Friday, October 17, 2008

Trope Hunt: Artifacts

Over at, the "tropers" have made great strides in identifying, defining, labeling, and enumerating examples of the many tropes one finds in the plots of TV shows (as well as other other storytelling media).

As you'd expected, this kind of taxonomy is right up my alley, particularly when applied to comic books. So, occasionally I'd like us to take one of these tropes and discuss its occurrence in comics we know and love (oh, and in Marvel comics, too).

The first one is The Artifact, which TVTropes defines thus:

Describes an unfortunate situation where a character or gimmick seems to no longer fit with the mood or design of a story according to a writer, but is kept because there seems to be no way for the writer to get rid of them without causing some serious disruption . Sometimes it's due to being tied in closely to the mythos or that The Artifact has just been around so long that removing it seems like overstepping bounds. And if it's due to pure fan popularity, the producers probably aren't going to push it out in any case for no reason.

The longer running a continuity is, it seems to me, the more likely it is to have one or more Artifacts. So, superhero myths -- which in some cases go back 70 years -- should be full of them.

But are they?

Batman & Robin
Alfred the butler; butler? Well, the wealthy do still have servants, although they are less likely to have the whole 'live-in' staff. Is Alfred an Artifact?
The Haley Circus. I think traveling circuses (except for les de Soleille) are not quite the phenomenon they once were. And the idea that racketeers would be willing to kill to get a piece of the profit from a traveling circus? Yipes. For that matter... do people really have wards any more? Is Robin's entire origin an Artifact?

Small farm? Great metropolitan newspaper? A circus strong man costume? Again, is the entire origin an Artifact? Oddly, some of the elements of the origin seem less Artifactual to me than they did in the 1970s. Why is that?

Wonder Woman
Ugh. The military boyfriend. The girl's college. The marching band uniform. My god... Wonder Woman herself is an Artifact of the DCU. No wonder writers have so much trouble with her!

Flash & Aquaman
Oddly, their Silver Age origins seem pretty Artifact-free. Even Green Lantern's does, although "test pilot" isn't quite the high profile profession it once was.

What do you think of these possible Artifacts, or others you've spot in the DCU?


Anonymous said...

How about the Joker's origin? The catch basin for waste chemicals that empties into the river? Wouldn't the various environmental protective agencies and green watchdogs be all over a plant like that, today? Not to mention what the soon-to-be Joker was doing at the plant in the first place: stealing the payroll. Does anyone pay their workers in cash anymore?

Anonymous said...

I love how Superman's costume makes him look like a circus performer. Actually that's one of the great joys of the old George Reeves TV show, how completely insane it is that all the upstanding well-dressed types defer instantly to the weirdo in tights. I don't know, it's good to be reminded that the very notion of indestructible heroes in rubber pants is mighty peculiar.

Martians are artifactual, in that it's easier to believe in aliens from Mksadfagig IV than from the dusty ol' rock closest to us.

It used to be considered an artifact that people would go out and fight for the common good at all unless they had a very personal stake in events; but over the past decade we've rediscovered that old-school heroing is cool in its humble, dependable way.

Michael Xavier said...

I think with all these celebrities out adopting children from all over the world that Bruce Wayne ADOPTING young boys is no longer as weird. Dick Grayson as "ward" doesn't make much sense, though.

Jimmy Olsen could easily be explained as some kind of high school intern who worked at the Planet through college, but they seem hesitant to go there.

As many have mentioned, "Police Scientist" Barry Allen works SO much better these days as CSI. Of course, now he won't be considered as dorky anymore...

I think most superheroes are sketchy enough on the details that you can move them forward in time and retain the essentials. Batman and Superman are too culturally ingrained that they can't be altered much, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Any Soviet hero or villain, like KGBeast or Red Star, is an Artifact. We're 17 years removed from the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. If we go with "comic book time's" sliding scale, no way those characters would be based in Communist imagery.

hilker said...

The Fantastic Four's origin is a space-race artifact.

