Friday, February 15, 2008

The Conceptual Hall of Shame

Well, my recent mention of Kenny Braverman met with some understandable acrimony here at the Absorbascon. Inspired by this reaction, I inaugurate a new occasional feature here at the Absorbascon:

THE CONCEPTUAL HALL OF SHAME

which will (dis)honor those comic book tropes that set off (or should) a reader's Automatic Crap Detector (or, as I like to call it privately, my "Spider-Man-villain sense"). Our first inductee is, of course,

THE VENGEFUL CHILDHOOD FRIEND
A close friend of the hero from school or childhood is retconned into the hero's past, sometimes with a role so disproportionately large that it seems ridiculous that we've never heard of the character before. The former friend returns at what seems like a completely arbitrary point in the hero's career to wreak revenge for some real or imagined slight or injury.
The poster children for this weak-kneed trope are Tommy Elliot (Hush, from the Batman mythos) and Kenny Braverman (Conduit, from the Superman mythos).

Strong characters build their power and significance from the ground up, over time. As the saying goes, they win their reputation the old-fashioned way: they earn it.

Many (if not most) of the great villains were not introduced as Great Villains. They were introduced simply as villains, and through the intrinsic strength of their initial concept, deft handling by writers, and a unique dynamic with their foe, they become Great Villians through continued appearances. Even if they never appear except in opposition to the hero, they still stand on their own as characters; if you subtract the hero, you can still picture the villain with his own motivations, out doing evil, perhaps fighting some other hero. Such villains stand in opposition to their foe (which makes them seem like challenges for the hero to overcome) and are not dependent on him (which makes them simply feel like plot props).

Weak writers love to shortcut this process. They attempt to imbue their new pet villain with immediate and powerful significance by shoehorning him in as an important personal friend from long ago. Rather than let the villain prove himself as a threat, the writer gives him an instant "unfair" advantage, like knowing the hero's secret identity The logic of their motivation is murky; why have they chosen now and not earlier to strike, and why not simply announce the hero's secret identity on YouTube? Because the writer isn't really interested in this guy as a independent entity, the character is smothered in vagueness (motive, powers, codename, final dispensation). Because such villians are really props, they usually only have one story in them (and not a very good one, at that) .


Warning signs for this Shameful Concept are:

  • Unlikely continued use of diminutive first name from childhood (e.g., Kenny rather than Ken or Kenneth)
  • Vague and weak motivation against the hero (I can't even remember why Kenny disliked Clark so wildly)
  • Knowledge of the hero's secret identity or other personal weaknesses
  • Vague powers and abilities, whose source or origin is sloughed over
  • Nearly random noun for codename (Tell me "Hush" and "Conduit" don't sound like someone picked them out drunkenly from a dictionary during the DC Holiday Part and challenged a fellow writer to build a character around them).
  • Vague and inconclusive ending to their storyline


Don't be confused; there are villains who share some superficial characters of such crappy MacGuffins, but are actually decent characters. Not all old friends who become villain deserved to be tarred as "Vengeful Childhood Friends".

Exempt from condemnation are the Silver Age Lex Luthor, because DC went to such lengths to make it work that they actually kind of succeeded, and the Green Goblin(s?), because he wasn't retconned and his development as a villain was contemporaneous with his role as a regular member of the hero's supporting cast. Similar to Luthor, Two-Face was made more interesting on Batman The Animated Series by inserting a friendship between Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne (and, later, Batman). But both Luthor and Two-Face existed on their own and stood as strong independent characters before their relationships with the hero were "backdated".

Anyway, there must be other clear examples of this Conceptual Shame than the awful "Hush" and "Conduit". Who are they...?

49 comments:

totaltoyz said...

I nominate the utterly ridiculous Cobat Blue, from the Flash.

Scipio said...

Zowie. You are so very right. Not exactly a childhood friend per se, but otherwise he exactly fits the mold.

Steven said...

Strangely enough, "The Circle" in the current Wonder Woman storyline almost fit this example: villains who have a childhood connection to Diana (and were close friends of her mother), yet who have never been heard from before.

And yet, it works, because they also have clear motivations (zealots for their very personal definition of the Amazon way) and very good reason for not being heard from before (they were in JAIL!).

(and ooh, Cobalt Blue, Barry's TWIN BROTHER!!! is almost certainly the best example. I should have thought of that.)

Anonymous said...

