Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Delano Theory of Seminal Integrity in Super-Heroic Fiction

Every good comic book commentator should probably have at least one pet theory about what makes comics work. John Seavey has his breakdown of Storytelling Engines. Scipio is fond of his notion of Dynastic Centerpiece. Mine regards the theory of seminal integrity, or to put it simply, staying true to a character's roots.

In serialized fiction, characters regularly change hands, guided by commandments from on high. Over the last few days, I've talked about the responsibilities creators have to their creations, to one another, and how all of them should ethically be treated by publishers. I don't believe fictional life begins at conception, but at publication. At this point, an idea has been processed and presented to, and thus absorbed by, the greater world. It seems to me even the creators have to recognize that while still the guardians in charge of nurturing their concept, it now exists separate from themselves. From then on, it has an organic existence, and the integrity of the initial conception and the changes wrought by development and final presentation should forevermore be considered in all future developments by everyone concerned. It isn't that the property can't develop further, showing new facets and such, but these developments should not, generally speaking, violate the basic principles established for the property upon its debut. Otherwise, you risk creating a second property out of the first, and thus compromise the being of both.

For decades, comic creators understood this principle, and observed it as a basic courtesy. Upon the rise of fan-professionals, there was a sense of a proprietary relationship with characters they had not created and did not own, based on familiarity and affection. This gave the fan-professional a belief in their entitlement to do as they wished with said creations, so far as it was allowed by the publishers. These liberties can result in good stories, sometimes, but just as often divide and alienate the fan base over reaction to the changes. Quite hilariously, these same fan-pros then grow older and bemoan the fact their "legacies" have been negated by following generations of fan-pros who treat their past victories with the same disregard, leading to a cynicism amongst the readership bordering on the nihilistic. Who cares about this alteration or that death, when you know it will all be reversed or further manipulated until it all amounts to nothing in the heart and mind? Typically, only the most sensationalistic elements ever take root-- the hero commits an act of domestic violence-- the supporting character who is molested by a super-villain-- and so on. It isn't that you can't allow such sordid elements into the cannon, but forethought has to be given as to whether these acts are appropriate for the premise and in keeping with the vision of its originators. Otherwise, defenders rise up to challenge the offense, decisions are reversed, and it all ends up a muddle. Besides which, turning back to the origins of the property offers not only a clarity of vision, but often prospects for new stories based on the property's initial potential that remain true to the core.

I alluded earlier the damage Frank Miller did to Batman, and I suppose I could elaborate, but I think a stronger example would be Superman. Upon his debut, Superman was an unimpeachable force for good, regardless of the opposition. If he heard a man beating his wife, damn the restraining orders, he'd just give the batterer a taste of his own medicine. If he knew an innocent woman was about to be put to death for a murder she did not commit, he'd barge into the governor's mansion and demand a stay of execution. Only later did all this mild-mannered business make its way from Clark Kent to his alter ego, as he began to salute the flag and bow to outside authority, polluting the essential appeal of his dynamic identity. Despite the actual good the Superman concept has done for the real world, association with authority figures and the means of surviving the Wertham witch hunts yielded generations that view the once clearly altruistic Man of Steel with distrust. By the time Frank Miller handled the character in the 80's, this cancer had spread to the point of turning Superman into a ineffectual lapdog for the Reagan administration... so impotent as to face defeat at the supposedly righteous scalloped glove of fury borne by the Dark Knight. To some degree, I think Miller was subverting seminal integrity in order to spotlight the abuses of prior hands, but his result added to this injustice. Further, by shackling the Superman concept to a shared universe, attempts to show the Man of Steel at his full power ends up being perceived as rubbing in his superiority over the majority of less omnipotent heroes. Rather than a champion of the oppressed, Superman is suddenly the arrogant oppressor. Oh, how the mighty have fallen from virtue.

Another good example would be the time Hal Jordan, repeatedly deemed the greatest member of the thousands strong Green Lantern Corps., would turn on his fellows and commit mass murder in pursuit of selfish, delusional ends. It isn't difficult to find evidence in Jordan's thirty year history that could reasonably support the logic behind this sinister turn, but that doesn't change the fact that it betrays the charter set forth by the basic premise. At its inception, Green Lantern establishes that there are other "space police" on the same force, allowing for the replacement of Jordan if he became commercially unsound. However, the premise also centered around the worth of the individual corps ring bearers, and quite simply after three decades, creators shouldn't treat the most visible representative of the Corps and his fan base with such contempt. On the other hand, the new creators resolve to portray Hal Jordan in the most negative light possible morphed him into an entirely extant character-- a black hole of villainy to face their new hero, the soul surviving corpsman. It might have worked, if only their new ringbearer, Kyle Rayner, had been given a stronger motivation for being the one true Green Lantern. Instead, he was chosen for the role at random, and defined mostly by his conflict with Jordan. Once Rayner's nemesis was removed, it became clear Rayner himself had no more reason to be Green Lantern, as he'd found himself absent an origin to sustain him.

Very rarely will you find a super-hero who survives for any length of time without a strong origin and the guiding sense of purpose it bestows. If a hero is already possessed of such a thing, altering it only confuses the readership and diminishes the character. Also, readers can only manage so much enthusiasm for all that backward glancing and navel gazing. It will always be important to know where a character has been, but what everyone really wants is to be compelled by where they are headed. Much of that compulsion hinges on maintaining the seminal integrity of the character that attracted fans in the first place, or else they might find themselves less than enthused to keep up with what amounts to a new character. If you sign on to write Spider-Man, you should damned well write Spider-Man, or else find another book to collect a check from.

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