Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Death of the Personal Life & Supporting Cast

I frequent the Penny Arcade Graphic Violence forums quite often and a topic came up about how few, if any, characters have personal lives or supporting casts anymore.  Try as I could, I couldn't find anyway to disagree with what everyone was saying.  Hit the jump as we discuss this comic book pandemic.

The Death of the Personal Life

In older comics, characters had secret identities and their personal life.  One was exclusive from the other and they would have to juggle duties as a crime fighter with their personal life.  Spider-Man was a perfect example of this.  He'd go to school, work for the Daily Bugle and juggle girlfriends and family obligations.  Even Batman would have to be Bruce Wayne and attend social functions on occasion.  

Most modern stories have shifted to a focus on the super hero.  To continue the example, look at Spider-Man today.  He's been fired from his job for doctoring fake images and, with Mary Jane no longer in his life, he's pretty much just Spider-Man 24/7.  They even did a storyline where he tried to be Spider-Man 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  

But this isn't just something restricted to Spider-Man or Marvel.  Geoff Johns's Green Lantern started out with a focus on rebuilding Hal Jordan's life and even set up his old supporting cast and job at Ferris Air.  They put a focus on rebuilding Star City and his job as a pilot and so on.  Today, none of those things exist.  He's Green Lantern first and even his love interests have disappeared. 

Another problem is that many characters, especially those that can no longer support a book, now only appear as super heroes.  Hands in the air, when was the last time you saw Jaime Reyes outside of his Blue Beetle costume?  What about Dick Grayson outside of the Batman costume or working at his former jobs (or new ones) as a police officer or museum curator?  Any X-Men not off killing people/holding war meetings and just chilling around playing baseball or having some fun?  Any Green Arrow people not killing people with cats or hiding in forests?  Or Steve Rogers's life?  The Avengers spend all of their time talking in their 23 different Bendis written titles, but rarely do they just go have a beer or eat a hotdog or be normal people.

I remember when our heroes (or villains) actually spent time out of costume.  

I remember the original Thunderbolts, a bunch of villains, just chilling and reading fan mail or going out shopping or finding clothes for Jolt.  Even when they went on the lamb with Hawkeye,  they found time to have relationships and get side jobs or attend school.  Does anyone have a personal life these days?  I know few, if any, are shown anymore.  Daredevil used to have a great balance between his personal life and super heroics.  That's gone by the wayside with Shadowland, but was still an integral part up until a few months ago.  Wolverine: Weapon X showcases Wolverine's personal life fairly often with him and Steve Rogers having some beers to celebrate his return or just introducing everyone to his newest girlfriend.  Secret Six has had the team go out for a night on the town here and there and showed them having downtime between missions, too, and they make for some of the best issues in that series.  These are only a couple of examples, but I was having a lot of difficulty finding more to balance this post out. 

The Death of the Supporting Cast

Some great new characters, but not a true supporting cast.

Going hand in hand with a character's personal life is their supporting cast.  The majority of supporting casts these days consist of other heroes or super powered people.  Continuing with previous examples, look at Spider-Man.  With no job, no wife, and no family, he's pretty much cut out his entire supporting cast they were attempting to build for him with Brand New Day.  There's no reason to see Jonah or the Daily Bugle/Frontline staff.  There's no reason for him to be with a girlfriend or potential girlfriend since a super hero, Black Cat, is his on again, off again flame.  There's nobody in his life that isn't super powered other than the random Aunt May appearance (like 2 pages in 8 issues or so).  We only know most of these people because they've existed for 60 years and if they were new, they became caracitures more than actual people you cared about seeing, like his irratic roommate, Michele, or the snarky reporter from Frontline, Norah.  

Uh...who are you again?

