Comic Book Cliches – The Gimmick And You – Shut Your Face
Back Issue Ben (and guests)
Ben Smith, Matt, and Duy
Superhero comic books are cyclical. In the earliest days, they were cyclical by intent, as most publishers assumed that their audience turned over about every seven years, with the primary readership theoretically being kids, and kids eventually grow up. With this in mind, some comics would not only re-use a previous concept, they’d outright retell a previous story (origins are a common one to retell).
After Stan, Jack, Steve and company established a more cohesive universe with Marvel in the ‘60s, you started to see continuity experts emerge, like Roy Thomas, who would use previous stories and characters to weave new ones. When the first generation of fans turned pro, many of them wanted to revisit the stories and concepts they loved so much as a kid. This would continue, generation by generation, ever since.
What would develop over that period of time, are a few clichés that creators seem to go back to with certain characters again and again. My goal is to share with you what I think the most prevalent clichés are by character, and whether or not they should continue, or if they need to be retired.
I couldn’t decide between a couple clichés for Thor, so I’m going to do both (and I’m not even going to charge you extra).
The first, is Odin dying. Odin dies or disappears a lot. Asgard, and Thor, are so driven by their relationship to Odin as a King and as a father, that it only makes sense to periodically remove him from the board and see what kind of stories you can tell in his absence. It gives writers a chance to explore Loki’s eternal goal to claim the throne for himself, or if Thor will fulfill his destiny to become king, or if he even wants to. Thor is such a daddy’s boy that you can’t help take daddy away from time to time. This isn’t going anywhere, and it shouldn’t.
One of the more prevalent Thor clichés is “character x” being able to lift Mjolnir. This has led to some great stories and moments, like Beta Ray Bill or Captain America. It’s also led to Dargo Ktor and Eric Masterson, which are far less great. The lesson here is to use it to make already good characters look better, not to try and artificially make bad characters more worthy.
I don’t know if it’s a cliché so much as a philosophy, but this whole Batman is always the most dangerous man in the room, can beat anyone with enough prep time, is always three steps ahead of his opponent thing has gone from impressive to oppressive. I know a lot of people like Batman and he needs to be the coolest guy in the room, but give it a rest already.
Also, for the smartest guy in the room, he sure lets a lot of Robins die.
Verdict: Read Marvel!
The most common cliché I can think of as a storyline element for Peter Parker is the times he decides to quit being Spider-Man, only to eventually be reminded that with great power must also come great responsibility. This worked great in Amazing Spider-Man #50, as an anniversary reminder of why Peter does what he does, with that one failure to act leading to his beloved Uncle Ben losing his life. It’s much less effective when Mary Jane nags him into quitting, or life as a superhero is just too difficult for him. This is why a lot of my co-workers think Spider-Man is a whiny bitch.
Verdict: Quit it!
At least in modern times, it has to be the Guardians of the Universe doing something ultra douche-y for the greater good of the universe, or for some unspoken reason, or because they said so. I think it might be the intent to make they look evil, because nobody should trust authority, but it just winds up making me wonder why anyone would bother being a part of the Corps.
Verdict: Hal is a tool!
I wanted to say that Tony Stark as an alcoholic has been used way too much, but I don’t know if that was all Matt Fraction or not. I’ll quickly say that I know at one time the only thing Iron Man had going for him as a character was that he battled alcohol abuse, but now he’s one of the most famous characters in the world and the driving force behind a movie franchise, so now you can do more entertaining things.
No, probably the biggest cliché for Iron Man comics, and I haven’t even read a whole bunch but I know this to be true, is Tony Stark losing his company. Whether through hostile takeover or financial collapse, Tony Stark has lost his company a crap ton of times. The new She-Hulk book even makes a joke of it. I know it’s probably a good way to show Tony as a self-made man and that he didn’t just inherit everything from his father. Or that, in general, it’s just interesting to take characters with everything and take it all away from them, but it’s a little overdone at this point.
Verdict: A hostile takeover on hostile takeovers.
I know it’s fun to take unintended parallels between different stories and use them to add more weight or substance to one of the characters, but unless Jesus used to fly around shooting lasers out of his eyes, or fought an imp from another dimension wearing a tiny purple hat (if he did that would be awesome), maybe writers can cool it with the whole Superman and Jesus allegory. Leave it to the academics to point out the similarities and how it affects our enjoyment of the characters, no need to spell it out in the comics or movies.
