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On “Characterization”– In Superhero Comics, It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, and Everywhere Else

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Characterization

What is it? What does it have to do with ongoing super-hero comic book series? And does it, as it is commonly employed in said works, actually have anything to do with “good” comics writing?

Platitudinous disclaimer: My name is Dave. These are my opinions.

What does Mr. Webster say? To characterize = “To make distinct and recognizable by peculiar marks or traits; to make with distinctive features”. That sounds promising. So, “characterization” is a semiotic system. If, as a writer, you make sure that there is something distinctive about each unit within the set of characters you are responsible for, then you are taking care of your business on the “characterization” front. So, one guy stutters all the time, one woman has a lisp, another is a deaf-mute, and door number 4 talks like she swallowed a thesaurus. Congratulations. Your characters will not be confused for one another, even if, for some avant-garde reason, you ask the artist to make every panel a blacked-out square, and only the dialogue bubbles are visible. But does this necessarily mean that you have written a good issue of an ongoing super-hero series? I would argue that it does not. Sure, something like this can add to a good overall effort, and I will say that i prefer it to the average Golden Age or D.C.-Silver Age story (often written by Gardner Fox) where everyone’s dialogue and thoughts are inflected in exactly the same way (except for the birds that Hawkman is wont to converse with–they always say ::wheet:: before going on to more substantial matters. Now that’s “characterization”!!!)

Characterization–I’ll drop the platitudinous quotation marks now, as well as the platitudinous remarks about how all of this is just my opinion (I know most of you understand this without being reminded of it every few seconds…)–became the sin qua non of the “team” comics produced at Marvel in the sixties and seventies: there’s the put-upon leader, the wiseguy challenger to the throne (which is often congruent with the “alienated loner”), sometimes there is an aloof mentor, and maybe a culturally “other” fish-out-of-water, and there’s always, of course, the female protagonist, who really isn’t characterized, and (sadly) doesn’t have to be, because she is distinguished by her gender–in Spider-Man, at least, you get the “carefree” MJ vs. the more “repsonsible” Gwen; and in Englehart’s Avengers, you get the strength-worshipping Mantis vs. the alienated Scarlet Witch, because, once you get two women in the group, there has to be a way to tell them apart–you see “i hate humans” and you know it’s Wanda–you see “this one (followed by something about “her man”) and you know it’s Mantis, etc; you can tell who Agatha Harkness is by how old and frail she looks. Now, if Agatha and Aunt May ever came together under one roof, I suspect one of them would have to develop a speech impediment, or get very angry and resentful about something, because that’s a volatile situation, characterization-wise…

Again, I say, this is the least you could ask of a comics writer, once Marvel changed people’s expectations of what ought to take place between the cover and the Norman Rockwell ad–at DC, in the mid-to-late sixties, Green Arrow gets uppity, and Hawkman gets tense, and they start to hate each other and you have characterization going boldly where it had not gone before. However, I maintain that this is not the most interesting thing that was going on in Marvel Comics during that time. And I will continue to argue that these kinds of semiotic character distinctions, concocted merely for their own sake, were–when unmoored from the philosophical/theological base that had grounded these characters’ adventures from the beginning–damaging to the aesthetic purity of the Marvel Universe as a whole, and a step toward the kinds of things that Mark Millar and Warren Ellis have been doing. This is why I say that when Captain America quits his job in a fit of pique over corruption in the U.S. government and starts running around in a Rainbow-Brite costume, it is far less interesting (to me) than when the U.S. government takes CA’s identity away from him, and he thinks seriously about what impact this will have on his position as the symbol of the “infinitude of the private man”. In one case, we have an angry, irrational “character” hell-bent on expressing his hurt, betrayed feelings, who, over the course of a few issues, has an affective conversion when he realizes that he’s the “only man for the job”; and in the latter case, we have an extremely rational protagonist who understands the precariousness of his existential situation and thinks his way, issue after issue (even in issues where he is not featured at all), through a series of conflicts (some of which are physical, but more of which are orchestrated by structural juxtapositions within the text)–with foes who are not merely characterized in a quirky fashion, but actually embody the kinds of radical choices that are open to self-possessed indivuals–toward restoring the necesary status quo

The only time characterization interests me, in itself, is when a writer is able to render a character distinct from his/her previous and future self, whilst keeping the seams hidden. Giving a character a distinct speech
pattern (like, making him speak like Fognhorn Leghorn, f’rinstance) certainly qualifies as characterization, and may even be a stroke of genius (can there be any doubt in Elrod the Albino’s case?), but it is not “complex characterization”. Just for an example, take It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown– the thing that always gets me about that work is the scene, near the end, where Lucy goes out, at 4 am, to bring the shivering Linus back to the nest… Lucy? The ultimate bitch and opportunist, doing something this wonderful? How can it not seem forced? But, I defy anyone to argue that it does. It’s just so right (and note that it is wordless–Lucy can do nice things, but I don’t think she’s able to say anything pleasant, unless it’s to manipulate Charlie Brown into lunging at the football or Schroeder into looking up from his keyboard…) And why is it right? Because Schulz has prepared the ground for this Lucy-who-is-different-from-Lucy by having her ask for candy for her “idiot brother” all through the trick-or-treating mission. At the time, you just write it off as Lucy seizing another opportunity to say something mean, but, in retrospect, it becomes clear that yes, she does want to make fun of her brother, but YES, she also, genuinely, wants to make sure he gets to have some candy (although, of course, it is never an option that she might let him pick from her own personal stash–Lucy is no fool!). Anyway, that’s about as clear a case as I can make for “complex characterization”, and I strive to do that kind of stuff in my fiction, but your garden variety characterization has to be subservient to some other goal–it cannot be an end in itself.

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About David Fiore

  • http://screenrant.com Vic

    Seems like you’re describing traits of one-dimensional characters, as written in bad movies, books, comics, etc.

    When I mention character development in my reviews, I’m referring specifically to the types of things you refer to above in your “good” examples above. So I suppose I’m talking about “complex characterization” as opposed to just plain old characterization. For example: Wolverine dealing with his feelings towards Jean Grey vs. just “Wolverine = Angry Guy”.

    Exposing the audience to deeper levels of the character in question, making him/her seem more “real” to us. That’s the good stuff that can take a superhero movie from just-ok-but-forgettable-roller-coaster-ride to something truly great and memorable.

    Vic

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