Sunday, March 27, 2005

DC = Dynastic Centerpiece

DC is re-applying what I'll call the "Dynastic Centerpiece" model to its icons. In the Dynastic Centerpiece model, a hero is not a single character but the centerpiece of his/her own array of good and evil forces. Using basic concepts (such the Kid Sidekick, the Junior Counterpart, the Black Sheep, the Elder Statesman, the Female Counterpart, the Animal Companion, the Romantic Interest, the Civilian Companion, the Authority Figure, etc.) a constellation of characters is clustered around the central figure, which helps make him/her seem even more important. Against them is arrayed an "anti-dynasty" of villains similarly created according to familiar archtypes (The Arch Enemy, The Lunatic, the Heroworshipping Villain, the Civilian Enemy, the Untouchable Crime Lord, the Magician, the Evil Opposite, the Femme Fatale, the Mental Challenger, The Physical Challenger, etc).

In the Silver Age, a Dynastic Centerpiece model was used to build a mythos around all the characters as a matter of course. Done right, it can give the character the unstoppable momentum of a freight train; overdone or done poorly, it can break down under its own inertia like an overburdened wagon (the Beppo syndrome, as it were). But because the archtypes are strong concepts built-in to the human psyche, the drive to mythologize a character by "filling out" the pattern is always there. You may not always like how such a pattern's being used, but, like it or not, characters who lack the pattern have trouble standing on their own. It's no coincidence that the likes of the Atom, Plastic Man, Martian Manhunter, Firestorm, Black Canary, despite their powers and pedigrees, don't carry the weight of icons like Superman or Batman, or that one of the main things that the revivals of Starman and Green Arrow did was to use pre-existing and new characters to "fill out" the pattern as much and as quickly as possible.

One of the reasons that the JLA has such mythic power is that we feel it as the gathering of icons each of whom is the centerpiece of its own whole mythos, not just a gathering of individuals (like, say, the Avengers is). During the revitalization of the JSA, the writers/editors have played on this phenomenon by strengthening the ties of each member to larger mythos of which he/she is a part (the current storyline is a stunning example).


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Tit Luca said...

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Bystander #3 said...

But because the archtypes are strong concepts built-in to the human psyche, the drive to mythologize a character by "filling out" the pattern is always there. You may not always like how such a pattern's being used, but, like it or not, characters who lack the pattern have trouble standing on their own.

I remember first reading about "The Dynastic Centerpiece" model here on the Absorbascon ages ago and thinking at the time what a cute and clever idea it was. However, recent events in the build-up and aftermath of Infinite Crisis have really driven home how terrifyingly powerful an idea the "Dynastic Centerpiece" can be.

Take, for example, the transformation of Bart Allen from Impulse to Kid Flash II to Flash IV. In my opinion, this transformation effectively eliminated all the characteristics that made Bart an interesting character in his own right (his impulsiveness, naivete, optimism, etc.) and was absolutely not in the best interest of the character. I feel like a very interesting and funny character has been systematically disassembled and destroyed. However, I honestly believe that the road that lead Bart Allen to where he is now was paved with the best of intentions by all those involved. I don't blame the writers who wrote the separate stages of this transformation, and I don't even entirely blame the editors who may have mandated the changes, though they must hold some manner of culpability. No, I blame the inexorbably appeal of Dynastic Centerpiece Model. I hold the Dark Side of the Dynastic Centerpiece Model responsible for the destruction of Bart Allen.

No one writer sat down and thought "I have a compelling idea for a story where we take a hyperactive, attention-deficit fourteen year old and transform him into an angst-ridden, moody twenty-something." Instead the transformation took place gradually, in stages. In each stage, someone made a decision, not based on what was best for the character of Bart Allen, but rather based on what was perceived to be best for the "Flash Family" or for the good of the DC Universe as a whole.

The year is 2003. Geoff Johns is the writing The Flash, and he is about to embark on a revamp of Teen Titans. He has been granted control of the former members of Young Justice, whose book has just been discontinued. In order to make the new Teen Titans book as appealing as possible, Johns needs a line-up that is bold and iconic and instantly recognizable to old and new fans alike. This means that there are certain slots that have to be filled.

If character "dynasties" and "families" are the vertical pillars of the DC Universe, then the Justice League, the Justice Society, and the Teen Titans are the horizonal tiers. The intersection of the two forms a grid that provides a skeletal structure upon which the rest of the DCU is built.