Another example from above is Green Lantern.  Show of hands, who remembers Hal's brother and his family?  They had some build up in the early issues and played a small part in Sinestro Corps War if you can't recall.  They were rolled out for a random shot during Blackest Night and that's the only time we've seen them again in like two years.  Ferris Air or the people that work there?  Anyone remember them?  How about his girlfriend, Cowgirl?  Anyone remember her?  Hell, Carol Ferris had to go and get a Star Sapphire ring and floss bikini to get some screen time.  The entire supporting cast consists of super powered people with multi-coloured rings these days.  They are more an extension of the story than an actual supporting cast.  

Blue Beetle had one of the best supporting casts in comics.  Will we ever see them again?

Again, with the lesser known characters that can't support titles, their entire supporting casts cease to exist.  Blue Beetle was like a modern day Spider-Man in my eyes.  His family was an amazing and supportive pillar for him.  They no longer appear in any comics to my knowledge now that Blue Beetle is only showing up in Teen Titans.  Manhunter's family and supporting cast was another great group of characters with personality and, while they had a few appearances in the 8-page back-ups for her, they are pretty much non-existent when it comes time to roll Manhunter out for a random guest appearance. 


The more I thought about this topic, the more readily apparent this problem became.  I think some of the frustration many people have with super hero comics these days probably stems from the fact that most consist primarily of people in capes beating each other up or brooding all the time.  There's no sense of connection with anyone anymore.  Stories have shifted from character driven to action and event driven stories.  Yes, it's gotten so bad I've started and ended a sentence with the same word. 

Now, I'm not saying there's no supporting casts or personal lives in comics.  Captain America (Bucky version) recently went out for beers with Steve Rogers and Falcon to chat about his problems in the current Baron Zemo storyline.  That's a nice change of pace to see them acting human and unwinding like that and not an uncommon thing in Brubaker's Captain America.  But few other comics do that anymore.  We get minor winding down of Dick and Damian in Batman and Robin, but it's mostly just an interlude to more Batman and Robin action.  You could argue the different corps members in Green Lantern, like Atrocitus or Sinestro, are a better supporting cast than 'normal' people, but that's not really the point I'm getting at.  They are just other super powered people bantering or arguing between punching things.

Ultimate Spider-Man is probably one of the few comics I've read that manages to balance between action, personal life and supporting casts.  No small feat with such a large cast of super powered people, but they'll go to jobs, on dates, to school or just hang out at Peter's place between the assorted battles and super villains they run into.  The characters come first in that series and it shows in how much you care about each one of them.

What do you think?  Do you agree with the assessment that comics have shifted away from the personal lives and supporting casts?  Are you upset with that?  Do you know any good examples of comics or characters with supporting casts and personal lives still in tact?  Let me know in the comments below.

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Minhquan Nguyen said...

Well, I can only speak about DC Comics, since those are the ones I primarily read, but in the newest series there's been a trend of creating supporting cast and civilian life again. Red Robin's Tim Drake spends a fair amount of time on the business end of Wayne Enterprises with Tam and Lucius Fox--and Vicki Vale. Batgirl's Stephanie Brown occasionally visits her college campus and her classmates are presumably going to be part of her civilian life stories. Power Girl's Karen Starr is developing her company staff, and Zatanna has her "entourage." The Flash's Barry Allen has a pretty personable supporting cast at the station where he works. I think that once the opening story arcs are over, we'll probably get some "throwaway" issues that feature the characters' supporting lives more fully.

Radlum said...

I have to admit that one of the good things that came out of OMD is that MJ and Aunt May are no longer the only supporting cast in ASM; I know that recently we haven't seen much of Harry, Carlie is too much of an obvious romantic interest and Norah seems to be liked only by Joe Kelly, but at least the supporting cast is a little more diverse.

twobitspecialist said...

I think you got a point there, Kirk. It's sad that we've moved away from having supporting casts in comics. In Amazing Spider-man at least, they all die! Captain Stacy, Gwen, Harry (at first), Jean DeWolf. These are all characters that were killed off.

The worst offender right now is JMS's Superman, where it's like Superman doesn't even have a civilian life anymore.

Simon McDonald said...

