Sunday, February 27, 2011

Comic writers: The Moment you add "Dark" to the name of a character, you have failed

Chris Claremont gets the only exception to this rule.  He pioneered the "Dark" prefix to character names with "Dark Phoenix" during an era that wasn't so far gone from an era when Magneto self-identified his organization as The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.  If it is 2011 and your character is suffering from a "Dark" prefix slapped onto their name, please turn in your keys, badge and gun.

I get that many comic readers get locked into ideas of "edgy" around the age of 13 and never let those ideas go.  And I get that many comic readers become comic writers.  What I don't get is the un-ironic use of "Dark" to describe a character, or when a character supposedly decides "you know what, I'm feeling moody.  I'm now Dark Steve."

The fact that I keep seeing references to a "Dark Supergirl" in the pages of JLA has leaped to the top of the reasons I will not pick up the current run by James Robinson.

so is that "Dark" Donna Troy laying there?
In the very specific case of Supergirl,we just got done with a multi-year run of pretty much a "dark supergirl" (that somehow managed to never call her "Dark" Supergirl).  Adding the prefix AND seeing her put on a black outfit and a sneer is, frankly, a wee bit redundant 

But, really, comics...  isn't this kind of the ultimate break in the "show don't tell" rule of writing?  Even if someone is a bit "edgier" or more prone to suddenly listening to Nu-Metal, is this the best way to convey that idea of character growth/ change?

I'm not against writers exploring characters going down some twisted alley ways, but if your median reading age for your title is over the age of 10, do we really need it spelled out?  Don't writers owe it to readers to at least try to show a small bit of subtlety?*

But, you know, at least I get the feeling there's some level of camp to Dark Supergirl.

Hey, did you know X-Men comics gave Wolverine a be-mohawked, tribal tattoo'd son?  Who, no doubt, listens to Korn?

he is to the 00's what Cable was to the 90's.  "Dark" Wolverine: in 2021, regret shall be thy name.
They did.  He isn't Wolverine Jr. or Son of Wolverine.  He's "Daken" (seriously) the "Dark Wolverine".  This character, from a third person perspective, is, of course, very silly.  I'm sorry.  He's a trainwreck of suburban white bread totems for edginess that you pick up in high school and feel a little silly about when old classmates start posting forgotten scanned pics to Facebook.


Here's Your Problem

Let's recall that it doesn't matter if we're talking about Ben Grimm or someone whose name is, quite literally "Victor Von Doom", every character believes that what they are doing is the right thing.  Every single one, going right back to old Lucifer thinking his management style was better than that of The Big Guy.  Every character (and actual person) is the hero in their own narrative.  And this is exactly why we find characters like Lex Luthor so compelling.  Every once in a while, Lex has a point. 

"Evil", on the other hand, is only a motivation in children's stories.  While comics come out of a kid-friendly environment, we can agree that the last time we pretended we were letting kids read any mainstream comics was probably 1997.  So the label of "Dark" is even... odder.  It would seem that's a pretty loud way of making your new intentions or motivations known.

And frankly, I find the superhero comics industry's insistence on using the term as baffling as why anyone would think adopting the lifestyle of a juggalo signaled anything but that you make poor choices.

Do comic writers embrace that their characters believe that what they're doing is the best or correct thing?  As a reader, if the characters consciously select the wrong/ evil option, then the character begins to lack motivation, and in fiction (as in life) motivation is usually a character's reason for existing.  "Dark" may be how someone else perceives your character, especially if that character has made some sort of transition.  But self-identifying seems a little tricky.

Moral ambiguity in the heroic tale

Readers of this site know that I am a fan of Superman, who, to the untrained eye, stands above all other characters in demonstrating the sharp relief of "good guy" versus "bad guy".  He's the original guy in a white hat. 

But liking Superman doesn't preclude some appreciation for interesting tales of moral ambiguity.  I'm also a fan of the world of film noir, in which moral absolutes dissolve in a glass of bourbon (only to be reinforced by Hayes Code-era approved endings), spaghetti westerns, crime novels, and roller derby.  And part of what's been interesting to me about Superman stories is that he's a character who was developed in and who lives in exactly that kind of messy world.

The point of our friend, Logan (the Original Wolverine) was that he was a hero in spite of his memory lapses, flaws, and extremely rough edges.  He was, in the 1980's, the epitome of "dark hero".  There's just such a hint of "yes, but this goes to 11" that goes from interesting to bad writing.