Verdict: So is Jor-El God?
Probably the biggest one is splitting up Bruce Banner and the Hulk, or putting Banner in control of the Hulk, or smart Hulk, dumb Hulk, or competent Hulk. I would say it’s overdone, but it’s probably the only way to make the Hulk interesting on an ongoing basis, so it should probably stay.
Verdict: Hulk is boring!
I’d say the biggest FF cliché is probably one of the four disappearing, dying, or being replaced. You know, because there’s four of them and if you remove one, there aren’t four anymore. The title of the book and the team is Fantastic Four you see, so they’re kind of locked in to that very specific number. It’s instant drama if you remove one. What are they going to do, be the Fantastic Three? Not as catchy.
Verdict: Kill them all!
Days of Futures Past was a pretty revolutionary and entertaining story about the future consequences of the continued oppression of the mutant race, plus time travel. Unfortunately, people mostly remembered the time travel part and what followed is so many alternate future characters and teams and dystopian societies that it is impossible to keep track. Off the top of my head, Cable, Rachel Summers, Blink, Bishop, Hope Summers, and Layla Miller are either from an alternate future, or grew up (were artificially aged) in one. All this time travel has made for some pretty well-loved storylines like Age of Apocalypse and the current All New X-Men, but for every one of those there are probably a dozen more worth never reading again.
Verdict: Think, McFly!
This cliche is more or less in alignment with the Batman Preparedness Problem. Cap is supposed to be the ultimate tactician. He can figure out any situation and a way to solve the problem. I think the argument goes, if Batman and Cap fight, it ends in a draw because, tactically, they are evenly matched. If anyone disagrees, I don't particularly care. Since Cap is a juice powered tactician, I have additional issues, but we'll shelve them for the moment. The problem of super-ready Steve Rodgers is that it makes it impossible to put him in an impossible situation. Basically, as a writer, you're trapped in a Superman/Batman combo cliche. You can up the stakes to ridiculous heights or you could present Steve as a man constantly having to learn and adjust aka growing as a character.
Verdict: Put Cap in over his head. Aliens, aliens who just want Earth's gold fish (crackers).
The big cliche about Doom (I doubt he passed any medical boards or defended a dissertation without the use of the occult) is that basically he is a mama's boy who blew himself up and blames Reed for it. Also, Reed is better at all the sciency stuff than Doom, so he's got the inferiority complex going on. Mostly, he takes that out on his subjects, because, he is an all-powerful ruler of a country the size of Delaware with no real resources. Look, I get it, losing your mother to demons that apparently live all around you can mess you up, but you are also the uncontested king of a reasonably sized nation and can build police robots. Given his likely level of wealth, Doom could probably afford/build a therapist.
Verdict: Build yourself a mommy robot, Doom.
Cap's big cliche is him dying and/or getting replaced, probably the most outstanding example of Awesomeness by Omission, where we take someone off the table for a bit to highlight how truly irreplaceable he is. This has led to some pretty good stories, like The Winter Soldier, some pretty annoying ones, like The Captain, and some that start off as one and end as another, such as Fighting Chance/Operation Rebirth. Regardless, that's kinda Cap's thing. Look, Steve Rogers is hard to write, so maybe taking him off the table every now and then is really the only option.
Verdict: Kinda unavoidable, just make the story good and put a decent amount of space between each time it happens.
Frankly, if you’re one of those fans that never stops complaining because Spider-Man is fighting the Green Goblin again, then I think you may need to just move on from the medium. If you think this character dying, or that story existing, is just some gimmick derived by the companies to force you into buying their comics, not only are you a little weird, but you’ve become far too cynical about something that is supposed to be entertainment. Any story can be boiled down to its central gimmick, and many great stories were crafted by one simple central idea/gimmick. The death and return of Superman started as a throwaway joke by one of the writers. It doesn’t get much more gimmicky than resurrecting Bucky Barnes, and yet that turned out pretty well for everyone.
The story is what matters, and I think the writers, editors, and artists involved have a lot more at stake in making those as good as possible than any one single reader.