Thursday, September 23, 2010

Superman's Persona Cycles

Character development is one of the important tools of fiction. Plot development makes sure the things happen in a story. While that is all that really needs to happen in a story, the events of the story gain more significance if they actually have an impact on the characters. Character development makes sure the things that happen in a story have an effect on the characters.

Character development is easy (or, at least, non-problematic) when your characters are meant for a one-time story (a short story, a novel, a movie). You can have events that change them quite dramatically. But for extended formats (television series, movie sequels, monthly titles) it's much harder to have a character develop again and again and again.

When your character stars in 1 to 6 stories a month for 70 years, it can be very difficult indeed.

And, so, whether by accident or intention, a natural means has evolved by which writers & editors can simulate character development with

the Persona Cycle.

We've outlined the idea of the persona cycle before, but it deserves a deeper look, which will be doing in weeks to come with some major iconic characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, Green Arrow, and the Martian Manhunter).

Okay, sorry... I'll correct myself: "some major iconic characters AND Green Arrow."

We'll start with Superman. If you choose to comment, please do not move on to other heroes whom we will cover in later chapters, class. Save it till then.

Superman has at least two obvious aspects along whose spectrum he cycles: The Alien Aspect and the Authoritarian Aspect.

The Alien Aspect is how Kryptonian-oriented his stories are. We all know that Golden Age Superman had only passing reference to his being from another planet, and those were just hand-waving to explain his superpowers. Even better known is how Krypton-crazy his Silver Age exploits were.

I know your first thought was "AWESOME WALL POSTER!"
You just know you are eating this up.
Don't fight it; just don't tell anyone.

The Authoritarian Aspect is, well, it's Superman's 'suck-up' factor. How much does Superman rebel against / represent authority? In the Golden Age, Superman was a sort of 'super-activist', breaking in the governor's house, dragging socialites down into coal mines, and knocking down slum with his bare hands. Compare that to, say, his portrayal as a presidential errand boy in "Dark Knight".

Is Superman a citizen of Earth or a Kryptonian visitor? Is he an extra-legal agent of reform or the ultimate American cop / boy scout? Of course, the answer to either question is a resounding "yes".

Clark Kent (a character in his own right) also has at least two such aspects: The Awkard Aspect and the Agro Aspect.

The Awkard Aspect is pretty simply: how much and what kind of a goof is Clark Kent?

In the Golden Age, Clark wasn't clumsy or naive in the least. He was a hip urban reporter. But he was a milquetoast. Now, that's by Golden Age comic book standards. All it really meant was that Clark didn't hit people in the face at every possible opportunity, and didn't resort to violence as the first step in problem-solving.

Clark being "mild-mannered".

In the Golden Age, people hit each other in the face a lot.

Ever wonder why your relatives in all those old family photos look so ugly?
Well, now you know.

What Golden Age comic books called a milquetoast you and I would call "normal'", "sane", or "civil". For example:

Does this guy seem like a milquetoast to you?

In the '50s television show, Clark wasn't wussy in the least. He was thoroughly confident, in fact. Clark on "Lois & Clark" and "Smallville" was certainly never a loudmouth, but he was certainly much more sassy than sissy. In comics of the 1980s and '90s, Clark wasn't awkward at all (as long as you embrace the Mullet Retcon). In the 1970s, Clark Kent the Klutz was the stuff of Awkward Legend.

The Agro Aspect isn't talked about too much, but I think that's a shame. That Superman bridges rural and urban American is essential to his popularity. Golden Age Superman may have been raised on a farm, but you wouldn't know it to look at him. He was a sharper dresser completely at home in the Big City, who went out on the town in evening wear; and what's more urbane than an investigative city reporter? But Clark Kent of the 1990s was very much a farm boy, running (flying, really) back to Smallville at the drop of a hat to stare out into the fields. Each version of Superman decides how much to play up Clark's rural beginnings.

Think of these various aspects as sliders on a big mixing board of character. You can create a whole different version of the character every time you reset the sliders to different places. Add in more sliders (say, "Running After / Running Away from Lois", "Use/Restraint of Power", etc.) and you start to get a sense of how much can be done vary Superman as a character while still keeping him recognizable.

And 'moving the slider' can be done without a jarring reboot. Superman spent last year off-planet on New Krypton, at the far "alien" end of the spectrum. Now that's being followed by Superman's realization that he's grown out of touch, so he's walking America, saving elderly poor folks, playing basketball, and fostering civic improvement.

This is part of why Superman (and any similar long-term character) works. He can cycle back at forth along various aspects over the years, being always recognizable but never quite the same twice.



Perplexio said...

I always thought the Mullet Retcon was a tip of the hat to then NHL Superstar, Jaromir Jagr, and his trademark long black mullet. Were Supes writers at the time big hockey fans, perchance?

Redforce said...

I can't wait until you do Batman.

SallyP said...

Nicely reasoned! That's one of the things that I actually love about comics and especially characters that have been around for a while. If you aren't thrilled with one aspect of their history, you are sure to find another era that you love.

For a long time there, EVERYone was urbane. Heck, even Hal Jordan used to swan around in dinner jacket. Nowadays you can't get that old leather bomber jacket off of him long enough to dry clean it!

Uh...what were we talking about again?

Brushwood said...

I always think about the personality shift between Clark and Superman. Is Clark an act, or is Superman acting "more"? Or is Superman only confident in a costume, and Clark genuinely awkward in non-super social situations?

Diabolu Frank said...

One of the bad things about The Absorbascon is that when it comes up with a good riff-able angle, Martian Manhunter actually gets consideration. I can usually just steal the premise put forth by a blog for the Idol-Head, but with you, I just criticize/complain/nitpick... or worse, I can do the "Jemm, Son of Saturn persona cycle." Blech!

Another spoke on the Superman cycle would be whether he's the subject or the lecturer in morality lessons. Sometimes, he's the big dumb jerk telling everybody how great he is, then failing for all his powers as an object lesson. Other times, Superman is a pillar of humility, pointing out how wrong it would be to overuse power, often in the face of those who failed to comprehend his lesson from the previous incarnation. This also gets into his politics, as he's sometimes an unimpeachably righteous interventionist, other times so reserved and isolationist you'd think he rolled with Chamberlain. "Jeez, why can't those guys in Qurac just settle down? I can't just storming in there like Captain Atom! Think of the impressionable children, and international laws..."

Scott said...

I love the Superman graphic that shows all the actors who have played Superman. Awesome.

Tom Foss said...

Excellent analysis, Scipio. I think I'll be bookmarking this one for future reference :)!

suedenim said...

Welcome back Scipio! Didn't realize you were back til today!

I suspect the "Agro" aspect of Clark was downplayed in the early days simply because it wasn't unusual then. Circa 1940, a lot of city dwellers probably grew up on farms - even reporters for great metropolitan newspapers, probably.

Citizen Scribbler said...

First off, this: "Ever wonder why your relatives in all those old family photos look so ugly? Well, now you know."

Gave me my first belly laugh in too long- thank you.

I'm very onboard with this theory. I've thought about the cyclical nature of such characters before and the varied components at play, but this really pulls it all together, especially with that excellent metaphor of the mixing board.

My mind is running over equally recurring, but less famous characters (than, say, Superman) and it can apply just as well. Such as Booster Gold, with his selfish/sacrificing toggle or perhaps Swamp Thing with his former human/Earth Elemental variations.

-Citizen Scribbler

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