@twobitspecialist JMS isn't solely to blame - Clark Kent hasn't been seen in the pages of Action Comics or Superman for over a year, and that's got nothing to do with JMS.

quietomega said...

It's not something I immediately noticed, but now that it's been pointed out it's really glaring (and disappointing).

Wasn't one of the primary points of OMD/BND to give Spider-Man his supporting cast again?

On the DC side, Manhunter had its supporting cast all the way, but that recently ended its run as a back-up. Simone's run on Wonder Woman had a somewhat large supporting cast, but none of them were regular civilians, since even Etta and Steve were made into agents.

Like Minhquan said, Zatanna has a supporting cast being built up by Dini and I'm hoping they stick around.

@Simon: that's true, but since he's going to be traveling America for about a year, we still won't be seeing him as Clark. I'm worried that the only time Lois we'll see will be Lex Luthor's robot double of her

Simon McDonald said...

@quietomega: Yeah, you're right. I do miss the days of seeing Clark Kent actually being a journalist. Sigh.

Aaron K said...

I think a good candidate for a book that bucks this trend is "Witchblade". Under the pen of Ron Marz, this oft-maligned "T&A" book has become a strong character-driven study of Sara Pezzini. We've had entire issues devoted to changing diapers and going on dates. Sure, it's still got lots of crime noir and fantasy, but I think the action pieces are woven into the personal pieces effectively and effortlessly. The action serves to enhance the character, not vice versa.

I never thought I'd be defending "Witchblade", but I commend the long Ron Marz run (which is still going) to anyone at all.

Flip The Page said...

Young Allies and the Nomad cap-backups kinda manage this, which is pretty impressive considering how small the latter is.

ArtfulDodger said...

Walking Dead is a great series because it spends so much time on its supporting cast. There are entire issues that go by without a zombie appearance, as it is all character development.

Anonymous said...

I think Invincible has a decent supporting cast, altough it seems to be dwindling recently. I can't remember the last time Invincible's best friend appeared (I forget his name).

Rich said...

Gail Simone did a nice job building up Ryan Choi's supporting cast in his book. But, well, you know how that ended up.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if they count, are we only talking the spandex brigade here, but Hellblazer, The Walking Dead and Fables have good supporting casts, though are those last two books ensemble pieces anyway?

Giffen & DeMattis in their Justice League run often had the guys go out to socialise, whether it be Guy's date with Ice, the JLE learning French or Kilowog, Gnort & J'onn Jonzz going out on town for a few quite beers.

Kirk Warren said...

@Anonymous #12 - I was mostly referring ot the spandex brigade of super heroes. Walking Dead is primarily about the characters. Zombies are like background noise or just a part of the setting more than the focus of that title, which is what I love about it. Fables is all about the characters and playing with the archtypes of fables. Another great example of why it works is its character driven. 100 Bullets, Y the Last Man, etc are all like this, as you point out.

Jeremy said...

Brubaker seems to be pretty good at intergrating supporting cast into his superhero stories. Like you mentioned Captain America, which has a a great cast of Nick Fury, Sharon Stone, Black Widow, and The Falcon on and off through the years. His Daredevil run had Matt's old buddy Foggy, his girlfriend Milla, Dakota North, Master Izo, Ben Urich, etc. Even Immortal Iron Fist had Danny's friends in Jehryn, Luke Cage, Misty, etc.

forrest said...

I think Invincible does a great job of balancing everything. He's got a personal life, friends and family.

revelshade said...

I only read a few titles so I hadn't noticed but it does seem to be true and it's sad. Maybe part of it is these year-long storylines and one event leading right into another. Seems like back when done-in-one (or two) was the norm the supporting cast didn't get pushed aside for months at a time.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts, though I think for Daredevil the destruction of his personal life is consciously the point. He is nothing but Daredevil, and the leader of the hand, because his connections have cost him so much. But hopefully we'll see them in Daredevil issues, rather than in Shadowland proper.

One serious beef: is Michelle from Spider-man actually bi-polar, i.e. identified as having a mental illness? Or is she simply emotionally volatile/inconsistently written? Because if it is the latter, your use of the term bi-polar is offensive.

