Sunday, February 10, 2008

Terrible Trio

Do you watch The Batman cartoon? At first, I wasn't too happy with it; but about the time Robin was introduced, it got quite good. Really, sometimes it's almost just like watching BTAS again. If you haven't checked it out recently, you may want to give it a try.

Last week, I watched it, and was delighted to see a new take on The Terrible Trio.

The original version of the Terrible Trio were three "themed" criminals: The Shark (who committed crimes at sea), the Vulture (who committed crimes via the air), and the Fox (who crimes were grounded or underground). In fact, they were exemplars of the Pure Theme School of character creation. They had no backgrounds (other than vague scientific expertise), no motivations other than greed, no personal distinctions other than their costumes. And those costumes themselves were triumphs in purity of theme: simple business suits and giant animal heads. Facing the Terrible Trio is like some bizarre surrealist dream, where you're in battle against a law firm composed entirely of Egyptian gods and former school mascots.

Like the Mad Hatter
, they began as began as the simplest of characters, based almost completely on a visual and a one-note theme. And, as with the Hatter, time and variant versions would add to their complexity.

In their first outing (Detective 235 Mar. 1958), they hadn't yet earned their collective name as the Terrible Trio, and were simply called the Fox, the Shark, and the Vulture. That's rather a mouthful, so when they made the second (and final) Silver Age appearance (Detective 321 Nov. 1963), they were dubbed the Terrible Trio.

Names have power, and, thus dubbed, the Trio became one of those Unavoidable Concepts that turn up again and again in comics (like the gloriously absurd Royal Flush Gang). The characters essentials were set:
  • The land-sea-air theme
  • The three animals
  • the animal heads
  • Expertise that corresponds to the "animal totem".

The version of the Terrible Trio that appearance on Batman the Animated Series, followed on and added to these elements. Insert of being evil scientist, they are wealthy young troublemakers who are alienated from common society. They adopt the identities of the three animals and wear the animal heads to commit their land-sea-air crimes. Each one is inheritor of wealth founded on particular industries (the Fox, mining; the Shark; shipping; the Vulture, aviation), which is an interesting twist on the expertise that corresponds to the animal totem.

The Terrible Trio that fought Dr. Mid-Nite is his mini-series were more like the original version, in that they were middle-aged crime lords rather than just irresponsible young troublemakers. And these members of the Trio actually bore a physical resemblance to the animal totem whose name they bore.

A rather grim version of the trio showed up quite recently in last year's Detective Comics 832.
But, since all of the Trio didn't survive, and these were clearly the Trio who fought Dr. Mid-Nite, the original ones may very well still be around. Their costumes, in fact, were seen not to long ago in an issue of Catwoman. I'm sure we've not seen the last of the Trio in comics.

Meanwhile, as I began by mentioning, a new version of the Trio were on a recent episode of The Batman. They were disaffected young people, as were the ones who appeared on BTAS. But, instead of being wealthy wastrels, these were collegiate social misfits. They had animal heads, alright, but not masks; they were were-creatures, who transformed themselves intentionally to get revenge on their tormentors. The plot device that made this possible was none other than the stolen formulas of Dr. Kirk "Man-Bat" Langstrom, cleverly linking the Trio's story with another part of the Batman "myth". Who knows whether something of this version might find its way into the comics?

The on-going evolution of the Terrible Trio, of the kind of growth the myths have, and that I enjoy noticing in comic book characters. Myths that have variant versions often evolve through a dialectic whose synthesis is a broader, richer version that incorporates the variants, in what's called mythic synchretism. Batman, for example, has pretty much had a different version every decade. Every time he appears in other media -- really, every time a new writer writes him -- he's being written as some kind of composite of some of all of those previous versions.

If you just see this as "inconsistent characterization" or "disregard for continuity" you may be being short-sighted. In the long term, it's how mythic characters evolve and keep themselves vibrant, relevant, and rich with possibilities. It's why they have a long term.

Who is your favorite character and how, if it all, have they enriched themselves through the mythic synchretism of their various versions?


Gus Casals said...

Well, I'm a Legion fan, and few concepts have gained more weight from their first inception. They were all pretty much blank slates with powers and a skin color, that became some of the most often re-formulated ( and re-booted ) concepts in comic books.