The Hulk's origin is a pre-Test Ban Treaty artifact.

Anonymous said...

This might be a slightly different phenomenon, but a lot of superheroes (particularly in the Golden Age, where the Superman effect was strongest) have elements that are basically Superman (or, somewhat less commonly, Batman) Artifacts - i.e., used mainly "because Superman has this".

The Secret Identity, at least in its most fetishized state, comes off as one of these, often. In a lot of cases, it seems like "I'll just be discreet" or telling at least a few trusted allies about the secret would *simplify* the hero's life. Golden Age Wonder Woman, for instance... there might be good reasons for the Diana Prince identity in general, but is there any good reason for not letting Etta Candy in on it? She's obviously an incredibly loyal and resourceful friend to both Wonder Woman and Diana Prince, it's hard to see much rational downside to telling her. (A later not-DC example for me is early Iron Man... tough to see why hiding his secrets from the incredibly-loyal Happy and Pepper was a good idea.)

It's obviously not a good idea to go blabbing to all and sundry, but the Secret Identity Artifact isn't used so much with modern heroes. Jaime Reyes, for instance, doesn't just go around telling all and sundry he's the Blue Beetle, but an awful lot of people know, and it'd be considered hopelessly blown by Golden/Silver Age standards.

Anonymous said...

Lois Lane and Clark Kent's jobs are close to becoming Artifacts now.

Oh, there are still journalists on Major Metropolitan Newspapers, but ones doing the borderline-insane investigative *reporting* that's always been Lois Lane's hallmark are few and far between. Nowadays, it's hard to find a Mainstream Media "reporter" who does much more than rewriting wire-service copy and regurgitating press releases.

Lois would probably work for the National Enquirer these days, as it's about the only place left doing real investigative reporting of any sort.

Scipio said...

"The catch basin for waste chemicals that empties into the river? "

My god, I never even THOUGHT of that! Shows how ingrained some of these things are in our minds.

Anonymous said...

Spider-Man - open air radioactivity experiments. Don't see many of those these days.
Green Lantern - "Pieface"? really?

I wonder if these are so hard to spot because of the many years of willing suspension of disbelief I have maintained? Sure, I'll believe a man can fly, but wear his underwear outside his pants? hang on a sec..

Justin said...

Forget the Joker's origin; I fear that the Joker himself may be flirting with becoming an Artifact.

The concept behind the Joker is that he's a clown, a staple of children's entertainment, but homicidal. Reversal of expectation. But clowns are no longer a staple of children's entertainment, are they? (I don't have kids, so correct me if I'm wrong.) Most people, in fact, associate "clown" with "scary" and "creepy" anyway these days, so the Joker loses some of his impact that way, I think.

Of course, the Joker survives because he's become a representative figure (chaos, madness, whatever) and doesn't need to rely entirely on his visual gimmick. Still...

Justin said...

hilker: "The Fantastic Four's origin is a space-race artifact."

The "beat the Commies to the moon" thing is, but I actually think one element of the origin has become oddly prescient.

For years the joke was "Why would a genius like Reed Richards crew his experimental spacecraft with untrained astronauts like Sue and Johnny?" But with billionaires paying big bucks to stow away on the space shuttle, you might reimagine the Richards mission as an attempt to make commercial space travel more accessible to the common person. ("The Richards Rocket: So easy, even my girlfriend and her teenage brother can fly it!")

Why did the government shut down funding for the project? Because it's an insurance nightmare!

Anonymous said...

My god... Wonder Woman herself is an Artifact of the DCU. No wonder writers have so much trouble with her!

This really *is* true, when you think about it! Not that all these elements of Wonder Woman are *bad* necessarily, but if you look at it from a standpoint of "If Wonder Woman was being created as a new character, from scratch, in the 21st Century, would this be part of it?"

I think Robin's background holds up OK. There are some traveling circuses, still - the Big Apple Circus seems not unlike the Haley Circus, actually, and would, I suppose, make enough money to be worthwhile.

