The Accumulation of Life
Travis Hedge Coke
Travis Hedge Coke
Comics fans, by and large, like long-term serial characters. We beat the hell out of any movie, television, or prose series in terms of regular, ongoing, consistently-released serial entertainment. That has its benefits and its drawbacks, but the traditional or common handling of some inevitabilities, I think, become drawbacks when they simply do not have to. The accumulation of characterization and personal trivia, for instance, is often looked at as dead weight that needs to be trimmed for an “iconic” presentation, or as impenetrable complication, rather than functional complexity.
The time you can spend with a fictional character, the more chances there are to learn all kinds of things about them. We know more details of Bruce Wayne’s life and tastes, than we do Buck Mulligan’s, not because any one or five Batman writers is superior at characterization to James Joyce, but because we have had decades of Batman stories, several a month for the most of that time, and while most recycle or reiterate the same points, there’s enough additional every year to keep him broadening and growing. We know a broader scope of relationships for Superman than we do Sam Malone or Rory Gilmore, despite both characters getting a fair amount of television coverage over the years, because there are thousands of stories with Superman in them, as well as guidebooks, trading card trivia, stats sheets, et cetera. Nature of the beast.
Over the years and the many diverse hands that have handled him, we have learned that Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four is super-genius, forgetful, has a silly sense of humor, enjoys Clive Barker short stories, baseball, Bob Dylan, getting into adventures, sexy women who’ll go with him anywhere, watching his friend play football, turning into a dinosaur and giving kids rides around the room, and his favorite movie in the world is Josie and the Pussycats. He’s a show-off, but gets embarrassed easily. He’s had therapy hostage and torture-based PTSD. His dad is both his icon of greatness and a blatant egotistical jerk. He’s a judo expert. He tries too hard. Somehow, he shaves a stretchy beard.
Can we look at any single comic and get that? Can we see an image of Reed Richards, or a scene with him, and understand these things?
New writers and artists, new editors, tie-ins, guest spots, serials and oneshots, ongoings and minis, details co-opted from movies, television, radio, prose, or popular jokes, it agglomerates. And, we can sense this, intuitively. We can become concerned about engaging a long-existing character, because we do not know who they know, who are their friends, their foes, what’s their favorite movie, what foods don’t they like? I can imagine jumping onto Spawn right now, or Mary Worth, as a sort of blind date where you’re not allowed to actually start a conversation with the person on the other side of the table, or ask them anything as you stand next to them for an entire concert, never knowing if they even like the band, much less you, until they reveal it on their own time. Is Mary worth that stress? Is Spawn? Is Batman? There’s movie-Batman, after all; he’s pared down, they introduce everyone each time, and he’s not got any of that outré werewolves or Gorilla City stuff to worry about.
Don’t buy a guidebook. Don’t ask a friend to catch you up on them. Quit trying to date Mary Worth. It’s not even that level of commitment. No one’s going to pin you down, no matter how long or how passionately you read a comic, and strong arm you into promising a lifelong commitment. Remember, before you read, or as you read, that these characters, regardless of how long they have been around or how many stories with them there are, they’re fictions, they are engineered, and so, too, their stories. You’re not going to embarrass the fictional people, or yourself much, if you misunderstand a relationship or an event.
The talent making these comics do have control over how a character is introduced in that comic, that release, how a story begins or when reveals come. The talent may step on each other’s toes, sure, and accidents happen like when paste ups used to sometimes fall off or a placeholder snippet of text would run instead of the actual words that should have been there. (I’m considering editors as talent here, for those keeping tabs; I believe that it is a flaw not to.) One set of talent’s intentions may be overridden by other talents’ retcons or modifications at a later date, or straightaway in a concurrently running comic. But, on the whole, you can trust what you see and read and understand in a comic, in a single release. If it’s a bait and switch or a sting, you’ll find out when the time comes; so you were fooled? So what?
But, I digress. Maybe.
The talent must show us (for the first time, or the umpteenth) what we should know for a single comic to work, a solitary story or excerpt. This isn’t a job for the characters (who have no will of their own), nor for the readers (who are not studying for a test), and on the whole, the writers and artists, editors and colorists do try to nail this every time. Few people last in commercial comics who just don’t care a whit. So you don’t even need to take that deep breath; you can just pick up a comic and give it a shot. Assume you will know what’s going on and you probably will. Presume you will be behind and must know everything before it is shown you, everything that is not presented for you, and you will feel this is true. It’s self-fulfilling paranoia.
For chronic serial characters, it is paramount that you, the reader, remember they are fictional constructs. They are imaginary. They are an imaginary thing we are sharing, all the audience, all the talent. Contradictions and accumulations do not hinder unless they are allowed to. They do not mask a core or genuine character. There is no genuine Batman, no real Superman, no pure Incredible Hulk. Charlie Brown is everything you remember he ever did or said, every dynamic he ever represented or relationship he had that you recall, same as, when someone does a Charlie Brown comic, he is what they remember of him, how they understand him, at that moment. When a serial character does something “out of character” it is hardly different than when people we know (or tell ourselves we knew) do something unpredictable, perhaps irrational. There’s reasons, and unlike with real people, those reasons can (and probably will) be invented after the actions that necessitate them. Or, the out of character moment, the displeasing action, will be forgotten by us and by those around them (until it is remembered), just as we do with friends, colleagues, neighbors or celebrities in real life.
Serial characters require us (and their talent) to forget, to alter, to remember and to remember wrongly. They may have too many incidents in their life, for the apparent age of the character(s), but that’s not something the characters can do anything about. It is for us to do, the self-check to bear in mind that Batman or Dennis Mitchell don’t have ages. Little Jeffy doesn’t exist in real time; Family Circus isn’t real. When Family Circus characters show up in another strip, as parody or earnest appropriation, they’re not really in connection, there, not objectively. They are subjectively, as long as we remember it, tethered and no further.
Even when, as I mentioned above, there are multiple Flashes, this is not cause for concern or paranoia. There are multiple firemen in New York, multiple dentists in Rome. When we read about a dentist in Rome, we do not concern ourselves with those dentists we do not see, or with the dentists who are friends of our dentist. We attend and enjoy our dentist. Or, we go find some other dentist to read about, or some non-dentist character in some other work. If there is some further dynamic you need to know for a comic, competent talent will provide that information for you, directly or subtly.
When the talent stop communicating clearly the important elements of a character and their current story, to new audience, when they cannot introduce characters functionally or establish a reason we should empathize with them at all, the talent have failed. When an audience does not accept what it presented to them fairly and reasonably, favoring instead a jaded prescience or a reliance on pointing out something that happened some twenty real-time years earlier, in a tangential story, that audience has failed, mostly because they’re not enjoying it doing those things and you can tell. Talent and audience, both, should be capable of handling contradictions and forgetfulness in their serial fiction, if for no other reason than to avoid being hypocritical, but neither should delude themselves into thinking nothing counts that has come before or after “their” time, their instance, their character.
And, if they do? If the failure is so strong the character stops there, the serialization ends? Well, you have the version in your head, you have old copies or reprints, and you have how many other entertainments to take your dollars and time?