Where is the line for what can and can’t be changed in regard to certain characters? Or rather, where is the line for what changes can be permanent as opposed to those inevitably reverted by future writers? This question has been on my mind a lot last month (well, in addition to being terribly sick and having to do my end of term grading – but all my extra mental energy has been focused on this). As a genre, comics demand new stories for their most popular characters every month (sometimes multiple times a month) unceasingly for decades without allowing characters to age more than five or ten years. It’s easy to see why reboots, alternate realities, Legacy Characters assuming a mantle, time travel, alien doppelgangers, mind-wipes, and so on always pop-up. How do you keep an unending story fresh? One trope employed to this end is the redemption of a villain and this, specifically, has been on my mind.
The stories currently running through Dan Slott’s Fantastic Four and Nick Spencer’s The Amazing Spider-Man (and the fact I put comics in my to-grade pile to help motivate my work) are the reason I’ve been thinking of this lately. Fantastic Four #7 was Part Two of Slott’s “Herald of Doom” storyline while The Amazing Spider-Man #16 began Spencer’s first major Spider-Event story in “Hunted.” Each of these stories star classic villains who have been the center of two of the most complex, emotionally-challenging, and rewarding redemption narratives to come out of any comic book over the last five years. And each current story appears to be undoing some or all of the character development done during their quests for redemption.
In the case of Fantastic Four, we see the return of two of the FF’s most iconic villains – Doctor Doom, the mystic/scientist ruler of Latveria, and Galactus, the cosmos-traversing devourer of worlds. On the heels of Ben Grimm’s wedding to Alicia Masters in Fantastic Four #5, the FF headed to Latveria where the world-devourer had appeared. Doom was preparing to face this cosmic threat alongside his own new herald Victorious – whom he’d imbued with the Power Cosmic – to protect his country and the entire Earth. However issue #7 makes clear the real reason Doom lured Galactus to Earth wasn’t to return him to his place as the cosmic Lifebringer but to trap him and use his Power Cosmic as an unlimited energy source for Latveria.
While not overtly evil, this still feels like the classic machinations of Doom. It’s certainly a far cry from the Doom we met in the brilliant story Brian Michael Bendis told through Infamous Iron Man. There Victor Von Doom, forever changed by his time as God during the Secret Wars, realized how empty his life was. He sought to right the wrongs he’d committed in his past, not by locking himself up, but by doing what no one could do better than him – battling the forces of evil across the globe. No one, Victor reasoned, was as intelligent as he and no one better understood the villains of planet Earth. So, with Tony Stark in a coma, Victor Von Doom takes up his mantle and becomes the Armored Avenger. It was one of the most brilliant, emotionally affecting stories I’ve ever read (and if you like, you can read more about it here). While I, admittedly, don’t know where Slott’s story will go, Doom’s plan seems a stark departure from the noble striving of Bendis’ take on the character.
With The Amazing Spider-Man, Sergei Kravinoff has returned. In one of Spidey’s darkest (and most critically-acclaimed) tales, Kraven the Hunter buried Spider-Man alive to prove himself the wall-crawler’s better by living his life and besting his adversaries more efficiently. Spider-Man returned (obviously) and Kraven killed himself at the close of the story. As it’s comic books, Kraven eventually returned and it’s been Ryan North, in the pages of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, who has done the most significant character work with the Hunter. There, inspired by her friendship, Kraven works to become the person Doreen Green sees in him. He devotes himself to hunting poachers through Africa and even fighting the forces of evil alongside Squirrel Girl and her friends. It is the best Kraven story ever. Period. Full Stop (and you can read more about it here too).
One issue in, I admit it’s impossible to know where Spencer’s story is going. However, what I do know, is Kraven has hired two mercenaries (Taskmaster and the Black Ant) to hunt and capture any animal-themed costumed character they can find (Scorpion, Rhino, the Vulture, the Tarantula, the White Rabbit, Black Cat, etc.). The Amazing Spider-Man #16 ends with Kraven telling a large group of wealthy hunters he’s stopped from poaching in Africa that he’s about to let them hunt his captives through New York City (apparently he’s employed Arcade to help seal of the city somehow but we’ve yet to see exactly how this will play out). Granted, the majority of the characters Kraven has captured are supervillains BUT the idea of allowing a bunch of wealthy jackasses to play “The Most Dangerous Game” through the streets of New York City with real lives at stake is NOT something Doreen would approve of. Not. At. All.