I have to nominate Cobalt Blue. Now, I know he's been nominated twice already, but he's such a glaring example that even a third nomination doesn't quite cover it.

Who else thought of CB the way I did: by listing Justice League members, coming to the Flash, and shouting "Cobalt Blue"?

If I were to continue this, I would have to mention the Martian Manhunter's evil twin Malefa'ak. Fits the pattern.

Jake Saint said...

Can we make up a word for this storytelling abuse, like "backweighting" (for when "retcon" just isn't negative enough)? Of course, there are many other ways to retcon importance into a new villain than "Vengeful Childhood Friend" (read: The 80% of the X-Enemies from the last 20 years whose goals, motives, personalities, and backgrounds were vaguely extant when they first appeared (and often for years to come)). Will "Shadowy Manipulator" be making an appearance in The Conceptual Hall of Shame?

Iron Man Fan said...

Over at Marvel, we have Tony Stark's childhood friend Tiberius Stone, who was his nemesis most of the godawful Tieri run. Also, from around that time come the Sons of Yinsen, a cult built around the scientist who died helping Tony build his original armor who consider Stark to basically be John the Baptist for their religion.

Scipio said...

Give me some example of this Shadowy Manipulator concept, Jake; is it an intrinsically Shameful Concept or just one that has sometime been done poorly...?

Derek said...

Hmm, let's see...

Conduit, first appearance in '91.
Blue Cobalt, first appearance in '97.
Ma'alefa'ak, first appearance in '98.
Hush, first appearance in... 2002?

Does that still count as '90s era awfulness, or are my prejudices getting the better of me?

Oh, and I've got another one for the list; Cassandra Nova, Professor X's long-lost, hyper-powerful, evil twin sister.

Scipio said...

Well, Loeb's a weak writer, no matter what the calendar says.

Tristan said...

He's not a childhood friend, but he was retconned in to an earlier storyline, and he fits at least three of your warning signs, and definitely fits the description of being 'dependent' on the hero rather a decent character in his own right. I am speaking of the most over rated villain in comics history: Venom.

Scipio said...

Very interesting, Tristan...!

Anonymous said...

Shadowy Manipulators: over at X-Men Central we've got Apocalypse, Stryfe, Mr. Sinister, Reignfire, and probably a dozen more. Ridiculously powerful, hire lots of minions, tend not to reveal their motives, near-immortal. It's not necessarily a poor concept, but it's become diluted through overuse.

And -- oh, you're going to love this -- the Internets tell me that the original plan for Mr. Sinister was that he was another child in the orphanage where Scott Summers grew up. Except that his mutant power was that he couldn't grow up, but could shift into an adult body, or some other such nonsense. Anyway, if you dare read enough X-books from the 80s, there are all sorts of flashbacks to Scott's orphanage days where this one kid is always picking on him ... that kid was supposed to be Mr. Sinister. But then saner heads prevailed and that never quite got implemented as planned, so Mr. Sinister is just a Shadowy Manipulator.

Anonymous said...

How about Mace Gardner? He was a lame-ass wasn't he?

Jeff R. said...

JMS's molten-man variant spider-man villain certainly fits (from "Skin Deep"): "Charlie Weiderman" is just that kind of name, isn't it?


Can Mekt Ranzz be kept out of this category, though?

Eric said...

Alley-Cat (a.k.a. She-Cat) was a girl who had been in the same corrupt youth care facility as the young Selina Kyle and later decided to become a Catwoman rip-off.

Derek said...

Aw, seriously, Eric?

Do you know if the name was trademarked? I'm still holding out hope that Holly (Catwoman and Countdown) will become Ted Grant's protégé and call herself Ally-Cat.

Gustavo said...

Oh God, this bunch of responses gave me a bad flashback, specially Cobalt Blue -no pun intended until re-read -( who I had managed to completely erase from my memory ).

I guess that sub category of those would be the previous existant character that comes back evil. Manhunter Lana is the posterchild ( the whole Millenium storyline, actually ), but the worst offender that comes to mind is Vanessa Kaptelis as Silver Swan. Oh Jimenez, so much to answer for...

Siskoid said...

Would the Hall of Shame include characters going Dark?

Hale of Angelthorne said...

The latest abomination with Bucky maybe? Before he became (sigh) the new Cap? Red Hood?

Yestin said...

How about the "Private Shadow Army that exists under the nose of the rest of the world"?

Examples: Cobra (from GI Joes), Kobra (From DC), Hydra, A.I.M, Various Neo-Nazi armies, Communist Remnant Armies, the secret army "inside the army".

