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Soundtrack: Ramones — Road To Ruin

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

And lo, tomorrow, there shall finally come, Madcap–(whom I interpret as) Gruenwald’s indictment of Englehart’s wildly volatile, affectively-driven version of Captain America.

Good night friends!
Dave

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