I love Nick Spencer as an author – whether with his lighter, more humorous comics like The Amazing Spider-Man and Ant-Man or his more serious, socially conscious works like Sam Wilson: Captain America and “Secret Empire.” And I’ve been impressed with some of Dan Slott’s stories too. So I don’t want to judge them unfairly but…it’s hard to see these stories as anything more than an attempt for a new author on a classic title to make a splash writing a “classic villain” fans love for their famous protagonists.
Fantastic Four, once Marvel’s flagship title, was cancelled back in April of 2015. To say it’s return last year under the stewardship of Dan Slott was highly anticipated would be a a gross understatement. So what does Mr. Slott do? Well naturally, after a few status quo-setting issues of reuniting the family and bringing everyone back to New York, he reintroduces the FF’s two greatest enemies – Doctor Doom and Galactus. The problem is, to put Doom back in his classic role is to ignore and/or cast aside all the character development Brian Michael Bendis did in Infamous Iron Man as well as where Chip Zdarsky took Victor’s Iron Man in Marvel 2-in-1. It makes sense. Marvel’s greatest family/superhero team returns and they face off against their greatest foe. But still…
The same can be said for The Amazing Spider-Man. It’s no secret I ADORE The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. I think it’s – by far – the best thing Marvel’s publishing. I love it. But I’m not under the illusion that everyone sees North’s brilliant little book the way I do. So what happens in the pages of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is (probably, sadly) largely ignored by many of Marvel’s readers and maybe too, even by some of it’s authors. It seems Ryan North knew Nick Spencer had plans for Kraven because The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #35 saw Kraven say a “goodbye” of sorts to Doreen and her friends. Spencer has picked up Kraven’s tale and it seems (at least from the tone of The Amazing Spider-Man #16 and the advertising surrounding “Hunted”) he aims to return one of Spider-Man’s most iconic foes to his “classic” place in Spidey’s rogue’s gallery. Again, it makes sense. But still…
I get why the authors would do this, undoing the heroic advances made by Victor Von Doom and Sergei Kravinoff. I also get why many fans would be excited about it. But I’m left mourning thoughtful, powerful stories that now (seemingly) have no lasting relevance on the characters they starred. I’m not angry about nor do I feel I need to rant and rave at Slott or Spencer for their narrative decisions nor am I dropping these titles in frustration. I still love Nick Spencer’s The Amazing Spider-Man, even if the Kraven arc may make me sad (Dan Slott’s Fantastic Four I’m cutting; not because of this alone but I’ve learned it’s a wait-for-the-trade or maybe even a wait-until-it’s-free-on-Marvel-Unlimited title for me). So again, in light of these stories, my original question comes to mind.
Where is the line? What can and can’t be changed in regard to a character? Could someone like Doctor Doom – arguably the greatest villain in the Marvel Universe – ever truly and permanently reform his evil ways? Or must he always return to his iconic role? And if it’s the latter, what sorts of changes can be permanent? And what does it say of the ones that can’t? Does the never-ending narrative of high profile characters’ comics force a static nature on the characters? Or rather, are they static characters presented with the false allusion of dynamism?
It’s easy to see why certain villainous characters – the Punisher, Venom, Deadpool, etc. – became heroes. Or, more accurately, were turned into antiheroes. They were popular. Because they were popular, Marvel knew they could make a ton of money by giving them their own series. But that was back before there were a ton of overt villains headlining books so they made them antiheroes, ones we could root for with enough of their villainy intact for them to be “dark,” “edgy,” and “cool.” But what of the future for characters like Doctor Doom and Kraven the Hunter, characters who were more popular as villains? Is the ultimate narrative always going to be shaped by financial considerations? Are they doomed to always revert to their most profitable form?
I don’t know. But I think about it a lot. What I do know for sure is this ever-present threat of undoing dramatic character evolutions is one of the reasons I so love the newer characters I’ve found since returning to comic reading – Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel; Doreen Green, Squirrel Girl; Riri Williams, Ironheart; Miles Morales, Spider-Man; Shuri; Gwen Stacy, Spider-Woman. It’s why they fill so many of the spaces on my pull list too. While popular, they are still new enough to be able to change and grow in dynamic, lasting ways. They have yet to be trapped within the static cage decades of continuity and fan expectations can build.