Every time the JSA or Captain America takes out a base, three more grow!

Even Blackwater doesn't have ordinace dumps strewn across the world.

The League of Assassins doesn't count because it's more of a secret society, it would count if it had bases all over the place instead of a couple main bases.

Every time something like Kobra appears I groan because I've seen the Flash and the JSA completely dismantle the organization, and unlike a gang (mobsters) or a group of bank robbers (rogues), a hierarchal paramilitary organization with massive technological and material resources doesn't just appear overnight.

Gokitalo said...

Tiberius Stone

Beat me to it!

And -- oh, you're going to love this -- the Internets tell me that the original plan for Mr. Sinister was that he was another child in the orphanage where Scott Summers grew up. Except that his mutant power was that he couldn't grow up, but could shift into an adult body, or some other such nonsense.

I'm guessing you're not a Captain Marvel fan, then?

buttler said...

Never heard of Kenny, but Pete Ross sure tried to kill Superman a lot. Is there anyone who grew up with Clark who didn't want to kill him?

Anonymous said...

You've read this week's Fantastic Four then?

plok said...

I believe the Shadowy Manipulator can be done well. It can add a lot of much-needed texture very quickly to a lacklustre title. Claremont himself got a lot of good mileage out of this in his early days of X-scripting.

Of course it can be done very, very poorly. See: almost everything Claremont's written since his days as early X-scripter.

And, Cobalt Blue. Ick.

Gokitalo said...

You've read this week's Fantastic Four then?

Not yet, actually. I know Millar inserted a new character into Reed's past, though. We'll see how that plays out...

Desaad said...

It's not a new character from Millar. It's Alysa Moy, a trademarked character from the one and only Chris Claremont.
But fits the profile to the bone.

Gokitalo said...

Woop! My mistake. Interesting how Millar's brought back a character for the role of "Mrs. Fantastic," as opposed to making a new one from scratch. Seems he's done his research!

Jacob T. Levy said...

I'm willing to give Malefic a pass, since it's not like we'd seen J'onn's childhood depicted in thousands of stories over the course of decades. It was new backstory where little-to-none had existed, not a massive absurdity like Hush, Conduit, or Cobalt Blue.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Hypothesis: The "vengeful childhood friend" represents an overenthusiastic application of the storytelling devices Scipio praises as the "Dynastic Centerpiece" model. It's an archetype of a villain whose villainous raison d'etre revolves completely around the main hero. It's no accident that Cobalt Blue was a Waid creation-- Waid's whole Flash run was oriented around the Flash legacy, family, dynasty, etc. And the idea of Conduit suddenly showing up as a guest-villain in Green Lantern Corps for a few issues is only slightly more absurd than the idea of Bizarro doing so. It's a reductio ad absurdum of the tendency to create villains who make less sense as freestanding bad guys than they do as tailor-made opponents for this hero.

Discuss.

The Estate of Tim O'Neil said...

Oh God - Conduit. I think I had successfully blocked all memories of the Death of Clark Kent until this moment... oh God. That was a horrific storyline. So bad.

Yeah, this is always a pet peeve of mine, and it's something that they always do. Always. Nobody ever figures out just how much of a short-shelf life these villains have. The example of the Green Goblin is a very good one, because although there's an obvious connection to the character, it's not a *retroactive* connection: the reader met the Osborne family at the same time Peter Parker did, so it was more or less an organic creation, none of this "yeah, we used to play Yahtzee with Uncle Ben way back when but we never ever mentioned it before..." (Although, heh, there is always the guy who molested Peter who was retconned in that PSA comic...)

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw Alyssa Moy in this week's Fantastic Four. Claremont's run on FF wasn't perhaps the highlight of the team's history, but I thought she was a relatively fun character (if, admittedly, a retroactive implant, albeit one that served an interesting function in the modified Fantstic Four "dynastic centerpiece"). Many writers would never bother to look more than a year in the past to see if there was already an extant character that fit their requirements, so Millar gets a modicum of credit for that.

And as for the "shadowy manipulator" character... oh God, I think the introduction of this one single character type contributed significantly to the general downturn in quality of 90s comics (obviously one of many factors, but still). One or two can be interesting - look at how they've recast Vandal Savage and R'as Al Ghul over the years - but any time you introduce multiple characters with inspecific motivations, you're asking for trouble, especially when the original writer who (supposedly) knew what Character X was up to moves off the title, leaving vague set-ups that will never be properly resolved. This is a particular problem that we can blame squarely on the X-Men books, but I can't think of a single franchise at either company that hasn't suffered from this problem in some manner at some point.