Nothing about the comics medium nor the genre of superhero stories should mean that we can't explore the idea of moral ambiguity or moral relativism.  Adult readers should be able to manage ideas that don't fall merely into camps of good vs. evil and bad vs. good slugging it out in the street.

Curiosly, I think we were a lot better about exploring these ideas and taking them to their logical extreme in the 1980's.  Moore's Watchmen more or less exemplified this sort of exploratory reasoning for the super-powered set (both literal to the story and figurative).

somebody's got to make the hard decisions
And yet not one character in all of Watchmen identified as "Dark". 

In many ways, I have to blame the fact that Miller entitled his similarly complex exploration of superhero as righteous fascist in Dark Knight Returns and two and a half decades later, the xerox-of-a-xerox-of-a-xerox leads us to iffy concepts of moral ambiguity like "Dark Wolverine" or campy problem children like "Dark Supergirl".

The Exceptions

In addition to Mr. Claremont's invention of "Dark Phoenix", there are three additional places the use of the word "dark" is appropriate.

1)  I think its likely okay to use "dark" in the title for a character, maybe.  Batman can continue to go by "The Dark Knight".  Its descriptive, and sounds more like a sports nickname a reporter might have assigned than his actual name.  One can imagine Batman reading the paper in the batcave, seeing a headline that says "Dark Knight Protects City" and thinking well, I'm not going to fight press like that.  That said, its hard to imagine another character with a similar title in this era.  But Batman gets a pass. Batman will, rightly, always get a pass.

2)  If that was the character's name to start off with, indicating "hey, I'm a shadowy guy/ gal.  The whole 'Darkhawk' thing is meant to be spooky to begin with."  Its still a little hokey, but its the name.  We'll go with it.  But keep in mind, you're now in the company of "Darkwing Duck".

yes, this duck is strangely bad-ass
3)  This isn't actually a naming convention, but clearly, only Gail Simone understands how unintentionally hilarious the word "dark" has become, creating the battle cry for D-list new character "Misfit".  When I first saw her battle cry was "Dark vengeance!  Ssssssssss!" it was a great Simone moment, and perfect commentary on the whole concept of "dark vengeance" in comics and their suburban, white-bread readership.


When I think of characters in comics who went "dark and edgy" in their quest to save the world, the ones who were meaningful don't have "Dark" slapped on their name as some sort of code that's necessary for the audience of the typical Power Rangers episode.

4)  (late addition)  I also give Darkseid a pass.  He is, after all, a living embodiment of a concept of dictatorial fascism, which we westerners tend to think of as "evil".

5)  (late addition)  I'm also giving a pass to certain genre story titles.  Again, that's a 3rd person perspective on the story, not a character saying "hey, lookit me!  I'm evil."


Speaking of "dark", I think this video featuring a "grim'n'gritty" reimagining of Archie comics sums it up.






*Given the internet's reaction to Grant Morrison not laying exposition over every single panel in the picture books, I can see why you'd be reluctant to give the readers that sort of credit

7 comments:

Dark Brandon said...

Yeah, I rolled my eyes so hard at "Dark Supergirl" that I almost lost them.

And Dark Wolverine is one of the all-time worst cmic ideas ever. I promise ten years from now, the next snarky generation of comic fans will wonder what the hell they were thinking giving every superhero a kid.

The League said...

I tremble at the notion of what some of DC's C-List writers will do with Damian once Morrison has moved on. Already, its incredibly spotty when others try to use him.

But, yeah, everything about Daken (and, granted, I've never read a single Dark Wolverine comic) looks like really badly constructed fanfic. Of course, X-23 isn't helping things, either...

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Speedball becoming a cutter and calling himself Penance.

-NTT

Fantomenos said...

Are you not reading Fables?

Because the current big-bad is actually named "Mr Dark", and is a good illustration of the "for kids" nature of really campy evil.

J.S. said...

What? I've been using the moniker "Dark League" for years. People think it's COOL (and scary. But mostly cool)

The League said...

Apparently Speedball is going to become just plain 'ol Speedball again. Whis has its own set of issues, once you've taken the character that far down the rabbit hole. Look at all the hoops DC went through to rehabilitate Hal Jordan...

I don't read Fables, but given the self-reflexive nature of what I understand Fables to be, that sounds pretty clever.

Simon Mac Donald said...

The only good "Dark" character that you have correctly identified is Darkwing Duck who is absolutely tearing it up over in his own series for Boom! Kids.