I think realism in "crime targets" has *never* been the strong suit of these stories, even back in the day. Setting aside the fact that 95% of the crap Penguin, Two-Face, and Catwoman steal would be unfenceable but for Gotham City's Best Fences in the History of the World community... y'know, was there *ever* much money in knocking over Giant Prop Warehouses and the like?

Anonymous said...

Yes, exactly! Reed's spaceflight program makes perfect sense.

If I had done the FF movie, I would have had Reed Richards as an accidental dot-com billionaire (something like, he invented Google in 15 minutes one afternoon on a whim, because he had trouble finding stuff in his own file system), who was smart enough to get out before the dot-com bubble burst, and put all his money into crazy pure-science stuff.

Why bring along your girlfriend and her kid brother on your first spaceflight? Because you *can*!

Anonymous said...

With Lasik becoming so common, Clark Kent's glasses are getting closer to becoming an artifact. If no adults are wearing glasses anymore, why would Clark Kent? If Clark doesn't wear glasses, wouldn't everyone now see that he looks just like Superman?

(However, Smallville, the TV series, has already set up problems with Lois and Lex used to the non-glasses Clark, so what will happen if/when in some indeterminate future state he starts wearing the costume--won't they recognize their old pal?)

Neil said...

I am no geography experts, but in today's day and age, isn't "getting trapped on a deserted island" a bit of an artifact? Even Lost had to give the island some pseudeo-scientific/mystical/magnetic features to explain why there was no rescue.

Does this leave Green Arrow with a big artifact in his origin?

Then again, with Steve Fosset, it seems affluent adventurers disappearing might be more current that we thought.

Anonymous said...

"Does this leave Green Arrow with a big artifact in his origin?"

They've already gotten to work on this one. "Green Arrow: Year One" holds that Ollie did in fact wash up on an island, but it was one where the locals were enslaved into growing opium for a massive drug consortium. Ollie waged a one-man guerilla war against them, and when he finally won and called the authorities in, it was agreed that the cover story would be, Ollie washed up on a deserted island.

PJ said...

As Rambo and I have discussed a couple times, the very idea of Robin (and kid sidekicks in general) is an artifact. In our age of hands-on parenting , what parent (even Batman) is going to allow his son to be a decoy for crooks to shoot at?

Jacob said...

@ mike loughlin

Whilst communism may have bit the dust I can still buy into Russia sending someone like the KGBeast over when I live in a world where only last year a Russian spy could be radioactively poisoned in London.

Anonymous said...

TvTropes has sucked hours out of my life. There are endless possiblities for posts there.

Unknown said...

If anything, with the rise of the CSI shows and other forensic science shows, the Barry Allen seems more relevant than in the past. You can easily see a Barry Allen Flash comic book having a CSI aspect as well.

Lovecraft In Brooklyn said...

Reed Richards was trying to win the X-Prize! That does make more sense now
Clark Kent is Sarah Palin! Small town, suddenly significant... he seems more relevant now 'cause the USA is moving back toward rural conservatism maybe

Dean said...

The Punisher's origin as a Vietnam War veteran has become an Artifact- if you do the math, Frank Castle must be pushing sixty, at the very least. The trouble is that no other conflict has the symbolic resonance of Vietnam- it might be more convenient to retcon him as an Iraq or Afghanistan, but you'd lose a fair amount of the characterisation along the way.

Tony said...

>In our age of hands-on parenting , what parent (even Batman) is going to allow his son to be a decoy for crooks to shoot at?

No, it totally works. Batman is one of those pushy showbiz parents who wants his kid to excel beyond all rational sense. Robin's like one of those kids who trains his whole life for the Olympics.

Isn't there some sort of handwave for the Punisher? Didn't he die and get resurrected or something?

Adama said...

I thought they retconned Frank Castle into an inner city cop whose family was cut down in a crossfire? That would seem to eliminate any Artifact-ness, unless police officers go out of fashion in favor of killer robots in the future.

