about (Nightcrawler).

All of this arguing points at one very basic argument between two forces, who for lack of better names, I will call continuity and accessibility. Continuity is the belief in adherence to the traditional portrayal and history of a character. Accessibility is the belief that history can be sacrificed in the name of telling a good story.

Many writers claim accessibility as a reason for why their stories ignore previous stories. In this case, it is harder for the new readers to get into a new title when too much emphasis on what happened before and there is only so much that the “See #242 – Stan!” box can do to help this. The problem with this is that many writers use accessibility to ignore everything that came before them to tell “their” stories, even this requires the characters under their control to do things totally out of character for them or indeed, for the character to change completely.

This is not to say that strict adherence to continuity is any better for a book or its’ characters. There are far too many writers, in comics and other genres, who have made a comfortable living telling the same stories with the same unchanging characters over and over. A little change is needed at times to keep a character fresh and interesting. But this change should come as slowly and naturally as possible.

Still, the question remains; how strict should we be in the treatment of our past history? Some have argued that Tony Isabella has no right to criticize how the character he created is used since DC owns it and that they have no need to ask him how the character is used. Technically, that is correct. However, DC has a history of allowing their creators to have some say over what is done with their creations when they are being used in another book. Neil Gaiman, for example, has been consulted on all the appearances of The Endless and other characters he created for “The Sandman”, such as Dream’s appearance in JLA #23. Also, DC has respected writer James Robinson’s desire to have Jack Knight “retired” in the wake of Starman #80.

Why the disparity? Because Sandman and Starman have very devoted fan bases and any misuse of the characters would inspire irritation not only in their creators but also in that fan base. Black Lighting, while undoubtedly the first major black superhero that DC ever had, has never had the same high level of name recognition or the huge following. Hence, there was no apparent danger in several creators using Pierce as a background character (don’t forget that he became Secretary of Education under President Luthor in the Superman books) and attempting to add something to the mythos to flesh him out. As DC has found out, however, there is apparently enough of a Black Lightning fan base out there to raise a big stink over the man who once retired rather than risk lives striking a man down in anger.

Still, it is my firm belief that the best course lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, it can be a pain to keep up with every little thing that happened in a character’s past but it is ultimately necessary to keep track of certain basic details, like a character’s rough age, (Are they able to drink legally? Are they of the age of consent?), marital status and number of children. It is not, however, necessary to write angry letters to Marvel over Janet Pym’s complaining of her husband’s tacky yellow costume when she was the one who made him the purple costume in the first place back in AntMan #233 or some such. (Incidentally, I am just making this example up…)

Contrary to the belief of some writers, past continuity can be taken into consideration and be used to enhance stories in ways beyond providing “I am so smart” points for the devoted fans. Consider the entire run of Geoff John’s JSA. Consider Mark Waid’s run on Fantastic Four. Consider even this past week’s Amazing Spider-Man #500, which recanted a number of past Spider-Man moments and very few of them major events. All of these books have taken the past mythologies created by other writers and used them to enhance the present stories rather than dismissing the past as irrelevant and unimportant.

In the end though, it is all a matter of making the fans happy. The dollars and cents you spend on each book are a vote of sorts, letting the publishers know what books you think are worth your trouble. So if you have an issue with a writer and what they are doing, don’t just piss and moan about it on a message board - Just stop buying the book. You’ll be much happier in the long run, trust me.

Tune in next week. Same Matt Time. Same Matt Website.

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