Through the years, some concepts stuck more and better than others: Characterization for Brainiac 5 as the genius on the verge of madness, little time for lesser intelligent beings or simple aloofness are to some point all takes on the same riff. The same applies to many concepts in the Legion world, from Dream Girl's persona, to the United Planets, to the oh-so-casually humanoid extra planetary races, or simply the Imra-Garth relationship.

Of course unlike Bats or Supes, for its almost 50 year history, the Legion was published on a single media, and some concepts took root forever in some key works( Shooter, Cockrum, Levitz ), meaning that even drastic later revamps ( Waid take 1, Waid take 2 ) heavily took from those.

That's why the Legion cartoon is such an amazing milestone, and one that I'm eagerly awaiting to see transpiring into the comics in some capacity, the way the 60s bat show did, the WW TV show, the Donner concepts or the Burton ones.

Anonymous said...

I liked how the Batman Animated Series redid Calendar Man as Calendar Girl. The essential elements were still there but the vindictive ex-model theme was a nice twist that actually made more sense than the original.

Anonymous said...

Batgirl: Year One gave me a reason to be interested in the character again, and I think it combines nicely with both of the animated Batgirls, and it would combine nicely with all three of the animated Robins, if someone could just get Nightwing right! Of course B: TAS refreshed just about everything it touched, so no need to go on about that at any greater length...or about Batman in general, since you mentioned him already. But I think the big winner here is Superman, who's gone through a hell of a character dialectic over the past twenty years or so, from the mocking tear-down of his omnipotent-boy-scout-ism that Frank Miller kicked off -- look, it's Superman as Establishment Stooge! -- to Byrne's "Marvel-ized" version, to the annoyingly in-my-face "living inspiration" Superman of recent years, Dead Superman, Electric Blue Superman, Mullet Superman, Retro Superman, Ham-Fisted Cautionary Tale Superman, etc. etc., all the way down to the current Superman, who seems to be left now with renewed access to the breadth of his historical accoutrements, and a strong link to his own streamlined animated versions -- thank God for those animated versions! And for All-Star. Even the Kryptonian-heritage stuff is back, and I'm surprised to say I missed it more than I thought I did -- we haven't seen an Alien Superman for a long time, and it's refreshing to be allowed to read that side of the character again. But then we also have the years upon years of Extremely Human Superman in there too, now, and I think it's a sturdier mix...although I still don't care for the Krypto-crystals, but hey. It's the cocktail.

Not perfect yet, of course. But Superman's run a lot of hurdles over the last little while; could it be that he's finally back on the straightaway?

And, wouldn't this be a great time for a Superman/Batgirl: Year One mini?

Pardon my blather, please. I'm just kind of optimistic. Because surely we've gotten through all the crap, now! Surely this synthesis has actually, finally, taken place!

And by the way, your thoughts on the new Batman cartoon echo my own.

SallyP said...

This is an interesting essay. And is it me, or are there just a plethora of fabulous quotes for this past week?

Anyway, as a Green Lantern fan, I have to say that I think Guy Gardner has had the most growth of any of the Earth-based Lanterns. From polite young gym teacher, to coma patient, to brain-damaged thug, to the yellow ring, to Warrior, and back again to the Green Lanterns, he's come a LOOOONNNGGG way.

You know who else has had a lot of personal growth lately? Booster Gold.

Anonymous said...

Although I lack the depth of knowledge to answer the question you ended your post with (although I do agree with Sally that there is much to admire in Booster Gold's transition from a comic relief satire of Reagan-era self-interest to a self-sacrificing hero who martyrs his own reputation for the common good), I did want to applaud its conclusion, which is one I whole-heartedly agree with.

As someone whose loyalties most often side with the writer than their subject, I've always felt that a slight "mischaracterization" in service of an entertaining and well-told story is always preferable to a boring, uninspired tale that shows blind devotion to the then-popular perception of how that character is supposed to be betrayed. In other words, I much more enjoy it when a good writer writes a character their way than when a bad writer writes a character everyone else's way.

One does have to wonder, though, how those folks who react with horror when Batman is shown to be anything else than the grimmest of grim avengers respond to reading his adventures from the 1950s, where he behaved far more like a boy scout than anyone's idea of a dark knight.