Anonymous said...

After a weekend psychotropic binge, the Marvel creative staff decided to reboot the Punisher by having him commit suicide and then be sent back to Earth as an agent of the "Higher Powers," so he could fight demons and hang out with the Son of Satan.

Didn't last long.

Unknown said...

The reason the Daily Planet feels like LESS of an artifact is because originally Clark took the job so he'd know about things going bad around the world as soon as possible. As his powers increased to the point where he knew about things going bad because he could hear and see everything happening on Earth, that motive made no sense and it became for a while "Clark's at the Daily Planet because... that's how he was originally written, that's why", which is the definition of The Artifact.

Luckily, cleverer writers have come along and now Clark works at the Daily Planet because Clark Kent can do good by exposing fraud and shaping public opinion that Superman either can't or won't (Clark Kent can editorialize against electing Lex Luthor President; Superman was very aware he had to stay quiet because all of America would vote for whoever he said to). Clark now regards his work at the Planet as his true calling the the Superman stuff as stuff he does because he's got all these powers and is too moral to not use them. So it's out of Artifact-land.

Anonymous said...

They've occasionally touched on another aspect of the Daily Planet job - for the most part, being a super-powered Kryptonian is irrelevant to his success or failure as a journalist. Super powers don't help him be a successful writer.

Hal Shipman said...

I think they'd been discarding the outdated elements of Wonder Woman over the years (particularly the Holliday girls), so as a lingering element, they really haven't been part of the picture for years.

With Superman, the one that always sticks with me is the "Superman's Pal" aspect of Jimmy Olsen. They have never made a convincing case that they are friends in any substantial sense (certainly not Signal Watch worthy) since the Byrne reboot. But the tag just lingers around. Smallville has them even practically hating each other.

Jacob T. Levy said...

If we remember that the sliding-timeline now puts the dawn of the Silver Age in roughly 1994 and the Satellite Era in about 1998, there's very little from the Silver Age that makes any sense at all. John Constantine must have been in a grunge band not a punk band; Jack Knight was affecting a goatee in about 2005.

The existence of Alfred may be an artifact-- but so is the conceit that a minimally competent police force or federal intelligence agency in 2008 couldn't follow a conspicuous car by satellite or helicopter, watch its nightly path out of Gotham on that one road, and see precisely where it disappears.

Anonymous said...

You don't think the Batmobile has Stealth mode?

And hey, Vibe and Vixen would have been break-dancing in 2002!

Ragtime said...

I think the best way to find the Artifacts is to find the things that have been removed as "artifactual", but the removals didn't stick.

A. The "America" in Justice League of America.

B. Superman's rationale for working at a newspaper was so that he could get "tips" quickly. Shouldn't he be working (at least) at Associated Press now?

C. The continued existence of Alan Scott as being somehow related to the Green Lantern Corps.

D. The belief that Donna Troy is somehow still related to Wonder Woman.

E. The continued limitation of the Green Lantern spectrum to the small portion of the spectrum visible to people on Earth. (Alan Scott could be the Radiowave Lantern?)

F. Oa. Home of the Guardians of the "Universe" located in the "center of the Universe." Dividing the universe into a finite number of "sectors."

G. The Fourth World. All of it.

Dean said...

I thought they retconned Frank Castle into an inner city cop whose family was cut down in a crossfire?

I think that's the Ultimate Punisher you're thinking of.

Andrew said...

The Batmobile. So Batman travels around by car? Maybe in the 1940s... but that was before
* rising gas prices
* urban gridlock
* airborne surveillance (as noted above)
* celebrity culture. These days, lots of people would trail the Batmobile or swarm around it when parked, just to see someone famous.

I think Batman had a special car back in the day because the Green Hornet did, and he (GH) had one because he was a copy of the Lone Ranger, who had a special horse. I respect the lineage, but the Batmobile is an Artifact now.

