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Thursday, July 24, 2008 

Villifying is cheap, ditto criticizing the character instead of the writers

An online columnist for Comics Buyer's Guide (much of the rest of their op-eds are excluded to the print edition) writes what he thinks about Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Green Lantern, and reveals a mindset that I've found very troubling in the past couple years:
Comic fans are a passionate bunch. Nothing wrong with that, either. But this passion sometimes leads to an attachment to a favorite and familiar character that’s so intense that when a significant change is made to that very same character, the reaction is often equally intense, especially when said change isn’t all that well-received.

A case in point was DC’s Emerald Twilight story in Green Lantern back in 1993, when Hal Jordan turned from hero to villain in his quest to try and restore the just-destroyed Coast City. Fan reaction was overwhelmingly negative, in large part because of Jordan’s murderous rampage as chronicled by writer Ron Marz.

I will readily admit that I was one of the few that enjoyed this story. Why, you ask? I Will Tell You. It was because DC dared explore a side of the character that had never been seen before. Hal Jordan’s circumstances had been taken to new extremes, and so too was the character. And I welcomed this, since I had never been much of a GL fan because I had always found Hal Jordan to be kind of stodgy and one-dimensional. Until he turned and became Parallax, and at that point, in my mind, he became a far more interesting character as a villain because he had a far more interesting mission now: to restore time and continuity, at any cost, so the Coast City disaster would never occur.
Which really lacks logic, if you ask me. If anything, what they did was add insult to injury after how they made Hank Hall, the former part of the Hawk and Dove duo, into a villain called Extant.

That aside, what we have here is something I hadn't seen in discussion for awhile - the idea that heroes only become interesting when they're villains. This, in my mind, is cheap and degrading, but it also runs a considerable risk of making it hard for old and new audience members to apprieciate the older material when they're later being hit by the whole notion that these heroes of yore are suddenly becoming villains today. This argument also applies to even supporting cast members in their books.

I don't buy into that whole notion, and I think that's what's ruined a lot of good comics over the years. It adds nothing to the characters and only serves to hurt them and the audiences' ability to enjoy even their older stories at ease. That's why it may be a good thing Marvel reworked the Phoenix story so that Jean Grey was absolved of the actions of what turned out to be a cosmic lifeform that took up her identity, and DC cured Carol Ferris of the effects of the Star Sapphire diamond!

Another very maddening problem I have with how the writer of that CBG op-ed put forth his argument is that he's basically criticizing the character instead of how he's been written. Not only that, he doesn't even mention the names of writers like John Broome, Gardner Fox, Denny O'Neil, or even Marv Wolfman, who all worked on GL back in the day. Is it really that hard to say something like "I always found the way Hal Jordan was written stodgy and one-dimensional"? I don't think so, and the writer certainly signaled a serious problem, one that might very easily have originated in the letter pages of older pamphlets, of people who not only don't criticize the writers, but don't even ask for better writing either. It may also signal a very troubling mindset that acts as though these fictional characters are really real people when they're just fictional creations. Strangely enough, the writer actually admits this in the following:
But this cost was unacceptable to longtime fans of the character. Collectively, the cry was that “their hero” would never, ever turn into such an evil, reprehensible killer. Fans were speaking about the Hal Jordan “they knew” and “grew up with” as being incapable of such actions.

Now, I’m not condoning murder as an acceptable act, even in a fictional story. But that’s just it. It was a fictional story. With a fictional character. And a lot of readers were speaking of the character as though he were more than that, because he held such importance in their lives. And I’m not saying that these fans had some kind of disconnect from reality, unable to distinguish fiction from non. I’m just saying that their attachment to the character prevented them from recognizing the story for what it was supposed to be: a new take on an established superhero.

Perhaps that’s why I could enjoy it; I never considered Hal Jordan a friend; I considered him an intellectual property that exists only for the purpose of entertainment. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy reading about a close friend committing multiple murders. But I could, and most certainly did, enjoy reading about Hal Jordan sinking to unprecedented new lows.

So, just as I became fond of Magneto’s character because of the way the writers developed his history, so it was with Hal Jordan, and not because he had become a familiar figure in my life. And because I didn’t have to take that step back, I think I was able to appreciate this arc that was so widely panned.
Reading this, I'm even more inclined to wonder if he's having it multiple ways, and talking out of multiple sides of his mouth. He says he finds the character "stodgy and one-dimensional" instead of the writing, yet admits afterwards that it's only fiction, and yet still, fails to consider that it's not the character that should be criticized, but the efforts of the writers. And doesn't even make any requests that better writing actually be tried, just one of many reasons why good comics go bad. And then, even more surprisingly enough, he says that the reason he likes Magneto is because of the way the writers worked on him, while still not considering that Green Lantern too is a product of how hired scribes deal with him! Good heavens, do I sense some kind of multi-talk in action here! And did it ever occur to him that Magneto too is just as much an intellectual property (and certainly has been reduced to about that level since the early to mid 90s), as Hal Jordan or any other DC Comics character?

Let us be clear: their enjoyability or not goes as far as the writing does. We cannot blame the characters for failure to entertain just because they may lack personality and such. No matter how much we respect the writers and editors, we shouldn't have to feel reluctant to say if we find how they dealt with their cast of characters weak. It is not insulting at all to criticize a writer just because of how famous they may happen to be, but, as I've suspected, that may be the case in past years with comic books: people are strangely shy about criticizing past writers out of an odd form of "respect", yet see nothing wrong with doing the same with fictional characters. Even I may have suffered the same problem years before, and have since been trying to move away from that kind of thinking. If such a mindset exists, it's one that decidedly needs to be challenged, because how otherwise are we to find and help decent writing be found and established?

If there's anything else the CBG writer fails to consider, it's how the GL Corps were dumped almost completely wholesale in the mindless slaughter that was Zero Hour, all because the editors at the time thought that Kyle Rayner should be, if not the only GL in existence, then certainly close to that standing. Or that, even after several years, he was never developed convincingly, and when the prior volume ended, it was with a whimper (his clash with Major Force was pathetic). Such a lot of potential for more imaginative storytelling was thrown away during those years. Was even Kyle Rayner's introduction worth it? I've done some thinking and by now, I think the best answer is no.

And no matter what assurances the CBG writer gives, I find his acceptance of a story in which a hero is distastefully turned into a mass slaughterer disturbing. And that's the main problem that I have with Hal Jordan's corruption in Zero Hour - not just simply that a hero was turned into a villain, but that he would be turned into a mass murderer who in ZH claimed many GL Corps members as his victims. It's disgusting, and in ZH was really going too far. Yet this is what's been considered acceptable by the mainstream press, who, if anything, have been acting as though nothing's truly wrong with it, and influencing opinions for the worse.

Sometimes I wonder also if DC Comics has proven to be the worse offender in terms of over-the-top deaths. Some of their worst ideas in storytelling have certainly come from these awful crossovers they've done, and stories similar to crossovers. Deaths for the sake of deaths are something they're going to have to cut out, ditto villifications for the sake of villifications too. Because it's just bad, cheap writing that throws away any real potential for character development.

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  • I'm Avi Green
  • From Jerusalem, Israel
  • I was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. I also enjoyed reading a lot of comics when I was young, the first being Fantastic Four. I maintain a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy in facts. I like to think of myself as a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. I don't expect to be perfect at the job, but I do my best.
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