The Evolution and Devolution of Comic Book Characters

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.

Redemption 2

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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.

Redemption 3

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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.

Doom 16

Ben Grimm refuses to believe Victor seeks to atone for his crimes in Infamous Iron Man. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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…

Kraven 14 (4)

To lose this Kraven in the service of returning the “grim hunter” as a villain to Spider-Man’s world seems like such a waste. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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?

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Deadpool can stay “a good guy” because his brand’s successful as a good guy. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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.

avengers dream team 18

Miles Morales, Spider-Man; Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel, Viv Vision, Amka Aliyak, Snowguard; Riri Williams, Ironheart; and Amadeus Cho, Brawn – the face of Marvel’s future and some of its brightest stars. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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16 thoughts on “The Evolution and Devolution of Comic Book Characters

  1. Is there a reverse trend where heroes are being turned into villains? You would know better than I would, and the only examples I can think of is Steve Rogers: Captain America being a Hydra agent and (maybe?) Nick Fury in Original Sin. Thoughts?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve been thinking about this comment since you posted it. It’s a lot harder to come up with examples for this than I would have thought! I know Venom was turned back into a villain for a little bit (Deadpool too) but then he reverted back to his antihero form (Deadpool too). Iron Man was kind of terrible person during the Superhuman Civil War BUT he had a position you could at least understand why he chose to defend it…even if you didn’t support it.

      I did some googling and most of the lists I found were villains-turned-hero, even the ones that promised hero-turned-villains heavily featured villains who became heroes only to go back to being villains. A few notable exceptions I found where when the Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) snapped and murdered all the other Green Lanterns to take their power for himself, becoming the villain Parallax, and when Batman’s second Robin (Tim Drake) “died” only to return as the crime boss the Red Hood. However, both Hal Jordan and Tim Drake have become heroes again. There are plenty of alternate reality examples but a surprisingly few main universe canon ones.

      I wonder if this is another reason why Cap’s turn in “Secret Empire,” becoming a Hydra agent was so hard for so many to take. It just doesn’t happen and that made the shift; especially of a character as iconic, noble, and heroic as Captain America, all the harder to take.

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  2. For me it destroys the magic when important events which really develop and progress a character are undone in the next story along. It’s why I read less and less superhero comics. The heroes end up just looking like (metaphorically) funny shaped clay which gets moulded this way and that with different writers but means nothing. I think manga is better in this respect because the stories we get from Japan have endings. It makes them more real and more whole in my opinion.
    Thanks for a really thought provoking post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome :). And I think you’re right. The ending is so important to a story. But comics, at least the major ones, have to keep going and going and going and that does affect a) the types of stories they can tell and b) the emotional impact they can have. I’ve not read much manga (at least not yet!) but I do appreciate a comic storyline that is limited. I think part of what made the Doctor-Doom-as-Iron-Man story so compelling was it had a beginning, middle, and an end. Of course the character was always going to go on and revert back to villain form, but for a year he was the Infamous Iron Man and that story was allowed it’s own sort of sad, quiet, thoughtful resolution.

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  3. I don’t oppose rewriting characters to develop a story, but I think it does have to be done carefully. Is the redevelopment really in service to the story and the character? Or is it, as you suggest, sometimes simply for drama or to make money?

    I don’t like seeing things undone just so a new writer can add drama–I think that’s arguably the hallmark of a poor writer. A really good one should be able to do something new and exciting within the constraints passed to them.

    This is actually why I stopped watching Doctor Who. Steven Moffat undid a lot of what Russell T. Davies wrote. It felt disrespectful to the writer and to audiences. We thought we knew stuff about this world and all that worldbuilding was thrown away so Moffat could do whatever he wanted, without constraints. It just felt…cheap. And a lot of the emotional impact of previous storylines was erased by Moffat undoing events.

    Interestingly, I once read an interview where he argued that he didn’t need to be consistent because any inconsistencies can be explained away by audiences assuming the Doctor went back in time and changed something. Not in any show, mind you. We were just supposed to assume this happened in between episodes.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with you completely on Steven Moffat. While I watched ‘Doctor Who’ with him at the helm (and I absolutely adore Amy Pond – she’s my favorite companion) the show did feel disjointed, disconnected from what came before. Star Wars has become like that in the Disney Era, as we find too many stories being told at the same time with no one watching the overall thrust of any of them to make them feel like they fit. It’s why I stopped reading new Star Wars novels and comics and don’t watch any of the cartoons anymore. I just watch the movies if they seem interesting and even those don’t always tonally connect.

      But for Moffat to say he could do whatever he wanted because the Doctor can time travel?!? Um, really? NO! That’s not how storytelling should work! “I don’t like seeing things undone just so a new writer can add drama–I think that’s arguably the hallmark of a poor writer. A really good one should be able to do something new and exciting within the constraints passed to them” – I agree with you 1,000,000%. Note how I made it one MILLION? Yes, that’s to dramatically underscore how well said this is :). Also, all authors should read that and follow your lead.

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  4. For me, it is because it is limited, that it can be so beautiful, much like life. I’ve not read a huge amount of manga, and I don’t like all of it but the only comic to ever make me cry was a Manga. It was “Pluto” by Naoki Urasawa, (a mature take on the original Astro Boy by the “Father of Manga”, Osamu Tezuka). Wikipedia have a decent summary here…

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pluto_(manga)

    I’ve not read a story like that before or since in comic form of any kind. (I’ve also not read the Doctor-Doom-as-Iron-Man story, I might look that one up,although I’m going through Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series at the moment!)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow, I think I may have to check out “Pluto,” coming with such high praise. Thank you for putting it on my radar. And something so powerful would be a good way for me to jump into Manga.

      Also, how’s Sandman?? I’ve always been curious about it but I’ve never read it. I know it’s at my local library though. Would you recommend it?

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      1. Well I enjoyed most of the first TPB but I’m now reading Season of Mists which is the fourth one and it’s a bit patchy. Some stories seem good but others don’t grab me. There’s also a lot of horror /goth type stylings in the stories and art and I’m not into that kind of thing at all. The immortal characters are interesting, especially death, who is this cool young woman. I will probably read them all in the end but they’re not top of my list.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Michael,

    Feeling better? The end of school is near. Great post. Good run of redeemed villians. In April or late May we will be doing a few podcasts episodes you might want to join us on. One is called. The Eiiiiighs if Sauron. It talks about how villians help the heroes to become better and give them depth. The other is a series we are doing on the character of the Neek. The Inaginarium is all about the creative process.

    I also wanted to invite you to officially be part of our Neekwork. We are starting to use and develop the podcast the connect and assist creatives to do positive work in fandom. I am not officially putting this out until after my Masters program, but I wanted to give you a heads up.

    Thanks,

    Gary

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