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Action vs. Character Development in the New 52

The severed head of Black Jack, from VooDoo #7, p.27.One of the things standing out greatly to me in the New 52 titles I have followed, and in comics generally, is the interesting approach of either having tons of superficial battle scenes or a race to save the day, OR some really interesting character development. Strangely, Straczynski’s Superman Grounded series is what really got me first started reading comic books in a serious way due to it’s vivid and far-reaching character exploration.

On the weekends, I walk down around the corner to the comic book shop and hang out with folks there, it’s a social gathering really, to learn from people about the latest characters they’re interested in, eat food people have brought, and generally be social in my neighborhood. One day the Grounded series came out and I knew there was something different going on with it. “I should be reading this!” And I have craved that amazing story telling, character developing writing ever since then.

As I mull over the social landscape of today, it seems to me that this great interest on my part is because today: telling a story about defeating the bad guys is not as important as telling the story of individual characters. Today, we live in a competitionless world in which every individual can be a superstar, no matter how awful they may be — and many times the uniquely awful aspects are what causes them to rise to stardom. A perfect example is Rebecca Black. But virtually anyone can blog, or make a youtube, or start an online social club, etc.

The repercussions of this are that people don’t care much anymore about the story of fighting for justice. The supreme-ness of the unique individual character is the ultimate value. There is no more big bad monster to defeat any longer, or if the story of defeating a big bad monster is told, it is almost completely seen as a satire, or even fictional in the most complete degree, with little to no real relevance to contemporary life today.

Given this trend of favoritism toward character development instead of mere battles for “justice”, there are a number of very good, but also terrible examples of this in the New 52:


When VooDoo #1 first came out, I really only started reading it because Sami Basri, the former illustrator of Power Girl, was going to be drawing it. His art continues to thrill me. Ron Marz was the writer. Reading that first issue, I wasn’t really sure what to make of the writing, but I kept reading, and one of the most amazing things I found about Ron Marz in VooDoo is that, though the action was amazingly wonderful, the character development was even more spectacular, deep, and compelling compared to a lot of other titles and characters, and his story pacing was beyond fantastic.

Then, starting with issue #5 of VooDoo, DC Comics quite strangely dropped Marz as the writer and picked up Josh Williamson. Williamson is admittedly very good, but at least thus far, his story pacing and depth of character development can’t hold a candle to Ron Marz. Williamson appears to be making the story and characters, in many respects, focused around petty revenge, without drawing the reader in to really and truly understand WHY.

Marz, on the other hand, got me to love the VooDoo character. I still do, and because Marz did that, I want VooDoo to actually win, I am rooting for her so much inside still. I’m not even rooting for the human counterpart she was based on, Williamson hasn’t done a very good job getting me to really care about her. I love VooDoo, I love her passion, I love the wonderful yet strange moral vision she has for herself. Ron Marz took me to that deep place with her, took me to that place of deep understanding.

Presently with Williamson, though the battles are fun and interesting, even amazingly shocking — he has instead taken us on an emotionally surface level, revenge-driven slug-fest. In each issue he’s written for, so many pages simply feel rushed or simply don’t make complete sense, whereas with Marz, I loved the characters and wanted to understand them even more, and I was constantly stopping, not to try to figure out what didn’t make sense, but just to pause and digest the amazingness and beauty of what I had just witnessed. With Williamson, it’s just one battle or fight after another with not much character development at all.

VooDoo holding up the head of Black Jack after she lopped it off. From VooDoo #7, p.27.VooDoo holding up the head of Black Jack after she lopped it off. From VooDoo #7, p.27.

At the end of VooDoo #7 when Black Jack was killed, what a shocker! In that shock, I enjoyed the return of VooDoo finally back to a place of passion and vision for herself. Black Jack was such an interesting, even iconic character, with so much potential for deep character exploration in this title, it was a bit of a shame to lose him, but it was able to show off VooDoo’s renewed passion for her cause. On a certain level, Williamson having Black Jack die might be seen as a cheap or trite story telling device, but I didn’t see it as such. Then in the latest issue, #8 — Williamson does it again and VooDoo kills Agent Fallon!!!! Are you insain!?

