I started this weblog to air my idea about the "Dynastic Centerpiece" model that DC uses (consciously or not) to help turn its characters into icons. But nobody was reading it back then! So now I'd like to take a minute to bring that idea back to the forefront.
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 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).
"Loner characters" not tied in with others are attractive and may have many interesting stories in them. But, because connectivity creates relevance, such characters usually don't feel important. If you eliminate them, nothing happens. If you eliminate a character richly connected with others, their world falls apart, particularly if that character is the centerpiece around which the others revolve. So by making a character a "dynastic centerpiece" and allowing a mythos to accrete around it, DC makes its character seem more important to us. Likewise, because DC head honcho Dan Didio (wisely) wants to re-establish Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman as DC's most important characters, he is remaking the DCU so that its other characters revolve around them.
Each characters dynasty is not a cookie cutter of the others. The model is flexible enough to allow variety and individuality; Black Canary doesn't need a Snoopy Reporter Girlfriend and the Flash doesn't need Zipper the Flashhound. But there are definitely a number of recognizable, broad archtypes that are common in the model, because they flow naturally from the human psyche. Laugh if you want at things like "kid sidekicks", but our innate drive to mythologize a popular character by "filling out the pattern" is pretty strong.
The Golden Age sowed the seeds of the Dynastic Centerpiece (DC) model. It pioneered archtypes like the Girlfriend Who Doesn't Know, the Kid Sidekick, the Funny Friend, and the Civilian Authority. But the DC model came into its own in the Silver Age.
During the Silver Age, the 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. Superman is the most extreme example (for good and for ill), with some of his supporting characters even becoming the centers of their own little dynasties (specifically, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Krypto, and the Legion). Overdone or done poorly, the DC model can break down under its own weight like an overburdened wagon (we call this the Beppo Syndrome, and it gave the dubious benefits of Element Girl, Vicki Vale, and Zook).
Granted, you may not always like how such a pattern's being use. 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 to build a dynasty around their stars.
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.
So together let's play the Dynastic Centerpiece game! In past posts, linked below, I chatted about the dynasties that exist (or could) around some heroes. What do you think about them? And, if you'd like, let's talk about what other heroes might have beneficial dynasties build around them.
The Martian Manhunter
Jesus (all in good fun, folks!)