Eldron said...

I'm missing the heck out of the Superman supporting cast. You use Green Lantern as an example of a book that launched with a strong focus on the supporting cast, only to slowly discard that cast piece by piece across the last few years. What about Superman? The opening pages of the Braniac arc focused on reintroducing the Daily Planet characters, bringing Cat Grant back into the fold and giving Steve Lombard more face time than he'd had in over 20 years. What a shame that Braniac led into World of New Krypton, which pretty much ignored the entire supporting cast. I mean, Jimmy Olsen was (apparently) shot and killed at the end of one chapter, but nobody noticed for two months until it was revealed he was undercover (just not 6 feet under-cover). Talk about a lack of respect for them.

If DC released a Superman film tomorrow with no roles for Perry or Jimmy beyond a quick bit of facetime at the start and end of the movie, a lot of people would be wondering what was going on. Supes' supporting cast is one of the main reasons why he has been able to sustain not only 70+ years of comics, but numerous TV series, cartoon, movies and other adaptations.

Kirk Warren said...

@Anonymous #17 - She is not actually bi-polar. I did not think it would be offensive to anyone to describe her as being written as such due to the irratic behaviour (she hates him one issue, is in poppy dog love the next, becomes borderline insane the next, is like his best friend giving advice after that, etc). Ill adjust the wording if you believe that is offensive towards those suffering from bi-polar.

Anonymous said...

Blue Beetle's family was recently in JLI: Generation Lost. Great book, if you aren't reading it, you need to check it out.

Anonymous said...

Amazing Spider-man is the lousiest comic of all time, now. Within a year they had promised readers stories where 'everything changes' and basically kept introducing world-changing concepts every few months, then didn't even make a decent story out of them, because they wanted to undo the marriage the next year.

I can't understand why a guy who doesn't use his head and stabs his friends in the back is supposed to be a hero. Who cares about that person and who wants to read a book where that person hurts a lot of people, yet there are absolutely no consequences, becuase he cares more about his elderly Aunt living another two months more than helping the world or even keeping his marriage?

Why doesn't Peter Parker from now not resemble Peter Parker from AMazing Spider-man #350?

I don't think anybodies going to care about the Brand New supporting cast including J Jonah Jameson's dad or some stupid tramp they hooked Peter Parker up with.

God, they can't finish one of those damn stories they promised us during or before Civil War becuase Joe Quesada doesn't give a damn about story telling or what the fans think. He just wants the marriage to be over and wants people to keep dwelling on that. Perhaps he actually believe Amazing Spider-man #454 WASN'T the worst comics issue of all time, he thinks it's great. It's the worst.

Anonymous said...

Yes I personally find it offensive. I'm bi-polar (the reason I'm using the anonymous handle). It's a common catch all for emotionally volatile, and I apologize if I seemed harsh, but the conditions of being bi-polar are in fact quite different for 99% percent of people. Her erratic behavior may be part of her character, and if there is little to explain her rapid shifts situationally she could indeed have a mood disorder (not that Marvel would be handling very well then). But more likely it is poor writing without a clear sense of character.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting topic. I hadn't really noticed this trend so thanks for pointing it out Kirk. I agree with Mihnquan that Flash does have a considerable supporting cast in his new book let's just hope it lasts. But there is one character who does still appear often enough and is fleshed out enough to dispute most of this argument: Alfred.

Jack Norris said...

"Yes I personally find it offensive. I'm bi-polar"

A) So am I.
B) It is not offensive to use it loosely in the conversational way it was here, unless-
C) You're clearly a twit.

Kirk Warren said...

@Jack Norris - If he/she took offense to it, that's their perogative and each of us takes things more personally than others based on personal experiences. I altered the text since it offended them. There's no reason to call them a twit because they disliked the use of a term you have no problem with. They didn't go off the deep end or call for anyone's head. They stated their case and why it bothered them.

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