Yes killing off a main character has it’s place, it can be shocking and thrilling, but TWO IN A ROW, and now we’re left with an almost castless title? It’s as if Williamson doesn’t care about the characters in this title and has absolutely no idea what the word pacing means. Wow.

Quite honestly, I’m not even interested in seeing what Josh Williamson does with the title now, and told my local comics shop this week to drop it from my pull list. When characters mean little or nothing, and the story feels rushed, honestly, I’m not going to keep reading.

Part of the beauty of Marz’s work on this title, is his ability to pace a story so extremely well and to make the journey of the story about deeply getting to know these characters, not just about revenge, battle scene after battle scene, and cheap thrill after cheap thrill.


When I heard that Power Girl was going to appear in the six issue Huntress title, I started picking that up, too. Admittedly, I am not familiar with the Huntress character, and reading elsewhere, I came to learn that this particular Huntress character is a quite different version of the one many people are most recently familiar. So not only do I not know much about the character, others don’t either. Then reading these six issues, although the writer Paul Levitz, like Marz and Straczynski, has had a quite lengthy career as a writer, the story seemed drably superficial, but also a little bit demented.

In the story, the main character, Huntress/Helena Wayne, is driven by the desire for justice, but also, she has a very odd form of fun as she experiences being in the revenge/justice business. The justice sought was absolutely something admirable, for it was to liberate women involved in an international sex trade. But that she seemed to have so much fun without the reader really being lead to understand her inner heart and mind, was just plain psychologically weird.

She has a dramatic costume, almost Batman like, her costume bears a giant white cross upon it, with her normal clothing she wears a cross on her necklace. In the course of six issues, we learn absolutely nothing about these details or her connections to other characters.

As well, throughout the title, she does not have any real meaningful human interactions with the people around her either. It was a revenge/justice story, pure and simple. But unlike a revenge story such as the movie Kill Bill, in which the story was so compelling because of the character’s completely all consuming lust for revenge, there was nothing consuming about Huntress in these six issues, nor anything terribly interesting about her, besides that she wanted justice and she has fun at it.

When Power Girl appeared at the end of issue #6, I was very happy. Finally someone I could identify with! But though given the tone thus far of, “the story of Huntress, who has vengeful adventures with lots of cool toys and skulking, battle-filled night scenes,” I am not completely sure what to expect. Levitz obviously does not have a great handle on character development with these six issues, we shall see what, if any, progress he makes with the World’s Finest.

Still, I felt encouraged by the very last scene of Power Girl and Huntress interacting. Finally, character information, not just depthless, endlessly proliferating fight scenes, and villains complaining about Huntress. Power Girl talked about the quantum tunneling stuff she was doing with her company, and Huntress inquired about if Power Girl was now flying “openly”! This is interesting in that it reveals that Michael Holt/Mr. Terrific with all his super intelligence doesn’t know at this point that Karen Starr/Power Girl actually has super powers, but Helena Wayne/Huntress DOES KNOW! And the dialogue was great between the two.

And the final frame of issue six, curiously had a lesbian feel to it. Building up to that frame, Karen initially greets Helena with a look that one might call even “seductive.” After brief dialogue, Karen and Helena grab a hold of each other and Karen flies Helena to safety from those who are after her. The very last frame is as follows:

Helena Wayne/Huntress and Karen Starr/Power Girl reuniting. From Huntress #6, p.29.Helena Wayne/Huntress and Karen Starr/Power Girl reuniting. From Huntress #6, p.29.

“We’ve both been busy, haven’t we... partner.”!!!!? Maybe ten or fifteen years ago “partner” might mean something related to business, etc., but today, in so many instances it means sexual, life partner. Plus, that Helena actually knows the secrets about Karen that Michael didn’t means that the two of them are sooooo much closer. The titanic amount of character exploration that could take place here in coming issues is startling; we’ll see in World’s Finest if Paul Levitz can actually break his streak of six issues of banality and depthlessness. I’d say that with this final page with Power Girl in it, there is hope!