Patrick C said...

You know, Conduit was also a shadowy manipulator. I haven't read the Death of Clark Kent in years, but I remember Kenny had a whole army at his disposal. Maybe that's not exactly shadowy manipulator, but how did he build an army, and did he really do it just to take down Clark? How did he fund it?

And his most diabolical plan was a recreation of Smallville using robots.

Scipio said...

"I'm willing to give Malefic a pass, since it's not like we'd seen J'onn's childhood depicted in thousands of stories over the course of decades. It was new backstory where little-to-none had existed"

Not so. Read the MM Showcase; we've met both JJ's parents and his brother (T'hom, by the way). True, that's not be referred to in a while but still ... the Enormously Evil But Previously Unmentioned Brother is a definitely a Shameful Concept.

Remember Superman's Brother, the hunchback, and Batman's Brother, the congenital idiot...?

Anonymous said...

And don't forget Nubia...

Jacob T. Levy said...

The problem is that if you don't have Shadowy Manipulator characters, you seem to be stuck with ostensible super-geniuses who just have one stupid plan that gets foiled after another. Most of the time, R'as is pretty dumb for an immortal with endless shadowy resources-- Batman can stop his immediate plan and then cease worrying about him for a few years. Mr. Sinister and Apocalypse, two of the most annoying characters ever created, at least don't leave that impression-- victories against them feel ephemeral, the X-guys are never quite sure whether by winning they've played right into their hands, there are backup plans within backup plans, etc. The DC genius supervillains are much better characters but always seem pretty ineffectual. There were moments even in the decadent decline of the X-Books when the characters could get together and realize, "Sinister's out there somewhere up to something, the Hellfire Club is out there somewhere up to something, the Shadow King never really goes away," etc, and create a real impression of a world haunted by menace.

Until Mr. Sinister actually showed his face and started cloning everything in sight, when he was just the unseen figure behind the Marauders, he was actually a pretty effective concept.

Jake Saint said...

slow responder says...
I expect there are a few different devices that "Shadowy Manipulator" could serve, so there might not be anything intrinsically awful about the concept (hell, any epic storyline probably should have foreshadowing, suspense and revelation), but in this case I am speaking of "Shadowy Manipulator" as an adjunct to your "Vengeful Childhood Friend" trope, where the villain's influence upon the hero precedes not only his first appearance, but the hero's knowledge of the villain's existence, as well. In the most extreme abuses, the Shadowy Manipulator will be revealed to have influenced the origin of the hero (so, sooo many years after the fact), as Mr. Sinister did with the Summers brothers. Or as Sid Caesar did with the Smothers brothers*.
*sorry.

totaltoyz said...

the Enormously Evil But Previously Unmentioned Brother is a definitely a Shameful Concept.

Remember Superman's Brother, the hunchback, and Batman's Brother, the congenital idiot...?


Yup, I remember both of those. Ocean Master, too.

Wrye said...

Mekt Ranzz certainly doesn't count, he's a variation on the "evil twin", which goes right back to Cain and Abel.

I do remember there was one 80's era Firestorm villain who might be related to this model, - the Weasel, maybe? When his identity was revealed, he turned out to be some guy who completely hated Ronnie Raymond from High School, but the punchline was that Raymond had absolutely no idea who he was and didn't remember him at all. "He could have been anybody". *That* approach would have improved Conduit and Hush, I dare say. "Sorry, who are you again? Uh huh..."

Randy Jackson said...

Oh yeah, that almost never works. It always seems forced, and you can tell that this new character is the villain almost as soon as they appear.

Eric said...

Hey Derek

I'm pretty sure DC have trademarked Alley-Cat (so it would be available for Holly). I think the reason the name was changed from She-Cat was that AC have a (presumably) trademarked character called She-Cat.

Frank Lee Delano said...

I'm willing to defend Ocean Master on the basis that Aquaman had such a long history of truly, deeply, painfully lousy villains, you had to retroactively give him a good one to show he himself wasn't a loser. Plus, the basis for his hate was well played in the Pozner mini-series.

Scipio, thank you for acknowledging J'Onn J'Onzz's continuity in refuting any defense of Malefic, the person responsible for the death of every othef Martian who'd never previously come up. As an added bonus, that one genocidal act was the only thing preventing Despero from standing in for him. Well, that and the nipple ring.

