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:


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,

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...?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Things That Made Me Happy... my comics this week.

  • I was really surprised how enjoyable it was to watch Mary Marvel bite off someone's nose! May the Rolling Head of Pantha bless you, Mary!
  • I really liked both Gotham Underground and Salvation Run this week!
  • "That was ill-advised," is now a candidate for Greatest Understatement of the Year.
  • Brother Eye is ... eating Apokolips? That is freaking hilarious!
  • So... you do realize where the name "Boodika" comes from, don't you...?
  • The Origin of Solomon Grundy. Pure genius.
  • Okay, the whole "how Ollie got a son that we'd never heard of" thing makes a lot more sense to me now.
  • The baseball. Of course. The baseball. I stand in awe of you, Kurt.
  • Wonder Woman can perform marriages simply because she's the god**** Wonder Woman.
  • "Time-traveling deviants." This is my new favorite condemnatory epithet. The next time tourists are blabbing loudly on the Metro rather than sitting there silently staring into space like you're supposed to, I shall turn upon them savagely and hiss, "Time-traveling deviants." That'll show 'em.
  • Wait, so now Connor's half black instead of half Asian? Is this like when Kyle turned out to be half Mexican?
  • Oh, my god, Ted actually used his silly light gun!
  • "Caution will not help you now."
  • Dan Garrett is a very cool person. Honestly, it's nicer having him back than Ted.
  • Ape on ape violence!!!
  • My comic books made me look up a word today. I love it when that happens.
  • "Everybody say cheese!" I do not like to think about the Joker's photo album.
  • I really never thought I would ever see the name "Kenny Braverman" occur in any comic book. Ever. I almost fainted.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Kinda Haikuey

See? Now, this is why I read DC rather than Marvel!

In Marvel, even beings of godlike power are sniveling, adolescent whiners (yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Galactus and Silver Surfer).

In DC, even lowly delivery boys getting beaten up by Batman can still muster the wherewithal to throw a haikuiform retort!


In a dark alley
bat suits and cat suits don't look
all that different.

Can you compose a haiku to celebrate the poetic glory of DC's citizens?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Threat of theTwo-Headed Pog!

Ask 50 Heroclix players what they think the most exciting piece is in the new Heroclix set, Crisis, is and you might get 50 different answers. Fans of the New Teen Titans will be excited by the Fearsome Five or Trigon; the Metal Men will tickle the fancy of Silver Age buffs; Batman's large following might focus on new versions of Nightwing, Batgirl, and Robin.

But, I think there should be no argument about what the most exciting piece is in the new set: it's Congo Bill.

First off, well... it's Congo Bill, people. He's one of our guest columnists here at the Absorbascon, and we love Congo Bill, so much so that I actually designed my own custom Congo Bill token (assuming that Wizkids never would!). But it's more than that... .

Sure, it's cool to have a pog that represents such an obscure and bizarre character, a jungle explorer who can swap bodies with a golden gorilla. Plus, the crazy mechanic for showing the body swap is loads of fun! But the real excitement lies in Wizkids' introduction of the first two-sided character token (which, we'll just call "pogs" from here out, just for convenience's sake).

Many people don't like "cardboard" in the game, and I understand that. But as long as it is part of the game, I want it to enhance my gameplay by allowing the standard, 3D figures to better represent the comic book characters they're supposed to.

But pogs haven't done that. In some ways, they'd done the opposite. Unless your interest in Heroclix in purely in the mechanics of the game and you have no feeling at all for its comic book theme, you should cringe to see Superman using Lian Harper as a "meat shield". Surely this isn't what Wizkids originally intended with pogs. Of course, it's not the only time Wizkids has introduced a mechanic that had unintended results...!

Their low-point cost and one-click lifespans make pogs ideal as "mobile terrain" for protecting more valuable combatants. Unfortunately, that's thematically at odds with using them to represent innocent bystanders and the loved ones of heroes.

They would, however, be thematically perfect to represent certain kinds of generics. This is particularly true for villains, who are supposed to use lesser teammates and goons as meat shields!

Generics have pretty much disappeared from the game as the valuable slots in sets are being used to represent as many named characters as possible. I think we all do appreciate that we're getting so many named characters in our sets; still, I think a few properly chosen generics could really help spice up the game and add to its "comic book feel".

That's why Congo Bill offers such exciting possibilities for other two-sided pogs, particularly in the next planned DC set, Rogues Gallery. Wizkids! Please make ALL pogs two-sided from now on!

There are several ways WK could continue to use two-sided pogs in the Rogues Gallery set to bring interesting generics to the game.

First is the simple "reversible pog" with one generic on on one side and a totally different one on the other side. This is an opportunity to give us two pogs for the price of one. A "Cop/Criminal", for example, would be welcome for those Gotham City games! Villains need goons to back them up (or, more commonly, stand in front as cannon fodder). Why not give us a two-sided pog with a low-tech goon on one side and a high-tech foot-soldier on the other? That way, both the Jokers and the Luthors of the world will have the lackeys they need.

Second is the "two-click" pog, that starts on "Side A" but gets turned to "Side B" when the character takes a click of damage. Such a pog could be used to represent a villainous goon, the type of character who's sturdier than a regular bystander but not in the same league as the 3D characters. "Side A" might be wearing armor, thus meriting Toughness, which is "destroyed" when damage flips the pog to its "Side B". It could even be used to achieve effects that a regular dial couldn't (as the Congo Bill pog does). For example, "Side A" might represent an armed criminal, who has a ranged attack; "Side B" might be unarmed with a range of zero. A lower-point figure on your team would then be useful for "disarming" and picking off such pogs, freeing up your major combatants for more important battles.

Third is the "transformative" pog, which shows a character changing into something else. The Congo Bill pog is a perfect example, but others are possible. Why shouldn't a mad scientist have a robot pog available, which, upon being kayoed, flips over to become a heavy object or even an immobile bomb that has Pulse Wave or Quake? Green Lanterns might be able to use "living construct" pogs, that flip over to become barrier or rubble tokens. I can imagine a Woozy Winks pog, that can't be kayoed (since being unharmable was Woozy's magical power), but simply flips back and forth between its two different sides until Plastic Man leaves the board. Why, you could make a whole slew of transformative pogs for Jimmy Olsen alone!

The new Rogues Gallery set is bound to give us new and improved of many traditional villains. Wizkids, forget the Feat Cards and Battlefield Conditions for a set, and fill it with some "specialty" pogs to complement those bad guys (and others). Attack plants for Poison Ivy. Mind slaves for the Mad Hatter (and other Mind Controllers). With some clever thought put into it, a two-sided pog could even be used to represent Two-Face's coin. Heck, pogs could provide finny friends for Aquaman, avian pals for Hawkman, bats for You Know Who, tigers for all the feline characters, and gorillas for, well, just about anybody.

What would you like to see done creatively with such pogs in Heroclix?

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?