Conversely, the artistic team of Marcus To, John Dell, and others in the Huntress series was actually quite fantastic and well done, and one of the reasons I enjoyed continuing to read the title. Every issue was beautifully drawn and colored. Yes, some people so really love the gritty beauty of the likes of the art of Travel Foreman and Steve Pugh in Animal Man. I am not one of them. Like the work of Sami Basri, the imagery in Huntress is memorably and warmly clean. Perhaps some of that great warmth is also due to the beautiful ink and coloring of John Dell and Andrew Dalhouse.

I suppose, at the very least this brief title, though it didn’t convey a lot of background information or character depth which I really longed for, at the very least, we learn that the character herself, to a great degree, has a moral compass of sorts and is trying to do right by that compass.

Justice League and Aquaman

One of my favorite writers presently is Jeoff Johns, who has a stunning grasp on how to beautifully play characters off of each other to tell the story of their lives. And it makes reading his work a joy. The weakness of Jeoff Johns, especially in these two titles, is that he leaves character depth out of the equation when it comes to bad guys.

The Flash, Superman, and Batman consulting about one of Darkseid’s Mother Boxes. From Justice League #2, p.24.The Flash, Superman, and Batman consulting about one of Darkseid’s Mother Boxes. From Justice League #2, p.24.

Generally in both titles, he draws the reader in to understand the struggles of individual characters, but also of their struggles with each other. Unfortunately, in most instances, the villains are made to be faceless and the light of the villains’ personal struggles in their lives is largely left out of the picture. With Darkseid, all we know is that he is from some other universe, and with his army, he is trying to take over the earth. We are left with little to no sympathy for him, nor his family, nor his henchmen, nor army. Some very slight hints were let out about his family and henchmen on page 6 of Justice League #6. We learn that Darkseid has a daughter, and two of his henchmen are named Desaad and Steppenwolf. Other than this, we are left with very little to go on. At my local comic shop, I picked up a couple of old issues from the 1980s with the Justice League and Darkseid in them, to learn more about the character, but Jeoff Johns pretty much leaves one with virtually nothing to go on. On a more immediate note, it appears that in Earth 2 #1, coming out this week, that the Justice League of Earth 2 may be fighting Darkseid also, so we’ll all see what more is revealed in the next few days.

Further, in Johns’ writing in so far as relatively depthless bad guys, the same holds true with the creatures from “The Trench” in Aquaman #1-4. They are bad guys from the bottom of the sea who are killing people and THAT’S IT. We aren’t clued in hardly at all about their motives except that they’ve suddenly gotten “hungry” and have come out of the sea to eat every living thing they come across. And of course Aquaman and his partner Mera save the day and stop them.

In spite of this, Johns does very much take us on a wonderful journey to get to know Aquaman, his history, what his struggles are, and how he copes. Outside of not covering the other sides of the story, he really is a fantastic story teller.

Also, perhaps one of the reasons for Johns not going into character depth for the bad guys as well, was simply to really focus on the good guys in these opening issues, to introduce in depth the characters that will be with us throughout the many issues of these title, and to provide as few distractions amidst that goal as possible.

So, one can see now the various approaches these authors take in their comic book story telling. Certainly, the visual, artistic teams also play a strong roll in making a story telling the wellest it could be in the midst of the social evolution of values occurring all around us presently.

In the current larger social milieu in which the content of the characters, heros and villians (which even those concepts are fading into obscurity), has surpassed in importance and meaningfulness even the gauges of morality and heroism, comics writers are certainly faced with new challenges to create engaging stories beyond mere tales of hard hitting, righteous justice.

I look forward to reading even more of these wellest of titles, and to these authors improving in the wellest of ways, too.

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Enjoys blogging about comic books, but especially Power Girl. Domiciles on planet Earth. And enjoys vegetable gardening and mixes of Frangelico and Butterscotch Schnapps.

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