Misunderstanding the Concept and Characters

October 21, 2004

By Avi Green

There are many writers who can understand a book or a series and its characters, and who know what it takes to make those books, characters and series work, and what doesn’t. And there are also those, sometimes even the same ones, who don’t, and end up damaging the books as a result until things can be made better again.

Cases in point: Dennis O’Neil, a favorite of mine, and Grant Morrison, who isn’t, where they in example succeeded (in fairness to Morrison), and where they failed.

Dennis O’Neil. Many people, myself included, agree that Denny managed to bring believability to comics since the late 1960’s, and in contrast to Gardner Fox and John Broome, who did a lot of wacky slapstick in their time, O’Neil veered away from such elements, preferring to deal with making comics more serious, which is not to say that they weren’t entertaining. Quite the opposite, they were, only they tended to be more grown up in their approach to storytelling. He was of course the guy who made Batman into the more serious crime noir series it began as in the Golden Age, and not only produced some of the best depictions of the Gotham rogues gallery, but also a few villains of his own creation (namely, Ra’s al Ghul, for one), who could prove to be quite formidable to the Masked Manhunter during the Bronze Age.

And then of course, O’Neil, who’d previously worked in his time as a reporter and editor for a US Navy newspaper before going on to write and edit comic books, also thought to try out realism, as he did in Green Lantern when teaming him up with Green Arrow, whom he’d turned into a left wing hothead who defended the youth of the poor society, whom he ended up having to join himself for a time after he lost much of his own fortune and the company he ran. And when writing some of Iron Man, and even a few issues of Daredevil, in the early 1980’s, there too, he did a pretty good job in the concepts of believability for the Marvel Universe, just like he also did for the DC Universe as well.

But when it came to writing Spider-Man, as he did for about a year and a half in 1980-81, he really fumbled the ball. He apparently misread the concept of Spidey’s being a family/kid-friendly title so much, that he ended up plunging it into juvenility as a result, and one of the worst parts about that run was the creation of Madame Web, a kind of guardian angel for Spidey, one of the most boring supporting characters back then. It was probably that catastrophe that brought Gerry Conway back to the books sometime afterwards, and also brought on Peter David, who’d been up and coming as a writer at the time, to fix things up.

Grant Morrison. Far from my favorite, if at all, but diplomatically speaking, I’ll be willing to cut him some slack by saying that when it came to working on the first issues of the current run of JLA in 1987, he did seem to have some understanding of what made them work too, in this case as a family, if not kid-friendly book. Though of course, as some people say, his take on the Flash at about the same time was just too goofy and cartoonish to really revisit the Silver Age the right way.

But when it came to writing the X-Men (or, as the sans-adjective title was called during the time he was writing it, New X-Men), he tended to go overboard into gruesomely bloody effects, and likewise, when writing Magneto, as an over-the-top murderous creature who’s willing to go as far as his own captors in WW2. A most distastefully superfluous exercise in excess, laced with potty humor, not to mention even “moral equivalency” tactics. As this blog article here by Derek Mauser accurately points out, yes indeed, Morrison is fairly overrated. Whether or not he was taken off the book by the editors though, he most certainly ended up leaving because it was apparent that it wasn’t pleasing anybody, and strangely enough, it would seem that he actually intended to leave without really caring what’s done to the book afterwards.

It’s surprising as to how some writers, whether they be our favorites or not, can understand the concept of one series and its characters, but fail to comprehend that of others.

When dealing with one concept/approach or another, it’s always a good idea to write in a grownup, serious fashion, but also to know what works or doesn’t, and how far you should go. Hence, in neither case did either writer pull it off when it came to writing Spider-Man or X-Men.

In the case of Spidey, it pays not to descend too much into juvenility, and in the case of X-Men, not to go too far into being graphic, let alone adult.

Only that way will we be able to receive something really good for reading.

Copyright 2004 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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