Just like the vertical families, the horizontal tiers have certain iconic roles that need to be filled. To round out his iconic Teen Titans team, Geoff Johns needs a Kid Flash. As Impulse, Bart Allen is the closest fit. For the good of the Flash book and the good of the Teen Titans book, this decision is a no-brainer. By transforming Impulse into Kid Flash, Johns gets a "kid sidekick" to strengthen the supporting cast of the Flash book, plus an "iconic speedster" to round out the roster of the Titans book. He kills two birds with one stone.

The only downside is that Impulse doesn't exactly fit the role he's being moved into, at least not "as-is." Impulse has a touch of "black sheep" to him in the sense that he is irresponsible and unpredictable. He is less the favored son of the Flash Family and more the odd-ball second-cousin-once-removed. He's a square peg going into an octagonal hole, and his corners are going to have to be trimmed a bit in order to fit. No problem, though. If Bart is going to fill the role of Kid Flash, all that's needed is a shot in the knee to get him there and a rapid education to grow him up a bit, and alls well. Done Deal.

It's 2006, and the immediate goals and priorities have changed. Infinite Crisis is going to shake up the status quo of the DC Universe and together 52 and One Year Later are going to define a Brave New World. The question facing the writers and editors at DC is how to make it happen.

Question: How do you indicate the dawning of a New Age in the DC Universe?
Answer: Retire the current Flash and replace him with a new Flash.

When Barry Allen replaced Jay Garrick it indicated the beginning of a new age. When Wally West replaced Barry Allen, it indicated the same thing. If DC editorial wants the send the message to the readership that a New Age has Dawned in the DCU, the most unambiguous and definitive way to do so is to replace the current Flash with a new one.

Question: Who is the best candidate to be the new Flash?
Answer: The current Kid Flash.

One of the concepts inherent in the very idea of "kid sidekick" is that the sidekick is one day destined to replace the mentor. This very rarely happens in practice, but it has happen before in the Flash Family specifically, so there is a precedence to uphold.

Once it's decided that Bart must become the new Flash, there is only one problem remaining: the character of Bart Allen is going to have to change again in order to fit his new role. The characteristics that make for a good "black sheep" or even a good "kid sidekick" are not necessarily the same attributes that make for a compelling "Dynastic Centerpiece." Bart has gone from being Court Jester to Prince to King in just over three years. He is now a slightly octagonal peg that absolutely needs to be made to fit a very round hole. This time, Bart is going to need to have all his corners rounded off, completely.

My point is that there was a series of decisions made, and viewed independently, each one was a sound decision made for the good of the Flash franchise or the DC universe as a whole, but viewed all together, the cumulative effect on the character of Bart Allen has been disasterous. Bart was originally conceived to be a unique and independent character. However, in an attempt to reinforce the skeleton of the DCU, larger structural forces pushed Bart towards the nearest, unoccupied vertex within the grid of the Dynastic Framework. In order to fit the role into which Bart was ultimately moved, all the uniqueness first had to be crushed out of him.

Scipio, have you ever considered doing a follow-up on the Dynastic Centerpiece Model, highlighting how it can go horribly wrong if the overzealous desire to "fill out" a pantheon results in characters being transformed into something they were never intended to become?

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Cameron Vale said...

I think that it makes much more sense to look at the stock character gallery of the classic film serial: hero (or heroine), sidekick (either comic or serious, usually serving as a counterpoint to the tone), old-timer (usually a mentor or guide, isn't required to be present or even alive during the events of the story), brains (the evil mastermind who aims to keep his/her hands clean), brawn (someone who does the brains' dirty work including attempts on the hero/heroine's life), and maybe a love interest (although suggesting that the hero/heroine will probably get a love interest someday would work just as well). This pattern conforms strangely to Frank Miller's revival of Daredevil (making the character a romantic as well as a horndog, giving him an AWOL ninja master, making Foggy a stronger sidekick, and making Kingpin the key antagonist while revamping the remainder of the rogue's gallery into his stable of assassins), and it could also explain the wayward and fumbling nature of Batman (Alfred's role hovers ambiguously between mentor and sidekick while Robin exists as an inferior and redundant extra sidekick, villainesses keep crossing over into antiheroines so Batman won't look like a hopeless permanent bachelor, none of the villains comfortably fit the role of brains or brawn so the context has to constantly shift around to get these roles filled).