Jacob T. Levy said...

oh, come now! Saying that Malefic wasn't in the Martian Manhunter Showcase is like complaining that Conduit wasn't in Superboy stories; misses the point. The post-Crisis Clark also had a thoroughly documented childhood. The post-Crisis J'onn didn't-- and we knew that Mars and J'onn's relationship to it were very different post-Crisis, since pre-Crisis the Martians weren't dead.

Even post-Crisis, poor J'onn has been batted around a lot, with the fire vulnerability having a different basis every year or two. I don't have any more trouble believing in a brother we'd never heard of than in Saturnians, or in Martians founding human civilization with genetic engineering, or that every telepath on earth is part-Martian, or in whatever the hell happened in The Burning.

totaltoyz said...

I'm willing to defend Ocean Master on the basis that Aquaman had such a long history of truly, deeply, painfully lousy villains, you had to retroactively give him a good one to show he himself wasn't a loser. Plus, the basis for his hate was well played in the Pozner mini-series.

Hey, I like Ocean Master too, and I definitely agree about Aquaman's pre-1966 rogues gallery (Electric Man? Nuff said.) I was just pointing out that he fits the description of Enormously Evil but Previously Unmentioned Brother, that's all. Aquaman swam through the pages of National Periodical Publications for 25 years before we ever knew he had a sibling.

Scipio said...

"Malefic, the person responsible for the death of every other Martian who'd never previously come up."

Okay, THAT made me laugh.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

An "Enormously Evil But Previously Unmentioned Brother" from the Silver Age: Scorpio, the long-lost, previously unmentioned brother of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD.

Scorpio began as a mysterious character, turning up in a few Nick Fury stories, his identity a mystery. He appeared in public as an Italian race-car driver, Count Julio Scarlotti, but that too was a disguise. The catchphrase they pushed was "Who is Scorpio?"

And lo, in time, we found he was...Nick's Brother!

DRAMA!!

Though one should note that the writer on Nick Fury changed just before the big reveal, and it's possible that Scorpio was originally intended to be someone else. Probably Baron Strucker in disguise.

Jake "Scorpio" Fury killed himself in the mid-seventies in an issue of The Defenders and has managed to stay dead, though a robot duplicate of him turned up a few times to be a pain in everyone's collective butts.

Jason said...

Are you kidding? There are tons of these. Lay your eyes on these examples:

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RivalTurnedEvil

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CainAndAbel

Jeff R. said...

Cliff Carmichael is a rival-turned-evil type, although at least not a continuity implant like most of these guys. (Since Firestorm was the anti-spider man, his secret ID's hard-luck school jock needed a Flash Thompson type, so Cliff was the school's combination nerd/bully. It was Firestorm; it didn't have to make sense. Anyhow, later on he became an uncodenamed villian with the Thinker's powers in a chip in his brain instead of a helmet. But by then Firestorm had no book of his own, so he was a Suicide Squad villian who Ostrander seemed to be grooming as an Oracle archnemesis, although nobody else followed up on that.)

It occurs to me that half of the characters in Ramna 1/2 fit this pattern, although there, it seems to work.

Scipio said...

"It was Firestorm; it didn't have to make sense."

Truer words were never spoken.

Your Obedient Serpent said...

Sybok, Spock's heretofore-unmentioned half-brother from Star Trek V: Why Does God Need A Starship?, fits this trope.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

I can't believe I forgot The Moon Knight Twofer!

Very early in Moon Knight's career, when he was still a backup character in the Hulk black-and-white magazine, he chased down a slasher who attacked female nurses. The killer was a raving, shirtless loon who was revealed to be...Moon Knight's long-lost brother! On a quest for insane revenge against a long-lost parent!

Dun dun duuuuun! DRAMA!

Not long thereafter, MK had his own series. Just a few issues in, there was another slasher, this one targeting the homeless. Said slasher was a raving (and, I believe, shirtless) loon who was revealed to be...Moon Knight's main informant's long-lost son! On a quest for insane revenge against a long-lost parent!

Dun dun duuuuuun! DRAMA!

Yep. Two long-lost relatives turned loony shirtless slashers bent on indiscriminate vengeance in the space of just a few stories. Check out Essential Moon Knight Volume One and you can find 'em within a few pages of each other.

Hey, recycling stories worked for Mort Weisinger, right?