It's no accident the writers have Batman traveling by zip line these days...

Anonymous said...

Geez, with all the massive holes in continuity that have occurred throughout the DC Universe in the last few years, you folks are worried about whether the Batmobile is realistic???

But hey, there's still time to be the first one to make fun of the Arrowcar!

Audie said...

The opposite of an artifact: Little Bruce Wayne seeing Zorro. I think it's a law that Zorro must have a remake every 10-15 years.

The JSA & WWII - The original JSArs are getting nearly ludicrously old. And I love Ma Hunkel, but she's gotta be pushing 100. When I first discovered the JSA they were 'only' 30 years away from their era and it seemed a long time ago; now they're 60 years out. That's beyond ancient history to a ten year old today (not even touching whether a 10 year old would read JSA today) - 1946 to a ten year old today would be like 1916 to me growing up- when my grandad was in diapers. But, I think the JSA are inextricably tied to 'simpler times', and a black/white 99% popular war against evil, something which hasn't come along in a while. Much easier to replace Vietnam for Gulf with Frank Castle than to update JSA's origins.

Anonymous said...

A long time ago I had an idea that could easily explain the JSA's longevity; unfortunately (or fortunately) I'm not writing or editing DC Comics.

During the War, at the height of his adventures with the JSA, Johnny Thunder would have been naive enough to say something like "I wish we could keep doing this forever"; and the Thunderbolt would have been literal enough to take that as an order.

Anonymous said...

DC gets around the JSA/WWII scenario by saying that when they were fighting Ragnarok in "Limbo", they didn't age.

Anonymous said...

Also, back in WWII, several of the JSA members and their pals and gals were exposed to "Anti-Chronal Radiation" in a story by Roy Thomas that sought to address the slow-or-no-ageing issue.

Plus Inza Kramer stayed young just by hanging out with Doctor Fate and soaking up some of his "immortal" vibes, so maybe that helped the JSA, too.

Anonymous said...

TotalToys: >>Johnny Thunder would have been naive enough to say something like "I wish we could keep doing this forever<<
Sir! THAT is friggin' brilliant! As a theory, it's ever so much more parsimonious AND comprehensive than the Ian Karkull Anti Chronal Radiation theory and the Eternal-but-not-really Ragnarok of Limbo theories.
As for artifacts?
Come on, the COSTUMES, all of them, are artifacts. And that's even IF we buy the idea that the world's noblest characters and 3/4ths of the world's worst villains are 19-year-old gym rats. Super-powers and colorful costumes really only go together because it worked in 1938 and instantly became a permanent fixture of the medium.

Anonymous said...

DC gets around the JSA/WWII scenario by saying that when they were fighting Ragnarok in "Limbo", they didn't age.

But they didn't enter "Limbo" until right after the first Crisis, which was what in DCU time? "Six years ago"?

Anonymous said...

Actually, slighty more than 7 years ago, according to my infallible "3 years of real-world time equals 1 year of comics time" ratio.

So yeah, in "sliding scale" 2001, the original JSAers were all pushing or passing 80.

But, some of them had inherent anti-ageing mojo working for them (Doctor Fate, Green Lantern, the Spectre), while the rest still had the lingering, age-slowing effects of the anti-chronal radiation helping them to look younger than their real ages.

Then DC's whole "off to Limbo with you, and never be seen again; no, wait, we really like the JSA after all, so come on back to Earth" business was used as another hand-wave at the JSA ageing problem.

If all else fails, you can blame it on Superboy-Prime's paradise prison punches. If they could affect the timeline to the degree of completing rewriting the Doom Patrol's history and bringing Jason Todd back to life, they could just have easily shaved off a few decades from the senior JSA cadre.

Anonymous said...

But, some of them had inherent anti-ageing mojo working for them (Doctor Fate, Green Lantern, the Spectre), while the rest still had the lingering, age-slowing effects of the anti-chronal radiation helping them to look younger than their real ages.