Bill D. said...

Somewhere along the line, someone in charge decided that The Batman should actually be good, and it has been steadily improving ever since. They replaced the dreary theme song written by the Edge with the insanely catchy surf rock thing they have now, brought in Jim and Babs Gordon, Robin, Harley Quinn, and now the JLA... all really good moves on the producers' part. They're really digging into the villain back catalog, too... the Terrible Trio last week, as you said, and the Wrath of all folks this week. Interesting stuff.

Anonymous said...

Batman is surely the champ as far as having a hero with a thousand faces, but Daredevil and Iron Man have gone through interesting mutations as well.

I've never seen "syncretism" with an "h." Is that legit, or just a boo-boo?

googum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
googum said...

I just wanted to say, " a law firm composed entirely of Egyptian gods and former school mascots" is a great line, and would absolutely have my business. Just hoping I could be represented by Ra, Lord of Light, instead of the Pottersfield Panther.

Anonymous said...

Bizarro has benefited from some mythic synchretism. The original story has a toned down Frankenstein quality to it. Then it went totally in a comedy direction. Byrne got rid of the comedy and tried to give it some more emotional weight. It seemed like the S:TAS was trying to balance both but was afraid of treading on Superfriends. I'm mostly happy w/ the current version. We've got the sad pathetic stuff, but we also have a cubic bizarro world.
Still, I could use even more Superfriends influence. I'd like a Bizarro who had crazy plans like making everyone on Earth a Bizarro.

I can't say I'm a fan of the product but Geoff Johns deserves some character synthesis award for Hawkman & Hawkgirl. I'd prefer the streamlined police from Thanagaar version over all the reincarnation business, but hey, it's only comics.

Instead of thinking about current character versions, this discussion has me thinking a lot about future versions of characters. Like Aquaman. I'm guessing the next version of Aquaman (the real Aquaman) will be closer to the 70's aquaman. But what other elements are going to remain? Is he still going to be the cranky king?

-Alex P

Anonymous said...

I submit John Stewart.

Reduced to something of a non-entity for awhile after having his redefining run in Mosaic cut short. Then the Justice League cartoon came along with an elegantly simple reinvention. All of which have reconvened in John Stewart holding his own in an otherwise lackluster era of the Justice League.

I also submit: The Society.

I love villains, and every time more than two of them get together, I get a little excited. Every generation has at least some iteration of this august organization regardless of how Secret or Super their Villains. But I really liked how this most recent look seemed a natural spin out of the JLU’s representation of a need to unionize and events coming out of Identity Crisis (love it or hate it, I’m not having that argument right now) with the deceit of mutual protection.

I thought this version had a lot of mileage with its Chairpersons, Calculator and vastness. All of which seemed to fade and fizzle sometime OYL in time to be replaced with the Wedding Crashers and the Injustice League in turn.

All of whom have found themselves on Salvation Run where they’ve forgotten that they were all working together a minute ago.

Anonymous said...

The Hulk- Lee & Kirby introduced him, later creators (including Ditko, Stern, Wein, and Trimpe)stabilized his personality (such as it was), Mantlo gave Banner back story (allegedly stolen from a Barry Windsor-Smith proposal), Byrne brought in the idea that the grey Hulk was more than an unsucessful coloring job, Milgrom reintroduced the grey Hulk.

Peter David developed and expanded the Hulk's cast, back story, motives, personalities, fate, and place within the Marvel Universe. Later writers (notably Paul Jenkins and Greg Pak) have built on David's work. Bruce Jones' run had a lot of problems, as it ignored most of the Hulk's history and the motives and personalities of the supporting characters.

Anonymous said...

The Dr. Langstrom formula twist has been used before. In "Batman Beyond", the Splicers (a street gang/subculture of weres) were users of the Langstrom formula.

Stephen said...

i nominate the x-men. you have a team that started off pretty simple in it's conception, a bunch of high school kids with super powers. then came back as an outlet for marvel to showcase character's of different races and cultures. since them the team has grwon come together been split apart. heroes have died come back died again. everyone has their own conception of what the real x-men team should be made of. and every writer who comes at them throws new curveballs that change them.