But a few JSAers didn't participate in that anti-chronal radiation adventure; including Wildcat, who's still around and throwing punches.

Anonymous said...

I can't answer for the other characters, but with regard to Wildcat, I vaguely remember that he was given a "nine lives" power in a retcon. The Wikipedia has more specific information:

"It is revealed that he has nine lives, and has since 1945, as a result of him refusing to throw a boxing match where a sorcerer named King Inferno had bet several souls on his opponent; with the aid of Zatara, Inferno's spell in revenge failed to turn him into a real cat, but left him with a cat's nine lives. This accounts for how he can over 70 years old, yet an athletic and powerful boxer."

Anonymous said...

"This accounts for how he can over 70 years old, yet an athletic and powerful boxer."

90 is nearer the mark. His first appearance was about 67 years ago, and he'd have to have been at least 23 at the time.

Anonymous said...

Right; I was just going with the Wiki quote. Since Ted was already a heavyweight boxing champ when he first appeared in 1942, I figure a birth-year of about 1917 is not out of line. The old fella's looking pretty good for 91!

Anonymous said...

Wildcat got the nine lives thing in one retcon then his remaining extra lives got removed in a later story. Good stories, both of 'em, but an inefficient explanation for his longevity, compared to the elegant T-Bolt theory. Like all good theories, it's parsimonious that way. It's also comprehensive, because it's applicable to many other weird features of the JSA's career.
. Why does Cameron Mahkent have, FOR NO APPARENT REASON, the same super powers as his daddy's freezy weapon? T-Bolt made it so, to ensure there'd always be an Icicle in the JSA's villain stable.
. Why did Wildcat Junior, FOR NO APPARENT REASON, get Werecat super powers? T-Bolt made it so, to ensure there'd always be a Wildcat in the never-ending battle.
. Why did Carter Hall bypass his usual reincarnation into a new life, but instead come back as an adult Carter Hall WITH his Hawkman persona and knowledge intact? T-Bolt dunnit.
. Seriously, this is a huge improvement over the "Superboy Punch" theory. I hope J'off J'onzz is reading this blog, and that this excellent idea gets adopted, with due accreditation.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, AI! Maybe T-Bolt had something to do with Black Lightning's kids as well???

Anonymous said...

. Why does Cameron Mahkent have, FOR NO APPARENT REASON, the same super powers as his daddy's freezy weapon? T-Bolt made it so, to ensure there'd always be an Icicle in the JSA's villain stable.

Ever since Icicle II's origin was revealed, that has bothered me. I always assumed that he was born normal but, as a toddler, wandered into Daddy's workshop, touched something he shouldn't have, and got chemicals spilled on him that turned him into a human cryogenic generator. As a father of two I can relate to that origin (although, so far, my daughter hasn't exhibited the ability to project quantities of hot Earl Grey).

Anonymous said...

Just wait till she's bitten by a radioactive HeroClix figure!

Accursed and belated Interloper said...

"Why does Cameron Mahkent have, FOR NO APPARENT REASON, the same super powers as his daddy's freezy weapon? "

Three years later, it dawns on me:
Daddy Mahkent, back in the day, probably while hiding out from Green Lantern above the Arctic Circle, hooked up with a cold-powered hottie from Tora Olafsdotter's tribe of lost Vikings, or whatever they were. Their spawn inherited the freezy powers.
The beauty of this theory is that, no matter how wrong it may turn out to be, nobody will notice, because of the diabolical cunning with which I post it on a long-dead comment thread. Nyahaha!

TotalToyz said...

I know this thread is long dead, but another Artifact just occurred to me.

In Justice League of America #21, the first JLA/JSA team-up story, Superman and Green Arrow are fighting Dr. Alchemy. Dr. A weakens Superman and threatens his life by transmuting a fire hydrant into green kryptonite. Green Arrow saves Superman by covering the hydrant with paint from his paint-arrows. The lead in the paint stops the K-radiation.

The lead. In the paint.